"A few moments after 1 a.m. on June 6, the boots of American and British paratroopers thudded upon the soil of France."
So begins U.S. News's detailed description of one of the largest invasions by land, sea and air in the history of the world.
In this day and age, detailed information flies around the world within minutes of news breaking. But 69 years ago, things were a little different. It took several weeks for U.S. News & World Report (known at the time as The United States News) to get a detailed description of what happened on five beaches in Northwest France on Tuesday, June 6, 1944.
In an article that ran 24 days after the invasion, U.S. News paints a picture reminiscent of the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg's 1998 film "Saving Private Ryan," with troops descending "in misty darkness on the narrowest part of Normandy, where the shore swings north" and a "death trap" of machine guns and cannons encountered by the American invaders.
"On this beach, losses were high. Even men who got through that fire were able to advance only 100 yards inland in several hours of fighting."
The events of that day have been retold in countless books and movies over the past seven decades, but one item touched upon in U.S. News's story is not often found in historical accounts of that time period: robots. In 1944, U.S. News reported that there was fear of a "dangerous robot plane attack" by the Germans. Unmanned "warbots" do date back as far as World War I, but they rarely make their way into the movies.
U.S. News's account ends on an optimistic note, stating that Germany's defeat would possibly come within months. Sure enough, less than a year later (May of 1945), the Germans unconditionally surrendered, ending the war in Europe. War did rage on in the Pacific, however, for several more months.
Close-Up of Invasion: How the Job Was Done
Four Stages in Vast Move by Allies to Break Strength of Nazi Forces
Victory in Normandy as prelude to opening of large-scale offensive
The invasion now has moved through four stages. In rapid succession, came the landings, the fight to secure the beachhead, the struggle to open a corridor across Normandy, and the storming of Cherbourg. For the first time, a connected story of the campaign now becomes possible. The story follows:
Stage One, making the landings. A few moments after 1 a.m. on June 6, the boots of American and British paratroopers thudded upon the soil of France. The two forces alighted inland on strategic spots 50 miles apart, at opposite ends of the beachhead that the Allies planned to establish.
The American sky troops descended in misty darkness on the narrowest part of Normandy, where the shore swings north. They were the shock troops of what the Allies planned as their right wing, which was assigned to American forces.
The British paratroops came to earth 9 1/2 miles inland near Caen, promptly seizing vital bridges across the Orde River and Canal. This made them the advance guard of the Allies' left wing, assigned to British and Canadian troops. The beach in the center, east of the Vire River, was assigned to American landing forces.
The two parachute thrusts really touched off the land invasion. Allied troop ships already were on their way across the English Channel. The parachutists, placed behind the German defenses, were in position to undermine resistance in at least two out of the three sectors of the projected beachhead. Thus:
On the right wing, the American 4th Division was approaching for landings. The oncoming troops faced no sandy beach, but a great marsh, with causeways built across it to high ground.
Instead of defending the shore, the Germans had planned to make the causeways impassable. They had placed machine guns and artillery to send a hail of lead down each one. Men coming up those approaches were to have been mowed down like wheat.
The American paratroops and reinforcements, pouring in at daybreak by glider, spoiled that game. Two crack American Airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st, were flown into action by troop carriers. They swarmed in upon the German batteries and riflemen from the rear. They silenced the batteries and overwhelmed or dispersed the defenders. The 4th Division came ashore and marched up the causeways. Thus the fight for a landing on the right wing was won.
In the center, other American troops collided head on with every kind of beach defense. Many landing craft were wrecked by mines, underwater obstructions and cannon fire. Elsewhere, the defenders included impressed Poles, boys, even women. But here the Americans ran into a division of German Regulars on maneuver. Gen. Sir Bernard L. Montgomery declared the U.S. troops who did get ashore clung to the position by their eyelids. Parts of the 29th Division did not land until afternoon. Veterans of the 1st Division were held at sea while ways were found to smash a death trap, especially placed between cliffs and beaches.
That trap consisted of batteries of machine guns and cannon so placed behind redoubts as to be protected from naval shelling, and as to sweep all paths from the shore with enfilading fire. Elsewhere, losses were light, and everywhere among naval and cargo craft personnel losses were very small. On this beach, losses were high. Even men who got through that fire were able to advance only 100 yards inland in several hours of fighting.
In the end, 14-inch guns of battleships and bombs from airplanes helped the shore troops to wipe out those batteries. Thus, the Allies finally won in the center.
On the left wing, Allied warships blasted the way for rapid landings by the Canadians and British. As the first day ended, the Allies held three separate strips of shore. The deepest penetration, of nearly six miles, had been made by the Canadians. The fight for landings had been won. A more critical fight lay just ahead.
Stage Two, securing the beachheads. This was a new series of jobs: linking the landings, advancing inland to join the Airborne forces, seizing roads and railroads, bringing order out of chaos on the beaches, getting heavy armor ashore and into interior defense positions, and getting airfields into operation. This phase was the Allies' fight for life. Heavy blows were struck on all sides.
On the Allies' left, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel sent German reserves converging upon Caen. His plan was to break that hinge and to roll the Allied forces back into the sea. Once more, sky fighters took a hand in spoiling that game.
Parachutists and glider troops of the British 6th Airborne Division held the vital Caen bridges. Glider-borne tanks fought off the Germans until the British 7th Armored Division arrived. Britain's 50th Division of battle-scarred fighters went into action. The German 21st Panzer Division was heavily engaged. Continuous tank and infantry battles were fought near Caen and Tilly. The Canadian 3rd Division, linking with the American center, freed Bayeux in two days and swept on.
The Americans, at the juncture of the right wing and center near Carentan and Isigny, were having their own critical fight. But, after four days, they held the high ground between those key places. By that time, several Allied air strips were in operation. In six days, the coastal union of all shore positions was complete. In ten days, the Americans had left Carentan behind, were halfway across Normandy, and, at the right, were fighting a seesaw battle for Montebourg. The 2nd Division was part of the U.S. invasion force. American 155-mm. Long Toms and British heavy guns were roaring.
Meanwhile, Allied air power ruled the skies, blasting out bridges on all German supply lines and hamstringing the movement of German reinforcements. Allied sea power ruled the waves, pouring out a swelling stream of supplies and reinforcements on the beachheads. After ten days. even the Germans seemed to concede that those beachheads were secure. Then came the next round in the struggle.
Stage Three, clearing the corridor. The job of clearing a path across Normandy so as to isolate Cherbourg fell to the Americans. For that, the 9th Division, seasoned in North Africa and Sicily, was summoned to help. In four days of marching, that division crossed the peninsula. On the last lap, it smashed through nine miles of German-held lands to reach the sea. Finally, it stopped it drive by the German 77th Division to break out of the Cherbourg pocket, and sent remnants of it reeling back toward Cherbourg. Some 9th Division men were on their feet for 84 hours.
Twelve days after their landings, the Americans were set for their drive upon the vital port of Cherbourg.
Stage Four, the storming of Cherbourg. The Americans under Lieut. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, by land, and the combined British-American forces, by sea and air, closed in for the storming of Cherbourg. But the mopping up of that port marks the beginning, as well as the end, of a major phase of the invasion. The huge volume of supplies to flow through that port is to be a build-up for big-scale action.
The offensive phase of the war in Western Europe is in the offing. First objective may be capture of more and better ports. Within reach, on the one hand, is Le Havre, and, on the other, Brest. A second natural objective is Paris. Or, Normandy could become a springboard for a big sweep toward the Pas de Calais area to the northward, with intent to seize the principal bases or Germany's dangerous robot plane attack. Those bases can turn loose at least three robots for every one that could be fired from the launching platforms reported captured in Cherbourg.
The victory in Normandy is to be regarded mainly as the Allies' first stride in pursuit of the hard-pressed German armies. The fight now is under way to break the power of those armies in Western Europe. The speed of the success in Normandy points to the possibility that Germany's defeat may not be many months away.