The largest landing in military history was ordered 74 years ago by generals planning the D-Day Invasion of Normandy.
American, British and Canadian troops totaling more than 150,000 men were sent into France in a gigantic gamble for the life of the free world against Nazi Germany on June 6, 1944.
The Allies in World War II had hoped to land as early as April after the winter was pretty much over, according to Thomas Ray, historian and associate professor of history at Wayland Baptist University.
Weather was crucial.
“That particular year there were lots of low-pressure systems, lots of rain in April and May,” Ray said. “Basically, it washed out those months as possibilities.”
According to Ray, there wasn’t the possibility of just waiting another day until the weather cleared. Tides and conditions on the beaches of Normandy wouldn’t be good for another 14 days.
“If you don’t make it on the 6th, the next time you’ve got a shot is something like the 18th or 19th of June,” he said. “They had already postponed it several times.”
Soldiers and glider pilots had been ready for several weeks.
“Everybody knew they were coming. The only thing the Germans didn’t know for sure was exactly where the Allies were going to make their major push. They expected that the Allies would come right across the channel from Dover to Calais, which was the shortest distance,” Ray said.
The surprise move had a purpose: The necessity of getting enough men and supplies into France quickly enough to survive counterattacks by Adolf Hitler’s forces, and to establish air superiority quickly.
“It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. They had 5,000 landing and assault craft, 289 escort vessels, 277 mine sweepers, and on the very first day about 150,000 to 160,000 men crossed the channel.
“They kept pouring them in, and by the end of the June there were almost 900,000 men who had disembarked in the three-and-a-half weeks after D-Day.
“It was unprecedented. Nothing like that had ever been done. They could start pouring troops and particularly supplies into France for the liberation of France and the offensive into Germany,” Ray said.
From the perspective of history, it looked like it was an obvious victory. But it wasn’t at the time, according to Ray’s research:
“It was a gamble. Gen. Eisenhower, who was the supreme allied commander, had written two letters, depending on the outcome of that day. One was that it’s been a success, we’re coming to liberate France. The other was, it’s been a failure, and it’s all my fault. ‘I take full responsibility for that.’
“He was prepared for the worst,” Ray said.
But it did succeed. The beachhead was established, and men and material began flowing into France.
It was the beginning of the liberation of France, and everybody knew what that meant. Hitler knew what that meant.
“Germany realized that with American help, there was no way they could keep up with that kind of supplies — the number of men and equipment,” Ray said. “It was the beginning of the end.”