The battle for the liberation of Normandy commenced on what we now know as D-Day, 6th June 1944. By nightfall on that day, the Allied forces had established a foothold on all five landing beaches. Some troops had even advanced a little way inland, but they had not yet completed the objectives set by their commanders.
At the end of D-Day, the Allied situation was still critical. Forces continued to work on establishing a continuous 80km beachhead along the coast, which was vital for moving further into Normandy. The Allies had underestimated the task, however, and for days the Allied territory in France was unstable and uneven along its coast. The Allied and Axis forces found themselves locked into a deadly race of strategy and logistics. The battle for possession of Normandy, France and ultimately the European continent was still far from decided. For the Allies, the task was simple: to land sufficient men and weaponry quickly enough to fend off the inevitable German counterattack.
The challenge for the Germans was more complex. In the early days of the invasion, they had more personnel and firepower than the Allies, but this didn’t always translate onto the battlefield. Failing to comprehend the gravity of the situation, the German forces were still concentrated in Pas de Calais, where they expected the “real” Allied invasion to come – where the English Channel was at its narrowest. Two further Panzer divisions were in reserve near Paris and could not be moved without express orders from Hitler’s headquarters. The delay in releasing these crucial reinforcements gave the Allies valuable time to even the odds.
The Allied advance was propelled by the construction of a huge artificial harbour at Arromanches, a provisional arrangement which allowed them to disembark troops and equipment. Capturing the deep-water port of Cherbourg was still important, as was taking the city of Caen, which was of prime strategic value – but which would prove difficult and bloody to liberate.
The Battle of the Hedgerows
Fighting in early July 1944 in the Normandy bocage – a fragmented countryside of small fields and orchards divided by leafy hedges and sunken lanes – saw heavy Allied losses. The terrain favoured the German army, being ideal for defensive guerrilla tactics and the operation of snipers. German troops, firmly dug-in, were difficult to see and could pick off Allied soldiers at point-blank range. The high hedges, boggy earth and enclosed fields all caused problems for a modern land army, and rendered the Allied tanks almost useless. The improvisation of front-mounted blades to cut through the hedges eventually paid off, but the Battle of Normandy was an often exhausting process of foot soldiers engaged in close-quarters combat, advancing field by field, orchard by orchard.
Bayeux and Cherbourg
Famous for its extraordinary tapestry showing the conquest of England, the town of Bayeux, 10km from the coast, was the first French city to be liberated on 7 June 1944. Taken so quickly that it escaped serious damage, it briefly became capital of Free France.
The real prize, however, was the deep-water port of Cherbourg, located in the American sector at the end of the Cotentin peninsula. For the Allies, this was a vital gateway to Europe, indispensable for supplying their campaign as it progressed towards Germany. Commandeering the port would enable Allied ships to unload directly in mainland Europe.
After US troops landed on Utah Beach, the Germans blocked the road to Cherbourg. Montebourg was conquered after a bitter offensive, but was almost completely destroyed in the process. On 18 June 1944, American forces reached Barneville, on the west coast of the Cotentin, leaving 40,000 Germans trapped on the peninsula to the north. Some of them surrendered, but the majority retreated around Cherbourg. The Americans rushed towards the city, where they met heavy resistance.
Mass bombings by Allied aircraft and warships weakened the German defences at Cherbourg, and on 26 June the Americans managed to seize Fort du Roule, an imposing citadel clinging to a hillside overlooking the harbour. On the same day, German General von Schlieben, commander of Cherbourg, surrendered to US General Collins. The city was almost intact, but the port facilities had been completely destroyed by the Germans; extensive emergency repairs were started, and the first American ships graced the harbour in late July.
Caen, capital of Calvados department and the largest city in the proximity of the D-Day beaches, was completely devastated during the fighting of 1944. As an essential road hub, strategically straddling the Orne river and Caen Canal, the city was the main objective for the British 3rd Infantry Division that landed on Sword Beach.
Firmly positioned to the north and west of the city, two Panzer Divisions prevented the Allies from capturing the city in the first two days. General Bernard Montgomery attempted to take Caen by pincer movement, attacking the city from the northeast and southwest. On 13 June the offensive was stalled in Villers-Bocage by German Tiger tanks. A further attack was planned using the British 8th Corps. Operation Epsom brought together 60,000 men who tried to outflank the defenders of Caen by crossing the Odon river, but within a few days the offensive was stopped at the foot of what was dubbed Hill 112.
A few weeks later, Montgomery decided to capture Caen in a frontal attack codenamed Charnwood. On 7 July, the city was bombarded by 450 bombers of the Royal Air Force; a total of 2600 tons of bombs were dropped, resulting in the tragic deaths of 300 civilians. On the morning of 8 July, 115,000 men and 500 tanks of the British 1st Corps attacked. British and Canadian troops reached the bridges of the Orne on 9 July. The left bank of the river was liberated, together with the Ilot Sanitaire, an emergency hospital and refuge, which sheltered some 20,000 civilians.
Montgomery launched Operation Goodwood to capture the right bank of the river, and at dawn on 18 July, 6000 tons of bombs were dropped over eastern Caen. Operation Atlantic, a simultaneous mission entrusted to the Canadians, helped liberate the town entirely on 19 July 1944. Allied planners, who had believed the city could be taken in one day, had been bitterly ambitious. It was a Pyrrhic victory, with a devastating toll: 30,000 British and Canadian soldiers dead; eighty percent of the city destroyed; and three thousand of its inhabitants killed.
The Allied breakout of late July
Control of Cherbourg and Caen meant that the Allies could now contemplate extending their operations to the rest of Normandy. Having established superiority over both land and air, the Allied plan was to outflank the German army to the south before swinging east to advance across northern France. Saint-Lô was captured by the US Army on 19 July after a bitter struggle. The campaign – suspended for the next week because of bad weather – resumed with Operation Cobra on 25 July, which successfully broke through the German lines. Coutances and Granville were liberated and on 31 July, the reactivated US Third Army under General Patton took the vital centre of Avranches, giving the Allies access to Brittany and the rest of western France. An unsuccessful German counterattack failed to cut the Third Army off from its supply lines as they’d hoped, and the Wehrmacht was forced to retreat east, regrouping to plan another defensive against the Allied advance.
In mid-August 1944, Hitler ordered his Seventh Army to mount a stand. It did so in the historic town of Falaise in central Normandy, with disastrous consequences. Falaise was almost entirely destroyed, while the engagement became known as the Falaise Pocket because the German armies were almost completely encircled by the Allies. Hesitation by the Allied command delayed the final closure of the “pocket” until 19 August, when elements of the 1st Polish Armoured Division met the 90th US Infantry Division coming from the north at Chambois. Surrounded and shelled by Allied artillery, the Germans tried to make their way out of the trap by force, launching desperate attacks on the slopes of Mont-Ormel where they encountered Polish detachments. Both sides suffered heavy losses, but the few hundred Polish soldiers on Mont-Ormel held their positions.
The Battle of Normandy ended with the surrender of part of the German Seventh Army at Tournai-sur-Dive. German losses at Falaise were huge: about 10,000 killed and 40,000–50,000 captured. Despite winning the battle, the Allied victory was mitigated by the great number of German soldiers who escaped the trap – with their vehicles and weapons intact – to continue their retreat eastwards. Even so, the way was now clear to cross the Seine and enter Paris.
The Battle of Normandy sites
Civilians in Wartime Museum
Civilians rather than soldiers are the subjects of this Normandy museum, which looks at the lives of ordinary French people during World War II. On the ground floor, an immersive film of French, British and German archive footage – projected over the ruins of a real bombed house – transports you to the world of an air raid. The museum’s other floors deal with the occupation and Liberation.
This memorial-museum stands on the high ground of the battlefield of Falaise, giving a fine view over the Vallée de la Dive. It tells the story of the Falaise-Chambois Pocket or “Corridor of Death”, beginning with the course of the Battle of Normandy and then covering the climactic events themselves. A meditation room allows for quiet reflection on the universal themes of war, life and death.
Cherbourg, as the collection here explains, was exploited by the Germans as an Atlantic port, which made it a prime objective for the Allies following D-Day. Situated 117m above sea level, its Liberation Museum affords a stunning view of the harbour.
Bayeux British Military Cemetery
The largest British World War II cemetery in France holds the remains of 4000 British and 181 Canadian soldiers, as well as a number of Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Poles, Russians, French, Czechs, Italians and Germans. Many combatants buried here died in field hospitals to the southwest of town. British tradition prescribes that soldiers are buried with their comrades-in-arms close to where they died, which explains the wide dispersal of British military graves. In the department of Calvados alone, there are nineteen military cemeteries and nearly one hundred monuments. A memorial on the other side of the road bears the names of 1801 Commonwealth soldiers who died during the Battle of Normandy, and those whose remains could not be found or identified. A poignant inscription on the monument recalls William the Conqueror, the duke of Normandy who became king of England in 1066: “Nos a Gulielmo victi victoris patriam liberavimus” (“We, once conquered by William, have now set free the conqueror’s native land”).
Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy
Right next to the British military cemetery, this museum relates the bloody ten-week Normandy campaign from the D-Day landings to the withdrawal of the Wehrmacht beyond the River Seine. Covering military strategy as well as what everyday life was like for soldiers and civilians, informative exhibits include mannequins, pictures and weaponry. In addition to the examples of armour outside the museum, a vast hall houses military vehicles and pieces of ordnance, as well as a diorama evoking the decisive struggle in the Falaise Pocket. An archive film recounts the battle in both French and English. The permanent exhibition also deals with aspects of military campaigns that are often ignored: feeding the troops, care for the wounded, logistics, communication and so on. The significant role played by the Allied air forces is remembered, too.
Bayeux was the first French city to be liberated – meriting a visit from Charles de Gaulle himself on 14 June 1944, a highly symbolic event recalled in the museum. His enthusiastic reception led the Allies – and especially US President Roosevelt – to recognize de Gaulle as the only legitimate leader of a free France. A pedestrian path connects to Bayeux’s other museums and to its magnificent cathedral, the first home of the Bayeux Tapestry.
Caen Memorial Museum
Just north of Caen, the excellent, high-tech Caen Memorial Museum stands on a plateau named after General Eisenhower on a clifftop beneath which the Germans had their headquarters in June and July 1944. The German command post – 70m long and 5m wide – has since been restored.
Originally a “museum for peace”, the brief has been expanded to cover history since the Great War. It sets out to explain what happened in Normandy in 1944; to illustrate the scale of World War II, which ultimately led to the death of fifty million people (half of whom were civilians); and to place the war in context, from the end of World War I to its lingering consequences today. One of a kind in France, the museum asks pertinent questions about the nature of warfare, peace, remembrance and human rights.
A large space is dedicated to the varied individual experiences of men and women confronted with war: rationing, occupation, contribution to the war effort, life under aerial attack and direct combat. As the city of Caen knows intimately, violence against ordinary civilians is a grim reality of war, from urban bombing campaigns to reprisal massacres and horrific genocides.
The only Polish cemetery in the region contains 696 graves, mostly those of soldiers who died during the capture of Caen and in the battle to close the Falaise Pocket.
One of only six surviving Tiger Type E tanks in the world sits on the roadside outside Vimoutiers (on the road to Gacé). It was abandoned or broke down on 19 August 1944 – after which time it was rescued by a military enthusiast and given to Vimoutiers town council.
Top image: US tanks pass a sign for the town of Avranches © Everett Historical/Shutterstock