World War II (1939–1945)
The Allied Invasion of France
By early 1944, the Allies, under the leadership of U.S. general Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been planning an invasion of France for more than a year. The Germans, anticipating such an invasion since 1942, had begun building the Atlantic Wall, a series of heavily armed fortifications all along the French coast. As the Allied invasion plan became more specific, it was dubbed Operation Overlord, and preparations and training for the mission began in earnest.
As part of the invasion plan, the Allies instigated a mass disinformation campaign in hopes of directing German forces away from the actual landing point. As part of this effort, the Allies made use of German spies in Britain who had been turned and were serving as double agents. These double agents helped convince the German leadership that the invasion would take place near Calais, the point where the English Channel was narrowest, when in fact the invasion was targeted farther south, in Normandy.
The invasion was launched early in the morning of June 6, 1944—the famous D-Day—barely a day after U.S. troops had liberated the Italian capital of Rome. Overnight, roughly 20,000 British and American airborne troops had been dropped by parachute and glider a short distance inland of the Normandy coast, ordered to do as much damage as possible to the German fortified coastal defenses. Meanwhile, over 6,000 ships were making their way across the English Channel to deliver a huge expeditionary force onto five separate beaches between Cherbourg and Caen. The first wave alone brought 150,000 Allied soldiers to the French shore, and over the coming weeks, more than 2 million more would enter France via the Normandy beaches—to this day the largest seaborne invasion in history. Opposing the invaders were thousands of German troops manning the fortifications above the beaches.
The first day of the invasion was costly for the Allies in terms of casualties—especially at one landing point, Omaha Beach—but the Germans were vastly outnumbered and rapidly overwhelmed by the incoming forces. The German high command still believed that a larger invasion was imminent at Calais or elsewhere, so they withheld reserve forces in the area from moving against the Normandy invaders. The Allies therefore accomplished nearly all of their set objectives for the first day, which included fully securing the landing areas.
The Battle of Normandy
Breaking out of the Normandy coast and into inland France proved more difficult, in part because of stubbornly defended German defense posts at Cherbourg and Caen, which framed the area. The Allies were unable to advance inland in significant numbers until July 28, 1944, by which time the two German forts had been defeated. During August, the Allied forces that continued to land in Normandy were able to move rapidly into the heart of France.
On August 15, a second Allied assault was made into France, this time along the Mediterranean coast in the south. This campaign, called Operation Dragoon, involved nearly 100,000 troops, who rapidly spread out northward into France. With this southern operation a success, Allied forces were able to approach the French capital from two directions.
By mid-August 1944, most of northwestern France was under Allied control, and from there, the Allied advance moved rapidly. Hitler ordered the evacuation of southern France, and German troops also began the process of evacuating Paris itself. At almost the same time, Soviet troops invading from the other front first crossed Germany’s eastern border.
Even as it became inevitable that France would fall to the Allies, however, the Nazi war machine continued deporting French Jews to Auschwitz and other extermination camps without letup. A few days later, on August 25, Allied forces entered Paris, by which point all remaining German troops had either evacuated or been taken prisoner.
The Approach to Germany
Even though the war in Europe would continue for another seven months, September 1944 brought Germany perilously close to defeat. During that month, Allied troops overran most of France, pushed deep into Belgium, and were on the verge of entering the Netherlands. The first Allied soldier crossed into Germany on September 10; although this mission was only a brief excursion, Allied ground missions into Germany would become increasingly frequent.
After the success of Operation Overlord, the Allies had the ability to launch bomber raids from France, Italy, and Britain, which vastly expanded the range and duration of aerial attacks inside Germany. Simultaneously, the Soviets were closing in from the east: although Warsaw was still under German control, the Red Army had taken much of eastern Poland. The Soviets also had advanced into Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia—the latter two of which even signed formal agreements of cooperation with the USSR.
By the autumn of 1944, Germany was surrounded on all sides. Allied air strikes on German industrial facilities, particularly oil reserves, prevented the Luftwaffe from posing the serious threat that it once had. This gap in Germany’s defense left the country very vulnerable to attack. Moreover, the fuel situation in Germany was becoming truly desperate, especially after the city of Ploiesti, Romania, fell to the Red Army on August 30. Ploiesti had been the last oil source available to Germany, as it was now cut off from the Black Sea.
Few in the German high command could have failed to recognize that they were in serious trouble, even if they could not admit it publicly. A resistance movement against Hitler grew among the German officer corps, and several attempts were made on Hitler’s life throughout the summer, including a bombing on July 20 that nearly succeeded. After the failed attempt, Hitler cracked down mercilessly on known opponents, executing more than 4,000 of them.
On October 18, Hitler ordered the conscription of all healthy German men aged sixteen to sixty in order to defend the country from an obviously imminent invasion. Hitler intended for the country to fight to the last man and planned to employ a scorched-earth policy similar to the strategy the Soviets had used against Hitler’s own forces in the USSR in 1941.