BEYOND THE BEACHHEAD

On June 6th 1944, the Allies succeeded in gaining a tiny foothold on the coast of Normandy. However, their positions were still very precarious and the adversary’s reaction, after the initial surprise, was swift. There then began the battle to consolidate and extend the beachhead. The next ten days would be decisive. For the British and Americans, it was a case of landing fresh troops as quickly as possible, and delaying the arrival of enemy reinforcements for as long as possible.

The Germans had twenty-seven divisions within a 300-kilometre radius of the landing beaches, including four armoured ones, which they could send into battle within a matter of days. They therefore outnumbered their adversaries two to one, meaning that the Allies ran a serious risk of being unceremoniously pushed back into the sea.

This, however, was reckoning without the combined and devastatingly effective action of the Allied tactical aviation and the Resistance. On the roads, fighter bombers found German convoys to be easy prey, ruthlessly dive-bombing them and leaving in their wake a trail of burnt-out wrecks and corpses. To escape the carnage, the Germans rapidly resorted to travelling at night, but this made them vulnerable to raids by the Resistance, which delayed the arrival of reinforcements still further.

During this time, the Allies saw their forces augment rapidly, at the average rate of 30,000 men, 7,000 vehicles and 30,000 tonnes of supplies per day. In the lee of the Gooseberry breakwaters, which had been created in front of all five landing beaches by scuttling old ships, vessels of every imaginable size engaged in an incredible ballet. Further out to sea, equipment was unloaded from large cargo ships onto metal Rhino barges or amphibious lorries known as DUKWs, which plied the short distance between ship and shore. Other craft, the flat-bottomed LSTs and LSIs, sailed right up onto the beaches, lowering their ramps to disgorge tanks, lorries and soldiers. In front of Arromanches and Saint-Laurent, work started on two artificial harbours ‑ the Mulberries ‑ while at Port-en-Bessin and Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes, PLUTO pipelines were being laid to transfer petrol directly from tankers to the fuel dumps established on the mainland.

In less than ten days, the Allies had won the fight for a foothold. By June 18th, 600,000 men had been landed, together with 100,000 lorries, and because the Germans were far slower in building up their forces, they managed to link up the different assault zones within a very short space of time.

The breach between Sword and Juno was closed on June 7th. The following day, contact was established between the British soldiers of the 50th Division and the GIs who had landed at Omaha and advanced into the heart of the Bessin region, moving west towards Isigny and south as far as Caumont-l’Eventé, thirty kilometres inland. On the other side of Veys Bay, paratroops belonging to the 101st Airborne Division captured Carentan on June 12th, thereby removing the dangerous wedge that had been dividing the Utah and Omaha sectors. The Allies now controlled a single, uninterrupted bridgehead extending a hundred kilometres, from Quinéville in the west to Dives in the east.