In the morning hours of June 6, 1944, the first attack formations of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force landed in Normandy, France, to break the legendary Atlantic Wall and launched the decisive battle for Europe. Ground forces were led by Field Marshal Montgomery, the Air Force by Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory and naval forces by Admiral Ramsay. The Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force was U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower. Operation Overlord, the code name for the invasion of France, entered its most difficult phase. The future of the nations of Europe was being decided on the beaches of Normandy in these early hours.
Before the first infantrymen set foot on the beach, individual sectors of the invasion were bombarded by warships and strategic and tactical air forces. Shortly after midnight, three airborne divisions had landed in Normandy – two U.S. and one British. Their task was to secure access routes from the interior to the beaches in order to prevent the enemy from attacking invading troops from the flanks.
Although the enemy was surprised by the attack, in no way did he intend to surrender. The first fighting erupted while it was still dark, but the main action came shortly after 6 a.m. when the first U.S. forces started to land at the beaches with the code names Omaha and Utah. Gunfire from cannons and machine-gun nests along the shore was literally hellish for the landing Americans, and since that day the sector has been rightly nicknamed “Bloody Omaha”. As the fighting was not as intense in the neighboring Utah sector, the Americans here were able to advance quickly to the interior. About one hour after the Americans landed, joint British-Canadian forces started to land. Their attack sections with the code names Juno, Gold and Sword were located from Port-en-Bessin to Caen. Gaining a bridgehead was not a simple matter here, either, yet they gradually managed to destroy one foothold after another.
In the area of the US First Army led by General Bradley, the US VII Corps under General Collins landed on Utah beach, located on the right flank west of the Vire Estuary. The main objective was to advance as rapidly as possible to the port of Cherbourg. The paratroopers and glider forces from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions who landed inland, behind Utah beach between Sainte-Mère-Église and Carentan, secured exits from the beach in the section from St Martin de Varreville to Pouppeville. At around noon, they made contact with the 8th Infantry Regiment of the US 4th Infantry Division, blocked the routes in Foucarville and, in the night from June 6 to June 7, 1944, occupied La Barquette – a crucial location north of Carentan. However, they did not succeed in reaching the Douve River as had been planned, as the enemy halted their advance using strong defense in the Carentan – St Come du Mont area. The men from the 82nd Airborne Division who landed in the area of both banks of the Merderet River occupied Sainte-Mère-Église, but were unable to occupy the crossroads in the Merderet – Douve section and make contact with the 101st Airborne Division in the Beuzeville au Plain area. Small groups of paratroopers were isolated on the western bank of the Merderet River. At H minus 2, before the first troops started to land on the beaches, the 4th Cavalry Group occupied Îles St Marcouf without resistance. The US 4th Infantry Division, strengthened by the 359th Regimental Combat Team of the 90th Infantry Division, reached the shore at H hour – at 6:30 a.m. Encountering relatively weak resistance from the German defense lines, its 8th Infantry Regiment was the first to land and secure a bridgehead. Its troops occupied the crossroads in Les Forges and in the Torqueville area, but the enemy defended the area between the landing troops and paratroopers from the 82nd in Sainte-Mère-Église. A tactical force comprised of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division and the 746th Tank Battalion attempted to push through the Les Forges area, but was forced back. Another unit from the 4th Infantry Division, the 12th Infantry Regiment, reached Beuzeville au Plain left of the 101st Airborne Division. Its sister unit, the 22nd Infantry Regiment, advanced along the coastline to the Hamel de Cruttes – St Germain de Varreville line.
In the US V Corps sector under the command of General Gerow, troops landing at Omaha beach experienced heavy losses due to the high waves that caused amphibious tanks which were designated to eliminate enemy positions to sink. Despite major losses to life and materiel, the men from the 116th RCT from the 29th Infantry Division and the 16th RCT of the legendary 1st Infantry Division succeeded in reaching the beach. The remaining formation of the 1st Infantry Division and the 115th RCT of the 29th Infantry Division landed later that day. The 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions, assigned to the 116th RCT of the 29th Infantry Division, was given the task of clearing the now legendary Point du Hoc, cliffs jutting out into the sea; the Germans had built a powerful battery along the edges of the cliffs. Men from three companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, supported by naval gunfire, climbed the steep cliffs and, despite high losses, conquered the battery. To this day a memorial located on the roof of the battery observation bunker at Point du Hoc commemorates the immeasurable heroism demonstrated by Lieutenant Colonel Rudder’s men, which came at the price of a great number of casualties.
Over the next two days, the Rangers resisted a series of intense enemy attacks against their positions. Additional Rangers companies and part of the 116th Battalion landed between Vierville sur Mer and Les Moulins. Part of the same units unsuccessfully attempted to reach St Laurent sur Mer on the company’s left flank. The remainder of the battalion and the units that followed, the 115th Battalion of the 29th Infantry Division and the 18th and 26th Battalion from the 1st Infantry Division, attempted to break through the defense line about one and a half miles between St Laurent sur Mer and Colleville. The 3rd Battalion of the 16th RCT of the 1st Infantry Division occupied Le Grand Hameau. The men from the US V Corps were involved in battles from the first hours of the Normandy invasion right up to the final minutes of the war in Europe. The road to freedom was long, bloody, and filled with fatigue and sacrifice. The fighting on the beaches was the mere start of the campaign against Hitler’s Nazi regime which ended in May 1945 in the streets of Pilsen, filled with cheering Czechoslovaks celebrating liberation.