In 1944, during World War II, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower directed five Allied assault divisions that landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. Known as D-Day, this event was history’s greatest naval invasion. It is considered by historians to be the most significant single action in the European theater of the war, and its success ensured the Allied victory.
The Soviet Union began to pressure the other Allies to open a front in Western Europe almost immediately after Germany invaded Russia in June, 1941. With casualties in the millions, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin asserted that Russia was being forced to endure most of the hardships necessary to defeat the Nazis. Although Britain and the United States agreed that a Western front would help Russia, they refused to launch an invasion until they believed Germany had been sufficiently weakened.
The successful defeat of Germany in North Africa enabled the United States and Britain to invade Italy in July, 1943, and the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini quickly collapsed. This forced Germany to divert much of its army into North Italy to prevent an Allied invasion from the South. However, the Allies decided that the mountainous terrain of Central Europe would be too difficult to advance across, and thus Italy would not, as many believed, become a pathway into the Third Reich. Instead, by the Summer of 1943 the Allies had decided that Normandy would be location of a second invasion.
By 1944 the defeat of Germany appeared inevitable, and the Allied leaders had begun to negotiate Europe’s political and economic future. Britain and the United States had concluded that the Soviet Union was on track to defeat the Nazis without the Normandy invasion. Nevertheless, such a scenario would open the door to Soviet control of Western Europe. Hoping to contain Communism in post-war Europe, the invasion took place as planned.
Germany anticipated an Allied invasion, but the Nazi leadership was unable to determine when or where it would occur. The Allies used a variety tricks to keep the Germans confused. These included planting faux armies along the British coast, sending false radio transmissions into Germany, and permitting German spies to acquire fake intelligence documents. In fact, very few Allied leaders knew the true invasion plans until the day it occurred, and Germany was taken completely by surprise.
On D-day, the Allies quickly overran what were previously believed to be substantial Nazi coastal defenses. By the end of the day the Allies had landed one hundred fifty-six thousand soldiers. Of that number more than four thousand four-hundred were killed, more than half of whom were American. The heaviest fighting took place on Omaha Beach, which was invaded by the United States. The Allies advanced quickly through France, and Paris was liberated from Nazi control before the end of August. Many believed that the Allies would defeat Germany by the end of the year, but Germany launched a surprise counter-attack which became known as the Battle of the Bulge. This delayed, but did not prevent an ultimate Allied victory.