6 June 1944 was the day that Operation OVERLORD, the Allied invasion of NAZI-occupied Europe, commenced with an amphibious assault over the Normandy Beaches: Operation NEPTUNE.
The term “the longest day” is said to have been coined by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who had responsibility for defending the Atlantic coast from the Allies. More famously, it was the title of Cornelius Ryan’s excellent single-volume history of the invasion.
The term “the longest awaited day” would have been just as accurate. The Russians had been fighting in their homeland since the spring of 1941, and were desperate to have a Second Front to draw NAZI forces away. All the occupied countries – Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France and more – were desperate to be liberated from the evil of NAZI occupation. Finally, the Allied nations were eager to commence the final operations that would see the end of the Third Reich.
For the soldiers, sailors and airmen, however, it was to be a long day of savage fighting. Elite airborne troops would open the battle during the night, then five Armies, over 150,000 men, would cross five beaches that day in the greatest amphibious operation in human history. Two British Armies would attack over Sword and Gold, two US Armies would invade over Omaha and Utah and one Canadian Army, volunteers all, would storm Juno Beach. The casualties were significant, although mercifully less that feared, but still some 2,500 young soldiers lay dead in the sand, with another 7,500 wounded. Of the 14,000 Canadians fighting on Juno Beach 1,074 became casualties, of which 359 were killed.
The Armies did not go in alone. An amphibious assault needs ships and minor vessels, and NEPTUNE consisted of an armada numbering just short of 7,000. The Royal Canadian Navy contributed 126 ships and vessels, manned by some 11,000 sailors, of whom eight were wounded that day. The invasion fleet was not safe from attack: 24 warships and 35 other vessels were sunk, with another 120 damaged.
Overhead the invasion was protected from the Luftwaffe and supported by an equally large air armada. The Royal Canadian Air Force had 15 fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons in combat over the beaches, while other RCAF aviators serving in Bomber Command and Coastal Command directly supported the invasion, out of sight of the beaches, but vital to victory nevertheless. RCAF casualties on D-Day numbered 43 killed. Per Ardua indeed!
The longest day was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich. Within 11 months the Wehrmacht would be completely defeated, Germany would be occupied, its leaders dead by their own hands, concentration camps and POW camps closed, and Western Europe liberated. None of this would have happened without the skill, courage and sacrifice of those young Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen. Lest We Forget.
~ contributed by Jon Ambler