D-Day, June 6, 1944—history’s largest amphibious invasion—sparked the liberation of Europe. Airmen enabled its success by breaking the Luftwaffe, crippling enemy transportation, gathering intelligence, and directly supporting Allied ground forces.
What is “D-Day”?
“D-Day” was the general Allied code word to describe the first day of an operation, but became known as the most famous “D-Day”—June 6, 1944. The landing itself was code-named OPERATION NEPTUNE, while the overall Normandy campaign was code-named OPERATION OVERLORD.
Setting the Stage
Securing Air Dominance: Breaking the Luftwaffe
The Normandy invasion required Allied control of the air. The USAAF strategic bombing campaign achieved this by crippling the Luftwaffe’s fighter force in battles over Germany before D-Day.
USAAF bombers also destroyed airfields that could threaten the invasion and continued to hit them after D-Day. Here bombs rain down on the airfield at Chateaudun, France.
Isolating the Battlefield: Cutting Lifelines
The USAAF prevented Germany from quickly reinforcing Normandy by wrecking the transportation system in northwestern France before D-Day.
Bombers tore up railroad yards like this one in Epinal, France. Those trains that did move were attacked by roaming fighter-bombers.
Air attack destroyed bridges to cut off German reinforcement of Normandy.
The Allies successfully tricked the enemy into thinking the invasion would be at the narrowest part of the English Channel. Here, Liberators bomb the Pas de Calais on June 5, 1944, to further this deception.
Gathering Intelligence: Photoreconnaissance
Camera-equipped aircraft took photographs of the beachhead and enemy positions, providing vital intelligence about German defenses.
Photoreconnaissance aircraft captured detailed images, like this one showing anti-landing craft spikes topped with mines.
OPERATION NEPTUNE: June 6, 1944
The Normandy invasion began with troop carrier units dropping airborne forces early in the morning, surprising and disrupting the German defenders. At daybreak, bombers hammered beach defenses, while fighters protected friendly forces and roamed across Normandy, attacking the enemy at will.
Paratroopers prepare to board a troop carrier C-47. The original photograph was censored to hide the paratroopers’ unit patches.
Troop carrier C-47 on takeoff with a glider in tow.
Gliders litter a Normandy field. Bad crash-landings destroyed some, causing casualties.
Just before the landing, heavy bombers saturated beach defenses, like this 88 mm cannon battery on a cliff at Longues, France.
Reconnaissance photograph of the beachhead on D-Day.
A flight nurse and a troop carrier pilot prepare to receive wounded from a medic. About 1/3 of those wounded in Normandy were evacuated by air transport.
To aid in recognition and prevent casualties from friendly fire, Allied aircraft were hastily painted with black and white “invasion stripes” on the night of June 5-6, 1944.
“The aircraft flew over us continuously, passing above us like a conveyor belt…My front positions resembled a scene from the moon, and at least 70% of my troops were out of action—dead, buried, or stunned. All of my forward tanks were disabled and the roads were practically impassable.”
—Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, Panzer Lehr Division commander, after the Cobra air attacks
The Normandy Campaign and the Cobra Breakout
Assisted by favorable terrain, German forces bitterly contested the Allied advance. Constant air attack, however, severely limited the enemy’s mobility and caused devastating losses. In late July 1944, concentrated air attacks during OPERATION COBRA shattered enemy forces and started the Normandy breakout.
Aviation engineers quickly established airstrips in the Normandy farmland to base fighters closer to the front lines.
USAAF fighters shot down this Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf Fw 190 when it tried to approach the Normandy beachhead.
German tank flipped over by bombing attack.
OPERATION COBRA, the breakout from Normandy, began with American and British heavy bombers blowing a hole in the German lines. Although some bombs fell short and killed American troops, these attacks utterly devastated the German defenders.
Major General Matthew Ridgway:
D-Day 82nd Airborne Division Commander
Major General Matthew Ridgway wore this jacket when he jumped with his 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers on the night of June 5-6, 1944. Stars were later added to the shoulders when he was promoted to lieutenant general.
General Ridgway led airborne forces throughout World War II. He planned and led the airborne invasion of Sicily, commanded the 82nd Airborne Division during D-Day, and led the 18th Airborne Corps.
During the Korean War, General Ridgway succeeded General Douglas MacArthur in commanding United Nations forces. In 1953, General Ridgway became the US Army Chief of Staff and retired in 1955.
(photo of Major General Ridgway in Sicily in 1943)
Chaplain Major George Wood, 82nd Airborne Division
Chaplain Major George Wood wore this uniform and boots when he jumped into Normandy during OPERATION OVERLORD. The green shoulder tabs on the jacket identify him as a combat-ready airborne soldier. He made three other combat jumps in Europe.
(photo of Chaplain Major George Wood in front of the aid station in Sainte-Mère-Église, France, wearing the jacket on display)
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