Australians and D-Day
Presented by Peter Stanley on Sunday 6 June 2004 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial.
In the early hours of Tuesday 6 June 1944 British and American paratroops landed in the fields of Normandy. At dawn thousands of British, Canadian and American troops landed on the beaches. 6 June 1944 became “D-Day”, the target date on which a vast Allied military, air and naval force began the long-awaited Allied invasion and liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Normandy landings were necessary because in 1940 Nazi Germany had occupied most of the continent of Europe. Although the Allies had launched an increasingly destructive bombing campaign against Germany, and had landed in Italy, the only way Germany could be defeated was by successfully crossing the English Channel to liberate the occupied countries and invade Germany itself.
The Allies made the most of several advantages: sea and air power superiority and insights into German plans through the possession of the secret “Enigma” codes. Allied (and especially American) industrial and technological power gave the Allies a strong advantage. Even so, the challenge was to get the force to France and ashore and meet the expected counter-attacks.
After a year’s intensive planning and training (including devising new weapons and techniques, such as specialised armoured vehicles, landing craft, and even floating harbours called “Mulberries”) the force was assembled in secret. An armada of 7,000 vessels carried 190,000 sailors and 130,000 soldiers across the Channel to five designated beaches – Utah and Omaha on the American side, Gold and Sword for the British, and Juno for the Canadians. Some 7,000 aircraft took part, including transport planes and gliders carrying three divisions of airborne troops, as well as fighters covering the convoys and heavy bombers dropping bombs on German defences in Normandy and railways leading to the area.
Australia, with the great bulk of its forces fighting Japan in the south-west Pacific, took a relatively small part in the operation, but the invasion force included up to about 3,000 Australians.
About a dozen Australian soldiers were attached to British army formations, learning the ropes in preparation for amphibious operations in the Pacific later in the war. Some 500 Australian sailors served in dozens of Royal Navy warships, from battleships and corvettes down to motor torpedo boats and landing craft. Several Australians commanded flotillas of tank-landing ships, while others piloted landing craft carrying British and Canadian infantry onto the beaches.
Australia’s main contribution was in the air. Between 2,000 and 2,500 Australian airmen served in dozens of RAF and ten RAAF squadrons of all kinds. Australian aircrew served in transport and glider-towing squadrons which carried airborne troops, fighter-bombers and fighters operating directly over the beach-head, and many in heavy bomber squadrons which dropped thousands of tons of bombs in support of the landings. Coastal Command squadrons operated far from the beaches of Normandy, protecting the Channel crossings from German naval forces.
Fourteen Australians were killed on D-Day (two RAN and 12 RAAF).
Allied forces made a successful lodgement on D-Day and in the following weeks poured tens of thousands of troops ashore and gradually enlarged the beach-head. After ten weeks of bitter fighting in the close hedge-row (“bocage”) country of Normandy, British, Canadian and American forces at last broke out of the beach-head. The ten-week battle had cost over 200,000 Allied casualties, but it had cost the Germans 240,000 killed or wounded and over 200,000 captured, the greatest single defeat ever inflicted on Axis forces in the war. The break-out led to the swift liberation of Paris and the whole of France and most of Belgium by the end of September 1944.
Though a further eight months of fighting remained, in the liberation of the Netherlands, the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes, the crossing of the Rhine and the final advance into Germany to meet Soviet forces on the River Elbe, the success of the Normandy landings was arguably the key stage in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.
Australian airmen supported the campaign in north-west Europe throughout.