June 6, 1944: The Allied invasion of Normandy begins.
In June of 1940, Nazi Germany successfully completed its invasion of France with the signing of an armistice at Compiègne, which divided France into two zones - one which was to be henceforth occupied by German troops, and a “free zone”, to be administered by a French government at Vichy. In late 1942 German-Italian forces carried out a complete military occupation of the free zone. By 1944 much of Europe was either occupied by Axis forces or controlled by direct allies; between the neutral Iberian Peninsula to the Eastern Front, France, Greece, the Baltics, the Netherlands, and Denmark were among the states occupied by German or Axis forces. Along the western coast of Europe, Germany established a system of fortifications collectively known as the “Atlantic Wall”, whose construction began in 1942 to thwart an Allied invasion launched across the English Channel from Great Britain.
The landing of Allied forces at Normandy on June 6, 1944 (commonly known as D-Day) marked the beginning of Operation Overlord and the beginning of the liberation of mainland Europe from its occupation by Nazi Germany. As Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower was charged with planning and carrying out the beach landing assault, an enormous and momentous task - in the end, approximately 160,000 troops participated in the assault on an 80 km long stretch of Normandy coast, which was divided into five sectors: Gold, Utah, Sword, Juno, and Omaha, the link between the U.S. and British sectors, the most easily defensible beach, and the area where fighting was bloodiest. The troops were supported by a fleet of nearly 7,000 vessels, directed mostly by the Royal Navy; airborne operations were also a key element of the landings, with at least 13,000 paratroopers taking part. To mislead and confound Axis military leaders regarding the true date and location of the impending assault, the Allies implemented Operation Bodyguard.
The enormously successful operation was a decisive victory for the Allied powers and a major blow to Germany’s psyche and morale. Operation Overlord came to an end with the destruction of German forces at the Falaise Pocket in August of 1944 and the liberation of Paris days later.