As British and American troops meet up at Normandy, Stalin Rejoices
U.S. General Omar Bradley, following orders from General Eisenhower, links up American troops from Omaha Beach with British troops from Gold Beach at Colleville-sur-Mer. Meanwhile, Russian Premier Joseph Stalin telegraphs British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to announce that the Allied success at Normandy “is a source of joy to us all,” and promises to launch his own offensive on the Eastern Front, as had been agreed upon at the Tehran Conference in late ’43, and thereby prevent Hitler from transferring German troops from the east to support troops at Normandy.
On this day in 1941, British and Free French forces enter Syria and Lebanon in Operation Exporter.
In May, the pro-Axis Rashid Ali rose to power in Iraq and refused to allow British maneuvers within his country in accordance with the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930. Britain quickly restored the status quo ante by driving Ali and his followers out of Iraq. And to ensure that German military supplies shipped to Ali via Syria did not result in Axis control of that country and neighboring Lebanon, Britain decided to take preventive action. With Australian and Indian support, as well as that of Free French forces, Britain invaded both Syria and Lebanon, fighting Vichy French garrisons loyal to Germany. Resistance lasted five weeks before an armistice was finally signed on July 14, giving the Allies control of both Syria and Lebanon. Among those wounded in the fighting was the 26-year-old leader of Palestinian volunteer forces, Moshe Dayan, the future hero in the fight for an independent Jewish state. He lost an eye.
On June 7, 1917, the British 2nd Army, led by Herbert Plumer, scores a crushing victory over the Germans at Messines Ridge in northern France, marking the successful prelude to an Allied offensive designed to break the grinding stalemate on the Western Front in World War I.
British forces put careful planning into the Battle of Messines Ridge: for the previous 18 months, soldiers had worked to place nearly 1 million pounds of explosives in tunnels under the German positions. The tunnels extended to some 2,000 feet in length, and some were as much as 100 feet below the surface of the ridge, where the Germans had long since been entrenched.
At 3:10 a.m. on June 7, 1917, a series of simultaneous explosions rocked the area; the blast was heard as far away as London. As a German observer described the explosions: “nineteen gigantic roses with carmine petals, or? enormous mushrooms, ?rose up slowly and majestically out of the ground and then split into pieces with a mighty roar, sending up multi-colored columns of flame mixed with a mass of earth and splinters high in the sky.” German losses that day included more than 10,000 men who died instantly, along with some 7,000 prisoners–men who were too stunned and disoriented by the explosions to resist the infantry assault.
Although Messines Ridge itself was a relatively limited victory, it had a considerable effect. The Germans were forced to retreat to the east, a sacrifice that marked the beginning of their gradual but continuous loss of territory on the Western Front. It also secured the right flank of the British thrust towards the much-contested Ypres region, the eventual objective of the planned offensive. Over the next month and a half, British forces continued to push the Germans back toward the high ridge at Passchendaele, which on July 31 saw the launch of the British offensive–known as the Battle of Passchendaele or the Third Battle of Ypres–in earnest.
Although the term D-Day is used routinely as military lingo for the day an operation or event will take place, for many it is also synonymous with June 6, 1944, the day the Allied powers crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.
With Hitler’s armies in control of most of mainland Europe, the Allies knew that a successful invasion of the continent was central to winning the war. Hitler knew this too, and was expecting an assault on northwestern Europe in the spring of 1944. He hoped to repel the Allies from the coast with a strong counterattack that would delay future invasion attempts, giving him time to throw the majority of his forces into defeating the Soviet Union in the east. Once that was accomplished, he believed an all-out victory would soon be his.
On the morning of June 5, 1944, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious military operation in history. On his orders, 6,000 landing craft, ships and other vessels carrying 176,000 troops began to leave England for the trip to France. That night, 822 aircraft filled with parachutists headed for drop zones in Normandy. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion.
By dawn on June 6, 18,000 parachutists were already on the ground; the land invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; so did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where 2,000 troops were lost and it was only through the tenacity and quick-wittedness of troops on the ground that the objective was achieved. By day’s end, 155,000 Allied troops–Americans, British and Canadians–had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches.
For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing that the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack and reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. In addition, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.
Though it did not go off exactly as planned, as later claimed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery–for example, the Allies were able to land only fractions of the supplies and vehicles they had intended in France–D-Day was a decided success. By the end of June, the Allies had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy and were poised to continue their march across Europe.
The heroism and bravery displayed by troops from the Allied countries on D-Day has served as inspiration for several films, most famously The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). It was also depicted in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001).
The first large-scale battle fought by American soldiers in World War I begins in Belleau Wood, northwest of the Paris-to-Metz road.
In late May 1918, the third German offensive of the year penetrated the Western Front to within 45 miles of Paris. U.S. forces under General John J. Pershing helped halt the German advance, and on June 6 Pershing ordered a counteroffensive to drive the Germans out of Belleau Wood. U.S. Marines under General James Harbord led the attack against the four German divisions positioned in the woods and by the end of the first day suffered more than 1,000 casualties.
For the next three weeks, the Marines, backed by U.S. Army artillery, launched many attacks into the forested area, but German General Erich Ludendorff was determined to deny the Americans a victory. Ludendorff continually brought up reinforcements from the rear, and the Germans attacked the U.S. forces with machine guns, artillery, and gas. Finally, on June 26, the Americans prevailed but at the cost of nearly 10,000 dead, wounded, or missing in action.
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