A Brief History
On June 6, 1944, American, British, and Canadian forces stormed the heavily defended beaches of Normandy, France, signaling the doom of the Third Reich. This amphibious landing would not have happened, at least not successfully, without the following piece of allied equipment and weapons. Here we list 10 of those items we think are most important to the success of the operation.
10. Bangalore Torpedo.
This simple item is a metal pipe filled with explosives that can be attached in multiple sections to clear barbed wire obstacles and minefields. Invented by the British Army in 1912, these saw extensive use on D-Day, especially by the US Army. Without them, soldiers would be shot to pieces as they tried to fumble their way through barbed wire or blown to bits as they went through mine fields. (Or shot to pieces as they slowly made their way through mine fields.) Cracked fact: These are still in use today by the US Army and US Marine Corps and were used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
9. Main Battle Rifles.
The American forces used the M-1 Garand, the only semi-automatic rifle used at Normandy, providing 8 shots and rapid reload capability. The British forces used the Lee-Enfield (SMLE) which was a bolt action rifle like the German Mauser K-98, but the SMLE carried 10 rounds to the Mauser’s 5. These great rifles gave the allied infantrymen a distinct edge over their Nazi counterparts.
8. The Wristwatch.
Widespread issuing of wristwatches was critical to the timing of various bombardments and events to keep things synchronized and avoid killing friendly troops. Timing explosives, reporting on time and accurately logging events were all dependent on accurate time keeping.
7. Sherman Tank.
Although the M-4 Sherman was inferior to the best German tanks in main gun power and in armor protection, it was well defended against ground troops with 3 machine guns and was quite mobile. It was also one of the most reliable tanks of the war. Used in its normal configuration, as an amphibious “duplex drive” model, a “flail” anti-mine version, a “rhino” earthen wall penetrating model, and a bulldozer version, this was the main allied tank of the landings and the subsequent campaign. The British Army equipped theirs with a 76mm gun, much better at penetrating German tanks than the American 75mm gun. (In the Pacific a flamethrower version was highly effective.) The Sherman was also produced with a 60 tube rocket launching system and with a 105mm howitzer in place of the normal main gun. During the landings at Normandy, the tanks bound for Omaha beach were lost to rough water, but everywhere they landed the tanks made an enormous difference in the battle.
6. Naval Gunfire.
Since troops hitting a beach are without artillery for some time, supporting fire from naval guns is imperative. The Normandy landings had 5 battleships, 20 cruisers, and 65 destroyers providing pre-landing bombardment and fire support as troops landed. In some cases, destroyers got as close to the beach as possible to take out individual machine gun nests.
5. Mulberry Artificial Harbor.
This ingenious British design was met with skepticism at first, but the huge concrete floating sections were towed to Normandy, sunk in place and by 3 days after D-Day troops and supplies were flowing inland over the 10 miles of causeways built on top of the sunken concrete. Along with ships sunk as breakwaters, this provided the allies a harbor about equivalent to Dover. Only designed to last abut 3 months, the British section lasted the duration of the war. Over all, 2 ½ million troops, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of cargo were offloaded from ships to the beach over the Mulberries.
4. 2 ½ Ton Truck.
These 6X6 all wheel drive beasts were fundamental in running supplies from the beach to the troops, as well as running cargo from ships to the beach via causeways. Over half million of them were made during World War II. Many military theoreticians consider this the most important allied piece of equipment of the war. Rated for 2 ½ tons off road and 5 tons of cargo on roads, these trucks routinely carried double those amounts. There was even an amphibious version, the DUKW (“Duck”) that was used at Normandy. The DUKW could go 50mph on a road or over 6 mph in the water, and was seaworthy enough to cross the English Channel!
3. Fighter Bombers.
Thunderbolts, Lightnings and Typhoons armed with rockets and bombs, and equipped with heavy machine guns (.50 caliber) and 20mm cannons isolated the battlefield by denying German forces the ability to maneuver, redeploy, and reinforce. Any German vehicle that moved was liable to be blasted by the fighter bombers, and troops on the ground could call for specific targets to be attacked in close support of ground operations.
2. Fighter Aircraft.
Here we are talking air superiority. With fighters like the Spitfire, Mustang, and Thunderbolt the allies were able to almost totally deny any German air attacks on the landing force and the ships involved. The numbers and quality of the allied fighters swept the sky of German fighters and allowed allied bombers and ground attack aircraft (fighter bombers and attack planes such as P-47’s, P-38’s, A-20’s, and Typhoons) free range over the battlefield to interdict German reinforcements that attempted to attack the landings. The allied night fighters also ensured the safety of the cargo airplanes that were dropping airborne troops and towing gliders. Without the fighters those aircraft would have been sitting ducks.
1. Landing Craft.
The US developed a variety of landing craft before and at the beginning of World War II. The old days where soldiers or Marines would row to shore in row boats and jump out at the beach would not do when landing tanks, trucks, and pallets of ammunition and supplies. Ranging from the small “Higgins Boats” (LCVP) to the large LCT (Tank Landing Craft) these bow ramp equipped small craft would take men and equipment directly from the large ships to the beach, making multiple trips back and forth. They also ferried wounded men back to the large ships for medical treatment. The German lack of such craft made an invasion of Great Britain out of the question in 1940 or 1941 when such an invasion may have been successful. Some of these landing craft were made to allow tanks to use their main guns as they approached the beach, providing covering firepower for the landing force. Others were specially equipped with rocket launchers to provide more shore bombardment. Over 4100 landing craft were involved in the invasion.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other gear do you think should be added to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Battle For The Normandy Beaches. Simon & Schuster, 2002.
The Editors of LIFE. LIFE D-DAY 70 Years Later: Remembering the Battle That Won the War. Life, 2014.