On 5 November 1943, Hitler appointed Erwin Rommel inspector-general for the North Sea and Atlantic coasts. As commander of Army Group B, he had under his command the 7th Army, on which the sector stretching from Brittany to the Cotentin Peninsula depended. The Desert Fox was convinced that, once the landings were made, the battle would be decided in two days: the enemy must be pushed back to the sea in the initial hours of fighting, to prevent it from establishing a bridgehead and landing more men and equipment. He therefore undertook to considerably reinforce the Atlantic Wall because, while the German defences were very strong on the coastline of Pas-de-Calais, where it seemed most likely the Allies would land, they were far weaker elsewhere, outside the major ports like Cherbourg and Saint Nazaire, transformed on the Führer’s orders into Festungen, or ‘fortresses’. Meanwhile, Rommel’s superior, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commander-in-chief on the Western Front since 1942, regarded the Atlantic Wall as “no more than a cheap bluff”.
Field Marshal Rommel knew that his mission was crucial to the future of the Reich, and he was determined for it to be successful. As he became increasingly convinced that the Allies would land on Normandy’s western beaches, he had the low-lying areas at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula flooded and the defences there reinforced, erecting a second line of coastal defences, laying more mines and obstacles on the beaches, and enclosing the cannons in pillboxes. On the eve of D-Day, in the Overlord area, approximately 200 000 obstacles were scattered from the dunes out to sea: metal barriers from the Belgian defensive line of 1940, oblique-cut tree trunks covered with a steel blade or topped with a mine, and “Czech hedgehogs” (formed of three metal beams crossed in the middle and set in concrete). Millions of mines were buried, anti-tank walls put up and miles of barbed wire laid. In addition, nearly 2 000 blockhouses were built by conscripted French workers and Italian prisoners of war put to work for the Organisation Todt. Gun turrets from French tanks captured in 1940 were fixed atop concrete foxholes to form “Tobruks”, named after a battle in Libya. Despite being far apart, these defensive positions prevented any landings at night or at high tide. At low tide, the invaders would be forced to cross a large exposed area, making them very vulnerable. Finally, to prevent gliders from landing, thousands of wooden stakes were driven into the ground at the most likely sites: these were known as “Rommel’s asparagus”. Rommel had around 80 000 men with which to defend Normandy.
On 29 January 1944, he was on a tour of inspection of the Normandy coast. After passing through Colleville-sur-Mer, his convoy stopped on a cliff overlooking the five-mile long beach of Sables d’Or. Hemmed in by tall, steep cliffs, dotted with natural obstacles - including a 65-foot wide embankment of pebbles bordered by a low stone wall - and overlooked by dunes and hills, the beach was favourable to the defenders, provided that it was further fortified. Rommel likened this beach to that of the Gulf of Salerno, where the Allies had landed on 9 September 1943. Turning to Ernst Goth, the commander of the 916th Grenadier Regiment, stationed in the sector, he said: “Goth, they’ll be arriving on your doorstep.” The beach was named Omaha by the commander of the First United States Army, General Bradley.
On the eve of the landings, the SHAEF strategists knew only too well that Omaha Beach would be the most difficult to take, having the terrain least favourable to the assailants. Fifteen defensive positions, or Widerstandsnester, numbered from 60 to 74, were installed, 12 of which dominated the beach, which they had covered with crossfire, hindering access inland. Each position had 50-88mm cannons or a tank turret, machine guns and mortars. At Longues-sur-Mer, four miles to the east, a battery of four 152mm cannons was installed, capable of intervening at Omaha. The sector was defended by 2 000 German soldiers.
However, situated as it was between Utah and Gold beaches, Omaha Beach could not be allowed to remain in German hands. The Allies were therefore relying on the aerial and naval bombardment prior to Zero Hour to inflict as much damage as possible to the enemy defences.
Aerial view of Royal Navy ships gathered off the Isle of Wight before heading to the Normandy beaches. Copyright Imperial War Museums (A 237 20 A)
6 June 1944 - Aerial view of the Allied fleet off Omaha. Copyright Imperial War Museums (MH 24887)
6 June 1944 - Aerial view of the Gold sector during the landing of the British 50th Division. An anti-tank ditch is visible on the left, before Ver-sur-Mer. Copyright Imperial War Museums (MH 24887)
Royal Navy commandos preparing to detonate Czech hedgehogs laid on the beaches by the Germans. Date and place unknown. Copyright Imperial War Museums (A 23992)
Assembling an artillery piece in a German foxhole in northern France, 21 June 1943. Copyright Bundesarchiv
Field Marshal Rommel, left, inspects the German defences of the Atlantic Wall. Date unknown. Copyright Imperial War Museums (HU 28594)
5 June 1944 - A convoy of landing craft carrying troops and vehicles of the 13th and 18th Royal Hussars heads for Normandy. Copyright Imperial War Museums (B 5108)
6 June 1944 - The HMS Orion fires on German positions on the Normandy coast. Copyright Imperial War Museums (FLM 4021)
6 June 1944 - Troops of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division landing at Bernières in the Juno Beach sector. Copyright Library and Archives Canada, photo G. Milne (PA 137013)
6 June 1944 - Canadian infantry land on Juno Beach and march towards Bernières-sur-Mer. Copyright Library and Archives Canada
6 June 1944 - Aerial photo of the landing on Mike Beach, in the Juno sector, to the west of Courseulles-sur-Mer. Copyright Imperial War Museums (CL 41)
6 June 1944 - Aerial photo showing British troops linking up between the beaches of King Red and King Green, in the Juno sector. Copyright Imperial War Museums (CL 3947)
British general Percy Hobart, inventor of the modified tanks nicknamed the “Hobart Funnies”. Copyright Imperial War Museums (H 20697)
M5 or M3 Stuart DD (Duplex Drive) amphibious tank fitted with a rubber flotation screen to enable it to float. Copyright Imperial War Museums (H 35181)
Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) amphibious tank used on the landing beaches. Copyright Imperial War Museums (MH 3660)
A Bobbin carpet layer, which laid canvas matting to enable it to drive over soft sand. Copyright Imperial War Museums (H 37859)
A Fascine carrier, designed to fill anti-tank ditches with bundles of sticks, or “fascines”. Copyright Imperial War Museums (H 29043)
A beach packed with vehicles of different types, shortly after the landings. Copyright Imperial War Museums (A 23947)
A wrecked British M3 Stuart tank on a beach after the landings. Date unknown. Copyright Imperial War Museums (A 23946)
Sword Beach, the Allied thrust - Copyright SGA-Com (Ministère des Armées)