The two armies that faced each other across the beaches in the early hours of 6 June 1944 were vastly different in almost every way. One was very well equipped, tremendously well supported both from the sea and from the air, had been trained to a peak of fitness and had sky-high morale, whilst the other was sadly lacking in all of these attributes. One was being launched on a great crusade, whilst the other was trying to defend the indefensible.
The British Army
The assault landings that were made on Gold and Juno Beaches had been meticulously planned and the units selected to make the assault had been a long time training for that moment. Lessons learned earlier in the war, most notably from the disastrous raid on Dieppe in 1942, had taught higher command that an amphibious landing by the army could only be launched with integrated support from the navy and the air force. It was also clear that specialised armour and landing craft would be required to help the troops storm ashore. Churchill was determined that no invasion could take place until every detail had been covered and the assaulting troops and subsequent follow-up reinforcements were completely ready. In spite of great pressure from its Allies, Britain delayed the date of the invasion throughout 1943 until mid-1944. When the time finally came to launch the great attack, everyone was as ready as they would ever be. On Gold, the attacking force was the British 50th Division, a veteran of the Gazala and El Alamein battles in North Africa in 1942; on Juno, it was the untried Canadian 3rd Infantry Division that made the assault. These two divisions were the strike force of their respective corps: British 50th Division was part of British XXX Corps and Canadian 3rd Division formed part of British I Corps. I Corps also contained the assault division attacking Sword Beach - British 3rd Division. Landing behind these divisions was the remainder of the two corps.
A PzKpfw VI Tiger tank passing through a Normandy village. The concept of using armoured forces against a seaborne invasion was a hotly debated subject. Commander-in-Chief (West), GFM von Rundstedt, wanted to mass available Panzer divisions and make a strong thrust against any lodgement destroying Allied forces inland on ground of his choosing, Commander Army Group B,
GFM Rommel, thought that any invasion should be attacked by armour immediately it arrived whilst the troops were still on the beaches.
In XXX Corps, 7th Armoured Division came ashore after the initial landings, with 49th Division following on behind. On British I Corps' front, 51st Highland Division followed up the D-Day landings. British 50th Division was originally composed of territorial battalions from Northumberland and Durham. Its divisional badge was two capital 'Ts', representing the two great rivers, the Tyne and the Tees, in red on a black square. The division had seen plenty of action, having fought in France in 1940, in the North African desert in 1942 and in Sicily in 1943. In early 1944, Gen Montgomery brought the division back from the Mediterranean to the UK to join 2nd Army for the invasion. In June 1944 the division comprised three infantry brigades: 69th Brigade with 5th East Yorkshires and the 6th and 7th Green Howards; 151st Brigade containing 6th, 8th and 9th Durham Light Infantry; and 231st Brigade with 1st Hampshire’s, 1st Dorsetshire’s and 2nd Devonshire’s. Also under command for the invasion was 56th Infantry Brigade. This was an independent Brigade that contained 2nd South Wales Borderers, 2nd Gloucestershire’s and 2nd Essex. The brigade stayed and fought with the division until 20 August when it was transferred to 49th Division. Also attached to the division for the attack was 8th Armoured Brigade, containing 4th/7th Dragoon Guards, 24th Lancers and the Sherwood Rangers. 47 Royal Marine Commando, from 4th Special Service Brigade, was also part of the initial assault. The commander of 50th Division was Maj Gen Douglas Graham. He had served in the First War and finished the conflict as a captain having won both the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre. Between the wars he was gradually promoted through regimental appointments and served as a brigadier in North Africa. In 1942 he was promoted to major-general and took command of 56th (London) Division. In September 1943 his division carried out an assault landing at Salerno as part of the invasion of Italy. Graham was wounded during the battle and returned to England. In January 1944 he took command of 50th Division with orders to train it for the invasion of France. On Juno Beach responsibility for the assault was given to the Canadian 3rd Division. The division had left Canada for England in July 1941 to join with the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions and form I Canadian Corps. For the next two years it carried out an extensive programme of training. When, in 1943, the corps left for the Mediterranean, 3rd Division remained behind. It had been earmarked for the invasion of France and continued training specifically for this role.
German 50mm gun in an emplacement along the seafront at St Aubin. This gun formed part of the strongpoint WN27 and was supported by mortars, machine guns, wire entanglements and minefields. The design of the casemate is simple and effective: it has thick overhead protection against plunging fire; its seaward walls are of solid concrete impervious to naval shellfire and its open sides allow it to fire along the beaches on either side, able to catch invading troops and tanks in enfilade as they came ashore.
Its commander was Maj Gen Rodney Keller. He had been commissioned in 1920 and served in a number of roles gradually gaining promotion through staff appointments. In June 1941 he was given a battalion and then made brigadier just six weeks later. He took over the 3rd Division in September 1943. The division consisted of three infantry brigades: 7th Brigade with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the Regina Rifle Regiment and the Canadian Scottish Regiment; 8th Infantry Brigade with the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, Le Regiment de la Chaudiere and the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment and finally 9th Brigade containing the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Armoured support for the attack was provided by Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade consisting of 6th Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars), 10th Armoured Regiment (The Fort Garry Horse) and 27th Armoured Regiment (the Sherbrooke Fusiliers). Also attached to the division for the assault was 48 Royal Marine Commando.