By the time D-Day had drawn to a close on the night of 6 June 1944, the Allies had secured a hard-won foothold in northern France. But the fight was far from over. Here, Gavin Mortimer explains how the battle to liberate France raged on as Allied forces were tested to their limits by fierce German resistance while they attempted to push through the Normandy countryside
Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel had little sleep on the night of 6 June. He had spent the day in his staff car, urging his driver to keep his foot on the accelerator as they drove the 500 miles between his home in Herrlingen, south-west Germany, and his HQ in La Roche-Guyon.
But before dawn had broken on 7 June, Rommel was already in conference with General Geyr von Schweppenburg, commander of Panzer Group West. The Allied landings the previous day had caught the German military unawares; the führer’s unshakeable certainty that the invasion would be in the Calais region had been shattered. Rommel blamed Hitler and his equally inept chief of operations, Colonel-General Alfred Jodl, for their failure to release the two reserve Panzer divisions that, if they had been sent straight to the beachhead, might well have pushed the invaders back into the chill waters of the English Channel.
Not that Rommel was in a position to berate his superiors; he was embarrassed at having left France on 5 June to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Such a miscalculation would be difficult to live down among his growing number of detractors within Hitler’s inner circle.
But 7 June was not the time for recriminations. Only action would suffice and Rommel had already identified from the map of the invasion zone what he believed was the Allies’ most vulnerable point. He had considered attacking the Omaha beachhead, which the American V Corps had secured at such a terrible price, but instead settled on launching his counterattack around Caen. The British had failed in their objective of capturing the city on D-Day, but only just, and should they seize Caen, only 125 miles of flat, unobstructed countryside would lie between them and Paris.
General Bernard Montgomery, in command of Allied ground forces, had arrived off the Normandy coast in the early hours of 7 June, having sailed from Portsmouth the previous evening on board the destroyer HMS Faulknor.