D-Day 75: How the UK stared down the barrel of Nazi invasion in the lead up to D-Day

Britain had been teetering on the edge of defeat since Germany pulverised its expeditionary force in 1940.

Thursday, 30th May 2019, 4:18 pm
Updated Monday, 3rd June 2019, 6:30 pm

Superior tactics had seen the Wehrmacht overwhelm Poland before running amok in France.

It took the Nazis a matter of weeks to bring the once-great European superpower to its knees in one of the most remarkable military invasions the world had ever seen.

Thousands of tanks and Luftwaffe fighter-bombers annihilated the unprepared British and French defenders in what came to be known as the German’s ‘lightning war’ – their Blitzkrieg – forcing the Allies into full retreat.

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It was a miracle the 300,000 men stranded at Dunkirk were rescued, with the Royal Navy scrambling to requisition whatever vessels they could get their hands on to save the troops.

Not everyone was so lucky. Thousands of courageous British and French troops fighting a rear-guard action to slow the German advance were either killed or taken prisoner.

With France lost, German eyes turned towards the stubborn bastion of Britain.

Gleeful Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had expected a humiliated UK to surrender after the defeat of its neighbour and rival over the Channel.

But Britain remained defiant and refused to give in.

‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,’ said new prime minister Winston Churchill in a rousing radio address to the nation - and Hitler - after the rescue from Dunkirk.

German retaliation was swift and ruthless. It pummelled Britain from the skies mercilessly.

Cities like Portsmouth and Coventry were devastated by Nazi air raids, which left tens of thousands of civilians dead, while London was pounded night after night with bombs.

But Britain still stood strong. The RAF fought valiantly to fend off the Nazi invaders, eventually managing to beat the Luftwaffe - but at a terrible cost.

While the Royal Navy kept the Channel in English hands, fending off the German navy.

However, it was the introduction of America into the war,  after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, which really helped to turn the tables in Britain’s favour.

American soldiers began to pour into the UK to join the fight against Hitler in Europe, while a further war raged in the Pacific against the Japanese.

But British commanders had trouble calming the Americans, who were itching for a fight and eager to storm Europe as soon as possible.

The UK was more cautious, with many of the top brass still haunted by the horrors of the battlefields of the First World War.

‘The US was very keen to get on with it and invade Europe,’ says James Daly, historian and Second World War expert. ‘But we were a bit more cautious.

‘The US had so many resources and a large manpower they could call upon, it was a different psychology. 

‘Whereas we had already been through years of war and had thousands of civilians killed. 

‘Churchill and the generals had been through the First World War and saw thousands and thousands of men killed.

‘They wanted to make sure any invasion worked. There was a feeling that we had to take out time and do it right. We couldn’t rush it.’

Instead British commanders looked to stretch German forces by launching an invasion to take back north Africa and then Italy.

Legendary British commander Bernard Montgomery was tasked with the challenge of defeating the ‘Desert Fox’ Field Marshal Erwin Rommel - who had outwitted previous Allied leaders.

Monty managed to outmanoeuvre Rommel, defeating him at El Alamein on October 23, 1942.

The success inspired hope – which had been short in supply – with Churchill saying: ‘This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

In the years that followed, Allied forces managed to retake Sicily, force the surrender of the Italians and open a second front in Italy.

While the Russians launched their offensive in the e ast.

In the background, in places like Southwick House near Portsmouth and in military bunkers in Whitehall, military top brass were planning an invasion of Europe.

Codenamed Operation Overlord, it would see a mighty armada sail across the Channel to Normandy.

Millions of American, Canadian and Commonwealth troops had already poured into Britain in preparation for the invasion.

The task now facing the British was to keep the exact location and date of the invasion a secret, using double-agents and elaborate deception plans.

‘The Germans clearly knew that if we were to beat them, we would have to land in Europe,’ says James.

‘There was a great deal of innovative thinking from the Allies and some imaginative deception plans were put into place.

‘We had inflatable tanks and aircraft at Dover to convince the Germans we were massing for an invasion of Calais.

‘We also did a small operation up in Scotland where we created a dummy headquarters that created fake radio traffic to convince the Germans an invasion of Norway was imminent.

Britain and its allies were ready to step foot on French soil, almost four years to the day since they were unceremoniously booted from it.  They were ready to beat the Germans.