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Sword Beach

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Sword Beach

Sword Beach
Part of Normandy Landings and the Battle for Caen

British infantry waiting to move off 'Queen White' Beach, SWORD Area, while under heavy enemy fire, on the morning of 6 June.
Date 6 June 1944
Location Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to Ouistreham, France[1]
Result Allied victory
 United Kingdom
 Free France
Commanders and leaders
John Crocker
Thomas Rennie
Wilhelm Richter
Edgar Feuchtinger
28,845 men[2]
223~ tanks[3]
Eight companies of the
716th Infantry Division[nb 1]
~9,790 men of the
21st Panzer Division[nb 2]
124–127 tanks[9][10]
40 Assault guns[9]
Casualties and losses
683~ casualties[nb 3] Unknown casualties
54[10]–40 tanks[nb 4]
Six bombers[14]
D-Day assault map of the Normandy region and the north-western coast of France. Utah Beach and Omaha Beach are separated by the Douve River, whose mouth is clear in the coastline notch (or "corner") of the map.

Sword, commonly known as Sword Beach, was the code name given to one of the five main landing areas along the Normandy coast during the initial assault phase, Operation Neptune, of Operation Overlord; the Allied invasion of German-occupied France that commenced on 6 June 1944. Stretching 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) from Ouistreham to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, the beach was the easternmost landing site of the invasion. Sword was divided into several sectors, and each sector divided into beaches; thus the British 3rd Infantry Division, assigned to land on Sword, assaulted a 3-kilometre (1.9 mi) stretch of Sword codenamed Queen Sector - Queen Red, White and Green beaches.

Among the five beaches of the operation, Sword is the nearest to Caen, being located around 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) from the goal of the 3rd Infantry Division. The initial landings were achieved with low casualties, but the advance from the beach was met with traffic congestion, heavily defended areas behind the beachhead and was met by the only armoured counterattack of the day, mounted by the 21st Panzer Division, that halted further progress towards Caen.


Following the Fall of France, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill vowed to return to continental Europe and liberate the Nazi German-occupied nations.[15] The Western Allies agreed to open a Second Front in northern Europe in 1942 to aid the Soviet Union. However, with resources for an invasion lacking, it was postponed[16] but planning was undertaken that in the event of the German position in western Europe becoming critically weakened or the Soviet Union's situation becoming dire, forces could be landed in France; Operation Sledgehammer. At the same time, planning was underway for a major landing in occupied France during 1943; Operation Roundup.[17] In August 1942, Canadian and British forces attempted an abortive landing—Operation Jubilee—at the Calais port-town of Dieppe; the landing was designed to test the feasibility of a cross-channel invasion. The attack was poorly planned and ended in disaster; 4,963 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured.[18] The decision to prosecute the Battle of the Atlantic to its closure, the lack of landing craft,[19] invading Sicily in July 1943, and Italy in September following the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa in May 1943[20] resulted in the postponement of any assault on northern Europe till 1944.[19]

Having succeeded in opening up an offensive front in southern Europe, gaining valuable experience in amphibious assaults and inland fighting, Allied planners returned to the plans to invade Northern France.[21] Now scheduled for 5 June 1944,[22] the beaches of Normandy were selected as landing sites, with a zone of operations extending from the Cotentin Peninsula to Caen.[23] Operation Overlord called for the British Second Army to assault between the River Orne and Port en Bessin, capture the German-occupied city of Caen and form a front line from Caumont-l'Éventé to the south-east of Caen, in order to acquire airfields and protect the left flank of the United States First Army while it captured Cherbourg.[24] Possession of Caen and its surroundings would give Second Army a suitable staging area for a push south to capture the city of Falaise, which could then be used as a pivot for an advance on Argentan, the Touques River and then towards the Seine River.[25] Overlord would constitute the largest amphibious operation in military history.[23] After delays, due to both logistical difficulties and poor weather, the D-Day of Overlord was moved to 6 June 1944. Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery, commander of 21st Army Group, aimed to capture Caen within the first day, and liberate Paris within 90 days.[23]



The historic Norman city of Caen was assigned as the main D-Day objective of the British 3rd Infantry Division, which had been tasked as the assault division to land on Sword Beach.[26][27] Attached to the division for the assault was the 27th Independent Armoured Brigade, the 1st Special Service Brigade (which also contained Free French Commandos), No. 41 (Royal Marine) Commando of the 4th Special Service Brigade, Royal Marine armoured support, additional artillery and engineers, and elements of the 79th Armoured Division.[28] 6th Beach Group was deployed to assist the troops and landing craft landing on Sword Beach and to develop the beach maintenance area.

The 3rd Infantry Division was ordered to advance on Caen, 7.5 miles (12.1 km) from Sword Beach,[29] with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division advancing, on its western flank, to secure Carpiquet airfield, 11 miles (18 km) from Juno Beach, on the outskirts of the city.[27] The 3rd Infantry was also ordered to relieve the elements of the 6th Airborne Division that had secured the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal during Operation Tonga, secure the high ground north of Caen, and "if possible Caen itself".[30] A point further reinforced when I Corps commander, Lieutenant-General John Crocker, instructed the division, prior to the invasion, that by nightfall the city must be either captured or "effectively masked" with troops based north-west of the city and Bénouville.[31]

Queen beach, dated 16 August 1943

Sword Beach stretched for around 5 miles (8.0 km) from Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to the mouth of the Orne River and was divided into four landing sectors. From west to east these sectors were 'Oboe' from Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to Luc-sur-Mer, 'Peter' from Luc-sur-Mer to Lion-sur-Mer, 'Queen' from Lion-sur-Mer to La Brèche d'Hermanville, and finally 'Roger' from La Brèche d'Hermanville to Ouistreham. Each sector was also divided into multiple areas.[1] The sector chosen for the assault was the 1.8 miles (2.9 km) long 'White' and 'Red' areas of 'Queen' sector; as shallow reefs blocked access to the other sectors.[32] Two infantry battalions supported by DD tanks would lead the assault followed up by the commandos and the rest of the division;[33] the landing was due to start at 07:25 hours;[34] the division would be the last assault division to land.[nb 5]


An example of German beach defences.

On 23 March 1942, Führer Directive Number 40 called for the official creation of the Atlantic Wall. Fortifications were initially concentrated around ports until late in 1943, when defences were extended into other areas.[36] While the German army had seen its strength and morale heavily depleted by campaigns in Russia, North Africa and Italy, it remained a powerful fighting force.[37] Despite this, most of the German divisions along the French coast in late 1943 were composed of either new recruits or veteran units resting and rebuilding from the Eastern Front; altogether some 856,000 soldiers were stationed in France (predominantly on the coast).[37] An additional 60,000 Hilfswillige, Russian and Polish conscripts to the German army, served on the French coast.[38] Under the command of Field Marshals Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Rundstedt, the defences of the Atlantic Wall—a line of coastal gun emplacements, machine-gun nests, minefields and beach obstacles along the French coast—were heavily upgraded; in the first six months of 1944, 1.2 million tons of steel and 17.3 million cubic yards of concrete were laid.[39] Rommel also surrounded the coast with four million antitank and antipersonnel mines and 500,000 beach obstacles.[39]

On and behind Sword, 20 strong points, which included several artillery batteries, were constructed.[5] The coastline was littered with wooden stakes, mines, hedgehogs, and Dragon’s teeth; while along the top of the beach, infantry had constructed trenches, gun pits, mortars, and machine gun nests; barbed wire surrounded these positions and lined the beach.[40][41] To reinforce the defences, six strong points, with one –codenamed by the British, Strong point "Cod" - located directly facing Queen sector, had been constructed on the coastline containing at least eight 5 cm Pak 38 50mm anti-tank guns, four 75mm guns and one 88mm gun; while exits from the beaches had been blocked with various obstacles.[5][41] Behind the beaches, six artillery batteries had also been positioned, three of which were based within three strong points; these latter batteries totalled four 100mm guns and up to ten 155mm guns.[5] In addition, positioned east of the Orne River was the Merville Gun Battery, which contained four Czechoslovakian 100mm howitzers that were also able to direct fire onto Sword Beach and the invasion fleet.[42][43] Between Cherbourg and the Seine River there was a total of 32 batteries capable of firing onto the five invasion beaches; 50 per cent of which were positioned in casements of six foot reinforced concrete.[41]

German defence at Ouistreham — the turret is from a Renault FT-17 tank.

Since the spring of 1942, Generalleutnant’s Wilhelm Richter’s 8,000 man strong 716th Infantry Division had been positioned to defend the Calvados coast of Normandy.[44] In March 1942, the 352nd Infantry Division assumed control of the western Calvados coastline, leaving the 716th in position north of Caen covering an 8 miles (13 km) stretch of coastline. The division comprised four regular infantry battalions, two Ost battalions, and artillery units.[45] Four infantry companies were spread along Sword, with two positioned facing Queen sector, while a further four were positioned inland behind the beach.[5] Further inland, Generalleutnant’s Edgar Feuchtinger’s 16,297 strong 21st Panzer Division had been positioned on both sides of the Orne River around Caen to provide an immediate counter-attack force should a landing take place.[46][47][48] In May 1944, two Panzergrenadier battalions and an antitank battalion from the 21st Panzer Division, were placed under Richter’s command;[45] this deployment eliminated 21st Panzer as a mobile reserve.[48] One of these battalions, along with the divisions anti tank guns, and several mobile 155mm guns were positioned on Périers Ridge; a ridge raising to 50 metres (160 ft) above sea level 3 miles (4.8 km) south of Sword.[31][49][50]

Order of Battle

3rd Division group



Sword Beach. Lord Lovat, on the right of the column, wades through the water. The figure in the foreground is Piper Bill Millin.

Units of the British 2nd Army led by Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey were assigned the beach. Troops from the British 1st Corps, led by Crocker, continued the beach assault. The landing was concentrated in the Queen sector of the beach Hermanville-sur-Mer. The key objective was to take the key town of Caen and the nearby Carpiquet Aerodrome to the west.[52] Landings began at 07:25 am when the 3rd Division landed in Peter and Queen.[53] Attached commando units 1st Special Service Brigade and part of 4th Special Service Brigade were tasked with seizing the bridges on the River Orne and the Caen Canal, linking up with paratroops of the 6th Airborne Division who were holding the bridges and had earlier destroyed the batteries at Merville.[53]

Resistance on the beach was weak. Within 45 minutes, by 08:00, the fighting had been pushed inland and on the east flank the Commando units had reached the Orne,[53] linking up with British paratroopers who had landed by the Orne waterways inland from Ouistreham, by 13:00.[53] The British could not link up with the Canadian forces to the west until much later in the day. The only significant German counter-attacks on D-Day came into this area, starting around 16:00.[53] In two attacks the 21st Panzer Division pushed all the way from near Caen to the beach between Lion-sur-Mer and Luc-sur-Mer and were only fully neutralised by late evening.[53] By the end of 6 June, the 716th Infantry Division had been almost entirely destroyed, many having fought to the death.[54]

German counter-attacks

The only real German counter-attack on 6 June took place at Sword Beach. British troops had not been able to link up with Canadian troops from Juno according to the plan, and they were attacked by men of the German 21st Panzer Division.[53] The 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment reached Sword Beach by 20:00, but many vehicles were destroyed by British air attacks. The flak units attached to the 21st Panzer had been spread thin and, as a result, many vehicles were destroyed.[55] Despite many reports that the units deployed by the 21st were obsolete (such as a quote of 80 light Czech tanks),[56] in actual fact the 21st Panzer held amongst their strength 112 Panzer IV (long barrel) and another 4 Panzer IV (short barrel)[57]

Still, the 22nd Panzergrenadiers, along with about 50 Panzer IV tanks, attacked the British-held position. The British had constructed effective defences and the counter-attack was defeated.[53] Despite this, one company made it through the gaps in the defences and reached the coast at Lion-sur-Mer.[53] Finding the coastal defences there intact, they set about reinforcing them. By coincidence, 250 Gliders of the British 6th Airlanding Brigade, on their way to reinforce the Orne bridgehead, flew over their positions.[53] Believing they would be cut off, the Germans abandoned their defence.[53] By the end of the 6 June, the 21st Panzer Division had lost 50 tanks to British anti-tank guns.

The Panzer IV was the main battle tank of the 21st Panzer Division. The division had 127 Panzer IVs on 6 June.[9]



The day ended after 28,845 men, of I Corps, having come ashore across Sword Beach. The British campaign historian, L.F. Ellis notes that "in spite of the Atlantic Wall over 156,000 men had been landed in France on the first day of the campaign."[2] British losses, in the Sword beach area, amounted to around 683 men.[58] The advance on Caen resumed the following day and the British and Canadians linked up but three days into the invasion the advance on Caen was halted.[59][60] On 7 June Operation Perch, a pincer attack by the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and XXX Corps was launched to encircle Caen from the east and west.[61] However the 21st Panzer Division halted the highlanders advance[62] while XXX Corps's attack resulted in the Battle of Villers-Bocage and the withdrawal of XXX Corps leading elements soon after.[63] The next offensive, codenamed Operation Epsom, was launched by VIII Corps on 26 June to envelope Caen from the West.[64][65] German forces managed to contain the offensive, but to do so were obliged to commit all their available strength.[66]

On 27 June, the 3rd Infantry Division, and its supporting tanks, launched Operation Mitten. The objective was to seize two German-occupied châteaux—la Londe and le Landel. The initial evening assault was repulsed, but the following morning further attacks gained the objectives and destroyed several German tanks. Operation Mitten cost at least three British tanks[67][68] and 268 men.[69] Historian Terry Copp calls the fighting for these châteaux the "bloodiest square mile in Normandy".[69] Divisional historian Norman Scarfe claims that, had the operation gone more smoothly, further elements of the division and elements of the 3rd Canadian would have then launched Operation Aberlour, an ambitious plan to capture several villages north of Caen. However, this attack was cancelled by Lieutenant-General John Crocker.[67][68] Several days later I Corps launched a new offensive, codenamed Operation Charnwood, to gain possession of Caen.[70] In a frontal assault, the northern half of the city was finally captured.[70] However, German forces retained possession of the city south of the Orne river[71] and this area would only be liberated during Operation Atlantic by Canadian infantry.[72]


  1. ^ Historian Stephen Badsey notes that the beach itself was only defended by two companies, no more than 300 men.[4] The other companies were positioned further inland and at Ouistreham.[5]
  2. ^ Carlo D'Este and Ken Ford both note that various elements of the 21st Panzer Division's two infantry regiments, tank regiment, pionner battalion and artillery regiment were all involved in the fighting on 6 June.[6][7] Niklas Zetterling notes that on 1 June that these formations amounted to 9,778 men.[8]
  3. ^ 3rd Infantry Division recorded the loss of 683 men on D-Day; 8th Infantry Brigade recorded 367 casualties, 9th Infantry Brigade losses are not available for D-Day but are recorded as slight, 185th Infantry Brigade lost 232 men, and the divisional machine-gun battalion lost 36 men.[11] The Commandos lost 18 men killed and 30 wounded on the beaches alone.[12]
  4. ^ 20 tanks destroyed and "over 30 damaged"[13]
  5. ^ 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division landed on Gold Beach just prior to I Corps landing, while the American landings took place a full hour beforehand.[35]
  1. ^ a b Ford, pp. 36-37, 40-41
  2. ^ a b Ellis, p. 223
  3. ^ Fortin, p. 58
  4. ^ Buckley (2006), p. 53
  5. ^ a b c d e Ford, pp. 24-25
  6. ^ D'Este, pp. 136, 139
  7. ^ Ford, pp. 71-72
  8. ^ Zetterling, 21st Panzer Division
  9. ^ a b c D'Este, p. 124
  10. ^ a b Ellis, p. 204
  11. ^ Ford, p. 86
  12. ^ Ford, p. 112
  13. ^ Ford, p. 80"
  14. ^ Buckley (2006), p. 137
  15. ^ D'Este, p. 21
  16. ^ Bauer, 44
  17. ^ Ellis, p. 7
  18. ^ Granatstein, p. 11
  19. ^ a b Ellis, p. 9
  20. ^ Granatstein, pp. 13–14
  21. ^ Zuehlke, p. 25
  22. ^ Ellis, p. 140
  23. ^ a b c Granatstein, p. 18
  24. ^ Ellis, p. 78
  25. ^ Ellis, p. 81
  26. ^ Williams, p. 24
  27. ^ a b Wilmot, p. 273
  28. ^ Ford, pp. 28-29, 42
  29. ^ Ford, p. 17
  30. ^ Scarfe, p. 18
  31. ^ a b Wilmot, p. 274
  32. ^ Ford, p. 37
  33. ^ Ford, pp. 37, 42
  34. ^ Ford, p. 47
  35. ^ Wilmot, pp. 251, 255, 270, 273
  36. ^ Kaufmann JE, Kaufmann HW: "Fortress third Reich", page 196–197. DA Capo Press, 2003.
  37. ^ a b Granatstein, p. 19
  38. ^ Wieviorka, p. 157
  39. ^ a b Saunders, p. 35
  40. ^ Ford, pp. 32, 49
  41. ^ a b c Notes on Operations of 21 Army Group, p. 3
  42. ^ Buckingham, p. 145
  43. ^ Harclerode,p. 319
  44. ^ Ford and Gerrard, p. 16.
  45. ^ a b Copp, p. 37
  46. ^ Beevor, p. 29
  47. ^ Ford, p. 23
  48. ^ a b D’Este, p. 117
  49. ^ Buckley, p. 20
  50. ^ Ford, p. 65
  51. ^ Rogers p20
  52. ^ Zaloga and Johnson, p. 55.
  53. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Ford and Gerrard, p. 13.
  54. ^ Mitcham, p. 19.
  55. ^ D'Este, p. 138
  56. ^ Mitcham, p. 18.
  57. ^ Zetterling p. 373.
  58. ^ Ford, pp. 86, 112
  59. ^ Ford, p. 90, 96
  60. ^ Keegan, p. 143.
  61. ^ Ellis, p. 250
  62. ^ Van der Vat, p. 139
  63. ^ Taylor, p. 76
  64. ^ Clark, pp. 32–33
  65. ^ Clark, pp. 31–32
  66. ^ Hart, p. 108
  67. ^ a b Scarfe, pp. 68–69
  68. ^ a b Fortin, p. 30
  69. ^ a b Copp (2004), p. 113
  70. ^ a b Williams, p. 131
  71. ^ Bercuson, p. 222
  72. ^ Trew, p. 102


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