By early June 1944 the Allies were poised for offensives on all fronts in World War II. As the British prepared to retake Burma from the Japanese, the Americans steamed toward the Marianas, Soviet forces positioned themselves for a massive offensive into Belorussia and another into Finland, and Allied armies were about to retake Rome.

In Britain, of course, naval, air and ground forces stood ready to open the long-anticipated “second front” in France with an amphibious invasion of Normandy. Meteorologists forecast a brief window of clear weather on June 6. Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower seized the moment to order airdrops of paratroopers and gliders behind enemy lines, the 2nd Ranger Battalion’s risky climb to seize German gun positions on Pointe du Hoc and the landings on the code-named beaches of Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah that, despite bloody setbacks, ultimately secured a vital beachhead in Normandy. Six weeks of tough fighting lay ahead: British and German armor clashed around Caen, while American units ground their way through the hedgerows to Saint-Lô. Once freed of the confines of the Cotentin Peninsula, the Allies set their sights first on Paris and then on Berlin—but there was still a long way to go.

  • President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan peer from a German bunker atop Pointe du Hoc on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings. (David Hume Kennerly)
  • GIs march to their ships in Weymouth, Dorset—next stop, Normandy. (Galerie Bilderwelt)
  • The waterfront has changed little. (Peter MacDiarmid, Getty Images)
  • Soldiers of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division board landing craft in Weymouth for the trip out to assault transports that will carry them across the English Channel. Tied up just forward of the landing craft are larger vessels known as LCIs, which will take other troops ashore after the beaches have been secured. (Galerie Bilderwelt, Getty Images)
  • The same Weymouth dock in 2014. (Peter MacDiarmid, Getty Images)
  • Troops of the U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion take a hard-earned break atop Pointe du Hoc. The Rangers had climbed the steep cliff under enemy fire to destroy German artillery positions that might have threatened the landing beaches and Allied shipping in the channel. On reaching the summit, the troops discovered the guns had not yet been installed. (U.S. Army Signal Corps)
  • The cliffs and bunker complexes still bore witness to the magnitude of the Rangers’ feat in 2014. (Peter MacDiarmid, Getty Images)
  • Reinforcements land on a secured Utah Beach. (U.S. Army Signal Corps)
  • Obstacles the Germans had installed to foil the landing still littered the same part of Utah in 2009. (Carl Hubbers, Getty Images)
  • Barrage balloons intended to foil strafing German aircraft float above LSTs disgorging vehicles and cargo during low tide on the section of Omaha Beach below Colleville-sur-Mer on June 9. This section of Omaha was designated Fox Green. (National Archives)
  • The same beach in 2014. (Peter MacDiarmid, Getty Images)
  • Life regains a semblance of normalcy at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont after scattered elements of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division’s 501st and 506th parachute infantry regiments landed among 60 startled German artillery troops in the early morning hours of June 6. (National Archives)
  • The same street corner seven decades after American para- troopers liberated the town. (Peter MacDiarmid, Getty Images)
  • Members of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps tend the graves of two civilians and two captured Allied troops murdered by the Germans in the village of Basly, inland from Juno Beach. (Library and Archives Canada)
  • The graveyard outside the church of Saint-Georges-de-Basly in 2014. (Peter MacDiarmid, Getty Images)