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Friday, June 6, 2014

70th Anniversary of D-Day

By the time you read this, much will already have been published about the men who landed in Normandy, France on what will be forever remembered as D-Day.  This 70th anniversary of that history altering occasion (labeling it a simple "military operation" seems cold) should stir the emotions of people in many nations; sadness and solemnity for those lost, pride and gratitude for their sacrifice, and joy because that sacrifice which would eventually lead to the downfall of the Axis powers and the end of a worldwide calamity.

This humble weekly column cannot hope to provide in one week what some scholars have dedicated decades of their lives to studying.  Much more thorough sources are available and should be consulted by the dedicated military history enthusiast.  Nor can we hope to provide a more vivid depiction of combat and all its resultant emotions than has already been done in war films such as The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One, or the Band of Brothers series.  However, perhaps we can provide an interesting "order of events" containing some details not commonly encountered in regular D-Day remembrances.  To that end, this article will try to delve beyond the courageous men who fought on the beaches and attempt to shine a light on the lesser known facets of the largest seaborne invasion in the history of man.

Before the Invasion

Operation Overlord, the code name for the land invasion of Normandy, obviously began many months before D-Day took place.  Months of planning were involved in an undertaking whose complexity the world had not seen before nor since.  The logistics and planning were one thing, but the first steps of the actual invasion were truly taken in the subterfuge known as Operation Bodyguard, an overarching campaign of misinformation.  Under Operation Bodyguard was Operation Fortitude North, a misinformation campaign designed to fool German military intelligence that an invasion would take place in Norway, and Operation Fortitude South, a similar campaign which also used false radio communications to lead German intel to believe that an attack would take place in Calais, a major French port.  There were also the lesser successful Operations Copperhead, Graffham, Ironside, & Zeppelin. Given that a large invading force was presumed to need a large port to provide support via sea (and the fact that it was one of the shortest routes from England to France), the Germans heavily fortified Calais for some time and anticipated its importance in any Allied invasion.  To prey on these assumptions, Allied forces would regularly broadcast their false transmissions from Kent, just across the English Channel from Calais, and had Patton himself stationed in England until July 6 to continue the ruse and keep some of the German forces there.  

In addition to the radio traffic, the Allies would utilize a number of other different methods to confuse the Germans.  False intel was also given to known spies and double agents.  Other misinformation was spread through diplomatic channels with the hopes it would be shared with Germany.  Even physical deceptions were employed, such as fake landing craft, airstrips, and decoy lighting (These physical deceptions are not to be confused with those of the U.S. Army's 23rd Special Troops or "Ghost Army" which often used inflatables, sounds, etc.  Their contribution came later and continued as the Allies moved east through Europe.).  In a final act of subterfuge strips of metal foil called "window" were dropped by British RAF pilots (Operation Taxable).  Window showed up on radar and was intended to be interpreted by German radar operations as invading ships.  It was supplemented by small ships towing around barrage balloons.

An inflatable tank used to trick the German recon.

Earlier still than all the counterintelligence, targeted bombings were happening in France earlier than the Fall of 1943, when the number is noted to have increased significantly.  Infrastructure as well as military targets were hit including radar stations, roads, bridges, railways, train stations, industrial and manufacturing facilities, harbors, coastal artillery, and fortifications of the Atlantic Wall.  Combined with the brave and disruptive activities of the French Resistance such as cutting telephone lines, destroying railroad tracks, and placing anti-tank mines on incoming roads, German transportation, communication, and defense capabilities were strongly compromised before the invasion started.

June 5 provided the Allies one final opportunity to make a feint at the German defenses in Calais.  Air raids are performed in the north of France, dropping thousands of tons of bombs in the Pas de Calais region.  Ships performed maneuvers to indicate an imminent attack.  Again a small fleet of boats is used to mimic a larger attacking fleet, making radio transmissions like larger ships.  More "Window" is dropped by planes to give the appearance of an even larger fleet.  German radio and radar operators take the bait and sound the alarm for an invasion at Calais, believing the other alerts coming from Normandy to be a diversion.  This held a bay 19 divisions of the German army, including panzer tank divisions, either of which could have gone a long way to pushing the Allies back into the sea.

Crossing the Channel

The physical crossing of the channel and resultant actions could have began on several different days.  In fact, most preparations were nearly finished on Saturday, June 3, to the extent that many men were already on their ships, but a storm arose and the English Channel could not be crossed.  On June 4, bad weather forced the fleet to turn around.

Gen. Eisenhower then sent a communication that read, "Overlord will take place tomorrow, June 5."  The date would have provided an advantageous full moon to help pilot visibility as well as tide conditions that would have helped the landing craft avoid the obstacles and fortifications meant to impede or destroy them.  However, Eisenhower is convinced on the evening of June 4 by his chief meteorologist, Group Capt. James Martin Stagg from the U.K. Met Office, to postpone yet another day.  It is a fateful and fortunate decision for the future president, as weather on June 5 was still atrocious and the weather on June 6, while far from perfect, was adequate to carry out the invasion.  Other alternative dates in the future, such as June 18-20, not only would have given the Germans additional possibilities to discover the invasion fleet, but were also subject to a major 4-day storm that would have single-handedly derailed the operation.

With his now famous order of "OK, we'll go," Eisenhower started the fleet on its journey to France shortly after 0400 on June 5.  It is comprised of ships from 8 navies and consists of 6,939 vessels, including 1,213 warships, 4,126 landing crafts, 736 support ships, 864 cargo/freight bearing ships, and around 195,000 soldiers.  Minesweepers had begun sweeping the path around midnight and encountered no enemy activity.

Little known facts:
  • To protect the convoy, orders had been given to shoot down ANY plane flying over the fleet at low altitude.
  • The purpose of the balloons often seen flying over the boats in the armada were to discourage low strafing attacks on the ships.  The balloons were attached with steel cables, which would damage the wings of low-flying fighter planes that might attack the ships.  Those planes never came as the Allies had launched an aggressive air campaign in the prior 6 months, greatly weakening Nazi strength in the air.
  • The BBC broadcast hidden messages to the French Resistance so they could perform their tasks prior to the invasion.  The week of the invasion the first three lines of the Verlaine poem "Chant d'automne" were broadcast.  When the next three lines of the poem were broadcast, it was understood by the Resistance that the invasion would start in 48 hours and they were to begin their sabotage operations.
  • A smoke screen was placed in front of the armada by Allied speed boats.  Just off of Le Havre, four German S-Boots (Schnellboots or "fast boats") came across the armada through the smoke and stared face to face with the section of the fleet reserved for Sword Beach (S Force).  The S-Boots unloaded their torpedoes and wisely hightailed it home.  The torpedoes claimed the Norwegian warship, the Svenner, but the survivors were rescued by neighboring ships.
  • Gen. Eisenhower penned a note in the event of Overlord's failure accepting full responsibility (see photo below).  

It reads,
"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

Superiority in the Air

As the fleet conquered the rough seas en route to France, American, British, and Canadian paratroopers had already been deployed, the earliest of which began their assault just after midnight.  For the invasion to succeed, two things would have to happen: (1) the Allies had to secure the beaches to ensure the arrival of supplies of men to continue to press further inland and, (2) the Allies would also have to prevent a quick German counter-attack which could push them back into the sea before they'd have a fighting chance.  To satisfy the second of those objectives, the paratroopers dropped into enemy held territory were to do as much as possible to impede the inevitable German assault on the invasion force.  This involved securing or destroying bridges, setting up beacons for future paratroop drops, destroying artillery and anti aircraft guns capable of firing on the invasion forces, disabling radar stations, securing crossroads and towns, destroying obstacles on the ground designed to prevent glider landings, and similar tasks.  The troubles of the paratroopers to land on or even next to their designated targets are well known, however their wide dispersal also helped confuse the Germans who did not know where to focus their forces.  Other missed landing zones resulted in paratroopers falling into swamps or fields the Germans had previously flooded.  Many men drowned before they could start the fight.

Also around midnight is when the 300+ heavy and light bombers made their way to the Norman coast and began releasing their deadly payloads onto the coastal defenses, radar stations, troop concentrations, and railroads near the Atlantic Wall.  Many of these had their intended effect, but as is well documented, the fortifications at Omaha Beach remained nearly untouched due to cloud cover and pilots who did not want to hit their own troops or landing craft.  It would prove to be a fatal misstep for thousands of Allied servicemen charged with taking the beach.  Despite these missteps and the loss of 127 Allied aircraft, the paratroopers successfully carried out a number of their missions (though some would still not be completed for days) and the bombings softened up the German defenses.  It was time for the landings to take place.

Taking the Beach

The Naval bombardment of the French coast began just after dawn at 0550.  Designed as much to further soften defenses as it was to eliminate German minefields, it was a necessary precursor to the landings.  With landing craft beginning their journeys from 10 miles out in choppy seas, it would take them longer to find their destination then originally planned upon.  It was a small delay, only around 30 minutes, but enough to give the Germans a small window in which to regroup before Allied troops began landing.  Many of the supporting amphibious tanks also had troubles. Launched from as far as 6,000 yards from shore they were to lead the assault and provide some much needed firepower, but the Duplex Drive tanks or DD tanks (nicknamed "Donald Duck" tanks as much for their amphibious nature as their cantankerous dispositions) were not accustomed to the rough waters.  Many were swamped, but others encountered calmer waters, few issues and were able to make viable contributions to their objectives.  Of the tanks dedicated to providing firepower at Omaha Beach, nearly all were lost - another contributing factor to the heavy losses and sluggish progress at that beachhead.

A "Donald Duck"

The beaches from west to east were: Utah (to be taken by the Americans), Omaha (Americans), Gold (British), Juno (Canadians), and Sword (British and Free French forces).  In between Utah and Omaha was what many recognize as an additional landing site, Pointe du Hoc: a vertical cliff of some 25-30 meters crowned with 6 French 155 mm howitzers.  Utah was a last minute addition by English General Bernard Montgomery because it would help capture a deep-water harbor, in turn allowing easier importation of additional troops and supplies.  It was a wise decision, providing the Allies a great advantage and coming at the relatively small loss of 197 casualties out of nearly 21,000 troops.  Strong currents at Utah also provided benefits.  It pushed landing troops about 2,000 yards south, putting them in front of only one German defense point instead of two.  The currents also washed away many of the obstacles stationed there.  These factors combined with the high percentage of tanks that reached the beach (28 tanks in all) aided the success at Utah, the most easily taken of the beaches.

Other beaches would not fare so well.  The woes and heroic efforts of those at Omaha beach are well known and rightfully so.  Over 2,000 casualties were suffered on that stretch of sand, nearly double that of any of the remaining beaches, most of which would see casualties around 1,000.  To read the experiences of the men on those beaches, even in the most dry and scholarly texts, is simply terrifying.  The predicament they were placed into against such damning odds, renders many who read or study the event left speechless.

Many medics also performed selfless acts of courage by working under the deadly interlocking fields of German fire and by braving those killing fields to rescue wounded men from the beaches who would have otherwise drowned in the rising tides.  Engineers are also an oft unsung hero of the day.  Working under the same relentless German fire, their work forcing them to remain stationary at a time when to do so placed even greater risk on their lives, engineers were responsible for removing many of the German obstacles so that additional friendly armor and landing crafts could reach the shore and continue their advance.  Many also continued to serve as infantry in between their engineering duties.

The objectives of many landing forces on D-Day would not be complete for days (and a few even longer), even though the beaches themselves would fall by that afternoon, even Omaha.  While their task was far from over, the invasion was a success albeit a fragile one.  With the beaches secure it was now a race to import as many men and supplies as possible before the Germans could counter.  By evening the Allies casualty count reached around 12,000 with 4,414 confirmed KIA, but over 100,00 men now occupied the beaches and surrounding countryside.  Brits had yet to take cities such as Caen, and the Americans had yet to clear the German guns still capable of touching the newly established loading zones, but the footholds had been dug for further Allied supplies and fighting men.  By the end of the month, Omaha and Utah beaches were averaging 20,500 tons of supplies per day!  July 1st reports show the Allies controlled a beachhead 70 miles wide used to bring around one million men and over 177,000 vehicles to the war.

The Allies' ability to adapt to the chaos of the battle, combined with the rigorous misinformation campaigns, decent weather, air superiority, and the delay of a counterattack caused by the German chain of command, were all keys to the operation's success.  The collaboration of American and British leaders was well-communicated and, although far from perfect, accomplished its goals in due time.  The German losses were staggering as they were pushed out of Paris and back across the Rhine.  Gen. Erwin Rommel, in letters to his son Manfred, talks of the German losses and says, "It was casualty reports, casualty reports, casualty reports wherever you went... I have never fought with such losses... And the worst of it is that it is was all without sense or purpose."  He goes on to state that some days resulted in the loss of what what would equal an entire regiment of men, more than he had lost in an entire summer while in Africa in 1942.   Allied losses were significant, but far less than planners had estimated; not only had they achieved what they wanted, they did it at less of a cost than anticipated.

It is another testament to the soldiers and sailors who fought for the man next to them.  That despite their challenges, heavy tolls, and a mighty foe, they persevered and brought about what Eisenhower phrased as, "the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed people of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world."

Ike had painful memories of that death-filled day. His command placed the unfathomable burden of thousands of young men's lives on his shoulders and despite that fact, he only wept openly on a pair of known occasions.  One time during his presidency when speaking to a group of World War II veterans about the soldiers of D-Day, grief gripped him so tightly that the military man was forced to cover his face with a handkerchief.  Perhaps it is this internal agony that only let the general and 2-term president make a single visit to the American military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy.  In 1964, five years before this death, he visited those hallowed grounds and said,

". . . these men came here - British and our allies, and Americans - to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom. . . . Many thousands of men have died for such ideals as these. . . but these young boys. . . were cut off in their prime. . . I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope, and pray, that humanity will have learned. . . we must find some way . . . to gain an eternal peace for this world."

- "Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life" by Carlo D'Este, p. 705.



  1. Outstanding column commemorating D-Day on the 70th anniversary!

  2. Excellent article - Americans, British, French and millions of others around the world owe a debt of thanks to those who were there in 1944.

  3. Really interesting article and images, thank you.
    We didn't know about the massacre of Canadian soldiers at the Abbey Ardenne after D-Day in Normandy until recently. It is not a dramatic place to visit but an emotional experience to see the memorial in the tiny garden where they died. Our blog about the tragedy with photos here:

    1. Another little-known fact about this important day. Very much with the spirit of this article! Thank you very much for sharing.