The biggest land, air and seaborne invasion the world has ever known was launched on this day, June 6 1944. Codenamed Operation Overlord, everybody now knows it simply as D-Day.
One hundred and fifty six thousand American, British and Canadian troops sailed to France from England and stormed the beaches of Normandy. They then began a relentless, dogged and bloody journey all the way to Berlin, pushing back the fearsome German military machine and, eventually, bringing an end to the Second World War.
It was no a nice walk: the 50-mile stretch of coast where the landings took place was heavily fortified by Hitler’s forces, and his soldiers, who had never known defeat, put up staunch resistance.
However, there was an element of surprise that worked in the Allies’ favour. Hitler believed that an invasion would come along France’s northern coast, but he did not know exactly where. Thus he had put Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in charge of defence operations, including completion of the Atlantic Wall, a massive 2,400-mile fortification of bunkers, landmines, beach and sea obstacles.
But meanwhile, in England, deception was the strategy. A strategy on a massive scale: it included an imaginary army of a million men, supposedly led by America’s General George Patton and headquartered in the UK across from Calais, the shortest distance between England and France.
With the use of double agents, bogus radio transmissions and other means the Germans were made aware of this terrible army. They were also briefed over other possible invasion sites including Greece, the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia, the south of France, the Biscay Bay coast of France, through the Low Countries, or via Norway and Denmark and, as a result, Hitler moved garrisons into all these places.
It was, according to “America in WWII” magazine, “the greatest deceptive enterprise ever seen in a war. Tent cities were created all over eastern England. There were fake mess halls, hospitals, ammo depots, and even sewage treatment farms. Fuel depots were constructed and parks for trucks, tanks, jeeps, and ambulances were laid out.”
Like the buildings, the tanks, trucks and other fake vehicles were made of fabric and wood or were rubber inflatables. Soldiers used tools to make tread and tyre marks for the benefit of spying German planes. It was vital to let Luftwaffe reconnaissance planes through to see the mock preparations on the ground, but not let their flights seem suspiciously easy.
Cherry on the top, the deceptions extended to England’s ports and waterways with the help of the British movie industry, which was called in to make fleets of dummy landing craft. The resulting fake vessels, made of wood or fabric and floating on oil drums, were “moored” in harbours and rivers and looked convincing to German pilots at 33,000 feet (about 10.000 meters).
The subterfuge even extended to letters in local newspapers from clergymen complaining about the terrible behaviour of some of the foreign troops.
As expected, all of this shifted much German attention away from Normandy and so, on this day, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, America’s General Dwight D. Eisenhower, gave the order for the invasion to begin.
Even as troops began wading ashore along the Normandy beaches, the Germans still believed that the major assault would come at Calais and that Normandy was a feint. Thus Hitler personally ordered the tanks and infantry of the German 15th Army to stay at Calais….while other reinforcements on the way to Normandy were diverted to the port.
Official figures record that 4,414 Allied troops lost their lives in the D-Day invasion, with another 10,000 wounded or missing. However, it enabled the great Allied march across Europe to begin.
By late August all of Northern France, including Paris, had been liberated from German control. Next came Germany itself, where the Allies would meet Soviet troops moving in from the east. The following spring, on May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany offered unconditional surrender, and Hitler had committed suicide a week earlier, on April 30.
But what does the “D” in D-Day stand for?
This is a good question. In military parlance it simply refers to the “day” on which an offensive would occur. The “D” is just a placeholder for the date and allows the entire operation to be scheduled in detail long before a definite day for the attack has been set. Thus, the letter “D” stands for “Day” or “Date”, and the word was first used during the First World War.