In the morning of June 6th, 1944 the battle for Normandy began. This was the result of two years of plotting on the part of the Allies to plan the most effective way to break Hitler’s stranglehold over Europe. Hitler had boasted that the Third Reich would rule for 1,000 years. The Nazis were just a few years into that dream when the Allies decided to invade the beaches of Normandy, France, with everything they had. The entire invasion, which took weeks, was code-named Operation Overlord. The start of the surge into Normandy was nicknamed “D-Day.” (The “D” stands only for “Day.” It’s military slang for a secret day.) Here are several fascinating facts to help you learn more about D-Day.
Why did the Allies choose Normandy?
Both the Germans and the Allies knew of two logical places to invade France — those two places being the coastal region of Normandy and the city of Calais (CAL ay). (Both were just across the English Channel from Great Britain.) What the Germans and the Allies didn’t know was how to read each other’s minds and predict each other’s moves. One was sure to try to trick the other.
That is exactly what happened with the invasion of Normandy. The Allies placed General Patton in charge of a “phantom army” at Calais, to steal the attention of the Nazis. (Furthermore, Patton was demoted to this position for having slapped a soldier recovering in the hospital. It was a costly overreaction by Patton.) The Allied plan to deceive Hitler worked! Hitler put his strongest troops at Calais to keep an eye on Patton. Ironically, the Germans placed Patton’s old rival, Rommel, the Desert Fox, in charge of Normandy, just in case the Germans guessed wrong and Normandy fell under attack. (This was, of course, before Rommel was accused of treason and forced to commit suicide.)
General Patton wasn’t excited to be running the decoy operation at Calais because he much preferred the front line of battle. (He believed it was his destiny!) Rommel wasn’t excited about guarding Normandy because he too preferred the front line of battle and expected the action to take place at Calais. Nonetheless, being a good soldier, Rommel did as much as he could to fortify Normandy with mines, trenches, barbed wire, and concrete bunkers.
Knowing this, can you imagine how Rommel and Hitler felt when they heard that Normandy was under attack, rather than Calais? Hitler was asleep when the invasion started. His own men were too afraid of his anger to wake him up! The deception at Calais had been successful.
Behind the scenes of the Battle for Normandy
Here are a few things the Allies did behind the scenes to pull off the surprise in the battle for Normandy:
1. While the Germans were scrambling from British air raids over Berlin (with newly deployed P-51 Mustang fighters), the Allies sneaked across the English Channel to obtain samples of the sand on the beaches of Normandy. (These samples helped determine the best places to land.)
2. The Allies built an underwater pipeline from England to Normandy to pump a million gallons of fuel across the English Channel! (That was a brilliant feat.)
3. The Allies dressed dolls up like soldiers and dropped these “dummy paratroopers” randomly across France to divert the Germans away from the beaches of Normandy.
4. Minesweepers cut through the English Channel to clear a secret path for Allied ships.
5. On the night before D-Day, two-engine planes pulled silent gliders into France jammed with men and equipment. Once released, the gliders landed quietly and their passenger soldiers proceeded to destroy strategic bridges.
Why June 6th?
The invasion and battle for Normandy was originally scheduled for June 5, 1944. Bad weather postponed it a day. The weather was, in fact, so bad that it led Rommel to relax for a few days. Besides, June 6 was his wife’s birthday, so he left his post for a short vacation at home.
Meanwhile, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, head of the Allied command (and later a U.S. president), sent the first wave of paratroopers into France in the dark, early hours of June 6. These “pathfinders” were to mark drop zones for the 13,000 paratroopers coming in the next wave. Unfortunately, only 40 out of 120 pathfinders hit their targets, meaning that the second wave of paratroopers, soon to fall from the sky, would be landing blindly in the largest air assault in history! Mistakenly hitting the sea, deep swamps, and enemy territory, hundreds of second-wave paratroopers perished or were taken captive. D-Day did not start well!
At 5 a.m., the situation looked more promising when two midget subs rose to the surface of the English Channel — undetected by the Germans. These tiny five-man vessels, hidden underwater for days, successfully marked a crossing zone for ships using flashing green lights and yellow flags.
And then, it began. At 6:30 a.m., the largest amphibious invasion in history was launched. Eisenhower released four to five thousand vessels to cross the choppy English Channel. The massive armada of battleships, cruisers, frigates, and destroyers was a shocking sight to see if you were a German soldier on the shores of Normandy!
Code names used in The Battle for Normandy
The Allies used code names for their five planned landing spots at Normandy. They were Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword, and Utah.
It’s difficult to adequately describe the D-Day landings because while some troops landed with little resistance, others were slaughtered on the spot. Americans of the 29th Division, who landed at Omaha Beach, saw the worst carnage and suffered the loss of about 3,000. Clumsy tanks, rolling off cargo ships and onto the beaches, sometimes missed their marks and sank to the ocean floor — while still filled with soldiers! Seasick men staggered in the surf, drowning under the weight of their packs. Barbed-wire fencing trapped men right and left while mines exploded every few feet and artillery showered down on all. (There was air coverage, but Allied planes could hardly fire on the Germans without hitting some of their own men.) One brave soldier said at Omaha, “There are only two kinds of men on this beach. Those who are already dead, and those who are about to die. Now let’s go inland and die.”
Despite the gruesome scene at Omaha and the fact that some troops missed their landing altogether, new waves of soldiers continued to arrive and unload at Normandy. While some built an elaborate portable harbor, others fought their way tooth and claw to secure rocky cliffs several hundred yards away. At the cost of about 5,000 men (no one knows the exact count), 155,000 Allied soldiers secured the Normandy beachhead by nightfall and began their difficult move inland to retake France.
Normandy would be a turning point on the European side of World War II and the beginning of the end for Hitler. (Hitler would deny that his final chapter was coming!) By taking Normandy, three million Allied troops were poised and positioned for a full (and difficult) assault against the Third Reich.
Watch the movie: The Longest Day. This 1962 movie is about D-Day, starring John Wayne and Robert Ryan, and shows both perspectives of the war.