Remembering D-Day

The world never saw anything like it before or since. What we now call D-Day was first known as ‘Overlord’, and it was the most ambitious sea to land invasion in all of history.

Allied Forces arrived en masse on 50 kilometers of coast along Nazi-occupied France 72 years ago today, on 6 June 1944. They brought 160,000 servicemen from several allied countries–the equivalent of three full football stadiums of people–over five beaches, as well as over 5,000 vessels and 13,000 airplanes. Not only does the scale of the invasion boggle the mind, but this massive combined force was kept secret and they were able to take the enemy by surprise!

Men from the United States, the UK, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, Poland, Greece, France, Czechoslovakia, Norway, and New Zealand took part in Overlord, which had been planned in secret for years. Once the massive fleet of ships reached the coast of Normandy, men rushed down ramps into the water, swimming, running, and crawling over 200 meters of unprotected beach until they could reach nearby cliffs for cover. They faced machine gun fire from Nazi turrets, barbed wire, mines, mortar, and air resistance. 4,000 Allied soldiers died that day, with another 6,000 injured, while the entrenched Nazi forces only suffered 1,000 deaths. If you’ve ever seen Saving Private Ryan, you’ll remember to horror of getting past those first murderous meters of beach.

Why do we call it D-Day?

D-Day is actually just a generic military term for the date of an operation that has not been specified or made public, just as H-Hour is the term for the exact time of the operation that is either secret or not yet set. The military uses the system “D+3” for the date of an invasion plus three days, or “H-2” for the time minus 2 hours, and so on. 

A document reads, “The first Army will attack at H hour on D day with the object of forcing the evacuation of the St. Mihiel Salient.” The mission itself was called Overlord, but because it was planned in secret for a long time, ‘D-Day’ was used in countless planning papers and classified conversation. This term stuck and has been in the public imagination ever since.

A fight against disaster

In 1942, two years before D-Day, the Allies had carried out an invasion against Nazi-controlled France, but on a smaller scale. Six thousand British, American, and Canadian troops attacked the fortified port at Dieppe. It was a disaster. Within ten hours the majority of troops has been killed, injured, or captured. This taught the allies a number of lessons, most importantly that they should arrive on a sandy beach, not a port, and that they would need to bring specialized tanks designed for such an operation (the ones brought to Dieppe were almost totally ineffective).

The cover of deception

In depth planning for Overlord began in 1943, when the Allies began a strategic deception of Nazi intelligence (called Operation Bodyguard). The aim was to convince Nazi leadership that Normandy was only a diversion, and that the real attacks would happen elsewhere–namely Pas de Calais, Southern France, the Balkans, or Norway–at a later date. The idea was presented to the Allied Command at the Tehran Conference at the end of the year and approved shortly thereafter. It proved successful, and German forces were taken by surprise, already spread thinly across defenses along the western and southern coastline of ‘Fortress Europe’.

A heavy price

Victory was not immediate, as it took almost a week to link all five beachheads. It would take over a month to capture the strategic city of Caen nearby. Nonetheless, Overlord gave the Allies a foothold in France and was a decisive step forward that would lead the Allies to victory in the Western Front and the war in Europe. Thousands of visitors visit the cemeteries and museums in Normandy each year to pay tribute to those who died on the beaches of this beautiful coastline still pocked by the scars of war. Today we remember those who died and honor their memory, thankful for their bravery and sacrifice.