Today we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings of D-Day; June 6, 1944. Out of all Western Front operations, I probably know the most about D-Day, given its pivotal role in the retaking of Europe, and the great cost of its undertaking. In fact, the Normandy landings are likely the most widely-known World War II operation worldwide; the landings have been extensively documented in film, literature, and even popular culture.
Convoy of vessels making for Normandy on June 6, 1944. Photo from US Coast Guard Collection of the US National Archives, image # 26-G-2333. Attributed to unknown member of the US Coast Guard
Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film Saving Private Ryan definitely reminded the world of D-day when it was released in 1998, and since then the film has been lauded as one of the most authentic representations of what the real landings were truly like. Medal of Honour: Allied Assault, a 2002 video game, also depicts the landings. This added to my knowledge of June 6 as I watched my brother complete the game many years ago, and later as I tackled the game myself.
I learned much more about D-Day thanks to a trip to England three years ago. It was there that I discovered UKTV’s wonderful channel Yesterday, which at that time broadcast mostly historical programs and documentaries. Since I was in England in early June, Yesterday featured many programs on D-Day, with which I was enthralled.
One program featured interviews with a surviving member of the US contingent, who landed on Omaha Beach. Omaha was one of the most stringently defended sectors of coastline, and the American troops who landed there faced heavy gunfire and suffered many casualties. The veteran featured in the program told how, as he advanced onto the beach under brutal fire from the Germans’ machineguns, with his comrades being cut down around him, he did an awful lot of praying. Of course, in the long run, the Allies overcame the Germans, taking the beaches and eventually winning the war. After the war, this veteran happened to meet a German who had been a machinegunner in a bunker at Omaha. They shared their experiences and became friends, and the German related how he had been terrified during the American onslaught, and had been praying too. The American veteran told the interviewer, rather wryly, that it had been a horrible day for both sides, and that the irony was that they had both been praying to the same God.
This image easily shows the frenzy and urgency of the Americans’ advance on Omaha. Image from http://www.bbc.co.uk via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to capca
Imagine what the German defenders would have seen from bunkers like this one, as thousands of American troops spilled onto the beach. Image from en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Nilington
Another, rather lighter, story from Yesterday‘s programming that stuck with me was the D-Day crossword scare. In the month or so before D-Day was to take place, the Daily Telegraph newspaper’s crosswords featured numerous clues whose answers were D-Day codewords. For example, the words Utah and Omaha, the beaches reserved for the Americans, were included; as were the words Neptune and Overlord (codenames for the naval operation and entire operation, respectively). Such a seemingly impossible coincidence was treated as some sort of espionage, and Leonard Dawe, the crossword compiler, was arrested and interrogated.
Finally, MI5 and the authorities decided that Dawe was innocent. But it was not until 40 years later that the reason (at least most of it) behind the clues became public. Dawe, as the headmaster of a school, often let his pupils fill in blank crosswords with words that he would later create clues for. But the school was next to a camp of soldiers awaiting D-Day, and security was perhaps not what it should have been- thus, many soldiers and schoolboys got talking, and the schoolboys picked up many of Overlord’s codewords. More information about this rather unsettling episode can be found here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1460892/D-Day-crosswords-are-still-a-few-clues-short-of-a-solution.html.
Even here in Canada, there are things that remind me of D-Day. For example, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum owns a B-25 Mitchell bomber painted with invasion stripes. I’ve seen this plane many times, and it is a beautiful example and also a meaningful reminder of Operation Overlord and its many pieces. This Operation had a staggering complexity and wove together the strength of mainly British, Canadian, and American troops; as well as airborne, naval, and ground forces.
B-25 Mitchell of Canadian Warplane Heritage; in RAF livery and invasion stripes. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Hpulley4
Even in months other than June, hearing about D-Day and Normandy makes me quite emotional. Watching programs on the landings invariably gives me chills. Operation Overlord was massive in scale, involving over 1.5 million Allied troops and 1 million Axis troops at the peak of its conflict- making it an event of astounding magnitude. It was also just as huge in its cost- over 225,000 Allied troops, 400,000-450,000 Axis, and up to 40,000 French civilians lost their lives. These losses make it an event that must never, ever be forgotten. I hope that everyone will remember the June 6 of 70 years ago today, as well as the ramifications that followed. Not only that, we should also remember all the veterans who participated in this defining part of the war. 7 decades is a long time, and we must ensure that we remember their contributions and their legacy as time continues to move on.
D-DAY: THE LEADUP
Members of the 6th Airborne Division being briefed for D-Day. Image from Imperial War Museum, number H 39089. Attributed to Capt. E.G. Malindine of the War Office
Example of the antitank defences on the Normandy beaches. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-719-0240-05/Jesse/CC-BY-SA
Close-up of the ugly metal tank defences- which likely actually aided the infantry storming the beaches, by providing some cover. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown member of the US Coast Guard
DURING THE OP
British troops land at Juno Beach. Image from Imperial War Museum, number B 5218. Attributed to unknown author
Americans on Utah Beach make their way over the seawall. Image from the US Navy, number SC 190062. Attributed to unknown member of the Army Signal Corps
The HMS Belfast (now a museum ship docked in the Thames) firing on German positions. Image from Imperial War Museum, number A 24325. Attributed to Lt. C.H. Parnall
Infantry of the 2nd Army, awaiting their chance to get off Sword Beach. Image from Imperial War Museum, number B 5091. Attributed to unknown author
Airspeed Horsa gliders in Normandy, having landed semi-successfully. Image from Imperial War Museum, number CL 59. Attributed to unknown author
Ships unloading supplies after gaining control of the beaches. Image from en.wikipedia. Attributed to an unknown member of the US Coast Guard
Members of the 101st Airborne pose proudly with a captured Nazi flag. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown member of the US Army
The wounded of Omaha beach. Image from the National Archives USA. Attributed to Taylor
German prisoners captured by Canadian forces, 7 June 1944. Image from Imperial War Museum, number B 5144. Attributed to Lt. Handford
Remnants of the Germans’ Atlantic Wall fortifications exist on the beaches even today. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Urban
The endless crosses of Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in the rain. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Luke M. Curley
La Cambe German Cemetery, where over 21,000 former German servicemen are buried. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Bjarki Sigursveinsson
Bayeux War Cemetery holds the graves of soldiers of many nationalities; British, German, Canadian, Russian, Australian, and many more. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to K72ndst
The touching inscription on the memorial at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian cemetery. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Russell McKenzie