by Freya Findlay
70 years ago today on 6th June 1944, hundreds of thousands of British, American and Canadian troops invaded Normandy in the largest seaborne attack ever launched to this day.
The attack was the beginning of Operation Overlord, which marked the start of the end of World War II as the Allied forces began the repelling of Nazi Germany into Europe.
Everything hung in the balance on D-Day. Failure would give Adolf Hitler the opportunity to initiate a last attempt to save Germany and win the war. Success would mean the beginning of the end of World War II, the Third Reich and Allied success.
Today nineteen heads of state are attending commemorations in Normandy, including the Queen, Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
70 events are being held across the UK and France to commemorate the sacrifice made by the brave men and women who took part in D Day 70 years ago.
What does the “D” in D-Day stand for?
The “D” does not actually stand for anything but is derived from the word “Day”. “D-Day” means the day on which a military operation begins.
Numbers and Nationalities
The majority of the 156,000 troops who landed on the five D Day beaches in Normandy were American, British and Canadian.
There were 73,000 American troops, 61,715 British and 21,400 Canadian.
Troops from many other countries also participated in the invasion including troops from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Poland.
Nerves and Delays
Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, apparently confided his nerves in his wife saying:
“Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning 20,000 men may have been killed?”
The original date of the Normandy invasion was set for 5th June but as the day approached bad weather forced General Eisenhower, the American in charge of Operation Overlord, to delay by 24 hours. The German military leaders were expecting an Allied invasion in late May when there was a full moon, high tide and little wind, according to the US Navy Department Library. When the weather worsened at the beginning of June, the German troops relaxed a little but the Allied forecasters predicted an opening and the operation was launched.
6939 naval vessels were involved in the sea attack, known as Operation Neptune. General Eisenhower is reported to have credited Andrew Higgins as the man who won the war.
Higgins designed and built the Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP), the amphibious vehicles that enabled the Allied forces to cross the channel.
Without the LCVPs Eisenhower is reported to have said that the troops could never have landed over an open beach and the whole strategy of the war would have been different.
Vomit bags were provided for the troops and anti-seasickness pills. Because of the limited number of vomit bags, many troops had to resort to using their helmets instead.
The first men to see action on D-Day were the airborne troops. 23,400 troops entered Normandy behind enemy lines by glider and parachute in the hours before dawn.
There were three airborne divisions, two American and one British. Their overall mission was to disrupt and confuse the Germans so as to prevent a concentrated counterattack against the seaborne troops coming in later at dawn.
Airborne troops were also sent in to protect the flanks of the invasion force at Sword and Utah beaches.
The allied troops invaded five beaches along the coast of northern France. These beaches were given the code names: Gold, Sword, Utah, Omaha and Juno.
Only 14 of the 58 German divisions in France faced the Allies when the attack began. While there was stiff resistance at other beaches, Omaha was the only one where the success of the Allied mission was in serious doubt.
British troops landed at Gold, the five-mile long beach from Longues-sur-Mer to La Riviere and Sword, the beach stretching five miles from Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to Ouistreham. By nightfall on the 6th, the 25,000 troops had landed at Gold and pushed the Germans six miles in land. At Sword, 29,000 men landed and suffered 630 casualties.
American troops landed at Utah, the code name for the most western beaches between Pouppeville and La Madeleine and Omaha, the beach between Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes and Vierville-sur-Mer. Out of the 23,000 troops who landed at Utah, only 197 men were reportedly killed or wounded. The Americans suffered 2,400 casualties at Omaha but 34,000 Allied troops had landed by nightfall. The movie Saving Private Ryan portrays some of the events of the Omaha landing.
The exact number of casualties for D Day is not known although there are estimates of around 10,000 allied casualties including 2,500 dead. A total of the German casualties on D-Day are not known, but are estimated as being between 4,000 and 9,000 men.
In total over 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or went missing during the Battle for Normandy.