On June 6th of this year, the world will commemorate the 80th anniversary of what came to be known as D-Day. Depending on where in the world you grew up, you may have learned about this turning point in World War 2 from different perspectives. It was a cooperation between all Allied forces, and therefore many nationalities were involved. Here are just a few snippets about this day in history:

Why “D-Day”?

Tuesday, June 6th, 1944, was one of many “d-days” during World War 2. This is a term used to describe the first day of a military operation, which can remain undefined until the last moment. In fact, the invasion was planned for June 5th, but delayed by a day due to adverse weather conditions. “Operation Neptune” was the naval component of the larger “Operation Overlord.” It was the largest amphibious invasion in history, by the end of the day, about 160,000 Allied Troops from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada landed. While troops were landing on the beaches, thousands of paratroopers had already landed behind enemy lines. By June 11th, the beaches had been secured and about 236,000 troops, 50,000 vehicles and 100,000 tons of equipment had landed in Normandy.

How was this massive operation made possible?

Operation Overlord was years in the planning and involved unprecedented cooperation between the allies, requiring a combined land, air and sea attack.

It was in 1941 that Winston Churchill had first asked Lord Louis Mountbatten to plan for an invasion of France, which he saw as the only way to defeat Hitler. “You must devise and design the appliance as the landing craft and the technique to enable us to affect a landing against opposition and to maintain ourselves there.” Not until 1943 did the planning begin in earnest. Lt. General Frederick Morgan, a senior British Army officer led the planning for Operation Overlord, with a team that included British, US and Canadian officers, and General Dwight Eisenhower as their Commanding Officer.

Though alternatives were much debated, Normandy was favored as the landing site by Eisenhower, British Field Marshall Montgomery and Joseph Stalin.

Spies, secrecy and sabotage - How was the French Resistance involved?

The French Resistance played a crucial role in the preparation and success of Operation Overlord. According to General William Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, approximately 80% of useful information during the Normandy landings came from the French Resistance. Long before Operation Overlord began, the French Resistance was active in intelligence acquisition, including valuable information about the Normandy coast and countryside, as well as the German infrastructure and even the German morale.

For six months leading up to the invasion, members of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and their British counterparts worked closely with the French Resistance. They recruited, trained and equipped French-speaking commandos to wage a "shadow war" of sabotage. Together they were responsible for the sabotage of more than 100 factories and the destruction of more than 1000 trains, severely weakening the German war machine.

Soldiers coming ashore at Normandy on D-Day. (Image: National Archives and Records Administration, 111-SC-320902.)

Why was the German Army caught off-guard?

Deception was key to the success of any military operation during the war, and the secrecy of Operation Overlord was paramount. “Operation Bodyguard” was a meticulously planned deception campaign whose goal was to conceal the actual time and place of the impending invasion. By doing so, the Allies aimed to confuse and distract the German forces, delaying their response and weakening their ability to reinforce critical areas. The planning for Bodyguard began in 1943 under the London Controlling Section, a department of the British war cabinet.

What were the codenames of the beaches?

The beaches used in the Normandy Invasion each had a code name which helped maintain operational security and prevented the enemy from knowing the exact locations of the planned landings. These names allowed military personnel to communicate effectively without revealing sensitive information to maintain secrecy:

  1. Omaha Beach: Surrounded by steep cliffs and heavily defended, Omaha was the bloodiest of the D-Day beaches. Rough surf wreaked havoc with the Allied landing craft, and U.S. troops faced intense German machine-gun fire.

  2. Sword Beach: selected to fit the alphabetical sequence of the planned landing sites “Sword” was one of the British landing zones.

  3. Utah Beach: “Utah” was another of the U.S. landing zones. The westernmost of the D-Day beaches, Utah was added to the invasion plans at the 11th hour so that the Allies would be within striking distance of the port city of Cherbourg.

  4. Juno Beach: The assault on Juno Beach was carried out by units of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division.

  5. Gold Beach: Another British landing zone, it was less well protected than some of the other beaches.

*******

We commemorate D-Day, or Operation Overlord, and the immense losses suffered by an Allied Force intent on its objective; the final and complete defeat of Hitler’s Germany, because it was such a pivotal moment leading to the end of the war. It had the support of all of the Allied command; Joseph Stalin, desperate for an allied invasion from the west to relieve the pressure on the Soviets who were suffering unimaginable losses on the Eastern Front; Churchill for whom ‘without victory, there is no survival’ and of course, would famously ‘never surrender’; and Eisenhower who understood that victory in Europe was key to victory in the Pacific against Japan. More than 4,000 Allied troops are estimated to have lost their lives in the D-Day invasion, with thousands more wounded or missing. Victory in Europe did not come until May 1945, and in the Pacific not until August 1945.

Did you have a family member who was involved in the Normandy Landings? We would love to hear your perspective!

If you are interested in finding out more about D-Day, we are offering classes about the Normandy Landings at various levels in our theme classes of Spring Session 2, starting May 10th and 14th. Check them out here: Theme Classes - French Library.

We hope to see you there! A bientôt!

Elizabeth Beckett

Education Administrator

Liz grew up in England and spent many summers traveling in France with her family, which sparked a lifelong love of languages and travel. She has a degree in modern languages and international studies for which she also studied in France and Spain. Working in international sports marketing while living in Hong Kong and London meant extensive travel, particularly in Asia. A new chapter began after moving to New York and then settling in the Boston area. Liz enjoys traveling, experiencing different cultures and spending time with friends and family.

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