Shortcuts / 06 June 2024

The 80th anniversary of D-Day

The Allies’ D-Day invasion of Normandy, France on 6 June 1944 launched a massive military operation that ended in the defeat of Nazi Germany. When it comes to telling the story of WWII, it’s one of the biggies. Today is the 80th anniversary of that momentous day.

Where do we dive into this one?
Let’s start at the beginning… World War II was a mega conflict between 2 alliances: the Allies (the UK, France, Russia, Australia, and eventually the US) and the Axis powers (Germany, Japan and Italy). That’s just a top line – so many nations were involved…

And remind me how the war started…
The aftermath of World War I, which was won by the Allies, didn’t lend itself to the peace so many hoped for. The 1920s and 30s saw the rise of fascism in Europe and the emergence of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime in Germany. There was also the rise of fascism in Italy, the Spanish Civil War, and Japan had been fighting with China and the Soviets. 

And then things got really nasty?
On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Hitler had built a formidable fighting machine, and by 1941, the Nazis had taken control of continental Europe.

That included taking France, right?
Yep – the taking of France was a huge deal.

And the Germans were bombing Britain?
They sure were. There were real fears Germany would prevail there too.

So where was America in all of this?
America hadn’t officially joined the war until something notable happened on 7 December 1941… Japan bombed the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It saw Japan declare war on America and Britain. 

And how did the US respond?
It promptly declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy – a move that brought it fully into WWII. That saw more than 16 million Americans serve between the end of 1941 and the end of the war. 

That’s a lot of troops. Where were they sent?
America’s first priority was securing their homefront and the war against Japan in the Pacific. But from January 1942, US troops began to arrive in Britain. The US President at that time was Franklin D Roosevelt, and as America entered the war, the scale of it in Europe was massive, and Britain and Russia were struggling… 

Time for a meeting?
For sure… The “big 3” – Roosevelt, British PM Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin from Russia met for the first time in Tehran, Iran at the end of 1943, and the main item on the agenda was opening up a new front against Germany in Western Europe to take the pressure off Russia on the Eastern front where more than 80% of the combat in Europe had been fought. 

Sounds risky. Was everyone on board?
Roosevelt and Stalin were all for it, but Churchill had reservations. He and Britain’s senior commanders hoped that a confrontation in France could be put off until after bombing campaigns significantly weakened the Nazis – or maybe avoided altogether. Churchill knew that if the Allies went in, it would have to be big, which would also likely mean big losses. 

I’m on the edge of my seat. What did they decide to do?
In the end, they agreed to open up a new Western front – it would be in northern France and the code name for the military action it required was Operation Overlord. 

Just to make sure I’m correct – the Allies didn’t have ground troops in France at that time?
Nope – the Allies had been vanquished by the Nazis in mid-1940. That chapter ended with the evacuation at Dunkirk, which involved the rescue of more than 338,000 British and French soldiers between late May and early June 1940. 

So going back in was a big deal…
It sure was and as you can imagine it took a bit of planning to get it off the ground… At the top, there was the command team led by American General Dwight D Eisenhower which was formed in December 1943 to plan the naval, air and land operations. And there was a big build-up, involving months of deception campaigns to draw Germany’s attention and strength away from northern France, particularly the region of Normandy where the Allies had decided to land. 

What else had to be done?
They had to build up the resources required to carry off an invasion. British munitions and weapons factories increased production, and in the first half of 1944, approximately 9 million tonnes of supplies and equipment crossed the Atlantic from North America to Britain – that’s the equivalent of about 320,000 full shipping containers worth.

And they had to assemble the troops?
Over 1.4 million American servicemen arrived in Britain during 1943 and 1944 to take part in Operation Overlord. In total, 2 million troops from 12 countries assembled to participate, including heaps of Canadians and about 3,000 Aussies.

Why did the Allies choose to land in Normandy?
The beaches of Normandy were chosen because they lay within range of air cover – that is, the Allies could use their fighter-bombers effectively. Normandy was less heavily defended than the Pas de Calais, which was the obvious place for the Allies to land, being the shortest distance between Great Britain and the Continent.

Are we at D-Day yet? And what does it even mean? 
Good question… The ‘D’ stands for ‘day’. So as the operation was being planned, the day before it was referred to as D-minus-1, and the day after was D-plus-1, and so on. So the day the operation was launched was the ‘day’. And D-Day is much snappier than ‘Day-Day’… 

And why was it on 6 June?
They needed a date where in the early hours there was a late-rising full Moon, so the pilots could approach their objectives in darkness, but have moonlight to pick out the drop zones. They also needed a low tide for the soldiers landing by boat. They’d picked 5 June but the weather was awful. 6 June also fitted the bill.

So they’re away?
Away they went… The headlines are that D-Day was the largest combined naval, air and land operation in the history of warfare. There were 18,000 Allied forces parachuted into drop zones across northern France starting at 1.30am. And 7,000 naval vessels took more than 150,000 ground troops to launch assaults on five beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. They started arriving at 6.30am. 

How did Germany respond?
When the first D-Day forces landed, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was asleep – as you might imagine at 1.30am… But they lost crucial hours as the Allies established footholds along the coast because Hitler’s generals would not order reinforcements without his permission, and no one dared to wake him.

So the Allies had an easy time of it?
Absolutely not. By the end of the first day, some 4,400 Allied troops had died, and 9,000 were wounded or missing. Total German casualties on the day are not known, but it’s thought to be between 4,000 and 9,000 men.

Got you. But did D-Day achieve its objectives?
Churchill said it was a success, but D-Day didn’t achieve one of its key objectives of capturing the French city of Caen. That was strategically important because it was the site of a key road junction, and beyond it was open country suitable for the Allies to use as a staging post for their assault on Nazi positions across the region and also for the construction of airfields. That didn’t happen on 6 June, but Caen was eventually taken in mid-July.

But the Allies ultimately prevailed, right?
Yes, despite it taking longer than expected and being more costly in terms of casualties and resources needed to push the Nazis back. But 11 months later, they’d beaten the Germans to win World War II in Europe in May 1945. Operation Overlord was a huge part of that.

What’s happening this week to mark the 80th anniversary?
There’s a lot happening over in Normandy. King Charles will attend the commemoration ceremony, along with Australia’s Governor-General David Hurley and dignitaries from other Allied nations. Hot tip: among the guests will be Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Good to know…
That’s what we’re here for…

Squiz recommends:

Watching: The 2017 film The Darkest Hour on Churchill and those dark days of 1940 when Germany was storming through Europe to take France. Scary times…

Watching: Tom Hanks film Greyhound on Apple+ about a US convoy commander getting supplies from the US to Britain across the Atlantic, fighting off the Nazi U-Boats in 1942.

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