D-Day: Why Do We Remember?

Normally I do not mix work with politics, but living in Normandy means I am surrounded by history from ancient to modern, and it would be wrong of me to not share! So today’s post may get a bit political and topical so please remember the opinions viewed are my own and all facts will have sources and references at the end of the post!
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The wind is picking up, the clouds are threatening rain and an un-summerly chill is in the air, unlike this day 76 years ago. 2020 commemorates the 76th anniversary of D-Day, the day when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy to take back France and end the tyranny of the second world war. Due to the Pandemic situation, we are facing, the beaches this year are oddly quiet. However, this doesn’t mean that we can forget to memorialise this day, instead let us take a moment to reflect on the history, the memory, and maybe learn some facts you may have not known about the day.

Beginning at the End

In May 1945, the armistice ending the war in Europe was signed, on what we celebrate as VE Day or Victory in Europe. By June the armistice was only weeks old, Paris having been liberated for less than a year. The commitment to French liberation by the Allied forces already is known worldwide at this point. A television documentary, “A Year Has Passed,” (Un An A Passé), was broadcast on June 15, 1945,  covering the disembarkment near Arromanches and the commemoration of D-Day. Since then, commemorations have taken on the place, at first discreetly with just military personnel, to grand reenactments and political visits that we see today on the 6th June. The celebrations allow the collective memory of the war, the atrocities, and the liberation to stay alive and stay a reminder to the horrors of tyrannical and fascist rule, in hope that it shall not be repeated again. Something that is prominent in today’s political climate.

 

Normandy Invasion
American troops landing at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944. The presence of tracked vehicles and DUKWs (“Ducks”) on the beach and the organized columns of men heading inland indicate that this photo was taken several hours after the initial infantry assault. source:https://tinyurl.com/y6w9pday

Why Normandy?

Hitler knew his biggest threat in the wall would be an invasion from across the Atlantic. To combat this, the construction of the Atlantic Wall began in 1942 under the infamous “Directive 40”. The wall was not a wall in the conventional sense of the word, but an extensive coastal defense system that stretched over 2000 miles, from Norway, down the west coast of Scandinavia, along the northern coast of Europe and down the western coast of France. It operated in segments of three tiers: coastal cities and towns as fortresses, key coastal points such as small ports, and radar stations as “strong points” and “resistance nests” –  less hardened installations featuring interconnected bunkers and medium caliber guns [x].

Facing this terrifying defensive system head-on would be a slaughter, so after intense research, it was seen that Normandy was the weakest link of the wall. Of course, the Normandy coast had its own natural hazards and unique topography to combat, but in terms of coastal defense, it was the clear target of a mass-scale invasion.

Patient Planning

D-Day was the start of Operation Overlord, an Allied joint naval, air and land assault on occupied France. Overlord was,s and still is, the largest air, land, and sea operation undertaken, with around 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes, and over 150,000 servicemen [x]. But in order for this to be successful, there was meticulous planning.

Before the landings could take place, the allies needed to know the topography of the beaches and the placement of bunkers, blockades, and German lookouts. British military geologists spent months mapping the coastline to find suitable landing spots, avoiding quicksand and silt so that vehicles could successfully land at a scale of 1:5000. Maps were made to identify potential placements of airfields in Northwest Europe at 1:1000000 scale and also maps to show potable water supplies from potential wells and boreholes from Cherbourg to Calais [1]. This was done through hundreds of reconnaissance missions from aerial photos to measuring depths of the channel. Another way intelligence was gathered for these maps was through a call for holiday photos from civilians [2].

On top of the maps, communications were key. Back in the 1940s, communications in warfare had advanced since the last world war, but still very limited. Communication cables between mainland Europe and Britain had been cut, meaning that telephones and other wired communications were unable to be used. The allied forces relied on the French Resistance communications to hear vital information of axis movement and forecasting. [3]

C-47s dropping paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division over England during the preparation of D-day, 1944.

C-47s dropping paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division over England during the preparation of D-day, 1944 (by Rodger Hamilton)

Missing Deadlines and Stormy Seas

Initially, D-Day was set for May 1944 by the Allied task force and later delayed to June 5th by Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. The Normandy landings required optimal weather conditions. High winds and rough seas could capsize landing craft and sabotage the amphibious assault; wet weather could bog down the army and thick cloud cover could obscure the necessary air support. (As someone who is living in Normandy, I can confirm it rains solidly hear from autumn to spring, so finding a sunny window with all the correct weather and astronomical conditions is a mission in itself.) The predicted date of June 5th happened to be the start of a 3-day window where all the conditions lined up.

The weather happened to be a key component of the successful invasion. By the beginning of June 1944, predictions of stormy weather for the optimal invasion date became more frequent, and after much deliberation, the invasion was set back 24 hours where there was a predicted lull in the storm. This lull had not been predicted by the Luftwaffe, meaning that the Normandy invasion came as a semi-surprise and becoming a huge turning point in the war [x].

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
– Dwight Eisenhower on D-Day

Not Just the “Allies”

Something left out of the history books is the involvement of other nations besides the USA, Britain, and Canada in the liberation of France. But in order for the massive scale invasion to happen, there needed to be a massive organisation behind it. The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) was an international coalition that could do just that. 

By the time of invasion over 2 million troops prepared in Britain for the assault from over 12 countries, including air, naval, and ground support from Australian, Belgian, Czech, Dutch, French, Greek, New Zealand, Norwegian, Rhodesian and Polish servicemen [4].

Outcome

D-day was the start of the end of the war. After the beaches fell, soon towns were liberated and the Nazis were scrabbling on both the eastern and western front for victory. In efforts, a counter-attack was launched in August of 1944 but ultimately failed. The war ended in Europe in May of 1945.

img_2294-3
Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches, 2016

What about D-Day today?

Apart from the celebrations held on the 6th of June, Summer is a special time in Normandy where people from all over the world come to see the beaches, visit fallen family and commemorate the victory. It’s not limited to the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword, as celebrations travel throughout the region, following the counter-attack and liberation.

The most notable museums to visit if you would like to know more:

The Caen Memorial
Arromanches Museum
Overlord Museum
Omaha Beach Memorial and D-Day Museum
Museum of Underwater Wreckage
The Number 4 Commando Museum
Juno Beach Centre
Gold Beach Centre
Museum of the Crisbecq Battery 
Museum of Resistance and Deportation
Memorial to Civilian Life 
Radar Museum
And more found on Normandy tourism here.

As you can see, there are a plethora of museums, tours, and places of interest to visit all over Normandy. Personally, I’ve been to a handful and look to go to more (and write about them).

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If you enjoyed this post and want to see more history and local sites of interest, give this a like and a share! I had to stop myself from writing a whole dissertation on the day by limiting myself to certain topics and words, so if you want to know more, feel free to ask! Have a great day and stay safe.

References:

. (2010) Water Supply Maps for North-west Europe Developed by British Military Geologists during World War II: Innovative Mapping for Mobile WarfareThe Cartographic Journal 47:1, pages 55-91.
[2] Whitmarsh, Andrew (2009). D-Day in Photographs. Stroud: History Press.
[3] Muriel Favre, La propagande radiophonique nazie, Paris, Ina Éd., coll. Médias histoire, 2014,
[4] HYAMS, J., 2019. SPITFIRE STORIES. [Place of publication not identified]: MICHAEL O’MARA Books LTD.

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