Not long after the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt — along with commanding Allied general Dwight D. Eisenhower — began to plan an invasion of Nazi-occupied France. Opening a new front was vital to defeating the Nazis, so plans were set in place for Operation Overlord — the codename for the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944. The massive operation began the liberation of France and other parts of Western Europe, ultimately turning the tide of World War II and bringing about the end of Nazi Germany. Here are five facts about that fateful day, now commonly known as D-Day.
D-Day Was Supposed to Happen a Day Earlier
Allied leaders originally set a date of June 5, 1944, for D-Day. But something very British managed to delay the invasion: the weather. Foul weather over the English Channel meant that it was too rough for ships to sail, so the invasion was postponed until the day after. It was a nervous, pensive wait for everyone involved, not least for the soldiers waiting to cross the Channel. Then came news from the meteorologists, who forecast a brief window of calmer weather for June 6. There were a limited number of dates with the right tidal conditions for an invasion, so if the operation didn’t go forward during the break in the weather on June 6, it would have had to wait until June 19-21 (when, as it turned out, there was a storm that would have made invasion impossible). The green light was finally given, and D-Day took place on June 6.
The Germans Weren’t Expecting the Invasion to Be at Normandy
The Germans knew that an Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France could turn the tide of war, and had planned to counter such an invasion. But they didn’t consider Normandy as a particularly likely landing point. Instead, they believed the Allies would invade further north, at the French port city of Calais, which sat just a little more than 20 miles across the English Channel from Dover. The German army installed three massive gun batteries along the Calais coast in order to counter this threat. That’s not to say that Normandy was an easy target. It was defended by the Atlantic Wall, a 2,000-mile-long chain of fortresses, mines, gun emplacements, tank traps, and obstacles. It was an impressive piece of defensive engineering, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Allied invasion.
Spies and Misinformation Played a Major Part in the Success of D-Day
The Allies did all they could to convince the Nazis that an invasion would not take place at Normandy. Leading up to D-Day, nearly every German spy in England had been captured or turned into a double agent, and the double agents were told to inform their Nazi handlers that the invasion was indeed planned for Calais. At the same time, the Allies sent out fake radio traffic to further convince the Germans that Calais was the plan. This deception was all part of Operation Fortitude, which aimed to dupe the Nazis with misinformation, including creating an entirely fake army. This fictitious force, known as the First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), was made up of thousands of fake tanks and airplanes, as well as decoy buildings, all placed on England’s southeast coast and supposedly commanded by General George S. Patton. The Allies let German reconnaissance planes photograph the site of the dummy army, further convincing the enemy that a military buildup was being made for an invasion of Calais. What’s more, the Allies by this time had cracked the Nazis’ Enigma code, so they could monitor the success of their misinformation campaign by tapping into German communications.
D-Day Was the Largest Amphibious Invasion in History
The Allied invasion of Normandy was the largest single-day amphibious invasion in history. The scale of the assault is hard to even imagine, as the numbers are mind-boggling. In the months and days leading up to the invasion, 7 million tons of supplies, including 450,000 tons of ammunition, were brought into Britain from the United States, and war planners created around 17 million maps to support the operation. In the hours prior to the beach landings, 11,590 Allied aircraft flew 14,674 sorties to support the invasion, and 15,500 American and 7,900 British airborne troops parachuted into France behind enemy lines. Then came the beach assault by 132,715 Allied troops, consisting of 75,215 British and Canadian forces and 57,500 Americans. Between them, they stormed the beaches of Normandy, the Americans fighting their way ashore at Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, the British at Gold and Sword beaches, and the Canadians at Juno Beach.
Eisenhower Wrote a Secret “In Case of Failure” Message
The success of D-Day was in no way assured. In the days before the invasion, General Eisenhower secretly wrote a statement now known as the “In Case of Failure” message, to be released if the invasion failed. In the letter, Eisenhower took full blame for any such failure. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available,” he wrote. “The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do.”
But D-Day was a military success that paved the way for a German surrender less than a year later. The invasion, however, came at a terrible cost. Historians are still investigating the actual number of deaths that resulted from the chaos of D-Day, but we know that at least 4,414 Allied soldiers, sailors, airmen, and coast guardsmen lost their lives, with at least 10,000 total casualties. On the German side, meanwhile, estimates suggest between 4,000 and 9,000 killed, wounded, or missing, with around 200,000 Germans captured as prisoners of war. Today, just a few thousand D-Day veterans may still be alive, the youngest now in their late 90s. On June 6, 2023, around 40 World War II veterans gathered at Normandy to mark the 79th anniversary of D-Day and pay tribute to the lives lost that day.