This Day was D-Day

D-Day was today in 1944. My father was involved. Wikipedia is silly. Kids these days have no idea. There is, of course, a classic movie on the topic.

The term "D-Day" is military for "The Day" just like "H-Hour" is military for "The Hour" on which something will happen. However, once D-Day happened everyone started to use the term "D-Day" to refer to this event. The idea is you can put the date "D-Day" in your planning documents and refer to it without having the date set, or if you do have the date set, to avoid saying the date out loud.

So, in English, in normal culture, D-Day is this: It is a military operation that happened on June 6th 1944. It involved air and naval strikes against a line of defenses set up by the Germans who had occupied France, along the French Coast in a region called "Normandy." Following and in coordination with the air and naval strikes, 24,000 British, American, Canadian, and Free French dropped onto Normandy out of airplanes and in gliders. Following this, somewhat over 160,000 troops landed on various sorts of shore-landing craft on the beaches of Normandy and fought their way up the bluffs onto the high ground and overran the German defenses. That's the simple version.

This could also be called the Invasion of Normandy because it was an invasion. Of Normandy. You could call it the Normandy Landings, which had a code name: Operation Neptune. Operation Neptune, in turn, was part of Operation Overlord, which was the coordinated Allied attack on German Territories in Western Europe with the eventual goal of defeating the Germans there.

I know this is trivial, but it so well exemplifies what is wrong with Wikipedia (and there is a lot RIGHT with Wikipedia...I love Wikipedia) that I want to spend a moment on it. Since "D-Day" is a term of art in military planning, Wikipedia is unable (psychologically) to use the term to refer to...well, to refer to D-Day. The term "D-Day" redirects to a web page called "Normandy landings." I hope that some historian does not come along and mention some other prior Normandy Landing from ancient times because that would make Wikipedia 'spode.

Also, part of D-Day was the aforementioned airborne assault. Wikpedia is careful to mention that this assault started just after midnight. THANK GOODNESS FOR THAT!!! Because if any of these paratroopers or gliders landed prior to midnight, D-Day would not be a day. that would require at least a paragraph. But wait, if the paratroopers landed just after midnight, they must have taken off before D-Day started! And the ships! Did any of the ships start to sail before midnight that morning! OMG Wikipedia IS going to 'splode!

OK, enough of that.

Yeah, my father was involved in D-Day but he did not personally invade France. He tried very hard to do so. A member of the Army Air Corps, he wanted to go in on a glider, hopefully to fly one. He applied and his application had a good chance, but he needed corrective lenses and that would have disqualified him. So he cheated. He was a Staff Sargent, and he knew a Staff Sargent in the place where they gave the eye test, so he got a copy of the eye chart and memorized it. I can see it now, had this worked...he surely would have been in one of the movies made about D-Day. Just after the glider takes off pulled by a propeller driven plane, the pilot (my dad) takes the glasses he has hidden away in his service jacket (which I've still got, it's in the closet) and puts them on. The glasses of course, would break on landing and he would be helped to safety by a beautiful (as if it mattered 'cuz he couldn't see her) from the Resistance. The rest would be history and I'd be writing this blog post en Francais.

But that didn't happen. What did happen is that they changed the eye chart and he got totally busted and they sent him back to his regular job, where he then excelled and was awarded a medal by the US Army and the King of England.

There were two main logistical wings to D-Day preparation. One was a fake big giant operation in the part of Enlgand nearest the French shores, which were meant to suggest a planned invasion at Calais. (Pronounced "Calay" in French, "Callus" in Maine). The other was spread across more than 1,000 bases where stuff was being assembled, troops trained and housed, things organized, etc. My father was in one of those bases, not far from London. His job was to manage, as a clerk, the tracking of disassembled airplanes that were dropped on the runway by slow and low flying transport aircraft. The planes were made in the US, then either disassembled or not fully assembled, but still, packaged up as whole planes...plane kits if you will. These were then flown in larger transport planes with either landed and took off quickly, discharged their cargo while taxying, or simply dropped their cargo out the back as they flew over the runway.

Often, the plane would arrive with broken parts for some reason.

Initially, my father's job was to organize the mixing and matching of parts from the broken planes so that, say, 10 broken planes could be re-arranged to make 9 fully functional planes and a pile of broken parts. Seeing the stupidity in this, he made the strong suggestion that the planes from this source not be made into kits. Rather, he suggested, send over the parts properly packed. A bunch of left wings, a bunch of right wings, a bunch of tails, whatever (I have no idea what parts they would have been). Then, at the base in England, they would simply maintain a stock of parts coming in via aircraft, weeding out any broken parts, and assemble the planes from that stock much more efficiently. The productivity of that Operation Overlord base went up, and he got a medal from the US and British.

Almost 200,000 troops were on the ground in D-Day. In other words, over a 24 hour periods, 185,000 Allied troops were "boots on the ground" with the vast majority of them firing off their guns and being shot at. On that day about 2,500 allied soldiers were killed and another 10,000 wounded (there is no official number). Among the Germans and their friends, between 4,000 and 9,000 were killed or wounded. But the landings did not end during that 24 hour period. Rather, the main effort to move troops and equipment into France ended on about June 11th. Over that period of five days, 326,547 troops, 54,186 vehicles, and over 100,000 tons of supplies had landed. During this period, dozens of Allied and German ships and hundreds of aircraft were destroyed. (Sources: DDayMuseum and TehWiki.)

Let's compare this to the Iraq War. The Iraq War (the one we just had) ran for over 8 years. The total number of Coalition forces in Iraq was 300,000, about the same as the 326,547 for the Normandy Invasion that lasted 5 days, which in turn was followed by less than one year of fighting to the end of that war. The Iraq war involved military casualties of about 24,219 dead from coalition forces (mainly Iraqi Security forces), with the original invaded Iraqui army and insurgents suffering about 30,000+ dead. It is almost impossible to compare these numbers meaningfully for a lot of reasons. But, clearly, the fact that the 8 year long Iraq War involved about the same number of troops as the Normandy Invasion gives you some idea of the size of World War II.

One of the most interesting movies if you are at all into modern history or military stuff isThe Longest Day, which was based on the book The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day. It is almost entirely a guy film, in that almost all of the characters are men, though there is a beautiful women with the French Resistance character (of course) who did not marry my father, and a bunch of nuns who do not fear bullets (of course). The Longest Day came out in 1962 and was the most expensive black and white film made at the time and retained this distinction until replaced by Shindler's List. It seems as though almost every male actor of the day is in this film somewhere. All the actors were paid an initial salary of 25,000 to be in the film except John Wayne who felt dissed by having been not asked to be in it initially. When the producers' plans changed and they needed Wayne, he insisted on a rather larger salary. Oh, and if you do watch The Longest Day, do make sure it is the version where the Germans speak Germans, the French speak French, and the Bits an Americans speak English. (Info about The Longest Day is here.)

(Of course, Saving Private Ryan is also an epic film about D-Day.)

Since 1962 is D-Day plus a couple of decades, all of the actors grew up with D-Day as part of their culture, and quite a few were in the invasion itself. One British actor was a paratrooper, a private, during the war. In the film, he plays his commanding officer and another actor plays him, and they make a little fun of the good old days with a bit of inter-unit humor written into the script. The film touches on all those things that probably happened that D-Day is famous for.

Ike Eisenhower is a bit of disappointment in the film. A major character in real life (he was the Supreme Commander), his role in the movie consists of a single scene with hardly any lines. On the other hand, the actor they got to play him was not really an actor, but just somebody who was a dead ringer for Ike. It is said that Ike, who had subsequently become President of the United States and stuff, considered playing himself in the role, but they couldn't get him to look young enough, so they got this guy who looked like him and didn't have him act much, because he really couldn't act (turns out that's a skill!).

So, if you want to grasp the Ike part of the story, consider the movie Ike: Countdown To D-Day, where Tom Selleck does a pretty darn good job of playing the Supreme Commander.

The Longest Day Trailer ... see if you can pick out the stars:


Image from Wikipedia Entry on D-Day

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Thanks for this Greg. My Dad was with the Royal Engineers who landed a couple of days later and set about mending broken tanks.
Of course the difference between the invasion of Europe and the invasion of Iraq is that there was an enemy in Europe. Once the Iraqi army had capitulated there was no enemy in Iraq until continuing foreign presence created one.

By Iain Davidson (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

We don't want Wikipedia to 'splode. The paratroopers would have taken off on "D minus one." Like you say, the exact day of the invasion was not known in time for all the orders to be distributed with actual dates and times, so everything was scripted to happen on "D minus 2", "H plus 3" or whenever it was scheduled.

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

There's also Band of Brothers, the 10 episode show about Easy Company of the 101st Airborne, and there's the documentary, We Stand Alone Together, with recent interviews of many of the survivors of Easy Company.

By Charles Sullivan (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

Charles, all good suggestions. Then there is the movie simply called "D-Day" which is one of the few movies I've ever stopped watching during the first 10 minutes because it was so bad (I have low standards). The writing is so bad that in order to make the plot work (and this kind of plot really does write itself,as it were) they have the characters thinking stuff which you hear with voiceover. OMG.

I would highly recommend the book, "Bodyguard of Lies" which gives some very good context for D-Day.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

Also, not being funny, but Eisenhower was a political appointment and his performance as supreme commander right up until the end was militarily woeful, allowing politically-motivated decisionmaking and failing to rein-in lose cannons like Patton whose lust for glory (and lack of military experience or up-to-date military understanding) caused huge losses of life amongst American troops.
Of course, Macarthur was vastly worse, because he was *completely* insane, as the men of the 32nd Division, for one, discovered when he caused them to suffer casualties exceeding 100% of their battle strength in their first 7 weeks in New Guinea.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

Henry V also landed in Normandy. At the time, it was probably a campaign that consumed a proportionally similar amount of resources.

"But Ike did successfully beat the crap out of Hitler" - even we Brits now acknowledge that, however distasteful, it was Stalin who won the war in Europe. You guys won in the Pacific.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 07 Jun 2012 #permalink

True, but not entirely. This is one of those revisitionist falsehoods.

Stalin required D-Day, asked for it, was mad when it was delayed, and the Allied forces pushed the Western Front to Berlin pretty quickly and there were no Soviet troops involved in that. Of course, the USSR's role has been blindingly underrepresented in Western histories and folklore of WWII, but that does not mean that Normandy was not invaded or that the non-Soviet allies did not liberate France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Italy, etc. etc.

One of the first casualties of the D-Day invasion was a general, an interesting contrast to the place of generals in today's combat.

My father always regretted that he did not land on D-Day, but some time later in Belgium. He was in the 104th Infantry, the Timberwolf Division, to which some Belgians even today express gratitude. He

Vince Whirlwind ... Patton was the only general on the side of the western allies that the German opposition respected. Patton was kept around despite being, in many ways, an all-around jerk because he got results. High casualties? Yes, along with results, Patton believing that the quicker the war could be ended the lower the overall casualties would be. He certainly didn't throw away troops the way Montgomery did in Operation Market-Garden, for instance.

The USSR would've won eventually without the western invasion. The threat of and subsequent reality of that invasion probably shortened the war by a year, though, and that shortening very likely saved more USSR lives than it cost in US, British and Canadian lives. Not to mention that the "FInal Solution" would've gone on for another year or so, and Hitler's scorched earth policies regarding defeated Germany also, etc etc.

And, of course, if we hadn't invaded Normandy, western europe most likely would've been absorbed into a much larger USSR blok than the one that grew out of the final positions of the troops in 1945.

My own father landed D-Day + 8, as a combat engineer. He fought the first three weeks in the bocage country as an ordinary infantryman, that being the major need in that area with its farm fields enclosed by hedgerows. He fought again as an infantryman during the battle of the bulge, part of Patton's reinforcements shoring up one of the shoulders of the bulge formed by the surprise German counterattack that Christmas season. Most of the rest of his time was spent rebuilding blown German bridges that were holding up advances of various US Army units.

dhogaza: Right. So, the Allies did indeed save Europe.

Supposedly, having Patton around before D-Day and linking him to the Calais invasion gave that ruse credibility to the Germans. So they say.

"dhogaza: Right. So, the Allies did indeed save Europe."

That's a bit simplistic. Europe wasn't going to remain Nazi regardless of us invading. It was just a quesiton of how long it would remain Nazi. We didn't "save Europe" from being Nazi forever.

On the other hand, I, like just about any other reasonable person, think that a Europe 100% under Stalin's boot would not have been an improvement over a Europe under Hitler's boot. So we certainly "saved Europe" from that fate.

Patton did an excellent job on the Calais ruse, the effect was far more than just that of his name. Postwar analysis made it clear that the fake radio traffic and other measures totally convinced the Germans. The fact that Patton threw himself effectively into that task while being shut out from the planning and training for D-Day itself was one of the strong points in his favor. He'd already been selected to lead 3rd Army in Europe, but if he'd screwed up that assignment, whined endlessly, etc it's not hard to imagine Eisenhower changing his mind. He and Bradley had serious doubts about Patton's stability (though not his skills).

Patton's role inthe D-Daycover plan is a little more complex than simply ending up as a notional commander.

A good source is Ben McIntyre's 'D-Day Spies' (its one of the more readable), which covers the 'double-cross' part of 'Fortitude'/'Bodyguard' (The name for the total deception plan covering the Normandy landings). Since there were only two realistc landing points in northern France, the Germans had to be convinced that any landing would be at Calais (a shorter route and available ports), rather than Normandy.

The First US Army Group (FUSAG) was the formation (based in SE England) which was supposed to menace Calais. It was of course fake. Patton was not the original commander, but was available because he had nothing else to do, having been sacked from his previous post due to slapping a wounded soldier (actually he slapped two soldiers) . Ike and other commanders respected his talents, and did not want to lose him, but neither could he carry on in the way he had. The deception planners were delighted - they had a real life high profile commander the germans could hardly fail to miss.

He did certainly throw himself into his new role (perfect for a theatrical character like Patton), but he continued to be a handful. In one speech he declared that Britain and America were destined to rule the world, something which did not go down well with the Russians, but did at least bring publicity to his 'command'!

The fake camps. etc of FUSAG actually were wasted since there was almost no German recon. flights, and it could be argued that even the radio traffic was not entirely needed, because the Germanswere not bothering to monitor it. Instead, they relied massively on their agents in Britain, who were of course all double agents. It really was the agents which sold the cover plan, although Patton was extremely useful.

Fortitude was very successful. The order of battle which OKW had was pretty much identical to the one the agents had given them,the Japanese ambassador reported that Hitler entirely agreed with where the (notional) attacks would come and the German forces around Calais did not move for months, if at all (15th Army stayed there for seven weeks). Calais ended up as a German redoubt, isolated by the Allied advance, and having to be taken by the British at some cost in order to be able to use the port.

It could be argued that Patton's 'command' of the fake FUSAG was almost as important as his real command of an army group.

If we are being picky about the exact date of 'D-Day', you could argue it started on the 5th, with Jeburgh/SAS teams(?)/French resistance being 'in country' on the 5th, and the airbourne forces being in the air. The British jumped first, at 16 minutes past midnight.

Strange fact about 'The Longest Day'. The actor Richard Todd was almost the first allied officer to jump into France (he would have been the first, but apparently a more senior officer wanted that honour), although the gliders at Pegasus Bridge landed first.

When they made the film, the producers wanted him to recreate his role as part of the unit that reinforced the gliders troops on the bridge (he actually being a genuine hero). Since he was a gent, he said no (actually he might have said it was too minor a role, which can be taken two ways) but he did play his own commander at the bridge (Major Howard), with someone else playing him! Thats method acting!

Other strange fact - the US Army lent lots of troops for filming, which was unfortunate since they were not available when the Berlin Wall went up, and there was a minor scandal.