On this day 75 years ago, the largest seaborne military invasion in history, now known as D-Day, took place on the shores of Normandy, France.
Operation Overlord was the codename for the Battle of Normandy, the Allied operation that launched the successful invasion of German-occupied Western Europe during World War II. The operation was launched on 6 June, 1944 with the Normandy landings (Operation Neptune, commonly known as D-Day). A 1,200-plane airborne assault preceded an amphibious assault involving more than 5,000 vessels. Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on 6 June, and more than two million Allied troops were in France by the end of August.
The Allies needed nearly a year to prepare for the complicated offensive, but they knew that the entire D-Day mission could be doomed to failure if the Nazis gained even 48 hours of advanced notice on its location and timing, so they launched an elaborate disinformation campaign, codenamed Operation Bodyguard, "to induce the enemy to make faulty strategic dispositions in relation to operations by the United Nations against Germany."
To cloak the details of the true invasion site, the Allies employed a complex web of deception to persuade the Nazis that an attack could come at any point along their Atlantic Wall-the 1,500-mile system of coastal defenses that the German High Command had constructed from the Arctic Circle to Spain's northern border-or even as far away as the Balkans. Vital to Operation Bodyguard's success were more than a dozen German spies in Britain who had been discovered, arrested and flipped by British intelligence officers. The Allies spoon-fed reams of faulty information to these Nazi double agents to pass along to Berlin. For instance, a pair of double agents nicknamed Mutt and Jeff relayed detailed reports about the fictitious British Fourth Army that was amassing in Scotland with plans to join with the Soviet Union in an invasion of Norway. To further the illusion, the Allies fabricated radio chatter about cold-weather issues such as ski bindings and the operation of tank engines in subzero temperatures. The ruse worked as Hitler sent one of his fighting divisions to Scandinavia just weeks before D-Day.
The incredible courage of the troops attacking across those beaches is hard to even imagine. And likewise the courage of the defenders, most of whom were "stationary infantry" who had old wounds or physical problems that limited their mobility. Their job was to hold as long as possible, so they didn't need to be able to retreat. They faced an enemy with total air superiority, which it is clear was the main reason for the invasion's success, since it prevented any meaningful reinforcements. And they faced at least two weapons they hadn't seen before: 16-inch artillery shells from battleships, much larger than land-based cannons; and phosphorus rockets from planes. The carnage in the first wave is well documented. Whole boats with 30-odd men were simply blown up, while others only managed to get two or three onto the beach alive. Still, in the whole operation, losses of troops killed that first day were less than 3%. I wonder what the planners had anticipated it would be? What would they have considered an "acceptable" level of losses? I don't think they ever said. The saddest thing about it, to me, was that it wasn't militarily necessary, only politically. The Russians were already rolling up the Wehrmacht in the east like a rug; and the Allies were desperate to capture as much of Europe as they could, to keep it out of the hands of the Russians. Churchill was advising stockpiling the German weapons and keeping their troop formations organized, to be used if the Russians didn't stop at the Oder river as agreed. And Stalin was demanding a second front to draw German forces away from the east. In the middle of all that high-level negotiating millions of ordinary soldiers were the helpless pawns who had to do and die. About 2,000 of the defenders at Normandy weren't even defending their homeland. They were Russian POWs who had agreed to fight in the Wehrmacht for whatever reason: better treatment, or opposition to the Reds. Since Russia was our ally, those who were captured were sent back east to certain death. As a child all I had known was the war. It was the normal thing for me to see the entire American nation pulling together for a common goal. Little did I know that would be the last time.