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.

[A timely repost]

What does “D-Day” mean?

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 ‘splode.

Also, part of D-Day was the aforementioned airborne assault. Wikipedia 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!

An ill fated attempt at joining the invasion of Normandy

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 lady (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 England 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 each from the US and UK.

So, what happened on D-Day?

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 Iraqi 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 German, the French speak French, and the Brits 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:

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Image from Wikipedia Entry on D-Day

Comments

  1. #1 Mark P
    June 6, 2013

    I commented on the subsequent D-Day post, but I comment here because every D-Day post deserves a comment. I read The Longest Day and also saw the movie. It was a faithful rendition of the book, I thought.

    One of the things that impressed me about the invasion was that one of the very first casualties was a general. Has that happened since? I think not. Generals stay behind the lines today. Far too valuable to risk, you know. And those theater ballistic missile defenses? Those are to protect assets behind the front lines, including generals, not the front-line troops.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    June 6, 2013

    This is probably why there are so many extra generals.

  3. #3 Jockaira
    June 6, 2013

    During the Allied Invasion of Okinawa, two American Generals and one Japanese General were killed, along with thousands of Okinawan soldiers and civilians, Japanese soldiers, and American soldiers. The assault lasted for almost a month and among other causalities was the largest battleship ever built, the Yamato along with 2,000 of her crew. This invasion occurred a bit less than a year after the Normandy Invasion.

  4. #4 Art
    June 7, 2013

    D-Day was a huge logistical undertaking that encompass aluminum produced with power from the Hoover dam, farm boys from Kansas training in Florida to become the inexperienced majority of those landing on the beaches.

    They wanted the majority to be well trained but inexperienced troops because men with combat experience generally lack enthusiasm for running up beaches into machine guns. They were led by a smattering of more experienced senior NCOs and officers who could pick up the pieces if youth, enthusiasm and inexperience momentarily failed to carry the fight.

  5. #5 ppb
    June 7, 2013

    My dad was already “boots on the ground” in Italy when D-Day took place. After the war ended in Europe they put him on a boat and sent him to the Pacific to be part of the invasion of Japan. Fortunately for him (and me!), that invasion didn’t happen.

    The war in Italy doesn’t get as much attention, but it did keep a lot of Germans busy and out of Normandy on D-Day.

  6. #6 proximity1
    June 7, 2013

    Our “D-Day” and Theirs—-

    RE:

    “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.”

    Over at Internet Movie Database, there is this, under the “Goofs” header:

    Factual errors

    Charles de Gaulle is shown refusing to put French troops under Dwight D. Eisenhower’s command, but in fact he had done so, and French naval and ground forces, including an armored division, participated in D-Day. Also, when Eisenhower briefs de Gaulle on 4 June 1944, de Gaulle is shown objecting to different parts of the battle plan. In fact he had no such objections, and complimented the “Anglo-Saxons” on their attention to detail.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401504/goofs?item=gf0936781

    And there’s more. Just yesterday, in a post by Conrad Black at Huffington Post (please don’t give that junk-site another “page-view”, they don’t deserve it!) about D-Day, Black repeats the canard and presents de Gaulle as a selfish, petulant little twit, who, again, is alleged to have withheld French forces from Eisenhower’s invasion force.

    In fact, de Gaulle was given his first notice of the timing of the impending D-Day invasion in a morning meeting with Churchill on Saturday, June 3rd. with the invasion then supposed to begin the next day, Sunday, June 4th in the pre-dawn hours. Only bad weather prevented the planned launch on the 4th. Thus, Churchill (and Eisenhower) gave de Gaulle a scant 24 hours’ notice of the launch of the invasion–which, of course, de Gaulle knew was planned. In the meeting Saturday, Churchill advised de Gaulle to leave right away for Washington, D.C. to see Roosevelt about the matter of how France was to be administered in the Post-Vichy period. Later on that Saturday, de Gaulle also met with Eisenhower, who then informed him that he (E.) planned to address the French public by radio on the day following the landings. E. explained that he would, in the radio address, invite De Gaulle to follow his (Eisenhower’s) orders over the days and weeks following the landing.

  7. #7 proximity1
    June 7, 2013

    OOoops! Correction! Correction!!

    The film the Goofs refers to is not ‘The Longest Day’ , but “Ike: Countdown to D-Day” with Tom Selleck as General Eisenhower.

    Sorry for the error!

  8. #8 Richard Chapman
    June 7, 2013

    I’ve read several books on D-Day including the one by Cornelius Ryan. One of the most interesting was one by an American Navy commander. He was asked to inspect the Mulberry units (giant portable concrete sections for building a temporary harbor at Normandy) the British were building and collecting for post D-Day embarkation.

    The British had flooded them to keep them in place off shore. The plan was to pump the water out and tow them across the channel and drop them in place to form an artificial harbor. The American commander took one look at their pumps and said they wouldn’t work. The British were steadfast in their assessment that their pumps would work. They said they were more than adequate. A test was scheduled.

    A pump was set up and various engineers were there to witness the pump’s success. The pump was engaged and nothing happened. They tried increasing the pump’s RPMs to its maximum. Still nothing. Various different strategies were tried but at the end of the day nothing had worked. The pumps were totally useless. The problem turned out to be cavitation. Tiny bubbles forming on the blades of the pump.

    The British were so sure their pumps would work they didn’t even test them. A search for new pumps was quickly put in place. I don’t recall how long it took them to replace the pumps but it was long enough to totally screw up the schedule for putting the Mulberry units in place had they waited to discover their pumps were useless.

    There were other aspects of the D-Day invasion the commander covered in his book. Mostly the various strategies that were used to overcome the defenses the Germans had in place. The tragedy is that none of them worked or had little effect. The men that went ashore went in alone with nothing but their own weapons against undamaged defenses. All the big guns, all the 8th Air Force bombs landed far inland. They didn’t want to make shell holes on the beach. They were afraid the men would drown in them. They were also concerned about hitting the gathering landing craft. Everyone erred on the safe side and missed the gun emplacements on the shore.

    One other thing he mentioned that I never read or heard about anywhere else. He said we had spotter planes. Little two seat single engined Cessna types. They had the invasion black and white markings like all the other planes. All the anti aircraft gunners were warned about them. The aircraft were to be used to spot enemy shore-based gun emplacements. The ones that were missed by all the bombs. It seems some gunner got trigger happy and shot at one of the spotters. Once that happened all the other gunners somehow got the message that the spotter planes were the enemy and they were all shot down in a matter of minutes.

  9. #9 proximity1
    June 7, 2013

    I have to add a few more corrections (based on de Gaulle’s letters, notes, notebooks)

    C. de Gaulle left London near the very end of May, 1943 and spent the next twelve months in North Africa, mainly in Algiers, leaving there on June 3rd, 1944 with other members of the just-established (declared that day) Provisional Government of the French Republic and returning to London on June 4th–so when he met Churchill (with Anthony Eden, then British Foreign Secretary) and later, Gen. Eisenhower, he’d only just returned from a year-long absence and the planned embarkment of the 4th had already been cancelled.

  10. #10 David Kirtley
    June 7, 2013

    Great post, Greg!

  11. #11 scidog
    minneapolis
    June 9, 2013

    no mention of Monty? British general Bernard Montgomery was the brains behind D-Day.he was the only commander to get his division out of France intact at Dunkirk,remember that?
    and then went on to get the Brits to rearrange the defense of their island.then beat the Germans in Africa.he was on the ground in France and took the German surrender at the end of the war. read Nigel Hamilton’s bio.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    June 10, 2013

    I thought that was George Patton!

  13. #13 proximity1
    June 10, 2013

    scidog,

    Not to take anything away from the military talents of General Montgomery— still, the surrender he accepted was one among several.

    As the German army lost ground, there were numerous acts by which various arrmies and groups surrendered. General Montgomery accepted the German surrender at Lüneburg Heath–which concerned (from Wikipédia), …”the German forces in the Netherlands, in north west Germany including all islands, and in Denmark and all naval ships in those areas. The surrender preceded the end of World War II in Europe and was signed in a carpeted tent at Montgomery’s headquarters on the Timeloberg hill at Wendisch Evern.”

    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_surrender_at_L%C3%BCneburg_Heath)

    The full general surrender by the German Army’s supreme command was made formal at Reims, France, on the 8th of May, 1945. British Air Chief Marshall Tedder was the British representative present.