NORMANDY INVASION REVISITED, PART ONE: Tomorrow, June 6th, is the anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy France. In 1944, the outcome of the war was at stake. Operation Overlord was the allies’ master plan to bring defeat to the Nazis.
The names of the allied landing beaches have become seared in our collective memory, each evoking a measure of sadness, joy and pride. Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha and Utah were the codenames for the major beaches.
There would be a further eleven months of battle following D-Day, but there is no doubt the invasion is one of the greatest turning points in military and world history.
General Dwight Eisenhower headed SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, comprised of troops from Canada, Britain, America, France, Poland, Norway and other allied countries. Once launched, the massive force could not
turn back. An invading army had not crossed the dangerous and unpredictable English Channel since 1688.
Intelligence gathering was crucial to plan the landings. In 1942, the BBC appealed to listeners to send in postcards and photographs of the coast of Europe from Norway to the Pyrenees. The War Office received millions of submissions. Intelligence from French resistance fighters, military air reconnaissance and aerial photography helped shape the plan of attack and the selection of targets.
On D-Day, Eisenhower had over 11,000 planes at his disposal. His force included Spitfires, Thunderbolts and Mustangs along with Dakota and B-17 bombers. 7,000 vessels of various types and sizes made the crossing. Naval losses for June 1944 included 24 warships and 35 merchantmen or auxiliaries sunk, and a further 120 vessels damaged.
160,000 troops would land on the beaches or be parachute in, along the coast. By the end of August that year, 3 million troops were on French soil.
On D-Day the American forces numbered 73,000: 23,250 on Utah Beach, 34,250 on Omaha Beach, and 15,500 airborne troops. In the Canadian and British sectors, 83,115 troops were landed (61,715 of them British): 24,970 on Gold Beach, 21,400 on Juno Beach, 28,845 on Sword Beach, and 7900 airborne troops.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 French civilians were killed, most because of Allied bombing. Thousands more had to flee their homes to escape the carnage. While German casualties on D-Day are not known, they are estimated at between 4000 and 9000 men.
Thousands of allied soldiers lost their lives that day in the Normandy campaign. Conservative estimates are that America lost 4,696. Britain lost 1,043 and the Canadians lost 1,204. While that total is 8,443 the real number is likely closer to 9,000.
Twenty-seven war cemeteries hold the remains of over 110,000 dead from both sides: 77,866 German, 9386 American, 17,769 British, 5002 Canadian and 650 Poles.
Today, visitors to Normandy can still see an abundance of evidence from the great battle. The remains of bunkers, gun emplacements and the concrete ‘Mulberry’ harbours are readily found. Allied cemeteries dot the region and memorials to countries, military divisions and battle sites abound. Private museums are great places to see battle equipment and uniforms.
These memorials are one of the ways that the memories of June 6th are kept alive. Another way is the vast number or WWII re-enactors who descend on the region each June. Community festivals are held. Battles on beaches are re-enacted. All kinds of military equipment is on display and on the roads. It’s been said that on these weekends, there are more jeeps in Normandy than during the D-Day landings. Swap meets are terrific places to see the re-enactors in their full gear.
Most are French citizens, but many come over from England. I have even seen re-enactors from former Soviet-bloc countries participating. Last year, I spent time in some small villages, including Ste. Marie duMont, Ste. Mer Eglise, Colveville sur Mer where various celebrations were held and re-enactors were out in force. Almost all take on the roles of American soldiers.
Below is a collection of various photos taken on June 5, 2010. June 6th, the anniversary date of the battle, was much quieter, with mostly official observances along the beaches. Much fewer re-enactors were out, in deference to the sombre memorials and the sacrifices made during Operation Overlord.
More photos here in Part II