Today, it is the 70-year anniversary of the Normandy Landings, known as D-Day. The name D-Day is a military term meaning ‘the day of attack’. During the Second World War, Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, had invaded and taken over large parts of Europe and it was clear the war wouldn’t stop there.
The Allied Powers began their push to retake Nazi-occupied Europe with the Normandy Landings, a massive amphibious attack on the beaches of Normandy in France (which were heavily fortified by the occupying Germans). The landings were called ‘amphibious’ because British, American and Canadian soldiers boarded boats in Britain and then crossed the English Channel to land on five stretches of coastline, codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
Prior to the Normandy Landings, information about the operation was kept secret, but a headmaster called Leonard Dawe was arrested because the Daily Telegraph crossword, which he wrote, had lots of code words being used in the D-Day operation in the weeks leading up to 6th June. It turned out that Dawe got his students to fill in words which he would eventually make clues for, to save time, and the school was next to an army camp of soldiers preparing for D-Day. The students were talking to the soldiers and hearing code-words, which they then put into the crosswords without realising their significance!
Hitler had ordered the construction of the Atlantic Wall, a massive set of fortifications along the coast of Europe from Spain to Norway, knowing that the Allies would probably launch an attack across the Channel. The Allies misled German spies with false information about the timings of the attacks and coordinated with the French Resistance, who were working against the Nazis from within occupied territory, to break through the Atlantic Wall. The attack started with a bombardment by aeroplane, and then troops were parachuted (or dropped in gliders) behind enemy lines or brought across on boats to the beaches. Over 150,000 troops went across the Channel on D-Day.
The soldiers coming across on boats had to cross a large expanse of beach with barely any cover before they could attack the German guns and fortifications, all the time with machine gun fire and bombs raining down on them. At Omaha Beach, the aeroplanes could not release their bombs in case they hit the landing craft and so the German machine gun emplacements were undamaged when the Allied troops began their assault.
The fight was bloody and accounts of the attack are difficult to read. Harry Billinge called it ‘a killing field’ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-27700479]. However, the Normandy Landings were a vital part of the eventual freedom of Nazi-occupied France, which in turn was important in the eventual defeat of the Nazis. To commemorate the Normandy Landings, veterans of D-Day have been gathering in Normandy for a ceremony held on Sword Beach.
If you would like to learn more about D-Day…
Read about the military operations and effect on the war in D-Day: the Normandy Landings and the Liberation of Europe by Anthony Kemp (BOOK ZONE 940.5421)
Watch a powerful dramatised version of the landings on Omaha Beach at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan (LOBBY DVD AREA 791.43) or watch the poignant film The Longest Day (BOOK ZONE 940.53), based on a book by a journalist who interviewed Allied and German officers and civilians who experienced the events.
Listen to an audiobook of Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers (BOOK ZONE 940.53) or watch the incredible Stephen Spielberg TV miniseries adaptation of the same name (BOOK ZONE 822.91) for an insight into the experiences of a company of American paratroopers who were part of the airborne assault on D-Day.
Have a look at the BBC’s coverage of the anniversary (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-27700479) and its article on the female reporters who refused to be told they couldn’t cover the war (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27677889) as well as the EDP’s article on the Norfolk veterans going to the memorial service (http://www.edp24.co.uk/norfolk-life/norfolk_s_d_day_veterans_set_off_for_normandy_1_3628051).