June 6, 1944
It seems to me that fewer and fewer people remember the importance events on June 6th played in history. After all, June sixth is my birthday. Big deal, you say. Well, you’re right. My birthday isn’t a big deal except to me and my family, but even as a small child, I knew my birthday was important. I was raised on stories of World War II and always felt a certain pride in sharing my birthday with one of the most amazing and devastating battles in history.
Since that day in June 1944, people have been asking what the “D” in “D-Day” means. There have been suggestions of ‘decision, departed or disembarkation’ for the large number of ships and troops involved. Although no one knows for sure, the most likely of explanations is the one offered by the U.S. Army in their published manuals. The Army began using the codes H-hour and D-day during the First World War to indicate the time or date of an operation’s start. “D” may simply refer to the “day” of invasion.
The code name for this campaign was Operation Neptune. The landings commenced on Tuesday, June 6, 1944 beginning at 6:30 AM British Double Summer Time(GMT+2). And I thought I had trouble with Daylight Savings Time.
In the days before television, Americans got the news from their radios. American journalist George Hicks broadcast the first live report from the deck of the U.S.S. Ancon at the start of the D-Day invasion. “…You see the ships lying in all directions, just like black shadows on the grey sky,” he described to his listeners. “…Now planes are going overhead… Heavy fire now just behind us… bombs bursting on the shore and along in the convoys.” His report, including the sounds of heavy bombardment, sirens, low-flying planes, and shouting, brought the war to American homes for the first time.
D-Day was the largest amphibious invasion in world history, executed by land, sea, and air. One hundred and sixty thousand (160,000) Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline. General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” Looking back, the chances of success were small to none. The D-Day cost was high. On that one day more than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded.
Only 10 days each month were suitable for launching the operation. They needed a day near the full moon to illuminate navigational landmarks, and the spring tide to provide the deepest possible water to help avoid defensive obstacles placed by the Germans on the approaches to the beaches. The first week of June was filled with storms. With more than 5,000 Ships and 13,000 aircraft on hold, they got lucky. A full moon and a short break in the weather occurred on June sixth.
A short break in the storms allowed General Eisenhower to move forward with this perilous plan. Six divisions were to land on the first day; three U.S., two British and one Canadian. Disorganization, confusion, incomplete or faulty implementation of plans characterized the initial phases of the landings. Airborne landings were badly scattered, as well as the first wave units landing on the assault beaches. As a result, 45% of units were widely dispersed and unable to rally. To their great credit, most of the troops were able to adapt to the disorganization. In the end, the Allies achieved their objective.
The Germans meanwhile took comfort from the existing poor conditions, which were worse over Northern France than over the Channel itself, and believed no invasion would be possible for several days. Some troops stood down, and many senior officers were away for the weekend. Field Marshal Rommel took a few days leave to celebrate his wife’s birthday. While dozens of division, regimental, and battalion commanders were away from their posts at war games, the Allied forces attacked.
The night before the invasion, Allies sent out thousands of paratrooper dolls about two feet tall, all across the French coast, in order to cause chaos and panic in the German defenses. Some of these fake paratroopers even blew up on impact, which caused the Germans to believe they were being bombed as well as being invaded.
The parachute troops were assigned what was probably the most difficult task of the initial operation — a night jump behind enemy lines five hours before the coastal landings.The Normandy beaches were selected because they were less heavily defended than the Pas de Calais, the shortest distance between Britain and France. There were five beaches involved, Utah, Omaha, Gold Beach, Juno and Sword.
“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.” This is the beginning of Eisenhower’s speech to the soldiers about to risk everything in a last ditch effort to stop Hitler. In his pocket was a statement, never used, to be read in case the invasion failed.
On this day, sixty-eight years after one of the greatest battles ever waged, remember the men who, against all odds, began the march to Berlin and the defeat of Hitler.
The photo at the top of the page is Jack Eugene Queen, my father. He joined the Navy on his eighteenth birthday and served on the USS Hancock. Although he wasn’t on the Normandy beaches on D-day, he served in the Pacific until the end of the war.