What is There About D-Day that We Don’t Know?

tags: World War II, D-Day

Craig L. Symonds is Professor of History Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy. He is author of NEPTUNE: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings (Oxford University Press, June 2014).

For most Americans, the story of D-Day, the largest and most consequential amphibious landing in history, begins and ends with the assault on Omaha Beach. Thanks to Stephen Spielberg, we have a powerful visceral sense of what that assault was like, for the first twenty minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” are both searing and convincing. But pivotal as those twenty minutes were, they are only a small part of a lengthy and complicated story.

That story begins with the strategic planning, which began even before the United States became an active belligerent. The Anglo-American conversations that began in the summer of 1941 inevitably centered on the question of how, and where, and especially when the Western powers could regain a foothold in German-occupied Europe. For most of two years, the wrangling about these questions put severe strains on the English-speaking partners, not to mention the impatience of the Russians who bore the brunt of the land war, fighting 260 Nazi divisions along a thousand-mile front.

Then there was the logistical challenge. Getting two million American GIs to England across an ocean infested with German U-boats, keeping them supplied with cigarettes, Coca-Cola, and Hershey bars, and building the specialized amphibious ships that would carry them across the Channel to the invasion beaches was an enormous undertaking. Thousands of ships had to be built, from transports to carry the men and supplies, to escorts that would protect them from the U-boats, to large ocean-going Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs), to the small Higgins boats that carried them to the beach. And all this had to be done while still more ships—thousands of them—fought the Japanese in the Pacific. The Allied landings on D-Day took place the same month that two U.S. Marine divisions landed on Saipan, almost exactly halfway around the world from Normandy. These ubiquitous demands on Allied shipping proved to be the crucial logistical bottleneck in the invasion plan.

And finally, there were the inevitable glitches that took place on D-Day itself. There is an old saw among strategic planners that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and that proved to be true on June 6, 1944. The aerial bombing of the beach, especially on Omaha, missed its mark; the preliminary naval gunfire barrage was too brief; At Utah Beach, the current along the coast put the men ashore a half mile from their target positions; and the crowding along the shore on Omaha Beach prevented the Naval Combat Demolition Teams from removing most of the mined obstacles on the beach. The result of all this was confusion and chaos.

What saved the invasion was the ability of the men on the scene to adapt and adjust. The Navy and Coast Guard coxswains who drove the tiny Higgins boats, and the junior officers who commanded the larger LCTs and LCIs, found openings along the coast where they could push ashore. The Army non-coms and platoon commanders, finding themselves on a beach that bore little resemblance to the one they had studied back in England, led their men forward nonetheless, many assailing the cliffs behind the beach, climbing hand-over-hand to assail their tormentors at the crest. A dozen destroyers, initially charged with protecting the armada from threats to seaward, steamed inshore to provide timely and essential gunfire support from positions so close to the beach that the destroyers were being hit by rifle fire.

What all this suggests is that there were many heroes on D-Day starting with the shipyard workers back in the States who produced the ships, the commanders who adjusted their expectations to the reality of the moment, and especially the young men on both the ships and on the beach, who overcame the unexpected and triumphed anyway.

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