The success of the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944 is often taken for granted today, generations removed from the event known as D-Day. At the time, however, the outcome of this complex attack was far from certain. As the largest invasion force in history assembled in Great Britain over many months, the Allies worked hard to conceal the true nature of their strategy. These efforts included many brilliant deceptions and feints that fooled the Nazis. Meanwhile, the Allies worked overtime building ingenious new assault vehicles specially prepared for the dangerous beach landing. In the end, the success came at a terrible price; according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, more than 4,000 Allied troops died as a result of D-Day, and almost 6,000 more were wounded. Here are some facets of the Normandy invasion that are often overlooked today, shrouded by the fog of time.
5. Gen. Eisenhower Prepared a Last-Minute Press Release to Announce Failure
On June 5, after Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the Allied invasion code-named Operation Overlord to proceed, he scribbled some notes on scrap paper, in essence writing a press release to be distributed in the event of a catastrophic defeat. “Our landings have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” he wrote. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” Gen. Eisenhower can be forgiven if he was a bit preoccupied when he wrote this; he accidentally misdated the note “July 5.” Thankfully, Ike never had to issue that statement, seen here in the Archives.gov collection.
4. Former President’s Son Played a Key Role in the Invasion
Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the 26th president, played an active role in the Normandy invasion. After being denied a field command twice, the 56-year-old World War I veteran finally earned an assignment to command troops in the first wave to hit Utah Beach. Roosevelt is considered both the oldest man in the invasion, as well as the only general to reach the beach by sea in the first attack wave. He participated despite having a heart condition. Upon learning that he and his men had landed 2 kilometers from their objective, Gen. Roosevelt reportedly said, “We’ll start the war from right here!” Roosevelt led his fellow troops across the beach under heavy fire to attack enemy strongholds. His colleagues expected him to be killed in the initial onslaught, but were pleasantly surprised to find him alive and well when they came ashore later in the day. Gen. Roosevelt died of a heart attack a month after the landings, but was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day. The citation stated Roosevelt, “contributed substantially to the successful establishment of the beachhead in France.”
3. The Allies Developed Many Fake Strategies to Fool the Nazis
Regarding the Allied efforts to deceive the Germans before the invasion, Winston Churchill famously quipped during the war that truth must be protected by, “a bodyguard of lies.” The massive Allied deception, thus code-named Operation Bodyguard, proved a key factor in the success of D-Day; confusion about exactly when and where the invasion would come kept the Germans from massing their troops at Normandy, which would have made a successful attack impossible. Gen. George Patton played an important role in the deception strategy as the commander of a fictitious unit called the First United States Army Group (FUSAG.) Through fake radio transmissions and by leaking “secret” information through double agents, the Allies tricked the Germans into thinking the invasion would come at Pas de Calais, a spot the Germans had already judged as the likely landing zone. In addition, the Allies tried to fool the enemy into thinking troop morale had reached deplorable conditions; a directive from Allied headquarters ordered officers to make the Germans believe a, “Shortage of manpower has obliged cannibalisation within the British Army in the UK.”
Operation Bodyguard included many other affiliated fake operations to further muddle the issue. Operation Ferdinand supposedly heralded an Allied plan to invade Europe through Italy. Operation Ironside involved invading France from the Bay of Biscay near Bordeaux. Operation Fortitude North involved a plan to invade Norway, while Operation Zeppelin portrayed an invasion landing on Crete and Western Greece. The deceptions considered right up to the morning of the invasion; in Operation Titanic, British planes dropped hundreds of fake paratroopers away from the true invasion site to distract the enemy. Our modern sensibilities might wonder how the Germans could fall for these tricks, yet the Germans wasted valuable time and manpower investigating and preparing for each of these faux plans. And they fooled the one man who mattered most: When news of the D-Day invasion reached Hitler, he refused to send reinforcements because he was convinced the real attack would still come from Patton and his fictitious First United States Army Group.
2. The Invasion Preparation Spawned a Secret “Ghost Army”
The series of phony invasion plans devised by the Allies needed more than just code names to make them believable. More than 1,000 soldiers were part of a top-secret unit called the Ghost Army. Made up of artists, sound technicians and other creative types, the Ghost Army built thousands of inflatable tanks, trucks, planes and ships that were deployed around Great Britain. They helped to convince German intelligence analysts reviewing surveillance photos that the Allied forces were indeed preparing for an invasion — just not of Normandy. Ghost Army sound techs recorded actual troop movements, and then used powerful speakers to blast the sounds out at various locations, fooling German observers. Unit insignias, uniform patches and phony radio transmissions by the Ghost Army greatly added to the believability of the deceptions. The Ghost Army’s work was so top secret, in fact, that news of its existence didn’t surface until a story in the Smithsonian magazine in 1985.
1. The Invasion Sparked the Development of Several New Assault Vehicles
Amphibious invasions are notoriously difficult. Although American Marines had gained hard-earned lessons in the Pacific theater regarding these complex operations, the Army faced a different set of challenges presented by the English Channel and the formidable German defenses along the Normandy coast. Offensive firepower would be crucial at the point of attack as the first waves of American and British soldiers struggled to come ashore in the face of withering enemy fire. Tanks were the obvious choice, but the channel, with its unpredictable and rough seas, presented a daunting challenge. Enter British major general and engineer Percy Hobart, who conceived of the Duplex Drive tank, or DD tank. Nicknamed the “Donald Duck” tank, the DD model was a standard Sherman Tank fitted with a flotation skirt that allowed it to “swim” to shore after being released by a landing craft. The tank proved an asset on several beaches, but unfortunately for the soldiers assaulting Omaha Beach, rough seas sank all but two of the 29 DD tanks launched by one battalion. Upon hearing the news, other battalions waited to land on the beach before releasing their tanks.
Hobart came up with many other strange assault vehicle designs, which earned the nickname Hobart’s Funnies. Among the most unusual: the Crocodile tank, which featured a Mark VII Churchill tank with a flamethrower. It proved to be a devastating weapon at Normandy and in later operations and came to be dreaded by German infantry, who in anger often executed captured Crocodile crews.