Reflections on the D-Day Commemorations 2014 by Angela Caldin

D-Day landingsToday, 6 June 2014 is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches of France, the day that marked the turning point in the Second World War and led to Hitler’s ultimate defeat a year later.

My first thought as I watched and listened to the wall-to-wall coverage of this special day was to wonder what the D in D-Day stands for. Various ideas came to mind: disembarkation day, decision day, departure day, even perhaps doomsday, but the generally accepted explanation is that the D simply means the day of an invasion. But there is another account:  it seems that someone wrote to General Eisenhower in 1964 asking for an explanation, and his assistant answered, “Be advised that any amphibious operation has a ‘departed date’; therefore the shortened term ‘D-Day’ is used.” He added that the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 was not the only D-Day of World War II. Every amphibious assault such as those in the Pacific, North Africa, Sicily and Italy had its own D-Day.

Operation Overlord

For those of you who, like me, learnt very little about 20th Century history at school, here’s a brief outline of how the D-Day landings came about. France had been under German occupation since 1940 and the war had been grinding on for four long years. It was the United States’ decision to join the Allies which provided the military strength needed to meticulously plan and mount an invasion of France to liberate Europe from Germany. The massive invasion began with a huge aerial bombardment, accompanied by the dropping of thousands of paratroopers behind German lines to pave the way for the vast army to land on the beaches of the northwest coast of France. Code-named Operation Overlord, and commanded by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allies landed on 6 June 1944 at five beaches in the Normandy area with the code names of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Local French Resistance forces, alerted to the invasion, engaged in behind-the-lines sabotage and combat against the occupying Germans. Over 150,000 American, British and Commonwealth troops met heavy resistance from the German forces defending the area, but were able to force their way inland, securing safe landing zones for reinforcements and supplies. The German failure to defend the Normandy area from the Allied liberation forces marked the beginning of the end of Hitler’s dream of a Nazi controlled ‘Fortress Europe’.

Risk, Luck and Chance

The astonishing thing is that luck and risk played a huge role in the operation.  A Met Office meteorologist, James Stagg, was advising on imminent weather conditions and the decision to attack would be based on his advice. There were a number of strict guidelines about what the weather had to be like for a successful landing which meant there was a series of weather windows based around the tides so landing craft could get onto the beaches. It was on Mr Stagg’s advice that D-Day was postponed 24 hours from its original date of June 5 because of a cold front coming in from the Atlantic. But he also suggested that the weather was set to clear 24 hours later. On this advice, D-Day was confirmed for June 6: “Invasion put on Final and Irrevocable Decision. Whatever the outcome the decision is taken.” Two weeks later when the next window of opportunity would have arisen, the weather was the worst in 20 years.

 Debt of Gratitude

When you watch the newsreel footage and see line upon line of soldiers clutching their kit and their weapons and wading waist deep in the choppy water, you can only marvel at their bravery especially as  they must have known that whether or not they survived was only a matter of chance. They could see their comrades being picked off and falling in the water and on the sand, yet they had no choice but to go on. For the first time in my life, I think, I understood clearly today the huge debt of gratitude the generations born after the war owe to those men. We owe to them not only our freedom but also the luxury we have experienced of living without world wars for seventy years. That’s something that we should never forget.

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