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Black and white photograph shows Allied forces landing on the beaches of Normandy

The ultimate guide to D-Day

Every year on 6th June, the world marks the anniversary of D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history and a pivotal turning point during World War II. Here’s everything you need to know about the Normandy landings:


1. The story of D-Day

With Hitler’s forces bogged down on the Eastern Front, the Allies looked to open up a second front in Western Europe. Planning for the invasion, known as Operation Overlord, began as early as 1941 as the Allies debated how and where they should attack Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

They eventually settled on the sheltered and wide-open beaches of Normandy, France. By early June 1944, over two million troops from 12 different nations had gathered on British shores in preparation for the invasion.

The assault was originally planned for 5th June but bad weather forced a 24-hour postponement.

In the early hours of 6th June 1944, around 7,000 vessels – the largest invasion force ever assembled – crossed the English Channel heading towards Normandy. Whilst they crossed, paratroopers landed behind enemy lines to cut German communication systems and secure bridges.

When the Allies reached French shorelines, the Navy began raining down artillery fire on German coastal defences. The Allied troops then landed across five beachheads codenamed Juno, Gold, Utah, Omaha and Sword. German defences proved fiercest at Omaha which saw the most causalities. However, by the day’s end, the Allies had established a foothold along the coast and managed to move nearly 160,000 troops across the Channel.

The day was a roaring success and the race to Berlin had begun.

2. What does D-Day stand for?

Black and white photograph of troops wading onto the Normandy beaches
Image: US troops wading onto Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion |

The amphibious assault phase of Operation Overlord was actually codenamed Operation Neptune, so why then do we remember it as D-Day?

D-Day is military speak for the day that an operation will begin. So, 6th June 1944 was D-Day for Operation Neptune. The ‘D’ stands for ‘Day’, so the phrase actually means ‘Day-Day’.

Whilst there were many D-Days during WWII, the invasion of Western Europe was so significant and historic in its scale that it became synonymous with the term.

3. What if D-Day had failed?

It’s a scary thought but one that American General Dwight D. Eisenhower had very much planned for. The supreme commander of the Allied forces had drafted a speech should D-Day have failed.

‘Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. If any blame or fault is attached to the attempt it is mine alone.’

As we know, Eisenhower never had to issue that statement but what if he had? How would the war have played out if D-Day had failed?

It's likely the Allies would have regrouped and attempted a second offensive, perhaps in Southern France. The war would likely have ended in German defeat, albeit a couple of years later than in the actual timeline, with the Soviets gaining more territory in Europe.

4. Deception campaigns

Aerial photograph of decoy landing craft
Image: Decoy landing craft at an unknown location in South-East England | Public Domain

During World War II, victory on the battlefield was not always won on the day but rather in the months and weeks before a shot had even been fired. Several successful deception campaigns gave the Allies an advantage during the war and D-Day was no exception.

In the build-up, it was vital to keep Hitler guessing if, when and where an Allied attack on Western Europe would occur, so the Allies embarked on Operation Fortitude.

The operation included the creation of fake army camps in Kent, fully kitted out with inflatable tanks. The idea was to convince Hitler any attack would be aimed at the Pas de Calais. Combined with false radio traffic and German double agents, Hitler took the bait.

Even after the D-Day landings began, Hitler was convinced that was the decoy with the actual attacks still to come at Pas de Calais. He was so adamant that he delayed sending reinforcements to Normandy for hours after D-Day began.

5. The mystery of the D-Day puzzles

The gathering of intelligence has always played a part in warfare but never has it been so pivotal than during WWII. Allied and Axis powers ran spy networks that reached across the world with each side attempting to gain the upper hand. Posters in Britain reminded the public to watch what they said as anyone could be listening.

Therefore, eyebrows were raised when a month before D-Day took place, top-secret codenames began appearing in the Daily Telegraph crosswords. All five Normandy beachheads appeared, along with the words ‘Overlord’ and ‘Neptune’. Were these just unbelievable coincidences or the work of foreign agents?

MI5 took no chances and fully investigated the matter, tracking down the author of the crosswords. He turned out to be a headmaster at a school in Surrey who juggled his daytime job alongside his passion for creating crosswords. In the end, the intelligence services concluded it was all just pure coincidence.

6. The Bagpiper of D-Day

Statue of Piper Bill Millin
Image: Statue of Piper Bill Millin in Normandy | Krzysztof Pazdalski /

As the Allied troops stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day the sound of war was deafening. However, on one beach that day, another noise was heard rising above the cacophony of explosions, gunfire, and screams. It was the sound of bagpipes.

On Sword Beach, 21-year-old Private Bill Millin of the 1st Special Service Brigade Commandos stepped off his landing craft and began playing his pipes. It was highly irregular as pipers had been banned from the front line during WWII due to the high number of casualties during WWI.

However, Millin was under the orders of commander Scottish Brigadier Simon Fraser, an eccentric but brilliant leader. Remarkably, Millin not only survived the beach landing, but he continued to play as the troops advanced inland, dodging sniper fire and rousing the spirits of those around him.

7. Stanley Hollis and the Victoria Cross

Stanley Hollis was the only man to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on D-Day. Given the heroism and bravery on display that day, the actions of Hollis were truly above and beyond.

After wading through the surf to land at Gold Beach, Hollis survived the beach assault and made his way inland. He then uncovered a hidden German pillbox and single-handedly rushed it with his gun blazing before throwing a grenade inside. He then kicked the door down and took the German soldiers inside prisoner.

He then did the same to another pillbox, capturing even more German POWs. When his men found themselves pinned down by enemy gunfire, Hollis stepped out in the open to draw fire away from his troops so they could escape.

‘Wherever the fighting was heaviest, CSM Hollis appeared’, his VC citation read. ‘He displayed the utmost gallantry and on two separate occasions his courage and initiative prevented the enemy from holding up the advance at critical stages.’

After the war, Hollis led a quiet family life with many around him unaware he was one of the greatest British heroes of WWII.

8. The Great Escaper  

A photograph of Bernard Jordan returning to Portsmouth after his trip to Normandy, France
Image: Bernard Jordan, the 90-year-old war veteran waves as he returns to Portsmouth after his trip to Normandy, France | PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

On 6th June 2014, world leaders and dignitaries from across the world gathered on the Normandy coastline to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The real stars of the day though were the surviving veterans who also returned to the spot where they’d so bravely fought all those years ago.

However, one 89-year-old Royal Navy and D-Day veteran found out he wasn’t enrolled on an accredited visit to Normandy with the Royal British Legion. Undeterred, Bernard Jordan decided to walk out of his care home in Hove and make his own way across the English Channel.

When staff at The Pines care home realised he was missing, they raised the alarm with police. All breathed a sigh of relief when another war veteran confirmed they’d met Bernard and he was en route to France. The story of his adventure captured the hearts and minds of the nation and was even turned into a 2023 movie starring Michael Cane called The Great Escaper.