What does D-Day stand for? And other facts about the Normandy landings

Meeting of the Supreme Command, Allied Expeditionary Force, London, 1 February 1944
If D-Day had failed, Dwight Eisenhower, pictured centre with the Supreme Command, Allied Expeditionary Force, would have taken responsibility. | Wikimedia | Public Domain

On 6 June 1944, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy and begun their assault on Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’. The successful invasion opened up a second front in Western Europe and in doing so changed the course of the war, marking the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

Here are some surprising facts about one of the most defining days of WW2.

What does D-Day stand for?

D-Day kicked off Operation Neptune, the amphibious assault phase of the wider campaign known as Operation Overlord. But why exactly was it called D-Day?

The ‘D’ stands for ‘Day’, meaning the name is actually ‘Day-Day’. In military terminology, D-Day means the day that an operation will commence. During the course of the war, there were many D-Days but the one that marked the beginning of the invasion of Western Europe was so significant that the name D-Day became synonymous with it.

It was the largest seaborne invasion in military history

Around 7,000 Allied vessels and 160,000 troops made their way across the English Channel to Normandy on D-Day, making it the largest seaborne operation in the history of warfare.

Churchill wanted to go a different route

Scarred by the failed assault on Dieppe in 1942, Winston Churchill and the British favoured a less direct approach into Europe, wanting to enter via the Mediterranean or the Balkans. However, the Americans wanted the shortest route possible to Germany and considering they were supplying the majority of the men and equipment overruled the British.

Eventually, the sheltered coastline of Normandy was chosen as the landing point. Although further from Germany than the Pas de Calais, the idea was that the wide-open Normandy beaches would make landing vehicles and supplies easier, whilst the region offered a broader range of expansion with tactical targets such as the ports of Cherbourg and Le Havre close by.

It was meant to happen a day earlier

The invasion was originally planned for 5 June, however poor weather conditions forced the Supreme Commander of Allied forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, to postpone the invasion by 24 hours.

In fact, weather planning played a crucial role in the build-up to D-Day. Ideal preparatory and landing conditions required a full moon with a spring tide, presenting the operational planners with only a limited amount of days. Although the weather on the 6 June was far from ideal, if they didn’t act then their next window of opportunity wouldn’t have been until the end of June.

Rommel partied while Hitler slept

The Germans knew an Allied invasion on Western Europe would eventually come, they just didn’t know exactly where and when. So in 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the construction of the Atlantic Wall, a 2,400-mile series of coastal defences that stretched from the edge of the Arctic Circle down to the France-Spain border.

The construction of the wall was overseen by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel aka ‘the Desert Fox’. The weather was so bad in early June, that Rommel felt confident enough that no Allied invasion would be on the cards and so he returned to Germany to celebrate his wife's 50th birthday.

The night before the landings, Hitler was in The Berghof, his private residence in the Bavarian Alps. Although an Allied invasion was something Hitler feared was about to happen, he decided to have a relaxing evening with his entourage, including Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. He didn't retire until 3 am, just three hours before the invasion was due to commence. Those around him were under strict instructions not to wake the Fuhrer for any reason whatsoever.

It took until midday on 6 June for someone to pluck up the courage to finally wake up Hitler, the delay proving costly since the Fuhrer had direct control over a multitude of military divisions.

Deception played a pivotal role

Deception played a vital part in the build-up to D-Day. Operation Fortitude, part of the wider Operation Bodyguard, aimed to confuse the Germans about when and where an Allied invasion on Europe might take place.

Tactics included the creation of fake army camps in Kent, complete with inflatable tanks to give the impression to Hitler that a sizeable force was building in the South East of Britain, with the Pas de Calais (the closest French coastline to Britain) as the most likely landing point.

Famed American General George S Patton, who was well respected by German high command, was given command of the fictitious First U.S. Army Group to help further sell the bluff. Combined with false radio traffic and information fed back to the Germans via the Double-Cross System (German spies working for the Allies as double agents), Hitler re-enforced the Pas de Calais, taking the bait hook link and sinker.

In fact, the Fuhrer was so convinced Calais was the target that he refused to send reinforcements to the Normandy area for seven weeks after the invasion had begun.

Bagpipes were played on Sword

Although the majority who landed on the five beaches (Omaha, Utah, Sword, Juno and Gold) during the D-Day landings were deafened by the noise of gunfire and artillery, those on Sword beach heard a different sound. Bill Millin, a 21-year-old Private in the 1st Special Service Brigade Commandos, fired up his bagpipes and played Hielan’ Laddie before moving on to play Road to the Isles. He did so whilst marching up and down the beaches, raising the spirits of those around him.

In the end, the pipes kept Millin alive and he survived the day without a scratch. Two captured German snipers would later reveal why the piper at the front hadn’t been shot at. They said it was because they thought he was ‘dummkopf’, a foolhardy idiot. The legend of the ‘mad piper’ was born.

All D-Day objectives failed

By the end of D-Day, the Allies had hoped to capture several key towns under German control including Carentan, St. Lô, Caen, and Bayeux. They also planned to link up the various beachheads. By days end, none of these objectives had been accomplished. Although the day failed to achieve its objectives, it gave the Allies a well-needed foothold into Western Europe.

All D-Day objectives were finally accomplished on 19 July when Caen eventually fell into Allied hands.

D-day was an international effort

Although the majority of troops who took part in the D-Day landings were from the UK, America and Canada, countries from around the world sent soldiers to fight on the Normandy beaches. The list included New Zealand, Australia, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Norway, Poland, Belgium and Czechoslovakia.

Around 4,000 men had lost their lives as the sun set on 6 June, with around 6,000 wounded. German deaths lay at around 1,000 men, with wounded figures estimated between 4,000 – 9,000.

Eisenhower planned to take full blame

Although the planning had been meticulous, the D-Day landings were by no means a dead cert. Supreme Commander of Allied forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had planned for the worst and written a statement to be released in the event the invasion had been a failure.

He wrote, ‘Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon 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 is attached to the attempt it is mine alone.'

Shrapnel makes up 4% of the sand on the Normandy beaches

American geologists Earle McBride and Dane Picard took sand samples from the Normandy beaches to analyse their composition. They discovered an astonishing 4% of the sand is made up of tiny metallic shrapnel that has been broken down over the years since WW2.

However, the composition of the beaches won’t remain like this forever. It’s likely that within the next 150 years, waves and storms will wipe most of the remnants of war from from the Normandy beaches.