Jun 6, 1944

D-Day

Imperial War Museums

On 6 June 1944, the biggest combined naval, military and air operation ever seen took place. Code-named 'Overlord', the D-Day landings on the coast of Normandy marked the start of a campaign which led to eventual Allied victory in Europe in May 1945.

Preparations for the liberation of Western Europe had begun soon after the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk in 1940. 

By the end of 1941, Britain had been joined by the Soviet Union and the United States in the ‘Grand Alliance’ against Hitler. In 1943 the Allies met in Tehran to plan their strategy.

This exhibition looks at the planning that was needed to ensure the success of Operation 'Overlord' as well as the events that unfolded on D-Day itself.

Commandos on board a landing craft on their approach to Sword Beach, 6 June 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
The approach to Sword Beach, 6 June 1944

In November 1943 the Allies met in Tehran to plan their strategy. Britain and the US agreed to launch a cross-Channel attack in the following spring. The Soviet Union had been demanding a ‘second front’ in the west since July 1941. 

Josef Stalin, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Tehran, 1943, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
The 'Big Three' in Tehran, 1943

In December 1943 a command team was formed to plan and lead the Allied air, sea and ground forces for the forthcoming invasion. General Dwight D Eisenhower was named as Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces. 

The ‘D’ in D-Day simply stands for Day. The terms D-Day and H-Hour were used by military planners to designate the day and hour of a forthcoming operation where the exact date and time were still to be confirmed or were secret.

Meeting of the Supreme Command, Allied Expeditionary Force in London, 1 February 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
The command team, 1944
Henry Carr, General Dwight D Eisenhower (1943) painting, oil on canvas, 1943, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
General Dwight D Eisenhower

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder became Deputy Supreme Commander.

Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was appointed Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief. 

Frederick Morgan was Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander. 

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, photographed in Italy, 17 December 1943, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Sir Arthur Tedder
Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay KCB MVO Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Forces, photographed at his London Headquarters at Norfolk House c. 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Sir Bertram Ramsay
Lieutenant General F E Morgan holding a press conference at headquarters, 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Frederick Morgan

General Sir Bernard Montgomery, as Commander-in-Chief 21st Army Group, was to command all the Allied ground forces during the assault phase in Normandy. 

Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory became the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force. 

General Sir Bernard Montgomery in England, 1943, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Sir Bernard Montgomery
Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, looks down on Normandy from a Douglas Dakota aircraft, June 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory

The success of the D-Day operation depended on careful preparation. While factories in Britain worked round the clock to produce the huge quantities of weapons, ammunition and equipment needed by the invasion forces, a wide variety of specialists contributed their unique skills and knowledge.

Detailed information was compiled about the German defences, the terrain and the weather conditions. Inventors and engineers devised special equipment to help forces land safely in Normandy.

False information was fed to the Germans to draw their attention away from the real invasion site. 

Preparations for D-Day, by Richard Eurich
Dummy landing craft moored in southern England before D-Day, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Dummy landing craft 
Group Captain J M Stagg, Chief Meteorological Officer with the Royal Air Force, responsible for forecasting weather conditions for D-Day, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Group Captain J M Stagg, RAF Chief Meteorological Officer 
Protective suit worn by Lieutenant Rollo Mangnall RNVR of the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPP), From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Protective suit worn by a member of the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties
Thomas Hennell, WRNS Censoring Ships' Mail Portsmouth, 1944, watercolour drawing on paper, 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
WRNS Censoring Mail, by Thomas Hennell 

Many special ships were developed for D-Day. As well as Tank Landing Craft, there were tiny Assault Landing Craft and huge Landing Ships. 

The Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was founded in June 1939 to free up RAF personnel for front line duties. By 1943, the WAAF had 182,000 members.

Tank Landing Craft in Southampton, 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Tank Landing Craft
Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineer) tank on display in Land Warfare at IWM Duxford, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Churchill AVRE
Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) repair and pack parachutes for use by airborne troops during the Normandy invasion, 31 May 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Members of the WAAF packing parachutes for use during the Normandy invasion

The Allies could not rely on capturing an undamaged port, so two artificial harbours were planned, one in the British sector and one in the American. Each was assembled from 400 prefabricated sections. 

Each Mulberry component was given a code-name. The pier heads (Whales) and their roads ashore rose and fell with the tide on adjustable legs (Spuds). Submerged concrete caissons (Phoenixes), floating steel tanks (Bombardons), and sunken blockships (Corncobs), which formed an outer defence (Gooseberry), protected the piers. 

The ‘Mulberry Harbour’ at Arromanches, 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
The artificial 'Mulberry Harbour' at Arromanches
Model of section of Mulberry Harbour, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Model of 'Mulberry Harbour' section

February 1944 onwards, Allied bombers had been attacking the French road and rail network to isolate the invasion area and prevent the rapid movement of German reinforcements and equipment. 

To disguise the fact that Normandy was the invasion zone, many other targets in northern France were also attacked. At dusk on 5 June, RAF bombers began to drop bundles of metal foil strips, code-named 'Window', over the Channel to create confusion on German radar operators' screens. 

On D-Day, the Allied air forces flew over 14,000 sorties in support of the landings, almost unchallenged by the Luftwaffe. In the early hours of 6 June, three Allied airborne divisions landed troops by parachute and glider to seize and protect the flanks of the invasion beaches. 

Aircraft prepared for the reinforcement of the British airborne assault on D-Day, assembled at Tarrant Rushton, Hampshire, 6 June 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Aircraft reinforcements being prepared
"‘Window", From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Metal foil strips, code-named ‘Window’
Men of 22nd Independent Parachute Company, 6th Airborne Division being briefed for the invasion, 4-5 June 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Invasion briefings
Private Papers of S R Verrier, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Private Papers of S R Verrier

To defend coastal areas against a possible Allied invasion, the Germans built huge fortifications known as the Atlantic Wall. They included concrete pill boxes, bunkers and gun positions.

When, early in 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel took command of the German forces from the Netherlands to the River Loire, the defences were strengthened, particularly in the sectors facing the English Channel.

C A Russell, A Pill-box, St Aubin-sur-Mer, 1944, watercolour drawing on paper, 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
A Pill-box, by C A Russell
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the German anti-invasion forces, inspecting German defences on the Atlantic Wall, 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Inspecting the Atlantic Wall

By mid-May 1944, some 6,500,000 mines had been laid and over 500,000 beach obstacles installed. In the Normandy area, the defences were manned mainly by the German 716th Infantry Division, which included a number of Polish and Russian-born conscripts. 

However, around Omaha Beach, the battle-hardened German 352nd Infantry Division was engaged on anti-invasion training on 6 June 1944.

Reconnaissance photograph of beach defences in Normandy, 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Beach defenses
Diagram of mines swept in Seine Bay 6 June 1944 to 31 July 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Mines in Seine Bay

The naval element of Operation 'Overlord' under Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was code-named Operation 'Neptune'.

By June 1944 nearly 7,000 warships, landing craft and other vessels were assembled in the ports of southern England. Minesweepers cleared lanes across the Channel. On D-Day, as well as bombarding coastal defences, two naval task forces landed two British, one Canadian and two American divisions on the Normandy beaches.

Naval forces provided fire support for the armies and ensured that supplies to the beachhead were maintained. Many landing craft were sunk or damaged, but by nightfall the Allies had put over 132,000 troops ashore.

Footage from an American-commentated account of the Normandy landings

This message from Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief, was read to all troops shortly before they left for the invasion beaches.

 

Juno Beach was assaulted by the Canadian 3rd Division. It was heavily defended with emplacements and formidable beach obstacles. Rough seas delayed the landings. The Germans opened fire as the Canadian infantry landed, and the first wave suffered heavy casualties.

Special order of the day to the officers and men of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force, 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Message from Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay
Permits issued to Captain Peter Lucas, Assistant Military Landing Officer (RE), 7th Beach Group (7th Canadian Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division) on Juno Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Permits issued on Juno Beach
9th Canadian Infantry Brigade disembarking with bicycles from landing craft onto 'Nan White' sector of Juno Beach, 6 June 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Canadian troops at Juno Beach
Jig Beach
Troops of the US 7th Corps wading ashore on Utah Beach, 6 June 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
US troops at Utah Beach
Letter written by Lieutenant (Torpedo) Officer R MacNab from the cruiser HMS Glasgow describing the landings on Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Letter written by Lieutenant (Torpedo) Officer R MacNab 
British Army formation badge for 3rd Infantry Division (the 'Iron Division') which landed as the left flank division around Ouistreham on D-Day, 6 June 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
British Army formation badge 
Infantry of 50th Division moving forward near St Gabriel, 6 June 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Troops inland near St Gabriel
Reconnaissance photograph showing Landing Craft (Tank) landing reinforcements and equipment in the Gold beach area, 6 June 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
The approach to Gold Beach
Footage from an American-commentated account of the Normandy landings
Commandos approach Sword Beach in a Landing Craft Infantry (LCI), From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
The approach to Sword Beach
Officer’s dress jacket worn by Lieutenant Peter Brooke-Smith RNVR who served in HMS Belfast during the Normandy landings, 1944, 1945-04-04, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
HMS Belfast officer's dress jacket 
Letter from Able Seaman A Jones describes HMS Belfast’s bombardment in support of the D-Day landings., From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Letter from Able Seaman A Jones on board HMS Belfast  
Starboard 4 inch guns of HMS Belfast open fire on German positions around Ver-sur-Mer on the night of 27 June 1945, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
HMS Belfast firing on German positions, Ver-sur-Mer
Footage from an American-commentated account of the Normandy landings

Casualties among the first men to land on D-Day were looked after by the army medical personnel who landed with the assault waves. Wounded men were stabilised and taken back across the Channel in landing ships. Military hospitals around Britain were on standby to receive the wounded. 

Once the beachhead had been secured, field hospitals were set up in Normandy, and the women’s nursing services crossed the Channel to care for the casualties.

Private Papers of Miss M E Littleboy, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Private Papers of Miss M E Littleboy, an ambulance driver based on the Isle of Wight during the D-Day landings 
OPERATION OVERLORD (THE NORMANDY LANDINGS): D-DAY 6 JUNE 1944, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
Treating a wounded soldier

75,000 men were landed on Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches before midnight on D-Day, at a cost of around 3,000 killed, wounded or missing. 23,250 men were landed on Utah Beach at a cost of under 250 casualties. Of the 34,000 US troops who landed on Omaha Beach, where the German resistance was strongest, some 2,000 casualties were suffered - a high proportion of the total Allied losses on D-Day.

Footage from an American-commentated account of the Normandy landings

In all, the Allies suffered approximately 10,200 casualties on 6 June. This figure was lower than the planners and commanders had been expecting, but each death represented a sad loss for families and comrades.

German prisoners tending an American cemetery at St Laurient, France, near Omaha beach one year after D-Day, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
American cemetery near Omaha Beach
Credits: Story

Project Lead — Carolyn Royston
Technical Manager — Jeremy Ottevanger
Exhibition Curator — Amanda Mason
Exhibition Content Developer — Jesse Alter

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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