D-Day 75: why Normandy invasion was so important

The Queen, Donald Trump and Theresa May will honour veterans on the 75th anniversary of the historic landing

Veterans are to be honoured by the Queen, Theresa May and US President Donald Trump in a special commemoration in Portsmouth on Wednesday marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

In what will be one of her last official engagements as prime minister, May will then travel to France on Thursday to lay the foundation of the future British Normandy Memorial with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron will then join Trump at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer where he will award the Legion of Honour, France’s highest distinction, to five American veterans aged between 94 and 100.

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More than 150,000 troops landed on the coast of northern France as part of Operation Neptune - commonly known as D-Day on 6 June 1944, as part of the most ambitious seaborne invasion in history. Battles took place at five separate locations along the 60-mile coast, with thousands of fatalities on both sides.

Despite the enormous human cost, D-Day was ultimately an Allied victory and marked the start of Operation Overlord, which drove the Nazis from northwest Europe in June 1944.

Within a year of the landings, Adolf Hitler was dead and Germany had surrendered to the Allied forces, ending the Western theatre of the war.

So exactly what happened on D-Day and why was it such a turning point?

Planning

Limited planning for an invasion of Europe began soon after the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, but detailed preparations for Operation Overlord were not submitted until 1943, by Lieutenant-General Frederick Morgan.

“Factories in the UK increased production and in the first half of 1944, approximately nine million tonnes of supplies and equipment crossed the Atlantic from North America to Britain,” says the Imperial War Museum (IWM) website.

“A substantial Canadian force had been building up in Britain since December 1939, and over 1.4 million American servicemen arrived during 1943 and 1944 to take part in the landings.”

The Allied forces also undertook a targeted deception campaign known as Operation Bodyguard, in a bid to convince the Nazis that the Allies would launch an invasion through Pas de Calais or possibly even Norway, rather than Normandy.

What happened on D-Day?

In the early hours of 6 June 1944, Operation Neptune began.

Taking the thinly stretched Nazi defences by surprise, some 156,000 Allied troops sailed across the Channel from ports on the south coast of England and stormed the beaches of Normandy at five separate points, code-named Utah, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Gold.

A total of 7,000 ships were involved in the attack, including 3,500 troop carriers, 290 escort vessels and 250 minesweepers.

The Nazi defence “suffered from the complex and often confused command structure of the German army, as well as the constant interference of Adolf Hitler in military matters”, according to the IWM site.

Nevertheless, the Allies immediately came under heavy fire, and the work of the beach-clearing teams was both difficult and dangerous, the Daily Express adds.

The Allies are estimated to have suffered at least 10,000 casualties that day, with more than 4,000 confirmed dead, but by evening, five vital access points for Allied military operations into Europe had been established.

Why is the invasion so significant?

Prior to D-Day, the Allied forces’ access to Western Europe had been limited by the fall of France into the hands of the Nazis in 1940. By June 1944, an operation was under way to liberate the Italian Peninsula, but establishing a foothold in Normandy was essential for a full-scale invasion.

Following their defeat on the beaches, the Nazi forces in Western Europe were so depleted that the Allies were able to advance, capturing Paris by 25 August, and Brussels by 3 September. Meanwhile, the Nazis’ resources were tied up on the Eastern Front in the Soviet Union.

Hitler’s defensive strategy was enormously detrimental to the Nazi war effort. The fuhrer refused to allow his commanders freedom to give up ground, inadvertently handing the Allies “a more complete victory than they could have hoped for, as enemy units were sucked into the maelstrom and destroyed” across France, says IWM historian Ian Carter.

By late April 1945, the Allies had advanced deep into German territory and liberated Munich, one of the key Nazi strongholds. Unable to defend two fronts at once, the Nazis were decisively beaten by the Red Army in Berlin, leading to the suicide of Hitler and forcing the surrender of Nazi Germany on 8 May 1945.

“Without D-Day, Adolf Hitler would have deployed many more divisions to resist the Red Army,” says The Independent. “He would have had more time to develop, and deploy, his modern weapon of terror, the V2.

“The War might have continued indefinitely.”

How is it being commemorated?

Events are being held in both the UK and France this June to mark the 75th anniversary of the landings.

A specially chartered ship, the MV Boudicca, funded by the Royal British Legion and a Libor grant, will sail across to Normandy carrying around 300 D-Day veterans, who “will be saluted by land, sea and air on both sides of the Channel”, says Metro.

And at sunset on the 6 June, thousands of people will gather in Arromanches’ seafront square overlooking “where Winston Churchill’s vision of a portable port was realised in the engineering miracle of the Mulberry harbours”, The Guardian reports.

“The importance of the 75th anniversary has given extra bite this year,” Michael Dodds, director of Normandy Tourism, told the newspaper. “I think this will be the last time there will be a large number of veterans. So, Normandy is making a big effort.”

In the UK, hundreds of US army troops who died during a practice drill for D-Day are being remembered with a massive art installation.

Bootprints have been laid out on Slapton Sands, in Devon, to represent the 749 servicemen killed when “a Royal Navy convoy carrying them was attacked by E-boats from Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine”, reports ITV News.

Artist Martin Barraud is raising money for veteran employment projects with his tribute to the massacre, which occurred on 28 April 1944 during the secret Exercise Tiger mission to prepare for the Allied invasion of the French coast.

Barraud also designed last year's There But Not There campaign, placing silhouettes of “Tommy” troops at sites across the UK, to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, the BBC reports.

“Our Tommy campaign captured the hearts of the nation, whilst giving a substantial boost to the mental health and well-being of veterans,” he said.

“We're hoping the public will get behind our D-Day 75 campaign by purchasing their own bootprints to mark the great sacrifice of our WWII heroes, in particular those who helped kick-start the liberation of Europe with the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.”

However, the commemorations have not been without controversy. The Daily Telegraph reports that Macron is “facing criticism” for refusing to attend an international ceremony at Normandy’s Juno Beach on Thursday.

Instead, he is to take charge of a ceremony in homage to French commandos and Resistance fighters who took part in the Normandy landings in 1944.

Critics have described his actions as an insult to Allied veterans. Government officials have said that French presidents only lead international D-Day ceremonies on round-number anniversaries such as the 60th or 70th, but the president's detractors “argue that he should make an exception this year as it is likely to be the last major D-Day anniversary while veterans are still alive”, says the Telegraph.

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