D-Day: World War II invasion was 79 years ago. It remains significant
D-Day 70th Anniversary

A look back at D-Day: Why the World War II invasion remains important on its 79th anniversary

Mike Snider
USA TODAY
  • D-Day, the invasion of German-held western Europe by the Allies – primarily the U.S., Great Britain and Canada – happened on June 6, 1944.
  • The plan, code named Operation Overlord, had been in the planning for years, but began fully in December 1943 when Gen. Eisenhower was given command.
  • Even though everything didn’t go according to plan, more than 150,000 infantry troops were transported across the English Channel into German-occupied France.
  • The offensive, which strained an already weakened Germany, helped bring about the end of World War II less than a year later.

D-Day, the largest land, sea, and air invasion ever attempted, happened on June 6, 1944 – 79 years ago. Its impact resonates today.

The Allied forces turned the tide in World War II with the invasion of Nazi-held Europe. Soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy still faced incredible challenges, persevering when an intricate Operation Overlord didn't go according to plan.

But the decision-making savvy shown by the Allied commanders then is an example of what is always needed to manage changing worldviews, said now-retired Gen. Jeff Harrigian, who penned a D-Day anniversary observance editorial on USATODAY.com in 2021.

"Then and now, information is the key to warfare when you’re locked in conflict with a peer adversary as the Allies were with Nazi Germany," said Harrigian, who at the time was the commander of the U.S. Air Forces Europe, U.S. Air Forces Africa and Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

With information and space as potential "domains of conflict" with adversaries China and Russia, the U.S. and its allies must continue to evolve its ability to use data to its advantage in deterring – and combatting – adversaries, Harrigian said.

Why is D-Day still important today?

There are more existential reasons, too, as to why D-Day remains significant to us. "They gave us our world," said President Clinton, during events observing the 50th anniversary in France.

Sgt. Nathan Rogers, a 23-year-old Army Ranger at the time attending the ceremony, said of the troops involved. "They mean everything to us," he said. "We wouldn't have existed if not for them. They definitely set the standard."D-Day's significance spans continents and decades. "If any single day can credibly be presented as the defining moment of a century, it’s 6 June 1944, the day of the allied landings at Normandy," Peter Jennings, who was the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute from May 2012 to May 2022, said back in 2014. "As it was the successful allied landings announced America’s arrival as the world’s leading power, created the basis for Europe’s future wealth and stability, and established the claim that democracy and international collaboration would ultimately overcome totalitarianism."

D-Day:Photos give glimpse into historic World War II invasion 79 years ago

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What is D-Day? When did it happen?

More than four years into World War II – Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939 set off the global conflict – the major Allied forces including the U.S., Great Britain, France and Russia planned an invasion to weaken an already spread-thin German army, according to History.com

The operation would happen on June 6, 1944, but what would become the largest amphibious assault in history had been in the works for years. Preparation began in December 1943 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt named General Dwight D. Eisenhower the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, notes the National World War II Museum.

Troops crouch inside an landing, craft, vehicle, personnel boat, or Higgins boat, just before landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day.

What does D-Day stand for?

You might think the "D" in D-Day stands for "Designated" or "Decision," but the D actually stands for "Day," because it is a coded designation used for the day of any important invasion or military operation. So actions taken four days ahead of the actual operation, for instance, would be D-4, according to the U.S. Army.

American soldiers land on the French coast of Normandy during the D-Day invasion in June 1944.

What was Operation Overlord?

Operation Overlord was the code name for the D-Day invasion. Overlord included all of the planning that went into the assault, which would involve the transporting of more than 150,000 infantry troops across the English Channel into German-occupied France.

By the end of May 1944, more than 1.5 million U.S. Army personnel had arrived in the U.K. to participate or support the operation, according to the National World War II Museum. Overall, more than two million soldiers from the U.S. soldiers and 250,000 from Canada had arrived by June in preparation for, and to support, the invasion, according to History.com. Also delivered: 7 million tons of supplies including 450,000 tons of ammunition.

(FILES) This file photograph taken on June 6, 1944, shows Allied forces soldiers during the D-Day  landing operations in Normandy, north-western France. - The D-Day ceremonies on June 6, 2019, will mark the 75th anniversary since the launch of 'Operation Overlord', a vast military operation by Allied forces in Normandy, which turned the tide of World War II, eventually leading to the liberation of occupied France and the end of the war against Nazi Germany. (Photo by - / AFP)-/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1GY9SJ

Operation Overlord also contained a fake operation called Operation Fortitude to convince Hitler the Allies would attempt to land in Norway and Pas-de-Calais in France where the English Channel is narrowest. The plot, concocted over months, included a fake army, led by General George Patton, and readying in Dover for the channel crossing, notes History.com.

Another fictitious force, the British Fourth Army, stationed in Scotland to threaten Norway, where Hitler's U-boats were based, "existed only on the airwaves," wrote historian Stephen Ambrose in "D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II." British officers and German spies created a web of realistic radio messages to convince the Germans of the operation and wooden fake bombers were deployed.

The feints were so successful that even as the Normandy invasion occurred, Hitler considered it a ploy to divert attention from Calais. "They had placed the bulk of their panzer divisions north and east of the Seine River, where they were unavailable for counterattack in Normandy," Ambrose wrote.

What was General Eisenhower's speech on D-Day?

Eisenhower issued an Order of the Day for June 6, 1944, which he had begun writing in February 1944. "You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months," read the order, of which Eisenhower also recorded a radio broadcast version. "The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world."Copies of the order were given to the 175,000-member expeditionary force on the eve of the invasion, according to the National Archives.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the day, "Full victory - nothing else," to paratroopers somewhere in England, just before they boarded their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of the continent of Europe, June 6, 1944.

Eisenhower also recorded a message to be broadcast to those living in German-held Europe. It started off with “People of Western Europe! A landing has been made this morning on the coast of France …"

In this address, Eisenhower also instructed “patriots” outside of recognized resistance groups to continue "passive resistance," but he added, "do not needlessly endanger your lives; wait until I give you the signal to rise and strike the enemy," wrote Tim Rives, the deputy director and supervisory archivist of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

Did D-Day go according to plan?

There were many complications. Eisenhower had chosen June 5, 1944, as the date for the invasion, but it was postponed until the next day because of weather.Many paratroopers, dropped in the morning behind enemy lines to cut off supply routes, missed their landing targets because they had to jump from planes moving faster than expected to evade anti-aircraft fire. Fog and high winds worsened the situation, too, History.com details.

While under attack of heavy machine gun fire from the German coastal defense forces, American soldiers wade ashore off the ramp of a U.S. Coast Guard landing craft in this June 6, 1944 file photo, during the Allied landing operations at Normandy.

As the Allied forces landed on five beaches, the U.S. landing force for Utah beach was blown off course. Winds and tide also affected the U.S. landing at Omaha, where the fiercest fighting was seen.

After emerging from landing boats, troops were pinned down by enemy machine-gun from the cliffs overlooking the long, flat beach code-named Omaha. “If you (stayed) there you were going to die,” Lieutenant Colonel Bill Friedman told the National World War II Museum. “We just had to . . . try to get to the bottom of the cliffs on which the Germans had mounted their defenses.” U.S. and British destroyers arrived to attack enemy positions and support the troops including those attempting to commandeer the critical Pointe du Hoc, a German-held clifftop between Omaha and Utah beaches, notes the Naval History and Heritage Command site.

By the end of the day, about 156,000 Allied troops had successfully landed and taken Normandy’s beaches. 

Pointe du Hoc is the highest point between the American sectors of Utah and Omaha Beaches. As part of the D-Day invasion, U.S. Army Rangers scaled the 100-foot cliffs from the sea below to take out German machine gun bunkers.

How did D-Day succeed ?

Operation Overlord involved more than 11,000 planes and more than 5,000 ships and landing craft, along with 50,000 vehicles.

"The plan had called for the air and naval bombardments, followed by tanks and dozers, to blast a path through the exits so that the infantry could march up the draws (ravines) and engage the enemy, but the plan had failed, utterly and completely failed," Ambrose wrote. "As is almost always the case in war, it was up to the infantry. It became the infantry's job to open the exits so that the vehicles could drive up the draws and engage the enemy."

Junior officers and noncommissioned officers "saw at once that the intricate plan ... bore no relationship whatsoever to the tactical problem they faced," he wrote.

Their training "had prepared them for this challenge. They sized up the situation, saw what had to be done, and did it," Ambrose wrote.

American soldiers wait in foxholes at Utah Beach on D-Day for the order to move inland against German fortifications.

Sgt. John Ellery, of the 16th Infantry Regiment of the First Infantry Brigade, also known as "The Big Red One,” was among the first wave to hit Omaha Beach. He told survivors around him, "we had to get off the beach and that I'd lead the way," and climbed up the bluff to use grenades to take out a machine gun position, Ambrose writes in "D-Day.""We sometimes forget, I think, that you can manufacture weapons, and you can purchase ammunition," Ellery is quoted by Ambrose, "but you can't buy valor and you can't pull heroes off an assembly line."

Now many soldiers died on D-Day?

  • 4,415 Allied soldiers died on D-Day, with U.S. servicemen accounting for 2,502 of the death and 1,913 Allied soldiers from seven other nations, according to The National D-Day Memorial Foundation.
  • Between 4,000 and 9,000 German soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in action.
  • About 200,000 German prisoners of war were captured.
  • An estimated 12,200 French civilians died or went missing during the battle, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

The invasion proved successful: Paris was liberated from the Germans on Aug. 25, 1944 and on May 7, 1945, less than a year after the D-Day invasion, Germany surrendered.

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