The legacy of D-Day resonates through history: It was the largest-ever amphibious military invasion. Allied forces faced rough weather and fierce German gunfire as they stormed Normandy’s coast. Despite tough odds and high casualties, Allied forces ultimately won the battle and helped turn the tide of World War II toward victory against Hitler’s forces.
But there are some aspects from D-Day that may not be as well known. Among them: Hitler’s miscalculations, a hero medic who has still not received official recognition, and the horror faced by a 19-year-old coastguardsman as he followed a tough command. Here are some lesser-known stories about the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
1. Eisenhower threatened to quit just months before D-Day.
Just a few months before the D-Day invasion, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower and English Prime Minister Winston Churchill were at odds over a controversial plan. Eisenhower wanted to divert Allied strategic bombers that had been hammering German industrial plants to instead begin bombing critical French infrastructure.
For Eisenhower, the switch in bombing seemed like a no-brainer. But others, including Churchill and Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of the Royal Air Force’s strategic bomber command, didn’t see it that way. Harris saw the plan as a waste of resources, while Churchill was concerned about collateral damage to France—an important ally. Facing this opposition, Eisenhower threatened to step down from his position.
The move worked, the bombing plan went ahead and, historians argue, Eisenhower showed the depth of his dedication to making D-Day a successful operation and defeating the Nazis.
Read more here.
2. Hitler thought he was ready–but Nazi defenses were focused in the wrong place.
As early as 1942, Adolf Hitler knew that a large-scale Allied invasion of France could turn the tide of the war in Europe. But thanks in large part to a brilliant Allied deception campaign and Hitler’s fanatical grip on Nazi military decisions, the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 became precisely the turning point that the Germans most feared. In 1942 Germany began construction on the Atlantic Wall, a 2,400-mile network of bunkers, pillboxes, mines and landing obstacles up and down the French coastline. But without the money and manpower to install a continuous line of defense, the Nazis focused on established ports.
The top candidate for an Allied invasion was believed to be the French port city of Calais, where the Germans installed three massive gun batteries. Meanwhile, the rest of the French coastline—including the northern beaches of Normandy—was less fiercely defended. What’s more, if Hitler had listened to his Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, matters might have been worse for the Allies landing at Normandy.
Read more here.
3. Key early parts of the invasion did not go to plan.
The strategy on D-Day was to prepare the beaches for incoming Allied troops by heavily bombing Nazi gun positions at the coast and destroying key bridges and roads to cut off Germany’s retreat and reinforcements. The paratroopers were to then drop in to secure inland positions ahead of the land invasion.
But almost nothing went exactly as planned on June 6, 1944.
In the end, partly due to poor weather and visibility, bombers failed to take out key artillery, particularly at Omaha Beach. Many paratroopers were dropped far off their marks and became vulnerable to German snipers. And during the land invasion, a critical fleet of marine tanks sunk in stormy seas and failed to make it ashore. Despite the setbacks, Allied troops pushed through and by pure grit, got the job done.
Explore how D-Day unfolded here.
4. Ramps on Allied landing crafts acted as shields—until they were dropped.
D-Day veteran Frank DeVita says he’ll never forget how tough it was to be the man in charge of dropping the ramp as his landing craft approached Omaha Beach. “This was our shield as long as it was up. And as we approached the shoreline where the water hits the sand, and the machine guns were hitting the front of the boat—it was like a typewriter,” DeVita, who was barely 19 on June 6, 1944, remembers.
When he was ordered to drop the ramp, he paused. “I figured in my mind when I drop that damn ramp, the bullets that are hitting the ramp are going to come into the boat. So I froze.”
But then the coxswain again yelled at DeVita to lower the ramp, and he followed the order. “I dropped the ramp,” he said. “And the first 7, 8, 9, 10 guys went down like you were cutting down wheat…They were kids.”
Watch DeVita tell his story here.
5. Among the heroes on Omaha Beach was a black combat medic who treated more than 200 men.
Heavy machine-gun fire greeted a nauseous and bloody Waverly B. Woodson, Jr. as he disembarked onto Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. A German shell had just blasted apart his landing craft, killing the man next to him and peppering him with so much shrapnel that he initially believed he, too, was dying.
But Woodson, a medic with the lone African-American combat unit to fight on D-Day, managed to set up a medical aid station. For the next 30 hours, he removed bullets, dispensed blood plasma, cleaned wounds, reset broken bones and at one point amputated a foot. He also saved four men from drowning.
After the battle, Woodson was highly commended, but never received a medal. Though Woodson died in 2005, his family has been pushing the Army to award him a Medal of Honor posthumously.
Watch Woodson’s widow tell his story here.
6. Historians are still calculating how many died on D-Day
In planning the D-Day attack, Allied military leaders knew that casualties might be staggeringly high, but it was a cost they were willing to pay in order to establish an infantry stronghold in France. Days before the invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was told by a top strategist that paratrooper casualties alone could be as high as 75 percent. The casualties were staggeringly high on D-Day—but how high?
When a memorial was first being planned in the late 1990s, there were wildly different estimates for Allied D-Day fatalities ranging from 5,000 to 12,000. Military records clearly showed that thousands of troops perished during the initial phases of the months-long Normandy Campaign, but it wasn’t clear when many of the troops were actually killed. Historians estimate there were 4,414 Allied deaths on June 6, including 2,501 Americans. But they also know that list isn’t complete and the project to count the dead continues.
Read more here.
7. Allied troops won more than a military victory on D-Day.
D-Day’s hard-fought battles not only led to the beginning of the end of the war, the men who fought in the invasion forever changed people’s lives—and influenced the perception of the soldier—as savior—for at least one young boy.
French businessman Bernard Marie was 5 years old and living in Normandy on June 6, 1944. He remembers before the Allied invasion, he and his friends could not go out and play on the beaches because “Mother couldn’t trust anybody. So, for me, everybody wearing a uniform was a bad guy. “
On D-Day, as sirens wailed over their town starting at 2 a.m., Marie retreated to the basement with his grandfather to take shelter. “My grandfather put his hands on my ears because there was a lot of noise. It was nonstop. And we stayed there 15 hours. We were so afraid.”
At 5 pm, Marie recalls, the shooting was done. Then he heard his mother outside yelling, so he and his grandfather ran upstairs to follow her. “I will never forget,” Marie says, “She was hugging a soldier! I could not understand that. For me it was a bad guy. So she called me to come and said, 'These soldiers are good, they’ve come to save us.'”
To this day, Marie is grateful to that soldier—and to all the veterans who fought to liberate France from the Nazis. “The most important thing for any human being is freedom,” he says. “We cannot forget the 6th of June.”
Watch Marie tell his story here.