VE Day 70: D-Day success changed the course of war

Royal Marine commandos moving off the Normandy Beaches during the advance inland from Sword beach
Royal Marine commandos moving off the Normandy Beaches during the advance inland from Sword beach
Daniel Gibbs

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May 8 marks the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day – or VE Day as it became known – which recognised the surrender of German forces, bringing the second World war in Europe to a close.

Spontaneous celebrations broke out up and down the land and across the Continent as millions of people marked the end of the war.

D-Day

Much of the focus on D­-Day falls on the massive naval offensive, but the first punches of the invasion came in aerial form.

From 9.30pm on June 5, Allied bombers dropped 5,316 tonnes of bombs on radar stations and German gun batteries in the assault area.

A total of 24,000 airborne troops landed behind German lines to secure important roads and bridges – including the famous Pegasus Bridge – and played a critical part in fooling the enemy.

American troops land in Normandy on D-Day

American troops land in Normandy on D-Day

The parachutists dropped ‘dummy’ parachutes inland to draw German troops away from the beaches and spread ‘chaff’, or strips of tin foil, to disrupt radar signals.

Operation Overlord

Operation Overlord, ‘The Great Crusade’, the Normandy Landings and D-­Day. It had many names, but there was only one aim for the military operation that took place on June 6, 1944: to launch the beginning of the end of World War II.

By the time the operation began, there were signs that the tide was already turning in favour of the Allies.

There was Germany’s surrender in Stalingrad in February 1943, followed by its capitulation in North Africa in May 1943.

Mussolini, Hitler’s only European ally, was overthrown two months later. Rome fell on June 4, 1944.

But for these seeds of hope to grow into something real, the Allies needed the help of nearly 7,000 ships, 11,000 aircraft and nearly three million men – ‘the biggest amphibious attack in the history of military combat.’

It is perhaps ironic this attack, after two years of meticulous planning, was actually a day late.

A forecast of oncoming low cloud, strong winds and rough seas meant there was no choice but to push the landing time back from the early hours of June 5 to June 6.

Thankfully, the wait brought marginally better weather.

At around 11pm on June 5, 6,339 ships, laden with troops, supplies and ammunition, set off across the Channel from the South English coast.

Despite the ‘fair’ forecast, it was not a comfortable journey; pitch black, crammed in uncomfortable metal bunks and with little fresh air, most soldiers battled crippling seasickness.

But worse was to come. Of the 156,000 soldiers who bravely staggered on to the beaches, codenamed Sword, Juno, Omaha, Utah and Gold, 4,000 were killed and another 10,000 wounded.

They were pulled under waves by their heavy packs, overcome by the mine­filled surf and mowed down by the fire of 50,000 waiting German guns.

Though terrifying, the invasion went perfectly to plan.

By the end of that first day, the 50-mile coastal stretch swarmed with more than 140,000 Allied troops, many already pushing several miles inland.

“Operation Neptune,” Winston Churchill told MPs in the House of Commons at 6.20pm, “is proceeding in a thoroughly satisfactory manner”.