5 Things You Didn’t Know About D-Day

Dummy Hurricane

D-Day was the largest amphibious assault in history. The movements of huge numbers of men, and the places where they fought to the death, are well known. Names such as George Taylor and Pointe du Hoc are etched forever in our nation’s memory. There are hundreds of thousands of individual stories surrounding the great invasion. Many are lost to history and many others are obscure. Here are a few interesting ones you may not have heard of.

German Train
Handiwork of the French Resistance. Photo taken June 6, 1944.

1. The French Resistance Saved Our Butts

Everyone knows the French just rolled over and surrendered to the Nazis, right? Not all of them! The French resistance were our eyes and ears before the invasion, delivering 3,000 written reports and 700 radio reports to the allies during the month before D-Day. We knew where all the German units were, what their strength was, what equipment they had, and even where their Generals vacationed. On the night before D-Day the French resistance struck all over France, blowing up ammo dumps, cutting telephone lines, and shooting up highway convoys. However, all these attacks pale in comparison to the destruction wrought on the German trains. Resistance fighters conducted nearly 1,000 separate attacks on the railway system the night before the invasion. Some of these attacks were spectacular, such as blowing up engines or bridges with explosives. Some attacks were more subtle. For example, the rail cars which brought Panzers to the front had an oil reservoir between each set of wheels, lubricating the axles. Brave resistance fighters snuck into the rail yards totally unarmed and removed the drain plugs in these reservoirs with basic hand tools, letting all the oil drain out overnight. When those Panzers were desperately needed the next day to push us back to the ocean, they never got there. The axles overheated and seized up, and those Panzers were stuck on rail cars miles from the front instead of shooting at our fighting men.

Failure Message
Eisenhower’s forgotten note. Good penmanship is not essential to being an effective general.

2. Eisenhower’s Forgotten Note

Five days after the invasion, Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower came across a forgotten note stuffed in his wallet and gave it to his naval aide, Harry Butcher. Butcher was astonished at what he saw. Written the day before D-Day, it read, Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone. —July 5 The note was intended as a speech to be presented, likely along with Eisenhower’s resignation, in case the invasion was a failure. Ike was under such strain during the hours before D-Day that he had even written down the wrong month. The once forgotten note now resides in the National Archives as exhibit 186470.

Dummy Hurricane
This dummy Hawker Hurricane isn’t airworthy—and never will be.

3. Patton Commanded an Impressive Force That Didn’t Exist

Wherever General Patton went, he drew a lot of attention. Newspapers delighted in taking photos of him and talking about all his exploits. So naturally, the Germans knew all about his intensive training of the First United States Army Group, based in the southeast of England. It was a mighty force with tons of landing craft, airplanes, and thousands of troops, all aimed directly at the port of Calais. After German reinforcements were committed to opposing the Normandy landings, Patton would command this army to sweep down and take the port in a massive coup de main. However, Patton’s army never existed. A few dedicated members of “Operation Quicksilver” spent months before D-Day constantly operating a few radio sets. They generated enough radio traffic to make it seem like Patton was giving orders to a huge concentrated force with heavy tanks and artillery. They also made sure that the radio traffic was intercepted by the Germans. Fake airfields were lit up at night, illuminating fake planes for German reconnaissance aircraft to spot. German spies caught in England were turned into double agents, providing detailed intelligence reports about Patton’s powerful invasion force. When D-Day happened, Hitler was convinced that the Normandy beach landings were just a diversion. He had been completely duped. Thousands of troops ready to defend against the coming invasion at Calais were 70 miles away from our real landing zones. Meanwhile, Patton was getting the Third Army ready to follow up D-Day’s success with 250,000 well-trained, well-equipped, and very real American troops.

4. Hitler Ordered German U-Boats on Suicide Missions To Stop The US Armada

German U-Boat Captain Herbert A. Werner wrote in his memoir, Iron Coffins, that the U-Boat fleet was sent to the Normandy area and ordered to fire all of their torpedoes at the American flotilla, then ram a ship of small enough size that it would sink along with the submarine, carrying both ships and all their sailors to the bottom of the channel forever. However, this never happened as all of the U-boats were too far away from Normandy beach to get there in time. By this time in the war the U-boat fleet was decimated, and allied naval and air power destroyed many of the U-boats as they tried to reach the channel from their bases in Norway and France.  Not a single ship in the invasion fleet was engaged by a German submarine on D-Day. Hitler was willing to throw away the once-mighty pride of the German navy in a desperate attempt to stop the allied invasion, but it was too late. He had already begun ordering his military units to accomplish impossible feats.

5. We Fought Against Russians on D-Day

The 709th and 243rd Static Infantry Divisions were among the defending units opposing us on June 6th, 1944. The 709th defended the Cotentin Peninsula against U.S. paratroopers and also faced the US 4th Infantry Division at UTAH beach. The 243rd was located in the region of St.-Maire-Eglise. Both divisions were manned entirely by Russian troops who had offered to fight for the Germans rather than be starved to death in prisoner of war camps. They wore German uniforms and were equipped with second-rate German weapons and gear. Because their German masters did not trust them to fight well against their own countrymen, they were deployed as far away from Russia as possible. This put them on the extreme Western front of German territory—the beaches of occupied France. These expatriot Russians correctly believed that we would not help them if they surrendered. Granting them political asylum would strain our relations with the Soviet Union, which considered them all traitors who should be executed on sight. Therefore, many of them fought hard against allied units. American and British forces absolutely destroyed both divisions, killing off what was left of them during the battle of Cherbourg in late June.

If you know any unusual stories about D-Day, share them in the comments below. There is much more to Operation Overlord than most of us will ever realize!

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