Understanding D-Day: What Is the History of the Normandy Invasion?

By EricLast Updated Jun 2, 2021 11:29:29 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

On June 6, 1944, the Allied powers launched D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history, and began the process of invading German-occupied Western Europe during World War II. Code-named "Operation Overlord," the invasion involved storming the beaches of Normandy, France.

The Normandy Invasion is often labeled as the beginning of the U.S.’s involvement in World War II in the European theater, but a lot of work the U.S. did built up to that date. The U.S. took a neutral stance on World War II until it became clear that neutrality was no longer an option.

Today, Normandy is a popular vacation destination due largely to the historic legacy it holds. From its bloody military past to the meaningful changes it symbolizes today, the Normandy Invasion remains a watershed moment that changed the course of world history as we know it.

D-Day’s History: Waiting for the U.S. to Make Its Move

To understand the assault and touring of Normandy beaches, it’s important to take a look at what was going on in the world that led up to the historic day during a point in time after World War I when the political and social climates of the day led to the election of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust.

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Photo Courtesy: Educational Images/Getty Images

While most historians agree that the Holocaust started in 1941, the human rights atrocities committed towards Jewish people had been happening long before. Jews were blamed for the declining economy in Germany after the Great War, and Hitler spread propaganda about the Jewish people that helped him further his political agenda.

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When Hitler was elected in 1933, facism quickly spread, and it became increasingly brutal. The Concentration Camp Dachau opened shortly after. The Nazi Party was granted unchecked legislative power with The Enabling Act, which was passed in the same year. Not long after, Jewish people were intentionally isolated from society. Their businesses were boycotted. They were forced to wear star-shaped badges that identified them as Jewish to the public. Homosexual, Black and Romani people were also isolated and oppressed.

It’s difficult to look at the Holocaust’s history and not wonder why the U.S. didn't get involved immediately. The United States has earned a reputation for being a police-like figure on the world’s stage. In the 1930s, however, the United States had only been a country for roughly 150 years and was still in the process of developing the political, cultural and military might that it's now known for.

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Before the U.S. could emerge as a victor in World War II, it needed justification for entering as a combatant and overtly taking a side. On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked. This is the event that’s typically credited with sparking the United States' involvement in World War II.

Prior to Pearl Harbor, the U.S. wanted to help but did not want to be directly involved. The Lend-Lease Act was passed in March 1941, several months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Signed by President Roosevelt, this law sent more than $50 billion in food and supplies — the equivalent of $225 billion today — to Allied nations like France, England and China.

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This still took place a few years prior to the battle on Normandy Beach, France. D-Day and the Invasion of Normandy have a reputation for being the United States’ famed entrance into WWII combat, but the U.S. kept itself busy right after Pearl Harbor. Near Japan, U.S. troops saw battles in the Philippines, Solomon Islands and New Guinea, among other areas.

In Europe, the United States joined Allied forces by declaring war on Nazi Germany four days after the Pearl Harbor attack and three days after declaring war on Japan. Europe saw more focus from the States because London and Moscow — the capital cities of two powerful Allies — were more readily accessible to Germany than any other Ally’s position was to Japan. The United States Navy joined the Battle of the Atlantic not long after. The first battle on land fought by U.S. troops alongside other Allies was Operation Torch in North Africa. Sixteen million American troops would eventually serve during World War II.

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D-Day is less the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II and more the beginning of the end of World War II itself.

What Happened During the Normandy Invasion Itself?

Normandy Beach is located on the Northern Coast of France. The body of water that makes it a beach is not technically the Atlantic Ocean but rather the English Channel, which spans 21 miles between France and England. France’s proximity to England made the country a priority to defend because England was such an important ally to the U.S.

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Photo Courtesy: Tylerweatherill/Wikimedia Commons

Originally, the Pas de Calais, a segment of land partially bordering the channel, was considered a potential landing site for the invasion, being that it was the closest continental point to Great Britain. Due to this, the Germans fortified Pas de Calais more heavily against attack than other areas. However, the Allied powers chose Normandy — which is about 200 miles southwest of Pas de Calais — as the landing site for the invasion because the geographic point offered a broader front of attack, allowing simultaneous attacks of Cherbourg, various important coastal ports, and an overland push to Paris and then into Germany. It was also in closest range to fighter aircraft stationed in England.

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The beaches that were stormed were split into five sections: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Taking the beachheads cost the Allies considerable casualties, where approximately 10,000 men were lost, with 4,414 confirmed dead. The landing crafts dropped soldiers into heavy machine gun fire, where the Germans had set up formidable defenses along the coast. The beaches were laden with barbed wire, mines and other obstacles, making the invasion extremely deadly.

The invasion was originally scheduled for May 1, 1944. The date then changed to June 5, but inclement weather pushed the commencement of the invasion to June 6. D-Day is considered one of the most decisive moments of World War II. Many soldiers died that day, and today, the Normandy region contains numerous memorials, cemeteries and museums.

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One factor in the operaton’s success was deception. Instead of a Trojan Horse, Allied forces had Operation Fortitude. This utilized fake radio signals to throw the Germans off from the upcoming attack.

With nearly 160,000 troops crossing the channel that day and over 2 million Allied troops in all, the Normandy Invasion was more than one bloody day. This was the largest invasion that came by sea in known history. The battle waged on for months, officially ending on August 30 of 1944. During this time, the Allies also engaged in combat from France’s Southern waterfront and made their way to Paris.

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Touring Normandy Beaches: What the Former Battleground Looks Like Today

While it’s easy to envision Normandy Beach as a somber area, it's become a popular tourist destination thanks to its beauty but also due to the reflective mood it inspires. Tours from Paris to Normandy are not hard to find — it’s about a three-hour drive from Paris.

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Photo Courtesy: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images

Normandy has more than 11 beaches where people can soak up some sun. Normandiac Cider is a popular beverage to try while exploring the area. There’s also Le Mont-Saint-Michel, a medieval castle community situated off the coast that's only accessible when the tide drops low enough to reveal its underwater road.

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Every five years, the area spares no expense in celebrating the Allies' victory and commemorating the lives lost in battle decades earlier. The event includes reenactments and parades, and it culminates in a fireworks display on Omaha beach.

D-Day is an important day to remember because it marks neither a victory nor a defeat but a turning point that shifted the outcome of what remains the biggest and deadliest war in history. June 6, 1944, was the day the tides of World War II started to change. Remembering the history of the Normandy Invasion is an acknowledgement of the bravery, selflessness and devotion of the Allied troops and of the strategy involved. Battles are long. Wars are even longer. But even when things are at their toughest, they can culminate in a way that shifts momentum for the better.

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