6th June 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day – the Allied invasion of France, codenamed Overlord, the beginning of the end of the Second World War.
We are so distant from this event now it may seem more fiction than reality, existing only in newsreels, black-and-white footage, and celebrated in films starring actors that today many might never have heard of. Memories seem confined to those men or women in their 80s or 90s, making D-Day appear even more disconnected to today's younger generations: something that happened in the distant, unrelated past. Sadly, more people know of the battles of Game of Thrones than the events of 6th June 1944.
This was an event fought by men and women largely in their early 20s. Ordinary people. As Harry 'Bombardier H' Hartill remarked in the book We Remember D-Day, 'There were no John Waynes among us – we were butchers, carpenters, painters and rent collectors. Reluctant heroes you might say.'
This epic event has of course been captured in artworks by a variety of artists over the years: art that depicts this event with immediacy, realism and emotion.
The D-Day landings saw planning and preparation on an unprecedented scale. Approximately 200,000 men were engaged in naval operations; 6,900 ships took part, 4,126 landing craft, 10 hospital ships and 14,000 sorties were flown. This was to enable 83,000 British and Canadian and 73,000 American troops to land in Normandy.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander of the operation and General Bernard Montgomery was Commander of the 21st Army Group – this consisted of all the land forces to be used in the invasion.
Five Normandy beaches were targeted for assault on D-Day and given codenames – Utah and Omaha (assigned to the American forces), Juno (Canadian forces), Sword and Gold (British forces).
A large plan for the invasion area was located in a lecture room at St Paul's School in April 1944 for Montgomery, and visitors included the King (George VI) and the War Cabinet. This was guarded by members of the Intelligence corps. One of their other roles was to mix among the troops and listen for 'loose talk', as it was called.
This planning had been ongoing since the Trident Conference held in Washington in 1943 and it is one of the extraordinary facts of D-Day that the plans were never leaked and the deception tactics used by the Allies (known as Operation Fortitude) were so successful. Operation Fortitude, with its use of double agents, dummy tanks and landing craft, convinced German High Command that an invasion would take place on the shores of Pas-de-Calais. This location made logical sense as it was the shortest route across the English Channel.
Soldiers underwent extensive preparation training. Signalman Alan Whiting, RN, recalled in D-Day: By Those Who Were There by Peter Liddle:
'I was instructed in how to kill swiftly and silently in different ways, to use anything as a weapon, swing on ropes with full kit, ammunition pouches and a rifle over water and pits full of barbed wire, to run across tree trunks and jump over trenches also full of barbed wire and to learn how to fall across a barricade comprised of barbed wire and make a bridge in order that others following you could run across and over your back, cross an obstacle course and still be able to bayonet somebody at the end of it, all under sporadic fire from rifle and automatic weapons, accompanied by smoke bombs. Then we commenced our amphibious assault landing training in earnest.'
Those who piloted the landing craft, Whiting recalled, were nicknamed 'saltwater cowboys' as the craft bucked in any swells and you had to be a cowboy to stay on them.
This idyllic painting by Gyrth Russell captures a Normandy beach scene in 1929. The peaceful atmosphere would be shattered in 1944.
The invasion began not by the sea but by air.
Just after midnight on 6th June 1944, the invasion began from the air and the first Allied troops landed in enemy territory. These were from US 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Division and the British 6th Airborne – a total of 18,000 men. Their mission was to capture significant strategic points to allow the troops to advance once they had landed – and to disrupt German lines of communication.
Stephen Ambrose's Pegasus Bridge describes the first engagement of D-Day between British airborne troops and German defenders. This was over the crucial bridge over the Caen canal. It would later be renamed as Pegasus Bridge after the symbol of the British airborne forces.
Just after 11pm on the night of 5th June 1944, six Horsa gliders packed full of men from the British 6th Airborne Division took off from Salisbury Plain. These men were heavily equipped with either a rifle, sten or bren gun, six to nine grenades, ammo magazines and more. They wore burnt cork or coal on their faces. The only thing visible was the whites of their eyes. Each man carried 250 pounds of equipment – if they fell over they needed help getting up. Their mission to take the bridges over the Caen and River Orne.
Rifleman H. W. Clark recalled in D Day: By Those Who Were There that: 'The atmosphere in the glider was somewhat like a London tube train in the rush hour. We were in good heart. John Howard come along and wishes us well, we could all feel the emotion in his voice. The glider doors were closed. We now sat in a world of our own.'
The flight took an hour. The gliders crashed down in occupied France at 00.16 on 6th June. The men rushed out and stepped onto Nazi-occupied Europe. The long battle for liberation had begun.
A few hours after the invasion from the air, the land invasion began.
In We Remember D-Day, Tom Roberts said: 'Nearing the French coast, and, by now actually manning my landing craft... two words can only describe the sight and sound: Dante's Inferno'.
Men were landed on the beach from 6.30am. This time was chosen to coincide with half-tide so that many of the German beach obstacles would be visible.
The actuality of the day can only be imagined but even then it would never be anything like the reality. Only those that were there know this. Much of which they have kept within themselves for years. Memories recall noise, panic, chaos, bullets hitting tanks and landing craft like hail, men jumping into the water to begin the assault only to jump into deep water never to be seen again.
This work by Leslie Arthur Wilcox depicts the moment the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment stormed on to Gold.
And this by R. Lockwood captures the chaos of landing. The chaos, in many ways, was expected due to extensive rehearsals beforehand.
This picture by Norman Smith shows the scale of the defences the men had to grapple with while under fire. To me, the simplicity of this painting makes it even more striking.
By the end of the day, 2,500 of the Allied forces had been killed and 8,500 wounded. These were much lower casualty figures than expected. German and civilian casualties are unknown.
I will leave the last word to ex-Wren Barbara Lister, who was based in Ramsgate in June 1944. She recalled her memories for Blind Veterans UK:
'I remember all the landing barges crossing the channel, then on 6th June 1944 the sky was full of aircraft of all types. I had the honour of knowing and working with those brave boys who were crossing the Channel... The next day lots of them were missing, drowned at sea. It is something I shall never ever forget.'
Gary Haines, archivist and researcher