The 75th anniversary of D-Day took place a few days ago, on June 6th. In honor of that, today we have a contribution from an author of a recently published book about D-Day - D-Day UK: 100 Locations in Britain (Amazon US| Amazon UK). Here Simon Forty explains the background to World War Two’s D-Day and his book.
In June 1944 Allied forces invaded France to liberate Europe and destroy Nazism.
Immortalised in film and book, D-Day is, rightly, seen as a turning point in 20thcentury
history and opened a land campaign that finished less than a year later in the
unconditional surrender of the enemy.
The speed, means and method of this victory have been discussed and debated
ever since. Most of the discussion has concentrated on the landings and the battles
that followed: the bravery of the soldiers, sailors and airmen; the effectiveness and
personality of the commanders; the efficiency and abilities of the respective tactics,
weapons and armies.
The locations are written indelibly in our memories: Omaha and Juno, Pegasus
Bridge, Arromanches, Pointe du Hoc, Sainte-Mère-Église. Understandably, much of the
military remembrance – the cemeteries and memorials – are on the French side of the
English Channel, as are most of the remnants of war – bunkers, vehicles, scarred buildings.
However, like the tip of an iceberg, the D-Day landings and the battle of Normandy
– about two months’ fighting from 6 June until the end of August – were the result of
years of preparation that took place to a great extent in Britain. It was in Britain that
the plans were developed, the logistics organised and the weapons prepared. It was in
Britain that the soldiers boarded the ships to take them to France, from Britain that
the air forces provided aerial cover and the armada set sail. It was in Britain that large
numbers of young American, Canadian, Polish, and French men and women spent so
much time that they became part of the everyday life of the country. And it wasn’t all
work: the influx of that many young men and women – including more than 100,000
black troops – had a striking affect on Britain’s social scene. After the war, 60,000 war
brides left Britain for a future in North America. British and American culture hadn’t
become one entity, but it had certainly joined at the hip.
Americans start to arrive
The first Americans arrived in Northern Ireland in January 1942 – although
‘Special Observers’ had been there since spring 1941. By May 1944 their ranks had
swelled to around 750,000, a figure that doubled before 1944 was out. Some of these
soldiers spent a short time in Britain before heading to the Mediterranean theatre;
others spent as much as 20 months training for action.
This invasion – often dubbed the ‘friendly invasion’ – affected most people
in Britain in one way or another. The Americans had to be housed and fed; they
had to have places to train and trainers to tell them what to do. They had to have
equipment and places to practise using it. The supplies for the battles to come had
to be stored somewhere. The details of the invasion had to include secure locations
for final preparation, places to board ships and receive final orders. And then there
were the naval facilities, and those needed for the US Air Forces: airfields, runways,
hangars. This was no mere temporary posting. This was the creation of an American
infrastructure in a way that hadn’t been done before. The rulebook had to be created.
Over the next two years the preparations for the invasion of France took form.
It wasn’t a linear progression: political considerations, fighting in Africa and the
Mediterranean, the strength of the opposition – all these things interrupted progress
until late 1943. From then on the countdown had begun and while the actual end date
changed slightly, it wasn’t a question of if, but when.
D-Day UK, published to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, chooses 100
locations in Britain to tell the story of how the invasion of France came about. It covers
the practicalities of the planning process, the main people and the major organisations
involved. It looks at the specialist training the troops needed and the major exercises;
gives an insight into some of the logistical issues, covers the movement of troops from
marshalling camp to embarkation – for delivery to France by landing craft or aircraft;
examines the range of air assets over the battlefield, from fighters through medium
bombers to the heavies; and touches on the naval side of the landings, particularly the
minesweepers and landing craft.
Choosing 100 locations
Choosing 100 locations proved to be a difficult job and I’m sure that many would
disagree with my choices: too much air and not enough naval; too much in Hampshire
and not enough in Essex; too much American and not enough British or Canadian; too
much that can’t be seen today. In the end it’s impossible to please everyone.
Finally, I decided early on not to include museums in the listings: there could
have been 100 of them alone, including the Imperial War Museum, National Army
Museum, RAC Tank Museum, D-Day Museum, Royal Signals Museum, Fleet Air
Arm Museum, the excellent Portsmouth naval museums (the Submarine Museum,
Naval Museum and Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower), Bletchley Park, Cobbaton
Combat Collection, museums at airfields (Tangmere, Shoreham, Dunkeswell), up to
and including the Commando display in the Fort William Museum. All these and many
more have material related to D-Day and are worth a visit.