Photo: second wave troops of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade, dismbarking with bicycles onto 'Nan White' Beach, Juno Area, at Bernieres-sur-Mer on June 6 © Imperial War Museum, London
We all know it was a massive military invasion but what was D-Day like for the people who took part? Gavin Greenwood went to London's Imperial War Museum to find out.
An exhibition to mark the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe on June 6 1944 opened at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London on April 7. Running until May 30 2005, it forms the centrepiece of a series of events intended to commemorate D-Day, the military designation for the landings on France’s Normandy coast.
D-Day remains the most complex and intense military operation ever conducted. In order to ensure success, the invasion – codenamed Overlord - was planned in meticulous detail over an 18-month period.
Photo: an American howitzer unit waits in a Southampton Street before moving to the docks © New York Times/Imperial War Museum, London
More than 7,000 warships, landing craft and merchant vessels were assembled to carry, escort and support five army divisions – some 130,000 British, US and Canadian troops – across the channel on the first day of the attack.
Thousands more airborne troops were ready to seize and hold the flanks of the invasion beaches to prevent German counter-attacks in the critical hours following the landings. Air force bombers and fighters flew more than 14,000 missions on D-Day alone.
Photo: four parachute commanders synchronising their watches at about 11.00pm on June 5, just prior to take off from RAF Harwell © Imperial War Museum, London
Preliminary air raids across much of the invasion area and beyond had begun in February 1944 in a bid to systematically destroy the railway and road networks and hamper German efforts to reinforce their units defending the beaches.
Over the same period Allied naval forces were active in the Channel. Their job was to attack German destroyers and the fast 'E-boats' seen as a major threat to the slow-moving troop convoys as well as clearing minefields and covertly assessing the suitability of the landing beaches.
French resistance forces were also supplied and briefed on their role to delay, divert and report on German troop movements once the invasion began.
Photo: R.E.M.E soldiers of the 51st Highland Division reading a booklet about France while on board their Landing Ship, June 6 © Imperial War Museum
A lack of a useable port near the invasion zone led to the construction of two huge artificial harbours. These instant ports were fabricated along the south coast of England before being towed to Normandy in the wake of the invasion force to enable the fighting troops to be supplied within days of landing in France.
Fuel for tanks and other vehicles was pumped under the Channel in a pipeline quickly laid between the Isle of Wight and Normandy once the beaches were secure.
In order to conceal the unconcealable – the entire south coast of England was transformed into a huge military camp and construction site - an elaborate and successful deception plan developed to convince the German’s that the invasion would occur well away from the Normandy beaches.
Photo: support troops of the 3rd British Infantry assembling on 'Queen Red' Beach, Sword Area, at La Breche, at approximately 8.40am on June 6 © Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum has chosen to illustrate and illuminate this complex three-dimensional effort by focusing on the often mundane, frequently telling and sometimes moving details of D-Day rather than try and portray or evoke the massive scale of the invasion.
The exhibition is centred on a darkened room with a light-table constantly flickering with original newsreel footage of the D-Day landings. The cased exhibits lead visitors through the planning and preparation of the invasion, using a few well-chosen original documents that offer veracity and insight into the problems of meeting the priorities and sensitivities of the Anglo-American command structure.
One example is British commander General Montgomery’s handwritten draft of his message to the invasion troops set beside the final version. In the draft the phrase 'under the supreme command of General Eisenhower' is lightly crossed out only to be restored in the printed copy, offering a small insight into the sometimes difficult relationship between the Allied military commanders.
This effort to humanise the invasion runs through all the exhibits, with each showcase focusing on an aspect of D-day through personal artefacts.
Photo: pocket diary belonging to Sergeant G E Hughes of The 1st Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment. The entry for June 5 1944 reads 'D-Day tomorrow everybody quite excited.' © Imperial War Museum, London
In a section on casualties - more than 10,000 Allied personnel were killed, wounded or reported missing on June 6 - the notebook of a British army chaplain is opened to a page listing the names of the dead from his unit. Accompanied by hand-drawn maps, where he had supervised their burial on the battlefield, the list has a poignancy and immediacy that moves and shocks.
The only minor criticism of the exhibition is that this level of detail may be difficult to appreciate in the confined space allotted to the display: this could be easily remedied by putting at least some of the documents on the museum’s website.
For visitors seeking heavier and more substantial exhibits linked to the Normandy landings, the IWM's main hall provides a number of excellent examples, ranging from the Allies ubiquitous Sherman tank, to the powerful German 88mm dual anti-aircraft/anti-tank gun, both overlooked by a US Mustang fighter bomber hanging from the ceiling.
There are also a number of evocative paintings of the Normandy beach-heads by war artists Richard Eurich and Thomas Barclay Hennell in the museum’s art gallery.
Photo: Gustav the pigeon being awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal on September 1 1944 for delivering the first message from a ship off the Normandy beaches. The message he sent and his medal are in the exhibition. Courtesy PDSA.
In addition to the year-long exhibition at the IWM, other events to commemorate D-Day will be held in London. These include daily performances of a specially commissioned play The Night before D-Day in the Cabinet War Rooms beneath Whitehall between May 29 and June 6.
Over the same period D-Day linked activities will be held aboard the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Belfast, one of the first Allied warships to bombard German positions in Normandy and now moored in the Thames.
Outside the capital, the IWM’s Duxford annex, which houses a permanent D-Day exhibition of tanks, artillery and other military vehicles and equipment, will host a major air display on June 6 featuring aircraft associated with the invasion. The Imperial War Museum North will focus on personal memories of D-Day and audio-visual displays of the build-up to the landings and the invasion.