Why we remember that June day: M R D Foot, a wartime SAS member, looks back on D-Day and the Allied rivalries that preceded it

Related Topics
NOW that the veterans have won their fight for the 50th anniversary of D-Day to be commemorated rather than celebrated, it is worth considering what it is that we will be marking on 6 June. What did it mean?

Early on 6 June 1944, a seaborne and airborne force of American, British, Canadian and other Allied soldiers was successfully put ashore on the western coast of Normandy. Duly reinforced, it fought its way through to the Elbe by the next spring. There had been many other D-Days before 6 June - D simply stands for Day, the day an operation begins - including opposed landings; more were to come before the war was over.

In 1939, before ever the US came into the war, an obscure staff major in the Philippines - then an American colony in the course of being given its freedom - wrote in a study for his general, MacArthur, that a landing from the sea across a defended beach was the most difficult operation in warfare.

Five years later the major, whose name was Eisenhower, had become a general and the commander-in-chief in charge of Operation Overlord, the Allied re-entry into north-west Europe, of which the assault phase - Operation Neptune on the Normandy coast - presented the very difficulties he had foreseen.

Up to this time, the British Army, bundled unceremoniously out of France at Dunkirk in June 1940, leaving behind everything too heavy for a single man to carry, had been in search of battlefields where it could attack the Germans. The ebb and flow of war, to and fro across the North African desert, had attracted plenty of newspaper attention at home, but was puny in scale by comparison with the hordes engaged on both sides in the German-Soviet war that raged from June 1941. East Africa, Greece, Syria, Italy and Burma had all provided theatres of war, but only in the long diversionary grind of the Italian campaign had the Army found many Germans to fight - and Hitler's armies in Italy hardly numbered a sixth of his armies in Russia.

For too long soldiers in England felt they had sheltered under the umbrella of the Red Army, which had inflicted a major setback on the Germans at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43 and was, by the late spring of 1944, poised near its own pre-war frontiers to begin a march on Berlin. Decency and rivalry both therefore demanded a substantial British land effort, unless victory over Hitler's Germany was to go solely to the Russians by default.

The United States had not entered the world war until compelled to do so by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, which was followed by Hitler's declaration of war on the US. American strategists agreed with the British on a slogan of 'Germany first', reckoning that Japan alone could not beat them, whereas Germany alone one day might. They pressed hard for a major landing on the north coast of France in 1942; the catastrophe at Dieppe that August, when 3,000 out of the mainly Canadian and British force of 7,000 did not return, showed how difficult a major assault anywhere near a port was going to be.

The British maintained that there were not enough specialised landing craft available for a major cross-Channel landing in 1942, and said the same in 1943, to the annoyance of the Americans, who thought the British over-timid but agreed instead to land in north-west Africa in the autumn of 1942 (Operation Torch), and to the invasion of Sicily (Husky) and the campaign up the Italian peninsula. They did this with some reluctance, but advantages did attach to the line the British insisted on following.

Commanding Torch and Husky gave Eisenhower plenty of practice in running combined headquarters. The Americans usually refer to Overlord as if it was a predominantly American operation. At the start, though, it was not. Not until July 1944 (as Churchill once pointed out) were there more American than British Commonwealth divisions in combat with Axis ground forces the world over, and well over two-thirds of the naval support for Neptune was given by the Royal rather than the United States Navy. The Admiralty had refused to venture a single battleship in support of the attack on Dieppe, yet seven battleships - three of them from the US Navy - and two Royal Navy monitors supported Neptune with bombardments because the Allies had secured complete control of the sky and could risk them.

The armies waiting to go had filled the south of England for weeks. We now know that, thanks to the advantage the Allies gained through reading much traffic on the Germans' supposedly indecipherable Enigma cipher machines, it had been possible to plant in the minds of the German high command the idea that the main landing would be south of Boulogne; so that the Normandy invasion was only a feint. This kept thousands of German troops locked up in northern France; a further trick kept more than 250,000 of them tied up in Norway.

All the same, the landing was a close-run thing, not the walkover that it seems in retrospect. And it was not cheap: more than 6,000 Allied casualties on the first day, quite apart from the German dead and the French civilians who could not be got out of the way of bombardments.

I remember in particular a tiny corner of the deception plan in which I was involved, an SAS operation called Titanic. Ten men went on it. Regimentally it is written off as a failure, for only two came back. The lucky ones were killed in action; the rest were murdered later in Belsen.

For, as most of the world now knows, Hitler's regime was going in for genocide on a vast scale, killing about 10,000 Jews a day in gas ovens, seven days a week, now the leading justification for all the Allies' effort and losses.

Neptune marked the beginning of the end for the Third Reich; although no one foresaw that June day that there were 11 months of bitter fighting ahead till Hitler's suicide and Germany's surrender.

M R D Foot was in an SAS brigade on D-Day and is a retired professor of modern history at Manchester University

(Photograph omitted)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Regional ESF Contract Manager

£32500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Birmingham: European Social Fund...

Day In a Page

Read Next

August catch-up: Waiting on the telephone, tribute to Norm and my Desert Island Discs

John Rentoul
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home