What most Americans these days know about D-Day comes from the movies “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and “Band of Brothers” (2001), and that’s pretty good! It’s infinitely better than not knowing anything at all about this pivotal Allied invasion of World War II.
However, to enhance your knowledge of this important battle whose anniversary is June 6, here are a few more interesting facts you probably didn’t learn in school.
1. Teddy Roosevelt Jr. fought on D-Day.
You remember the original Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, (1898) right? He earned the Medal of Honor for his incredible bravery that day. Well, his son Ted Jr. was no less brave.
Teddy Jr. fought in World War I at Soissons and was wounded in action. Later, in World War II, he was a brigadier general and led troops in North Africa and Italy. For the D-Day invasion, the 56-year-old soldier (the oldest Allied soldier on D-Day, by the way) begged to lead the men out of his landing craft and be the first on shore. He was given that honor, and led his men onto Utah Beach. (While they were heading for shore he led his men in singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”)
They landed about a mile off course and not under as much direct fire as the Americans on Omaha Beach, but they were receiving fire nevertheless and taking casualties. (His son, Captain Quentin Roosevelt, was fighting on Omaha Beach when he landed on Utah.) The arthritic general, with cane in one hand and pistol in the other, personally led his troops off the beach, flanking and attacking the Germans.
Henry Fonda portrayed General Roosevelt in the classic film “The Longest Day“:
Later, when General Omar Bradley was asked what was the most courageous thing he saw in World War II, he said, “Ted Roosevelt on Utah Beach.” Here is the real General Roosevelt just days after D Day:
Tragically, one month later, he died from a heart attack. He is buried in a U.S. military cemetery next to his brother, who was killed in World War I.
For his actions on D-Day, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, making him and his dad the second father-son Medal of Honor “team” in our history (General Douglas MacArthur and his dad, General Arthur MacArthur, are the other father-son team).
2. The Nazis used non-German draftees to fight in Normandy.
The Germans had some very fine troops at Normandy (most notably the 352nd Infantry Division at Omaha Beach). However, the Allies also captured Koreans, Poles, Czechs, Russians, Mongolians, Georgians, and Kazakhs in German uniforms. Here is a good little video telling the true story of the Korean man, Yang Kyoungjong, who (along with several other Koreans) was captured by American paratroopers that day:
The German war machine was desperate for manpower by this time, and so they ignored the “non-Aryan” qualities of the troops that they had captured from the Soviet Union or drafted from their conquered territories. These “Ostlegions” that were part of the 709 and 716 Static Infantry Divisions in Normandy did not put up much of a fight and were happy to be captured by the Allies.
Here is the tragic scene from “Saving Private Ryan” in which Czech men in the German Army are trying to surrender. They are actually saying in Czech, “Don’t shoot; we are Czechs!”
3. Hitler was asleep and Rommel was at a birthday party.
Thank God that the Germans were caught napping … literally, in the case of their Führer! Hitler had been telling his generals for months that the Allies would probably attack far to the north at Calais, and thus had stationed the bulk of his armored divisions. He had also told his generals that no one could move any of the German troops without his express permission. (I also thank God that the Germans did not have a flexible command structure, and that Hitler was not too bright when it came to strategy and tactics.)
Hitler had been entertaining his high command all day and night on June 5, and went to bed at 3 a.m. on June 6 … just as Allied paratroopers were landing all over Normandy. No one woke him all morning long as 160,000 American, British, and Canadian troops fought their way off the beaches. And no German general could order a single panzer division to counterattack until Hitler was awake. Der Führer finally awakened and greeted the world at 12 noon. When told of the invasion, he released panzer divisions to counterattack, but it was too late.
And what of his best general, Erwin Rommel? The Desert Fox was not expecting the invasion at all, and had gone home to celebrate his wife’s birthday on June 6. The entire German army at Normandy was basically paralyzed, understrength, and leaderless.
4. One little town in Virginia took more casualties than any other small town in America.
Bedford, Virginia, was home to just 3,400 people. They had one taxi driver, one funeral home, and one sheriff. It was like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. Thirty-five men from the town were in Company A of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. They were Virginia National Guard troops, they had never seen combat, and they wanted to be the first to hit the beach.
They got their wish. Out of those 35 boys from Bedford, 19 were killed on Omaha Beach. It is one story after another of heroism, tragedy, and sorrow. For them, this was not just a scene from a movie or a page in a book. This was real, and their families were never the same.
5. The Allies fooled the Germans.
Part of the Allied success lay with the fact that they convinced the German High Command that they were going to land elsewhere. They also had the Germans believing that U.S. General George Patton was going to lead the charge! (The Germans feared Patton more than any other American or British general. Patton would not land on D-Day, but rather two months later.)
The Allies created fake Army divisions, fake planes, fake tanks, and put them all in fake camps all across Britain.
They used fake radio traffic to make sure that the Germans believed that these were real troop movements. They even came up with phony U.S. Army shoulder patches and “let” the Germans get a hold of these documents! Britain even used double agents to fool and paralyze German armies on D-Day.
When the Allied paratroopers were flying to France on the night of June 5, 1944, our planes also dropped thin metal strips to confuse German radar stations. On their screens, they could not tell if these were planes or snow! The Allies also dropped little mannequins dressed up as paratroopers! When they hit the ground, they were filled with firecrackers and started exploding! You can see these little guys at the 1:13 mark in this OSS (early version of the CIA) film from 1943:
Plenty of German troops were alarmed by this and thought they were truly under fire. With all these ruses, the Allies were able to pin down and isolate German troops in the first hours of the invasion.
6. The invasion was almost jeopardized by a crossword puzzle!
In the months leading up to the invasion, secret code words for the British and Canadian landing sites (Gold, Sword, Juno) appeared in crossword puzzles of the Daily Telegraph newspaper. Interesting, but MI5 (British military intelligence) concluded that those were common enough words. So, probably no one was leaking out any secret military information.
However, beginning one month before the invasion, on May 2, words such as Utah, Omaha (American landing sites), Mulberry (an artificial harbor the Allies would tow across the English Channel), Overlord (the code name for the invasion), and Neptune (the code name for the naval aspect of the invasion) all appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
Now Britain’s MI5 was suspicious! They finally tracked down the person responsible for putting these code words in the crossword puzzle! He must be a secret agent for the Nazis! He was Mr. Leonard Dawe, the headmaster of a school. The authorities arrested him along with an assistant and grilled them … but finally concluded that they were innocent. The whole thing was just a … coincidence. Or was it?
The story of D-Day is filled with hundreds and even thousands of fascinating stories like these. My favorite author on the subject is Stephen E. Ambrose. His books “D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II,” “Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest,” and “Citizen Soldiers: The U. S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany” are just superb! Grab a book, learn some more history, think about what really happened, and thank God every day for your freedom.