Commentary

June 6, 2014

This Week in History

Rick Griset
56th Fighter Wing Historian

D-Day: Off the Normandy coast, Soldiers crowded in a landing craft June 6, 1944, await their turn to land on the beach.

June 6, 1944: Operation NEPTUNE (D-Day)

The largest invasion in world history occurred 70 years ago today on the Normandy Peninsula in France, code named Operation NEPTUNE. It is often simply referred to as D-Day.

More than 134,000 men hit the beaches that became world famous by their code names Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Gold Beach, Juno Beach, Sword Beach and Pointe du Huc. Another 24,000 paratroopers jumped or glided in behind the beaches.

Allied planning began many months before complete with isolation plans, diversion plans, and fake armies and naval fleets. The Allies had already successfully waded ashore in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

Planners wanted the Germans to think the Allies would land near the Pas de Calais in France. That location was the closest point to England. Instead, planners chose an area about 150 miles to the southwest for the actual landings. The landing beaches ran in a general east-west direction. The invasion fleet landed from the north during a slight break between North Atlantic storms.

Allied airpower’s job for the previous month or so had been to isolate the beachhead. Prior to D-Day, those attacks were made further away from the actual landing zone. The Allies wanted to disguise the invasion’s location so the Germans would continue to think that Pas de Calais was the landing site. But, on D-Day airpower almost completely isolated the landing beaches.

Starting with the landing of the P-47s on the night of June 5, 56th Fighter Group ground crews lived on caffeine, nicotine and adrenalin for the following 48 hours. That night, Wolfpack maintenance crews painted the wide black and white invasion stripes on the P-47s’ wings and fuselage. They made sure the aircraft were preflighted, loaded and after each sortie repaired, so they could return to the air.

For its part, the 56th FG flew seven missions that day. All group missions were north of the landing zones. The task of the first two missions was to intercept the German bombers stationed in Norway if they chose to try to hamper the invasion. The rest of the missions involved working over air-to-ground targets. For the most part, the Luftwaffe did not make an appearance.

However, the next day the Luftwaffe made up for their inaction. June 7 saw plenty of action. Zemke’s Wolfpack flew eight missions that day. While they destroyed 12 enemy aircraft, they lost five aircraft, and three pilots were killed. The Luftwaffe still had some fight left.

There are many books and also a number of movies that cover the events surrounding D-Day. For preinvasion planning and decisions see “Ike: Countdown to D-Day.” Classic films about the landings include “The Longest Day,” “Darby’s Rangers,” “Band of Brothers,” and “Saving Private Ryan.”




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