How the Allies plotted ingenious D-Day invasion that would turn the tide of war

The success of the D-Day ­landings has gone down in history as on of our greatest wartime moments.

But as allied troops sailed across the Channel to free Europe from fascism 75 years ago, the success of the Normandy ­landings had been far from guaranteed.

They took two years of planning and there were many hurdles from the dark days of the Dunkirk defeat to the final push for victory.

David Kenyon, research historian at wartime codebreaking HQ Bletchley Park, explains: “The problem with perceptions of D-Day is because it was a success there is an assumption it was always going to succeed and that absolutely wasn’t a foregone conclusion.”

So as veterans prepare to mark the 75th anniversary on Thursday, we look at some key milestones and obstacles on the long road to D-Day.

Legacy of Dunkirk

By June 1940 France had fallen to the Nazis and Adolf Hitler was gloating over “the most famous victory in history.”

More than 338,000 British troops had been evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk but the “Miracle of the Little Ships” could not disguise the scale of this humiliating defeat.

But a year later Germany invaded Russia and the Soviets became our allies. Joseph Stalin began pushing for a second front in Europe but Churchill feared heavy casualties.

David says: “The Americans enter the war in December 1941 and [US president Franklin D] Roosevelt is keen to win it as soon as possible.

“Two weeks later he and Churchill meet in Washington and come up with the ‘Germany First’ policy, agreeing that every effort will be made to destroy the Germans before fighting Japan.

“But Churchill still wanted to do this via North Africa and Italy rather than France.”

Invasion On

Roosevelt, Churchill and Charles De Gaulle meet in Morocco in January 1943 and sign the ­Casablanca ­Declaration of "unconditional surrender".

David adds: “They decide they are not going to negotiate with the Germans but aim to defeat them utterly by military means.”

Meeting in Washington four months later the Allies agree to launch a cross-Channel invasion. Stalin and Roosevelt convince Churchill to go for it in May 1944.

British Lieutenant-General Fredrick Morgan is put in charge of planning.

He considers invading at Brittany, the Cherbourg Peninsula or Pas de Calais. Normandy was the eventual choice as it was in range of UK fighter aircraft and had open beaches not so well defended.

Birth of Overlord

In January 1944, US General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed commander of Operation Overlord. The seaborne part was called Operation Neptune.

Planning was affected by a lack of forces and equipment. British factories increased production of landing craft and artificial Mulberry harbours.

The 79th Armoured Division was created under Major General Percy Hobart to develop tanks for the beaches.

David said: “They were nicknamed ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ and included Sherman Crab tanks with flails to clear mines, Churchill Crocodile flame-throwing tanks and ones that laid carpet over patches of soft sand or destroyed sea walls.”

Nine million tons of supplies and ­vehicles were shipped from the US. By 1944, more than two million troops from more than 12 ­countries were in Britain.

Deception – Operation Fortitude

Before the invasion, the Allies conducted Operation Bodyguard – designed to mislead the Germans about the date and location.

David says: “The Allies also wanted to convince the Germans that their armies were much bigger than they actually were.

“They created a fictitious First US Army Group in Kent complete with inflatable tanks and landing craft, fake airfields and radio stations sending dummy messages.

“Hitler thought he had an extensive network of spies operating in the UK, but all had been captured, and some were double agents working for the allies.

“The Germans were so sure the ­invasion would come later in Calais they were slow to react to the landings in Normandy. Even when it started they thought it was a cover for the real thing.”


Training exercises took place as early as July 1943.

In April 1944, the beach at Slapton, Devon, was being used to test landing craft when a friendly fire incident resulted in some 450 deaths.

Then, the following day, a further 749 American soldiers and sailors died when German torpedo boats launched a surprise attack.


The invasion window was limited by specific weather requirements.

There had to be a full moon to provide illumination for pilots and ensure the highest tides.

Eisenhower had chosen June 5 as the assault date but on June 4, high winds and heavy seas made it impossible to launch landing craft, and low clouds would prevent aircraft from finding their targets.

By evening, meteorologists predicted the weather would improve sufficiently so the invasion could go ahead on June 6.

The Luftwaffe meteorologists did not have the same accurate information and had predicted two weeks of stormy weather – so commanders were given leave or sent on their war games.

But, on the morning of June 5, ­Eisenhower gave Overlord the told troops: “You are about to embark upon the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.

“The eyes of the world are upon you.”

  • David Kenyon is the author of Bletchley Park and D-Day, Yale University Press, 2019

'Someone said "he's dead, leave him", so he yelled "I'm alive… help!"'

The few youngsters playing on the near-deserted beach at Dunkirk didn’t give a second glance to the old man walking unsteadily across the sand.

Stanley Elliss, 97, didn’t notice them either as he stared along the long sweep of coast and into the Channel.

He was trying to visualise the scene 79 years ago when a third of a million demoralised Allied troops forced back to the beaches by the Germans, waited to be evacuated by a hastily-assembled fleet of vessels including hundreds of privately owned boats.

Stanley was thinking of older brother Len, then a 23-year-old Territorial Army soldier, who got safely to a boat, only to be thrown in the water when it was torpedoed.

“Len was floating on a piece of wood when another boat came past,” says Stanley.

“He heard someone say ‘Leave him, he’s dead’, but Len shouted out ‘I’m alive – come and help me!’. Thankfully they did and he got home safely.”

“But it must have been terrible,” he adds quietly. “Our backs were really against the wall then.”

The Miracle of the Little Ships, in May-June 1940, could not hide the scale of what Churchill called “a colossal military disaster”. But it prompted that famous speech in which he vowed British troops would return to France to “fight on the beaches” and never surrender.

And four years later Sgt Stanley Elliss was one of those who landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

The RAF Commando had the task of preparing airstrips for Allied aircraft to land – and was almost torpedoed himself when the ship in front, carrying all his equipment, was sunk.

Stanley, who was awarded the Legion d’honneur by France, is one of 255 D-Day veterans aged 91 to 101 on a Royal British Legion cruise to Normandy marking the 75th anniversary.

The modest hero, of Ashford, Kent took the opportunity of a stopover in Dunkirk to visit the beach where Len, who died in his 90s, was saved.

Some veterans went to the town’s war memorial and got a warm welcome from locals in bars and cafes.

Others stayed on the ship, gazing out at the peaceful Dunkirk coastline or enjoying pints of Spitfire ale.

On Tuesday they will travel to Poole, Dorset, for an air and naval display.

On Wednesday they will take part in an official commemoration service att­ended by the Queen and President Trump in Portsmouth, Hants.

On Thursday they will mark the actual anniversary in Bayeux and Arromanches.

Heroism of nurses not forgotten

Nurses Dorothy Field and Mollie Evershed, the only Allied service-women killed in the Normandy fighting, will be on a new memorial.

Dorothy, 32, of Crow, Hants, and Mollie, 27, of Ely, Cambs, were on the SS Amsterdam when it hit a mine on August 7 off Juno beach.

They helped 75 injured soldiers to a lifeboat but failed to flee before the ship sank.

Their names will be the only women among the 22,442 engraved on the nearly completed £27million British Normandy Memorial overlooking Gold Beach.

In July 1945, Mollie’s school magazine wrote: “We are very proud of [her] heroism and sacrifice in that hour of her supreme testing.”

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