The 77th Anniversary of D-Day

Historian David Pietrusza joins me this week on the podcast to talk about D-Day, what led up to it, and why it was so successful for the Allies in World War II.

This June 6th marks 77 years since Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Author and historian David Pietrusza joins me this week on the podcast to talk about that day, what led up to it, and why it was so successful for the Allies and a pivotal operation.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: We have the anniversary of D-Day coming up on June 6, and I thought we could just talk about that, because I do feel like as time goes on, there's a danger of maybe forgetting to commemorate this huge day in history.

David: Yeah, I mean, there's so many things which used to be big or commemorated, I mean, even Memorial Day. Who pays as much attention to that as they used to when people would go visit the graves and all that? Even the JFK assassination was a big deal for a long time, and I think it is less of a deal now.

Matt: I was just interviewing David Stokes. He has a new book out called JFK’s Ghost and the book opens up with Mike Wallace, interviewing the columnist Drew Pearson, and they go on about how it's like the 16th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. And I doubt today, if you have an event on a TV show on December 7, maybe you would mention it, but probably not.

David: Except for September 11, I don't know what other date has seared itself into our memory, and even that's starting to fade a little bit.

Matt: It is. Alright, well, let's talk about D-Day.

David: Well, it's June 6th, the 6th of June 1944, and you are there. The planning starts about two years earlier, and we have to get these Nazi guys out of Europe, we have to win the war. Our new ally, Joseph Stalin is saying, “Hey, you guys, we’re getting killed out here. We're losing.” And ultimately, they lose 20 million Soviets of all stripes, military and civilian, so they are paying a great price. Of course, they are paying a great price for Stalin's pact with Hitler in 1939—

Matt: Let's not let them forget that—

David: Yeah, but I don't think they ever bring that up at Tehran, and I never read about that... But we had opened up a second front in North Africa. We'd beaten Rommel there in Sicily, and then fighting our way up the boot of Italy, which was not an easy fight at all. Then you've got to get back to France. …The conventional wisdom is you're going to hit France at the narrowest part of the channel. The Germans know that, they're defending it very heavily…so we have to decide when we're going to hit, and the answer to your question is somewhere around 1942 they start planning. And they start planning in excruciating detail. For example, they have to know what the gradient of the soil is on the beaches and they take a million photographs at various points of the tide, and the various points of the day, and commandos go in and get soil samples on the beach. So the planning is like nothing you've ever seen before. 

Matt: Yeah, I read that the BBC was involved in some sort of trickery, whether they asked people to send them holiday postcards or pictures from—

David: It wasn't really trickery— 

Matt: Wasn't it under the guise of like, you know, some sort of cultural program—

David: I don’t know with a cultural program, but it was all up and down the coast. They had to do everything all up and down the coast for a couple of reasons. One, if they if they did all their bombings and recognizance at Normandy, the Germans would catch on to that. So in the days and weeks leading up to the Normandy invasion, for every bombing raid in Normandy, there's three somewhere else in France. And part of that is deception. And the other part is, well, if you've got all these German troops up to the north in Calais, and they're going to come rushing down at Normandy at some point maybe, but they can't do it, if you bombed all the roads and bridges. They have people sending their postcards and their photographs of all the beaches, they want to know every single detail, and they want to deceive the Germans. They also have two bogus armies created. And one of them, which doesn't get much ink, is based in Scotland. And they have some phony units in Iceland for an invasion of Norway. That's one reason why the Germans are keeping so many troops there, because at that point, Germany can't put planes over Scotland. So they don't have to go to such elaborate details as they are going to go when they have a fake American army under George Patton in the south of England, right across the English Channel from Calais. And there they create phony tanks made out of rubber, inflatable—you know, all that stuff you see on your junk you see on people's lawns now for Halloween or something—was kind of pioneered by the Motion Picture people to create phony locomotives, and tanks, and trucks, and landing docks, and then empty camps, empty tanks, fake hospitals, it’s an incredible thing and then creating all sorts of fake, I keep using the word “fake”—

Matt: It's a Potemkin village, David.

David: It's a Potemkin country. You know we've got a couple million Americans over there. The joke at the time is that the barrage balloons are actually holding up Britain from sinking into the ocean because of the weight of all the Americans and Canadians and all their equipment which has been poured into England. I mean, the numbers are absolutely startling.

Matt: I heard that Hitler couldn't believe that America wouldn't use Patton at D-Day just because he had slapped a soldier, so sending him to this Potemkin village was a pretty effective ruse.

David: Well, you had to do something with him for a while, and then they did bring him out of retirement.

Matt: I also heard that Rommel went home because he assumed the weather wasn’t good enough for an invasion.

David: The Germans have negligible naval presence, naval strength, and at that point, negligible Luftwaffe strength. So on D-Day, the allies have like thousands and thousands of planes. The Germans have 160, and so they can't get out to see what weather is coming. So they know it's going to be bad, but they don't know it's going to break… And there is this first window of like from the fourth to this seventh, or so, of June, somewhere in that range. And Eisenhower opts for the fifth. The weather is so bad that he has to keep everybody on ships in the middle of the English Channel or on the docks for a day. The Germans don't know that. Rommel goes back to Germany for his wife's birthday on June 6, so he is away and the weather works very well for the allies. It could have been a disaster. And also, what happens if Eisenhower decides to wait until the next ideal time? The next ideal time, according to the forecast, is June 18th, and in fact, that is the worst storm in anyone's memory on the English Channel, to get the cargo into the beaches at Normandy, to unload people...

Matt: And what about Rommel back home?

David: Rommel at first gets an incomplete message, that commandos are landing in Normandy and he thinks, “Big deal, this is not the real invasion.” The Germans think that this even after the allies have landed, that the this is just a fake out, and you're going to have the real invasions still at the Plage de Calais. Why do they think this? It's not just this fake Patton army—it's because of the numbers. They think that there are twice as many Allied forces in Britain than there actually are. So it's like, “Oh, yeah, so they're putting all these guys on the beach at Normandy, but they've got even more guys back there and they're just holding them back.” So Rommel does nothing for a while until about noon that day. And then it's like, you know, head slap to the forehead. “What a fool I have been!” And the communications back to Germany to the high command to Hitler are very sluggish. German efficiency is not very efficient that day. So people don't get messages, they get incomplete messages. It's like, do we wake Hitler? No, we're not gonna wake Hitler— 

Matt: Hitler’s asleep—

David: He slept until noon. And he was an insomniac and had the craziest hours. So he wakes up at noon, and he still doesn't believe this is a big deal. He has a normal meeting to review war plans each day. That day, he doesn't. He was so complacent. He skips that meeting for a meeting with the new Hungarian fascist dictator. You know, you've got 5,000 ships coming at you at Normandy, you would have thought the Germans would have picked up at this before they were within firing range of the shore, but they did not. That's how land bound they were in both senses that by not being on the sea by not being in the air.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.