The Combined Military Services Museum is proud to commemorate D-Day on the 6th of June, 79 years after the event became one of the most important military operations in British military history.
Towards the end of World War Two, British, American and Canadian forces carried out Operation Overlord, a combined naval, land and aerial operation which planned to invade France through the beaches at Normandy. This took months of planning and involved a deception campaign, Operation Bodyguard, to mislead German forces of the timing and location of an Allied invasion of France. D-Day was the crucial first day for the Allied forces to push Nazi Germany back and liberate Western Europe, starting with France.
Allied ships sailed from the Isle of Wight and travelled south along routes swept clear of mines. Several United States warships were used; however, the British Royal Navy supplied the majority of the fleet which included over 4,000 ships and 3,000 light crafts. These were filled with troops, carrying over 150,000 men. This was the largest seaborne invasion in history.
D-Day relied on a combination of low winds, calm seas and low tides to safely transport troops to land and deal with German obstacles on the Normandy beaches. D-Day was set for the 5th of June, but due to strong winds and rough seas it had to be delayed to the 6th. Further delays were not possible, although the weather remained less than ideal.
The fleet opened fire at around 05:30 on the morning of the 6th of June. Battleships began to fire their weapons at German coastal defences. American forces landed at the Utah and Omaha beaches, British forces on the Gold and Sword beaches, and Canadian forces on Juno beach from around 06:30 to 08:00. An estimated 156,000 soldiers landed on the beaches that day, although around 4,000 Allied troops were killed.
The Combined Military Services Museum has a range of artefacts that represent this significant day in British and European history.
One particular artefact is the 15 inch naval shell on display (see below), an example of the firepower unleashed by British naval forces on D-Day. This shell weighs one tonne, had a range of 32,000 metres and was armour piercing, able to penetrate 12 inches of steel. Shells like these were fired by HMS Warspite. It is fitted with a soft nose cap which would help the hard shell tip penetrate armoured plating if the shell hit targets at an angle. The cap contained coloured powder which released red smoke if it hit the target, indicating the enemy’s location.
The Bren gun (see below) was an important gun used in D-Day, used by the parachute regiment nicknamed the “Red Devils” who were the first Allied troops to set foot in France. The Bren gun was a highly regarded light machine gun by British forces in World War Two.
The Royal Engineer uniform displayed below includes a metal detector used to detect mines during the Operation Overlord campaign, and would have been used in D-Day.
The thousands of Allied troops that fought in D-Day, with many sacrificing their lives in the process, must be remembered for the freedom that they ensured for future generations.
Written by Harry Baker, University of Essex (MA History)