D-Day 2021: what were the Normandy Landings, date, beaches invaded - and what does the ‘D’ stand for?

Memorial events will mark the 77th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy in during World War II

Sunday (6 June) marks the 77th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

The invasion of Normandy beaches by allied troops ultimately swung the war on the western front in the favour of the allies, and began the liberation of France from Nazi occupation.

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Here’s what happened on the fateful day – and why it was so crucial.

D-Day took place 77 years ago (Getty Images)

What were the D-Day landings?

D-Day, codenamed Operation Overlord, was the greatest combined land, air and naval operation in history.

Around 4,400 Allied troops paid the ultimate price for ensuring D-Day was one of the most successful military operations the world has ever seen.

With the simple words “OK, let’s go”, General Dwight Eisenhower set in motion the greatest military attack in history.

On June 6 1944, some 156,000 British, American and Canadian troops arrived on French soil from sea and air in an effort to free Europe from the Nazis.

Many thousands more served on board the 6,000 troop ships, landing crafts and barges off the Normandy coast in northern France.

The then Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the operation as “undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place”.

Thousands of paratroopers were dropped behind the enemy lines to capture bridges – including the vital Pegasus Bridge – railway lines and roads to prevent the German army sending reinforcements once the Allies landed.

Between the hours of 3am and 5am on June 6, more than 1,000 British aircraft dropped some 5,000 tons of bombs.

Tip-offs from French Resistance fighters, who also carried out over 1,000 sabotage attacks, helped the Allies target their bombing campaign to cause maximum disruption for the Germans.

A main target was the Atlantic Wall, a network of concrete gun emplacements, machine gun nests, tank traps and mines, barbed wire and booby traps that the Germans had built up since 1940 along France’s west coast.

What were the beaches called?

Each of the landing beaches was given a codename on the Allies’ secret map. The British and Canadians landed on Gold, Juno and Sword beaches to the east, while the Americans went ashore at Utah and Omaha beaches in the west.

Why was D-Day so important?

D-Day established another front in Europe, locking Germany into conflict in France, Italy and Russia. It helped overwhelm Hitler’s Nazi Reich and led eventually to the Allies’ victory in Europe in May 1945.

What does D-Day stand for?

The words “doom”, “debarkation” and “deliverance” have all been suggested as meanings for the “D” in D-Day.

But the letter is derived from the word “Day” and means the day on which a military operation begins.

D-Day has been used for many different operations but is most closely associated with the Allied landings on Normandy’s beaches on June 6 1944.

The day before D-Day was D-1 and the day after was D+1.

It meant that if the date for an operation changed, military staff would not have to alter all the dates in their plan.

This happened during the Normandy D-Day landing operation, which was originally planned for June 5 – but bad weather delayed it by a day.

In the build-up to the Allied invasion, code names and acronyms were vital to help maintain the blanket of secrecy around the operation.

D-Day timeline

June 5, 1944

– 2200 – Operation Neptune, a seaborne force of five assault groups consisting of 130,000 men, leaves the English coast in 6,939 vessels, travelling through channels already cleared by minesweepers.

June 6, 1944 – D-Day

– 0005 – Coastal batteries between Le Havre and Cherbourg are bombed.

– 0020 – British airborne troops begin attacking bridges at Benouville, including Pegasus, capturing them in just 15 minutes.

– 0230-0300 – Allied combined bombardment and assault fleets arrive and anchor off the French coast.

– 0430 – Sainte Mere Eglise is liberated by Americans – who hoist the US flag at the town hall – and roads leading up to Utah Beach are closed.

– 0500 – Britain’s 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, helps destroy weapons at the Merville Battery to protect troops who will land at Sword Beach.

– 0530 – Allied warships begin bombarding the Normandy coastline. Landing ships and landing craft head for shore.

– 0600 – Bombers pound the German shore defences. More than 5,300 tonnes of bombs are dropped.

– 0630 – American forces begin landing on Omaha Beach and face a devastating enemy onslaught which pins them there until 1100.

– 0630 – Americans troops begin landing on Utah Beach.

– 0710 – US 2nd Army Ranger Battalion attacks 100ft high fortified cliff the Pointe du Hoc, defending it for the rest of the day.

– 0725 – British land at Gold and Sword Beaches.

– 0735 – Canadians land at Juno Beach.

– 0900 – General Eisenhower authorises release of communique announcing the invasion has begun and General Bradley calls for reinforcements.

– 0945 – Enemy forces cleared from Utah Beach.

– 1200 – Winston Churchill speaks to the House of Commons about the landings, saying: “So far the commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan. And what a plan!”

– 1330 – Troops on Omaha Beach begin securing the area. Allied forces begin to bomb the town of Caen with 160 tonnes of bombs dropped.

– 1430 – The Nazi’s 21st Panzer Division unleash a counter-attack towards the coast.

– 1600 – The British arrive at Arromanches.

– 1800 – Some of the 3rd Canadian Division, North Nova Scotia Highlanders reach 5km inland. 1st Hussar tanks cross the Caen-Bayeux railway, 15km inland. Canadian Scottish link up with the 50th Division at Creully.

– 1900 – Command post set up on Omaha Beach.

– 2000 – Allied patrols at the outskirts of Bayeux.

– 2100 – King George VI address is broadcast. He says it is a “fight to win the final victory for the good cause”.

June 7, 1944

– 0000 – All the beaches are secure.

By the end of the day the Allied armies had disembarked more than 135,000 men and had bridgeheads of varying depths along the Normandy coastline.

But on Omaha the situation was perilous as the Germans fought for every inch of territory.

As sunset arrived, a total of 10,000 men had been killed, injured or were missing.

Fierce fighting continued in the area until August.