Saturday, June 7, 2014

D-Day Anniversay - Life and Death Captured on Film

Seventy years ago today, thousands upon thousands of men faced their fears and death and stormed the beaches of Normandy, France in the largest seaborne invasion that has ever taken place in human history.  Standing in landing craft as they bounced through the waves each one of those men must have thought countless times about the possibility that their lives would end within minutes.  Imagining the horror filling their minds, it is difficult to understand how those soldiers could be so dedicated, determined and focused on their jobs that they didn't hesitate and disembarked off those land craft onto beaches filled with death.

Over the years I have watched many documentaries on World War II and the Normandy invasion.  Though I have no idea of the real numbers, I won't think that there would have been a lot of photographers, reporters or video cameramen who took part in the beach landings.  Obviously there were some as there is film footage of the troops landing on the beach.  In most of the films you see men running or seeking cover, explosions and bullets flying through the air.  Death is not normally shown except at a distance when a bomb explodes, a ship sinks or an aircraft plummets to the ground.  There is one piece of film that shows a number of soldiers emerging from the surf and running up the beach.  The first soldiers run by and pass out of the camera's central focus.  Another soldier enters the center of the screen and he is hit by a bullet or shrapnel and immediately falls to the ground motionless. 

That piece of film is in many documentaries made about the Normandy invasion.  Every time I see it even though I know what is going to happen, I recoil a little in horror as the soldier is hit and falls to the ground.  Who was this man?  Where was he from?  Was he really dead as it appears on the film, or was he just injured and would go to fight another day?  What was his life like and what were the thoughts going through his mind as he ran across that beach?  Was his body swept back into the surf and dragged out to sea or is he buried somewhere in the cemeteries for the fallen?  I can't help but wonder those questions each time I see that piece of film.  I'll never know the answers to those questions as probably no one knows who he was.  But I can't help but think about him every time I watch a film on Normandy.

(Original picture from D-Day taken by sailor on board this land craft.  Photo is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

Approximately 150,000 from the allied nations took part in the invasion and battle that took place on June 6, 1944.  Though the exact number is not precisely known, an effort by a historian with the National D-Day Foundation found that approximately 4400 allied soldiers died on that day.*  So for every soldier taking in the invasion roughly 3 in 100 died that day!

I won't have wanted to be one of those men who stormed the beaches of Normandy that day, but I am thankful that they did as it was the beginning of the end of one of history's biggest horror stories.  Each time I think of Normandy I will always think of that nameless man who fell and most likely died before he got more than a few steps onto that beach.

Thanks and peace to all! ~J.

* The number of soldiers who actually died on that day is not precisely know because of many different factors.  The first factor is that many bodies were never recovered.  They have been washed out to sea, buried by earth thrown up by explosions or there may simple have been nothing left of soldiers killed by explosions.  Those soldiers were listed as MIA and many were not recorded as having died until at least a year later.  Other soldiers may have been killed and weren't found until days later at which time their death was listed as the day they were found.  Other soldiers may have been so grievously wounded that they survived for a day or two but then succumbed to their wounds later.  So though they were initially injured on D-Day their deaths would occur days later.  Determining a precise number of exactly who died or was wounded on that day and died of their wounds later is difficult.  However from the work that has been done, most experts agree on that roughly 4400 would died.  The most precise figure I saw while trying to determine this was 4413,

I found the following footnote attached to an article on the website Fivethirtyeight ( when I was researching the number of D-Day deaths. 

"Many history books include disclaimers. “The exact number of casualties suffered in the invasion of Normandy will never be known,” Encyclopaedia Britannica says. The historian Stephen A. Ambrose wrote in his book “D-Day,” in a footnote, “No exact figures are possible, either for the number of men landed or for casualties, for D-Day alone.” In their book by the same name, Randy Holderfield and Michael Varhola wrote, “Even in modern war, the nature of battle prevents a reasonably accurate count for a given period of time.” In “The Longest Day,” Cornelius Ryan wrote, “by the very nature of the assault it was impossible for anyone to arrive at an exact figure.”"