D-Day is told through the voices of people who participated in the planning and execution of the invasion, and in the battle for the Normandy beaches. Edited from over 100 hours of interviews, their stories are woven together with footage and photographs from American, British, and German archives. Written by four-time Oscar winner Charles Guggenheim, the film was nominated for a 1995 Academy Award.
The invasion of Europe through Normandy was a military operation of preeminently American design. While the British argued for a cautious, limited, wait-and-see approach, America was determined to confront the enemy head on in northern France on a fixed date. The operation was fraught with incalculable risk, for which General Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged full responsibility.
Given the code name OVERLORD, D-Day was an operation so mammoth that once in motion, there was no turning back. Thousands of men were involved in the planning of the assault, and thousands kept it secret. The campaign was a triumph of intelligence and teamwork.
Chief Petty Officer Rastus "Smoky" Holcomb, U.S. Navy (Retired) remembers being told, "You're going to see a show; you're lucky to be in an invasion like this. There's gonna be more ships participating in this than any place there's ever been in the world. We're going in to win. There's no coming back."
While a phantom army maneuvered about in northern England threatening to cross at Calais, the real assault took place on the beaches along a 50-mile stretch of fortified coastline in Normandy. Five thousand ships carried 150,000 men and nearly 30,000 vehicles across the English channel, one of the most unpredictable and dangerous bodies of water in the world.
"Get off these ships," Private First Class Joseph Bacile recalls saying. "I don't care what's waiting for us."
"A lot of guys said, 'Oh, I know I'm not coming back,'" remembers Platoon Sergeant Felix Branham. "I said I never entertained such a thought. I know I'm going back."
Lt. Col. William Friedman, U.S. Army (Retired) has his own vivid memories of that day: "Rank had nothing to do with anything on that beach... Not by unit, not by role, everybody individually...did what they had to do... [Men] started yelling, 'Goddamit, get up, move in, you're gonna die anyway, move in and die!"
A remarkable convergence of situations pointed to the operation's success. The German torpedo boats lay at anchor; officers were convinced that no one would brave the high seas on June 6. The German air force had redeployed its few remaining fighters to bases in the south the day before, while dozens of front-line officers were miles away at a situational briefing. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was also away, gone to visit his wife on her birthday, and Hitler, who didn't wake up until 10 o'clock that morning, refused to release his armored divisions, which could have raised havoc on the beaches.
On many counts, the attack went as planned. But the terrible conditions and enormous challenges of the attack also brought about terrible, fatal, human errors. Hampered by overcast skies, a great umbrella of troop transports overshot their drop zone by miles. Sixty percent of all equipment parachuted in was lost.
Improvising under pressure, individual soldiers accomplished miracles. Road exits were captured, bridges held, and fortifications destroyed. Rangers who had trained intensely for the deadly, torturous climb up to Point Du Hoc to neutralize the big guns positioned at the top accomplished their mission only to find the guns had not yet been installed. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., got his men off their bellies and off the beach at Utah. He would win the Congressional Medal of Honor before noon -- and be dead of a heart attack a few days later.
"It was a soldier's battle," Eisenhower later said. For all the split-second planning and careful rehearsal, the ultimate success of D-Day came down to young men whose remembrances and recollections are presented in D-Day.
A companion version of D-Day, D-Day Remembered, is on permanent exhibition at The National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.