D-Day: The day that turned the tide of WWII

31 May 2024
  • History & commemoration

Nearly five years into WWII, the fate of western Europe hinged on a mission like no other. It all began with D-Day.

A short history of D-Day 

D-Day took place towards the end of World War II (WWII) and is widely considered the Western Allies’ most significant victory of this war. On 6 June 1944, an immense air, sea and ground force from 13 nations (including Australia) invaded Normandy, France to launch the Allied campaign – codenamed Operation Overlord – to liberate western Europe from Nazi occupation.  

Successfully executing such an operation required years of preparation. Allied nations – namely, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, and Rhodesia – were required to secretly coordinate logistics, train troops, invent new equipment and predict ideal weather conditions before the landings could take place.  

They also had to plan for encountering many challenges, such as rough seas, heavy artillery fire and breaching Hitler’s ‘impenetrable’ Atlantic Wall. So much was at stake that bad weather delayed the scheduled 5 June landing by 24 hours. 

D-Day was executed in two phases. The first phase was an airborne assault from approximately 24,000 paratroopers and glider-borne troops, who landed behind German lines to bombard and suppress the German defences.  

The second phase was an amphibious landing of more than 130,000 troops on five beaches across over 80km of coastline. In total, more than 5,000 vessels and 10,000 aircraft were used to pull off the mission. 

At the time, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described D-Day as “much the greatest thing we have ever attempted”. Following the invasion, the Battle of Normandy ensued and lasted until the end of August 1944, when the Germans retreated from France. They surrendered a few months later in May 1945.  

Australia’s involvement in D-Day 

Approximately 3,200 Australian troops were deployed on D-Day and thousands more served in the wider Normandy campaign. Australia’s primary contribution on D-Day was in the air, with 2,800 Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) personnel taking part in the operations.  

Additionally, around 500 members of the Royal Australian Navy and about a dozen Australian soldiers served in D-Day operations on attachment to the Royal Navy and British Army. Sadly, at least 14 Australian lives were lost in combat on 6 June 1945. 

During D-Day, seven RAAF squadrons took part in attacks on the Normandy beaches and surrounding areas. Although no Australian Navy ships were present, Australian Navy personnel did serve in or command landing craft, coastal craft and warships on D-Day. One Australian, Lieutenant Ken Hudspeth, RANVR commanded the X-Craft (midget submarine) X20 that provided navigation assistance to the Allied assault craft, ensuring the armada arrived at the correct beaches.  

Australian soldiers who served alongside the British Army reportedly gained experience that helped prepare them for amphibious operations in the Pacific later in WWII.  

Remembering D-Day 

6 June 2024 marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day. On this day, Australia will join its former Western Allies in commemorating this important chapter of world history.  

Internationally, the Standing with Giants installation will be in place at the British Normandy Memorial from 21 April until the end of August 2024. This spectacular installation features 1,475 silhouettes, representing the number of servicemen who lost their lives on this date. 

The Royal British Legion has various commemorations scheduled, including a Legacies of D-Day exhibition in France and the UK, anniversary events on 5 and 6 June, and community events around the UK.  

On 6 June, we invite you to pause for a moment and remember the troops who served on this important day and the campaign that followed, especially those who lost their lives in combat.