The Undertaking

Eighty years ago, the Allies marshaled unprecedented forces to invade Normandy. The human toll was immense, but ‘the glory of their spirit’ advanced the cause of freedom.

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

Cornelius Ryan titled his still-engrossing and revealing account of D-Day The Longest Day. That June 6 eight decades ago also proved to be a most organized day, despite all the chaos and carnage.

Meticulous planning preceded the valor of the Allies in Normandy as they stormed into western Europe to free the continent of Nazi occupation. Though an invasion of France had been contemplated since 1942, the intense preparation for the all-out assault took a full six months.

The sheer numbers of fighting forces and the war machinery they needed help explain the magnitude of D-Day and the superhuman logistics involved. A total of 195,701 sailors and soldiers engaged in the hostilities, with 156,000 soldiers participating in the landings. There were 13,000 paratroopers dropped onto French soil and 11,590 aircraft (fighters, bombers, transport planes and gliders) took flight to participate in the mission. In the English Channel, some 6,000 ships and landing craft sailed into position.

Within five days of storming the beaches at Normandy, an additional 326,000 troops landed, along with 100,000 tons of supplies. By the end of that June, 850,000 military personnel and 150,000 vehicles of all kinds were operating in Normandy.

To put that into perspective, when World War II began in 1939, the U.S. Army had a total of 190,000 soldiers, making it 17th in size globally — just behind Romania. By June 1944, Army personnel had grown to nearly eight million. In addition, there were almost three million in the Navy, and a half-million Marines and Coast Guard members.

While D-Day was unfolding, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the House of Commons, “This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred.” A French observer remarked that when he looked out at the water between his country and England he saw “more ships than sea” during the amphibious assault.

In The Longest Day, Ryan wrote: “Through the scattering, thinning mist the horizon was magically filling with ships — ships of every size and description, ships that casually maneuvered back and forth as though they had been there for hours. There appeared to be thousands of them. It was a ghostly armada that somehow had appeared from nowhere.”

Besides the thousands of ships, the largest airborne operation ever attempted went into action, and there was worry that as many as 80 percent of those involved in the air assault could be casualties, though the actual number was much lower.

What remains unbelievable eight decades later is that the Allies began their landings of the five beaches — Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno — while retaining the element of surprise. The German officers based in Normandy couldn’t figure out whether what was happening was a diversion or the long-awaited invasion, and their indecision was critical in helping the Allies secure the beachhead they needed for future combat.

Synchronizing all the forces, armament and types of transport required almost moment-by-moment attention to detail. In war, so much is unpredictable, yet for D-Day the Allied leadership — led by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe — worked with a precise timetable.

Everything needed coordination, and a constant concern was the often-fickle weather in the English Channel. More than 500 weather stations around the United Kingdom monitored conditions on an hourly basis and flashed their reports to the command headquarters.

Despite the elaborate preparatory work, human costs were high. According to records at the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, of the 156,000 soldiers who landed, some 10,500 were killed, wounded, declared missing or taken prisoner. A total of 4,413 Allied troops lost their lives, including 2,501 Americans. U.S. casualties numbered 2,400 at Omaha Beach on June 6, but by the end of that day 34,000 troops had landed there.

A rear view of Coast Guard members leaving a landing craft and wading toward Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Troops disembark from a landing craft and wade toward Omaha Beach on D-Day. Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard

Historians, with justification, compare D-Day to the Battle of Gettysburg. In both cases, they were decisive military operations that could be considered turning points. Bloody combat in both the Civil War and World War II continued, but the victor on D-Day, like Gettysburg, was on target to secure the ultimate triumph.

For the Allies in Europe, it would take 11 more months — until V-E Day on May 8, 1945. By then, Franklin Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini had died during a 19-day period in April that year, and two months later Churchill suffered electoral defeat and couldn’t continue as prime minister.

Joseph Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union with more than an iron fist until his death in 1953, was the only wartime leader to remain in power past 1945, and he, of course, turned on the U.S. and United Kingdom to engage in the Cold War.

In the chapel of the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, these words appear on the wall nearest to the Atlantic Ocean — and to America:


The phrase “glory of their spirit” is a striking one to celebrate the heroic deeds and selfless sacrifices of those who served in Normandy 80 years ago.

Looking back from our vantage point in 2024, D-Day stands out as a military achievement of the first rank. Logistical success — having the tools and matériel of war — proved important in providing the firepower that was directed at the right time and in the appropriate place.

But it was much more than that. It was also the affirmation of a moral cause — a battle between the forces of light against those of darkness.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan traveled to Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day. In his remarks, he spoke directly to survivors of the landing who were assembled there. “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” Reagan said. “These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

Later in his speech, one of the most memorable of his presidency, Reagan said: “You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny.”

Until June 6, 1944, the designation D-Day had a generic meaning: “decision day” or “departure day.” Today D-Day has a precise connotation with a deep historical resonance.

On this anniversary and taking a cue from Reagan, we might also remember D-Day as “Democracy Day.” Amid the horror of battle in a faraway land, America and her democratic allies came together to defend freedom and self-government.

Yes, some things are worth fighting for and worth dying for.

Bob Schmuhl, the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame, is the author of Mr. Churchill in the White House: The Untold Story of a Prime Minister and Two Presidents, which will be published next month by Liveright/W.W. Norton.