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Under the cover of darkness, the Allies pulled off an operation in the hours before D-Day that may have changed the tide of the battle before it had begun.
The Night Before D-Day
In this activity students will analyze two documents written by General Dwight Eisenhower before the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Students will compare and contrast these documents to gain a better understanding of the mindset of Allied leaders on the eve of the invasion.
This activity is adapted from an article formerly published on www.archives.gov/education by David Traill, a teacher at South Fork High School in Stuart, FL.
Suggested Teaching Instructions
This activity is intended to be used in a unit focused on World War II in grades 6-12. Approximate needed time is 15–20 minutes.
Direct students to read Eisenhower's public "D-Day Statement" and his private "In Case of Failure Message." Model careful document analysis. If needed, direct students to click on "View Entire Document" and then scroll down to read a transcript of Eisenhower's handwritten note.
Ask students to focus on the similarities and differences in the style, tone, audience, and message of these documents. After reading, discuss these differences. Specific questions to discuss include:
• How does Eisenhower describe the invasion?
• How does Eisenhower describe the troops?
• How does Eisenhower describe the enemy?
• How does Eisenhower describe his role in the invasion?
Based on their analysis of these two documents, ask students to imagine how General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the Allied forces in Europe during WWII, felt the night before the attack.
Documents in this activity
To the extent possible under law, National Archives Education Team has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to " The Night Before D-Day ".
Eisenhower, D-Day, and the Two Notes
On June 5th, 1944 General Dwight D. Eisenhower sat down and wrote a letter. It was the night before he would attempt the largest seaborne invasion in human history, and Eisenhower’s mind had wandered toward the looming possibility of a battle lost on the beaches of Normandy.
The invasion had been months in the making. As the crucial time approached, the date itself kept changing. Bad weather forced Eisenhower to postpone the invasion, and he knew that he had only a three-day window in June to launch the attack before more inclement weather arrived. Eisenhower’s blood pressure shot up as he subsisted on a diet of coffee, cigarettes, and nerves.
On the day before the invasion, Ike sat down and thought about what would happen if the invasion failed. He wrote:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Eisenhower then tucked the note in his pocket. He apparently had the habit of writing such “in case of failure” notes before invasions, and tearing at least one up afterwards. It was, as Jean Edward Smith noted in his Eisenhower biography Eisenhower in War and Peace, reminiscent of the same note that Lincoln wrote expecting to be defeated in the election of 1864.
“It seems exceedingly probably that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to cooperate with the President-Elect to save the Union between the election and the inauguration as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward.”
Yet with the first note weighing heavily in Eisenhower’s pocket, he penned another, a speech, which he gave to his troops on the eve of the attack. To his troops he said, “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”
On the night before the invasion Ike waited with his personal chauffeur (and rumored mistress) Kay Summersby, who noted that the General’s “eyes were bloodshot, and he was so tired that his hands shook when he lit a cigarette.” Still, she wrote, “if Ike had wished, he could have been [with] Churchill…[and] de Gaulle…who were gathered just a few miles away in Portsmouth. But he preferred to wait in solitude.”
The invasion, although a success, cost thousands of lives. When Eisenhower found the note again he showed it to his aide, Captain Harry. C Butcher, who asked to keep it. Eisenhower, reluctant, acquiesced.
In the end, Eisenhower and Lincoln embraced a strategy of warfare perhaps best articulated by another American president, John F. Kennedy:
“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
Letters From D-Day
AARP, June 5, 2019 | Comments: 0
The Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in California, directed by Andrew Carroll, is an invaluable repository of the words of Americans at war. Here are excerpts that vividly recall June 6, 1944.
Pfc. Dom Bart, who was with the first wave that landed on Omaha Beach, recalled what he witnessed to his wife, Mildred:
In the far away distance, I could hear the rumble of the artillery and the brrrp-brrrp of machine gun fire. We didn't have a chance to fight back, as we were dropped in the water over our heads. No one's fault, as the entire beach was strewn with mines. With a stream of lead coming towards us, we were at the mercy of the Germans and we had all to do to reach shore and recuperate. I floated around in water for about one hour and was more dead than alive. Pulled myself together and sought a rifle and around I went, trying to locate my outfit. It didn't take long to spot them, and was I glad. But gracious Lord, what was left of them, just a handful, about 25 out of 160. The battalion was almost wiped out, 800 casualties out of 1,000 men.
Pfc. Charles McCallister, 101st Airborne, wrote to the mother of his cousin, Pfc. Jim Dashner, also of the 101st. He relayed what he'd been told of her son's courage on D-Day:
"Jim's section leader had been killed and Jim was in charge, so he took over the machine gun himself. The enemy had them surrounded on three sides and had them pinned down with fire. Jim took the machine gun and crawled forward to a good position and set up the gun and began firing. He was in a spot and was doing plenty of good, so the [Germans] started concentrating all their efforts on him.
His platoon leader saw they were getting close and yelled to Jim that he'd better get out of there. The boys in the platoon said it was possible Jim didn't hear, as they had never known him to refuse to obey an order. But his friends seem to think he was just mad and was doing so much good at the time, he didn't want to move. So he stayed right there and fired until his gun was red hot. Then they got zeroed in on him and landed a mortar shell right on top of him. He died instantly but his hand was still clutching the trigger. As a result of his continued fire, the platoon was able to advance on their objective. With all my love, Charles"
Sgt. Robert Paulson, with the 10th Infantry Regiment, 5th Division, wrote this letter shortly after the Normandy landing:
We stopped in the English Channel, and we could see the French coast off in the distance. Two large battle ships are shelling the coast. I see a row of large airships with cables hanging down — there is a smell of gunpowder filling the air. As we hit the beach, the large front door went down. We all walked out on the dry sand, the tide was out…. As I walked up the beach, I saw arms and legs in the channel. A head was floating not far from the beach. He looked like a young man. There was a large pool of blood in the sand. Something terrible happened on this beach. Will have to close. I am in a foxhole not far from the channel. I have a raincoat over me to hide the candle. I hear St. Lo is our first town. Mother, I grew up today. Your son, Robert
Pfc. James Martin described the awe and terror of parachuting into France in the face of German fire:
The night was beautiful. There were a few stratus clouds drifting about here and there. The moon silhouetted the planes around us, and danced on the whitecaps in the channel below us. The fiery exhaust of our engines reminded me strangely of a blast furnace. The many dark forms scattered in the choppy waters of the channel were, I realized, part of the world's greatest armada of ships waiting to belch forth thousands of troops into Hitler's “impregnable” wall, and I suddenly realized that they were waiting and depending on us. Then I stepped out to meet a ladder of [enemy] flak and tracers. Thank God I missed all the rungs on the way down. The loneliest feeling in the world was when I hit the ground with not another soul around me. Love, Jimmie
Capt. George Montgomery, with the 82nd Airborne, wrote about his D-Day experiences to his fiancée Arline:
Arline, my dearest — Today is our 20th day in action, yet it seems like years. What has happened to me and my battalion would be scoffed at, even in a 10¢ novel, as being impossible. Why the few of us left alive — are alive — is something to figure out in church. I've seen as many of my very best friends killed beside me. I just can't believe it is all really happening.
I never in my wildest dreams knew such terror could grip your very soul. The business of landing deep in enemy territory & trying to hold a position assaulted and shelled from 4 sides until friendly troops break through — is something I hope they never ask me to do again. The night we jumped, D-Day — 6 hours, was the payoff night. The Jerries knew our plans down to the last detail and were waiting for us with everything they had.
My chute was on fire from tracer bullets when I landed — right in front of a machine gun emplacement. I cut out of my harness & crawled for a couple of hours with bullets whistling past my ears, coming from seemingly every direction. We have had mail brought to us twice and have been permitted to write twice. Both mail calls brought me letters from you Arline — & I could have wept with joy & relief to hear from you & that you were still of a mind to be Mrs. G. Montgomery one of these days.
Montgomery returned home to Iowa after the war and married Arline in 1946.
Shortly before D-Day, 2nd Lt. Jack Lundberg wrote his family a sobering note:
Now that I am actually here, I see that the chances of my returning to all of you are quite slim, therefore I want to write this letter now while I am yet able.
I want you to know how much I love each of you. You mean everything to me, and it is the realization of your love that gives me the courage to continue. I have requested that this letter be forwarded only in the event I do not return.
You have had many times more than your share of illness and deaths in the family — still you have continued to exemplify what true parents should. I am sorry to add to your grief — but at all times, realize that my thoughts are of you constantly and that I feel that in some small way I am helping to bring this wasteful war to a conclusion. We of the United States have something to fight for — never more fully have I realized that. There just is no other country with comparable wealth, advancement, or standard of living. The U.S.A. is worth a sacrifice! Remember always that I love you each most fervently and I am proud of you. Consider Mary, my wife, as having taken my place in the family circle and watch over each other.
Two and a half weeks after D-Day, Lundberg was the lead navigator on a B-17 flying over Abbeville, France, that was hit by German anti-aircraft fire, burst into flames and crashed. Lundberg was killed.
P-47 pilot Capt. George Rarey found out before D-Day that he was a father, and wrote this letter:
Junie. Got back from a mission at 4 o'clock this afternoon & . what did I see? The Deacon waving at me as I walked up the road to the shack. A small yellow envelope — I thought it was a little early, but I quit breathing completely until the wonderful news unfolded — A Son! Darling, Junie! . I'm so proud of you, I'm beside myself.
Junie, if this letter makes no sense forget it — I'm sort of delirious. This iron hut looks like a castle — I'm a father. I have a son!
Rarey's P-47 was shot down a couple weeks after D-Day while supporting ground troops. He died without seeing his son.
The trees are blooming the birds are singing the newspaper society sections are thick with marriage announcements. As the last soggy weeks of spring give way to the balmy days of summer, wedding season has arrived and with it, an onslaught of bachelor parties. With an estimated 2.2 million weddings in the U.S. each year, providing for the groom's send-off is big business. Dozens of websites cater to the needs of the bachelor-party planner (typically, the groom's best man). I-Volution Inc., which owns two of the largest bachelor-party sites on the Web, says its websites get about 4 million visitors a year 35% of whom focus on the Las Vegas packages. Just witness the success of the hit film The Hangover, whose tale of a prenuptial Las Vegas jaunt gone horribly awry has topped the box office for two straight weeks, pulling down more than $105.4 million. (See the top 10 non-emergency 911 calls.)
The bachelor party, however, goes back much further than you'd expect. It's rooted in ancient history as early as the 5th century B.C. It is believed that the ancient Spartans were the first to make a celebration out of the groom's last night as a single man. Spartan soldiers held a dinner in their friend's honor and made toasts on his behalf with, one assumes, a Spartan sense of decorum. Since then, the events have generally grown more raucous. In 1896, a stag party thrown by Herbert Barnum Seeley a grandson of P.T. Barnum for his brother was raided by police after rumors circulated that a famous belly dancer would be performing nude. Before his wedding to Gloria Hatrick, Jimmy Stewart's infamous bash at the Beverly Hills hangout Chasen's included midgets popping out of a serving dish.
The fun can get out of hand, however: in recent years, bachelor-party high jinks have led to numerous Hollywood breakups. Paris Hilton accused beau Paris Lastis of cheating on her at his bachelor party an alleged indiscretion that similarly doomed Mario Lopez and Ali Landry. Nick Lachey's reported dalliance with a porn star at a friend's party while it was denied sparked rumors about a rift with wife Jessica Simpson before their eventual split in 2005. And Peter Berg's dark 1998 film Very Bad Things should be required viewing for grooms-to-be about the importance of good behavior (although it's probably not for their fiancées).
The term bachelor previously meaning a young knight or a student with a bachelor's degree first appeared in reference to an unmarried man in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the 14th century. The term bachelor party didn't appear until 1922, however, when it was first used in the Scottish publication Chambers's Journal of Literature, Science and Arts to describe a "jolly old" party. The event is known by different names in different countries: the stag party in the U.K., Ireland and Canada the buck's party in Australia and, with typical panache, the enterrement de vie de garçon in France (translation: "the burial of the life as a boy").
In the past, a bachelor party could commonly involve a black-tie dinner hosted by the groom's father, with toasts to the groom and the bride. The more recent traditions of hazing, humiliation and debauchery often consuming entire weekends and involving travel to an exotic destination such as Las Vegas or its nearest available facsimile became a staple of bad '80s sex comedies. (The 1984 Tom Hanks vehicle Bachelor Party hit the genre's perfecta, featuring beer, drugs, strippers, an ill-fated donkey and MTV video vixen Tawny Kitaen.) (Watch TIME's video "Beer Pong Strikes Back.")
By the sexual revolution of the 1960s, women had launched their own version of the prewedding festivities: the bachelorette party. Prior to the late 19th century, women were limited to bridal showers, the main function of which was to acquire a dowry and gifts to prepare them for marriage. Bachelorette parties allowed women the opportunity to express their own sexual freedom with drinking games and (male) strippers. Other couples, uncomfortable with the expectations of debauchery, celebrate their last night together in combined stag and doe parties an idea that's grown popular as more couples live together and marry later in life. Bachelor parties are now as diverse as the bachelors involved, ranging from Las Vegas trips (losing teeth, dignity and sometimes the groom, as in The Hangover) to a casual party with friends and/or the fiancée. First and foremost, the event is an important step in saying goodbye to one's single life and relieving prewedding jitters. There doesn't even have to be a party: some men now opt for "groom's showers," in which they acquire their own dowry of foosball tables and power tools.
What Is the History of the Sunday Night Football Song?
Sunday Night Football has used "Waiting All Day For Sunday Night" as its introduction song since NBC first started airing football games on Sunday nights. Pink, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood have all performed the song.
"Waiting All Day For Sunday Night" uses the music of Joan Jett's hit song "I Hate Myself For Loving You" and alters its lyrics to fit a football-related theme. The song has experienced minor changes through the years, but it has always ended with the line "the NFL rocks on NBC." Also, the song sometimes alters its lyrics to reference the teams participating in a given week's game.
Pink was the first singer to perform the Sunday Night Football theme song. She only held the job for one season, before Faith Hill took over. The song's arrangement was altered slightly to fit Hill's country music background. Many fans saw NBC's focus on Hill's legs, high heel boots and use of leather during the performance as an effort to attract male viewers.
Carrie Underwood then took over for Hill, and the arrangement and lyrics were again altered. Underwood performs the song in a shiny silver short dress and high-heel shoes, following Hill's example.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
Marsha P. Johnson was an African American drag performer and social activist. The fifth of seven children, she was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. to Malcolm Michaels Sr. and Alberta (Claiborne) Michaels on August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. During a tempestuous Christian childhood, around the age of five, Johnson began to dress as a girl. Her desire for traditional feminine clothing quickly drew a reprimand from her father, a General Motors assembly line worker and housekeeper mother, as well as from the larger society.
After graduating from Thomas A. Edison High School in 1963, Johnson moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. She had $15 and a bag of clothes. Homeless, she turned to prostitution to survive and soon found a like-minded community in the bawdy nightlife of Christopher Street.
Johnson switched names repeatedly as she established her persona, alternating between her given name Malcolm and Black Marsha before settling on Marsha P. Johnson. She chose Johnson because she enjoyed hanging out at the popular eatery, Howard Johnson’s. The “P” purportedly stands for “Pay It No Mind,” a flippant saying she used to dismiss antagonists.
Marsha P. Johnson
On June 28, 1969, Marsha P. Johnson became one of the faces of the Queer Revolution. She went from her own party uptown to the Stonewall Inn on the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue, arriving after the Stonewall Riot (Uprising) had begun.
The riot stemmed from members of New York’s LGBTQ community being targeted by the New York Police Department (NYPD). LGBTQ people were routinely rousted, hassled, and arrested on questionable charges. That summer Saturday, their anger reached a breaking point after the police returned to Stonewall Inn for the second time in two days. According to Johnson, the police had forced her and others out onto the street to line up and be frisked the night before and then returned the next night and set the Stonewall Inn on fire.
Twenty-three-year old Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera were caught up in the Stonewall Uprising which went on for several days and is credited as the catalyst for the Gay Movement of the late 1960s. The Uprising spawned the first gay pride marches across the country in 1970. In the same year, Johnson and Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which clothed, fed, housed, and advocated for transgender youth from a tenement on the lower eastside.
In 1972, as the face of the resistance, Johnson performed around the world with the popular drag theater company, Hot Peaches. Andy Warhol featured her in a 1975 screen print portfolio of drag queens and transgender merrymakers at the nightclub, Gilded Grape.
The 2010s began amidst a global financial crisis, and the decade is characterised by economic and political upheaval. China replaced the US as the world's largest trading nation, and politics increasingly polarises as governments grapple with a far wider range of social, economic and environmental issues. In the home, the baby boomers generation approached retirement, increasing the ageing population, and rapidly developing technology changes how we all work and live.
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Turning the Tide: D-Day from an Oceanographer's Perspective
D-Day, codenamed Operation Neptune, was the largest amphibious landing not only in World War II, but in history. It marked the start of the liberation of German-occupied France (and later western Europe) and laid the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front. But what most people don't know is that ocean tides played a crucial role in the initial phase of this historic day. In this episode, hear the story of D-Day from the perspective of the science of tides and tide predictions. We interview Greg Dusek, a physical oceanographer and senior scientist at the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, or CO-OPS — the tides and currents office of the National Ocean Service.
A landing craft on the way to Normandy during the Allied invasion, June 6, 1944. Credit: U.S. Army
HOST: This is the NOAA Ocean Podcast, I’m Troy Kitch. D-Day, codenamed Operation Neptune, was the largest seaborne invasion not only in World War II, but in history. It was a massive, complex amphibious landing along the Normandy coast of France that began on June 6, 1944 — within ten days there were half a million troops ashore, and within three weeks there were two million. All told, D-Day marked the start of the liberation of German-occupied France (and later western Europe) and laid the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front. But most people don’t know how ocean tides played a crucial role in the initial phase of the invasion. Joining us by phone today to tell us the story of D-Day from the perspective of the science of tides and tide predictions is Greg Dusek, a physical oceanographer and senior scientist at the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, or CO-OPS — the tides and currents office of the National Ocean Service. Greg, thanks for joining the NOAA Ocean Podcast. What sort of conditions were the allies looking for as they planned the invasion of Normandy?
GREG DUSEK: “So the allies were planning an amphibious assault. They were going to cross the English Channel to the French coastline, near Normandy. Because they were going over the ocean, they needed good weather, so they needed to find a time where the waves were going to be minimal and the winds were going to be minimal, and obviously that’s something they really can’t plan ahead of time. But they knew that, in the summer months, you were more likely to have good weather, so they wanted to plan a time in the summer for the assault. They also wanted to have a time period where you had a full moon or close to a full moon the night before the assault, and the reason for that was, they were going to have airborne infantry sent behind enemy lines the night before, and to do that, you needed some sort of lights for them to be able to figure out where they’re going. So they wanted close to a full moon the night before. And then, lastly, they were looking for a time with low tide shortly after dawn. And the reason they needed it shortly after dawn, was because they needed a couple hours of time for the amphibious assault groups to travel across the English Channel in darkness, but then enable the Naval bombardment to have daylight to be able to target initial areas of interest to bombard, before the amphibious assault began. Those criteria, you know, didn’t have a lot of times to work with, and June 5th, 6th, and 7th of 1944 were the three days that were identified.”
HOST: That is a lot of environmental factors to have all fall into place. That last part, looking for a time with low tide shortly after dawn, is where we get to the science of predicting the tide for a particular location.
GREG DUSEK: “So tide predictions were top secret during WWII, and the reason for that was you wanted to limit the axis information about allied-held coasts, you didn’t want to divulge any information that they might not already have about the tide or our own coastlines, so they couldn’t plan their own attacks. And then the other important part was that, if we were generating predictions for positions we were likely to attack, if the enemy found those predictions, it might tip them off as to where we were thinking about attacking next. So all of the work done relating to tide predictions was really secretive and it was a lot of work to make sure that none of that information escaped and was available to the enemy.”
HOST: And this was of course well before computers. Can you tell us a bit about the basics of what tides are and how people predicted tides in the past, leading up to WWII?
The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey used tide prediction machine No. 2, fondly referred to as "Old Brass Brains," to predict tides from 1912-1965. It was the first machine made to simultaneously compute the height of the tide and the times of high and low waters. Today, tide predictions are made on electronic computers.
GREG DUSEK: “Tide predictions enable us to tell when is high and low tide and what time is high and low tide going to occur at different coastal locations. The tide is related to the position of the sun and the moon relative to the Earth, and so going back even to the mid-1700s, people understood that when you had high tide every day, and how high the tide was, relates to, in particular, the phase of the moon. And so, even in the mid-1700s in colonial America there were tide predictions of the timing of the tides at various harbors. They weren’t terribly accurate, but they did provide some information which would be useful to mariners and to citizens. But it wasn’t really until the late 1800s that a few folks — Sir William Thompson, who later became known as Lord Kelvin in England and William Farrell of the U.S., who was at the U.S. Coast Survey, which later actually became NOAA much later in time — they were the first ones to figure out if we go and collect the observations, go measure the water level for a month at a time at a certain location, you could then figure out what frequencies make up the tide, what are known as tidal constituents. And if you knew those tidal constituents at a particular location, then you could use that information to generate tide predictions, or very specific water levels and times of the tide at a certain location even months or years into the future.”
HOST: So how were tide predictions calculated once this was figured out in the late 1800s?
GREG DUSEK: “Understanding that there were these specific frequencies that related to the tides, these tidal constituents, you could recreate those mechanically. So you could have these different gears and pulleys represent specific frequencies and then use what’s known as a tide machine to, basically, you put in those constituents, and that tide machine would spit out a tidal curve telling you exactly the times and water levels associated with certain tidal constituents. Some of the first tide machines were created in the late 1800s, and in the U.S., really kind of the best tide machine that was really ever created was finished in about 1912 and, in fact, if you ever visit NOAA, you can find it right in one of our buildings. We still have it there today. It was called ‘old brass brains,’ and it was this metal machine about eleven feet long, about as tall as a person, and people would operate that all the time, generating tide predictions from tidal constituents — and you can generate those predictions for anywhere in the world, as long as you had the information about the constituents. And the big thing with this machine is that this used to be a process that was done by hand. There was a quote in a New York Times article when the machine was first put out, where they say, ‘the machine turns out in ten to 15 hours the work that would keep a mere human calculator busy for six months.’ So, you know, we used to have human calculators, and it would take about six months for them to do one set of tide predictions, and now we could do it in maybe a day or so.”
HOST: I’m still not clear on the idea of tidal constituents.
GREG DUSEK: “So tidal constituents are specific frequencies that represent the position of the moon and the sun relative to the Earth, and how that influences water level. You can calculate the tide with not too many tidal constituents, maybe 20 or 30. The tide machines of the time could solve for about 37 tide constituents, which is usually more than enough to get a really accurate prediction, but there are several hundred known constituents that we can solve for today if needed.”
HOST: How many of these mechanical tide machines did the Allies have during the war?
GREG DUSEK: “There were a number of these tide machines by the time WWII rolled around. We had one in the United States, there were two in the United Kingdom. Pretty much every maritime nation at that point had some sort of tide machine to enable them to generate tide predictions. But because we only had three primary machines within the allied nations, it was really important to keep them safe. So in the UK, for instance, they had these two machines which they had in two different locations, because they were really afraid of the Germans figuring out where the machines were and then firebombing them to destroy them, because they would’ve been high value targets. So the location was a closely held secret and the really tried to keep them hidden. If they lost both of them, that could be a huge implication on the war effort, so it was really important to keep the machines safe.”
HOST: And this leads us back to planning for the D-Day invasion. What were some of the challenges of predicting the tides along the Normandy coast where the Allies planned to land?
GREG DUSEK: “So the tide range around the Normandy beaches was around 20 feet, because you have this really large tidal range, the beach you’re going to have to traverse is going to be wildly different depending on if you’re at low tide or high tide. At low tide, you might have 2-300 yards more of beach to cover, during an amphibious assault, then at high tide. So because of that, you really want to minimize your exposure. The other important part about the tide range is that the water level is changing very rapidly. So *you could be gaining or losing about a foot of water every 15 minutes. *On top of that, the Normandy coastline is kind of complex, and that influences the tides fairly substantially as you go along the coast. So, the allies had five locations they wanted to land at. Utah and Sword were the two furthest apart, about 100 kilometers apart, and the tide could vary by more than hour between those two locations, and so knowing the precise time of low tide was going to be really important.”
HOST: So how did the Allies get the information they needed to do their calculations for these extreme tide conditions?
GREG DUSEK: “At this time in history, there was tidal information at lots of the major coastal cities. There were tide constituents generated from water level observations at nearby cities — Cherbourg to the West and Le Have to the East — but now both of these locations were about 100 kilometers away from the landing beaches, and so the predictions that you generated at those locations would probably not be very accurate for where the landings were going to occur. And so they had, in the tide tables at the time, there was some information closer to the landing zones, but it wasn’t nearly as detailed and there was even a note in the tide tables that said, ‘these predictions may not be accurate.’ So they really didn’t have much to go on for the exact landing locations. Apparently, the allies actually sent in some special forces, night reconnaissance, ahead of the attack, to look at the bathymetry (the shape of the bottom), the type of sand that was there, and to even collect a little bit of information about the tides, which could then support calculating new predictions for those specific landing zones.”
HOST: And why was it so important to stage the invasion at low tide?
GREG DUSEK: “They knew they wanted to land at low tide, so that they could send their initial forces to clear out the number of objects on the beach, but if you can imagine that they got tides just a little bit wrong, say they were off by 30 minutes, 45 minutes, and they landed just before low tide. Well, because of the tide range, water’s *dropping about a foot every hour right before low tide, *and so your amphibious craft would’ve arrived, unloaded the troops, the tides would’ve dropped, and all the craft would’ve been stuck on the beach — and then, you know, you’d be gumming up the whole operation, you wouldn’t be able to have reinforcements come in, and it would have been a disaster. And so they needed to arrive just after low tide, so that water levels are *rising about a foot an hour, *and it would enable their crafts to drop the troops and then get back out of the way for the next round of troops to arrive.”
HOST: At the time, German forces knew that the allies would likely try an invasion of the French coast from across the English Channel. Can you talk about how the Germans were planning for this?
GREG DUSEK: “The Germans and Gen. Rommel were really expecting the allies to attack at high tide, because at low tide there would be maybe 2-300 yards of beach that the amphibious forces would have to traverse, leaving them exposed for an extended period of time. Because of that, Rommel had all of these obstacles placed along the beach — millions of obstacles along the French and Belgian coastlines — and so, they were convinced that an attack would happen at high tide. Now, the allies saw these obstacles and decided that a high tide attack wouldn’t be possible, and instead they would have to plan their attack at low tide, giving their initial troops a chance to move obstacles out of the way, blow up obstacles, and clear a path for the heavy infantry and tanks and things like that, that would follow the initial attack.”
HOST: So you said that all the conditions that needed to fall in place — the moon, the weather, the tides — meant that the small window between the 5th and 7th of June were the best dates for the Allies to launch the invasion. How did the Allies settle on June 6th to commence operations?
GREG DUSEK: “On June 4th, the weather was going to be too bad, so they didn’t attack. They waited until June 6th. The weather was still not great and it was very questionable, but Eisenhower made the decision to attack because he was worried that, if it failed here, they’d have to wait at least two weeks and maybe a month or more to go forward with the assault, and then it could’ve been figured out. They didn’t want to wait that long, because they were losing lives like crazy. Even though the weather was rough getting across the Channel, it actually worked in our favor because Rommel — because the weather wasn’t any good and because it was low tide at first light and he was anticipating a high-tide assault — he was actually not even in Berlin, he was visiting his wife for her birthday somewhere else, and so wasn't prepared even for the assault at all. So we actually caught them off guard by choosing to attack that day.”
HOST: Well the invasion of course succeeded, so among all of the factors that led to this success, I guess that means that the Allies got the tide predictions right for the Normandy coast on June 6th, 1944?
HOST: GREG DUSEK: “Later on, people went back and using computers and using hydrodynamic models re-ran a simulation to look at how accurate the predictions were around the Normandy coastline for the assault and found them to be really quite accurate, you know, using a mechanical machine and data collected from a few hours in a midget submarine or something, was almost as accurate as we can determine today. I would say anecdotally in our office, we’ve looked at a lot of historical predictions going back to the late 1800s, early 1900s, and compared them to what we can find today with modern instruments and modern computers and are always amazed at just how accurate, you know, what people were able to figure out with really minimal amounts of information and technology, and could get pretty darned close to what we can measure today with all of the technology we have.”
HOST: From your perspective as an oceanographer at NOAA’s tides and currents office, what’s your takeaway from the D-Day invasion?
“The important thing to think about with this is that tides really were one of the pivotal roles with one of the most important days in human history. I think it shows just how important it is to understand our natural environment and to be able to make prediction about the natural environment. It seems simple, in terms of the rise and fall of the water level due to tides, but it’s actually quite complex. It can take a lot of work to figure out and can be important to understand for a whole range of reasons.”
HOST: It’s truly a remarkable story. I’m curious how you discovered the historical role of tide predictions for the invasion of the Normandy coast in WWII?
GREG DUSEK: “Our former chief scientist of the National Ocean Service, Bruce Parker, was really on the forefront of tide prediction and tide analysis when he was here at NOAA, and did a lot of research into tide history. He wrote a book a number of years ago, The Power of the Sea, where he goes into a lot of stories and other interesting historical facts about the tide and about the ocean. He’s been a great source for this kind of historical research and it’s really interesting.”
HOST: I imagine tide prediction in the 21st century has come a long way from the Old Brass Brains machine the U.S. used back in the day.
GREG DUSEK: “Today, we have the benefit of having a lot more data. You know, instead of maybe collecting information about the water level a couple times a day, a few days, or a few months, we have instruments that measure water levels every six minutes for years and years. And so, we can take that time series and run it in a computer, and take four, five, six years of data or more, run it through a computer, and figure out very precisely what the tidal constituents are for a particular location, and then generate tide predictions from those constituents, again, every six minutes, at a very high level of accuracy going out years into the future. From a time standpoint, we can do that in a matter of minutes. Whereas before, even after the tide machine was created, it was taking people days to generate these predictions. So we’ve advanced quite a bit.”
HOST: What are some of the reasons that we need such detailed information about water levels today?
GREG DUSEK: “The importance of tides and currents for NOAA and the nation really comes down to a couple of things. One is safe and efficient navigation. So if you’re pulling in a large commercial vessel or Navy warship, you need to know precisely when low and high tide are going to be, and high it’s going to be, so you know you’re not going to run aground or run into a bridge, things like that. On top of that, tide predictions are really important to things like high tide flooding. So one of the benefits of being able to predict the tide really well means that we can figure out what days you’re likely to see flooding in certain locations. So it’s really important for public safety and or providing awareness regarding potential hazards. So tide predictions is something we know how to do really well, but it remains something that is really important for a wide range of uses.”
HOST: That was Greg Dusek, a physical oceanographer and senior scientist at the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, or CO-OPS — the tides and currents office of the National Ocean Service. And that’s all for this episode. If you like what you hear, head to iTunes and leave us a rating. It’ll help more people find our show. And head to oceanservice.noaa.gov or check your podcast app for our show notes — and be sure to subscribe to the NOAA Ocean Podcast so you don’t miss any episodes.
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