By Sarah Erdman
In this anniversary year of D-Day, we are once again reminded of the very definition of courage through black-and-white photographs and grainy footage. As the decades stretch behind us, we remember the day best for the beaches where thousands of people lost their lives, but the riveting chronicle of D-Day begins on other shores. It’s a tale of intricate planning, extraordinary engineering, great minds making decisions that redirected history, and a fair amount of chance. That’s the story travelers explored last week on National Geographic Expeditions’ D-Day: Commemorating the 70th Anniversary trip.
Thousands descended on Normandy last Friday to honor the anniversary, including hundreds of Frenchmen who reenacted the invasion in uniforms from the period. National Geographic’s travelers came by boat across the English Channel, having traced the dramatic events of early June 1944 from Winston Churchill’s bunker to Southwick House in Portsmouth, where General Eisenhower uttered the fateful words, “Okay, let’s go.”
“We were able to understand the whole story,” said Dave Compton, who took the trip with his brother Bob. “We got the background first before going to Normandy.” Their group was accompanied by National Geographic expert Tim Mulligan, a military historian and archivist who has published several books on World War II. During his career at the National Archives, Mulligan had been involved in the declassification of World War II documents, and could recount little-known details about the invasion that only came to light in the 1990s.
In London, the group descended into the Churchill War Rooms, a stuffy underground bunker protected by some five feet of cement and steel. Here, Churchill and his top brass strategized as German bombers destroyed the City of London overhead.
“It was startling to see how small and humble the rooms were,” said Bob Compton. “In this tiny little place, Churchill and others were making huge decisions to move millions of troops around an entire theater of war.” Another traveler was moved by the details: the cigar poised on the night table next to Churchill’s modest twin bed, the wall map riddled with pinholes that tracked Allied positions.
One highlight was Bletchley Park outside of London, noted Bob Compton. Behind the gracious manor house stands a cluster of basic huts where code breakers worked day and night to untangle the Germans’ Enigma code, creating what was in essence the world’s first computer in the process. Their efforts are believed to have shortened the war by two years.
The channel waters were calm as the group crossed to Normandy and the handful of veterans who were also on board brought a deeper meaning to the passage. On the other side stretched the beaches, which were longer and vaster than anyone had fathomed.
“What struck me was the size and scope of the invasion,” said Dave Compton. “The five beaches extend 80 miles! The planning that went into it—more than 5,000 ships, 11,000 aircraft, over 150,000 men—was just incredible.” One traveler posted numerous pictures of the beaches to his personal blog in an effort to show the depth and breadth of the sands where so many thousands advanced with virtually no cover, loaded down with wet gear and facing a barrage of German mortars and artillery.
It was raining at the American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer as the group wandered through endless rows of crosses and stars. Each person chose a gravesite on which to lay a rose. “At the ceremony the next day, President Obama reminded us to stop and think of these men,” said Dave Compton. “As you kneel down to place a rose on the grave of a 19-year-old from West Virginia, you do stop and think of these men. It was a somber moment.”
The sun came out for the official ceremony on the morning of June 6, where the group heard Barack Obama and François Hollande give speeches honoring the veterans and their fallen brethren. The veterans lingered afterwards and the group had a chance to meet a few of them. One paratrooper in particular went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.
“Tim Mulligan found out what unit the veteran was in, and could tell us exactly how they were involved in the invasion,” said Bob Compton. “It’s one thing to read about D-Day and see the maps, but totally different to be there—and especially to be there with someone like Tim, who could really bring it all alive.”