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24 September 2014
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D-Day on the BBC
D-Day, the BBC ONE drama-documentary, explores the secret planning for D-Day and the reality of conflict

D-Day on the BBC


Planning D-Day


By early 1944, victory against Nazi Germany seemed as elusive as ever.


In the East the Russians were defeating German troops but, throughout Europe, it was known that another campaign would have to sweep towards Berlin from the West if victory were to be won.


Lieutenant General Frederick Morgan was put in charge of planning the invasion to end all invasions. He and his officers began to draft the blueprint for D-Day.


If ports were well-defended, the best option was to aim for poorly defended beaches – but which ones?


In 1942, the BBC issued an appeal for postcards and photographs of the coast of Europe from Norway to the Pyrenees.


Millions were sent to the War Office and, together with the aid of the French Resistance and air reconnaissance, Morgan was able to pick his target beach landing spots.


All the research pointed to one region – Normandy.


In July 1943, Morgan submitted his plan for the attack, Operation Overlord.


It was accepted a month later by the US and British chiefs of staff meeting in Quebec.


Since US troops were to form 75 per cent of the total force, Morgan knew that an American would eventually lead Overlord.


That American was General Dwight D Eisenhower. He was aided by Britain's hero of the battle of el Alamein, General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, who was given command of Overlord's American and British ground troops. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was to command the vast naval invasion.

Keeping D-Day Secret


Maintaining security remained a problem from March 1943 right up until D-Day itself.

In September 1943, it was decided that all personnel granted access to top secret documents should be given an ID card stamped with a single word, BIGOT. It was assumed that no sane person was likely to brag about such a classification.


Secret documents were also stamped BIGOT and marked with a red cross.


From March 1944, British newspapers published countless stories about the invasion.


By the time Eisenhower had briefed senior officers about Operation Overlord at St Paul's School on 15 May 1944, there were more then 100 journalists from newspapers and news agencies from both sides of the Atlantic accredited to SHAEAF, The Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force.


The huge numbers of men and resources that would be needed for the attack, however, could potentially be discovered by enemy reconnaissance aircraft.


Morgan, therefore, devised an elaborate deception strategy, later codenamed Operation Fortitude, alongside the real assault plan.


This would try to disguise where the attack was to take place.


A Spanish-born secret agent – codenamed Garbo – became the Allies' top double agent, providing the Germans with misinformation on troop force and movement in the run-up to D-Day.


It was later discovered that he had encouraged the Germans to over-estimate the number of Allied divisions by 50 per cent.


From start to finish, the story of Garbo is almost beyond belief.


The trust the Germans placed in him was wholly genuine and wholly misplaced.


This included the fictitious First US Army Group (FUSAG), the 'existence' of which led the Germans to hold back seven of their divisions in the Pas de Calais uselessly for two weeks after D-Day. The FUSAG only ever existed on paper.


The Invasion Begins


On Friday 2 June 1944, all across Southern England, vast military conveys made their way from the embarkation camps towards Plymouth, Torquay and Exmouth, Southampton, Southsea and Eastbourne.


In every port, special vehicle slipways – or 'hards' – had been built, piers converted into ammunition dumps and, in the skies, hundreds of landing-craft silver barrage balloons where buffeted by the wind.


The stage was set for the biggest military operation in history...


On Monday 5 June, the day scheduled for D-Day, the weather closed in on the vast flotilla of ships making their way across the channel to Normandy.


To allow for an improvement in the weather, Eisenhower and the Allied command took the painstaking decision to delay the attack until early on 6 June.


For the men involved it was an agonising and terrifying wait.


At 5.30am, with a slight window in the atrocious conditions, the orders were finally given for the invasion to begin.


The Allied naval guns were immense weapons that lobbed shells, weighing up to a ton, across more than 10 miles of open sea.


This carefully planed attack targeted German bunkers, picking off strong gun positions on all target beaches, Sword, Juno, Utah, Omaha and Gold - before troops ever reached the shore.


For American troops from Company A, mostly made up from men from the small Virginian town of Bedford, the carefully orchestrated shelling of German gun positions made little difference; the company suffered 90 per cent casualties.


The next wave of men fared little better, meeting strong resistance from German forces; progress was slow and casualties were numerous.


For British forces landing on Sword Beach, the result was a little more encouraging; by 10.00am on 6 June, the beach was littered with burnt-out tanks, trucks and bodies, but the forces where moving slowly upwards.


By midday on the 6 June, as Allied forces landed more men, the tide was turning on all the beaches; even on the worst beach, Omaha, ground was being captured.

By late afternoon on 6 June, the Allied forces had finally gained a foothold in Hitler's Fortress Europe, and the war was about to turn against the German occupying forces.

The BBC and D-Day


The BBC went into the war broadcasting in seven languages.


It emerged as the world's largest international station, broadcasting in 45 languages.


The BBC played a crucial in World War Two, not only reporting events as they happened, but also encouraging hope in occupied territories.


In June 1944, the BBC occupied the tower of the chateau at Creully near Bayeux as its base for broadcasting reports of the D-Day landings back to the UK.


Using the BBC-designed 'Midget' portable recorder for recording in the field, war correspondents such as Frank Gillard filed reports using a low-powered transmitter which was delivered precariously on 18 June.


These reports came via one of the BBC's receiving stations in the south of England where they were passed by landline up to Broadcasting House for editing and inclusion in War Report and news bulletins.


The BBC used these premises until the end of July when more powerful transmitters were brought over to France, which could follow the Allies' advance.


In 1946 ownership of the chateau was passed to the town council of Creully which has since managed it as a function venue and visitor attraction.


In 1960, the BBC's Director-General Hugh Carleton Greene unveiled a plaque at the chateau.


The original BBC room in the tower contains an historic display about the BBC presence, visited by 2,000 people a year.


BBC Heritage is planning to host a dinner at the chateau on 4 June 2004 as a thank you to the people of the town.


The original owner of the chateau during the war was, coincidentally, an avid collector of radios and this collection will be opened to the public as a museum on 5 June 2004.


BBC Heritage will present an original BBC crystal radio set to the museum for its collection.


Fascinating Facts


• D-Day planning was classed as 'Most Secret' and took place at Norfolk House in London's St James's Square. The building had a private bar installed so staff could talk freely without risking loose talk in local pubs.


• In the summer of 1943, a copy of a secret Operation Overlord plan blew out of a window in Norfolk House. It was later handed in by a man who said his eyes were so bad he had no idea what it was.


• Just weeks before D-Day, 'Utah' appeared as an answer to a crossword clue in The Daily Telegraph. Utah was the codename for one of the invasion beaches. On 22 May, 'Omaha' popped up as a crossword answer. 'Overlord' appeared on 27 May, and 'Neptune' (code word for the naval aspect of the invasion) on 1 June. MI5 cleared the compiler of wrong-doing but, to this day, there has been no satisfactory explanation.


• Rommel was in charge of defending northern France from Allied invasion. But he was nearly a thousand miles from Normandy on D-Day, celebrating his wife's 50th birthday in their home in Herrlingen.


• When the D-Day forces landed, Hitler was asleep. None of his generals dared order re-enforcements without his permission, and no-one dared wake him. Crucial hours were lost in the battle to hold on to Normandy.


• A Spaniard codenamed 'Garbo' was a British double agent who played a crucial role in duping the Germans about where the invasion would occur. Whilst living in Portugal, Garbo managed to produce reports of life in England which the Germans accepted as true. At the time, he spoke no English, and used a French-English dictionary, supported by newspapers and the local library, to make up his reports. One of his most glaring errors was to suggest that there were men in Glasgow who would do anything for a litre of wine.


• More than 700 American servicemen died in one of the biggest full-scale rehearsals for D-Day, held off Slapton Sands in Devon. It involved all the 23,000 US soldiers who were preparing to land on the Normandy beach codenamed Utah. Due to an error in paperwork, the landing ships and their escorts were on different radio frequencies and couldn't talk to each other. So when one of the ships, the HMS Scimitar, had to return to Plymouth after an accidental collision, the Americans could not be informed that they were inadequately protected and vulnerable. As bad luck would have it, nine German U-boats stumbled across the manoeuvres and torpedoed the ships, sinking two ships and damaging a third. At least 749 men died.


• Coded sentences were necessary to keep French resistance workers in the know before D-Day. 'The dice is on the carpet' was an order to destroy trains and railway lines, whilst 'It's hot in Suez' instructed them to destroy cable and telephone lines.


• The BBC's French section was made up of painters, writers and musicians who arrived in England mainly after Dunkirk. A key role was to discourage people from collaborating with the Germans. The Germans had set up a system of so-called labour exchange whereby if a Frenchman agreed to work in Germany, a French prisoner would be released. The BBC's 'Ne vas pas en Allemagne' campaign helped reduce this source of easy labour for the Nazi regime.


• Having been given his top-secret mission to attack the Merville battery on D-Day, Terence Otway had to be certain his men wouldn't spill the beans ahead of 6 June 1944. He sent 30 of the prettiest members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, in civilian clothes, into village pubs near where his soldiers were training. They were asked to do all they could to discover the men's mission. None of the men gave anything away.

World War Two – A Timeline




Sep 1 - German Army invades Poland
Sep 3 - Britain and France declare war on Germany
Sep 27 - Warsaw falls to the Nazis



April 9 - German Army invades Denmark and Norway
May 10 - German Army invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Churchill appointed British Prime Minister

May 26 - "Miracle at Dunkirk"
June 10 - Norway seized by Nazis; Italy declares war on UK and France
July 10 - Battle of Britain begins
Sep 7 - German "blitz" on British cities begins in earnest
Nov 5 - Roosevelt re-elected
Dec 9-10 - British counter-attack begins against Italian Army in North Africa




Feb 12 - Erwin Rommel assumes command of German Afrika Korps
May 10 - Rudolf Hess flies to Scotland on "peace mission"
May 27 - Royal Navy sinks Bismarck
June 22 - Hitler launches operation Barbarossa, invasion of Soviet Union
July 31 - Planning begins for "Final Solution," destruction of the Jews
Sep 1 - Jews ordered to wear yellow Star of David
Dec 7 - Japanese attack naval base at Pearl Harbor
Dec 8 - The United States and Britain declare war on Japan
Dec 11 - Germany declares war on the United States
Dec 19 - Hitler assumes post of Commander in Chief of German Army



May 30 - RAF launches first 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne, Germany
Aug 7 - General Montgomery assumes command of British Eighth Army in North Africa

Sep 13 - German attack on Stalingrad begins
Oct 23-Nov 3 - Afrika Korps decisively defeated by British at El Alamein



Feb 2 - German Sixth Army at Stalingrad surrenders to the Russians

May 13 - Remaining Axis troops in North Africa surrender to Allies
July 9-10 - Allied forces land on Sicily
July 25-26 - Mussolini and the Fascists overthrown



Jan 27 - Red Army breaks 900-day siege of Leningrad
June 6 - D-Day: the invasion of Europe begins with Allied landings at Normandy
June 13 - Germans begin launching V-1 flying bombs (doodlebugs) against London
June 22 - Red Army begins massive summer offensive
June 27 - American forces liberate Cherbourg
July 9 - Allied troops liberate Caen
July 20 - Hitler survives assassination attempt
July 25-30 - Allied forces break-out of Normandy encirclement
Aug 1 - Allies invade Southern France
Aug 5 - Paris liberated
Sep 3 - Brussels liberated
Sep 13 - American troops reach the Siegfried Line in western Germany
Oct 5 - British invade Greece
Oct 14 - British liberate Athens; Rommel commits suicide
Dec 16 - German Army launches "Battle of the Bulge"



Jan 16 - Battle of the Bulge ends in German defeat
Jan 17 - Red Army liberates Warsaw
Jan 20 - Hungary signs armistice with Allies
Jan 26 - Soviets liberate Auschwitz
Feb 4-11 - Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin meet at Yalta Conference
Feb 13-14 - Allied incendiary raid creates firestorm in Dresden
Mar 9 - Tokyo firebombed
Apr 12 - Allies liberate Belsen and Buchenwald concentration camps
Apr 16 - Red Army launches Berlin offensive
Apr 28 - Mussolini hanged by Italian partisans
Apr 30 - Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun commit suicide
May 7 - Unconditional surrender of all German forces
May 8 - Victory in Europe (VE) Day
June 5 - Allies divide Germany into occupation zones
Aug 6 - First atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima
Aug 14 - Unconditional surrender of Japanese forces
Aug 15 - Victory over Japan (VJ) Day
Nov 20 - Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal begins

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