Thursday, July 24, 2014

The story of D-Day, in five maps

On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces launched Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day, in which it sent tens of thousands of troops across the English Channel to invade Normandy and begin the assault to liberate Nazi-occupied Western Europe. It was an historic day and a major turning point in World War Two, one being remembered worldwide on Friday's 70th anniversary. Here, to show the extent and scope of the mission, are five maps of D-Day:

1. The Allied air campaign

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We associate Operation Overlord with the landing at Normandy, but the air campaign and bomber offensive were a huge and essential component of its success. The blue shows the scope of campaign to clear the way for the landing, while the red shows Axis defensive encampments and the green shows Axis strategic targets. You can also see the diversion out near Calais to the northeast.

2. The invasion plan

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The darkest shade of pink shows the initial landing zone — you can see the famously named beachheads marked out — with lighter shades showing the immediate advances. The orange arrows show the invasion routes of specific American, British, French, and Canadian groups (Canada's battle flag is the red one with the shield). One of the amazing things, looking at this map in retrospect, is how much was expended, and how much at stake, in such a small area of land.

3. The Allies' top secret invasion map

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University of Texas

Known as "the Bigot map" (it's just an arbitrary codename), this two-part map was used by invasion forces to plan and launch the attack. Its level of detail is both a stunning accomplishment, as a piece of cartography, and a somewhat haunting evocation of the challenges the Allied forces faced. Ditches, man-made barriers such as Czech hedgehogs, and gun encampments are laid out in painstaking detail. There's a note to boat navigators on how to guide their way by physical features if the bomber runs leave too much in ruins to recognize. The reverse side of each map had detailed hourly currents, beach gradients, and tidal stages. See the full image here, and both maps plus their reverse sides here.

4. The first 10 weeks, animated

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This shows the Allied invasion and assault from June 6 through August 21, roughly 10 weeks of brutal fighting over a small but fateful corner of northwest France. The red shows Allied areas of control. These weeks caused enormous casualties on all sides — including among French civilians — because everyone knew how crucial it was to the outcome of the war, as it proved to be.

5. How D-Day fit into the full sweep of the war

This animated map shows Europe's borders every single day for the entirety of its six-year war. It's a little rough and the music is hokey, but it's a powerful lens for watching the war unfold. Skip ahead to 5:28 to see the June 6, 1944, invasion — at which point the Allies had taken southern Italy and the Soviet Union was pushing, at enormous costs, into eastern Europe. Watch especially how, in July, the Normandy invasion force expanded only slightly as the Axis's southern and eastern fronts collapses. D-Day was not, despite the common American telling, the entirety of the war decided on a single beachhead. But, by opening a western front against the Axis, and then in August pushing it back, it was the beginning of the European war's end.

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