Today is the anniversary of the D-Day landings of 6 June 1944, when Allied forces landed on a series of beaches in Normandy, France, thus beginning their invasion of German-occupied Western Europe during World War II.
Since then, the term D-Day has become iconic, and synonymous with momentous or decisive days in general. Funnily enough though, before 6 June 1944, it was a pretty ordinary term.
Prior to that date, it was a general military code term used to refer to the day on which a particular operation would take place. If, for example, two officers were talking about an upcoming operation, one might say to the other I’ll see you on D-Day, meaning the day of the operation. Usually though, D would be used without the Day part, but with a number to indicate a day before or after the day of the operation. D – 6, for example, would refer to a day six days before the operation, and D + 2 would be two days afterwards (H was used in a similar way to refer to time: H – 3 was three hours before the start of the operation).
With 6 June 1944 becoming such a momentous day though, in historical and cultural terms, the term D-Day took on a life of its own, and very soon became synonymous with that day in particular. Because of this, it fell out of favour as a general military term, and specific important operations later in the war were given their own letter, like L-Day for the invasion of Okinawa.
As time went on, and D-Day became more a mythologised event and less an actual military operation in people’s minds, it came to be used more generally in English.
I visited the site of the Omaha Beach landings last year, at Coleville-sur-Mer. Visiting the American cemetery and attached museum was both fascinating and sobering. Interesting in a different way, was going down afterwards to the beach itself. I noticed that the German bunkers and gun emplacements weren’t maintained, and there were no signs or plaques with information. It seemed a little odd to me at first, until I thought that a lot of local people, while happy enough to leave nature take its course with them, wouldn’t really want to give them too much attention either. Being from a neutral country, I realised I’d never actually been on a World War II site before, and had never considered that physical reminders of German forces might be a sensitive issue, particularly in an area which saw so much death.
I really understood this when I got down to the beach itself, and saw that it was quite beautiful (see above) and was being enjoyed by many people on a sunny Good Friday. That people were free to do this was, I thought a better tribute to the men who died there than any sterile monument.