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Untold Stories
of D-Day

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By Thomas B. Allen

A grand hoax, top secret maps, and live-ammunition rehearsals set the stage for June 6, 1944, when 200,000 soldiers stormed Normandy's beaches to help free Europe.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The BIGOT maps and documents were created in isolated cocoons of secrecy. One was hidden in Selfridges department store in London. BIGOT workers entered and left Selfridges by a back door, many of them knowing only that they were delivering scraps of information that somehow contributed to the war effort. Others with BIGOT clearances worked on Allied staffs scattered around London and southern England. So restricted was the BIGOT project that when King George visited a command ship and asked what was beyond a curtained compartment, he was politely turned away because, as a sentinel officer later said, "Nobody told me he was a Bigot."

The system occasionally broke down....The strangest breach of security came from the London Daily Telegraph, whose crossword puzzles alarmed BIGOT security officers.

One puzzle, on May 2, included "Utah" in its answers. Two weeks later, "Omaha" appeared as an answer. The puzzle's author, a schoolmaster, was placed under surveillance. Next came "Mulberry," code name for artificial harbors that were secretly being built in England for use off invasion beaches. Then came the most alarming answer of all: "Neptune."

This time the schoolmaster was arrested. Confounded investigators finally decided that the words had been the product of an incredible series of coincidences. Not until 1984 was the mystery solved: One of the schoolmaster's pupils revealed that he had picked up the words while hanging around nearby camps and eavesdropping on soldiers' conversations. He then passed the odd words on to his unwitting schoolmaster when he asked his pupils to provide ingredients for his crosswords.

But nothing was more secret—or more vital to Operation Neptune—than the mosaic of Allied intelligence reports that cartographers and artists transformed into the multihued and multilayered BIGOT maps. On them were portrayed details of Hitler's vaunted Atlantic Wall, a network of coastal defenses designed to repel invaders.

To discover what the Allied invaders faced, American, British, and French operatives risked their lives—and sometimes gave their lives—in the process of filling in the BIGOT maps. Revelations about Normandy's undulating seafloor came from frogmen who also got sand samples on beaches patrolled by German sentries. Such BIGOT map notations as "antitank ditch around strongpoint" or "hedgehogs 30 to 35 feet (9 to 10 meters) apart" were often the gifts of French patriots. French laborers conscripted by the Nazis paced distances between obstacles or kept track of German troop movements. A housepainter, hired to redecorate German headquarters in Caen, stole a blueprint of Atlantic Wall fortifications.

French Resistance networks passed on precious bits of information, particularly the condition of bridges and canal locks. Wireless telegraph operators transmitted in bursts to evade German radio-detection teams. Other messages got to England in capsules, borne by homing pigeons that the Royal Air Force had delivered to French Resistance agents in cages parachuted into German-occupied Normandy. Germans, aware of the winged spies, used marksmen and falcons to bring them down. But thousands of messages got through.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Memory Book
Fifty-eight years later, five survivors tell stories of war that bring the Allied invasion to life. Add your own recollections and thoughts; then search by keyword

Sights and Sounds

Author Tom Allen takes you back to the days leading up to the  Normandy invasion.

Online Extra
Plan a visit to tiny Bedford, Virginia, home of the National D-Day Memorial.

Search for old comrades and post tales and thoughts about that fateful day and its aftermath.

Send this war-torn flag from the U.S.S. Corry to a friend.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Early in the war Allied planners realized the value of scouts for reconnoitering enemy-held beaches. From this need the Scouts and Raiders were born. Originally a joint Navy-Army unit, by 1944 the outfit was all Navy and all volunteer. Scouts and Raiders were trained in long-distance swimming, small-boat handling, and the use of weapons and explosives. They used rubber boats and a type of kayak-like craft called a Folboat to sneak onto the shore without being seen.

In the weeks just prior to D-Day, Scouts and Raiders visited many Normandy beaches, checking on such things as the type of sand—to see if it would hold up a tank—or the placement of steel obstacles and teller mines on wooden poles. They also verified water depths and the speed of currents, then slipped back to sea, sometimes swimming miles to their moored Folboats before paddling quietly and swiftly to waiting motorboats for return to their base in England.

The Scouts and Raiders trained closely with other special teams such as the naval combat demolition units (NCDUs), whose specialty was demolition of beach obstacles: welded-steel hedgehogs, Belgian gates, and other impediments to landing craft. The Navy recruited civilian experts from coal mines and quarries to train the NDCU teams in handling explosives.

As landing craft approached Omaha and Utah Beaches on June 6, 1944, they were guided by Scouts and Raiders in several LCC—Landing Craft, Control. One of the boat captains off Omaha Beach was Lt. Phil Bucklew, who saw that sea conditions were too dangerous for launching amphibious duplex drive (DD) tanks from landing craft several miles at sea. Unfortunately, his radio report was ignored. Most of the DD tanks that were launched toward Omaha Beach sank, some taking crewmen to the floor of the shallow but deadly Bay of the Seine.

Other Scouts and Raiders teams were close to the beaches in LCS—Landing Craft, Support—armed with twin .50-caliber machine guns, .30-caliber machine guns, and rockets mounted in racks. Their job was to give covering fire for landing craft as they approached the beaches.

In the water near the tide line on Omaha Beach, NCDUs worked with Army teams from the 146th and 299th Engineer Combat Battalions, placing charges against steel obstacles and blasting eight clearings through to the beach. They had trained together before the invasion and were combined for this operation to form part of the Special Engineer Task Force, arriving on the beach five minutes after the first landing craft came to shore. The NCDUs accomplished their task at a heavy cost to themselves and were sometimes hampered by soldiers who tried to use the obstacles as shelter while under heavy fire from German machine guns. The NCDUs on Omaha Beach lost 31 men and suffered 60 wounded out of a total of 180 men. They later received a presidential unit citation.

On Utah Beach, where the firefight was much less intense than on Omaha Beach, the NCDUs lost only 6 men, and 11 were wounded. There, Navy teams worked with Army demolition men from the 237th and 299th Engineer Combat Battalions and cleared the beach of all steel and concrete obstacles—by day's end they could claim 1,600 yards (1,463 meters) of cleared beach available for safe landings. It was an invaluable accomplishment, allowing the Navy to unload 20,000 troops and 1,700 vehicles onto Utah Beach by the end of the day.

The Navy's use of Scouts and Raiders, NCDUs, and other special operations groups including underwater demolition teams (UDTs) in World War II eventually led to the creation of a dedicated unit that handles many secret tasks that involve the sea and land. Called SEALs (for Sea, Air, Land), they are one of the elite forces in the United States military today. As their command historian, Don Crawford, says, they are "busier than ever answering '911 calls' from around the globe."

—David W. Wooddell

Did You Know?

Related Links
U.S. Naval Historical Center
The Naval Historical Center is the official history program of the U.S. Department of the Navy. Of particular interest are the links to the Naval Art Collection and the photographic section.

U.S. Army Center for Military History
This is a wonderful resource that includes online entire books written by official U.S. Army historians. Click "Online Bookshelves" and then go to "Research Material" and "World War II" and you will have all of the history you can read for the rest of the week.

The Imperial War Museum
Great Britain's Royal Navy provided most of the ships for Operation Neptune, the largest naval invasion in history. The link to H.M.S. Belfast will give you a tour of a cruiser that slammed German big guns from miles out at sea on D-Day.

The National D-Day Museum
Explore interactive timelines of World War II and D-Day, which take you into the details of the Normandy invasion.

National D-Day Memorial
Visit the national memorial dedicated to the Allied forces who fought at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and read about the Bedford, Virginia, men from the 116th Infantry Regiment who landed on Omaha Beach.

Haze Gray and Underway
Need to know about a ship? Check out this site with histories of over 7,000 U.S. Navy vessels, 3,000 photos, a link to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, and a link to the Canadian Navy.

Utah Beach Internet Café
This fun, historically based website is Frank Methevier's link between his restaurant, located in the remains of a German communication bunker and attached former fisherman's cottage, and the history of Utah Beach—which just happens to be across the street. Great photos, some with sound, and an easy way to access history.

European Subaquatic Research Center
French diver Bertrand Sciboz and his associates have created an informative website on sonar and underwater photography of wrecks along the coast of Normandy.

34th Photo Recon Squadron
Armed with cameras but not guns, the aircraft of the 34th and 31st Photo Recon squadrons took their chances over German-held France to bring back aerial mapping photos that aided the planning of the war and the Normandy invasion. This website is full of photos and firsthand accounts.

World War Two Maps
Offers pictures of war veterans, links, and D-Day invasion maps for sale.

D-Day: Normandy and Beyond
Read personal stories from World War II veterans, see maps of war-torn cities, and get recent news about vets from this website.


Chandler, David G., and James L. Collins. The D-Day Encyclopedia. Simon and Schuster, 1994.

D-Day: Operation Overlord From Its Planning to the Liberation of Paris. Salamander Books, 1999.

Gawne, Jonathan. Spearheading D-Day: American Special Units of the Normandy Invasion. Histoire and Collections, 1998.

Harrison, Gordon A. European Theater of Operations: Cross-Channel Attack. U. S. Government Printing Office, 1993.

Hesketh, Roger. Fortitude: The D-Day Deception Campaign. Overlook Press, 2000.

Morison, Samuel E. The Invasion of France and Germany, 1944-1945. Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Prados, Edward F., ed. Neptunus Rex: Naval Stories of the Normandy Invasion, June 6, 1944. Presidio Press, 1998.

Stillwell, Paul, ed. Assault on Normandy: First-Person Accounts From the Sea Services. Naval Institute Press, 1994.


NGS Resources
Ballard, Robert D. Graveyards of the Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Bikini Atoll. National Geographic Books, 2001.

Vesilind, Priit J. "Oil and Honor at Pearl Harbor," National Geographic (June 2001), 84-99.

Allen, Thomas B. Remember Pearl Harbor: Japanese and American Survivors Tell Their Stories. National Geographic Books, 2001.

Allen, Thomas B., and Robert D. Ballard. "Ghosts and Survivors Return to the Battle of Midway," National Geographic (April 1999), 80-103.

Shupe, John F., and George M. Elsey. "Blueprints for Victory," National Geographic (May 1995), 54-71.

Gup, Ted. "Up From Ground Zero: Hiroshima," National Geographic (August 1995), 78-101.

Allen, Thomas B. "Pearl Harbor: A Return to the Day of Infamy," National Geographic (December 1991), 50-77.

Thomas, Cameron. "Remembering the Blitz," National Geographic (July 1991), 60-77.

World War II: Asia and the Pacific Map Supplement,Europe and North Africa, National Geographic map supplement, 1991.

"Europe, a Restless Continent Remapped," National Geographic (June 1969), 778-779.

Walker, Howell. "Here Rest in Honored Glory...The United States Dedicates Six New Battle Monuments in Europe to Americans Who Gave Their Lives During World War II," National Geographic (June 1957), 738-768.

Jones, Stuart E. "Demolishing Germany's North Sea Ramparts," National Geographic (November 1946), 634-644.

Vosburgh, Frederick G. "This Is My Own: How the United States Seems to a Citizen Soldier Back from Three Years Overseas," National Geographic (January 1946), 113-128.

Duncan, David D. "Okinawa, Threshold to Japan," National Geographic (October 1945), 411-428.

Simpich, Frederick, Jr. "Americans Help Liberated Europe Live Again," National Geographic (June 1945), 747-768.

"Normandy's Made-in-England Harbors," National Geographic (May 1945), 565-580.

Simpich, Frederick, Jr. "Paris Freed," National Geographic (April 1945), 385-412.

"Paris Delivered," National Geographic (January 1945), 79-86.

Moore, W. Robert. "The Coasts of Normandy and Brittany," National Geographic (August 1943), 205-232.


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