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D-Day 75th anniversary: Eight human stories from the largest seaborne invasion in history

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D-Day 75th anniversary: Eight human stories from the largest seaborne invasion in history
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U.S. National Archives/Army Signal Corps Collection/Handout via Reuters
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On June 6, 1944, American, British, and Canadian soldiers arrived in waves on five beaches in Nazi-occupied France, spanning 80 kilometres of Normandy's coastline.

D-Day was the largest seaborne invasion in history and it marked the beginning of the end of World War II.

To mark its 75th anniversary, we look at the key human stories from the day.

Capa’s “Magnificent Eleven”

War photographer Robert Capa snapped 144 photographs in six hours on D-Day. The Hungarian reporter worked for the American weekly magazine Life and volunteered to be part of the first wave on Omaha Beach.

He was evacuated unconscious by nurses who thought he was dead, but he was never wounded.

Most of his photos melted during their development, but the eleven photos that remain are called the “Magnificent Eleven”.

“The Beast of Omaha”

Sheltered in a concrete bunker overlooking Omaha Beach, German corporal Heinrich Severloh, just 22-years-old, watched Americans arrive on the beach with his finger on the trigger of a machine gun.

As the Americans got closer, he gunned them down for nine hours straight.

“I do not know how many men I shot. I almost emptied an entire infantry landing craft. The Sea was red around it and I could hear an American officer shouting hysterically in a loudspeaker,” Severloh said.

He was later nicknamed the “Beast of Omaha” during his imprisonment in the United States.

The “longest day”

Irish-American writer Cornelius Ryan most famously coined the phrase by titling his 1959 book “The Longest Day”. The book quickly became a bestseller and was even adapted for film in 1962.

But it was Erwin Rommel, a German Marshal tasked with protecting the coast from invasion by fortifying an "Atlantic Wall", who first said the words.

“The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive … for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day,” Ryan quoted Rommel as saying.

Utah: The additional beach

The Allies originally picked just four beaches to invade but British general and war hero Bernard "Monty" Montgomery insisted they include a fifth: Utah Beach.

The decorated war general was appointed ground commander by General Dwight D. Eisenhower for the D-Day invasion.

The Americans went on to invade Utah and Omaha beaches, the British took Gold and Sword beaches and the Canadians took Juno Beach.

Patton’s ghost army

A fake army, complete with inflatable tanks and wooden cannons was created to deceive the Germans and ensure the Normandy invasion's success.

The famous American general George S. Patton carried out the operation of deception, 'Operation Fortitude' with a phantom army called the First US Army Group in a mission revealed only after the MI6 opened their archives.

As agents and spies infiltrated with the Germans to spread disinformation, the fake army bolstered its forces in southern England, making the Germans believe the real landing would be in the Pas-de-Calais region.

The GI, a prototype of the American soldier

The GI or “Government Issue” soldier became a term systematically used by the American army to designate everything associated with the American soldier.

Chewing gum, coca-cola, blond cigarettes, and Zippo lighters, all products the American soldiers carried, would become associated with the end of the war.

The Pegasus bridge

In the first minutes of the invasion, British scouts landed six gliders shortly after midnight to seize two strategic bridges near Caen in Benouville and Ranville.

It took them only 15 minutes to take the structures but longer to hold them after the Germans launched a counterattack.

The Benouville Bridge was renamed the Pegasus Bridge after the winged horse symbol of the British soldiers' infantry division.

The Gondrée cafe near the bridge would become the first building liberated in France.

Glory day for Jeep

The American Jeep was first introduced in World War II after the US army commissioned three companies to produce the small all-terrain vehicle.

The car was small enough to fit into the gliders used on D-Day and became a key tool for the American military.