D-Day, Part II: “We will accept nothing less than full victory”

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series exploring the history and significance of D-Day as we approach the 70th anniversary of the battle. Click here to read part one. For information on D-Day: Normandy 1944, the 3D film now showing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre, please visit us online.

General Dwight Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers, June 5 1944 (Image Wikimedia).

General Dwight Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers, June 5, 1944 (Image: Wikimedia)

“I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!” – General Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6, 1944. 

With these words, General Dwight D. Eisenhower ended his message to the troops as they headed for the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. 

Once the decision had been made at the Trident Conference to open a second front and invade Western Europe, preparations needed to be made to ensure the mission’s success. This involved deciding when and where to land, devising measures to deceive the Germans, and working out all the logistics to make these plans work.

As to the “where,” the German High Command assumed that the Pas de Calais in Northern France was the likeliest place for an Allied invasion. This was not unreasonable. At 21 miles, it marks the shortest distance between German-held territory and Allied-held territory. To put things in perspective, this distance of 21 miles is slightly less than the length of the causeway across Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans.

The Germans looked at this spot as a jumping off point for their own invasion of England. One photo shows German officers, including Herman Goering, standing on the beach at Pas de Calais, looking at the white cliffs of Dover. That was as close as they would ever get.

German officers standing on the beach at Pas de Calais, looking at the white cliffs of Dover

 

Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana. The city of New Orleans is visible to the south of the lake. The causeway is the straight line crossing the lake, covering a distance equal to that between Calais, northern France and Dover, England. (Image: Wikimedia)

Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana. The city of New Orleans is visible to the south of the lake. The causeway is the straight line crossing the lake, covering a distance equal to that between Calais, northern France and Dover, England. (Image: Wikimedia)

The Allies selected Normandy for various reasons. It had good beaches, which were protected from western gales by the Cotentin Peninsula, or Cherbourg Peninsula. While it was further away from England than Pas de Calais, Normandy was also not the place where the Germans expected the landings to happen. The beaches in Normandy remained within easy reach of fighter airplanes, guaranteeing that there would be sufficient air cover to protect the troops when they hit the beach. By 1944, the German air force was no longer as powerful as it once had been.

As to when to invade Normandy, the Allies relied on tides, available moonlight, and good weather. Coming in with full knowledge of the tides would allow the boatmen of the landing craft to get close enough to the beach, while still being able to avoid the extensive belt of beach obstacles. In 1944, it was determined that optimum conditions would exist toward the end of May.

Once a “where” and “when” were decided upon, it became necessary to deceive the Germans. An operation this size could not remain hidden. The Allies decided that the best course of action was to make the Germans look the wrong way. The Allied deception plan – known as “Operation Bodyguard” — employed various schemes to mislead the Germans.

Inflatable tank, used during Operation Bodyguard. (Image Wikimedia).

Inflatable tank, used during Operation Bodyguard (Image: Wikimedia)

Fake infrastructure and equipment (including inflatable replicas of tanks and vehicles) was used to simulate non-existing army units. Radio traffic was generated to reinforce that impression, with messages exchanged among these make-believe units. Well known military figures, most famously General Patton, were also part of the deception plan. General Patton took on a high visibility profile in Southeast England, the area where the non-existing First United States Army Group was supposed to have set up camp. Ghost armies would continue to play a role during the remainder of the war.

The Allies also made use of diplomatic channels, double agents and other very creative ruses to leak tidbits of information to deceive the Germans into believing the main invasion would happen anywhere but Normandy, and that any action there would be part of a diversion and nothing more. Eventually, after an agonizing delay because of bad weather, the invasion was launched. D-Day was underway.

Wave after wave of airborne units had gone in ahead of the main body. Their job was to secure bridges, and secure the flanks of the invasion area. The invasion area was 50 miles wide; a mind-boggling distance roughly equal to what separates Houston from Galveston, or Washington, D.C. from Baltimore.

American, British, Canadian and other Allied forces came ashore that day facing a well-entrenched enemy. For more than a year, Marshal Rommel had been in charge of fortifying the mainland against an invasion they knew would come one day. A huge workforce had been employed to build strong points from Norway to the border with Spain — a distance of about 1,500 miles. A giant German version of the French Maginot line, these fortifications were named the Atlantikwall.

Fortified coastline of German-occupied Europe, known as the Atlantikwall, shown in green. (Image Wikimedia)

Fortified coastline of German-occupied Europe, known as the Atlantikwall, shown in green (Image: Wikimedia)

From 1943 to 1944, bunkers, observation points and gun emplacements were constructed at a feverish pace. Among these fortifications was a series of bunkers and gun emplacements at a location called Pointe du Hoc, a rocky promontory overlooking Omaha Beach. Allied intelligence surmised that these strong points sheltered huge 155 mm artillery pieces which, it was feared, could wreak havoc on the landing beaches. These guns had to be neutralized, and the U.S. Army Rangers were selected to do the job.

Pointe du Hoc bunker, remains of charred ceiling beams, evidence of the intense fighting that took place here. (Photo Dirk Van Tuerenhout).

Pointe du Hoc bunker, remains of charred ceiling beams, evidence of the intense fighting that took place here (Photo: Dirk Van Tuerenhout).

Intense fighting ensued. Bunkers were attacked with all available weapons, including flamethrowers as well as naval artillery. Much to their surprise, the Rangers established that the artillery, thought to have been in the emplacements, had been moved inland. They were able to locate and destroy them, as well as a huge ammunition dump nearby. In doing so, they saved a lot of lives.

Pointe du Hoc. US Ranger monument. (Photo Dirk van Tuerenhout)

Pointe du Hoc, U.S. Ranger monument (Photo: Dirk van Tuerenhout)

The commanding officer of the Rangers was Colonel James Earl Rudder. He was wounded during the attack, but survived and eventually became the sixteenth President of Texas A&M University. Among the huge armada of ships firing at the German fortifications was the USS Texas. She sailed up and down the coast, firing at Pointe du Hoc as well as the coastal guns defending the port of Cherbourg. Some of the Rangers wounded during the Pointe du Hoc operation were treated on the USS Texas.

By the end of the day, Allied forces had become sufficiently entrenched on the Normandy coast. It would take another year before the “1000-year Reich” came crashing down. That part of the story will be covered in the third and final blog on this topic.

D-Day Normandy 1944 now showing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre

D-Day Normandy 1944 now showing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre

The Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Wortham Giant Screen Theatre is now showing D-Day: Normandy 1944.  The film is running exclusively at HMNS in the Houston-Galveston area through November 11.

Click here to read the next in this series, D-Day, Part III: “We are coming by day and by night”

Enchantment in the dark: An uncommon occurrence brings a common bond to Lascaux caves lecture

Editor’s note: This week’s guest post was written by Becky Lao of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) – Houston. On Tuesday, Nov. 12, Dr. Randall White, a prominent expert on paleolithic art, spoke at HMNS as part of the AIA series on the development of art as a great human innovation. The AIA lecture was presented in conjunction with HMNS and The Leakey Foundation.

Imagine this scene: introductions are almost complete. A FULL house is anticipating a talk about the first art made by humans 40,000 years ago in caves. A speaker introduces Dr. White, speaking on caves without light.

Suddenly, THE ENTIRE BUILDING IS PLUNGED INTO DARKNESS!

Four hundred people gasp — this outage was not a special effect! We rush out to find the surrounding area is completely dark. A major power outage is affecting the entire Museum District and Medical Center. Looking out the window, we see some lights slowly turn on in the Med Center as emergency generators kick in. HMNS staff works valiantly to find a battery-powered microphone as emergency lights switch on, dimly lighting the hall. We allow the audience to leave or stay to hear stories told in the dark — just as might have happened 40,000 years ago!

Half decide to stay.

Cave paintings from Lascaux on display now at HMNS

Our intrepid lecturer begins. He talks of gorgeous art produced in the deepest depths of caves, illuminated only by animal fat lamps or torches; thousands of stunningly tiny beads made from pearlized shell nacre and calcite, each of which took three hours to make (why devote that many hours to adornment production rather than food procurement?); multitudes of prints made from the hands of a wide range of individuals — two-year olds up to those with arthritis; an image of a bull constructed from densely overlapping handprints.

This is what it means to be human. We are all sitting in the dark, mesmerized by his tales, skin prickling as an amazing sense of wonder and community envelopes us. Some 40,000 years after this art was created, we are huddled around a storyteller in the dark. It’s enchanting.

Half an hour later, electricity surges. Dr. White zooms through his magnificent images of wondrous sites. The image of the bull made from human hand prints is breathtaking. The Chauvet depictions of lions and horses are … indescribable.

We depart into the cold night for well-deserved drinks around the fireplace at a pub, made better by an uncommon encounter with who we are and who we have been for thousands of years.

Sculpture of a stone age family in the Lascaux exhibit at HMNS.

Click here to go to The Leakey Foundation’s website to listen to the audio from the lecture. Make sure you turn off the lights so you get the full experience!

Randall White, Ph.D., New York University

 

A Short Biography of the Foucault Pendulum.

When you walk into the Wiess Energy Hall, the very first thing you see is our Foucault pendulum.

It is a metal ball suspended by a cable that swings back and forth encircled by pegs. Children and adults will run through the rest of the museum, reach the pendulum, and wait with baited breath to watch a peg topple. When one of the pegs finally falls, you can hear a cheer erupt from the area. It is one of the most memorable parts of the museum. As the pendulum swings, it moves clockwise knocking down pegs as the Earth turns. It swings back and forth, back and forth (you are getting sleepy).

Foucault Pendulum
Foucault Pendulum at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

It is interesting to sit around the pendulum and listen to people try to explain it.

Some will talk about how it is a clock.  Others will put the time between pegs being knocked down between 10 minutes and 1 hour.  Our pendulum knocks down a peg on an average of every fifteen minutes. While the pendulum looks like it rotates around the circle, it is the Earth that is rotating and the pendulum that just swings. The pendulum is a visualization of a rotating Earth. To describe it in a different way, T = 24/sin q where T equals the amount of time to make one complete revolution and q is the latitude of the pendulum. At least that’s what Foucault said.

Star TrailsCreative Commons License photo credit: monkeymanforever

Leon Foucault was born in Paris (France, not Texas) on September 18, 1819.

As a young boy he did not show an inclination towards science or study.  In fact his teacher considered him lazy because he did not turn in his work. He did, however, enjoy building mechanical devices, such as a small steam engine and a telegraph, and tinkering.  He entered medical school to become a surgeon, but found that he fainted at the sight of blood.  Instead of becoming a blindfolded surgeon, he switched to physics. 

At the age of 25, not having learnt anything at school nor from book, enthusiastic about science but not about study, Léon Foucault took on the task of making the work of scientists understandable to the public and of passing judgment on the value to the work of leading men of science – J Bertrand, Éloge historique de Léon Foucault.

Foucault proved his worth in being able to take mathematical proofs and construct a mechanical proof, his pendulum being one of those.

He also constructed a device to prove that light moves slower through water than air. The mathematics describing the proof had been around for over a decade, but Foucault was the first to prove that it worked. His first pendulum on public display opened on February 3, 1851 in the Paris Observatory (again France, not Texas). Instead of knocking down pins as the pendulum moved, the first Foucault pendulum drew in sand.  He also invented the gyroscope, which stays in place as the Erath moves around it. This invention has proved essential for planes, space craft, and even the Hubble Telescope.  

Hubble Space Telescope
Creative Commons License photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

After he came to power, Napoleon III, an amateur scientist, created a job for Foucault at the newly named Imperial Observatory. There, Foucault developed his knife edge test to measure the conic shape of mirrors. This led to a more constant quality of lenses for use in telescopes.  He died on February 11, 1868 from multiple sclerosis.  His legacy lives on today.  He has an asteroid named in his honor. But he is honored around the world by his plethora of pedula that swing to and fro, showing people that the Earth keeps on spinning.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (7.8.08)

from-airplane-greenland-12
Creative Commons License photo credit: william.ward

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Are melting glaciers causing sea levels to rise? A team from Utrecht University says no. A team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is exploring that issue this month – check back here for updates from Chris Linder.

And you thought the Sun was harsh – “O” stars in the Rosetta Nebula “can be a hundred times the size and over a thousand times brighter” – and they destroy planets.  

Despite the fact that scientists have traditionally been wary of Wikipedia – which relies on the “wisdom of crowds” – a new Gene Wiki is being developed to “describe the relationship and functions of all human genes.”

Ancient river camps show humans in Paris almost 10,000 years ago.

Researchers have developed a way to trick kidney cancer cells into killing themselves.  

The Chronicle has a new space blogCosmo.Sphere - written by a UT astronomer, a NASA vehicle systems engineer and a long-time amateur astronomer.