Teaching D-Day: Surviving the Invasion

Having a student teacher in the fall has its advantages. I spent a lot of time watching her try new things and doing different type of lessons. During the Civil War unit, she made the students hard tack. She was very good and will make a good teacher wherever she goes. During many of her lessons I would be surfing on a tablet for new things to use in the classroom to reinvigorate me, the lessons and, ultimately, the students. In early November, I took my little history club over to Cantigny in Wheaton, Illinois, where they have the museum for the US Army First Division. While on the website booking the trip I came across some great resources. I immediately downloaded the pdf files and began cherry picking what I could use. Once I came across these resources, I knew I was onto to redoing how I teach DDay.

I am one of those teachers who doesn’t teach the same way every year, or should I say as I did when I started teaching. Technology, mainly the Internet, has changed a lot of that. Just using Google allows me to access historical sites, pictures, journals, and maps from repositories all over the world. What once was the sole bastion of scholars who visited libraries and museums is now available at the click of a finger.

Before this great adventure, I had done all kinds of different approaches to teaching about the world’s greatest invasion. I has shown parts of “Band of Brothers,” used maps, scenarios, photograph analysis, Eisenhower’s DDay Letter, and/or simulations. That lesson was usually one day long. But I wanted to make it unique and something they wouldn’t forget after the test. So, I began to restructure the lesson. Some elements remain from past lessons, and some new elements were created. This lesson should take three days to do this week. Key word is should – it might take four…..or five.

Day One…
It all begins by connecting what they learned with what they are going to learn. So, to connect their learning, I use a cartoon.
This is by Dr. Seuss. The students have already seen several cartoons by Dr. Seuss about World War II, but this cartoon is about the ramifications from the Battle of Stalingrad which they just learned about the day before. When teaching cartoons, some kids struggle with the symbolism, but they can at least identify objects, actions, and words in the cartoon. Once the basics are established, I go for three higher order/critical thinking questions:

  1. Which words are of most importance?
  2. Predict what you think will happen when Winter sits up
  3. Why does that matter?

The students must think about the implications of winter ending and what Hitler will do and what the US (you and me) will do, too.

After that discussion, I go into a few notes and pictures on Fortress Europa, the Atlantic Wall, Italy, the Battle of Kursk in 1943. That should take about 7-10 minutes. The emphasis is on opening up a second front in Europe. Once 1944, comes, I shift gears and segue into a scenario about where to invade in France to open up a second front and create a German sandwich. The students will get a map, some descriptions of the four places. They are to then get in small groups make a chart that analyzes the positives and negatives about each place.
The choices will be Dieppe, Calais, Cherbourg, and Havre.
DDay sim map
As a class we will then go over the columns and select one landing spot and then I will spill the beans about what the choice was.

Every time I teach a new lesson, you would think that after 20+ years, I would know how long things are going to take. I do, but when it comes to the interest the students show by asking questions, I never know. Some classes don’t ask many questions, others ask a lot. I hope that by this time, the lesson should be 30 minutes in. The lesson turns again when I will ask one simple question, “How do you hide the largest invasion force in history?” The students had previously learned that the Germans did have spies in Britain during the Battle of Britain and the British were masters of deception during the Battle of El Alamein. Students then will be asked to come up with some strategies about how to deceive the German spies in Britain and those listening on BBC radio across the English Channel in northeastern France. Once the students put forth their deceptive answers, I will show them some pictures and some information on Operation Fortitude – the plan for deceiving German Intelligence.
British Deception
Day one ends (I hope) with me putting a nice ribbon and bow on everything by tying all three parts of the lesson together – the cartoon, the chart, and the deception. The students then get a worksheet about DDay that examines some cartoons that were published just before the invasion.
44-d-day-buildup 44-d-day-prepD.82a-D-Day-buildup-Lull-before-the-storm

44-d-day-prep-Ike D.98a-D-Day-June-8-19441

Day Two
This day begins by quickly reviewing the previous days events and then examine 2 letters. The first comes a surprise. It is the letter that Eisenhower wrote in case DDay failed.

Ike's failure of DDay letter should come as a surprise.
Ike’s failure of DDay letter should come as a surprise.

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault is attached to the attempt it is mine alone.”

We will discuss why this letter was written. We will also discuss their reactions to reading it, and finally, we will discuss why it never saw the light of day.

Moving on, the students then read Ike’s letter to the troops. They then answer four questions about it.

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have
striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The
hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well
equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of
1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
SIGNED: Dwight D. Eisenhower

1. Underline the ten keys words in the letter.
2. What events had taken place before the letter?
3. Why did he the write letter?
4. What might have happened after?

We discuss word choice and other possible words. The highlight of the four day lesson comes next to me. I hand out a packet of pictures that has artifacts that the soldiers used to survive the invasion. Students guess for what each artifact was used.
I do not tell them what they are or how they were used. We discuss their possible uses and it is a great activity as students should get pretty creative with their answers (I do something similar in the Civil War but about life in camp). They now have to figure out what the artifacts were used for by watching an educational film from the Discovery Channel called “Surviving DDay.” For the last 15 minutes of Day Two, we begin watching the film. Students are to identify artifacts in the movie and write down how they helped the soldiers survive. The students get a map worksheet for their assignment.

Day Three
The third day begins by using resources from Cantigny (mentioned above) that include some journals/diaries by soldiers. We read one today and another one on Day Four. This will give a glimpse into the struggles the soldiers faced and how they had to problem solve on the beaches. After the discussion, we resume the video.

At several points during the film, we will stop and discuss certain artifacts and their implications on survival. Students will also have time to pair and share information every fifteen minutes during the film (I don’t like to make them sit there – who wants to do that?). This makes me think that four days may not be enough.

At the end of class, the students get a second map worksheet about the dangers on the beach.

Day Four
The second diary entry is read, discussed, and then students finish watching the video. The remaining time in class is spent making a pamphlet called “Surviving DDay” using the artifacts from the film. When the film concludes, I have a few notes on the implications of the invasion and how it fits in the context of the war, problem solving, and critical thinking. I hope that four days is enough. It is a lot of time to spend on one event but “more on less” is a philosophy I believe in. I hope this turns out to be an experience that they remember. It could be five days. If it is, I will adjust. I would be OK with that.

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