Historic Trauma Cases: D-Day Invasion

June 6, 2014, marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day when 160,000 Allied troops began landing along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified northern French coastline to fight Nazi Germany.

The landings on five beaches in Normandy were conducted in two phases. An airborne assault of 24,000 American, British and Canadian troops began shortly after midnight, while an amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armored divisions started at 6:30 a.m.

More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the invasion, known officially as Operation Overlord, which gave the Allies a foothold in France, leading to the liberation of Paris and, ultimately, victory in Europe.

Into the Fray

The amphibious landings on D-Day were officially dubbed “Operation Neptune.”

Omaha Beach was the most heavily fortified by the Germans who benefited from high bluffs and tall sea wall. Significant aerial and naval bombardments of the Nazi’s bunkers prior to the landings proved ineffective while strong currents caused Allied amphibious landing craft to drift east, missing their assigned sectors and resulting in heavy casualties. American deaths at Omaha Beach were at least 2,000 (out of about 34,250 men), according to The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Most died in the first hours of battle; although it would take three days to fully secure the strip of sand.

Juno Beach was invaded mainly by Canadian forces. They, too, faced heavy artillery fire, machine-gun nests, pillboxes, concrete fortifications and a seawall twice the height of Omaha Beach. The first wave of infantry to hit the beach suffered 50% casualties. Despite these heavy losses, however, they were able to secure the beach in a number of hours and advanced the farthest inland.

Utah Beach saw 21, 000 Americans land and suffer 197 casualties. Strong currents sent the troops 2,000 yards farther south than planned and General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., decided to fight from there. Unfortunately, heavy fog caused the C-47s to fly in very low and many of the airborne troops died because there was not enough time for their parachutes to open after they were dropped from the planes. Most who survived the fall suffered fractured extremities and many drowned in the surrounding swamps.

More than 25, 000 British troops came ashore Gold Beach and 400 were killed. Sword Beach was likewise mainly handled by the British who suffered only minor casualties in taking it.

A Shore Too Far

The cause of death for D-Day soldiers can be looked at several ways. As with all traumatic injuries, the outcomes were determined by the severity and location of the wounds and the proximity of medical care.

Once the amphibious assault vessels were launched from large U.S. and British Navy ships offshore, the men were almost in a blind cave surrounded by metal walls 12 feet tall and bobbing up and down like a cork on the waves. After the front of the landing crafts dropped down to let the soldiers disembark they would turn round and go back to their mother ships for more soldiers.

As the troops tried to make their way ashore, many were overwhelmed by the waves and the heaviness of their combat boots and backpacks while holding their rifles and ammunition over their heads to keep them dry. Wading through chest-deep water with bullets whizzing by many men were caught in barbed wire and underwater landmines and disappeared beneath the waves.

Those who made it ashore were met with more heavy artillery, machine gun fire and flamethrowers among other Nazi weaponry.

The trimodal distribution of traumatic death can be seen in the horrors of D-Day. The first peak in deaths occurred within a few minutes of injury; these soldiers died instantly or received little or no care. The second peak occurred between one and two hours after injury from hemorrhagic shock secondary to visceral injuries or fractures. The third peak in deaths occurred 7-10 days later, from severe head injury, the onset of sepsis or multiple organ failure due to inadequate resuscitation from shock.

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