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324: This Week: The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan

In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in these movies: The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

June 4, 1944. England.

Our first movie this week is in black and white. A clock sitting above the mantel gives a time of 9:35. In front of it stands Henry Grace’s version of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He’s listening as someone off-camera is saying that the current conditions almost resemble mid-winter.

Eisenhower moves, the camera following him. Now we can see there are other men in the room as well. It looks like 17 men are in the room—at least that’s what’s visible at any one time. That includes Eisenhower, who sits down at a long table. Everyone is wearing military uniforms. This must be a high-level conference of some sort.

The man standing at the head of the table continues to address Eisenhower but, also, everyone else in the room as they all listen to him intently as he says they can expect a brief period of fair conditions.

Another man points out the conditions will be far below the minimum requirements.

Eisenhower thanks them for the report, and the man at the head of the table leaves along with a couple of others behind him.

After they’re gone, Eisenhower turns to the others at the table and says they’ve already postponed the attack once. He asks for their advice.

Trevor Reid’s character, General Montgomery, says they should go. Another man points out that the American convoys for Omaha and Utah beaches have the furthest to go, so they have to be given the order in the next 30 minutes. The clock on the mantel behind Eisenhower is hard to read now, but it doesn’t look much later than 9:35 or 9:36.

Another man in the room says the longer they wait, the more of a security problem it’ll be. He goes on to say that the next time the tides and the moon will be right…a brief pause as he looks at a piece of paper in front of him…not before July.

Eisenhower ponders the decision for a while longer.

The camera cuts away for a while to another scene of some German officers before coming back to Eisenhower. He’s made the decision.

He tells the men in the room, “I’m quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it but there it is. I don’t see how we can possibly do anything else but go.”

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie The Longest Day

This scene comes from the 1962 film called The Longest Day and it’s showing an event that happened this week in history when General Dwight D. Eisenhower made the decision to proceed with Operation Overlord or, as we know it more commonly today, D-Day.

While the specifics of the conversations we saw in the movie to make this decision were fictionalized, the basic idea is true. By that what I mean is that there really was a weather delay. Eisenhower, who was appointed as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in December of 1943, and was put in charge of the Allied invasion of northwestern Europe: Operation Overlord.

After plenty of planning that we don’t ever see in the movie, the first date suggested was May 1st, 1944. But they needed to postpone to get extra landing craft because they decided to launch with five divisions instead of three.

Other dates were suggested: May 21st through 23rd. June 1st. As the date got closer, on May 17th, Eisenhower picked the date of June 5th, 1944, as the day for the invasion. But, just like we do see in the movie, there was bad weather that delayed the invasion. Similar to what we see in the movie, Eisenhower kept a close eye on the weather thanks to his meteorologist.

We hear Eisenhower in the movie mentioning the name, “Stagg,” and it is correct to do so. While the movie leaves the meteorologist from this scene uncredited, but his name is Group Captain James Stagg from the Royal Air Force, and he was portrayed by Patrick Barr in the movie. The movie never names the two men with Stagg, but maybe one of them was Colonel Donald Yates? He was Stagg’s deputy from the United States Army Air Forces—the Air Force wasn’t its own branch of the military yet. They also worked with some other meteorologists, though, so the basic point is the movie was correct to show that Stagg was not the only meteorologist.

But it is true that Stagg served as the chief weather forecaster for General Eisenhower as he considered the launch of the invasion.

The movie’s mention of a full moon and tides was certainly a consideration, too, although there’s obviously more to the story than just the brief mention we see in the film.

They wanted to have the landing vehicles hit the beaches just before dawn because that’d be right between low and high tide. The primary reason for that was so they could see the obstacles on the beaches.

While we don’t see it in the scene I described earlier, you’ve probably seen those before—they look kind of like metal crosses. We’ll learn more about those later, and it’s not like those were the only obstacles in place, but they wanted to time the landing so anything the enemy had set up could be seen easier, so not high tide, but also not low tide to minimize the amount of time the men would be exposed on the beaches.

A full moon was also important so the aircraft pilots could see better.

So, all in all, it was more important than just whether or not it’d be raining. In fact, the tidal weather was more of a determining factor for when the operation was to unfold. But, of course, clear conditions would help with visibility, too, so things had to be just right.

And this is where the movie is a little confusing with the timeline.

At the beginning of this segment, I said it was June 4th. The reason for that is because we know from history there were two meetings held in the evening of June 4th. One was at 17:15, or 5:15 PM. Another was held a few hours later at 21:00, or 9:00 PM.

The prediction for the weather was to have a gap in the bad weather coming up.

Since we see the clock in the movie being a little past 9:30 PM, that’s why I’m assuming it’s showing this meeting on June 4th. Also, the line of dialog we see in the movie where Henry Grace’s version of Eisenhower saying, “I’m quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it but there it is. I don’t see how we can possibly do anything else.”

That quote comes from Admiral Ramsay who was there and later wrote down that’s what Eisenhower said in making his decision that night.

To add a little complexity to the timing of it all, even though Eisenhower met on June 4th, ironically that’s not when the final decision was made for when Operation Overlord would launch. You see, after Eisenhower made the decision on June 4th, they met up again in the early morning hours of June 5th to double-check the weather.

Eisenhower later wrote that outside the wind was “of almost hurricane proportions.” But inside the meeting, Stagg told Eisenhower that nothing had changed since the previous night. They still predicted a break in the weather for the next day.

At 4:15 AM, Eisenhower said, “Okay, we’ll go.”

And with that, the largest seaborne invasion in human history was on for June 6th, 1944.

Oh, and something else we don’t see in the movie was the intelligence that aided in the decision. It was more than just the weather, of course. Bletchley Park was key in that, and one source I saw suggested that just before making the final decision in the morning hours of June 5th, Eisenhower had received a report from Bletchley that the Germans were aware of an imminent attack.

But if you want to watch this meeting take place, check out the 1962 film The Longest Day and Eisenhower’s meeting starts at about 32 minutes and 50 seconds into the movie.

Once you watch that, you can learn more about the true story with historian and author Marty Morgan on episode #134 of Based on a True Story.


June 6, 1944. Normandy, France.

For our next event, we’re staying in the same movie. We’re just moving a little further ahead in the timeline. The dark sky is filled with planes flying overhead. And it’s dark not just because the movie is black and white, but we can tell its nighttime.

Actually, we get the time with some text on the screen. It says: Normandy. British Glider Assault. Orne River. 00:11 hours.

So, that means it’s 12:11 AM and June 6th is just 11 minutes old.

The pilot looks at the men in the back and tells Major Howard that the release point is coming up. Howard, who is played by Richard Todd in the movie, gives a thumbs-up to the pilot and tells his men to get ready for landing.

They cut loose and through the front window we can see the plane towing them veer off to the right while they continue going straight. The sound of the plane’s engine can be heard disappearing as any mechanical noises go away.

All we can hear now are the soldiers putting on their camouflaged helmets and getting their gear ready. There’s a little more text on the screen to tell us the commander is Major John Howard of the British 6th Airborne Infantry.

He seems deep in thought. We can hear voiceover of what we can only assume is his commanding officer giving him the orders. To paraphrase, we find out their orders are to capture the Orne River bridge before the enemy can destroy it. The voiceover explains the bridge is a vital artery that has been rigged for explosion by the enemy and to make things more difficult, the gliders are going to land at night without the benefit of ground support.

“You will assault the garrison, overwhelm it, and hold until relieved.”

That last part repeats in Howard’s mind: “Hold until relieved.”

You can almost see the question in the expression on his face: How long will that be?

But he doesn’t actually say anything. Instead, this train of thought is broken by the pilot who tells him the bridge is coming up. We can see the bridge out the window. It’s still silent as the gliders turn and everyone braces for the landing.

The silence is broken the moment the gliders hit the ground. There’s the terrible sound of scratching and scraping as the bottom of the glider hits brush, fence and anything else that may be in its way until it finally comes to a halt.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie The Longest Day

As I mentioned to start this event, it’s the same movie as our last one: 1962’s The Longest Day.

The event I just described being shown in the movie takes place soon after Eisenhower made the decision that Operation Overlord was a “go.” That set in motion a number of smaller operations—way too many to name here. One of the first was called Operation Tonga, which is what the movie scene I just talked about is showing.

The movie was correct to show the British 6th Airborne Division involved in Operation Tonga, and Richard Todd’s character in the movie, Major John Howard, was based on a real person.

As a fun little fact, the actor Richard Todd was himself a part of the 6th Airborne Division. He actually participated in Operation Tonga. That’s where the real Richard Todd met the real John Howard on the bridge in Normandy.

Since the movie shows the gliders and planes already in the air, what we don’t see is that it was just before midnight on June 5th, 1944, that the Airspeed Horsa gliders towed behind Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers left from RAF Tarrant Rushton airfield in southern England.

Their mission was a little more in-depth than what we see Todd’s version of Major Howard repeating in his head in the movie. By that, what I mean is the movie mentions capturing the Orne River bridge. In the true story, that was just a part of the tasks the 6th had to do that morning.

They had to capture two bridges. The one on the Orne River that the movie mentions, but also the nearby Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal. That’s the one the real Major Howard was commanded to take. That’s also where Howard and Todd met, although in the middle of D-Day I’m sure they had no idea that Todd would be portraying Howard in a movie after the war.

So, capturing those bridges were one task. The 6th Airborne was also tasked with destroying some other bridges over another river nearby, the Dives. They were also tasked with taking out a gun battery nearby. That was the Merville Battery and it was targeted at Sword Beach some eight miles, or almost 13 kilometers, away. That’s not shown in the movie, but it was vital to the success of soldiers landing on Sword Beach that this fortified artillery position was stopped.

When it was over, Operation Tonga was a success despite suffering about 800 casualties of the overall 8,500 men who had been deployed in the operation.

If you want to watch Operation Tonga in the movie, it starts at about 50 minutes into the 1962 film The Longest Day.

But, of course, The Longest Day isn’t the only movie or TV series to talk about the paratroopers taking part of D-Day. The primary reason I picked this one to chat about is because when the first Horsa gliders of Operation Tonga landed, they were the first Allied troops to touch French soil on D-Day.

There were others. We learned there were about 8,500 paratroopers in Tonga, but overall there were about 18,000 Allied paratroopers dropped during the D-Day operations. There was the British 6th Airborne, some Canadian paratroopers, the American 82nd and perhaps the most popular the American 101st Airborne. That’s the division highlighted in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, who we also see being dropped behind enemy lines on D-Day.

So, in addition to episode #134 of Based on a True Story where we learned about The Longest Day, you may also be interested in a super deep dive into the historical accuracy of Band of Brothers that you can find over at

Those are all episodes where I had chats with historian Marty Morgan who, as a fun little fact, was also the historical consultant on the 2021 video game Call of Duty: Vanguard…which has a mission where you can play as a British paratrooper taking part in Operation Tonga.


June 6, 1944. Normandy, France.

Same date. Same location. But this time the movie we’re watching is in color. It’s also light outside now as the night has subsided.

The sound of waves can be heard crashing on the beach as we see it splashing around metal structures stuck in the sand. Text on the screen tells us this is June 6th, 1944, and we’re at Dog Green Sector, Omaha Beach.

The camera cuts to landing vehicles as they speed along the water, bouncing up and down and splashing the soldiers inside as they do. Tom Hanks’ character, Captain Miller, takes a drink from his canteen. We can see his hand is shaking uncontrollably as if he’s nervous about what’s to come. A couple other soldiers retch in the bottom of the vehicle.

The vehicle’s operator calls out to the men, “Clear the ramp! 30 seconds! God be with you!”

Captain Miller barks out orders to his men for what they’re to do as soon as the ramp drops.

A few more seconds of water splashing. The sound of explosions are getting louder. Then, as the ramps drop, bullets whizz inside, killing some of the men. The camera cuts to the angle from the machine gun positions as we see it mowing down the men in one of the landing vehicles. We can also see there are a lot of other landing vehicles, too. The machine guns aren’t hitting them all like that.

There are also other machine gun setups, though.

Soldiers start pouring out of the landing vehicles. Some jump out over the side instead of going out the front. From underwater, we can see soldiers and equipment dropping into the water. Every so often, the path of a bullet can be seen as it goes through the water. Some of them hit soldiers underwater, changing the blue water to red. We can see other soldiers struggling to get their equipment off…some don’t make it before running out of air, and they sink to the bottom.

Others do, and we can see soldiers emerging out of the water and onto the beach. The sound of gunfire that was muffled underwater becomes louder as we’re above water now. The camera pans the beach as soldiers are slowly making their way onto the wet sand.

Gunshots and explosions continue at a fierce pace, hitting many of the soldiers trying to make their way out of the water.

The camera switches back to being from the perspective of the machine guns shooting at the soldiers on the beach. It’s a scene of pure chaos with explosions throwing sand high into the air. Machine guns kick up sand and water. Soldiers rushing from the vehicles try to use the metal structures in the sand as cover. Bodies litter the beaches and float in the water just beyond.

More and more soldiers keep coming and slowly, the invading force makes their way forward onto the sand.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Saving Private Ryan

This is how the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan begins as we get transported to the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches.

Well, sort of.

While the depiction to open the film has become something many movie viewers just assumed that’s what it was like for everyone who landed on the beaches of Normandy that day. And for some, it was. But that’s not what it was like for everyone.

Actually, instead of my explaining this, let’s learn from someone more knowledgeable than I am.

At the end of our last segment, I mentioned the historian Marty Morgan…and I also had a chat with him about Saving Private Ryan and I asked him about that opening sequence. Here’s an excerpt from that discussion:

Marty Morgan: [00:03:45] Yeah. What they’re depicting is the moment of the greatest intensity during the battle for Omaha beach. I would just mention that Omaha beach, it was really six separate battles, each battle functioning separate and almost entirely autonomous and disconnected from one another for the first half of the day on D-Day.

And what the screenplay writer did was he chose the battle that provided the greatest amount of drama because. Me, U S army, fifth Corps landings, and the dark green sector of Omaha beach. And those are landings primarily carried out by, two times of the 29th infantry division. And then with a few Rangers shown in, that is where the entire assault goes entirely wrong.

The historical quote that I think most effective when communicates how bad it was there is what happens to a company of the 129th division. A company landed with 164 officers, men, and within five minutes of combat in front of the German master Bucher complex, Ray had suffered 91 killed and 65 wounded.

Wow. So that literally in the span of five minutes and entire infantry company was reduced to complete an effectiveness. And that’s significant Decaux because the first way that Omaha beach consistent of mine, infantry companies spread out over the entire length of the beach and Omaha beach is five miles wide.

Out of the nine infantry companies that conducted that, I want to marry assault. One of them is destroyed entirely. In front of the defenses adopting sector.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:05:30] How many people overall would have been going a, I know you mentioned the number of a division, but just getting a sense of how many people there are.

Storming the beaches is five miles stretch of beach. How many people were there overall that were involved in the invasion there? Well, if

Marty Morgan: [00:05:45] you consider just the first wave, and of course there were, or more than just one way during the day on June 6th but if you consider just the first wave nine infantry companies as approaching.

1800 to 2000 men, they’re going up against Germans and basically 13 resistance nests or bunker complexes, and the total number of Germans that were immediately in the side of positions ready to resist the landings at right after Dawn on D day, total number of Germans is about 600 so our assault force, even with just the first wave.

Possesses numerical superiority. Well, the German defending force was behind concrete. And then also, in positions that were built into terrain so that they had elevation over the battlefield. Bluff at Omaha beach is about a hundred feet tall. Gender positions were at the water level and they were on top of the bluff.

The effect of the elevation, terrain, concrete finding positions, punching as a force multiplier that made it possible for those German defenders to inflict heavy casual jeans for a brief period of time or point. I love to make when discussing the movie saving private Ryan, is that you can go just a few hundred meters to the East down the length of Omaha beach.

Where you’re encountering us fruits that are landing first ways and they’re receiving a little bit of harassing buyer at long ranges to where the fire is not entirely effective. In other words, you could, you had Americans that landed that were just a few hundred meters to the East of sector and almost everyone gets out of the landing craft, gets through the beach obstacles and makes it to this thing called the shingle.

With light casualties that stands in strong contrast to what happens at dark green sector, which is of course what’s depicted in the opening scene of the movie where you have effectively cataclysmic casualties.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:07:49] Yeah. The impression I got was that was essentially what was going on everywhere, because of course, that’s the only thing that we see is this just mass rain of of fire as these people are getting out of the landing vehicles, and so I just assumed that.

That was happening everywhere on the beach, but it sounds like very, very different experiences.

Marty Morgan: [00:08:10] That’s absolutely correct because the movie will lead you the impression that it was a five mile wide slaughterhouse and it simply was not that. It just wasn’t that at all. I make the larger macro argument that the depiction of the moment of greatest chaos and casualties, it sort of fit something that’s been.

Going on in the overall narrative of the war movie as a genre and cinema for at least 50 years now. And I argue that the era of Vietnam introduced certain levels of disenchantment and cynicism to the way that Americans comprehend the experience before, and that the Vietnam era changed the way that we understand war and that we always think of it as.

Being led by fools being bureaucratically led to the point of producing massive in effectiveness. A point I like to make too is that it depicts the victimization of the lowest ranking people. And so in other words, since the era of Vietnam, we like to imagine fast cash corrupted, high ranking officers that are when far removed from the experience and fighting on the front who are planning about Oles in which.

The best and brightest of American youth are slaughtered needlessly on the battlefield and private. Ryan, I find is a movie that at its core is very patriotic, which is why it came as such a surprise to you when the movie came out and I caught it for the first time in the theaters, I really felt like a change of gears because it’s a movie that in the end is very patriotic, very, very romanticized, but at the same time.

Yeah. I find that it selects some, some of the tropes that really characterize the era of the Vietnam war movie. Interesting.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:10:04] Well, after. The soldiers land on the beach. Again, going back to the movie, we get a look at how they advance inland first. There’s some mental obstacles that the Germans set up to prevent vehicles from landing on the beach, but they use that as cover much cover, but it’s better than nothing.


Before we wrap up this segment today, though, let’s learn about Czechoslovakian hedgehogs!

Haha, I know how that sounds.

But remember when I mentioned the obstacles on the beach? In opening scene of Saving Private Ryan we see the metal structures that look like metal crosses. They’re all over the beach in what seems to be rather random order, and they provide some form of cover for the soldiers landing.

The nickname for those are Czech hedgehogs because they were invented in Czechoslovakia as a way of keeping the Germans out of their land in the 1930s. That didn’t work as Germany annexed Czechoslovakia anyway, but, the hedgehogs were supposed to keep tanks and vehicles from crossing them.

Think of it kind of like how barbed wire can help keep people out of a line more than just a regular fence—that’s what hedgehogs can do for tanks and vehicles. If you try to drive over that, you’d get stuck on it. Or, with some of them being placed further into the water when there was a high tide, it might be ships that got stuck on it.

That doesn’t make it impossible to cross the line, of course, but they’re also not designed to be used alone. And they’re also not really thrown on the beach haphazardly. They were placed to try and direct the vehicles to positions where machine guns and artillery were targeted—the kill zones.

They’d also use them in conjunction with mines and other things to form an overall defensive line known as the Atlantic Wall.

Oh, and as a fun little fact, after the Allies secured the beaches of Normandy, they actually cut up the hedgehogs and welded the metal to their tanks to add extra armor to them.

If you want to watch the D-Day invasion, check out the opening sequence of the movie Saving Private Ryan. And you can hear the rest of my interview with Marty Morgan about the historical accuracy of it over on episode #159 of Based on a True Story.

And as you’ve probably guessed by all of our movies today being about D-Day…it’s such a major event in history that there have been a lot of movies and TV shows covering it.

I already mentioned Band of Brothers, which shows D-Day in the second episode.

Those are probably the most popular depictions of D-Day. But if you’re looking for a movie you haven’t heard of, though, there are some like 1956’s D-Day The Sixth of June—Richard Todd is an actor in that one, too. Or there’s 1968’s Where Eagles Dare, 1975’s Overlord, 1980’s The Big Red One, 2004’s Ike: Countdown To D-Day, 2010’s Storming Juno…and plenty more!

My final recommendation is not a movie, but a documentary called George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin.

If that name sounds familiar, you might remember his son, George Stevens, Jr., who we talked to about his father’s landing on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and shooting a bunch of film footage there and beyond as the Allies advanced into Europe. It was George Stevens, Jr., who cut together his father’s footage into the excellent documentary called George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin.



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