Fighting on the beaches

Some D-Day curiosities

Did you know that the half-finished manuscript of one of the 20th century's most famous novels was carried around the battlefield during D-Day?

Fighting on the beaches

It's understandable that most of the coverage this week of D-Day's 75th anniversary will be serious and solemn. But even history's greatest events have their associated trivia - in fact the tiny curiosities are all the more fascinating because they're part of a greater story. Here are a few facts about D-Day that might have escaped your attention ...


- One of the US soldiers was a young J.D. Salinger, who had six chapters of the unfinished Catcher in the Rye in his backpack.

- One of the Canadians was James Doohan, who became Scotty in Star Trek. He lost a finger in the fighting (as you can notice in some scenes).

- The Paras' codeword was ‘fish and chips'. It was their way of telling if someone behind enemy lines at night was friend or foe - one would call out ‘fish', the other would reply ‘chips'.

- Lord Lovat landed with his bagpiper, who walked up and down the beach wearing a kilt and playing Hieland Laddie. The Germans refrained from shooting him because they thought he'd gone mad.

- The assembly point off the Isle of Wight was known as ‘Piccadilly Circus'.

- In 1943, early plans for the invasion had blown out of a window in London. They were picked up by a passer-by with eyesight so bad he couldn't read them ... so he just handed them in.

- By the morning after D-Day some enterprising French women had set up a brothel in a damaged landing craft. The police soon raided it.

- Several of the amphibious vehicles used in Normandy were later painted yellow and used by Duck Tours, who until 2017 drove tourists around London and along the Thames.



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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.