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Occupied Denmark's little-known role in D-Day landings

AFP
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Occupied Denmark's little-known role in D-Day landings
Red Arrows flypast during a ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day at the British Normandy Memorial of Ver-sur-Mer, France, June 6th 2024. Photo: Hannah Mckay/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

Denmark spent most of World War II under Nazi occupation and yet 800 Danes took part in the Allied landings in Normandy on June 6th, 1944 -- a little-known fact.

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Whether as cabin boys, hostesses, officers or sailors, hundreds of Danes supported Allied combat troops fighting against Nazi Germany on that famous day.

Their participation remains a mostly unknown chapter in the history of the small Scandinavian country, whose government opted for collaboration after it was invaded by Germany in 1940.

"Their effort was one of the main reasons for the Allies to include Denmark as an ally," David Hoyer, director of the Danish War Museum told AFP about the D-Day Danes.

"Six thousand Danish sailors sailed in Allied service" during the war, Hoyer added.

"One in six, more than 1,000, Danish sailors died. There is no unit, except for the US Marines that had such large casualties" proportionally, Hoyer added.

After the invasion in 1940, Denmark fell under German control and a large part of its commercial fleet, which at the time was scattered across the world, was seized by Allied powers.

More than 95 percent of Denmark's sailors subsequently enlisted in the service of the Allies, mainly the United Kingdom.

But their contribution has long been overlooked, despite the assurance of then Danish prime minister Thorvald Stauning in 1940 that they would "never be forgotten".

"When the war ended, the Danish resistance was obviously in Denmark and in many ways it became synonymous with the Danish war effort," Hoyer explained.

"The sailors were not there in 1945" and so only received recognition later on.

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- Oblivious to danger -

Antoinette Melgaard, who died in 2021 at the age of 99, was working on the Norwegian ship "Lyra", which transported men and ammunition between the Icelandic capital Reykjavik and British ports, mainly Newcastle and Edinburgh.

"We didn't really think about how dangerous it really was," she told newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad in 2018.

Merchant vessels were not equipped to fight, convoys were often torpedoed and navigation conditions were hazardous at best.

Encounters with aerial patrols were also common.

One day, "a plane was so close that I could see the pilot's eyes... I got scared and couldn't move at all. But luckily, he flew on without opening fire," Melgaard said.

"When I got below, I met one of the other crew members who asked if I had seen a ghost. 'No, a German,' I replied."

Melgaard was also present for the landings on June 6th, 1944.

That day, 29 Danish ships were lined up for supporting roles for Operation Overlord, described by second officer Richard Kragelund in the logbook of one of them as a "special operation for the liberation of Europe".

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Kragelund was on the Aero, which was "used to transport soldiers and vehicles to Omaha Beach in Normandy", Hoyer recalled as he unfolded the ship's flag at the museum.

For Evald Brinck, who died in 2019 just before his 97th birthday, D-Day was "like a vacation" because he did not participate in the combat but made around 10 round trips with different cargo.

"Between each trip, we were at our home in England," he told newspaper Fyens Stiftstidende before his death.

It was, nonetheless, a draining experience.

"Going to bed at night with a dirty life jacket and not being able to wash or undress. Day after day, I wondered if I was going to be hit by a torpedo... It wears out the body and the soul," he said.

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