Reverse-Engineering The Technology Of D-Day

For the 70th anniversary of the invasion, one French firm is making digital versions of World War II machines and infrastructure.

Waco CG-4A Hadrian Glider Rendered By Dassault Systèmes

In the background is the old blueprint. The ink did not keep well for posterity, and has run together making it hard to read.Dassault Systèmes

The June 6th, 1944 invasion of Normandy by British, American, and Canadian allied forces was the largest invasion in history. In the 70 years since then, it turns out we've forgotten most of the engineering that actually made it possible. 3D software design firm Dassault Systèmes set about to apply the computer tools of today, which they use to design modern airliners and cars, to recreate the past. The ambitious project that started modeling machines from D-Day this year and wants to have the full equipment of the invasion modeled by 2019, in time for the invasion's 75th anniversary.

Why redesign the old machines? Because here was a moment where engineering skill under pressure truly changed history. "Engineering people are here to make the dream come true," Mehdi Tayoubi, a Strategy VP for Dassault Systèmes told Popular Science, before continuing, "but then the world was in a nightmare. And the solution was to remove the nightmare, to come back to the dream. They were leaving the nightmare."

The Glider In Simulation

Dassault Systèmes

The team selected three technologies to recreate. Two of these directly carried troops into battle. They were the Waco CG-4A Hadrian glider, which silently carried troops into battle and beyond German lines, and the Higgins Boat, which carried troops from ship to shore in D-Day and allowed them to directly storm the beaches. What is left is under water, and is eroding after 70 years under water. "Everything that has been made with wood," Tayoubi says, "like the Waco glider or the Higgins boat. We don't have any more 100 percent original Higgins boats left in the world. Even the big boats in the water are starting to disappear." If they waited till the 100th anniversary of the invasion, 30 years from now, there might not be enough left to piece together a digital reconstruction of the boats.

The third technology Dassault chose to design was the Mulberry harbor. Among the biggest challenges of the invasion was supplying the force once they'd established a beachhead. The harbor was built in parts across England, and then floated across in parts and assembled on the beach out of pontoons and flexible steel roads. "They were going to bring up a harbor to a place there was no harbor, and this was the first time in history where this had been done. And this harbor was the most active harbor in the world for a long time. Floating pontoons had to be invented for Mulberry B," Tayoubi said.

For all three technologies, Dassault Systèmes scanned under water, using 3-D mapping tools to gather information on the harbor, boats, gliders, and other wrecked artifacts. These, combined with what was left of original blueprints, made it possible for the team to set out rebuilding the designs, and the scans will allow them to recreate more pieces of invasion technology in the future.

Mulberry Harbor

One of two artificial harbors created for D-Day, Mulberry harbor was built in England and floated over to Normandy to serve as a re-supply port for the invasion force. The other harbor was damaged by a storm shortly after the invasion.Dassault Systèmes

The project starts with a trip to the sea and a frustrated dad. Tayoubi explains:

It started with one guy on my team coming back from a weekend on the coast and he was looking at the sea and trying to explain the big day that happened and what the harbor looked like to his wife and his children, and he came back to me and said it was very hard to explain. Can you do something for that? And we began to think about a 3-D reconstitution, and then once you have that there are multiple ways to experience it.

Exploring Mulberry Harbor In A 3-D Cave

This cave, combined with goggles and handset, allow a person to explore the harbor in a virtual reality environment.Dassault Systèmes

One of the ways to experience this was the creation of a 3-D cave. Once the harbor was reconstructed, it could be experienced through a virtual reality room where a person is able to walk in the harbor. Tayoubi calls it a "traveling time machine," and sees it as a future education device to explain the invasion to future generation.

All this and more is documented in NOVA"s "D-Day's Sunken Secrets" special below. The episode airs May 28th at 9 pm on PBS.

Watch the trailer below.