D-Day – Operation Neptune 6 June 1944

D-Day – Operation Neptune 6 June 1944

Finding the real Private Ryan...

Nick Thorne, Writer at TheGenealogist

Nick Thorne

Writer at TheGenealogist


As we mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day this 6th June 2024, we remember the extraordinary bravery and sacrifices of the men from the allied forces who stormed the beaches of Normandy from sea and air. Their contributions in the fight to bring liberty to Europe are as poignant as ever today in a world still filled with conflict.

The invasion to free Europe from the Nazi German stranglehold began shortly after midnight on the morning of 6th June with extensive aerial and naval bombardment as well as an airborne assault. Operation Neptune, as D-Day was known, was the landing of 24,000 American, British, and Canadian airborne troops into Normandy.

The early morning aerial assault was soon followed by Allied amphibious landings on the coast of France at 6:30 AM. The target, a 50-mile (80 km) stretch of the Normandy coast, was divided into five sectors given the codenames: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Unfortunately for those taking part, strong winds blew the landing craft east of their intended positions, particularly at Utah and Omaha.

In overall charge of the Allied forces was the American Major General Dwight D. Eisenhower with Britain’s General Sir Bernard Montogomery as the commander in charge of all the Allied ground forces during the Battle of Normandy (Operation Overlord), from D-Day until 1st September 1944.

Meeting of the Supreme Command, Allied Expeditionary Force, London, 1 February 1944
Meeting of the Supreme Command, Allied Expeditionary Force, London, 1 February 1944

Using TheGenealogist’s Royal Air Force Operations Record Books (ORBs) we can see Sir Bernard’s role mentioned in the ORB for 145 squadron for that fateful day.

RAF Operations Record Book for 145 Squadron as found on TheGenealogist
RAF Operations Record Book for 145 Squadron as found on TheGenealogist

Further searches of this recordset also finds a newspaper cutting referring to the pivotal day and pasted into one of the Commonwealth unit’s ORBs. This added background to the invasion and was affixed to a page for Number 1 Squadron of the South African Air Force in their daily journal. The newspaper piece gives an insight into the Supreme Headquarters and also records a snippet about ”The Men of the Moment ‘‘, which includes Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery.

Newspaper cutting pasted into an ORB of the South African Air Force’s Number 1 Squadron
Newspaper cutting pasted into an ORB of the South African Air Force’s Number 1 Squadron

The Niland Brothers: A Story of Sacrifice and Survival

Among the heroes of D-Day were four brothers from the United States, whose story of service and sacrifice is a poignant reminder of the human cost of war. Their tale is one of a family responding bravely to the call to arms during World War II and four siblings going to fight, but suffering the tragic loss of two on that fateful day in June 1944 in Northern France. Frederick “Fritz” Niland and his brothers, Robert, Preston, and Edward, came from Tonawanda in New York State. Their parents, Michael and Augusta Niland, had raised them in a close-knit Irish-American family in the city situated in Erie County just south of the Niagara falls.

The Niland brothers, from left to right, Edward, Preston, Robert and Fredrick
The Niland brothers, from left to right, Edward, Preston, Robert and Fredrick

We are able to find the family in the 1940 US census before any of them had joined up. Two of them work at the steel mill where their father, Michael, was also a superintendent. Edward was a roll hand and Preston was a clerk. Meanwhile, Robert Niland had been a machinist apprentice at 21, while his 19 year old brother, Frederick, was working for the city as a playground supervisor. Little did they know what was ahead of them in the following four years.

Parents, Michael and Augusta Niland, and a daughter appear at the bottom of this page from the 1940 US census
Parents, Michael and Augusta Niland, and a daughter appear at the bottom of this page from the 1940 US census
The four brothers and other family members appear on the next page of the US Census
The four brothers and other family members appear on the next page of the US Census

Signed up

All four brothers joined the ranks of the U.S. Army and we are able to find them immortalised in the new records on TheGenealogist. A search of the United States WWII Army Enlistment Records (1938-1946) shows that they signed up in to military service at different times; these records are part of the extensive online Military Records at TheGenealogist.

United States WWII Army Enlistment Records (1938-1946) on TheGenealogist
United States WWII Army Enlistment Records (1938-1946) on TheGenealogist

Preston and Robert: The Paratroopers

Preston Niland, the second eldest of the four, was an airborne soldier. A junior officer at the time of D-Day he held the rank of Second Lieutenant and was a platoon leader in Company C 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry, 4th Infantry Division. His slightly younger brother, Technical Sergeant Robert Niland, was also a paratrooper being a part of the 82nd Airborne Division, a unit that was renowned for its critical role during the D-Day invasion. On that day, as the Allies’ Operation Overlord swung into action, Preston and Robert both parachuted into Normandy where they would have faced immediate danger as they descended into the chaos of occupied France.

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Tragically, Robert would die on June 6 while defending a bridgehead, having landed near Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy. His unit had faced fierce resistance from the enemy and despite their valiant efforts, Robert did not survive the intense combat. He and a corporal had volunteered to stay behind and hold off a German advance, while the rest of his company retreated from Neuville-au-Plain. Robert was killed while manning his machine gun while the other man, Corporal James Kelly, managed to survive the carnage.

We can only imagine that Robert’s death would have been a devastating blow to the Niland family, but worse news was on the way as 2nd Lieutenant Preston Niland was then killed in action the very next day on 7th June 1944, fighting in the Utah Beach sector around the Crisbecq Battery.

A Miraculous Return

Meanwhile, Edward Niland, the eldest of the four, was nowhere near France on that fatal day as he had been serving in the Pacific theatre of the war in the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). However, he was thought to be missing and presumed dead at the time that his brothers were fighting in Europe. A Technical Sergeant in the USAAF, Edward was part of a crew of a B-25 Mitchell medium range bomber that was hit by Japanese fire in May 1944 and downed.

The family were unaware that he had parachuted from the stricken plane and that he was captured by the enemy and not dead. It was only a year later that he was discovered alive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp having endured months of harsh captivity at the hands of the enemy. In May 1945, Edward Niland was liberated and eventually reunited with his family in America, a ray of light amidst all the Nilands’ grief. Edward would live for almost another 40 years, finally passing away in February 1984 in North Tonawanda, as we can see from his death record on TheGenealogist in the United States Social Security Death Index.

Transcript of US Social Security death record for Edward Niland February 1984 in New York State on TheGenealogist
Transcript of US Social Security death record for Edward Niland February 1984 in New York State on TheGenealogist

His brother, Fritz, had died in San Francisco a few months earlier in December 1983, as the death index for Frederick Niland reveals.

Transcript of  US Social Security death record for Frederick “Fitz” Niland December 1983 San Francisco, California
Transcript of US Social Security death record for Frederick “Fitz” Niland December 1983 San Francisco, California

Saving Private Ryan

The Niland brothers’ tale also inspired the film “Saving Private Ryan,“ which brought their story to a wider audience and highlighted the personal sacrifices made by soldiers and their families. While the film takes creative liberties, its core message remains true to the Nilands’ experience: the extraordinary valour and sacrifices of those who serve in defence of freedom.

Researching Your WWII Ancestors

For family historians looking to uncover their own WWII heritage, the United States WWII Army Enlistment Records (1938-1946) is a fascinating resource. These records provide detailed information about enlistment dates, service branches, ranks, and more about US soldiers from this time.

If we examine the result for Preston Niland we are able to see that he joined on the 31st March 1941 at Buffalo, New York. Confirming the information from the 1940 US census that we saw above, the enlistment record shows that he had been a clerk in civilian life. It also reveals that he had two years of college education under his belt and originally enlisted as a private soldier before his commission as an officer.

Preston T Niland’s US Army Enlistment Record
Preston T Niland’s US Army Enlistment Record

The Niland brothers’ story is one of profound sacrifice and resilience. Their experiences underscore the immense personal cost of war and the bravery of those who served in the armed forces. The United States WWII Army Enlistment Records (1938-1946) on TheGenealogist provide us with a window into the original enlistments of the Nilands into the U.S. Army in the early 1940s, as it does for the countless other brave American soldiers. Some of those listed here would never return to their families from the foreign fields where they had been sent to fight.

As we commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, it is fitting to reflect on the courage and sacrifice of the Niland brothers and all those who fought in World War II. Their stories are a testament to the enduring spirit of those who serve and the deep bonds of family and brotherhood that sustain them in the face of unimaginable adversity.




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