VIERVILLE-SUR-MER, France — The exploits of D-Day have long been legend: the storming of the beaches, parachute drops into enemy territory. But 60 years later, the number of dead is still unclear.
The chaos of battle and the vast scale of the assault thwarted attempts to tally how many thousands were killed in the June 6, 1944, landings that sped Nazi Germany's defeat.
Bodies disintegrated under bombs and shells. Soldiers drowned. Company clerks who tallied casualties were killed. Records were lost.
Historians say a definitive death toll will likely never be known. Even now, the Normandy soil for which soldiers fought so bitterly offers up new bodies.
"Now and then, construction work unearths bones and skeletons from soldiers," said Fritz Kirchmeier, a spokesman for the German organization that tends the 80,000 graves for German soldiers in Normandy.
Casualty estimates for Allied forces vary but range from 2,500 to more than 5,000 dead on D-Day. On its Web site, the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, England, says an estimated 2,500 Allied troops died. The U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., numbers 6,036 American casualties, but that includes wounded and missing.
"It's very difficult to get accurate figures. People get buried. Bodies disintegrate. Evidence of the deaths disappeared. People drowned," said John Keegan, author of "Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris."
More than 19,000 French civilians in Normandy also died before and after D-Day in Allied bombing to soften up German defenses. And Allied air forces lost nearly 12,000 men in April and May 1944 in operations ahead of the invasion, the D-Day Museum says.
Carol Tuckwiller, director of research at the National D-Day Memorial Foundation in Bedford, Va., has spent four years combing through government, military and cemetery records for names of Allied dead on D-Day. She hopes to have a figure by next year.
"We feel like we're probably going to end up with a total of about 4,500 fatalities for both the Americans and Allied countries. Right now, we have about 4,200 names confirmed," she said. "Of course we realize we may never be 100 percent complete."
In all, some 160,000 men invaded Nazi-occupied France in the first wave. The invasion fleet was the biggest armada in history, with more than 5,000 ships and landing craft.
Sir Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister, "said to his wife before going to bed that he was afraid that when they woke up, more than 20,000 people would have been killed," said Andrew Whitmarsh, the D-day Museum's military historian.
Calculating German casualties is even harder than arriving at the Allied figure. The D-Day Museum says the number is estimated at 4,000 to 9,000.