The enduring legacy of D-Day, one of the pivotal events of World War II.
June 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of one of the most momentous days of the 20th century: June 6, 1944. Known as D-Day, it was the date the Allies launched the greatest military operation of its kind in the history of warfare.
The significance of D-Day cannot be overestimated. Operation Overlord marked the beginning of the decisive western battles of the Second World War. It meant that at long last the struggle was being taken directly to Nazi Germany, and that the liberation of Europe was at hand. Its success or failure would determine the course of the war.
On D-Day, as France was enduring day 1,453 of German occupation, 156,000 American, British, Canadian, Free Polish, Free French, Dutch and Belgian soldiers, sailors and airmen launched military operations that led to the defeat of one of the most infamous tyrannies in history.
They came by glider and parachuted from aircraft in the dead of night, and in the early morning hours of June 6 they arrived by sea through the overcast and rough waters, amid hails of gunfire along 50 miles of enemy-held Normandy beaches, disembarking from more than 4,000 landing craft.
Most of the Allied invaders were young men barely out of their teens. Those who survived will say they expected to die that day. A great many did, drowning in the rough seas; others were cut down by fire from ashore. On Sword, Juno and Gold – the British and Canadian beaches – the attackers were greeted with varying degrees of resistance, much of it deadly.
Omaha, one of the two American beaches, became the deadliest place on earth that morning. From atop the steep bluffs overlooking Omaha, a hail of machine-gun fire fell upon the invaders of U.S. 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions. The scene was absolute bedlam, and while all went well on Utah Beach in the Cotentin Peninsula, for some hours it appeared the Americans could not hold Omaha.
Then an extraordinary thing happened: American GIs from private to general took matters into their own hands and sometimes individually or in small groups, they rallied. And after many hours of bloody fighting they triumphed. They held Omaha, and by so doing they not only ensured that the invasion would succeed but that the war would be won. It was a triumph of courage over fear, and it made a liar out of Adolf Hitler, who had boasted that American citizen-soldiers were too soft and untrained to best his exalted Wehrmacht.
On Utah Beach, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. led the assault heroically and was later awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumously, as he died of a heart attack a month after D-Day). His men quickly realized that if a general could unflinchingly face combat while exposed and waving a cane, they could face it too. In no other nation could one find the son of a president and ordinary soldiers making common cause on a battlefield.
The Americans’ commanding general, Omar Bradley, called Omaha a “nightmare,” and after the war he returned often to honor those who died there. “They should never be forgotten,” said Bradley. “Nor should those who lived to carry the day by the slimmest of margins. Every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero.”
The potential for failure was very real and the margin for error virtually nonexistent. As historian Ian Kershaw has pointed out, “The advantage other than in sheer numbers lay plainly with the defenders. Omaha gave a horrifying taste of what the landings could have faced elsewhere had the German defense been properly prepared and waiting.”
The Allies were abetted by fateful German blunders before D-Day, the worst of which was Hitler’s long-standing distrust of his generals that led to his refusal to permit Erwin Rommel to station his panzer reserves (Panzer Group West) near the front lines, under his operational control, where they would be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Hitler’s decision guaranteed the German defense of Normandy would ultimately fail, thus bringing to fruition Rommel’s ominous prediction that the only way to defeat an invasion was to have the panzers ready for immediate commitment.
“You will enter the continent of Europe and undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and destruction of her armed forces.” Given the military’s fondness for long-winded missives, this statement issued by the Combined Chiefs of Staff (the U.S. and British chiefs) ranks as one of history’s classic directives. These unambiguous words initiated the most monumental challenge ever faced by a military commander. That commander was Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower.
Operation Overlord, the cross-Channel invasion of Normandy, was Ike’s responsibility. It was the most massive and complex military plan ever conceived and carried out, and its problems dwarfed that of any other single event in military history. Its implementation was immensely difficult and fraught with the potential for failure.
Eisenhower’s daunting challenges in 1944 were many: how to plan and successfully carry out the largest amphibious operation in the history of warfare; how to land 156,000 troops on D-Day by sea and by air on a strongly defended hostile shore; how to accomplish this while at the same time deceiving the Germans as to where the Allies would invade; and lastly, how to accomplish this extraordinary operation when, until the very last minute, the site of the invasion was the most heavily guarded secret on the planet, known only to key commanders.
In all, an estimated 2 million soldiers, sailors and airmen were involved in Operation Overlord in some capacity or other.
During the months leading up to D-Day, the logistical supplies sent to the United Kingdom were staggering. Seven million tons were delivered by sea from the United States, including 448,000 tons of ammunition. Four hundred million man-hours were employed to build 126 U.S. Army Air Forces airfields, 270 miles of railroads, 43 million square feet of hardstand, and 19 million square feet of covered storage.
As if the problems of mounting Overlord were not enough, Eisenhower also had to deal with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was powerfully influenced by the near disaster at Anzio and the stalemate in Italy and who was pessimistic that Overlord might turn out the same way.
Churchill had nightmare visions that the English Channel would run red with the blood of Allied soldiers and sailors. And he let Ike know about it. One of Eisenhower’s principal tasks turned out to be frequently reassuring Churchill that Overlord would work out.
Churchill also had begun to grasp that things he had no control over would probably make the difference between success and failure, later complaining that “the destinies of two great empires seemed to be tied up in some goddamned things called LSTs.” Indeed, the shortage of landing craft remains to this day one of the untold tales of World War II. There were never enough, and to carry out Overlord it was necessary to conscript LSTs from the Mediterranean.
But of all the enormous number of details involved in the planning, there was always one uncontrollable factor: the weather.
D-Day was supposed to occur on June 5. However, just as the invasion force was assembling, the weather turned inclement and Eisenhower was obliged to postpone the operation for 24 hours. Yet thousands of troops could not be held indefinitely crammed aboard landing craft. With no end in sight to the bad weather, Ike faced an incredibly difficult dilemma.
Then, Eisenhower’s talented team of American and British meteorologists made the most important weather prediction in history. They advised Ike that there was a glimmer of hope for June 6. While the weather would remain poor, visibility would improve and the winds would decrease just enough to risk launching the invasion. The news caused a cheer to erupt from the assembled Allied generals, admirals and air marshals.
The decision to “go” or “no-go” was solely up to Eisenhower. After a few moments deep in thought, Ike unhesitatingly announced, “OK, we’ll go.” The invasion was on for June 6.
German meteorologists got it wrong, and Rommel went home to Germany for his wife’s birthday.
In hindsight, Eisenhower’s words seem almost simplistic and unworthy of today’s made-for-television sound bites. There was no CNN or BBC to record the event. When Ike uttered those words in the early morning hours of June 5, the only ones present were the weary men responsible for carrying out the fateful decision. Every one of them knew that for better or worse the decision was done, and now it was up to the thousands of tiny components that make up armies, invasion armadas and air forces.
Mamie Eisenhower once asked her husband how in the world he ever had the nerve to do what he did. He replied simply, “I had to. If I let anybody, any of my commanders, think that maybe things weren’t going to work out, that I was afraid, they’d be afraid too. I didn’t dare. I had to have the confidence. I had to make them believe that everything was going to work.” Ike’s gutsy decision to launch D-Day was an example of leadership at its finest.
Rommel’s chief naval adviser, Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge, who became a respected postwar military historian, marveled that Eisenhower made such an important decision without recourse to higher authority, noting that no one in the German chain of command would have dared. It was, Ruge believed, “one of the truly great decisions in military history.
On D-Day, the BBC interrupted its regular broadcasts to air a brief speech by Eisenhower affirming the landings. The effect on the rest of the world was nothing short of stunning. The British seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Workers in war plants stopped what they were doing and sang “God Save the King,” and everywhere people flocked to churches to pray. Strangers accosted American military personnel on the streets of the United Kingdom merely wanting to shake their hands.
In the United States, June 6 was one of the most extraordinary days in American history and an unofficial national day of prayer. Across the nation, word of the landings spread like wildfire through the night and early morning. Church bells tolled, stores closed, Broadway shows and sporting events were called off as Americans, like the British, flocked to churches in record numbers.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the invasion “a mighty endeavor to preserve … our civilization and to set free a suffering humanity.” That night, FDR went on national radio to deliver a prayer for “our sons, pride of our nation,” asking that God “give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.”
Eisenhower also wrote a second, very brief speech that, fortunately, was never delivered. His naval aide, Captain Harry C. Butcher, found it crumpled in Ike’s shirt pocket weeks later and saved it for posterity. It read: “Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Eisenhower’s utter honesty, willingness to make tough decisions, and to take full responsibility for them, are sufficient reasons why his place in history is assured.
In retrospect, what Eisenhower’s decision unleashed on D-Day is astonishing.
In the dead of night on June 5-6, the Allies landed U.S. 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions and British 6th Airborne Division by parachute and by glider into strategically important terrain on the eastern and western approaches to the Allied invasion front.
That morning, the English Channel was jam-packed with 6,939 naval vessels of 43 separate types, manned by 195,000 Allied naval personnel. Over 1,200 of these vessels were warships. How those in charge ever managed to maneuver that many ships into such a tight space was a miracle of planning and execution.
Fifteen of the vessels were hospital ships standing by in the Channel to care for the wounded. Both at sea and in the United Kingdom, 8,000 doctors were ready with 600,000 doses of penicillin, 100,000 pounds of sulfa and 800,000 pints of plasma.
Air operations in Normandy are too often overlooked, but between April 1 and June 5, 1944, the Allied air forces flew 14,000 missions and lost 12,000 airmen and 2,000 aircraft. By the end of the Normandy campaign in August of that year, Allied losses totaled 28,000 airmen.
Between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. on June 6, more than 1,000 Allied aircraft dropped over 5,000 tons of bombs on German coastal positions. The Allied air forces lost 127 planes flying missions over Normandy on D-Day.
By the end of this monumental day, 156,115 Allied ground and airborne troops were ashore, along with 20,000 vehicles.
Despite furious German counterattacks on June 6 and throughout the months of June, July and early August, the Allies were in France to stay.
Any remembrance of D-Day would not be complete without mentioning the relatively unknown but vital contribution of the French Resistance, which was extremely active in the Caen-Bayeux region of Normandy. The men and women of the Bayeux section toiled in obscurity and extreme danger to provide valuable intelligence to the Allies about German dispositions in Normandy, for which they paid a terrible price. The Gestapo vigorously hunted them, and a significant number were eventually caught, tortured, imprisoned and killed.
After the war, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, wrote to the French minister of information: “Without the networks of the French Resistance, the invasion would not have been possible.” Eisenhower later said the work of the Resistance was worth 15 Allied divisions.
The price of war is always painful. On D-Day the Allies suffered over 0,000 casualties. By the end of the Normandy campaign, Allied casualties were nearly 210,000, including 37,000 killed in action.
German losses were staggering. An estimated 200,000 were killed in action and another 200,000 were taken as prisoners of war. The exact numbers will never be known.
Although Normandy was not the bloodiest battle of the war on the Western Front (that dubious distinction belongs to the Battle of the Bulge), it has become the symbol of World War II in Europe. Its sheer magnitude and overall importance have placed it in the forefront of our remembrances of the war.
Nevertheless, had D-Day failed, the world we live in today would be vastly different. Remounting the invasion of Normandy before the late spring or early summer of 1945 would have been virtually impossible. British manpower was near rock bottom by the summer of 1944, and reconstituting a British force to participate might well have proved impossible.
The war would have lasted until at least 1946, would have been enormously more costly in lives, and likely would have resulted in the Red Army occupying all of Germany, thus dramatically redrawing the landscape of postwar Europe.
Seventy years on, there are relatively few signs of war in Normandy, except for the military cemeteries that dot the landscape. There are 14 in all: four British, two Canadian, one Polish, six German, and one American.
Atop those same bluffs where the bitterest fighting took place at Omaha Beach, there is now a place of peace and tranquility. It is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where 9,387 American servicemen are buried, 307 of them “unknowns.”
In the Garden of the Missing is a memorial to another 1,557 MIAs, a great many of whom have never been found. It is no coincidence that the simple white crosses and Stars of David all face westward, toward America. Around the periphery are pine trees imported for their ability to withstand the almost daily winds that buffet the Normandy coast.
As the deputy superintendent told me during a visit in 2010, not a day passes without something remarkable occurring there. One day a former American merchant mariner turned up and asked to see the wall of the missing. He explained that he was one of the survivors of the SS Leopoldville, a converted Belgian passenger liner that was torpedoed by a U-boat and sunk five and a half miles off Cherbourg in the early morning hours of December 24, 1944, with the loss of 763 infantrymen of U.S. 66th Division who were earmarked for service in the Battle of the Bulge.
The merchant mariner was looking for the name of his friend and bunkmate. This was the first time he had returned to France in more than 60 years, and yet he was near tears, still clearly agonizing over why he had survived and his friend had perished.
When the friend’s name was pointed out on the wall, the merchant mariner pulled a small bugle from his coat, stood at attention and played “Taps,” its mournful sounds echoing across the cemetery. The deputy superintendent said it was one of the most moving moments he had ever experienced during his years of service with the American Battle Monuments Commission.
It is no wonder that those who visit this place of reverence and honor – approximately 1 million a year – leave feeling far differently than when they arrived.
The D-Day landings were more than just about liberating France. They were the key to ending the most devastating war in the history of mankind, a war that, as historian John Keegan notes in his magisterial book The Second World War, engulfed the entire planet: “It was the single largest event in all of human history, fought across six of the world’s seven continents, and all of its oceans. It killed 50 million human beings, left hundreds of millions of others wounded … and materially devastated much of the heartland of civilization.”
We often hear our veterans ask whether in the future anyone will even remember their extraordinary sacrifices. And there can be but one answer, which is addressed to future generations: You must continue to carry the torch of remembrance. It must never be extinguished.
Twenty years after the great invasion, Dwight Eisenhower returned to Normandy to honor the fallen. Perched on the wall of the American military cemetery while filming with Walter Cronkite for a television documentary for CBS, Ike spoke eloquently for those who had passed when he said: “These men came here – British and our allies, and Americans – to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom. … Many thousands of men have died for such ideals as these … but these young boys … were cut off in their prime. … I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope, and pray, that humanity will have learned … we must find some way … to gain an eternal peace for this world.”
If there is an epitaph for D-Day, it surely lies in Ike’s profound words. War is the scourge of humanity, but when those trying events occur, there are always stalwart men and women who will step forward to answer the call of duty – as they did on June 6, 1944.
NBC’s Tom Brokaw dubbed the men and women of World War II “the greatest generation.” However, those who fought the war are likely to have a different view. One of those men, a veteran named Jack Murphy, may well have spoken for all his comrades in arms when he said, “They call us ‘the greatest generation.’ I don’t know … we were just a bunch of guys.”
In June 2014, the attention of the world will again be focused on Normandy – perhaps not with the same massive media coverage as earlier occasions, but certainly with the same reverence as in the past. It will be a time to acknowledge that this “bunch of guys” and the sacrifice of the fallen will not go unremembered.
May God bless them all.
Carlo D’Este, Consulting Historian for “Armchair General” magazine and an “ACG” advisory board member, is a renowned historian and biographer who received the 2011 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. His acclaimed books include “Decision in Normandy,” “Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life,” “Patton: A Genius for War,” and “Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War.”
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Armchair General.