(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on June 6, 2019.)
Seventy-five years ago on June 6, 1944, the combined air, naval, and army forces of the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Canada successfully invaded the Normandy coast of France held by Nazi Germany, the beginning of the liberation of Western Europe and of the defeat of Hitler’s Germany.
By the spring of 1944, there were 1.5 million American soldiers in the United Kingdom. Southern England and much of the rest of the country had become a vast military camp: depot upon depot of ammunition, mines, engineer supplies, and wire; ubiquitous motor parks of tanks, wheeled vehicles, and artillery pieces. Giving life to all this materiel were the armed troops: 20 American divisions, 14 British, 3 Canadian, one French, one Polish, special forces units, and headquarters’ staffs. As Max Hastings states in Overlord: “ Week by week, the transatlantic convoys docked in British ports, unloading new cargoes of artillery shells from Illinois, blood plasma from Tennessee, jeeps from Detroit, K ration cheese from Wisconsin.”
The organizational feat which the military staffs accomplished in the 17 weeks prior to D-Day was, in Hastings words, the “greatest organizational achievement of the Second World War,” and something which “may never be surpassed in war.”
The plan for the D-Day invasion, code-named Overlord, called for amphibious assaults on five beaches over a 50 mile stretch of the Normandy coast, two American attacks on beaches code-named Omaha and Utah, two British attacks on Sword and Gold, and one Canadian assault on Juno. Three airborne divisions—two American and one British—would make supporting attacks preceding the main amphibious landings. Ranger and commando units would also assist. Two hundred warships would pound German coastal fortifications. In the first 24 hours, the Allies hoped to land 150,000 troops, requiring 1200 ships and 4100 landing craft.
A key to the Allied success would be its air supremacy, won weeks before D-Day in the skies over Europe. Once a beachhead was established, a tremendous push of men and materiel would follow. Of course, another key factor in the operation’s ultimate success were the Soviet military offensives on the eastern front which kept much of the German military might fixed and occupied.
Accompany Operation Overlord was Operation Bodyguard, an elaborate deception plan to trick the Germans into thinking that the main assault would be at Pas de Calais, the shortest distance from England to France. The Allies formulated a huge but fictional invasion force, called the First U.S. Army Group, consisting of 50 divisions preparing to invade from the Straits of Dover and under the command of Gen. George S. Patton.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower talking to troops of the 101st Airborne Division shortly before D-Day
Leading the entire operation was American Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Supreme Allied Commander with British Gen. Bernard L Montgomery commanding the land forces.
Since occupying France in 1940, the Germans led by Fuehrer Adolf Hitler, had built the Atlantic Wall, a line of defensive fortifications on the coast stretching from Norway to southern France. Hitler said in December 1943: “If they attack in the West, that attack will decide the war.” German Gen. Erwin Rommel, the commander of Army Group B along the coast of France, said: “We’ll have only one chance to stop the enemy, and that is when he is in the water. Everything we have must be on the coast. The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”
In his letter to the troops just before D-Day, Gen. Eisenhower stated: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade….” “We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”
After Pearl Harbor in 1941, song writers wrote tunes touching every sentiment of the war for lovers. These were the songs which played in the men’s minds as they waited for D-Day. “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “I’ve Got a Girl in Kalamazoo,” “Cleaning My Rifle (and Dreaming of You),” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams),” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
I’ll be seeing you/In all the old familiar places/That this heart of mine embraces/All day through
I will find you in the morning sun/And when the night is new/I’ll be looking at the moon/But I’ll be seeing you.
Operation Overlord was the greatest multi-service and multi-national operation in history. As planned, the three airborne divisions made their drops the night before the invasion, though many units missed their drop zones. The allied divisions successfully stormed the five beaches on the Normandy coast.
The Americans at Utah faced light resistance. One private stated: “We waded ashore like kids in a crocodile and up the beach. A couple of shells came over but nowhere near us. I think I even felt somehow disappointed, a little let down.”
This was not the case at Omaha where casualties were the heaviest of all five beaches. Sgt. Bob Slaughter of the 29th Infantry Division was in the lead elements. “About 200 to 300 yards from the shore we encountered artillery fire.” Once the ramp went down, the water was still deep for men wearing 60 pounds of gear. “Many were hit in the water and drowned.” “There were dead men floating in the water and live men acting dead, letting the tides take them in.”
By nightfall the Allied forces had succeeded in establishing beachheads one-half to three miles inland.
Not expecting an invasion during the stormy weather, German Gen. Rommel, was away on D-Day, visiting his wife on her birthday. Upon his return that night, his worst fears had come true. His forces now faced nearly 156,000 allied soldiers with their feet already on French soil.
The Allies had suffered only about 3,000 dead, a figure which Max Hastings calls “a negligible price for a decisive strategic achievement.”
A retired Army officer and paratrooper, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and a monthly columnist.