Photo: Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division landing onto Omaha Beach from a Coastguard landing craft (from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase) on D-Day. (Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent)
Sixty-four years ago today, Allied forces swept onto the beaches of Normandy to liberate France and put an end to Nazi domination of Europe. The D-Day assault comprised American, Canadian, and British forces, but the Americans led, and for the most part the Americans bled, especially on Omaha. This position of leadership and sacrifice heralded the emergence of America as the primary Western power, but on that day, no one could say for sure that we would succeed:
On June 5, 1944, General Eisenhower took advantage of a break in stormy weather to order the invasion of “fortress Europe.” In the hours before dawn, June 6, 1944, one British and two U.S. airborne divisions dropped behind the beaches. After sunrise, British, Canadian, and U.S. troops began to move ashore. The British and Canadians met modest opposition. Units of the U.S. VII Corps quickly broke through defenses at a beach code-named UTAH and began moving inland, making contact with the airborne troops within twenty-four hours. But heavy German fire swept OMAHA, the other American landing area. Elements of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions and the 2d and 5th Ranger Battalions clung precariously to a narrow stretch of stony beach until late in the day, when they were finally able to advance, outflanking the German positions.
American and British beachheads linked up within days. While the Allies raced to build up supplies and reserves, American and British fighter aircraft and guerrillas of the French resistance blocked movement of German reinforcements. On the ground, Allied troops besieged Cherbourg and struggled to expand southward through the entangling Norman hedgerows. Earthen embankments hundreds of years old, matted with the roots of trees and shrubs, the hedgerows divided the countryside into thousands of tiny fields. The narrow roads, sunk beneath the level of the surrounding countryside, became deathtraps for tanks and vehicles. Crossroads villages were clusters of solidly built medieval stone buildings, ideal for defense. Small numbers of German infantry, dug into the embankments with machine guns and mortars and a tank or two or a few antitank guns for support, made advancing across each field costly.
On the first day, the Allies lost a total of 2500 troops, with another 7500 wounded. Within a week, the Allies had landed over 325,000 troops onto the beachheads of Normandy, and spent another month struggling to break out of the hedgerow country in the area. By mid-July, the victory had become so obvious that members of the German officer corps finally tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler to end the conflict.
The attack was a marvel of planning and cooperation between the Allies and the French Resistance. Mistakes were made, and men unnecessarily lost as a result. However, the largest amphibious invasion in human history eventually succeeded, overpowering fortified defenses seen as impenetrable. It dashed the remaining shreds of the fantasy of German invincibility and began the long, slow collapse of the Nazis.
Americans, Brits, and Canadians, most just out of their teens, poured onto those beaches to rescue a world gone mad. They sloshed slowly through waist-deep water and the crossfire of machine guns to liberate France and to stop the German war machine, and to defend the Western concepts of freedom and liberty against the forces of darkness and genocide. The Americans, who had started the European theater of war badly in North Africa and roundly dismissed by the Brits (after Kasserine Pass, for understandable reasons), had proven that democratic republics can produce the kind of men needed to defend them.
We owe these men, and our allies, the deepest gratitude and unfailing admiration for their sacrifice.
Update: I feel a little like Patton in the excellent movie of his exploits in WWII; I’m getting criticized for not mentioning the Soviet role in defeating the Nazis. Yes, obviously the Soviets bled far more than we did and pounded the Nazis, but let’s remember that it was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that put them in that position. If Stalin had listened to Churchill, the Nazis would have been stopped at Poland rather than at the gates of Moscow and Stalingrad, and may not have moved in that direction at all.
Moreover, the Soviets hardly “liberated” eastern Europe. Those unfortunate nations wound up with an equally oppressive regime, if not quite as murderous. And the Soviets didn’t participate in D-Day, either, and the point of this post was to honor our own sacrifice.