It All Started With a Simple Phrase...
6 June 2019, marked the 75th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Normandy in what we commonly call D-Day. This is a milestone for us as historians, but also as a society. The 75th anniversary marks the last major milestone anniversary where any survivors will be among us. It signifies a great triumph, but also a harrowing reminder of mortality. Rather than dwell on the sadness accompanied with that fact, let us instead look back on a day where 160,000 soldiers put everything on the line for freedom.
In mid-1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill communicated with top naval commanders within the British Navy to "prepare for an invasion" of Europe. Such a feat of this magnitude would prove elusive and perilous. Germany had long since established a bastion of defensive positions on the French coastline. Attacks on the British mainland were becoming a growing concern. However, within that concern, the southern coastline of Britain had been transformed into a defensive network that was capable of rivaling the German threat. "The whole of south Britain is a haven for our defense", said Churchill, "you've got to turn it into a springboard for our attack."
Upon the Japanese surprise attack on Allied assets in the Pacific in December of 1941, Churchill recounted that he had slept with the greatest amount of peace the following evening. "I slept the peace of the saved", he recounted. The Japanese had launched several assaults in the Pacific against American, French, and British assets. This included movements in Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and most notoriously, Pearl Harbor and the Hawaiian Islands. Had Germany and Italy not opted to show good faith for the Japanese, the Americans may not have entered the war in Europe. However, in the days that followed the surprise attack in the Pacific, the rest of the Axis Powers declared war on the United States. In the course of a week, the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies. Much to the miscalculation of the Axis powers, the Americans were capable of leveraging a rapid response to the attacks and were able to mount an unrivaled mass of resources and war materiel.
The United States public, having been able to readily identify the enemy in the Pacific as Japan, was not as enthusiastic about fighting in Europe against an enemy that had not immediately been intimately known. However, this changed when German U-Boats began to shell the coastline of American cities. Upon the first arrival of troops in Britain in 1942, the presumption was an immediate and direct assault on the European mainland. The British military, however, was not confident in the American's ability to wage this new brand of war. In addition, severe losses at the evacuation of Dunkirk had led them to be more than just somewhat cautious. It was decided that the Allied effort would instead be focused across North Africa. Initial plans called for the invasion of Europe to begin in 1943. This did indeed occur, but it did so in the boot of Italy in September of 1943. The Allies were still wanting to launch campaigns into France, but were unable to do so due to the vast logistical issues they faced.
The Tehran Conference in December of 1943 solidified that the invasion of France would instead take place in May of 1944. A large number of resources were to be mounted to successfully execute a successful campaign against the German Army. The Allies had been conducting widespread strategic bombing of German resources, including Luftwaffe targets across the interior of Germany. By late 1943, their focus began to shift to elements in France and West Germany. The Americans were able to maintain air superiority due to the deployment of faster and more experienced pilots and aircraft. In addition, American bombing campaigns utilized broader areas of air coverage allowing more bombers to penetrate German air defense networks. By the time of the Normandy invasion, the Luftwaffe only had a force of less than twenty percent of its original strength. It was so weak, in fact, that most German aircraft flew single passes on the beaches before retreating to Germany.
In the weeks leading up to the invasion, GEN Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed as the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. Under his direction, he had ordered GEN Omar Bradley to conduct operations with the U.S. First Army on the day of landing. Meanwhile, GEN George S. Patton was instructed to deploy a phantom Eighth Army at Dover. The Germans were expecting an Allied crossing from Dover to Calais - the shortest point in the English Channel between Britain and France. The Allies created fake radio signals, blew up fake balloons in the shape of tanks, and even mounted fake rubber landing craft in the coastal areas near Dover. A second decoy group was near Edinburgh Castle, and purportedly poised to strike the Germans in Norway. Both diversionary tactics were given the names FORTITUDE NORTH and SOUTH, respectively. The decoy plan was so successful, that over 29 German Army divisions, including Panzer units were concentrated on Calais and Norway all the way up through the Normandy invasion.
The Germans were already concerned due to their loss of Rome on 5 June 1944. The American forces swept through the city after the Germans executed a fleeting retreat. However, the American victory in Rome was not meant to make it to the headlines in newspapers around the world.
De l'automne Blessent mon cœur D'une langueur monotone.
0530, 6 June 1944 - "[The violins] Of autumn wound my heart with a monotonous languor." With those words uttered over the air of the BBC radio waves, elements from the United States First Army began their landing assault on the beaches at Utah. Airborne troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Battalion's had already parachuted into regions of Normandy the night before. They had cut supply lines, communication lines, and were lying await in ambush to pinch the Germans in and drive them off the beaches. Of the men who deployed that evening, eighty percent lost their lives or were captured. Violent waves and a sea of led and fire awaited these brave first soldiers who stepped off the landing boats at Utah. The Second British Army was the next to follow further to the east, with follow-up landings occurring throughout the morning. The Germans were surprised and caught off guard. They had no reinforcements. They had no communication. They had no supplies. While well stocked, any advanced movements on their position was unable to be checked, ultimately resulting in retreat. By the end of 6 June, the Allies were able to claim OVERLORD as a success.
"Viva la France! The liberation of France has begun!" These words were shouted in a cramped news room in Britain in the afternoon of 6 June. Reporters were hard at work typing up their story about the liberation of Rome. One reporter commented that there was an awkward silence of a few moments before the room erupted into the sound of paper being ripped from type-writers and thrown away.
By 22 June, the Allies had full control of the coastline that comprised Normandy, as well as the port facilities. They had also taken the city of Caen, a major springboard location for their launch into Paris.
A follow-on operation in the southern part of France would launch in August, codenamed DRAGOON. This landing was to secure Monaco and Toulon, launched from the newly established Allied bases in Italy. All but a few fringe states of France would be liberated by the end of 1944. With the Soviet Red Army continuing to put force on German's eastern flank, Germany's days were numbered as it entered into a three-front war.
At the end of the landings, over 4,000 Allied troops had lost their lives. Total Allied casualties exceeded 10,000. These included missing, captured, injured, and dead. The German's lost between 5,000 and 10,000 men. The diversionary tactics of the phantom army surely aided in the assault, and the subsequent damage to German morale certainly was palpable.
The 1962 film The Longest Day featuring Henry Fonda and John Wayne depicts the events of the landings at Normandy fairly true to form. It is a must-see for any history buff.
As this month closes, let us all take a moment to reflect on these brave soldiers who put everything on the line for us to be here today. Let this last month serve as a somber reminder to all of you to thank those who do serve and have served to preserve freedoms and safety around the world - in all nations, of all nations.