[NOTE: The following is a repeat of a previous post from the 65th anniversary of D-day. I have added some new commentary in brackets to update.]
Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy landings in WWII. Here’s a video with a few grainy clips of the Allies wading ashore:
I wonder how many people under forty, either here or in Europe, now know or care what happened there. The dog barks and the caravan moves on, and all that.
The world we now live in seems so vastly different, including the relationship between the US and western Europe. But make no mistake about it; if threatened in a way that finally gets their attention, Europeans would be counting on us again. And I have little doubt that our armed forces would be up to the task; the question is whether our government would [in the five years that have passed since I wrote this post, I have gotten to the point where I have little doubt that our government would not be up to the task, and I’m beginning to doubt whether our armed forces would, either, because of the way it’s been hamstrung under Obama].
But back to the D-day landings. About thirty-five years ago I visited Omaha Beach, site of the worst of the carnage. A quieter place than that beach and those huge cemeteries, with their lines of crosses set down as though with a ruler, you never did see.
But the scene was quite different in 1944. The D-day invasion marked the beginning of the end for the Germans.
The weather was a huge factor, and the Allied commanders had to make the decision knowing that the forecast for the day was iffy and the window of opportunity small. For reasons of visibility and navigation (maximum amount of moonlight and deepest water), the invasion needed to occur during a time of full moon and spring tides, and all the invasion forces had already been assembled and were at the ready. To postpone would have been hugely expensive and frustrating, but to go ahead in bad weather would have been suicidal.
This is how bad the weather looked, how difficult the decision was, and how much we owe to the meteorologists, who:
…were challenged to accurately predict a highly unstable and severe weather pattern. As [Eisenhower] indicated in the message to Marshall, “The weather yesterday which was [the] original date selected was impossible all along the target coast.” Eisenhower therefore was forced to make his decision to proceed with a June 6 invasion in the predawn blackness of June 5, while horizontal sheets of rain and gale force winds shuddered through the tent camp.
The initially bad weather ended up being an advantage in other ways, because the Germans were not expecting the invasion to occur yet for that reason:
Some [German] troops stood down, and many senior officers were away for the weekend. General Erwin Rommel, for example, took a few days’ leave to celebrate his wife’s birthday, while dozens of division, regimental, and battalion commanders were away from their posts at war games.
In addition, there was Hitler’s personality and his reluctance to give autonomy to his military commanders:
Hitler reserved to himself the authority to move the divisions in OKW Reserve, or commit them to action. On 6 June, many Panzer division commanders were unable to move because Hitler had not given the necessary authorization, and his staff refused to wake him upon news of the invasion..
This didn’t mean that the beaches were not heavily fortified and manned, especially Omaha:
[The Germans] had large bunkers, sometimes intricate concrete ones containing machine guns and high caliber weapons. Their defense also integrated the cliffs and hills overlooking the beach. The defenses were all built and honed over a four year period.
The number of Allied casualties was enormous. Reading about it today makes one appreciate anew what these men faced, and how courageously they pressed on despite enormous difficulties. This is just a small sampler of what occurred on Omaha Beach at the outset; there was much more to come:
Despite these preparations, very little went according to plan. Ten landing craft were lost before they even reached the beach, swamped by the rough seas. Several other craft stayed afloat only because their passengers quickly bailed water with their helmets. Seasickness was also prevalent among the troops waiting offshore. On the 16th RCT front, the landing boats found themselves passing struggling men in life preservers, and on rafts, survivors of the DD tanks which had sunk. Navigation of the assault craft was made more difficult by the smoke and mist obscuring the landmarks they were to use in guiding themselves in, while a heavy current pushed them continually eastward.
As the boats approached within a few hundred yards of the shore, they came under increasingly heavy fire from automatic weapons and artillery. The force discovered only then the ineffectiveness of the pre-landing bombardment. Delayed by the weather, and attempting to avoid the landing craft as they ran in, the bombers had laid their ordnance too far inland, having no real effect on the coastal defenses.
These obstacles and unforeseen circumstances were extraordinarily costly in terms of the human sacrifice that occurred that day. Note that I use the word “obstacles and unforeseen circumstances” rather than “mistakes.” Today, if the same things had occurred (particularly if under the aegis of the Bush administration), they would be labeled unforgivable errors rather than the inevitable difficulties inherent in waging war, in which no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.
Another historical footnote is the following passage from Eisenhower’s message to the Allied Expeditionary Forces: You are about to embark upon the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. It’s another sign of how times have changed; the word “crusade” has become verboten.
In his pocket, Eisenhower also kept another statement, one to activate in case the invasion failed. It read: Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.
The note was written in pencil on a simple piece of paper, and is housed in a special vault at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library & Museum in Abilene, Kansas, a bit of thought-provoking fodder for an alternate history that never occurred—fortunately for all of us.