For years, George refused to talk about it. Whenever I pressed him, I would be met with silence, or a brief outburst of nothing more than staccato words: bangalores, shingle, terror, dead men everywhere. George, you see, as a young US Army officer, landed on Omaha Beach during the famed D-Day invasion of Europe 73 years ago, on June 6, 1944.
The last time I saw him, on Christmas Day 1998, he looked at me with misty eyes, threw down the rest of his bourbon and said that D-Day will forever be remembered as the greatest day of the 20th century. George, like so many members of his generation, is no longer with us, but on this anniversary of Operation Overlord, his words resonate strongly. And so they should.
In the late spring of 1944, World War II was in its fifth year in Europe. The German Army had suffered defeats in North Africa, Sicily and in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk in Russia. But, the formidable Wehrmacht still controlled Europe from the Russian steppes to the Norwegian fjords to the English Channel.
Several months before, in the autumn of 1943, Hitler had discerned that the main threat to Germany loomed not out of the East, but the West. In Fuehrer Directive Number 51, he proclaimed, “I can no longer justify the further weakening of the West in favor of other theaters of war. I have therefore decided to strengthen the defenses in the West.”
He appointed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, The Desert Fox, to reconstruct the fortifications along the Atlantic Wall. Like the Fuehrer, Rommel believed that the invasion, when it came, could only be halted on the beaches. In just two years, the German Army had shifted from a blitzkrieg doctrine to a defensive posture hiding behind Rommel’s vaunted Festung Europa.
Despite around-the-clock Allied strategic bombing, Germany’s industry was producing arms and munitions at the highest capacity since the war began. Hitler’s insane fantasies of wonder weapons were becoming a reality as V-1 rockets, ME-262 jet fighters and the mammoth Tiger tank rolled off of German assembly lines.
In occupied Poland and Russia, the Nazis’ Final Solution (the complete genocide of European Jewry) was proceeding on schedule. Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler had promised Hitler that by 1945 almost all of Europe’s Jews would be dead.
In Western Europe, millions of subjugated people, living in a nightmare world of starvation, deportation and summary execution awaited their resurrection from tyranny. They would not have much longer to wait.
At 1600 on June 5, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower met once again at Southwick House with his key subordinates: Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, Gen. Omar Bradley, Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, Air Vice Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Adm. Bertram Ramsey, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Strong (SHAEF G-2) and RAF Group Capt. J.M. Stagg, his meteorologist. The night before, Stagg had predicted horrible weather conditions for the English Channel and the Normandy coastline. Ike had delayed the invasion for 24 hours. Now, Stagg’s forecast was more optimistic. The weather would clear, providing marginal conditions for up to 48 hours. After consulting with his commanders and staff and pausing to think on his own, Ike stared at his subordinates and said, “Okay, let’s go.”
Within an hour of Ike’s decision to go, the BBC began to broadcast its nightly “messages personnel” to the French Resistance. But, on this night, several of the messages were codes for the Maquis to begin sabotage operations. Two of them were: “Blessent mon Coeur d’une langeur monotone” (Wounds my heart with a monotonous languor) “Jean a une longe moustache.” (John has a long mustache.)
Those in the French Resistance knew that the hour of liberation was at hand. On the evening of June 5, 1944, the troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force quickly received word of Ike’s decision to go. Each man knew he bore a gigantic responsibility. The success of Operation Overlord would determine the freedom of a continent, and of the world for years to come.
The men of D-Day knew they could not fail. There was no substitute for victory. Winston Churchill knew the price of failure too. “If we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science." Churchill knew that with victory, “All Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”
Operation Overlord commenced at just after midnight on June 6. As British Glider troops secured Pegasus Bridge near Caen, the American airborne armada was on its way to the Cotentin Peninsula. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions had orders to secure the various causeways and roads connecting Utah and Omaha Beaches to the Normandy interior.
Within minutes of crossing the Normandy coastline, the vast air armada ran into thick clouds and intense anti-aircraft fire. Many of the 870 C-47s carrying both divisions separated from their “V-of-V” formations and became lost, with each plane flying seemingly blind toward the drop zones.
As the enemy fire intensified, disoriented pilots began to unload the airborne troops. In the dead of night, many of the paratroopers landed alone, miles from where they were supposed to be. Separated from their buddies, their officers, their platoons, even their divisions, the paratroopers nevertheless began to move out to their objectives. Some of them located other soldiers from their companies. Some fought with troopers from another division. Some fought alone.
As dawn broke on June 6, the Allied fleet opened-up on the German coastal defenses with naval gunfire and rockets. Under the impression that the bombardment had killed or wounded a large percentage of the German defenders, the troops of the 4th, 29th and 1st Infantry Divisions, and the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions, boarded Higgins landing craft.
Allied intelligence had claimed that the U.S. 29th and 1st Divisions would face the crippled German 716th Division – and only one battalion from that unit at that. Intelligence was dead wrong. Three battalions from the veteran 352th Infantry Division were dug in defending the area known as Omaha Beach.
Then a navigational error caused the 4th Infantry Division to land a mile south of its intended target. Utah Beach was lightly defended and became a quick success. Eyeing a tactical opportunity, Brig. Gen. Teddy Roosevelt Jr. ordered his commanders to “start the war from right here.”
By 0700, Omaha Beach had become a shambles. Gen. Bradley, who as commander of the 1st U.S. Army was responsible for the Utah and Omaha Beach landings, considered at one point pulling out of Omaha and shifting the incoming forces to Utah. Troops were pinned down at the water’s edge by intense machine gun fire. Zeroed mortars and 88s picked off disembarking soldiers like sitting ducks. But, still the men landed and attempted to move inland.
By noon, thousands of casualties littered Omaha Beach. Many soldiers huddled against the rocky shingle awaiting a certain fate. But others knew that they had to achieve a breakthrough. They had to get through the draws, climb the bluffs and destroy the machine gun nests and the pillbox crews.
One by one, junior officers and young sergeants inspired their men to get off the beach. Using Bangalore explosives, they blew obstacles and opened narrow gaps in the barriers. As the men moved inland, they set off numerous anti-personnel mines. Paths of dead and wounded men marked trails to follow.
By late afternoon, the U.S. forces had finally secured Omaha Beach. Across the Allied front, forces were gaining a small foothold in Normandy. D-Day succeeded not because of a brilliant plan, not because of special intelligence, and not because of technology. D-Day succeeded because of the ingenuity of 18-year-old-privates, the bravery of 22-year-old junior officers and the innovation of their commanders. D-Day succeeded because everyone knew the stakes at hand. They knew that to live in a world conquered by the Nazis was not an option.
What if the men of D-Day had failed?
It would have taken the Allies perhaps another year to launch a second cross-channel invasion. By that time, the Germans would have been equipped with thousands of their new jets. The V-1 and V-2 rockets would have wreaked extreme havoc on London and Southern England. The Final Solution would probably have been completed. German scientists, although behind the Allies in the race for the atomic bomb, may have gained precious time to create their own device.
Worst of all, Adolf Hitler would have continued to walk this earth.
In 1964, on the 20th anniversary of D-Day, CBS newsman Walter Cronkite – who as a young UPI reporter had landed behind enemy lines that night in a troop-carrying glider – interviewed Eisenhower on Omaha Beach. Gazing at the coastline, the former allied commander and retired president recalled why that mammoth invasion was different from famous battles in ancient history:
“It’s a wonderful thing what those fellows were fighting for and sacrificing for, what they did to preserve our way of life. Not to conquer any territory, not for ambitions of our own. But to make sure that Hitler could not destroy freedom in the world. I think it’s just overwhelming. To think of the lives that were given for that principle, paying a terrible price on this beach alone. But, they did it so the world could be free. It just shows what free men will do rather than be slaves.”
Perhaps correspondent Ernie Pyle most eloquently expressed what we owe these men today, more than seven decades later. In a column, written on June 12, 1944, Pyle said: “I want to tell you what the opening of the second front entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.”
The glory of D-Day will never die.