Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
Seventy-nine years ago, June 6, 1944, the Allies invaded France; an event which would be indelibly inscribed in the soul of a generation, and which today, alas, even the Pentagon gives scant notice.
Since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 the United States and Britain had been formally allied to defeat the Axis powers. As in 1917, Germany confronted the great fear of her revered Iron Chancellor-Prince Otto von Bismarck – an alliance of the U.S. and the British Empire with their great resources and fleet and their unbounded faith in democratic government.
In Britain’s channel ports vessels great and small gathered, filled with men from the America’s plains and Canada’s prairies, from the industrial powerhouses of America and Britain and from the Empire. Of them Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison (USNR), the preeminent American historian wrote: ”No music, no bands, no fluttering crowds to cry farewell; only women .and old men offering a last drink or cup of tea and a hearty ‘God Bless you!’, to the soldiers. Thus, efficiently and in silence, supported by the prayers of the free world began the great invasion to crush Germany and liberate France.”
Commanding the great “Crusade in Europe” was the American general Dwight D. Eisenhower. He had wanted a field command when the war began, a request denied by Gen. George Marshall, the laconic, no-nonsense Army Chief-of-Staff who had a more important job for him, a job which would make Eisenhower the “indispensable man.” Eisenhower was the quintessential American odyssey from humble Kansas origins to commander of the mightiest fighting forces the world had ever seen. Ike wore only a row of ribbons and only the five stars on his epaulets distinguished him from the ordinary G.I. His benign appearance disguised a grim determination.
In the days and weeks preceding D-Day US Army Air Forces, the Royal Air Force, and Royal Canadian Air Force had set to destroying German supply lines, railroad marshaling yards, bridges, fuel depots, anything that could move troops in France, Belgium and western Germany was a target. Also targeted were the lethal V-1 sites, coastal fortifications, and munitions depots. Fighters, fighter-bombers, medium-bombers, heavy bombers, all entered the fray.
Subterfuge was key. Everything was done to confirm the enemy belief that the landing would be at the Pas-de-Calais, the narrowest point of the English Channel. Dummy landing craft, inflatable tanks, even a make-believe army group commanded by Gen. George Patton, held in high regard by the Germans, were created. Fictitious radio traffic reaffirmed the German’s conviction of where the invasion would take place. After all, Hitler himself had said it would come at the Pas-de-Calais.
Ready to launch on June 5th, the invasion fleet suddenly confronted an unexpected enemy – the weather. Royal Air Force meteorology forecast heavy seas and a low ceiling; the landing craft would be swamped, air cover would be impossible. The invasion would have to be called off, however, the forecast also called for a break in the storm on the 6th. It was the sole opportunity on the table. Pondering the situation and the unpalatable alternatives Ike seized the moment giving the order at 0415, June 5: “Okay, we’ll go”. Lacking the weather outposts of the allies, German meteorology did not see the clearing, only the storm.
First in would be the paratroopers, most just out of their teens embarking on a mission from which many would never return. RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s prognostication to Eisenhower for the air assault was grim: the 101st Airborne would suffer 80 percent casualties, enough to render the 101 unfit for further action.
Landing on French soil in the morning darkness paratroopers were scattered far from their jump zones losing sixty percent of their equipment, but Lady Luck was with them, they didn’t land where the enemy expected. But Lady Luck wasn’t there for everyone. 82d Airborne paratroopers coming down in St. Mére Eglise’s village square were killed by German soldiers before they hit the ground. Others landing in the surrounding marshes drowned, pulled down by the weight of their equipment. It was not an auspicious beginning. Americans, however, were persevering. Spread throughout the surrounding countryside soldiers from the 101 formed up with the 82nd, or the other way around, to begin their war.
Surprise was in the air for Frenchmen as well. In the village of Ranville, Rene Doix, looked skyward, saw aircraft, and feared a massive air raid. Suddenly he realized that the silent craft weren’t planes at all. They were the gliders of the British 6th Airborne Infantry, who like their American counterparts were on their way to seize or destroy enemy strongpoints.
As the Americans and British began their missions the French underground silently began theirs. Alerted by coded message from the BBC overseas service the underground commenced their deadly night’s work cutting communications and rail lines.
But what of the Germans; what were they doing? Field Marshall Rommel was at home for his wife’s birthday. Others, when first reports came in from Normandy believed it a diversion, the invasion had to be at the Pas-de-Calais, Hitler had said so.
Maj. Werner Pluskat, commanding a coast artillery battery had been in his observation bunker overlooking Omaha Beach since first learning of the paratrooper landings. For hours he had strained his eyes peering through high-powered observation binoculars toward the channel. There was nothing. But as the early morning haze lifted Pluskat was dumbfounded. Out of the mist stretching as far as the eye could see was the Allied fleet.
At 0550, the Navy opened fire, among the ships, Nevada (BB-36), proud survivor of Pearl Harbor and “old enough to vote” wrote Adm Morison. The murderous effect of sustained naval gunfire smashed enemy fortifications and pinned down reinforcements. Gallant destroyers. getting as close as they could to the beaches, gave landing craft and the men ashore close fire support making up for artillery lost on sunken boats.
For GIs heading for the beach the ships were a Godsend. When the 14″ guns of Texas (BB35) opened fire, Ernest Hemingway wrote of the soldiers in his landing boat outlined in the orange afterglow of the guns, “they looked like pikemen of the Middle Ages to whose aid in battle had suddenly come some strange and unbelievable monster.”
At 0630 the first wave hit Utah and Omaha beaches. Utah was taken quickly but Omaha turned into hell itself. The 0730 British and Canadian landings at Gold, Sword, and Juno gave the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy guns more time to smash German fortifications.
With the greatest of luck, however, the local Luftwaffe could only muster two planes the rest were away training! Throughout the day men and material poured ashore. By day’s end the Allies were moving inland, and more were coming all the time; ordinary men called upon for an extraordinary task.
On June 6, the great hope of Prime Minister Winston Church was realized, the new world had come to rescue the old from a tyranny he wrote ”made more heinous by a perverted science.”
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