Seventy years ago today our boys hit the beaches of Northern France and parachuted into nearby fields in the opening phase of the long anticipated second front against the Nazi war machine. Eleven months later Adolf Hitler was dead. Caught in a deadly vise between American, British, and various other national forces to the West and the massive Soviet juggernaut in the East, high ranking German generals finally called it quits in May 1945 and accepted Allied demands for unconditional surrender bringing the war in Europe to a close.
Of course, June 6, 1944 or “D-Day” was not the beginning of hostilities between the US and Germany. The US and Germany had been at war for over two years by mid 1944. In the opening months of 1942 the US warred with German U-Boats. Once this threat was minimized the US was able to get men and material “over there.” Fighting on the ground between US and German forces occurred first in North Africa, then in Sicily, and then in Italy. But prior to D-Day no US soldier had yet touched the soil of occupied France.
At the very beginning, most US military leaders had favored an immediate invasion of Northern France. They saw little reason to wait. But British leaders considered this rash, reckless and ill advised-doomed to failure. The US simply wasn’t ready. Our people needed more training and experience. Roosevelt reluctantly sided with them on this and our boys headed to North Africa instead.
Things went well for the Allies in North Africa and Sicily but the Italian campaign was a different story. Forces under American general Mark Clark found it a hard slog “up the boot” against a German army commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, a brilliant defensive strategist and tactician who took advantage of every hill and mountain forcing allied armies to a hard expensive crawl that produced many embarrassing episodes and few celebrations.
To the North, the US waged war in the air. Flying out of bases in England, huge formations of heavy bombers conducted a relentless daily bombing of the German heartland in a massive unprecedented effort to destroy factories making war material and to demoralize the German people. Tens of thousands of German civilians perished. By early 1944, the center of many large cities such as Hamburg and Berlin had been reduced to piles of ash and rubble. But proud strong, and tenacious, the German people held on. Much of their war production under the brilliant direction of Albert Speer, simply moved underground and out of harm’s way.
Historians in our time are undecided as to just how important a part the air war played in bringing Germany to her knees. Some argue that the air war accomplished little and was never more than a thorn in her side. Others argue differently. This debate will continue.
There is no disputing this: Germany’s biggest challenge was her bitter fight against the Soviet Union. After brilliant success the first two years, the tide finally turned in early 1943 in favor ofthe Soviet Union and the Germans and their allies found themselves on the defensive fighting for their lives. But the absence of any great threat far in their rear to the West enabled Germany to keep enormous forces along the long Eastern making the Soviets pay dearly for every acre of ground recaptured. Again and again the beleaguered war-weary Joseph Stalin badgered Roosevelt and Churchill with one persistent question: When does this war get a second front?
Stalin had good reason to ask. He and his people were convinced that they had, so far, done most of the hard work, heavy lifting, and shedding of blood in the fight against Germany. By early 1944 US deaths in the ETO (European theatre of Operations) could be counted in the tens of thousands. Russian losses, both civilian and military, could be counted in the millions. Stalin was more than ready for his allies in the West to step up to the plate and do their share. In early June 1944, as far as Stalin was concerned, the US and Britain had not yet entered the fight.
It was universally understood that both the Italian campaign and the strategic bombing of Germany from the air, regardless of how well these efforts went, would be sideshows. The big show in the West, the decisive campaign that would drive the allied dagger into the heart of Nazi Germany would be “boots on the ground” in Northern France launched from bases in nearby England-a second front. It was simply a matter of time.
The Germans were well aware of this as well. And so they prepared for the invasion that was sure to come. Their most famous and respected General, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the “desert fox” was sent to northern France to oversee the construction of defenses there. Month after month he worked twelve hour days visiting beach after beach directing the construction of massive concrete fortifications, pillboxes, and the placement of hundreds of thousands of mines in a colossal effort to turn back the invasion with a deadly reception on the beaches.
After being assured by his weather consultants that uncooperative weather would prevent an allied landing, an exhausted Rommel finally took a break and hopped in a staff car to make the long drive to visit his wife in Germany on her birthday- June 6.
For the Allies, careful, meticulous planning was also an absolute necessity. For a year or so prior to June 6, the US had been sending men and material to England. In most towns and villages in the southern part of that country, US servicemen outnumbered the English. They waited and they trained. Mostly they trained. Day after day ships from the states unloaded cargoes of men and material. Everyone knew what it was for-the invasion of continental Europe.
Yet only a handful of top allied planners knew exactly where on the long coast of Northern France the invasion force would land. This was top secret and closely guarded. If the Germans discovered this and were able to prepare accordingly, a crucial aspect of the element of surprise would be lost and the invasion likely doomed to failure. The Germans must be kept guessing.
Hitler and his staff thought that they knew. For a variety of reasons, including the counsel of Hitler’s astrologers, they were convinced that the invasion would occur in the Pas de Calais in Northeastern part of France. A crack German army was sent there in early 1944. Nevertheless, Hitler was persuaded by prudent advisors to place German airfields and several highly mobile panzer divisions in reserve within a reasonable striking distance of the entire coastline. Mostly they would count on their tanks, the Luftwaffe, or German air force, was only a shadow of what it had once been.
Rommel was forced to do the best he could with what he had. With the bulk of the Wehrmacht or German army tied down in the East, nearly all of the German divisions in the West were under strength. And so he had to deploy his forces wisely.
Rommel was not only dissatisfied with the quantity of forces at his disposal, the quality of those forces was a problem as well. Quite simply Germany was running out of manpower. Along the coast of Northern France many units were filled with teenagers belonging to the “Hitlerjungen” or Hitler youth- ideologically pure but mere boys. Other units were filled with the former wounded and sickly. Others were filled with old men. It was not unusual to view in a group of German prisoners on or after D-Day a sixty-five year old man standing next to a fifteen year old posing next to a twenty-five year old with a patch over one eye and a hand missing. The Germans were scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel. They would be no match for American units of well trained, highly motivated college aged young men at the peak of their physical powers.
Even worse (from the German view) were the “Ost” or East units along the coast filled with men who spoke little or no German who nevertheless wore the German uniform, Russian POWs who had been given a choice: serve the Fuhrer and be fed or sit in a POW camp and slowly starve to death. So they chose the former. But reliable they were not. When the going got tough German leaders feared that they would throw up their arms and embrace the POW status once again-this time as prisoners of the Americans or British where they were likely to be fed, and treated well. Still it was worth a try: they just might fight long enough to keep the Yanks or Brits off the beach. A Russian in a pillbox sitting behind a machinegun on the day of the invasion was better than an unmanned pillbox. Would they fight or immediately surrender? This and a thousands other questions kept the Field Marshall up at night.
The biggest question of all was exactly when the invasion would come. Even Dwight Eisenhower at SHAEF headquarters did not know. It would be weather dependent. The English channel could be treacherous, even in early June. TO send the invasion armada out in bad weather would invite disaster. A few centuries before the Spanish Armada had found out the hard way.
Most of us know that the weather cooperated and the invasion did finally come on June 6 and it was a great success. Our boys landed not at Pas de Calais but at Normandy even though Hitler and his closest planners for several days, astonishingly, refused to believe that the business at Normandy was anything more than a diversion.
Over the years some prominent historians such as Richard Overy, have doubted that D-Day was as important as we have been told. They maintain that the war in the East was what really decided things and spelled the end for Nazi Germany.
There is some justification for this view. Without question, the biggest part of the German war effort was in the East. Two thirds of the German soldiers who died in WW II died there. The biggest land battles of the war, Stanlingrad and Kursk, were on the Eastern Front. Compared to these colossal struggles, darn near anything that occurred in the West, with the exception of the battle of the Bulge, was a much smaller affair. Due to the severe depletion of manpower and material in the East, the Germans had little left to fight a big war in the West. The German who fought the American and Englishman in the West, in this view, was a warrior already weak from a severe loss of blood in the East. By rights the laurels of victory belonged to the hard fighting Russians, not to any English or French speaking warriors. The warriors of the Soviet Union did the lion’s share of the dirty work and the Americans and their partners simply moved in for the final coup de gras.
Historian Stephen Ambrose had a huge problem with this view. He believed that total victory and the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany would never have been possible without a second front. Though Stalin had given assurances to Roosevelt and Churchill that such thing would never occur, Allied leaders were scared that an impatient and exhausted Stalin could have parlayed for a separate peace, a cessation of hostilities not unlike the Armistice of 1918. A non-agression pact had existed between the two nations from 1939 to 1941, and though they were bitter enemies, there was plenty of reason to believe that the Germans would have surrendered all of the conquered Russian territory and simply returned to the positions of 1939, a move that would have assured the survival of Nazi Germany and freed up dozens of crack, battle hardened divisions to travel West to reinforce their comrades already in place in Northern France. This would surely have doomed any hope of a successful invasion. This was a real possibility, Ambrose argued, a persistent fear that haunted American and British planners. They trusted comrade Stalin as far as they could throw him.
They could not forget something very important: in 1917 the Russians had given up, abandoned the fight against Germany and gone home to fight among themselves. Overnight, the Germans suddenly had a manageable situation. Massive reinforcements were sent to the Western front. The two front war became a one-front war-all to Germany’s advantage. And so the war dragged on another year only to end in an unsatisfactory truce. And even that would not have occurred if the US had not joined the fight.
Well, allied leaders reasoned, this could happen again.
There was no time to lose. To prevent a separate peace in the East, a successful invasion in the West had to take place as soon as possible. To the Americans and British, any sort of armistice, cease fire or negotiated terms with Nazi Germany was completely unacceptable. A commitment to the unconditional surrender of Germany had been made early in 1943 at Casablanca in North Africa and they were sticking to it. There would be no repeat of the mistakes of 1918 and the Versailles Treaty.
In short, it is possible that the European half of World War Two could have ended without a second front in the West. It was NOT necessary for a truce or armistice, or cessation of hostilities. That could have, and indeed, probably would have occurred in the East without the second front. But….Nazi Germany would have survived-a most unsatisfactory conclusion to the war, not what we were fighting for, not why we were “over there.”
To Stephen Ambrose the importance of D-Day, June 6, cannot be overstated. It was the decisive day of the European war, the real beginning of the end for Germany. It meant a two front war, something Germany could not sustain. At the end of what is often called “the longest day”, the worst fears of sensible German planners and strategists had come to fruition. They were doomed and they knew it. A few weeks later a large group of desperate German officers knowing of the bitter future that awaited their nation if something wasn’t done quickly, sponsored an attempt on the life of Hitler. They almost succeeded.
Tonight I watched a TV special narrated by journalist Brian Williams as he followed and reminisced with four aged veterans at the Normandy coast. One had been a paratrooper, one a sailor and the other two soldiers on the scene that fateful day. Mostly these old fellows spoke of the comrades that didn’t survive the hard business of that day and they strolled teary eyed through rows of crosses in the carefully maintained US cemetery above “Omaha” beach, a place this writer wants to visit someday.
When Eisenhower gave the orders to proceed late on June 5 and unleashed that mighty force against the enemy held French coast, it was all out of his hands and up to these fellows- paratroopers of the British 1st airborne and the US 101st and 82nd divisions, sailors of the US and British Navy, soldiers of the US 1st, 4th, and 29th Infantry divisions, and many more British, Canadians, and Free French forces. It was up to them to take that thirty mile long beach away from Axis forces and hold it firmly until more men and material could arrive. And more. And more. Until Germany felt the full wrath of an aroused democracy. It was the common soldier, young men mostly in their early twenties that accomplished it, that got the job done and opened the much-needed second front in the West. Until this was accomplished, there was good reason to believe that Nazi Germany, in one form or another, could and probably would, survive. By the end of the day on June 6 there was good reason to believe that Nazi Germany was doomed. D-Day made all the difference.