Major Pluskat of the Wermacht (German Army) was bored. Day after day in the concrete bunker overlooking the Normandy Beach he had lifted his binoculars and searched the English Channel for ships-nothing. Anything to ease the monotony of his posting would have been welcome. For months now he had submitted the same mundane report to his superiors. The war was elsewhere, he concluded, not here. He sat down, rubbed the fur of his faithful German shepherd and took pen in hand to write the same message. “Nothing of any interest in my sector. No enemy activity that we can detect. All is quiet.” But on this morning, June 6, he paused before his pen touched the paper. Something inside him, a strange feeling, an odd sort of impulse, told him to look again. As he did so, peering intently out the narrow slit opening of that bunker carved into the cliff overlooking the Normandy beach at the vast expanse of water he noticed something odd. A ship, far away on the horizon, hovered like a mirage in the mist. Pluskat blinked and looked again. It didn’t go away but stayed floating and dreamlike. Then another appeared beside it. And another. And another. Transfixed, he saw the misty fog lift and the entire horizon magically filled with ships of every shape, size, and description, too many to count. He blinked again and again to make sure he wasn’t imagining it. His eyes wide and his mouth agape, Pluskat turned to his aide, a sleepy lieutenant who had just awakened and tumbled into the chair at the small table where they did their work and drank their morning coffee. He gasped: “Die Invasion!”
He was right. June 6, 1944 was D-Day, or as author Cornelius Ryan put it, ”The Longest Day.” It would be a day like no other. In the ETO, the European Theatre of Operations, the long anticipated second front was about to become a reality.
It had been a secret like no other, the un-secret-secret. Everyone, from the highest-ranking general to the lowliest private knew an invasion was coming. The allies were going to invade the Northern coast of continental Europe, German-occupied territory, from England where, it was also well-known, immense and unprecedented preparations were being made, the massing and training of hundreds of thousands of troops, American, Canadian, English, Free French and others representing those nations opposing the Third Reich. There was no secret about any of that. England had become a massive armed camp poised like a wound-up spring ready to strike continental Europe.
The big secret was just where along the long stretch of Northern European coastline they would land. Would they land along the long Normandy coastline, where the distance across the channel was the longest, or would they land further to the Northeast, on that place known as the Pas de Calais where the distance between England and the continent was shorter? It was also the shortest route to the heart of Germany. Hitler was quite sure that Pas de Calais was the place. He was certain of this because, so we’re told, his astrologers had told him. Other German leaders weren’t so sure. Quite simply they could only guess as to where the allies would land. Would they land at Pas de Calais or Normandy? It had to be one of these two places. Other spots along the coast were unsuitable.
An elaborate ruse was designed to keep the Germans guessing, or better still, to keep them looking in the wrong direction. In Southeastern England a phantom army gathered, a mighty force of canvas tanks, trucks, and planes, thousands of them, neatly arranged in long neat rows upon vast fields surrounded by high security fences and carefully guarded by soldiers with guns and dogs. Viewed from the air or even from a few hundred yards on the ground it all looked quite real, as if supplies were being gathered in the logical place for an allied landing at Pas de Calais. In dozens of other ways the deception was heightened, even to the point of putting General George Patton and his headquarters in the area as if he were commanding troops there, something that Patton resented; he wanted to command a real army, not a paper army. Yet if the truth be known, it is likely that the humiliating months Patton spent in this elaborate charade may have been the most valuable service he performed in the war.
Only a few dozen high-ranking allied officers knew the real secret, just where the invasion would occur, and they were under the strictest of orders to keep quiet outside official meetings. One of these officers, an American general, had a little too much to drink at a London restaurant one evening in March and started talking loudly about future “operations on the Normandy beach.” A junior officer sitting nearby overheard his remarks and filed a complaint. Within hours that general was sitting in a jail cell. Hearing of this Eisenhower himself came to visit the man, who, by this time, was sober and very sorry for the indiscretion. He begged his old West Point classmate for mercy. But Ike was firm. Get packed,” Ike said to him. “You’re going home.” Now that’s leadership-no good ole boys club-no WPPA, (West Point Protection Association). It was not a time for sweet deals; too much was at stake. The man went home in disgrace.
Still, that general was lucky. If he had committed such an indiscretion under Hitler or Stalin, he would very likely have been shot or given a cyanide tablet. If he had been Japanese, he would have been instructed to use his hari-kari knife on himself.
It seems now that the Germans were indeed fooled. Despite the many dots that they could have connected or clues that they could have sorted out to confirm a Normandy invasion location ( prior to June 6), the German High command never wavered from the belief that the invasion would come at Pas-de-Calais. Astonishingly enough, they clung to this belief for several days after June 6, holding fast to the notion that the attack at Normandy was merely a diversion! Unlike Major Pluskat they weren’t out there on the beach to actually lay eyes on the invasion force. They were far away, trying to make sense of the dozens of reports from excited officers landing on their desks. Why the German High Command, in spite of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, couldn’t get away from the “Pas de Calais” site until it was too late, remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the war. Patton’s phantom army, it seems, performed splendidly.
Hitler’s general on the spot, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, one of the best known and loved military leaders in all Germany, the hero of the extinct Afrika Corps, sure wished he knew the invasion location. It would have made his job much easier. As it was, he had been working tirelessly since the Fall of 1943, eighteen hours a day, non-stop, directing and inspecting defensive preparations along the entire long coastline doing all that he could to arrange a warm fiery welcome for the allies. Many of his colleagues believed that the key to it all was to have reserve panzer units strategically positioned to come to the aid of any coastal defense unit that got into trouble. Rommel disagreed. The fight would be won or lost on the beaches. He insisted upon more mines, more concrete, bigger gun emplacements, more beach obstacles, and on and on. The “Atlantic Wall” that he constructed was impressive, unprecedented. But would it be strong enough, and strong enough in the right places? The reserve panzer units could only be released upon the orders of Hitler himself. Hitler was too far away. Rommel knew that by the time Hitler officially released the tanks, it would be too late and an allied beach-head would be secure. They had to be stopped on the beaches. Rommel was reported to have said that the day of the invasion would be: “the longest day.”
There was another perplexing matter. This nobody knew. When. When would the invasion take place? Even Dwight Eisenhower, the commander of SHAEF, Strategic Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force , the man who would ultimately give the all-important order, wasn’t quite sure. There were a number of possible dates, days when the tides and the moon would be just right, matters crucial to the paratroopers who would be the first wave. But just which of those dates would depend on the weather forecast. The English Channel could be a monster. In order for the men to hit the beach, the thousands of vessels transporting and supporting them, transports, destroyers, battleships, cruisers, and dozens of other varieties, would have be able to deliver them to the beach. The choppier the water, the worse it would be for all involved. A stormy rough channel could doom the invasion. The high command worried that their men might drown before they ever reached the beach.
In late May, troops began boarding docked transport vessels all along the heavily guarded, high security southern English coast. When the ships were full they just sat there and waited. And it rained and rained. The boats tossed and bobbed on the water and hundreds of thousands of seasick, anxious, bored men waited and waited while miles away, their supreme commander worried and smoked cigarette after cigarette hoping and praying for a positive weather forecast. A date for launching was set and then, when the weather worsened, it was postponed. But “Ike” knew that the waiting couldn’t go on much longer.
Among other worries, there was the matter of security. So far, the massing of men and material in this part of England, something that would surely have given away the destination of the invading force, had remained a secret. But a set of loose lips or perhaps the probing of one eager German spy (such as Die Nadle- see the book and movie, THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE), would tip the Germans off to the biggest secret of the war and the success of the invasion would be jeopardized. So much was at stake.
But finally, early in the evening of June 5, an Scottish weatherman brought Ike the news he’d been waiting for: there would be a break in the weather. The storm clouds and high winds over the channel would depart for awhile, a brief window of opportunity. With his staff gathered round Ike surveyed their faces and asked for their opinions. Though one or two dissented, the majority grimly nodded. “I don’t like it, but there it is. The order must be given.” said Ike, swallowing hard. And so it was.
Ike arose from the table, and not knowing what else to do with himself, ordered his driver to take him out to a nearby airfield where the men of the newly organized 101st Airborne Division (paratroopers) were already lining up to board the C-47 planes that would take them over the channel and from which they would eject themselves to land behind enemy lines in the early morning darkness. Their job? First, they were to seize key bridges and vital crossroads in order to make it difficult for the Germans to get reinforcements to the beaches. And second, they would provide a noisy diversion to draw enemy forces and attention away from the big event that was soon to occur a few miles away on the beaches. Ike was worried about these men most of all. He walked among the men, shaking hands and offering encouragement with the knowledge that even if things went better than expected, many of those he spoke to would be dead soon. But that’s what a general does. He orders young men to their deaths. It goes with the job and there’s no avoiding it.
As everyone knows now, the invasion was a success. June 6, 1944, D-Day, “Operation Overlord”, the invasion of Normandy in Northern France was the turning point of the European war, the decisive battle that sealed the fate of Germany’s “Third Reich.” Many thousands of brave men and women made it possible. And for thousands, it was to be their last.
Some, such as British historian Richard Overy, have disputed the importance of D-Day. He claims, as many others before him have done, that it was on the Eastern front that Germany lost the war, at places such as Stalingrad and Kursk. This is not a fallacious argument. True enough, two thirds of the German soldiers that died in the war died on the “Eastern Front.” In Russia, Germany experienced a long hard war of attrition as the Soviets recovered from their initial defeats and slowly but surely pushed the Germans away from the outskirts of Moscow and forced them into a gradual long retreat over a thousand mile front. For Germany the war in the East was a disaster.
Nevertheless, as historian Stephen Ambrose reminded us in his book on D-Day, until D-Day, and the “second front” there was always the chance that the war-weary Joseph Stalin would make a separate peace with Hitler. Despite the cordiality that the photos of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin implied, we now know that Roosevelt and Churchill trusted Stalin as “far as they could throw him.” They were well aware of who and what he was, a dictatorial tyrant without a shred of decency, a man similar to Herr Hitler in all the worst ways who craved world domination with equal measure. Their pact with Stalin was simply a marriage of convenience, a “deal with the devil.” They knew that despite any assurances he might give them, if they didn’t open a second front in due time, he would probably, on his own, without the permission or approval of his two “Big Three” colleagues, make a separate peace with Hitler and thus ensure the survival of Nazi Germany, something intolerable to the nations of Western Europe.
June 6, 1944 was, in the view of Mr. Ambrose, the most decisive day of the war simply because it made that separate peace and the survival of Nazi Germany impossible, or at the very least, highly improbable. With the opening of the “Second Front” Germany was placed in an impossible position, in a terrible vice grip between two determined and well equipped enemies, a position from which Germany could not escape.
We must remember that the famous “Officer’s Plot,” the attempt to assassinate Hitler, came a few weeks AFTER D-Day, an attempt on the part of sensible, high-ranking German officers, including Rommel himself, to get rid of Hitler so that they, with the delusional leader out of the way, could negotiate with the allies for a cease-fire. Unlike their fanatical, out-of-touch leader, they could now clearly see that the war was lost, that it was just a matter of time before enemy ground forces entered their “Fatherland”, something that had not occurred in the First World War. They surely didn’t want it to come to that. But, the assassination attempt failed and Hitler lived on for a few more terrible months.
D-Day made the difference. I’m convinced that the June 6, Battle for the Normandy beach was the most important day of the European war, the principal hinge upon which the entire European war turned.
Years later Major Pluskat, who had seen with his own eyes the vast armada of ships moving toward him, told author Cornelius Ryan that he knew at that moment that the war was lost. If only his Fuhrer had come to his senses and done the same, many millions of lives would have been saved. But Hitler, by this time very alone and likely mentally ill, would remain alive in a bunker in Berlin until the bitter end in early May, 1945. But D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, eleven months earlier, was the beginning of the end.