D-Day, plus 75 years

by | June 6, 2019 10:30 am

Last Updated: June 5, 2019 at 3:12 pm

by ERIC HOGAN, Tybee Island

It is somewhat bittersweet as I write to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the single, most important day of the 20th Century, June 6, 1944 – D-Day. World War II was the most important event of the 20th Century and D-Day was the most important day of World War II.

The outcome of this war against Germany and Japan, the bloodiest event in human history, determined whether the second half of the 20th Century would be dominated by the expansion of human freedom and democracy, or tyranny and repression.

The unyielding effect of time now dictates that as the 75th-anniversary date of this monumental event approaches, only a tiny handful of D-Day veterans remain alive who can bear witness to their personal experiences on that decisive day.

June 6, 1944, was the day it would be determined, or not, whether the allies could successfully execute by far the largest and most risky, amphibious invasion in military history and establish a strong, secure beachhead in Normandy on the northern coast of France. And from there, they would begin the liberation of Western Europe and the final defeat of Nazi Germany.

The D-Day Invasion (Code name–OPERATION OVERLORD) was a massive undertaking involving over 5,000 ships ranging from battleships to troop carriers and nine combat divisions of roughly 175,000 troops who would be sent into action on the first day. Five of the combat divisions were American, the 1st, 4th, and 29th Infantry divisions, and the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. Three British and one Canadian division comprised the rest of the initial combat force.

The planning for this huge and daring operation had not been easy. From the beginning, the British had not been enthusiastic about the idea of a direct assault on the heavily defended French coast. France had surrendered to the Nazis in 1940, so the Germans had almost four years to work on defense preparations and this had kicked into high gear in 1944 under the command of the famed Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

The British apprehension clearly illustrated the difference in strategy between American and British planners. With more limited resources as a nation, the Brits had been at war since September 1939, and had become more war-weary and risk-averse. They were horrified at the thought that a cross channel amphibious invasion could turn into a disaster for the allies. On the other hand, the American high command was convinced the only way to keep the war from dragging on indefinitely was to launch a massive assault against the German coastal defenses and speed up the necessary destruction of the Nazi army.

President Roosevelt had appointed General (and future President) Dwight Eisenhower to command the Allied Expeditionary Force. However, by early winter of 1944, Ike had become so frustrated with what he perceived as lack of British co-operation that he was openly complaining. An alarmed President Roosevelt, seriously concerned about the future of the Normandy operation, sent a strong protest to Winston Churchill. Wisely recognizing that a fractured alliance would be foolish, Churchill sent the word up and down the British command, “co-operate or get out of the way.”

As part of the planning for the D-Day invasion, the allies cleverly created what became the greatest “intelligence” deception of the war. This deception was possible because early in the war, the British had broken the German military code known as ‘Ultra,” thus the allies diligently monitored most German coded military communication.

Through “Ultra,” General Eisenhower learned that the allied commander was most feared by the Germans because of his daring and aggressive tactics was General George Patton. The Germans fully expected General Patton to be the commander of any invasion of France.

However, Patton was not going to be the commander of the cross channel assault against Normandy. Instead, command of American forces at Normandy was given to General Omar Bradley, who had been Patton’s deputy commander in Sicily and North Africa. Patton lost his cool while visiting the wounded in a field hospital during the Sicily campaign and slapped a couple of able-bodied GI’s and accused them of cowardice. The American media got wind of the story and turned it into a full-fledged scandal. Several reporters even demanded that Patton be relieved of duty and sent home.

Despite the press, the allied high command knew that Patton was too valuable to the war effort to be sent home. They also knew that Patton would be punished by not being given command of the invasion, but the Germans did not. And to the Germans, not using your best battlefield commander because he slapped some scared soldiers would be unthinkable.

So the allies decided to play on German fears and use Patton as a decoy. A fictitious army group was created under Patton and located at Dover, which is the closest English city to the French coast at Calais. The deception was made convincing by numerous troop movements through Dover, setting up several major radio transmitting stations to produce constant radio traffic and, amazingly, the deployment of hundreds of inflatable rubber tanks, trucks, and other motorized vehicles that appeared completely authentic when photographed from a few thousand feet by German reconnaissance aircraft.

The idea was to make the Germans believe that General Patton was commanding the real invasion force that would attack across the narrowest part of the English Channel and land in the Calais area. The effectiveness of this great deception was born out on D-Day, when Hitler and the German high command refused to rush two Panzer Divisions stationed near Calais to counter attack against the Normandy beachhead when they potentially could have turned the tide of battle.

Only after 48 hours did the Germans finally realize that Normandy was the real invasion and not a decoy, and there would be no Patton attack against Calais. But by then, enough allied armor had been brought ashore to mount a strong defense against German Panzer tanks.

The invasion date was originally set for June 5, but on June 2, the allied weather forecasters told Eisenhower that a storm was brewing in the notoriously rough English Channel. On June 4, after thousands of soldiers had already begun loading onto ships, the weather forecast was so bad that Ike had no choice but to postpone the invasion for one day and pray that the weather would improve.

Because of the effect of the tides and moon on the Normandy coast, if the invasion had to be postponed again from June 6, it would be another month before conditions would again be favorable. Ike dreaded the thought of another postponement because he thought it would depress the morale of the troops that were primed and ready to go, and he worried about maintaining secrecy and security for another month.

Perhaps it was divine intervention, but on June 5, the weathermen reported to Ike that the weather should moderate for just a few days. Not ideal conditions, but probably manageable. It was a tough and risky decision to make, but Ike gave the invasion order with two words, “Let’s Go.”

Beginning at 11 p.m. on the evening of June 5, the American and British Airborne divisions began loading into planes for their parachute drop behind enemy lines all along the Normandy coast. The marginal weather badly scattered the paratroopers, but that actually worked out fine because it seemed to completely confuse the Germans as to what the allied targets and objectives were.

The Airborne troops did their job well. They captured and held vital bridges on the roads to the coast before the Germans could destroy them. These bridges would be needed for the allied armies to advance into France. They set up strong defensive positions on both flanks of the Normandy beachhead to stop or delay any German counter attack that attempted to drive the allies off the beaches. And by dawn of June 6, the first French town of St. Mere Eglise had been liberated by the 82nd Airborne.

There were five invasion beaches along the Normandy coast, code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Utah and Omaha were the American beaches; Gold and Sword were British; and Juno was Canadian.

By pure chance and good luck, the wind and currents took the first waves of American landing craft headed for Utah Beach about one mile south of their intended landing zone to an area right between more formidable German defenses. General Teddy Roosevelt  Jr., son of the former president, famously surveyed the situation on the beach and declared, “We will start the war from here.” Roosevelt immediately ordered all successive waves diverted to his new beach position and boldly led his men off the lightly defended stretch of beach. By the end of the day, they were five miles inland and had linked up with units of the 82nd Airborne.

For his personal bravery and intrepid leadership, General Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sadly, he died of a heart attack on July 12, just over a month after the invasion, and is buried with his men at the American Military Cemetery in Normandy.

However, it was at Omaha Beach where the carnage was. The first 30 minutes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” graphically illustrated the bloody horror faced by the first waves of Americans to hit the beach at Omaha. The landing troops had to wade through a long stretch of beach without cover that ran into a sandy bluff that was 100 feet high in places. The Germans had the vitally important high ground, in addition to substantial manpower and firepower advantages, all of which created an almost impossible task for the Americans.

Allied planners had convinced themselves that heavy bombing by the 8th Air Force and a massive pre-invasion naval bombardment could neutralize most of the German beach defenses. But, most of this missed their targets; probably handicapped by the marginal weather.

The Omaha landing degenerated into a virtual suicide mission against overwhelming odds. One of the brave officers on the beach, Colonel George Taylor, implored his men to get moving and attack by yelling at them, “There are only two kinds of men on this beach, those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now, let’s get the hell off this beach.” Several American Navy destroyers, observing the chaos and confusion on the beach, decided to expose themselves to German artillery fire by charging in close to the beach so they could more accurately aim their 5” guns on German defenses. One destroyer even ran aground in this valiant attempt to give fire support to the men desperately struggling on the beach.

Omaha Beach was the landing beach between the British and Canadian beaches to the east and the American Utah Beach to the west. Had the landing at Omaha failed and the Americans been pushed back into the channel, the Germans would have successfully split the Normandy invasion in two. Such an outcome would probably have doomed the allied strategy to fortify the beachhead with men and material in preparation for the planned attack across France.

For half a day, the fate of Omaha was in grave doubt. But by late afternoon, the Americans had defied the odds and were a mile inland. Omaha Beach is a glorious example of what motivated American soldiers under the greatest of duress are capable of doing when they know that losing is not an option.   

On the morning of June 6, 1944, President Roosevelt gave a nationwide radio address to the country. He called for a “National Day of Prayer.” The Normandy invasion had already begun and the president had received the first action reports before he gave his memorable prayer to the nation that day. This is how his prayer started:

“Almighty God, our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor; a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.”

That day, tens of millions of Americans all across the country stopped what they were doing and went to their local church or synagogue to pray for their family members in harms way.

With the element of surprise and despite over 10,000 casualties, the Normandy beachhead was successfully established by the allies. By August, General Patton’s 3rd army was leading the drive across France and moving faster and further than any other military unit in American history. And on August 25, Paris was liberated in what some have called “the happiest day of the 20th Century.”

To reflect back to this time period and take note of the almost inconceivable, unrelenting pace of operations is absolutely breathtaking.

On June 5, 1944, Rome was liberated by the Americans, and in the Pacific there were three American amphibious invasions in the Mariana Islands in rapid succession–Saipan on June 15, Guam on July 21, and Tinian on July 24. The American “Arsenal of Democracy” was on full display.

It is imperative that we, as Americans, remember and appreciate the honor, bravery, and sacrifice that our forefathers demonstrated during these perilous times. And equally important, full appreciation of this noble heritage must be passed to the next generation of Americans by our educational system and improve museums and institutions of American history.

So this coming June 6, I encourage you to do what I’m going to do. Enjoy your favorite libation and toast to the “Greatest Generation”—and remember the immortal words of President Reagan at the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984.

He was standing in front of the Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc speaking to the veterans of the Ranger battalion that had executed one of the most dangerous missions of D-Day. They had climbed the 100 feet tall cliffs at Pointe du Hoc and captured powerful German guns that could have targeted both Omaha and Utah Beach.

President Reagan looked at them with tears in his eyes and said, “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,. These are the men who scaled the cliffs. These are the champions who liberated a continent.”

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