-By Jeff Olson
Attempting to appropriately honor an event the magnitude of D-Day in only a single article is futile at best, but this should suffice not only as a concise reminder of history’s largest and most consequential amphibious military operation but also as a sobering reminder of the high cost of freedom. In addition, I hope this missive may serve as an impetus to inspire you to learn more because within this epic event can be found individual acts of courage and sacrifice unsurpassed in the annals of human endeavor and military history. And, I think you also will discover that there was much more than just humanity and circumstances involved. As expressed in a prayer offered by Lt Col Robert L. Wolverton to his battalion shortly before the D-Day parachute drop behind enemy lines. It reads in part, “God almighty, in a few short hours we will be in battle with the enemy. We do not join battle afraid. We do not ask favors or indulgence but ask that, if You will, use us as Your instrument for the right and an aid in returning peace to the world.” Soon thereafter he was killed by German machine gun fire in an orchard outside Saint-Come-du-Mont, Normandy, France.
After France fell to the Nazis in 1940 during World War II, the idea of an Allied invasion of Western Europe began to develop. The Allies understood that in order for the Germans to be soundly defeated they would have to eventually be driven back to their homeland. The decision to undertake a cross-channel invasion was addressed at the Trident Conference in May 1943. At the Quebec Conference in August 1943, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt accepted the initial draft of the plan, which was code-named Overlord. The decision to mount the invasion was cemented at the Teheran Conference held in November and December 1943.
Dwight D. Eisenhower described the assemblage of Allied forces in Britain for the D-Day invasion of northern France as “a great human spring, coiled for the moment when its energy would be released and it would vault the English Channel in the greatest amphibious assault ever attempted.” Seventy-five years ago this week, that assault occurred on the beaches of Normandy. The Normandy campaign involved 39 Allied divisions, totaling over one million military personnel, including the combined forces of 156,115 U.S., British and Canadian troops, 6,939 ships and landing vessels, 13,000 aircraft and 867 gliders that delivered airborne troops. Those crossing the English Channel faced German forces well-fortified across a 60-mile front.
The invasion was originally set for Monday, June 5, but bad weather and rough seas forced a delay. On the morning of June 5, Eisenhower, assured by his chief meteorologist of a break in the weather, announced, “O.K. We’ll Go.” In his message, sent just, prior to the invasion, the general told the troops, “…You are about to embark upon a great crusade…The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you….you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely….I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory! Good luck, and let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
Minesweepers had gone ahead to clear the water and paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines to capture bridges and railroad tracks. At dawn, June 6, 1944, battleships opened fire on the beaches and at 6:30 am troops from America, Great Britain, Canada and France stormed ashore releasing that tense coiled spring that the General described. One commander told his men that only two types of people would stay on the beach, those dead and those going to die, so they had better push forward – and push forward they did!
At D-Day’s end, all five landing beaches had been secured and at a cost of approximately 10,000 Allied casualties, including more than 4,400 dead. By the end of June 11, 326,547 troops, 54,186 vehicles and 104,428 tons of supplies had been landed on the beaches. In addition to the troops who landed in Normandy on D-Day and those in supporting roles at sea and in the air, hundreds of thousands more men and women in the Allied countries were involved in the preparations for D-Day. They played many different roles, both in the armed forces and as civilians.
By the end of July, Allied forces had broken through the German lines into open country thus establishing a toehold in northern Europe. The enemy’s retreat inland was underway, marking the beginning of the end for Nazis Germany. As stated during a D-Day anniversary some years back: “…so the men we are celebrating today and commemorating those dead are the people who not only liberated Europe but made possible the freedoms we all enjoy today.”