HISTORY OF D-DAY
Why has D-Day captured the imagination of American consciousness for over three-quarters of a century?
Seventy-nine years ago, on June 6, 1944, the Allies launched an offensive on the Normandy coast of France to liberate continental Europe from the Nazi German occupation. On Twitter, the hashtag is #DDay79
D-Day was the largest invasion by sea in all of history, literally turning the tide. It was the beginning of the end of the War. General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, sent the troops out that day:
“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle.”
Progress of D-Day Campaign
Within two months, the 77-day Normandy campaign led to the liberation of France and, in less than a year, to the defeat of the Nazi forces and the end of World War II in Europe. Between these two events, my father visited Paris while his US Army division was moving through France toward the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
This amphibious invasion described as a “never surpassed masterpiece of planning” was called Operation Neptune, part of the larger Operation Overlord, the continental lodgment that began with these Normandy landings. The landing by sea was preceded by 24,000 troops by air, including British, US, and Canadian airborne troops, shortly after midnight.
- Utah & Omaha (US)
- Sword & Gold (British)
- Juno (Canadian)
Ahead of the landing, Eisenhower told the troops:
“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 blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
Omaha was renowned for the heavy casualties American troops suffered — over 2,000 — due to the tall cliffs with strong German defense, limited Allied naval gun bombardment, and the low cloud cover that made aerial bombing difficult and ultimately too late to eliminate German beach defenses. While the Germans lost 1,000 men during the D-Day invasion, Allied casualties were much higher, with 12,000, including over a third confirmed dead.
Anticipation of D-Day
German Field Marshall Rommel thought that the Normandy coastline might be an attack point and constructed several concrete “pillbox” gun emplacements along the Atlantic coast there. He involved other obstacles, including metal tripods, embedded wooden stakes, and anti-tank emplacements on the beach to slow down any amphibious assault craft and delay tank movement on the beach.
D-Day has been commemorated in books, films, and television.
Some of the best-known books include two by American author Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II and his Band of Brothers.
The fifth volume of Winston Churchill’s six-volume memoir “The Second World War” covers the War’s climax from the British perspective. Churchill’s sixth and final volume, Triumph and Tragedy, concludes the history with the Normandy invasion to the surrender of the Japanese, ending WWII in the Pacific.
It was the first movie made about the Normandy invasion, filmed in 1962. It starred a host of international stars, including Richard Burton, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and (a pre-James Bond) Sean Connery.
Half a century later, the best film of the current generation is the 1998 Spielberg/Hanks-produced drama Saving Private Ryan. The film depicts the landing at Normandy beach as violent, frightening, and intense — too upsetting for some viewers.
Many years ago, while I was a student at Berkeley, I met James Doohan on campus, who played Scotty on Star Trek. He wrote a letter to Stephen Spielberg after seeing the film. He shared with Spielberg that he was an officer with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division who landed on Juno Beach, after which he was hit six times by machine-gun fire and lost the middle finger of his right hand. He wanted to publicly thank him and say that the film’s depiction was utterly accurate and commended him for not leaving out any gory details.
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother
The miniseries describes the movement of the 101st Airborne Division, E Company, through their jump training, initial landing at Normandy, and their exploits across Europe, where they intersected with my father’s 42nd “Rainbow” Division, E Company, at Dachau in Episode 9 “Why We Fight.” This episode was introduced on HBO’s original website with my father’s story.
I was in Paris several years ago during the weeks-long 70th commemoration of this battle that ultimately led to the restoration of the French Republic. We have the French to thank for their help over 230 years ago in our own War of Independence — for their money, troops, and navy.
We had never seen in one day a naval invasion of the scale of D-Day. I hope we never shall again.
Reflection on D-Day
Saving Private Ryan begins and ends with Ryan’s visit to the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer, France. As he kneels at the cross of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), he wonders aloud if he has lived a life sufficiently worthy and earned the sacrifice of the lives of six of Miller’s squad to return him safely home. This is, to be sure, not the right question; it’s not the response to the blood spilled on his behalf. Instead, the proper response is to be grateful… the gratitude that viewers of the film are encouraged to have, echoing the letter recited by General Marshall to Ryan’s mother at the end of the movie:
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian