“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you…….. Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.” — Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6, 1944
67 Years ago the largest amphibious invasion in the history of the world took place on the coast of France at place called Normandy. The purpose of this invasion was to land an allied army in France with the objective to make the final push into Germany and defeat the Nazi war machine.
When some American, British, Canadian and French troops landed on the morning of June 6, 1944 Europe had been at war for 1,740 days and America for 912 days. Millions had already died at the hands of the Nazis as they occupied all of Europe and a large part of the Soviet Union.
The assault was conducted in two phases: an airborne assault landing of 24,000 British, American, Canadian and Free French airborne troops shortly after midnight, and an amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armored divisions on the coast of France commencing at 6:30 AM. There were also decoy operations mounted under the codenames Operation Glimmer and Operation Taxable to distract the German forces from the real landing areas.
The operation was the largest amphibious invasion in world history, with over 160,000 troops landing on 6 June 1944. 195,700 Allied naval and merchant navy personnel in over 5,000 ships were involved. The invasion required the transport of soldiers and material from the United Kingdom by troop-laden aircraft and ships, the assault landings, air support, naval interdiction of the English Channel and naval fire-support. The landings took place along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
Most of us have learned about the invasion of Normandy through book and films like “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan.” We have heard of the heroic actions of the 1st and 29th infantry divisions on Omaha Beach. We have seen reports and films of the American 82nd and 101st airborne divisions as they parachuted behind the German lines on the Cotentin Peninsula and the 6th British Airborne Division at the Orne River.
The planning for the Normandy invasion began shortly after the entry of the United States into WWII. The first thing President Roosevelt and General George C. Marshal had to do was select an Army officer who would oversee the planning and execution of the cross channel invasion. For this task they selected a relatively unknown colonel who at the times was working in war plans at the Pentagon — Dwight D. Eisenhower. Recognizing a talent for planning, a deep understanding of logistics and the ability to lead diverse teams Marshal picked Eisenhower to be the commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), the organization that would plan, coordinate and execute all allied military operations in Europe.
It was Eisenhower’s responsibility to develop a plan for the invasion of France and bring our allies with diverse objectives to together for a unified propose, in essence he was more politician and manager than battlefield general. He was more strategic than tactical.
For his task Eisenhower selected:
- Deputy Supreme Allied Commander: Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder
- Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (21st Army Group)
- Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley (12th Army Group)
- Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers (6th Army Group)
- Air Forces Commander: Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory
- Naval Forces Commander: Admiral Bertram Ramsay
On the night of June 4th, after two years of planning a buildup this leadership team met to decide whether or not to give the “go” signal for the troops who were already on the ships ready to set sail for their cross channel journey. The weather was terrible. It had been raining for two days and the seas were high. These conditions would ground the airborne toops and planes that would be needed to support the invasion. The high seas would weaken many of the troops with sea sickness. Eisenhower and his staff were well aware of this and he delayed the invasion for 24 hours.
Based on a briefing by his chief meteorologist, Commander Arnold Stagg of the RAF, Eisenhower would have to make the final decision. Stagg had a six-man team of meteorologists working for him, a team that never agreed on anything. The Telegraph reported in a recent article:
“The allies narrowly avoided postponing D-Day by a fortnight to a date when the weathermen would have given the go-ahead and the result would have been utter defeat in storm-tossed seas. No detailed account of the forecasts has been given in the media before.
Previous accounts relied on the interpretation of James Stagg, a Meteorological Office man seconded to the RAF. But he merely reported to Eisenhower the analyses of three two-man teams of forecasters from the Met Office, the United States military and the Royal Navy.
Only the Navy men, Lawrence Hogben and Geoffrey Wolfe, survive. Dr Hogben said: "We six never agreed about anything except that Stagg was not a good meteorologist and that he was a bit of a glory hound." The six worked for months before D-Day, perfecting forecasting techniques many of which are still in use.
"I don't think people realize how close run it was," Dr Hogben said. "Not much would have to have changed for D-Day to have been a failure, and a failure caused by the weather."
Mr Wolfe, 92, agreed: "It was bad enough when they landed on June 6, but it could have been a disaster."
Each team produced forecasts and Stagg tried to achieve consensus before reporting to Eisenhower.”
During the afternoon of June 5th Eisenhower called another meeting of his deputies and based on a revised weather report delivered by Stagg he decided to go forward with the invasion. This was no doubt the largest and most far reaching decision ever made by a general or politician. He had just taken total responsibility for the success or failure of the invasion. There would be no spinning or political cover if the invasion failed. It would be Eisenhower’s failure and his alone.
Eisenhower is known to have said; “plans are nothing; planning is everything.” He knew that once he set the invasion in motion he no longer had control of any part of it. The success now depended on the actions of the men in the boats and the paratroopers in the transport planes, men who had been training for this moment for two years. Eisenhower is quoted as stating; “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”
Many of these troopers had never seen combat before. In fact the entire 101st airborne division had never parachuted into a combat operation before D-Day. They were well trained, highly motivated and ready to go. There were men in the boats, who would be landing on the beaches under heavy enemy fire who had never seen combat. The ultimate success of the D-Day invasion now rested on their shoulders.
General Erwin Rommel had been preparing the defenses along the French Coast for two years. He had crack, battle hardened troops stationed there. He had armor divisions including SS panzer units. Many of these soldiers had fought in North Africa, Sicily and Russia. He had lined the coast with protected artillery, bunkers, pill boxes, steel barriers. His guns were sighted well to provide murderous crossfire on any troops landing on the beaches. He had flooded the fields behind the beaches to drown the paratroopers. He had cut down thousands trees to plant in the fields to thwart glider landings. He had made the French Coast into something Hitler called “Fortress Europe (festung Europa).”
The landings went better than expected with causalities less than predicted, especially for the airborne troops. Within hours the invasion forces had overrun Rommel’s defenses, with the exception of Omaha Beach where the men of the 1st and 29th divisions had landed. The heights above Omaha Beach were defended by the battle tested 352nd panzer grenadier division that had recently been moved to France from Russia.
The U.S. forces on Omaha Beach took a traffic beating from the murderous fire directed at them from the heights above the beach. They were pinned down for several hours and the causalities were mounting. Omar Bradley was getting very concerned as to the ability of the GIs to get off the beach. They had no tanks, like the other beaches had and they had to rely on ineffective artillery fire from the cruisers and destroyers off shore. In fact one destroyer got in so close that the captain risked grounding the ship so he could bring his guns to bear of targets he could see through the smoke. It looked like Rommel’s defenses would repel the men of the 1st and 29th divisions.
Two years of Rommel’s work and a crack German division held up the U.S. soldiers on Omaha Beach for five hours. By noon the troopers of the 1st and 29th had reached the heights behind Omaha Beach and were routing the Germans.
The late Stephen Ambrose attributed the success of the American troops to the characteristic imitative and ability to adapt of the American character. To paraphrase Ambrose, The German troops were products of the Hitler Youth were they were indoctrinated with Nazi ideology and trained to obediently follow orders while the Americans were products of the Boy Scouts.
Without the initiative and willingness to sacrifice for the ideals of liberty and their fellow man the invasion of Normandy would have failed. These men, often called members of the “Greatest Generation” were products of the great depression. Many had never been within 10 miles of their homes. They were not raised in the luxuries and entitlements we have today. Many had no more than an eighth grade education. But, they had one common belief and that was freedom and liberty.
We call people like Ed “Doc” Pepping, Bob Janes and Bob Noody, Bill True and Don Malarkey members of the greatest generation, and they were great. But, in talking with them, as I have, they will tell you they were not great, they were just doing their duty for the country and their fellow soldiers. They were men called upon by history for a purpose, the purpose of freeing the world from a vicious, evil tyranny. They fought with honor, great courage and valor. Let us not forget the words of Ronal Reagan as he honored those brave men.
But, let us not forget that there is another group of Americans who qualify for the honorific of “Greatest Generation” They are the men and women serving today in the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard of his nation. They are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are rescuing people at sea and protecting our coasts. They are the first ones in to deliver aid to stricken people. They protect this nation 24/7 and do it with pride and honor.
So on this 67th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy let us remember the sacrifice of those who fought and died there, but let us not forget the same sacrifices being made by our military servicemen today.