“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. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.” — General Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6, 1944
Although the term D-Day is used routinely as military lingo for the day an operation or event will take place, for many it is also synonymous with June 6, 1944, the day the Allied powers crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.
With Hitler's armies in control of most of mainland Europe, the Allies knew that a successful invasion of the continent was central to winning the war. Hitler knew this too, and was expecting an assault on northwestern Europe in the spring of 1944. He hoped to repel the Allies from the coast with a strong counterattack that would delay future invasion attempts, giving him time to throw the majority of his forces into defeating the Soviet Union in the east. Once that was accomplished, he believed an all-out victory would soon be his.
On the morning of June 5, 1944, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious military operation in history. On his orders, 6,000 landing craft, ships and other vessels carrying 176,000 troops began to leave England for the trip to France. That night, 822 aircraft filled with parachutists headed for drop zones in Normandy. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion.
By dawn on June 6, 18,000 parachutists were already on the ground; the land invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; so did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where 2,000 troops were lost and it was only through the tenacity and quick-wittedness of troops on the ground that the objective was achieved. By day's end, 155,000 Allied troops--Americans, British and Canadians--had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches.
According to 2004 Fox News report the number of Americans killed on D-Day is still a question:
“The exploits of D-Day (search) have long been legend: the storming of the beaches, parachute drops into enemy territory. But 60 years later, the number of dead is still unclear.
The chaos of battle and the vast scale of the assault thwarted attempts then -- and now -- to tally how many thousands were killed in the June 6, 1944, landings that sped Nazi (search) Germany's defeat.
Bodies disintegrated under bombs and shells. Soldiers drowned and disappeared. Company clerks who tallied casualties were killed. Records were lost.
"Landing crafts were hit," said Ivy Agee, an 81-year-old from Gordonsville, Tenn., who fought on Omaha Beach. "Bodies were flying everywhere. There was blood on the edge of the water, the beach was just running with pure blood."
Historians say a definitive death toll will likely never be known. Even now, the Normandy (search) soil for which soldiers fought so bitterly offers up new bodies
Casualty estimates for Allied forces vary, but range from 2,500 to more than 5,000 dead on D-Day. Adding to the confusion is that D-Day books and histories often count wounded, missing and troops taken prisoner.
On its Web site, the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, England, says an estimated 2,500 Allied troops died. The U.S. Army Center of Military History (search) in Washington, D.C., numbers 6,036 American casualties, including wounded and missing. The Heritage Foundation in Washington estimates 4,900 dead.
"The low casualty rates show the success of the Allied plan of attack."
Calculating German casualties is even harder. The D-Day Museum says the number is not known but is estimated at 4,000-9,000. Kirchmeier at the German graves commission said many records were destroyed in the Allied bombing of Berlin.
D-Day marked only the start of the battle of Normandy, which claimed many more lives as troops fought in the region's hedgerows over the next three months.
More than 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or went missing, the D-Day Museum says. The American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach (search) holds the remains of 9,383 servicemen and four women, their white gravestones a permanent reminder of war's terrible costs.
"If you forget what happened here then you're never going to improve things. It's never going to get any better," Donald Null, an 80-year-old veteran from Frederick, Md., said as he visited the American Cemetery. "You must keep it alive."
For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing that the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions from Salmuth’s 15th Army to join the counterattack and reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. The unhindered P-47 fighter bombers were very effective in keeping the German Panzers and supply convoys off the roads during daylight hours. In addition, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.
Click on the Maps above for a larger image
Though it did not go off exactly as planned, as later claimed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery--for example, the Allies were able to land only fractions of the supplies and vehicles they had intended in France--D-Day was a decided success. By the end of June, the Allies had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy and were poised to continue their march across Europe.
The heroism and bravery displayed by troops from the Allied countries on D-Day has served as inspiration for several films, most famously The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). It was also depicted in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001). I will not comment on Band Brothers as it was a mini-series covering the actions of the 101st Airborne from their inception to the end of WWII. Although the two episodes devoted to D-Day were outstanding, especially their action during Brécourt Manor Assault.
I have had the privilege of interviewing five veterans of the 101st Airborne who dropped into Normandy on the night of June 5, 1944 — all of them Bronze Star recipients. According to these vets Band of Brothers was about 90% truth and 10% fiction. Be that as it may it is still a series worth watching.
Saving Private Ryan was the first theatrical film to show the absolute horror and carnage that took place on Omaha Beach that 6th of June. Some people had to leave the theater as these gruesome scenes unfolded. In this sense it was more of an anti-war film. After the beach scenes the film morphed into a very good war film as a squad of Rangers searched for a missing private whose three brothers were killed in action. The film does not give much historical content of the events leading to the invasion or the massive logistics that burdened General Eisenhower or his staff.
If you learn about Operation Overlord I highly recommend the Oscar winning The Longest Day. Released in in 1962 Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and released by Twentieth Century Fox the film was the first of its genre to accurately portray the events leading to a major battle and the actions thereof. The film covered all five beaches and the three airborne landing zones. It covered the events leading to the invasion and the agonizing decision General Eisenhower had to make on the ambiguous advice of his meteorologist team led by RAF Group Captain James Martin Stagg. Stagg could not give Eisenhower a definite forecast on a storm blowing across the English Channel. He could only give him a 50-50 probability that the skies would be clear on the night of June 5th and the morning of the 6th. On this probability Eisenhower gave the order to release the troops waiting in boats and on the airdromes.
The film based on the book of the same name by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Cornelius Ryan who also wrote the screen play, also shows the German side of the events on D-Day and the actions of the French Resistance during the nights prior to the invasion of destroying rail and communication lines — something that hampered the Germans as they tried to assess the situation and respond to it.
Ryan’s book, which I have read several times, is based on oral interviews with those who were involved in Operation Overlord. He interviewed the Generals and Admirals down to the lowly privates. He interviewed the Americans, British, French, and Germans who were involved.
The film employed several Axis and Allied military consultants who had been actual participants on D-Day. Many had their roles re-enacted in the film. These included: Günther Blumentritt (a former German general), James M. Gavin (an American general), Frederick Morgan (Deputy Chief of Staff at SHAEF and chief planner for the invasion), John Howard (who led the airborne assault on the Pegasus Bridge), Lord Lovat (who commanded the 1st Special Service Brigade), Philippe Kieffer (who led his men in the assault on Ouistreham), Pierre Koenig (who commanded the Free French Forces in the invasion), Max Pemsel (a German general), Werner Pluskat (the major who was the first German officer to see the invasion fleet), Josef "Pips" Priller (the hot-headed Luftwaffe pilot), and Lucie Rommel (widow of Erwin Rommel).
The Longest Day is filmed in the style of a docudrama. Beginning in the days leading up to D-Day, the film concentrates on events on both sides of the channel such as the Allies waiting for the break in the poor weather and the anticipation of the Axis forces defending northern France. The film pays particular attention to the decision by General Eisenhower, supreme commander of SHAEF, to go after reviewing the initial bad weather reports as well as the divisions within the German High Command on when an invasion might happen or what response to it should be.
Numerous scenes document the early hours of June 6th when Allied airborne troops were sent in to take key locations. The French resistance is also shown reacting to the news an invasion has started. The Longest Day chronicles most of the important events surrounding D-Day. From the British glider missions to secure Pegasus Bridge, the counterattacks launched by American paratroopers scattered around Sainte-Mère-Église, the infiltration and sabotage work conducted by the French resistance and SOE agents, and the response by the Wehrmacht to the invasion and the uncertainty to whether it was a feint in preparation for crossings at the Pas de Calais (see Operation Fortitude).
Set piece scenes include the advance in shore from the Normandy beaches, the US Ranger Assault Group's assault on the Pointe du Hoc, the attack on Ouistreham by Free French Forces and the strafing of the beaches by two lone Luftwaffe pilots.
I have visited the Normandy beaches and the airborne drop zones four times. The first was in 1976 when the memorials commemorating the 40th anniversary had not been erected and the beaches were pretty much as they were in 1944 except for a few souvenir and French fry stands. The shell craters on Pointe du Hoc were covered a 6-foot bramble bushes that tore your pants. The German bunkers were decrepit cesspools filled with trepid water and human feces. The roads were not marked well and few signs were present to identify the historic places. I needed detailed maps of the countryside, which fortunately I had acquired prior to my visit. I did not have the Internet to do my research and had to rely mainly on Ryan’s book and a Michelin Guide.
On a subsequent two-day visit with my brother, and avid D-Day history buff as I am, visited the all of the beaches, Sainte-Mère-Église, the Longues-sur-Mer and Merville gun batteries We walked on the bridge over the Orne River Canal known as Pegasus Bridge. We spent time at the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église and found General Gavin’s foxhole on the banks of the Merderet River. And we spent time at the American Military Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach where the remains of 9,387 American soldiers, sailors and airmen who died in the battle for Northwest France are interned
For a short slide show please click here
The final point I would like to make concerns leadership, responsibility and accountability. As mentioned General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the supreme commander of SHAEF and of Operation Overlord. He had overseen the planning, the build-up and the deception tactics of Operation Fortitude. He made the final decision to release the ground and airborne troops on the night of June 5th. He was aware of the risks and potential causalities — estimated to be as high as 80% for the airborne troops. They were never close to that figure.
On the night prior to the invasion he prepared a statement for the troops and the public. That statement read:
“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. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, 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.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory! Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
Eisenhower had as much confidence in his troops as a military commander could have. They had been well trained, well equipped, and well feed. Their moral was high. But after visiting the troopers of the 101st Airborne he composed another press release in the back seat of his car returning to his headquarters. This was quite a different statement. It stated:
"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."
*He accidentally dated the letter July 5. It should have been June 5. We're sure he had a lot on his mind. Click on the image at the right for a larger view.
You see Eisenhower born and raised in Kansas, the heartland of America, had been raised with the values of honesty, loyalty, responsibility and accountability. He had learned these values from his parents, his schooling and West Point. He could in no way pass this responsibility on to his staff, soldiers, or anyone else. The responsibility and accountability was his and his alone.
This is a far cry for our current commander-in-chief who takes responsibility for nothing. It is not like Hillary Clinton our former Secretary of State who said she was responsible but took no accountability for the fiasco in Benghazi. It is not like Eric Holder who claimed he knew nothing of the illegal actions of the Justice Department in the reading of the e-mails of AP and James Rosen of Fox News. It is not like the former commissioner of the IRS Douglas Schulman who visited the White House 157 times but can only remember the Easter egg roll. It is not like Lois Learner the head of the Tax Exempt Division of the IRS when she invoked her Fifth Amendment privilege in front of congressional committee. In fact it is not like anyone in Washington D.C. today.
So on this 69th anniversary of the D-Day landings or D-Day plus 25,202 we should not only remember the bravery and heroic actions of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen who took part in that longest day. We should also remember the honesty and integrity of their commander.