Most of us are familiar the basic facts of D-Day from watching movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.
So, today, I thought that I would share a few of the facts relating to the fascinating backstory of D-Day — a few of those factors and events of which most people are unaware but that account at least partly for why the Normandy Invasion, also known as Operation Overlord, is remembered as one of the most seminal events in history.
Yet the first remarkable fact about D-Day is that almost never happened.
When a recently appointed Major General named Dwight Eisenhower was dispatched to England in 1942, part of his mission was to discuss the buildup of American forces in England so that an invasion of France could occur, preferably sometime that year.
But Britain regarded this idea with a measure of reluctance, if not a significant amount of dread. It was locked in a desperate struggle to keep Rommel out of Egypt. And the thought of driving the scourge of Nazism out of the heart of western Europe seemed like a distant pipedream in early 1942.
Aside from that, the British had a long, very painful memory of the costs of fighting on the continent against Germans. For that matter, they regarded amphibious invasions in general with dread. The ill-fated Gallipoli invasion, which was conceived by Churchill and aimed at knocking Turkey out of World War I almost put an end to the future prime minister’s political career. And it is still remembered today as one of the bitterest disappointments in British military history.
And let’s not forget that the memories of World War I were still fresh in 1942. And the evacuation of Dunkirk, in which most of the British Expeditionary Force and many French troops were miraculously snatched from the maw of the German Wehrmacht was still a very fresh memory.
Churchill had always regarded the invasion of France as a cosmic roll of the dice.
And what if it failed? A defeat would not only kill any prospect for a return to continent but it might also lead to the Soviets working out a negotiated peace with the Germans.
Remember that the Soviets, to preserve their regime, sued for a similar peace in 1918, not only renouncing their claims on Poland, Finland, Belarus, the Baltic states, and Ukraine. And considering that the Soviets were in a far better position, territorially speaking, in 1944, there was the distinct possibility that they would do so again.
The British held to a strategy that had served this maritime power reasonably well over the course of its 200-year imperial history. They preferred a kind of Sun Tzu strategy by which choke-points were applied to German power, ideally in the vast and vulnerable underbelly of Southern Europe, employing its most formidable weapons: the Royal Navy.
For a time, they had their way with the Americans, which is a long and fascinating story in its own right. The British unwillingness to undertake a full, frontal assault of northern France in 1942, led the Allies instead into the Mediterranean and northern Africa, ultimately driving the Nazis off the continent and destroying Italian naval power in the Mediterranean — a crucial concern for the British, because this vast sea was not only considered their personal lake but a primary artery in the supply line to India and the dominions of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
The North African victory also positioned the Allies to invade Sicily and Italy — another key choke point that not only had the potential of taking Italy out of the war but also forcing the Germans to invest additional manpower that was sorely needed in which was fast becoming a desperate fight for survival in the Soviet Union.
Churchill also eyed the Dodecanes islands in Greece in the hopes of bringing Turkey on the side of the Allies, a getting a foothold in Greece, and ultimately taking part in the Soviet invasion of Eastern Europe.
But Americans also saw this ploy for what it was: a veiled attempt to preserve British power in the Mediterranean by guarding the Greece and other parts the eastern Mediterranean against the encroachment of Soviet power. Americans eventually bought into that argument, but only after the war as the Cold War heated up.
In the end, we went some distance with the British. We collaborated in the invasions of Sicily and Italy, but after that, we insisted that the next strategic target would be France.
But we remained in a bitter and sometimes recriminate war of words with the British. The British were determined to soldier on in Southern Europe, probing for weak spots. To be sure, some British military leaders, notably Gen. Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, were open to an all-out-assault on France, but only after it appeared that Germany had been mortally weakened elsewhere.
But we held firm. We owe much of that resolve to the Army Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall. He remained the most unwavering proponent of the invasion of France. In one notable respect, he knew better than the British. He knew that democratic peoples lose interest in protracted wars. He knew that the fight would have to be taken to the plains of northern Europe where America’s industrial might, expressed in armor and air power, offered the best prospect for ending the war as quickly as possible.
In fact, a time or two, he even told the British pointedly that we would take our ships and tanks and troops and focus on the Pacific War with the Japanese.
And he was right. The route through northern France offered the most direct path to the heart of Nazi military power: the Ruhr industrial region, which supplied the German war machine, and beyond that, Berlin.
Marshall was right — history has confirmed that. But, in a sense, so were the British. They were proven right in several notable respects. There was no way that the Allies could have staged an invasion of northern France in 1943. The comprehensive strategic bombing campaign over Germany, which ultimately badly disrupted the ability of Germans to move troops and supplies from one part of the continent to the other, had not yet begun.
And the Germans had only just begun sustaining what would ultimately become the mortal blows of stiffened Soviet resistance.
And that brings us to remarkable fact No. 2: that we have Hitler partly to thank for the success of D-Day.
Aside from Hitler’s decision not to invade Britain in 1940 — or, barring an invasion, not allocating sufficient naval forces to destroy her Merchant Marine and starve her out of the war — was his decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Through the rest of that year, German victories were swift seemingly and effortless, but things began to change as the German’s drew closer to the defenses of Moscow. Soviet resistance grew increasingly desperate and matched the Germans in its levels of ferocity and brutality.
To Hitler’s credit, his stand and fight order before the gates of Moscow in December, 1941, arguably was the one factor that prevented a complete German rout.
But following the disastrous battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, the most realistic generals had concluded that the German effort in the East was unsustainable. It was no longer of a war of conquest but a life-or-death struggle against Bolshevism, one they feared, would be carried to the very gates of Berlin.
And the toll that this war in the East was taking on Germany’s military machine was evident in France.
French civilians in the town of Montebourg noticed the troops marching behind mounted officers down the main street were not singing the usual “Heidi-Heidi-Hos,” which had been such a familiar strain since 1940 but something strangely different.
They were so-called Ostruppen — eastern troops that had been recruited into the German armed forces largely to avoid death from starvation and disease in German POW camps.
Their deployment in the East had met with little success, so many of them were consigned to Andrei Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army. Many of these had been sent to France and organized into battalions, though the German attitude toward Slavs had changed little.
German attempts to stiffen their resolve with propaganda about the plutocratic Americans and British didn’t help.
Many of these troops were used primarily in anti-partisan activities, and, predictably, many ultimately escaped to join the Resistance. After the invasion, many others surrendered to the Allies at the first chance.
Only a couple of these battalions actually fought with resolve.
One of the most remarkable examples of an Ostruppen in Normandy was a Korean named Yang Kyongjong, who had originally served as a Korean conscript in the Japanese Imperial Army — Korea at the time was a Japanese colony. He was captured by the Soviets during the undeclared border war with the Japanese known as the Battles of Khalkhyn Gol in 1939. He was subsequently consigned to a labor camp but was released and impressed into the Soviet Army, unwittingly becoming embroiled in one of the most desperate land wars in history.
He was later captured by the Germans at the Battle of Karkhov and then impressed into the German Army. He was finally captured by the American Army near Omaha Beach. Think about that for a moment: This hapless 24-year-old soldier had travelled the entire breadth of the Eurasian landmass at the hands of three different captors.
Initially misidentified as a Japanese in a German uniform, he eventually was released from POW camp and lived out his life in the United States.
The coastal defenses were also manned by a large number of German hard-luck cases from the Eastern Front. The Army units consisted of 850,000 men of very mixed quality. Many of the units were known as “ear and stomach” battalions, comprised of soldiers from the East who had suffered combat-related stomach wounds or significant hearing loss — a rather sobering reality for the German High Command considering that these troops were expected to follow oral commands.
Of the 36 Infantry divisions that comprised this group, more than half lacked transport and mobile artillery.
Curiously, in spite of these deficiencies, Hitler actually looked forward to the invasion. He believed the Allies would quickly be flung into the Channel. And the Germans could then go about the desperate business of pushing the Bolshevik hordes back across the Russian steppes.
Remarkable Fact No.3: that Dwight D. Eisenhower was far from the natural pick to command D-Day.
We are often inclined to think of Ike as the inevitable pick for the D-Day.
He wasn’t. Ike had proven himself as a capable commander in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, though he had made his share of mistakes.
Aside from that, the then-four-star general was a relative newcomer to high command.
Scarcely a year before the invasion, he still held the permanent rank of Lt. Colonel.
And to his credit, Ike had accumulated a significant amount of staff experience working as a military liaison to Congress and, later, as MacArthur’s right-hand man in the Philippines in the 1930’s.
During his brief tenure as a war planner, he drafted the initial plans for provisioning the southwest Pacific, which essentially involved writing off the Philippines as a loss and removing the bulk of Allied efforts to Australia.
But despite all this experience, Ike had never commanded a battalion in battle.
And there were two older, considerably more experienced men who enjoyed support in unusually high places: General Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, Churchill’s choice for Supreme Commander; and General George Catlett Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, whom Roosevelt considered to be the natural choice for this position.
In Brooke’s case, he had been promised the position by Churchill. To underscore his determination to award Brooke with the command, Churchill had even mentioned it to Brooke’s wife.
And to be sure, Brooke was an impressive candidate.
Brooke had had significant combat experience in World War I, notably introducing to the French creeping barrage technique to the British during the Battle of the Somme.
He had had significant experience in northern France in 1940 helping extricate the battered British Army and directing it to Dunkirk, where it was miraculously rescued. His organizational skills were so impressive that he was later sent by Churchill to France to oversee the repatriation of the remaining British troops.
He also possessed an unusually keen intellect and extensive strategic and logistical knowledge.
He had previously served as a lecturer at the Imperial Defense College and possessed a very strong knowledge of the men who would ascend to key leadership positions in the British Army in World War II.
As chief of the Imperial General Staff, he also commanded the strategic effort of the British imperial forces, largely through the force of his intellect and personality, even though Churchill served as his own defense minister.
But at staff meetings, he talked down to the Americans, regarding most of them as lacking strategic sense. This did not bode well for his prospects, considering that the Americans would have the chief input into the appointment.
George Catlett Marshall was Roosevelt’s choice.
His command experience was very similar to Brooke’s. He was considered the country’s leading authority on logistical and strategic planning.
Marshall’s personal discipline was truly on the order of George Washington’s. A mediocre student in school, he determined to follow older family members to Virginia Military Institute and to excel — a determination that only grew stronger when his overheard his older brother predicting to his mother that his attending VMI would end up bringing reproach to the entire family.
He exceeded all expectations.
Churchill described him as the organizational architect of victory in World War II. He served as director of training and planning for the First Infantry Division in World War I and was responsible for planning the engagement that led to the first American victory at Cantingny in 1918.
Marshall was later transferred to the Headquarters Staff of General Pershing and became a key planner of military operations. He was instrumental in the planning and coordination of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which contributed to the defeat of the German Army on the Western Front.
After the war he was a key planner and writer in the War Department and later commanded the 15th Infantry Division.
In 1939, he was appointed Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army by President Roosevelt and thereafter invested his formidable logistical knowledge in the reorganization of the Army, laying the foundations that would transform this rather provincial institution into the global army that it is known today.
His command of the D-Day landings was his for the asking. And there would be an American, rather than a British commander. Roosevelt would see to that because beginning with D-Day, the American contribution to the war effort would increasingly dwarf that of Britain.
But in keeping with his deep for respect for democratic values and civilian control of the military, Marshall left this decision to President Roosevelt, who desperately wanted to keep Gen. Marshall in Washington to serve as Army chief of staff.
Even Roosevelt expressed his profound regrets. As he acknowledged to Eisenhower shortly before his decision, every Civil War buff could name the principal field commanders in the conflict, though very few could name the Army chiefs of staff.
And for this reason, Marshall remains a relatively obscure American historical figure — one of the greatest tragedies of American history. He is arguably among the ten greatest Americans who ever lived, embodying a character and a commitment to American principles on par with that of Washington and Lincoln and serving a role every bit as indispensable to this nation’s fortunes.
We were fortunate to have Dwight Eisenhower at the helm on June 6. But the man who conceived, planned, and lobbied for D-Day — typically against stiff opposition by the British — is the one who should have commanded it.
Remarkable Fact #4:
Another remarkable but largely unknown fact about D-Day was the operation that concluded the Allied Campaign in Normandy some two months after the initial assault on the beachhead: the battles of Falaise Pocket.
It’s an important operation not only for the role it played in ending the Normandy Campaign but also for the way it illustrates how Allied technology was brought to bear on the Germans with devastating and horrific effect.
In August, 1944, British General Bernard Montgomery had taken Caen, while Patton’s Third Army had wheeled around to the south of Montgomery’s operational area, leaving a large German-controlled remnant known as the Falaise Pocket.
The pocket was subjected to unremitting ground, artillery and aerial attacks. Germans sources recall the conditions within the Kessel, or cauldron, as they typically described such pockets, as closely resembling conditions in Stalingrad.
I have little time to recount these horrific events, but the complete account is available via a simple Google search.
Unfortunately, Montgomery, who had primary responsibility for closing the Falaise Gap, allowed tens of thousands of Germans to flee.
But it did mark the beginning of the end of German resistance in France, and it drove home to growing numbers within the German military leadership that the continued resistance was futile.
As Dwight Eisenhower recalls after touring the pocket:
The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest “killing fields” of any area. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap, I was conducted through it on foot to encounter sees that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.
Fifth and finally, do you know the most remarkable thing of all?
I’m standing here this afternoon in an air-conditioned conference room in the most materially prosperous nation in the world, speaking about one of the most seminal events in history because tens of thousands of 18, and 19 and 20-year-old kids summoned the fortitude to storm a shore to rid the world of history’s greatest threat to freedom and human decency.
While you celebrate your weekend, which will mark the 71st anniversary of the D-Day landing, reflect for a moment on those 18-year-olds kid in that landing craft approaching the shores of Utah beach – shaking from fright, vomiting their guts out, thinking about how desperately they wanted to be home – on that farm in Kansas, on that factory floor in Detroit, in that college lecture hall in Auburn – anywhere but there.
D-Day and the military successes that followed were achieved by the sacrifices of young men, primarily between the ages of 18 and 22 who not only safeguarded but affirmed all of the values that we take wantonly for granted today in the 21st century: an America that, despite enduring some serious setbacks within the last 70 years continues to inspire millions throughout the world. And through the peace secured by these young men, America stands alongside a prosperous, unified Europe, with a democratic, unified Germany at the center of it all.
The preceding was a series of reflections on D-Day delivered to the local Opelika Kiwanis Club commemorating the 70th anniversary of the landings.