Tomorrow June 6th is the 67th anniversary of the allied invasion of France or as it has come to be known today “D-Day”. The invasion was the largest amphibious assault in history with more than half a million men and woman participated. Tuesday June 6th, 1944 was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe.
It was still raining when Commanding General Dwight D. Eisenhower launched Operation Neptune, the major part of Operation Overlord, the allies attack plan against Nazi Germany. The assault would begin on a series of beaches along the Normandy coast.
The Allies were facing a formidable line of defenses commanded by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, better known by the nickname, “The Desert Fox.” Rommel, unlike the other German generals, felt the allied invasion would be somewhere along the Normandy coast. As a result he heavily reinforced the coastal defenses with thick walled concrete bunkers that were capable of housing several artillery pieces each; over 300 heavy machine gun emplacements that had a clear line of fire all the way to the water line and dozens of mortar pits and anti tank guns. The beaches were lined with thousands of miles of barb wire, thousands of tank traps and tens of thousands of mines. A formidable defense that would have worked except for one major mistake; all the German commanding generals were on leave. The weather over the English Channel was horrible and the German high command felt the allies would wait for better weather before they crossed. As a result most of the Generals, including Rommel were somewhere else when the landings began.
The invasion was to be a two pronged attack against the Nazi’s Fortress Europe. Shortly after midnight on June 6th the
first part of the invasion began; an airborne assault consisting of 24,000 American, British, Free French and Canadian paratroopers. Their job was to drop behind enemy lines and to take and hold several enemy positions that the invading troops would need once they managed to get off the beaches. They were also to cut German communications, destroy railway lines and cause as much mayhem in the German rear area’s as they could. Despite the confusion and mistakes made in any major military operation most of the airborne objectives were attained but at a terrible cost. 4,000 of the 24,000 men dropped behind German lines that night were killed or captured.
At dawn, 6:30 am, the amphibious assault on the Germans “Atlantic Wall” began with a withering naval bombardment that was meant to soften the German defenses and allow our troops to get a foothold on the beach. As it turned out most of the naval shells fell behind the German lines and those that managed to hit the concrete bunkers that lined the beaches did little damage thanks to Rommel’s changes.
The 160,000 troops, the bulk of which were made up of American, British and Canadian soldiers now made their way towards their objectives; five beaches..the Americans would assault Utah and Omaha; the British, Canadians and French Sword, Juno and Gold. The fighting was brutal, especially on Omaha beach. An eyewitness reported, “within 10 minutes of the ramps being lowered, [the leading] company had become inert, leaderless and almost incapable of action. Every officer and sergeant had been killed or wounded. It had become a struggle for survival and rescue”
My uncle was a Higgins Boat driver or as they were officially called an LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel) at Omaha beach. Years ago he told me about the horrors the invading soldiers faced. In his boat alone out of the 36 men aboard only two made it out alive, the rest were killed where they stood. The drivers needed to back off the beach with the ramps down to wash the dead bodies out before returning to the troop transports to pick up more men. They had no choice, if they didn’t move quickly they would become the Germans next target. Omaha Beach was such a disaster the Generals in charge, Including General Omar Bradley, considered abandoning the beachhead and removing all of the remaining troops they could. But American ingenuity prevailed and gaps were eventually made in the German defenses allowing the trapped troops to race off the beach. 10% of all the men that came ashore at Omaha beach died; that’s 5,000 men out of the 50,000, most of those in the first few hours of the assault.
Accurate casualty figures were hard to come by in 1944, the massive size of the operation alone made it impossible to count. Most historians agree on the following figures; the British suffered 2700 killed, wounded or missing; the Canadians 946 and the Americans 6,603, most of those were on Omaha beach.
The war would continue for another bloody year and would take the lives of thousands of more brave men and women before that deranged paper hanger would finally take the coward’s way out. Most of those brave souls are still there; taking their honored place in the numerous military cemeteries that dot the now tranquil region of Normandy.
While doing some research on this article I came across something I had never known. Actor David Niven was one of the many Hollywood stars who participated in the D-Day invasion. While rallying his platoon on Gold Beach to attack a German gun emplacement he said, “Don’t worry chaps you’ll only have to do this once. I’ll have to come back and do a dozen takes with Errol Flynn.” And he did in the movie “The Longest Day” but it was John Wayne, not Errol Flynn he ended up working with.
So tomorrow take a brief moment to remember those brave men that faced certain death so the world could be rid of one more butcher. For those brave souls D-Day will always be their “The Longest Day.”
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