For the vast majority of Americans, when we think of World War II and the fight against Nazi Germany, we think of the D-Day invasion of France. Sixty years ago today, 133,000 soldiers from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada landed on the beaches of Normandy to begin their part in the liberation of Europe.
The Western Allies were already fighting in Europe, Italy had been invaded the year before, and the fighting up the boot of Italy was very tough. (Interesting coincidence: The Fall of Rome to the Allies was also June 6.) The Soviet Union had been fighting a massive land battle against Nazi Germany since June 22, 1941; this fight drew from France some of the best German units, and forced the re-allocation of German resources away from the Atlantic Wall to the Eastern Front. American and British Air Forces had been bombing Germany regularly, and American and British Naval Forces had been fighting the German Navy at sea since the beginning of the war.
Still, for the United Kingdom, it was an amazing turn-around. In the Summer of 1940, after the Fall of France, Great Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany. German U-boats came very close to starving the British. Germans bombed London and other British cities. The defeated French said of the English, "In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken." Four years and two days before D-Day, Prime Minister Winston Churchill summed up the Government's War Policies in a speech to the House of Commons:
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
June 6, 1944 was the pinnacle of the British fight. Their confidence and their strength grew, their allies grew. They defended their island and, with their allies, they were ready to take the fight to liberate Europe.
For the United States, The Arsenal of Democracy, it was also the pinnacle of the war in Europe. From the Lend Lease that started to help the British strengthen their Navy against the German U-Boats, to the building of the greatest merchant fleet in the history of the world, able to deliver armies of supplies and men to any port, to the building of enough planes to block out the sun, the industrial might of the United States built the machines that beat back the Germans. However, compared to the British and Russians, the American fighting man had not seen the same trial by fire. Fighting in Africa was tough, but nothing like Dunkirk. D-Day would be the trial by fire for many young Americans, and for those who survived, it was one of those
defining moments in a life.
The American Army was an amazing thing. The burden of fighting was shared across all classes and, eventually, all races that comprise the United States. Even Americans of Japanese descent, detained in camps in the west, volunteered to fight for the country that took away their freedom, and the Nikei units in the
U.S. Army served with distinction. Black Americans served in segregated units
and fought for ideals which they were not even close to sharing, and for the
rest of their countrymen, that is simultaneously awesome and humbling.
American Army units were the hodgepodge that you saw in the movies. You'd have recent immigrants and first-generation Americans from the cities fighting alongside farmers from the
Midwest. Wealth and privilege did not excuse one from serving; the sons of many in Congress, and even the sons of President Roosevelt, served in the army along with the sons of factory workers, police, firemen, and the unemployed.
Whither Canada? Many people forget the role of the Canadians in the invasion, but one fifth of the invasion force came from Canada. Juno beach was the last major operation for the Canadian armed forces in World War
II: for a country with one tenth the population of the United States, the losses in the Battle of Normandy were unsustainable, but without the impact of the Canadians, the invasion might not have succeeded. The Canadians fought bravely until the final German surrender, but as the American and British armies grew in size in Europe, the role of the Canadians diminished.
When one thinks of war, one usually remembers the leaders. Montgomery, Bradley, and Eisenhower are the ones who were the most important leaders on D-Day, but D-Day isn't a story about the leaders. It is a story about the common soldier. Unlike the more famous tank battles of World War II, the invasion of Normandy was closer to a World War I battle in its approach. The Allies left their landing craft and charged the Germans in fortified, defensive positions. Unlike the trench warfare of WWI, though, the Allies had no trenches to which to fall back. The invaders faced two options: death or glory. By the end of the day, the Allies were off the beaches and were starting to move inland. The fighting in the hedgerows was slow and bloody, but the Armies of the Allies prevailed. (As an aside, The Durham Herald-Son sportswriter, and DBR reader, Alwyn Featherston, wrote an excellent book about the North Carolina National Guard and their role in the Battle of Mortain, part of the overall battle to liberate France. If you can find it, we highly recomment it.) Glory was theirs.
Death, too, was theirs. On June 6, 1944, 1465 American soldiers were killed, 3184 were wounded, and 1928 were missing. Today, we honor their ultimate sacrifice, and the sacrifice of the thousands of British and Canadian soldiers who also gave their lives so Europe could be
free, and so that freedom, indeed, survived in the world at large. People
forget now, since the Allies won, but Hitler came amazingly close to winning the
war before the Americans came in. Our soldiers understood the stakes and
responded accordingly, which is to say magnificently. We have come to take
this for granted, but what happened at Normandy was not inevitable. It
took courage of the highest possible order, and the only proper responses from
their children, grandchildren, and everyone else is awe, the deepest possible
respect, and enduring gratitude.