June 6, 1944 is a day that the world will never forget. On cold and blustery day 64 years ago, the Allied nations risked it all in a bold attempt to establish a foothold along the coast of France. At stake were not only the lives thousands of young men (most of whom had never experienced combat), but also eventual victory or defeat in the war. Failure at Normandy would allow Germany to divert its forces to the eastern front and potentially defeat the Allies piecemeal – Russia first, the West next. At best, if the invasion were repelled, the war would drag on for years.
The forces under the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, were impressive. “The 5000-vessel armada stretched as far as the eye could see, transporting over 150,000 men (the amphibious landing forces) and nearly 30,000 vehicles across the channel to the French beaches. Six parachute regiments — over 13,000 men — were flown from nine British airfields in over 800 planes. More than 300 planes dropped 13,000 bombs over coastal Normandy immediately in advance of the invasion.” (PBS)
But awaiting them was the Atlantic Wall, a daunting combination of fortified bunkers, beach obstacles, barbed wire and concrete walls. Defenses were pre-sighted and calibrated for maximum effectiveness against the invaders. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel believed that any invasion must be repulsed at the beach before a foothold could be established, and the Atlantic Wall was his method to do it.
On the eve of the invasion, the decision to go fell on one man’s shoulders: the Supreme Allied Commander. After an agonizing delay of one day because of weather, General Eisenhower put the invasion in motion with the simple words, “”OK. let’s go.”
With that, the invasion was irreversible, and its outcome far from certain. Eisenhower was outwardly confident, but knew the results could be disastrous. He drafted a note that he held in reserve, in case the operation failed:
He would never have to release it. The note stayed in his pocket because brave men fought through withering fire and their own fears to take the beach and save the world. It is impossible to fathom how those young men could overcome the horrors they experienced that day and somehow establish a foothold that the Allies would never relinquish.
To each of them, we owe our eternal gratitude. If you are lucky enough to ever meet a veteran of D-Day, thank him and show your respect…because you are in the presence of greatness.
Some excellent D-Day sites:
Miltary History Online
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum
Naval Historical Center
Eisenhower’s message to the troops (U.S. Army)
U.S. Army interactive website