D-Day, June 6, 1944, was the beginning of the end of Hitler’s Third Reich. On that day, the largest military armada the world had ever known set its sights on Nazi Occupied France. From the air and from the sea, Allied soldiers stormed the beaches and small towns of Normandy, paying for every inch of liberated soil with their blood.
Looking back 75 years, it might appear that victory in Europe was inevitable. Since then, Hollywood movies and countless books have portrayed the Second World War as “The Good War,” one in which America was assured victory. This depiction could not be further from the truth. Though dealt major defeats in North Africa and on the Eastern Front in 1942 and 1943, the German war machine was still a lethal fighting force in the summer of 1944. A successful invasion of Western Europe was not guaranteed.
At 6:30 a.m., more than 5,000 ships appeared on the horizon, preparing to launch an amphibious assault along a 60-mile front of the Normandy coastline. More than 160,000 Allied troops, half of them American, were to be landed on five beaches or had already parachuted behind enemy lines. By the end of the day, more than 10,000 would be dead.
At first, the invasion did not go as planned. The night airdrops were off target, the sea was stormy and rough, landing craft disembarked on the wrong beaches, tanks never made it to shore, and naval gunfire did not knock out fortified defenses. The German resistance on Omaha Beach was so fierce that the troops could not advance from the water’s edge for some time, and complete withdrawal was seriously considered.
Only individual acts of heroism and quick thinking by squad-level commanders allowed the troops to advance and complete their mission. By the end of the day, the Allies had successfully landed 100,000 men and had begun to consolidate the beachhead. The Normandy campaign and subsequent breakout would last through the summer, ending with the liberation of Paris on August 25.
Had the invasion failed, the Germans would have moved vast armies from Western Europe to reinforce operations in Italy and on the Eastern Front. As it would likely require another two to three years before another invasion attempt in the west, this would have provided Hitler with time to stabilize these fronts and possibly force a stalemate or a negotiated partial Allied surrender.
The sacrifice of those on D-Day and all the men and women who served the Allied cause during World War II cannot be overstated. The soldiers, sailors, and airmen on that day came not as conquerors, but as liberators. They fought and died, so that others may live free.
D-Day secured an Allied foothold in Western Europe. Within a year, Germany would unconditionally surrender.
Bernard A. Oravec