CHARLOTTE, NC. Chances are good that the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Beach invasion on D-Day (June 6, 1944) will be the last time any veterans who participated in that event will be able to travel to the sites of their greatest achievement. Namely, to preserve freedom throughout the world.
D-Day and Normandy Beach: The beginning of the final victory over Hitler
So much has been written about D-Day, that there’s little to tell that’s not already common knowledge. But given the significance of the largest amphibious military landing in world history, we should honor its memory still. And we should never forget what the “greatest generation” did to preserve global liberty.
Not only does D-Day represent the beginning of the Allied victory in Europe. This enormous Normandy Beach invasion of June 6, 1944 marks the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
The United States entered the war in 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On the European front, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew a massive invasion of mainland Europe would be critical to relieve pressure from the Soviet army fighting the Nazis in the East. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler knew it too. But he failed in his calculations to determine precisely where and when it might take place.
Thus, the actual planning for D-Day slowly evolved as a work in progress for several years. Initially, a strategy named “Operation Sledgehammer” called for an Allied invasion of ports in northwest France as early as 1943. But the Allies decided to invade North Africa first and attack Europe’s “soft underbelly” through Italy.
But the notion of what eventually became D-Day began to evolve. In a military “dry run” two months before the actual D-Day invasion, Allied forces used an evacuated a British beach known as Slapton Sands for a dress rehearsal for the Normandy Beach invasion.
A tragic diversion that actually worked
The war games, known as “Exercise Tiger,” proved a total disaster. 749 U.S. troops lost their lives after the Germans caught wind of the mock invasion and torpedoed American tank landing ships. Some survivors described Exercise Tiger as more terrifying than the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach.
One aspect of this otherwise disastrous exercise actually did work. The exercise tricked the Nazis into thinking an eventual invasion of occupied France would occur at Pas-de-Calais, the closest French coastline to England. Prior to the actual Normandy Beach landing, diversions such as fake radio transmissions, double agents, and even a “phantom army,” commanded by American General George Patton threw Germany off the scent of the operation. This despite the fact that the operation offended Patton and his massive ego by not placing him at the center of the action.
Ultimately, the Allies scored a significant success in surprising German defenses at Normandy Beach.
Hitler tries to counter-program the Allies
Though Adolf Hitler could not pin down the exact point of the Normandy Beach invasions, he had long anticipated the attack along the coast of France. Charging Field Marshal Erwin Rommel with fortifying Nazi defenses in France, he completed construction of the “Atlantic Wall.” That wall consisted of Germany’s 2,400-mile line of bunkers, landmines and beach and water obstacles. Estimates claim the Nazis planted as many as 4 million landmines along Normandy’s beaches.
Meanwhile, for the Allies, the US shipped massive amounts of supplies to the staging area in Britain including 450,000 tons of ammunition.
Everything was in place in late May. However torrential rains delayed the launch of the invasion. Conditions remained less than ideal on June 6. But the Supreme Allied Commander in charge of “Operation Overlord,” General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commenced the operation rather than risk a letdown in troop morale by postponing D-Day again.
Attacking five different, difficult beachheads
Five beaches divided Operation Overlord along the Normandy coast. Codenamed, from West to East. The Allies nicknamed them “Utah,” “Omaha,” “Gold,” “Juno” and “Sword.” The US attacked the Utah and Omaha beaches. At the same time, British and Canadian forces attacked Gold, Juno and Sword.
In an effort to cut off exits and destroy bridges to slow Nazi reinforcements, thousands of paratroopers landed inland at Utah and Sword. The assault at Utah, though successful, met greater resistance than at Sword. There, glider pilots dropped paratroopers extremely close to their target bridges to facilitate their destruction.
Bridges and towns
Combined British and Canadian forces captured two key bridges in less than an hour. They first seized Pegasus across the River Orne. Soon after, they captured Horsa, the second bridge .
Just across the road from Pegasus Bridge, the Café Gondrée eventually became a small museum and coffee shop. Historians believe the Allies liberated the original café. They regard it as the first building and territory freed by an Allied battalion, which ultimately captured more territory than any other battalion in Operation Overlord.
Over 156,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches on D-Day. The final casualties included an estimated total of 4,413 Allied deaths. An additional 2,400 American troops were killed, wounded or unaccounted for at Omaha Beach.
Notable bravery, survivors and sacrifices
Landing at Utah Beach, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr, at age 56, the eldest son of the former President, became the oldest man to participate in the invasion of Normandy. He also became the only general on D-Day to land by sea with the first wave of troops. His bravery and foresight significantly contributed to the ultimate success of this landing. Not long thereafter, “[on] July 12, 1944, a little over one month after the landing at Utah Beach, Roosevelt died of a heart attack in Méautis, 22 km from Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy.”
On December 27, 2018, Richard Arvin Overton died at the age of 112 years, 230 days. At the time of his death, the American super-centenarian was not only the oldest man in the United States, but he was also the oldest verified surviving American World War II veteran.
Today, at nearly 114 years of age, only Gustav Gerneth, a mechanic with the German air force (Luftwaffe ), who survives today as the oldest living man, was the only WWII vet who was older than Overton.
Overton, who served in the U.S. Army, arrived at Pearl Harbor with his black segregated unit immediately after the Japanese bombed the base. On his 111th birthday in May 2017, Overton’s community renamed the street he lived on for over seven decades as Richard Overton Avenue. The mayor of Austin, Texas also declared his birthday, May 11, as Richard Overton Day.
More recent history and developments involving Normandy Beach and D-Day
Today, the National D-Day Memorial is located at Bedford, Virginia because it suffered the highest per capita D-Day losses of any community in the nation.
Now 75 years later, archaeologists are using laser-scanning techniques to map caves where French civilians sheltered on D-Day and in the battle of Normandy that followed. Technicians plan to convert this data into 3-D models. The aim of these models: allowing viewers to see for themselves the underground network of caves historians often fail to acknowledge when telling the D-Day story.
On a final note, should you ever visit the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, do not fail to read the sashes draped across flowers at the memorial. They typically feature four simple words: “We Have Not Forgotten”
— Headline image: Cafe Gongree near Pegasus Bridge. Historians believe US forces made this the first French building liberated on D-Day (Photo: Taylor)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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