REYKJAVICK, June 6, 2014 — Those of the “greatest generation” who served their country in World War II, should be remembered for sacrificing their lives that Freedom could survive. Today, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, is an especially appropriate time for remembrance.
Many young Americans volunteered for military service after the attack at Pearl Harbor. Millions then went off to Europe to fight against Hitler and the Nazis. Far too many never made it home again. Over 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives on D-Day, and many thousands more died that month as the Allies secured Normandy. For many of those, their first day in battle was their last.
The people of Normandy declare, “we will never forget,” and they never have. There are few left who were there, but the memories have been passed on, and the world will never forget those who lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy on that day.
Those men gave their lives that freedom could survive, and that others would be freed from tyranny. Today is very different than it was so long ago. Wars go on, but most of the world is not at war.
The assault on the beaches at Normandy was an incredibly complex effort. It was part of a 3-pronged thrust to push the German troops back within the borders of German territory. It was the third prong after the Russians had been fighting for so long on the Eastern Front. With Rome secured in the south of Europe, D-Day was the effort to open a third front to force the German military back to their homeland. It was a crucial moment in WWII.
D-Day began in the wee morning hours of June 6, 1944, and climaxed with the largest amphibious military invasion in world history. This all-out invasion against entrenched Nazi military forces spread across 50 miles of French coastline at Normandy. It was an act of desperation, but it was also an act of daring. D-Day proved to be a pivotal moment in the war in Europe.
“Operation Overlord” — the invasion of Normandy — was the first day of the Allied battle against the Germans in Normandy. It was not just intended to liberate bits of occupied France, though; it represented the initial attack of a more massive and prolonged onslaught against German forces that served to open up a western front in Europe designed to penetrate to the heart of Germany and break the Nazi war machine.
The initial beach assault was code-named “Operation Neptune.” It was not only comprised of the amphibious assault on five Normandy beaches with over 5,000 troop carriers and over 500 minesweepers and support ships; it also included a massive naval bombardment, as well as an airborne assault involving 10,000 Allied aircraft striking at the German defenses, and over 24,000 paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines shortly after midnight, before the dawn coastal landings. “Neptune” actually lasted through the end of June.
According to the D-day museum, “Operation Neptune began on D-Day (June 6th 1944) and ended on 30 June 1944. By this time, the Allies had established a firm foothold in Normandy. Operation Overlord also began on D-Day, and continued until Allied forces crossed the River Seine on 19 August 1944.”
The initial efforts to open this new front against the German stranglehold on most of Europe succeeded, but at great cost: By the end of the first day, more than 12,000 Allied soldiers had been killed or wounded. But on that day, the Allies were able to secure a foothold in French sand. Though the cost for the beachhead was high, taking the beaches enabled over 160,000 soldiers to begin their march across France to take down Adolf Hitler. By the end of the month, that force grew to 39 divisions and over a million men. Operation Neptune managed to crack the powerful Nazi grip on occupied France.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces that unleashed this massive, cross-channel, frontal invasion of the German positions in Northern France. He had been a proponent of such a direct assault as early as 1942, but faced opposition from the British who feared a re-run of the devastating trench warfare of World War I. Eisenhower’s ideas were finally accepted by the Allied command on January 15, 1944. When he gave the orders to commence the attack, he revealed genuine hope for a victorious outcome:
“You will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely … The free men of the world are marching together to victory. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory. Good luck, and let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
This complicated, yet meticulously planned, initial thrust of Operation Overlord proved successful, and by the end of June, 1944, Allied troops had established complete control of Normandy beaches. They fought their way across the River Seine by August 19, 1944, at which time Operation Overlord ended by accomplishing the objective of driving deep into Nazi-controlled France before the end of the summer.
This Allied thrust was the beginning of the end of the German military machine that would collapse in less than a year. This complex and deadly invasion of Normandy was a final component of a military strategy that pressed in like a vise upon the Germans, with the Soviet Red Army closing in from the Eastern Front, and the British and American forces pushing up into the underbelly of Germany through Italy. The attack on Normandy exposed the overextended German military to further Allied assault from a Western Front.
The combined Allied effort on D-Day proved to be a decisive turning point in the war in Europe. By 1943, Hitler had taken over every nation in Europe except Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Soviet Union. Without the cooperation of all the Allies on D-Day, the outcome of the war in Europe may have been much different. It is hard to imagine what the horrendous reality of that world could have been.
It is good to reflect upon the value of D-Day and those who were willing to sacrifice their lives for freedom. The better image to call upon could be one shared by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he called upon Americans to join with him in prayer for ultimate success on June 6, 1944. In that prayer, Roosevelt defended the likes of the “greatest generation” before God:
“Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion … our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity …
“Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith …
“For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.”
Although D-Day belongs to history, and although the old soldiers are fading into the shadows, it is wise to remember this Day and the deeds of that generation. The brave men and boys who hit the beaches of Normandy made great sacrifices, not only on June 6, but also throughout the war, and even after the war. Their awesome sacrifice during the most devastating war in human history changed the world. They truly deserve to be remembered.