Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day: The Beginning of the End

"Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty–loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers–in–arms on other Fronts, 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.

"But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940–41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man–to–man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men.

"The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

"I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle.

"We will accept nothing less than full Victory! Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."

Dwight Eisenhower's Order of the Day, June 2, 1944

I thought about writing about those who gave their lives in service to this country last week on Memorial Day — but my thoughts of late have been on today's 70th anniversary of D–Day so I waited.

"Long after they happen," wrote historian William Manchester, "historic events take on an air of inevitability."

He was writing of D–Day, the invasion of Normandy that catapulted the Allies into Nazi territory. It was the beginning of the end of World War II, a conflict that had claimed millions of lives and would claim millions more before the wars in Europe and the Pacific ended.

"[W]e assume that the Germans in France never had a chance — that [Eisenhower's] crusade was as good as won," Manchester wrote. "It wasn't."

Historian Jim Bishop observed, "In the history of man, no force matched the assemblage of ships and men waiting in chaotic order along the south coast of England."

But the outcome was far from certain for those who were about to unleash that force — and all that most of the more than 150,000 Allied soldiers who were about to participate in it knew was that many of them were not expected to return. What they would encounter on those beaches was anyone's guess.

The landings along the French coast that day must have been frightful, a soul–scarring experience for all who survived — and thousands did not.

It inspired the most intense combat sequence ever made in the movies — 14 or 15 disturbing minutes in "Saving Private Ryan," which probably wasn't nearly as intense as the real thing.

And more than a decade before "Saving Private Ryan" was made, it inspired one of the most memorable speeches of Ronald Reagan's presidency, delivered on the 40th anniversary of D–Day.

Perhaps Manchester was right about that "air of inevitability" stuff. In the rearview mirror of history, events always seem to be inevitable, don't they? No matter how lopsided or narrow the outcome turns out to be. They happened, and they're in the history books. It seems to be impossible to imagine a different outcome.

But that is with the benefit of hindsight, which they wisely say is 20/20. On the threshold of D–Day, there was much doubt — as there usually is before a critical mission is launched.

Eisenhower prepared a statement in case the invasion failed. He never had to deliver it, but it reveals the conflict that raged within his mind on the eve of the invasion.
"Our landings in the Cherbourg–Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone."

Combat has always struck me as being the closest thing to hell on earth that a human being is likely to endure. A battle isn't neat and orderly. It isn't like a football game or any other competition that is likened to war — because nothing else is like war. It is sure to be chaotic and terrifying.

(Before a battle begins, soldiers can't tell themselves it will all be over in 30 minutes or an hour — as a civilian might say about something he/she has been dreading, like a trip to the dentist or the Department of Motor Vehicles. Battles last as long as someone from each side refuses to give in.)

Even so, the success of D–Day was due to a combination of factors. The absence of any one might have meant the failure that Eisenhower clearly feared.

"Much has been made of the rough weather and how it hampered landing operations," Manchester wrote. "It was really a blessing" because essential German officers, believing the Allies would never invade in such conditions, were absent when the invasion began.

Radio broadcasts from Germany suggested that the Nazis knew an invasion would come, but there was disagreement about where it would be. At one point, Hitler believed the invasion would occur at Normandy and began moving forces and equipment into position there, but he changed his mind and agreed with his advisers, who believed the invasion would happen at Calais, farther north and a shorter trip across the English Channel.

"This was the best possible piece of luck for Eisenhower," Manchester wrote.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was in charge of defending the French coast against the Allies, also was not present when the invasion began. He had left for Germany to celebrate his wife's birthday with her. There seemed to be no reason for him not to. Historian William Shirer observed, "There were the usual reports from German agents about the possibility of an Allied landing ... but there had been hundreds of these since April and they were not taken seriously."

The Germans had 10 panzer divisions available to repel the invaders; only one saw action, but it managed to drive back the British and force an extended battle for the city of Caen in northwest France. If even two or three additional panzer divisions had participated in the battle, the outcome might well have been different.

In Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt told his wife that the long–awaited invasion would occur in the morning. "She said she wished, in a way, that he had not told her," Bishop wrote, "because she knew she wouldn't sleep."

Roosevelt, "who could will himself to sleep, failed on the night of June 5," Bishop wrote. "[H]e was on and off the phone to the Pentagon until 4 a.m." By that time, FDR knew that the invasion was under way.

And the tide of the war had turned. In Europe, anyway.

Of course, that part wasn't immediately clear — but it became clear in the days and weeks that followed.

By noon the day of the invasion, Winston Churchill notified Roosevelt that the initial landings had been successful, and Roosevelt summoned the press. He was in a jovial mood, but he cautioned the reporters that "[t]he war isn't over by any means.

"You don't just land on a beach and walk through — if you land successfully without breaking your leg — walk through to Berlin. And the quicker this country understands it the better."

The presidency always demands a certain amount of leadership skill, but it required a lot of it from Franklin D. Roosevelt in June 1944. As he was finalizing the plans for the invasion of Normandy, he was contending with the escalating cost of the top–secret Manhattan Project. He had managed to finance the project in the early years, Bishop wrote, by "manag[ing] to squeeze secret funds into the War Department budget,"

That month, the head of the Manhattan Project reported needing $200 million immediately. "[S]omeone would have to take Congress into this most secret of projects," Bishop wrote.

Roosevelt dispatched Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Gen. George C. Marshall and Office of Scientific Research and Development director Vannevar Bush to lobby congressional leaders for huge appropriations with few, if any, questions asked.

"It wasn't an easy assignment," Bishop wrote, "but leaders of both parties worked it out."

And, while few may have realized it at the time, the tide of the war in the Pacific had turned as well.

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