The 70th Anniversary of the Longest Day
This past Friday, June 6, was possibly just another day for most Americans. But it was not “just another day” 70 years ago for the allied troops who stormed the 50-mile wide Normandy beaches on the morning of June 6, 1944 in the largest amphibious assault in history. It was D-Day. For most, it was their longest day; for some their last day.
The purpose of the invasion of Western Europe – code-named Operation Overlord – was to open a second front against Germany. The Italian campaign had begun in the fall of 1943 and lasted until the end of WW II in Europe. Plans for Overlord had been underway for more than two years and took their final shape in the spring of 1944. US General Dwight Eisenhower was chosen to be commander of Allied forces in Europe. Even though he had never been in combat and never commanded a combat troop unit, Eisenhower possessed uncanny political skills to deal with the complex egos of the allied commanders.
The time and place of the invasion of Western Europe was one of the best kept secrets of WW II. It was helped by the many deceptions the allies perpetrated to fool the German high command and German spies in England, which are chronicled in the book Bodyguard of Lies, whose title comes from an observation of Winston Churchill: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
The allies used double agents and created a fake army with inflatable decoys that at a distance of 100 yards, looked like real landing craft, tanks, and planes. They were stationed at phony bases around the Dover area of England so as to be surely seen by German reconnaissance fly-overs. Bogus radio traffic transmitted thinly disguised messages so any German intelligence unit with reasonable experience would deduce that the invasion point would be the Pas de Calais – the shortest transit of the English Channel – and that it would be “big and bad.” To complete the deception, the military unit to which these fake assets belonged was itself phony – the First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG) – commanded by Gen. George Patton, the allied field commander most respected (and feared) by the German high command. They were convinced that Patton would lead the invasion of Europe.
Both a full moon and the highest tide were needed to cross the Channel and land the invasion force – the former to provide the light for aircraft and landing craft; the latter to provide the tide depth needed to get over the beach obstacles placed by the Germans far out in the beach surf. This narrowed the choice to only a few days each month. June 5 was ideal but the weather in the Channel was terrible. With the assault troops already aboard the transport ships getting seasick in 5-foot swells, the invasion was delayed. If it couldn’t be made the following day, the invasion would have to wait another month. The weather forecast was good enough for June 6 to allow the invasion to begin. Ike said, “OK, let’s go.”
Overlord planning included sabotage by the French resistance, whose leaders were to be alerted by code words broadcasted in nonsense sentences. These would mean that invasion was imminent. The BBC periodically broadcasted meaningless sentences to confuse German intelligence. But a few days before D-Day, the resistance leaders heard the first line of Paul Verlaine’s poem, “Chanson d'automne,” which says “Les sanglots longs des violons de l'automne” (Long sobs of autumn violins) meaning D-day would be soon. When the second line was broadcast, “Blessent mon cœur d'une langueur monotone” (wound my heart with a monotonous languor) the resistance knew the invasion would happen within the 48 hours. This was their signal to begin cutting communication lines, blowing up rail lines, bridges and key roads, and sending clandestine messages to England giving the latest German troop emplacements.
The June 5 weather actually gave the allies an unexpected advantage. When the BBC broadcasted the message to the resistance that evening, the German 15th Army in the Pas de Calais area decided that they were code words and went on full alert, but Rommel’s Army Group B guarding the Normandy beaches stood down, believing no one would attack in such turbulent weather. Some German commanders had even left their Normandy units to participate, ironically, in exercises to simulate an allied landing at Normandy. Rommel had gone home to celebrate his wife’s birthday.
The start of Operation Overlord was launched in a two-pronged attack – an airborne drop of 24,000 American, British, Canadian and Free French behind German lines shortly after midnight, followed by a massive amphibious landing of over 160,000 allied infantry and armored divisions at 0630 hours on five French beach segments called Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword from right to left as the beaches were approached. When the troop transports were spotted off Normandy and the war ships began shelling beach fortifications, none of the German high command would awaken Hitler, who was asleep. This froze all German reserves in place, keeping them from reinforcing the beach defenses.
The Americans would attack at Utah and Omaha, the latter of which was shown in the opening sequences of Saving Private Ryan and was the beach at which the most savage fighting occurred. One 197-man company was killed or wounded within ten minutes of landing on the beach. Germans rained down mortars and artillery, killing many before they could even get out of their boats and nearly wiping out the first wave of invading forces while the survivors struggled for cover. Subsequent waves of assault LCAs had trouble landing because of all of the bodies churning in the surf.
“Every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero,” Gen. Omar Bradley, D-Day commander of U.S. ground forces, would later write.
The Canadians would land at Juno beach and would have to wade ashore through an enfilade fire screen that was sighted on the high tide mark, giving them a 50% chance of making it to the upper beach alive. As it turned out, one in 18 Canadians was killed, wounded, or missing. Defending the Juno area was the 12th SS Panzer Division, Hitlerjugend, a unit of mostly 18-year old fanatics who executed 12 captured Canadians. The savagery of fighting at Juno was second only to Omaha. The 12th SS Panzer Division would lose almost half of its troop strength before the Normandy campaign ended, after which it was withdrawn to Germany to be refitted and fight again in the Battle of the Bulge.
The British would attack Gold beach, where losses would be light, and the British and Free French would land at Sword beach. The battle for Sword beach lasted less than an hour with light casualties, but the fighting inland would be fierce, so fierce that the objective of the Sword beach landing – the road network at Caen – wouldn’t be taken until July 9.
The invasion fleet, under the command of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, had been pulled together from eight navies and consisted of 6,900 vessels manned by 200,000 allied naval and merchant marine personnel – 1,200 warships, 4,100 transport ships and landing craft, 700 ancillary vessels, and almost 900 merchant vessels.
The Normandy beaches face north over the sea. To assure that a beachhead could be established and built up in successive waves of men and materiel, it was essential to prevent German counter-attacks that would need the road and bridge infrastructure behind the beaches – particularly the eastern and western flanks where Sword and Utah beaches were located. Therefore 13,000 men comprising the American 82nd and 101st airborne divisions parachuted into the western flank of the Normandy beaches and 11,000 men comprising the British 6th airborne division including 530 Free French troops dropped into the eastern flank. These troops and their vehicles and light artillery were airlifted from England in about 2,400 aircraft and almost 900 gliders carrying troops and equipment.
Airborne landing zones had been identified by pathfinders – small units that parachute 30 minutes ahead of the main force to set up a transponder beacons to guide the following planes to their assigned areas. The American drop, in particular, bordered on disaster. A night drop had never been attempted before. The transponders didn’t work well. After crossing the Channel at 500 feet to get under enemy radar, the C-47 transports had to climb to 700 feet to get enough altitude for a parachute to open. Many planes flew into a cloud bank, became disoriented, and their pilots hit the green light “jump” switch, not knowing where they were. Others climbed above the clouds and hit the jump switch, which left the hapless paratroopers dangling long enough for Germans on the ground to shoot them on their descent. Anti-aircraft artillery blew up some planes. Seeing the flack, some pilots panicked and hit their jump switches so they could rid their human cargo and turn back to England.
As a result, almost half of the units that dropped in the pre-dawn hours of June 6 were scattered over so great an area, they were unable to rally. They stumbled around in the darkness trying to find each other and avoid the Germans. The Germans were as confused as the Americans because they didn’t know the locations and number of the invaders.
After 24 hours only 2,500 troops of the 101st and 2,000 of the 82nd were under the control of their division leaders. Most simply hooked up with NCOs and junior officers and began to improvise missions, their coup de main no longer possible.
Throughout D-day, allied fighter planes flew almost 15,000 sorties (one round trip by one airplane) over and behind the beaches to prevent German reinforcements. Less than 130 planes were lost. The allies had long since gained air supremacy over Germany.
Naval losses were 24 warships and 35 merchant ships or ancillary vessels, and a further 120 vessels damaged – a staggering number considering that German naval power in the Channel consisted of two torpedo boats. Most ships were hit from shore, some of which had crowded into keel depth water to run parallel with the beach and use shipboard cannons to blast German fortifications.
There are no official casualty figures for June 6, 1944. However, research by the US National D-day Memorial Foundation has verified that about 2,500 Americans were killed and about 2,000 allies from other nations died – about 4,500 men on that single day. The wounded and missing were estimated to be about an additional 8,000 total.
In the end, the allies won the Normandy campaign by the sheer weight of troop numbers and materiel. Three million men and 16 million tons of arms, ammunition, and supplies had been assembled in England for what Eisenhower called the Crusade in Europe. Despite the invasion fatalities, 100,000 soldiers made it ashore and survived the first day. By July, one million allies were in Normandy. Supplies were coming ashore at a rate of 20,000 tons per day. Allied forces crossed the Seine River on August 19. Paris was liberated six days later, ending the Normandy campaign at a cost of about 210,000 allied casualties.
Seventy years have passed since that June 6 in 1944. The shadows have lengthened for the men who went ashore that day – the majority of whom were under 25 years and many still teenagers. Most have gone to their reward.
I often wonder if the current generation could have won World War II. Sadly, I think not. The soldiers today are as brave as those of that day – maybe braver. They are, after all, volunteers whereas the warriors of WW II were often drafted into service. But today’s spineless politicians, the media, and maybe even the American people have no stomach for war on that scale. Too many today think that the options in dealing with the world’s bullies is either war or accommodation (aka appeasement) when the only real choice is, and has always been, either fight or surrender.
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” Ronald Reagan said. “We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
Throughout the year there are many dates I remember for their historic significance. But since my younger teenage years when I began to understand history, I’ve never let a June 6 pass unnoticed or without a whispered, “Thank you.”