D-Day. The enormity of this event is sometimes lost today because it was successful. But the invasion of Europe had no guarantees and the enormous cost in lives was proof that the future of self government hung in the balance.
We forget that the paratroopers that jumped behind the lines to prepare for the invasion were scattered across and beyond their drop zone. The Omaha beach landing was a blood bath. The battleships pounding the coast were having limited effect because of the protective bunkers built near the beach.
The then recent ability of the Allies to crack the Enigma Code had a hand in confusing the Germans as to where the attacks would be concentrated. And Rommel’s desperate requests to German headquarters for reinforcements was delayed because the German Command was afraid to give Hitler any “bad news”.
So many things could go wrong. So many things depended upon mistakes or fortunate coincidences.
To give you an idea of the fragility of the difference between success and failure, here is an analysis of Rommel’s actions on that fateful day:
Two relatively small incidents, one in which Rommel’s superiors overruled him and the second where a subordinate deliberately disobeyed his direct orders, played a major role in the successful American landings on D-Day. In the first case, Rommel requested permission to move the fanatical Hitler Youth volunteers of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend to Carentan, which unknown to the field marshal was to lie equidistant between the American landing beaches of Omaha and Utah. In that position, the SS division would have been ideally placed to intervene against either of the American landing areas. Even if they had failed to stop the landings, the Germans would have made the linkup between the American beaches extraordinarily difficult. This request was not granted.
The second incident had to do with the commander of the 352nd Infantry Division, which had responsibility for the sector where the American 1st and 29th Infantry divisions and other supporting units would land on D-Day. One of the great myths of World War II has been that the 352nd Division’s presence in the area of Omaha Beach was a surprise to Allied intelligence. It was not. In fact, while the 352nd was responsible for defending the area to the north and northwest of Bayeux, the division commander, Maj. Gen. Dietrich Kraiss, held most of his infantry battalions back from the beaches as a counterattack force — an approach again in accordance with basic German doctrine.
When Rommel arrived in the area in early May, he was upset at the division’s dispositions and immediately ordered Kraiss to move more of his force up to defend the beaches. Supported by his corps commander, Lt. Gen. Erich Marcks, who had been one of the early planners for Operation Barbarossa, Kraiss ignored Rommel’s order. Of the 10 infantry and five artillery battalions that Kraiss had available, he placed only one artillery battalion and two infantry battalions along the Omaha Beach sector. This decision makes even less sense when one realizes that he deployed two-thirds of his force in reserve or in position to defend the western sector of his area of responsibility — where no amphibious landing could possibly take place.
Although the bloodshed on Omaha was appalling, the Americans there were indeed lucky that they only had to face two battalions of enemy infantry on June 6. Had Kraiss obeyed Rommel’s instructions, it is likely that the Omaha Beach landing would have failed — with considerable consequences for the Allies’ ability to link together the British and American beaches.
One thing is clear – a D-Day failure would have been catastrophic and the Hitler government could have sealed the world’s fate in that one 24 hour period. We can celebrate our freedom today because so many men were willing to sacrifice themselves on a foreign beach to maintain what we often take for granted today.
These men came from all walks of life. Farmers and factory workers and field hands – not military professionals. Not the volunteer force we are familiar with today (although the vast majority did sign up voluntarily). These were not professional soldiers, but they knew this job was vital and they stormed those beaches knowing that this might be their last act as a living human being.
After that day, America grew into the dominant super power in the world. Because D-Day happened, America and its love of personal freedom was allowed to give the world an alliance of hope and prosperity. Failure on that one day might have left the world in a bleak authoritarian rule for which there could be no escape.
As a student of history, each year on the 6th of June, my mind still marvels at this moment in history….the sacrifice….the determination….the ingenuity and courage of that day.
And I also think of the fragility of what we take for granted. Our freedom and our values in the human condition. And that fragility is still relevant, even today. The German people wanted their place in the world, but I doubt that any of them signed on to the future they were dragged into. They were told what they wanted to hear and placed in the chains of one man’s desire for world domination. It seems impossible to believe that an entire country could be persuaded so apparently easily – but it happened.
And it can happen again if we are not careful and maintain our vigilance.
You hear the term…”freedom isn’t free”. Well that is very true. And vigilance isn’t temporary.
Today we live in strange times. We have an “unorthodox” President. A president who is making our post- WWII alliances more fragile than they have ever been. A man who embraces the same type of nationalist fervor that brought down Germany and the Soviet Union. And a similar anti-immigrant resentment that allowed Germany to blame its problems on the Jewish race.
The sacrifice of our troops on D-Day must never be forgotten. We must never allow the same series of events to occur again.
Lady Liberty stands in New York harbor to tell the world that this bastion of freedom has its door open and that we stand against tyranny of any kind.
Remember that on this 75th Anniversary of the liberation of Europe. We are the final defenders of freedom.
Never forget that.