Saturday, June 08, 2019

June 6, 1944: The Greatest Moment of the Greatest Generation

Tuesday, June 6, 1944. It was perhaps the greatest moment of the greatest generation. The weather was miserable. It had been rainy and windy off and on for days, and when it wasn't raining, it was gloomy and overcast. Weather reports at the time said the weather was more akin to Fall than the Summer. However, there was expected to be a brief break. It wouldn't be much of one. It would still be overcast and the waters choppy, but the rain would stop and the wind over Northern France would be relatively calm. The invasion had already been postponed once because of the weather. The next anticipated break wouldn't in until early July at best.

Meanwhile, there were some 156,000 men ready to go. Many had already been loaded onto ships three days prior. The majority of them were seasick from the choppy water rocking the ships back and forth and up and down. At the same times, planes---bombers, fighters and transports---sat on the ground; fueled, armed, and awaiting their green light to load up and go. Scattered at sites all over England millions more waited for the order to go. Some were civilian while others were military; reserve and auxiliary, both men and women. They were on ships, at airfields, sitting in radar, communication, or command stations, air raid and observation outposts which scanned the skies looking for any hint that the Germans might preempt the pending invasion. The tension was palpable. It was like thousands of rubber bands twisted to the breaking point just waiting to be released. This was Operation Overlord, the code-name for the invasion of France by the Allies. Some 15 nations were taking part in this, the largest invasion ever attempted in history.

Just across the English Channel lay France. On a clear day, you could just make out its shores. But these weren't welcoming shores awaiting its liberators. These shores were the first visible signs of Hitler's Fortress Europe, and the soldiers behind its more than ample fortifications knew the Allies were coming; they had for many months and they were waiting.

Waiting for the Allied troops on those not-so-distant shores was sixty combat divisions, which made up approximately 850,000 German troops and ten panzer divisions. including the famous 21st Panzer Division which was one of the two divisions which made up the Afrika Korp. This was Fortress Europe, designed by Organization Todt starting in 1940 with the Fall of France, using thousands of mostly forced labor alongside highly skilled German engineers, craftsmen, and builders.

Fortress Europe ("Festung Europa" in German) was the name given to the Atlantic Wall; a vast series of massive gun emplacements housed near impenetrable bunkers, observation posts, miles of barbwire and an estimated six million landmines were laid along the beaches and roads near Normandy, angled and sharpen telephone poles like giant pongee sticks designed to destroy gliders and other aircraft (nicknamed "Rommel's asparagus"), and 200,000 steel barriers made up of railroad tracks all along the beaches, designed to be hidden at high tide and would ripe the bottoms of landing craft open like a can of sardines. In addition, there was a myriad of concrete enforced trenches and underground rail lines to quickly move men, ammunition, and other material. Beyond that were numerous barracks and other fortifications, often camouflaged as haystacks, barns or houses. Lastly was overlapping communication lines.

The Atlantic Wall itself ran from Brittany in far Western France all along the Northern coastline to include Belgium and Holland. In addition, German troops had fortified the coastlines of Denmark and Norway. This truly was a "Festung Europa". As an interesting aside, German troops had painted in minute detail everything within view from their gun emplacement on the inside walls of their bunkers right down to every bush. If something appeared which wasn't on that permanent map, it was destroyed.

So, what do you do when the enemy knows you're coming? You distract them, and that's exactly what the Allies did months ahead of the planned invasion (code-named "Operation Fortitude). The Allies used everything trick in the book, and then some, to make the Germans believe, not that there would be no invasion, but that the invasion would take place several miles away, at the Pas de Calais. What was significant about this particular area is that it's the closest point between France and the UK. It's also where Hitler had previously considered invading England from. Thus, the Allies played on Hitler's ego by convincing him that his idea for using Calais was the correct one.

The Allies did everything from planting false plans, notes, and letters on individuals (and even once used a corpse) knowing that they would be intercepted by the Germans which would only fed their preconceived notions. Meanwhile, unknown to German intelligence, all of the spies had been captured. Many were "convinced" to work for the British, and thus would send false reports back to Berlin. The Allies even built up an entire fake army around General George Patton, whom the Germans believed was the best Allied general and the man most likely to lead an invasion. They even created inflatable planes, trucks, tanks, and false radio traffic for the Germans to monitor. On top of this was around the clock bombing by US and British bombers.

Just prior to the invasion, the Allies stepped up their bombing campaign over France to further weaken the Germans. Finally, after months of planning, delays, setbacks, and mounting pressure from Stalin, it was decided by overall Allied Commander, General Dwight D Eisenhower and his generals, composed of senior Allied officers, late in the evening on June 5th to go the next morning. The invasion was on. In private, Eisenhower composed two messages fir broadcast. The first to announce the success of the landing. The second for its all too real potential failure.

The Allies amassed the greatest armada of ships the world had ever seen. Some 5,333 ships and landing crafts were prepared to sail. Ahead of the land assault was the aerial assault by approximately 23, 400 US paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne along with British 6th Airborne and RAF Pathfinders silently coming in by glider. Their jobs would be to seize key bridges, rail points, and crossroads in order to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the beachheads.

In addition to being the largest naval armada in the annals of world history, there were also 3,455 operational heavy bombers, 989 operational light and medium bombers, and 3,824 fighters available on June 6th. However, due to a shortage of aircrews, not all of these flew on D-Day. Nevertheless, some 7,774 planes did fly that day (that number jumps to 9,000 if you include transports and gliders. By contrast, the Luftwaffe had available just 815 assorted planes). The sight and sound of all those planes must have been mind numbing.

Unfortunately though, the landing took place at low tide causing the men to wade to shore from further out than anticipated since the landing craft couldn't get closer in to shore. As a result, hundreds of men drowned; the weight of their equipment dragging them down. Tanks, jeeps, and other vehicles also sank as the water was to deep or to rough. However, the low tide exposed the beach barricades which would had destroyed the landing craft had they tried to land at high tide. They also provided a measure of protection for the men to hide behind, saving who knows how many lives.

The Allies were lucky in other ways too. First, many of the heavy gun emplacements were either still empty or manned by smaller caliber artillery pieces. Of the sixty combat infantry divisions and ten Panzer divisions, including key SS units, which comprised the 850,000 troops and 1,555 tanks in France at the time, the majority---the most experienced---were stationed at Port of Calais, there were only 80,000 troops at Normandy on June 6th and element of just one Panzer division. To make matters worse for the Germans, of the 80,000 or so troops in Normandy, the majority had little or no combat experience. In fact, most were Auxiliary and conscripts (many as young as 16) from the Eastern territories. Also, many of the tanks on hand weren't yet combat operational; needing repairs or refitting. Those which were working hadn't been brought up the front at previously instructed.

Finally, the top command of German forces, including the commander for Army Group B, which covered Normandy, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, were away. Some had decided to take some extended leave time (not expecting an invasion due to weather), while Rommel had returned home on a surprise visit for his wife's birthday---June 6th. Meanwhile, Hitler was so convinced that the invasion would come at the Pas de Calais, that he had given strict instructions that no units---men, tanks, artillery, or plane---could be released without his personal approval.

As a result, the Germans were poorly prepared for any attack, but the cherry on the top was than when it was confirmed that the attack was indeed underway, Hitler was asleep. Suffering from bouts of insomnia, Hitler had taken a sleeping pill just hours before and his aides were afraid to wake Hitler up, and so the Allies were able to establish a foothold while Hitler counted sheep. Although the battle for Normandy lasted until August, by the time Hitler finally awoke, the damage had been done. In fact, while it should had only taken about six hours for Hitler's Panzers to make the journey from Calais to Normandy, French resistance fighters were able to delay them nearly three days, giving the Allies more time reinforce their positions.

Finally, to give some additional weight to the overall complexity of D-Day, besides the 150,000+ soldiers to participate in the landing and the 5,333 ships which got them there (including 200 warships which participated in the bombardment) or the 9000 aircraft which flew a total of 11,085 missions, 200,000 vehicles plus 1,550 tanks landed on the beaches that day along with 1,695 tons of material. Meanwhile Allied bombers dropped 7,616 tons of bombs that night before the invasion followed by 10,395 tons of bombs during the day of the invasion. 27 amphibious tanks were sunk at Utah beach, 120 Allied ships were damaged by German shelling, plus another 59 Allied ships which were sunk.

D-Day, June 6th 1944 marked the beginning of the end for the German occupation of France, and for the Nazi "Thousand Year Reich". By May 1945, the war in Europe would be over, and by August the war in the Pacific would come to a close too. There's another matter we must take into consideration too. Field Marshall Rommel remarked, about a pending invasion of Fortress Europe, that whenever and wherever it happened, it would be the "longest day" of the war.

For approximately 5000 men it was indeed their "longest day" because for them that day never ended. They were the ones who died on that day. In addition, some 15,000 French civilians living in and around Normandy also died, mostly from Allied shelling. On the German side, around 9000 soldiers were killed and some 200,000 were killed, missing, or taken prisoner including 28 generals. When calculated for the entire Normandy Campaign, which lasted from June 6 to August 30th, there were 209,000 Allied casualties. For the Germans, it was roughly 200,000. As an aside, the average age of a GI at the time was just 19 while the average age of an officer (excluding senior officers) was only 23.

While it's hard to believe that these old men with their walkers, canes, and wheelchairs accomplished these feats for which have all but been consigned to history books and the movies, there is no doubt that 75 years ago these were men of unbreakable will and character. They were a physically strong as they were sharp as knives. They lived through a depression, fought a war, and came home to remake a nation. The same can be said of all the women who served as well. While we're losing on average 300 of these individuals a day, make no mistake that these were the greatest generation and we should feel blessed that they existed.

D-Day Causalities: Total Allied and Axis Numbers

Figures of the Normandy Landing

Atlantic Wall

Normandy Landing

Operation Fortitude

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