D-Day: The Great Crusade of World War II
As General Dwight D. Eisenhower reminded the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force in his Order of the Day for Tuesday, June 6, 1944, “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.” To “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,” Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, exclaimed, “We will accept nothing less than full victory!” On D-Day, the “liberty-loving people” of the world were indeed watching and praying for Allied forces as they began the greatest operation of World War II. Seventy-six years later, we must faithfully remember the warriors President Ronald Reagan memorialized as the guardians of liberty who “stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.”
After assembling nearly two million troops from over 12 countries, nearly 7,000 naval vessels, 11,500 aircraft, and millions of tons of supplies in Britain, the Allies launched Operation Overlord, the largest and most thoroughly planned amphibious invasion in military history on June 6, coordinating a naval, air, and land assault against Nazi-occupied France. Due to a brilliant deception campaign intended to mislead the Germans about where the main invasion force would land, the Allies succeeded in sowing confusion among the enemy. With the Germans taking the bait and concentrating their forces at the Pas de Calais, the shortest route to France from across the English Channel, the Imperial War Museum records that the Allies managed to keep enemy “reinforcements tied down away from Normandy,” the main target for the invasion. The power of Allied deception, combined with the differences of opinion among the top German commanders about the most effective way to defend against the invasion, and the interference of Adolf Hitler in military strategy, led to fatal consequences for the Germans on D-Day.
American troops preparing to leave port in Britain to embark upon the invasion of Normandy. (Photo: Imperial War Museum)
Despite the exhaustive planning and the incredible strength assembled by the Allies for the invasion of Normandy, the main Allied planners and leaders knew that a daunting challenge awaited them. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, “My dear friend, this is much the greatest thing we have ever attempted.” Even Mother Nature complicated matters for the Allies. With the operation slated to being on Monday, June 5, General Eisenhower was forced to make the difficult decision of postponing the attack to June 6 because of unfavorable weather in the English Channel.
As the Supreme Allied Commander, perhaps no single person on the Allied side faced greater pressure than Dwight Eisenhower. While Eisenhower’s powerfully written Order of the Day for Tuesday, June 6 has gone down in history, he also took the time to draft another note, assuming full responsibility in the event that the invasion failed. On the evening of June 5, Eisenhower was reenergized after visiting with the men of the 101st Airborne Division and other airborne units preparing to board their planes and deploy for the invasion. “They went crazy,” reported Eisenhower’s driver, Kay Summersby, “yelling and cheering because ‘Ike’ had come to see them off.” The troops made it clear that they were ready to go. “Hell, we ain’t worried, General,” said one sergeant, “It’s the Krauts that ought to be worrying now.”
Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division at Greenham Common Airfield on the evening of June 5, 1944. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Shortly after midnight on June 6, over 18,000 Allied airborne troops parachuted behind enemy lines into drop zones across northern France to seize vital roads and bridges and to provide tactical support for the infantry that would land on the heavily fortified beaches of Normandy. At 5:50 a.m., Allied vessels unleashed a ferocious bombardment on the German beach fortifications and other positions along the Normandy coast. Around 6:30 a.m., American forces landed on Omaha and Utah beaches. An hour later, British and Canadian troops assaulted Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches.
Historian Andrew Roberts notes that prior to the invasion, an estimated two million slave laborers were used by the Germans to build defenses and poured nearly “18 million tons of concrete to create deep bunkers” and other stout fortifications along the French coastline known as the “Atlantic Wall." Placing all kinds of obstacles, including mines in the water and on the beaches, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the man charged with defending France from invasion, recognized that the Allies held air superiority and believed that the key to defeating the invasion was to prevent Allied forces from establishing themselves on shore. When the Allies finally came on June 6, unleashing all of their might against the formidable German defenses, the most intense struggle on the sands of Normandy was faced by the waves of American soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach.
Despite the intensity of the Allied naval and aerial bombardment, the German fortifications on Omaha remained intact and the 6,000 yards of the beach assaulted by the Americans became a horrifying killing ground. Roberts describes that U.S. troops “had to leap out of their landing craft into a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire loaded down with 68 pounds of equipment,” leading many to drown after jumping into the water. The overwhelming sacrifice made by Company A of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division epitomizes the brutality endured by the leading American units on Omaha. As historian Alex Kershaw notes, “102 of these 180 men would die on Omaha Beach in the first wave, the highest casualties of any Allied unit.” Nineteen of those men killed were from the small town of Bedford, Virginia, which had a population of around 3,000 in 1944 and “is recognized as having the most men per capita killed on D-Day,” according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation. As Kershaw adds, “ no community in the state or in America or indeed in any Allied nation had lost as many sons as Bedford.”
American troops fighting their way forward on Omaha Beach. (Photo: DDay-Overlord.com)
Facing stout German troops who had been hardened by battling the relentless Russians on the Eastern Front, intense artillery fire, barbed wire, anti-personnel mines, steel anti-tank “hedgehogs,” and other murderous obstacles, the Americans on Omaha Beach endured “by far the greatest concentration of German fire on the entire invasion front,” according to historian Max Hastings. As one German soldier positioned in a bunker remembered, “I might have killed hundreds that morning.” Twenty-seven of the twenty-nine American DD “floating” tanks and twenty-six artillery pieces never made it to the beach, sinking in the heavy seas, which Roberts explains, denied U.S. troops “the necessary firepower to get off the beach early.”
Naval forces off Omaha watched in horror as American soldiers “were pinned down to the beach,” as Admiral Charles Cooke observed. The situation was a “complete disaster” and something had to be done. Commanding the gunfire support group off Omaha, Admiral C. F. Bryant called all destroyers; shouting over the radio, “Get on them, men! Get on them! They are raising hell with the men on the beach, and we can’t have anymore of that! We must stop it!” As the late historian Stephen E. Ambrose described, “Every destroyer off Omaha responded, the skippers taking the risk of running aground (several did scrape bottom but got off), firing point-blank at targets of opportunity on the" cliffs and bluffs. In some places, those cliffs and bluffs towered “more than 150 feet above the sea wall at the end of the dunes,” according to Roberts. The actions of the Navy helped to turn the tide on Omaha Beach. As Lieutenant W. L. Wade reported, “Destroyers were almost on the beach themselves, firing away at pillboxes and strong points.” At 1:30 p.m., after U.S. soldiers had been pinned down for seven hours, General Omar Bradley finally received the signal that American troops were advancing up the heights behind Omaha Beach.
An aerial photo of numerous Allied naval craft off Omaha Beach. (Photo: Imperial War Museum)
After what must have felt like the longest day and the most intense struggle of their lives, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force had done their duty. By the end of June 6, the five assault beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword had been secured and approximately 154,000 Allied troops (70,500 Americans, 83,115 British and Canadian) were on the ground in France. The Allies suffered around 9,000 casualties on D-Day. As Andrew Roberts writes, “The dead comprised 2,500 Americans, 1,641 Britons, 359 Canadians, thirty-seven Norwegians, nineteen Free French, thirteen Australians, two New Zealanders and one Belgian: 4,572 soldiers in total.” Two thousand Americans gave the last full measure of devotion in the fight for Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Although the war was still far from over after D-Day, the Allies had gained a vital foothold to begin the drive into France. As Roberts adds, “The news of D-Day gave sudden, soaring hope to Occupied Europe.” Deliverance was coming, but Allied forces would face strong German resistance over the ensuing three months, being forced to fight savagely, step by bloody step to advance further inland.
The end of the day at Omaha Beach. As Stephen E. Ambrose describes this photo in his book, D-Day, "American men and equipment coming ashore in staggering numbers. One pilot thought, as he looked down on this scene, that Hitler must have been mad to think he could beat the United States." (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Seventy-six years later, we must continue to ensure that the world never forgets the heroes of D-Day. As Stephen Ambrose remarked about that pivotal date in history, “You can’t overstate it. It was the pivot point of the 20th Century. It was the day on which the decision was made as to who was going to rule in this world in the second half of the 20th Century.” On June 6, 1944, American, British, Canadian, Australian, Belgian, Czech, Dutch, French, Greek, New Zealand, Norwegian, Rhodesian, and Polish warriors all stood together and accomplished one of the greatest feats in military history. They were the guardians of liberty, the liberators of Europe, and the saviors our world needed.
C-Span: Stephen E. Ambrose D-Day Interview.
D-Day: June 6, 1944, the Battle for the Normandy Beaches by Stephen E. Ambrose.
Eisenhower: A Biography (Great Generals) by John Wukovits.
Imperial War Museum: The 10 Things you Need to Know About D-Day.
National D-Day Memorial Foundation: The Last of the Bedford Boys: Allen Huddleston.
The Bedford Boys by Alex Kershaw.
The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War by Andrew Roberts.