Tom Brokaw called them “The Greatest Generation,” those men and women who were raised during the Depression and went on to fight World War II, motivated not by fame or fortune but by honor, because it was the right thing to do. If he was correct, then surely some of the greatest of them all were the ones who struggled onto the Normandy beaches 75 years ago Thursday, June 6, 1944, D-Day, in the largest seaborne invasion ever undertaken.
What they accomplished is nothing less than astonishing. The odds were against them, the challenge more formidable than any they had yet undertaken. The withering fire into which they waded on the beaches was all but unquenchable, killing comrades with terrorizing accuracy. Depicted in the first 20 minutes of the film “Saving Private Ryan,” the intensity and realism are chilling. Critics have called it not only the most realistic representation of the D-Day invasion on film, but the best combat scene ever made.
But the invaders persevered, hunkering down at first, then pressing ahead when and, where possible, braving German forces weakened and ineptly led, but determined and well defended. And in the end, the invading allies succeeded.
The scope of the assault force assembled was extraordinary: 156,000 men (and one woman, Martha Gelhorn) in 39 divisions: 22 American, 12 British, three Canadian, one Polish and one French, all under the command of British General Bernard Montgomery; a fleet of nearly 6,000 vessels commanded by British Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay; British General Trafford Leigh Mallory commanded more than 2,200 bombers and transports carrying American, British and Canadian airborne troops who parachuted into France. U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force for the invasion of Europe.
As supreme commander, Eisenhower provided all units engaged with his personal message. They were, he wrote, embarked upon a Great Crusade whose object was “the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” “We will accept nothing less than full Victory,” he said. He expressed full confidence in the troops’ courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. The magnitude of the task before them was revealed in a letter Eisenhower had in reserve, accepting full blame for the failure of the invasion.
Well trained, executing superb planning years in the making, supported by massive supplies of equipment and materiel, and determined that they must not fail, the Allied soldiers secured the beachheads — five of them — and within days, they were sufficiently entrenched and organized to begin the slow push inland that would take them first to Caen, then to Paris, then across the Rhine to the Elbe and finally the defeat of Hitler and his inhumane, criminal regime. Their success took German pressure off the eastern front, facilitating the Russian move west.
The D-Day triumph echoes through the ages in the very real achievements which define modern Europe: the emergence of a democratic Germany, the establishment of the European Union, an unprecedented 75 years of peace in Western Europe, and a continuing commitment to the liberal values of social and economic equity and justice.
Some have questioned the relevance of history, wondering how it can be possibly be related to the changed world we live in now. But it’s difficult to gainsay the direct line from the courage, determination and success of the men and women who landed in France and went on to conquer the German army and defeat Nazism, to the security and prosperity enjoyed today not just in Western Europe, but across the free world and in the United States.
Their victory was not complete; the Soviet and satellite dictatorships installed themselves east of the “Iron Curtain” with remarkable speed. But the persistence of the model of freedom, with all of its faults, ultimately prevailed in Germany and elsewhere.
Without D-Day, it’s difficult to imagine today’s Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel addressing the graduates at Harvard, as she did last week, calling on them to “break down the walls” that hem them in, and have the courage to embrace new beginnings. The soldiers of D-Day would likely agree with her that with such courage, everything is possible.
Steve Haycox is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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