On June 6, the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, France, was commemorated. Ceremonies were attended by dignitaries from many nations to remember that fateful day. As we approach almost 20 years into a new millennium, this will likely be the last time any D-Day Veteran will attend. Ceremonies are held every five years and most Vets are in their late 80’s and 90’s. World War II was a costly war that robbed the world of its innocence, purging us of the youth that went off to fight. The war was horrific and costly for all – especially the Europeans. The last 75 years has enlightened us on the character of war and its costliness. Since that day in June – there have been many wars fought for various reasons throughout the world. So, the beat goes on, but have we learned anything?
Let’s imagine that day and look back at factors and the determination to go forward. One crucial factor was the weather. The weather could become a factor in the invasion plans. Between June 5-7, 1944, the Army Meteorologists surmised these dates to be the best conditions for the invasion: Full moon, Low tides, Light winds, Good visibility and Clear or partly cloudy skies. General Eisenhower, made his decision – and it was “let it begin,” so it was – June the 6th would be the day. As the young men loaded into the Landing Crafts – minds racing, nerves rattled, fear, remorse and long thoughts of home. Then the crafts plunged toward the beach with waves lapping over the sides onto the troops huddled inside together. The shelling and fire from the beach was deafening and the ping – ping of bullets striking metal – was frightening. Then the inevitable happens, the ramps are lowered and onto the beach they scrabble. They are met with the most intense firing imaginable – from German bunkers and concrete enforced gun positions. As they zig-zag through the withering inferno – men are stopped dead in their tracks as bullets reach human targets. Soldiers stepping over soldiers, who minutes before were hunkered down together; and the ugliness of human body parts everywhere in the sand. Soldiers in Landing crafts were being hit by artillery, on fire and sinking – treading water for their very lives and drowning. Some soldiers were lying in the sand in the fetal position just screaming. Officers shouting over the din of battle – to get off the beach or they would die. Yes that was the Normandy Beaches on that day in June. With the terror of that day in that place – on that beach – which would live with them always.
Causalities – U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division soldiers were disembarking from LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) and the casualties at Utah Beach were relatively light: 197, including 60 missing. However, the US 1st and 29th Divisions together suffered around 2000 casualties at Omaha Beach. The total German casualties on D-Day are not known, but are estimated as being between 4000 and 9000 men. (Casualties to this day are still being scrutinized.)
OMAHA BEACH – Regrettably the American troops who landed at Omaha Beach suffered the worst on D-Day. The bombardments before the Landings proved ineffective in wiping out the many German positions dotted along the slopes above the beaches beyond Colleville-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer. On top of that, the Allied amphibious tanks were launched too far out from the shore and failed. The infantry coming ashore were decimated by German fire across the long beaches. Despite heavy losses, small groups of Americans made it up the slopes and took German positions from behind, so some gains were made, at heavy human cost. At the end of the day, the forces that landed here suffered 3,000 casualties, of whom 1,000 died (maybe more, as many were missing.)
UTAH BEACH – The most westerly landing sector on D-Day, Utah Beach lies on the Cotentin Peninsula, also known as the Cherbourg Peninsula, and it was in fact in order to help take the vital port of Cherbourg rapidly that the Allied commanders of Operation Overlord, Eisenhower and Montgomery, decided that this further Landing Beach was required. It was extensive, going from the beach beyond the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont north to that by Quinéville. (http://en.normandie-tourisme) The day ended with a toe hold in Europe and at last taking the war to Hitler.
My hope is that the generations will remember D Day – and not forget that it was indeed “The Greatest Generation!”
Bob Boldman is a local historian. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org