D-Day isn’t one of those dates most Americans remember easily. It’s not associated with bank holidays, BBQs, parades or other high profile celebrations. There’s no Hallmark cards and socially mandated gifts for spouses and lovers associated with the day. It’s not even a date in history that is marked with any specific, large scale memorials or tributes. Most occasions, it slips quietly by, virtually unnoticed, save for a few token stories…. like this one… and brief mentions in between the tabloid news we’re spoon fed and hyped up on these days.
But June 6, 1944 was not one of those days that would so quietly slip by. On this day, the Allied forces crossed the English channel to storm five beach heads along the French Normandy coast. The US forces landed at Utah and Omaha, while the Canadians and British attacked attacked Sword, Juno and Gold beaches. But it was not just the beaches that were a’buzz with allied activity.
On the morning of June 5, 1944, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious military operation in history. On his orders, 6,000 landing craft, ships and other vessels carrying 176,000 troops began to leave England for the trip to France. That night, 822 aircraft filled with parachutists headed for drop zones in Normandy. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion.
By dawn on June 6, 18,000 parachutists were already on the ground; the land invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; so did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where 2,000 troops were lost and it was only through the tenacity and quick-wittedness of troops on the ground that the objective was achieved. By day’s end, 155,000 Allied troops–Americans, British and Canadians–had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches.
The massive endeavor and coordination between the Allies was anything but smooth… with delays due to weather, most allies forces landing only a fraction of their supplies and vehicles they intended, paratroopers landing far off course and units split in different areas and, of course, the beach most famous for it’s dramatic attack, difficult terrain and high casualties incurred just in the landing (pictured below to the right).
To date, there’s no official count of the lives lost, and sources differ.
Author and BBC broadcaster, Paul Reed (pictured left), is the son of a a WW2 veteran who served with 24th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. An avid historian on military history, he wanted to start a “Roll of Honour” for the British casualties on D-Day. Over time, they’ve been slowly collecting the names for each regiment.
–The D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, England claims a total of 2,500 Allied troops died, while German forces suffered between 4,000 and 9,000 total casualties on D-Day. –The Heritage Foundation in the U.S. claims 4,900 U.S. dead on D-Day–The U.S. Army Center of Military History cites a total casualty figure for U.S. forces at 6,036. This number combines dead and wounded in the D-Day battles–John Keegan, American Historian and Author believes that 2,500 Americans died along with 3,000 British and Canadian troops on D-Day
The official site for the American National D Day Memorial is in Bedford, MD. The memorial came under fire in 2010 for it’s display of a bust of Stalin, and it’s interpretative plaque citing his crimes against humanity, within the Memorial. Under the bust is the inscription:
In memory of the tens of millions who died under Stalin’s rule and in tribute to all whose valor, fidelity, and sacrifice denied him and his successors victory in the cold war.
The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation started a petition last year to lobby for removal of the bust. The Memorial responds in their official statement:
The Foundation would never seek to “honor” such an individual. The interpretative plaque accompanying the Stalin bust clearly acknowledges his crimes against humanity. Illuminating Stalin’s role in the planning of Operation Overlord is not to “honor” him as a person, but to recognize him and his country in a coalition effort to win the war. D-Day after all was multinational in scope. To be good stewards of history, the Foundation is charged with telling the full story. History is a “messy business” and too often, is sanitized, highlighting only what we wish to remember. By not acknowledging Stalin as an ally, as some would have us do, we erase an important part of history and do an injustice to future generations who attempt to learn from the past.
Stalin had a great deal to do with the Invasion. Stalin had been pushing for the opening of a second front since the summer of 1941. During the 1943 Teheran Conference he was determined to make Operation Overlord the focus of their talks. The “Big Three” (Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin) spent the majority of their time discussing when and where that effort should commence. Teheran marked a turning point in the war. It was the Invasion plan (D-Day/Overlord) that completely sealed their alliance. Stalin made clear that the Invasion of Western Europe had to be the primary military focus in 1944. There would not have been a D-Day without this political component.
Bagration also clearly demonstrates Stalin’s response to the coalition. In April 1944, the Soviets were informed that the landing was taking place in June. The Allies pressed the Soviets for actions that would further relieve pressure in the West. The Soviets embarked on the Belorussian Operation which in effect destroyed seventeen German divisions and three brigades while inflicting heavy losses on fifty other German divisions. By tying up these troops, the allies were successful in moving inland in the weeks following the invasion. On September 27, 1944 Churchill wrote to Stalin and noted that he would let it be known in the House of Commons “that it is the Russian Army that tore the guts out of the German military machine.”
The Stalin bust has not been removed, and instead wisely has been moved to a separate museum display about the four Allied leaders, and their political contributions (both good and bad) towards history. There is truth in the Memorial’s belief that whitewashing the tyrants and despots out of our history only leads to the danger of complacency when history, again, repeats itself. And then there is the wisdom in preserving truth of the atrocities of war so that Hollywood, who has a tendency to rewrite history for their box office reception, cannot become the new “history text book” for current generations.
For example, Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” was loosely based on the story of Sgt. Fritz Niland, who lost two brothers, and another – Edward – was presumed dead when his B-25 was shot down on May 16th. The two confirmed deaths were brother Robert on D-Day in Neuville-au-Plain, and Preston on June 7th in the vicinity of Utah Beach. It was fortunate for the family that Edward was found to be alive, and had been held in a Japanese POW camp for over a year.
Unlike Hollywoods portrayal, no units were tasked with tracking down Fritz Niland to escort him home.
When Father Francis L. Sampson, chaplain of the 501st, learned that two of Niland’s brothers were dead, and that a third was presumed dead, he began the paperwork necessary to send Niland home.
Niland remained with his unit for some time, but once the paperwork cleared he was forced to return to the States, where he served in New York as an MP for the rest of the war.
We are rapidly losing the generations who participated in this strategic battle that altered the course of WWII. It is from their lips, and not from Hollywood or politically correct cleansed textbooks we should learn and remember. You will find the History Guy has links to two personal accounts by LTC John G. Burkhalter (The Big Red One on Omaha Beach), and Jim Wilkins (The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, Company B). To close this post, I’m going to post some excerpts from Steven Ambrose’s book, “D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II” .
Capt. Oscar Rich was a spotter for the 5th Field Artillery Battalion. He was on an LCT with his disassembled L-5 plane. He came to Easy Red at 1300. “I’d like to give you first my impression of the beach, say from a hundred yards out till the time we got on the beach,” he said.
“Looking in both directions you could see trucks burning, tanks burning, piles of I don’t know what burning. Ammunition had been unloaded on the beach. I saw one pile of five-gallon gasoline cans, maybe 500 cans in all. A round hit them. The whole thing just exploded and burned.
“I’ve never seen so much just pure chaos in my life. But what I expected, yet didn’t see, was anybody in hysterics. People on the beach were very calm. The Seabees were directing traffic and bringing people in and assigning them to areas and showing them which way to go. They were very matter-of-fact about the whole thing. They were directing traffic just like it was the 4th of July parade back home rather than where we were.”
American D-Day’s site has some pictures of some of the low key ceremonies that take place around the world this year, and in past years.