Friday, June 6, 2014

June 6: D-Day + 70 years: Success was no sure thing

The success of the Allied invasion of Normandy was not guaranteed.

Every effort had been made to keep the actual landing sites secret and, you may remember, to fool the Germans into believing the attack would come at Calais.

Enormous stockpiles of men, machines, and materiel had been assembled for the invasion effort. But the ability to get everything into France depended on whether the Mulberry harbors -- artificial harbors specially designed for the landings -- would work. No one knew. No one could know.

What the Germans knew was that an invasion was coming. And tidal cycles greatly narrowed the possibilities for possible invasion dates. Rommel was dispatched to build the Atlantic Wall to keep the Allies from securing beachheads. The Germans, by this time already under extreme pressure on the Eastern Front from the Soviets, had already been forced to divert increasingly scarce resources into Italy to slow the Allied advance after the Italians deserted the Axis and surrendered. The German military hierarchy, if not the the increasingly-delusional Hitler himself, understood that, if the Allies made it ashore safely in France, their so-called Thousand Year Reich's days were numbered. So the Germans were desperate, too.

There were so many ways for the invasion to fail. The landings might be rebuffed at the shore, with no beachheads established. If the artificial harbors didn't work, the Allies might not be able to muster enough force to breakout of those beachheads.

The weather cooperated. The Germans knew that June 5-6, 1944 were possible invasion dates, but the weather had been so terrible that the Germans concluded no crossing would be attempted. Rommel even went home for the weekend. Eisenhower did postpone the invasion for 24 hours and almost postponed it again because of the weather, but the weather cleared, just enough and just in time, for the great crusade to be launched.

"Crusade" was not a dirty word in 1944. Crusade in Europe was the title of Eisenhower's 1948 memoir. And, in his message to the invasion forces, Eisenhower wrote, in part,
You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will 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.
Images in this post from
the National Archives
But no one knew better than Eisenhower that the invaders might be repulsed. He scratched out a note on the evening of June 5 (it is dated July 5, but we can forgive the man under the stress of the moment), just in case. The note read,
Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.
Today, 70 years later, it is easy to conclude that the D-Day landings were destined to be successful. Hindsight is always 20/20. The men who launched the invasion could not be sure. But we can be so grateful that they overcame their doubts and reservations and went ahead despite them.