In the 1940’s, a global war was being fought by countries all over the world. In the end, around 70 million soldiers and civilians were killed, mostly in the Soviet Union and China. This war shaped the world. But on one specific day, the war took a different turn. That day was June 6, 1944. That day was D-Day.
The Allied forces, made up mostly of British, American, and Soviet forces and other countries, were not at a standstill in the war. France, an important Ally, was captured early in the war. The had only forced the Axis, consisting of Italian, Japanese, and Nazi Germany forces, out of North Africa and Southern Italy. The story was similar in the Pacific. The Allies needed a strategy to get to Europe. They needed a plan. The man in charge of that plan was the Supreme Commander of Allied forces Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower.
Eisenhower did not have an easy task. Standing in front of him was a Nazi-Italian force with a pair of entirely relentless leaders, Adolf Hitler, of Germany, and Benito Mussolini, of Italy. The Allies had some men who wouldn’t easily give up. Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Britain, and Franklin Roosevelt, the president of the United States, wanted to end the war. Eisenhower’s commanders started working in 1941 to end the war as soon as the United States entered it.
It took the Allies over 2 years to come up with a good plan. In August of 1943, Congress approved the plan. The Allies had just under a year to make everything perfect. Their first task was not a simple one. They had to cripple the Nazi Luftwaffe, or Air Force. The Luftwaffe had inspired fear into Allied forces since 1939. The Nazi’s used it to take Poland in two weeks. They took France in a month. Then, the Luftwaffe set its eyes on the second biggest challenge in all of Europe, the United Kingdom. The Nazi and British air forces fought for a virtual tie then the Nazi’s left. London was in shambles, and the Luftwaffe was needed for Operation Barbarossa which was their biggest challenge, attacking the Soviet Union. Now the Allies had six months to cripple the Luftwaffe. Allied planes saw many dogfights in the skies of Europe. Now the Luftwaffe was destroyed.
The pieces all fell, and now the Allies were less than a week away from the greatest military operation is history. Operation Neptune/Overlord was a go.
Nazi Defenses: Cunning of the Desert Fox
The Nazi officials knew that an Allied invasion was coming. They even knew that it would be in France. However, they did not know where in France. Many of the Axis officials believed that the invasion would be closer to the English Channel, in a town called Pas-de-Calais. Everyone but one, Erwin Rommel.
Rommel had had a successful career in Northern Africa, enough so to get the nickname “the Desert Fox, and was held as a war hero in Germany. Rommel was one of the highest ranking officials in Hitler’s army, at the rank of Generalfeldmarschall. Hitler had a great trust for Rommel and gave him anything he needed. Rommel nearly tripled the amount of defenses at Normandy, the eventual site of the D-Day invasion, with thousands of mines, tank traps, and other obstacles. Rommel also set up pillboxes, concrete boxes carved into hills that held machine guns, and set up traps behind the German line.
A picture taken by Robert Sargent during the Omaha Beach invasion. (www.wikipedia.org, 2012)
However, Rommel and most Nazi officials began to believe that the invasion would indeed be at Pas-de-Calais. Rommel still left Normandy with heavy defenses, but eventually turned his attention to Somme River. This would probably cost the Axis the war as Rommel was nearly killed twice after returning to Normandy on D-Day.
On June 6, 1944, a combined force of American, British, Canadian, Free Polish, Norwegian, Australian, Dutch, and New Zealander’s were sitting in Normandy harbor. The surprised Nazi forces had to scramble for the weapons. The Allies were victorious at the other five beaches. However, Omaha is the most infamous, due to the Nazi defenses. Of 16 tanks supposed to help the forces at Omaha, only 11 were left early on. The mostly-U.S. force lost 3,000 men, compared to just 1,200 defenders. Omaha is probably the most famous beach because of the massive Nazi defense. Captain Richard Merril of the 2nd Ranger Battalion said,” I was the first one out. The seventh man was the next one to get across the beach without being hit. All the ones in-between were hit. Two were killed; three were injured. That's how lucky you had to be.” (www.wikipedia.org, 2012)
Cota’s Charge: Lead the Way
American Major General Norman “Dutch” Cota was heavily involved in the planning of D-Day. Cota graduated from West Point, and was a major after World War 1. He was the Assistant Division Commander of the 29th Infantry Division, and the highest ranking American officer on the beach that day. Approximately 1 hour after H-Hour, the initial hour of the D-Day invasion, Cota landed with the 29th and the famous Big Red One 1st Division at Omaha Beach.
Cota’s divisions faced the most difficult challenge of perhaps all forces that day. The invasion force suffered 3,000 causalities, losses that include death, injuries, sickness, captured, or missing soldiers, and Cota knew what he had to do. Cota charged up the beach and came upon some of the fighters. Here, he is credited with a famous quote. The 5th Ranger Battalion was supposed to be up the beach. Cota told the Ranger’s to “Lead the Way” up the beach. Lead The Way then became the slogan for the Rangers. Cota also took the lead himself. He led his force up the beach and into the woods. Cota then took command of the 28th Infantry Division and lead in the liberation of Paris. Cota took part in the court martial and then execution of Eddie Slovak, the first desertion charge since the Civil War and the last to date. Cota retired in 1946 and died on October 4, 1971.
Assistance from French Resistances
It can be said that without help from French Resistances, the Allies would not have won the war. French Freedom forces provided intelligence, created diversions, and helped the American Ghost Division set up fake mulberry harbors. These were artificial harbors created by the British that supplied the Allies with the remainder of their invasion forces. These French forces fought against the odds for the never ending freedom of their home country. The Allies used D-Day as a propaganda piece to win the war, and the Free French people stood in the streets of Paris four years after watching in despair as their homeland was lost. They were finally victorious, and now had to watch as the Allies went for Berlin.
The Allied victory parade in Paris after its freedom from the Nazi’s.
D-Day caused cost the lives of at least 25,000 men on both sides fighting for what they believed in. If this wouldn’t have happened, the war might have taken a dramatic turn. Hitler promised assistance to the Japanese, but the two armies never converged. As for the fate of Hitler, he killed himself on April 30, 1945 and Benito Mussolini was executed the same day. Two days later, a Soviet flag flew over Berlin. As a matter of fact, the Soviet Union controlled nearly all of Europe in their conquest to get revenge on Germany for their ludicrous loses during Operation Barbosa. Hitler and Mussolini were not the only two deceased leaders. As a matter of fact, of the 6 main countries in the war America, England, Japan, Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union, only Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin lived past the 1940’s, and they both died before 1956. Indeed the war took a major toll on the leaders as well. Rommel proved to be a great and admired leader on both sides. On July 20, 1944, many Nazi leaders wished to kill Hitler and end the war. Many of these officials believed that Rommel would be a suitable replacement. The plot failed, and Rommel was blamed. He was given the choice of his whole family going to Roland Freisler’s People’s Court, where death sentences for his whole family were likely, or to commit suicide and die a war hero. Rommel committed suicide on October 14, 1944. He is often considered to be a war hero on both sides.
We count our conflicts not by the number of days they last, but by the days that define a country all together. D-Day certainly was one of these days. We study history not to hear the stories of our heroes, but to learn of their mistakes in hopes that we do not repeat them.