TODAY is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the 1944 invasion of the Normandy coast, the first step for the Western allies in their goal of directly attacking Nazi Germany. It’s a well known story but it’s still one we should be re-telling.
It’s difficult to imagine what those men in the first assaults went through. Seasick and soaking wet, wading up a beach into enemy fire, picking their way past the bodies of the fallen. Or think of the claustrophobia of being crammed into an amphibious tank, scarcely buoyant, lumbering out of the sea to provide a big ponderous target for German gunners. Or the men who started their battle by jumping out of aeroplanes into the night sky, or who sat tight in flimsy plywood gliders that were deliberately crashed into enemy defensive positions before their passengers could leap out to fight.
They held back their fear and did what was asked of them, but at great cost. Four and a half thousand Allied servicemen gave their lives just on that first day. Thousands more were wounded.
Apart from admiration for the heroism of the participants and sadness at the human cost, we should remember D-Day with pride as one of this country’s greatest achievements. (Without of course denigrating the contribution of our allies). Not just the actual landing but its preparation and planning too; a mammoth feat of industrial, organisational and technical effort. The co-ordination of so many men with all the materials of war; their placement in cohesive units at the right time and in roughly the right place, in the face of a well-prepared enemy behind formidable defences. So many factors could have led to disaster, but somehow it worked.
Nearly 7,000 ships and 12,000 aircraft were used, and 156,000 men landed on D-Day itself. Within five days, a third of a million troops, with 54,000 vehicles and over 100,000 tons of supplies were ashore. All this without the benefit of an actual port, though we did have the two incredible ‘floating harbours’ codenamed Mulberries. These had taken 55,000 workers six months to build using 1,000,000 tons of concrete. One Mulberry was wrecked in a severe storm but one survived and made an essential contribution to the invasion’s success.
The many challenges the invaders expected were tackled with ingenuity and imagination. Special vehicles, boats and equipment were designed from scratch. These included ‘Hobart’s Funnies’: tanks, named for their inventor, designed to take on specific beach obstacles; or the innovative machines that were used to provide crucial predictions of tide levels. There was ‘Pluto’, which stood for Pipe Line Under The Ocean, to deliver essential fuel directly to the landing zone.
Perhaps less well known than the story of the landings was the fierce and prolonged battle that followed in which the whole Normandy peninsula was cleared of Germans. The Imperial War Museum describes it as one of the ‘most intense campaigns ever fought by the British Army, with casualty rates at times rivalling those of Passchendaele in 1917’.
The seven British infantry divisions engaged lost three-quarters of their initial strength by the end of August and junior officers had a 90 per cent chance of being killed or wounded. Casualty rates among their American, Canadian and Polish comrades were broadly comparable.
The Normandy countryside gave the Germans almost perfect defensive positions based on the infamous ‘bocage’, impenetrable hedgerows of rock-hard earth packed around dense root systems. Each became a fortress to be stormed. The troops that Germany deployed, although sometimes variable in quality, included some of its finest formations and many who had acquired valuable combat experience in Russia. They made tough opponents and fought with tenacity and skill.
D-Day was not the greatest battle of the war, or even its most inspiring story. Far larger and bloodier clashes happened in Russia. And there were many examples of suffering, endurance and heroism from Allied forces which equalled or even exceeded the Normandy landings, some of which, sadly, are barely thought of today.
Nevertheless, D-Day was a remarkable and decisive event. Had it failed, or never been attempted, the war could have been prolonged for years – or perhaps just as bad, Stalin’s armies, advancing from the east, might have not stopped where they did in 1945 on the River Elbe and just rolled on into Western Europe.
So we should remember and be grateful to all those men from 1944 and the desperate struggle they fought on our behalf. Their efforts and sacrifices mean that we and all of Europe owe them an immense debt.