Hear Eisenhower’s speech to the men on the day of the invasion:
70 years ago today, approximately 160,000 allied troops landed during Operation Overlord on French beaches designated Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha & Utah…in the largest amphibious invasion in world history of Hitler’s “Fortress Europe.”
First, Some Context…
The following is an excerpt from one of my previous posts, A Little Ditty ‘Bout WWII, to provide some historical context relating to America’s initial involvement in WWII and support of Britain:
Most of Europe has fallen to Hitler, leaving Britain as the last remaining European power resisting Nazi expansion and teetering dangerously close to succumbing to the more powerful German war-machine. Desperate for the assistance of the United States, Churchill repeatedly made pleas to FDR to become more directly involved in the conflict through the supply of materiel needed to support their defenses.
The American people were still divided about getting involved in yet another European conflict that was “an ocean away” (the isolationist’s lament), which bound FDR’s hands in support of Britain. We could not declare war, as the will was not there, nor could we even provide considerable and valuable resources when America itself was recovering from the Great Depression. However, through ingenious political maneuvering, FDR was able to offer much-needed support through such programs as, “Lend-Lease”, which allowed us to provide supplies in return for very generous concessions by Britain… but the main purpose was to have “Lend-Lease” so heavily favor the US, that there would be little issue taken by FDR’s political opponents (or the public), yet still accomplish the goal of “indirectly” assisting Britain. This was a vital, albeit small, lifeline to buy England’s defense against Germany a little more time.
Interestingly enough, many American politicians felt that it was simply a matter of time before Britain fell and most did not feel that Churchill was the man for the job. Among them was Joe Kennedy, the American Ambassador to England at the time and a shameless Isolationist. What changed the tide in England’s favor, at least in the minds of those who felt she was doomed, was after it appeared obvious that Hitler was going to take France.
Dana – you ask – “what could possibly have happened to change these men’s minds simply over the inevitable fall of France?” The answer is this: Churchill made the surprising decision to bomb the French Navy before Hitler had an opportunity to seize it and use it to grow the Germany Navy against Britain. This one act of defiance was all the proof that was needed for Churchill’s detractors to finally realize that the Prime Minister (and his countrymen) had no intention of capitulating to the enemy and would continue to fight even if it meant the destruction of their Empire. By bombing the French Navy, in this one act, Churchill proved that there would be no surrender coming from Britain. This changed the ball game… at least for FDR and for those providing resistance to support.
The American people would not support an unprovoked declaration of war against a nation that did not attack us and was an ocean away… something else had to happen if the US was to become involved.
What is remarkable about Operation Overlord and the invasion of German occupied France, is the sheer number of things that could have gone wrong and how uncertain victory would be. Today we have the advantage of historical hindsight and already knowing the outcome, but at the time – and to its planners and architects – it had both equal chances of being just as disastrous as it was successful.
Deception & Double-Agents
Operation Fortitude was the Allied plan to deceive and fool the Germans as to the location and time of the invasion of France. It was absolutely critical to the D-Day victory.
The formula was simple: Fool Hitler into thinking we would invade somewhere else and we had a chance…fail, and the Germans would have ample opportunity to prepare and fortify its defenses, thereby making the act of repelling a sea-based invasion from the advantage of an elevated, prepared and aware position significantly easier.
It was decided that the Pas-de-Calais would be the location used for the deception, due it being the shortest distance over water between Britain and France. The deception required a painstakingly methodical approach to convincing Hitler that the invasion would occur there. Methodical, because it was integral that Hitler come to the conclusion himself, as opposed to the allies spoon-feeding his intelligence services (through the use of spies) blatantly obvious clues meant to spell it out.
This included the use of double agents, who would provide accurate intelligence on (non-invasion related) troop movements and/or Allied battle plans in order to help bolster their credibility with their unsuspecting German handlers. The premise being that if the double-agents were proven to supply actionable & accurate intel in the past, those same double-agents could feed the Germans misinformation relating to the impending – and fake – invasion at Pas-de-Calais and be considered credible sources when they did. The most famous, important and successful of these double agents was Juan Pujol Garcia, code-named ‘Garbo,’ who passed information to Hitler directly when the invasion began and that what was happening at Normandy was only a distraction from the “real” invasion yet to still occur in Calais. This bought the Allies precious time to establish a foothold on the beaches and prevented Hitler from deploying more troops to Normandy, as he was now convinced that Calais was the location of the true invasion and diverted extra troops to bolster his defenses there instead.
The allies would also dress corpses up in soldier’s uniforms (usually homeless men) and dump them into the sea so that the bodies would wash up ashore near Calais. When the bodies were discovered by German soldiers, the pockets of the dead “soldier” would contain maps relating to Calais or information that would lead German intelligence to assume the body was a casualty of a training accident during pre-invasion exercises.
We employed the use of inflatable rubber tanks and planes, and began amassing them near Dover (U.K.), so that passing Luftwaffe aircraft doing reconnaissance would see what appeared to be an army preparing for – “what had to be” – an invasion. This fake army was dubbed the, “Third Army” and word was allowed to slip out through the use of double agents that the General in charge of, “The Third” was non other than George Patton…a commander who was well-known and respected by the Nazi leadership. The purpose was to add more credibility to the ruse…as, “The only reason that the Allies would put a General of Patton’s stature in charge of this army, MUST be for the invasion.”
The final stroke of serendipitous good fortune was the absence of Field Commander Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel during the invasion. The famous and respected tank commander had been put in charge of establishing the beach defenses along Normandy…otherwise known as the vaunted, “Atlantic Wall.”
Construction of the “Atlantic Wall” began in 1942 and involved the creation of minefields, concrete walls, concrete bunkers, barbed wire fences, and fortified artillery emplacements. In 1943, Hitler appointed Rommel to command Army Group B and with it, the responsibility for the defense of Normandy. Rommel personally believed that the invasion would come at Normandy, and as he inspected the beach defenses he found them to be woefully inadequate. He immediately set to building improvements, laying minefields on the beaches and beach approaches and in the English Channel. Fortifications were strengthened, fields of fire were improved, and obstacles of all sorts were placed in the water surrounding all possible landing sites. In addition, floodplains were flooded and fields were positioned with poles to prevent their use as landing areas for aircraft.
Rommel realized that the defenses he was in charge of constructing were not going to stop an invasion. The best he could hope for was that the defenses could delay the invasion and cause significant confusion among the invaders. He understood that the invasion force mustn’t be allowed to establish a foothold, because if it did, it could bring in near limitless resources. Rommel believed that it was absolutely critical that any invasion must be met quickly by his troops and especially Armored units. His belief was that they must defeat the Allies on the beaches, before a foothold could be established.
However, when the invasion began…Rommel was nowhere near Normandy to command its defense. In an INSANE stroke of good luck for the allies, Rommel had recently left France in order to celebrate his wife’s birthday back in Germany. His absence removed a seasoned Commander who might have helped to organize and lead the defense against the allies. Instead, the commanders in Normandy at the time were confused and in one famous account, an officer refused to call Hitler to warn him of the invasion, as he, “did not want to wake the Fuhrer” (since it was still believed – thanks to the success of Operation Fortitude – that Calais was the real location of the invasion).
Had Rommel not left France just before the invasion, it is believed by many historians that the D-Day landings could have potentially gone another (and much more disastrous) way.
Not Without Some Setbacksexceptional HBO series, “Band of Brothers.” Their mission was to destroy known artillery positions that could fire upon the men who would be landing on the beaches, in addition to securing essential bridges and towns needed for the safe passage of armor, men, tanks and supplies.
This did not go as planned either. Due to anti-aircraft fire and planes around them being shot down while still carrying a full load of soldiers, many pilots flipped on the “jump” light too soon and scattered the paratroopers all over the French countryside, miles from their target drop. In yet another strange and ridiculously fortunate turn of fate for the Allies and their cause, even this worked to their advantage.
With airborne dropping all around the Germans and being scattered throughout the countryside, this created the perception by the Germans that the allies were EVERYWHERE and surrounding them…thus, contributing to their confusion and inability to mount and organize a cohesive defense.
The success of the D-Day landings was one of the most important events of the 20th century, as it established the most essential foothold of the war…and was the catalyst for bringing the war to an end. Up until this point, Nazi Germany had occupied / dominated the majority of Western Europe – with little opposition – and was experiencing success on the Eastern Front against Russia. The success of the landing forced Hitler to move men and resources to the West and away from the East…Hitler was now engaged in a two-front war…allowing Russia some breathing room to push back, with the help of its winter.
Many historians speculate about what would have happened had D-Day been a failure. Some will argue that we would have eventually made it to Europe (and Germany) by way of the Mediterranean and Italy…however, how long would it have taken…1 year? Two? How many more would have died, been swept away to extermination camps or used as slave labor to fuel the German war machine?
Others will argue that it would have been too late…that had Hitler been able to repel us at Normandy, he would have been able to focus all of his attention on Russia – who would have likely fallen eventually had a second front in the war not been opened up by the Allies – and been too powerful to defeat later.
I have many opinions myself, however what I do know for sure is that the map and landscape of the World today was changed and is directly attributed to our ability to successfully land in France on June 6, 1944 and defeat Nazi Germany less than a year later.
As Winston Churchill once famously said, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Listen to the full June 6th radio broadcast of the news reports on D-Day:
By: Dana Sciandra
Want more WWII? Check out my 3-Part Series on the Eastern Front during WWII, including listening links to the episodes.