June 6th, 1944. The Longest Day, the Day of Days. Operation Overlord was planned to be executed on D Day at H Hour. It would be the assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Hitler had had years to prepare defenses along the French coast. He knew we were coming, just not where. On the eastern front, Russia was bleeding the Nazi’s dry. But at a great cost to Russia. The Allies had invaded North Africa and the Americans faced the Germans for the first time at the Kaserene Pass. The Americans were soundly defeated. General Patton was brought in to rebuild and then invaded Sicily. Sicily was secured, barely and then the Allies invaded Italy. British Prime Minister Churchill called it “The soft underbelly of Europe”. It wasn’t. The allies tried to invade France at Dieppe and were thrown back into the sea. Dieppe was such a disaster that the operation was renamed from “Invasion” to “Raid”.
It was in June of 1944 and on the backs of failure General Eisenhower was tasked to try again. Amassing the largest invasion force in the history of warfare, the landings were far from certain. In fact he penned a press release if the invasion failed.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.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.”
Planning depended on the tides and the moon. June 5th was settled on. Then the weather turned to crap. With all the men loaded on ships and boats they could not be unloaded and reloaded if the weather broke. Eisenhower ordered a hold and they remained on board. Tossed around and seasick. Experts predicted a short break for the 6th and Eisenhower ordered the attack. This was much like the order General Longstreet gave during the third day at Gettysburg. June 6th could well end as disastrous as Pickett’s Charge.
The soldiers in the landing craft were either seasick or over-dozed on seasick pills. The airborne force was similarly doped up on airsick pills. And yet they attacked.
Field Marshall Rommel promised Hitler that the Allies would be thrown back into the sea as at Dieppe. It was a very near thing. The first waves to hit the beach were devastated. Command and Control was shattered. Yet, a Officer here or an NCO there gather small groups of men and pressed against the wall of death. In the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan” some one screams at Captain Miller, “Where’s the rally point?”. Miller screams back, ‘ANY WHERE BUT HERE!” So it was.
The Allies did catch a break of sorts. Hitler had transferred much of his combat tested troops to the eastern front leaving untried reservists to man the barricades. So both sides had few soldiers who had seen combat. The Americans in the boats were facing certain death and the Germans on the hills were to defend to the death. Nobody had a free ride. Except for maybe the British on Sword beach where resistance was so light some officers stopped for tea.
Against all odds, D Day was a success. Hitler would be defeated in less than a year. The shadow of a planet enslaved by Fascism was rolled back.
Today, these boys of the Greatest Generation are fading away. Quietly dying one by one without their children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren never knowing their heroics.
If you have a relative or a friend who is a WWII vet, go talk to them today. They are America’s Greatest Generation and they are disappearing fast. Thank them before it’s too late.