Today is the 80th anniversary of D-Day….

This year’s D-Day commemoration will probably be the last big anniversary with veterans in attendance as even the youngest of them are almost a century old. As the saying goes, these old soldiers will shortly fade away. Thanks to saturation press coverage, almost every one has heard of D-Day but only people with an interest in military history actually understand what it was, how and why it happened and its significance. I have to confess a personal interest in the subject as my Great Uncle and namesake, Rifleman Samuel Thompson, 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, 6th Airborne Division was there on the day at the ripe old of nineteen. Unfortunately he did not survive for his story to pass into family like lore as he was killed in Germany a mere six weeks before the end of the European war.

The event is often obscured by hyperbole. I have heard it described in the media as the greatest invasion in history, which it certainly wasn’t, even in terms of amphibious invasions the Allied landings in Sicily in July 1943 put more more troops ashore, but in complexity, planning, sophistication and symbolism, D-Day stands above all others. The term D-Day itself has been used in countless military operations and ‘D’ merely stands for the first day of an operation.

If Churchill had had his way the Allies would only have landed in northern France after a German collapse and was goaded into the operation by his American ally. With two years of almost continual defeats at the beginning of the war, the British hierarchy had a deep respect bordering on an inferiority complex towards the German army. The British also fought the war in the shadow of the Somme and were acutely aware the public would not stand for slaughter on the same scale. The Americans had no such monkey on their back and could afford losses the British could not contemplate. Where the British sought to win the war by peripheral operations the Americans, working on a four year election cycle, wanted to be clearly heading towards victory by November 1944. Both were under strong pressure from the Soviet leader, Stalin who not unreasonably, was impatient with the USSR continuing to bear the brunt of the war as it had done since June 1941.

Churchill had read the transcript of a bugged conversation between captured German generals and was horrified to see they actually looked forward to the invasion as a means of inflicting a crushing defeat on the Allies. As a result, he opposed the operation until well into 1944 but when Roosevelt would not give way, he put his heart and soul into it and insisted that British and Canadian forces must have at least numerical parity, though a certain Mr Spielberg appears not have got the memo. On the day, the British and Canadians landed slightly more troops than their American allies and supplied the vast majority of naval resources including landing craft. The Americans committed slightly more aircraft.

Underpinning everything was the realisation that the invasion would by a one shot affair, at least as far as 1944 was concerned. The Allies had to assault the ‘Atlantic Wall’ a series of concrete fortresses, minefields and beach obstacles along the length of channel coast, gain a firm foothold, build a logistic base and then push on into the heart of Germany from a starting point of having no operational port to unload supplies. While the day and hour of the attack might be a surprise the Germans knew it was coming sometime during the summer and with each day that passed, the odds of it happening grew shorter

The Germans for their part were split on how to react. Erwin Rommel who commanded the units on the coast, correctly deduced that if the landing was not driven into the sea within a few days the Allies would be impossible to dislodge. His immediate superior, in charge of all German forces in the west, Gerd von Rundstedt took a contrary view. As it would be impossible to deduce where the Allies would strike, any invasion was bound to gain a foothold and could only be driven into the sea by a powerful mobile reserve. There was a tug of war between the two men as to who would have control of the ten mobile divisions in France. Hitler, with Solomonic wisdom allotted half to each, but Von Rundstedt’s reserve would not be able to turn a wheel without Hitler’s permission. The battle when it came, was a race to see who could get the most forces to the invasion area most quickly, the Germans by rail and road and the Allies by sea.

Normandy was chosen because it was less heavily defended than the more obvious Pas de Calais area and also because it was within the operational range of the most numerous Allied fighter plane, the Spitfire. Normandy could also be isolated from the rest of France. In the three months prior to the invasion, the Allied airforces systematically bombed every bridge across the Seine and Loire while simultaneously hammering targets in northern France to keep the Germans guessing. The British intelligence services told the Germans what they wanted to hear and leaked phoney information pointing to a landing near Calais and the deception was backed up by the creation of a fictional American army group commanded by George S Patton.

Artificial ports that could be towed across the channel and an oil pipeline that would be laid under it demonstrated the resources and ingenuity at the Allies’ disposal. Neither worked as well as hoped, but as little as possible was left to chance. The Allied air, naval and land forces would be so powerful they would overwhelm the defenders, but no plan can cover every eventuality. The operation was supposed to take place on 5th June but had to be delayed due to poor weather and at the eleventh hour there was a diplomatic spat with the mercurial General de Gaulle who was outraged at the Allied plans to administer his country. During a blazing row, Churchill told him that if there was a choice between him and Americans he would always side with Roosevelt. De Gaulle never forgot the rebuke which coloured his perception of what he called ‘Les Anglo-Saxons’ for the rest of his life. It was part of his rationale for later twice vetoing British applications to join the Common Market.

At almost the last moment, the Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower decided to risk a landing on the 6th June in far from ideal weather conditions. The delay actually helped. Rommel, thinking the foul weather would preclude a landing for weeks, went home to Germany on leave and German reconnaissance craft stayed at port. Even the interception of a coded message to French resistance telling them the invasion was imminent was not believed. Surely the Allies would not be so stupid to broadcast the date of the invasion? The initial landings, by airborne troops threw the Germans into indecision and chaos. No one could decide if it was a raid or an invasion and the troops on the spot had no instructions from on high, only their local commanders. Even when troops began to pour ashore on the five landing beaches, the German high command was convinced the landings were a large scale diversion from the ‘real invasion’ at Calais.

Despite the normal snafus that take place within the chaos of war, the landings, with the exception of Omaha Beach, had lighter casualties than expected. At Omaha the Americans faced fortified low cliffs and the presence of an experienced combat Division the 352nd, whose presence Allied intelligence had missed. After several murderous hours, well dramatised in the blockbuster ‘Saving Private Ryan’ the Americans broke free from the beach no pushed inland.

That is usually where the story ends but D-Day marked not the end of the war, but rather the beginning of its final phase. In retrospect we can see the success of June 6th 1944 doomed Germany to total defeat but that was not immediately apparent. When Hitler eventually woke up from his drug-induced slumber at lunchtime on June 6th most of the world already knew about the landings but he was exuberant and saw a great opportunity to turn the tide of the war by comprehensively defeating the invasion force. Ever the optimist, he thought Roosevelt would lose the autumn election as a result, and the western powers would make peace leaving him free to deal with the Soviets but it was pure wishful thinking.

So what was D-Day’s actual significance? It’s success probably removed any possibility of Germany being able to negotiate a peace but by the time D-Day occurred the Soviets already had the beating of Germany. The Soviet offensive, launched a few weeks later broke the German army beyond repair. If the landings had failed, the European war would have ended with the Red Army advancing as far as the Rhine or maybe even the Seine. The western allies could still have contributed by reinforcing their landings in southern France which took place in August and their forces in Italy. The atomic bomb would also be available in August 1945 and perhaps Munich and Frankfurt would have the notoriety now accorded to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. D-Day shortened the war and ensured Western Europe would not fall into Soviet orbit after the war’s end. That is achievement enough.

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