Monday, June 07, 2010

D-Day 66 Years ago Yesterday

Due to other commitments, I missed commenting on this yesterday. On June 6, 2010 it was 66 years since the allied forces led by the United States and Britain crossed the English Chanel to Normandy in Northern France to start the liberation of France and Europe from the occupation of Hitler and Nazi Germany in World War II.

*******************************************************************************156,000 American, British and Canadian troops met heavy resistance from the German forces defending the area, but were able to punch inland, securing safe landing zones for reinforcements. The German failure to successfully defend the Normandy area from the Allied liberation forces in essence doomed Hitler's dream of a Nazi controlled "Fortress Europe" and marked the beginning of the end for Germany.

The exact number of men on both sides who died that day will probably never truly be known. Different sources cite different numbers of Allied, U.S. and German casualties:

--John Keegan, American Historian and Author believes that 2,500 Americans died along with 3,000 British and Canadian troops on D-Day

Above Omaha Beach (see picture above) is The Normandy American Cemetery which
contains the graves of 9,387 of American military dead, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. On the Walls of the Missing in a semicircular garden on the east side of the memorial are inscribed 1,557 names.

The United States and Britain liberated Europe and all we ask the French for was a little land to bury our dead.The white rows in the picture above are the white crosses of the American dead.

The determining factor in the battle for Normandy was not some ingenious and innovative military strategy conceived by high-command officials and their advisors. Coupled with a good amount of luck, it was the bravery and will of the men that set foot on those blood-stricken beaches. A handful of stoic individuals had no choice but to improvise from the originally practiced tactics since once the first wave of invading troops landed, all organized deployment of infantry had been shattered. Under constant fire and with the images of dead soldiers that they had once commanded in front of them, they somehow turned the tide of the battle to the Allies' favor and, by doing so, changed the course of the war and history. They fought fiercely and overcame one of the most formidable defenses ever assembled.

Reaching the Beaches

The seas were rough, much too rough for the small assault crafts that scurried them towards the shore. The boats rocked back and forth as their square hulls but into every wave. Water poured over the gunwales, soaking the men to the skin, as they huddled together, shivering from the cold and from the nervous tension. Many of them became seasick.

The engines of the boats produced deafening diesel whines. Shells screamed by them as the destroyers behind them attempted to pound the coast with enough force so that the Atlantic Wall behind Omaha Beach would be weakened. Allied aircraft accompanied the raining shells as they too tried to dismantle Nazi forces on the beach. The men on the boats could never expect anyone to survive such a bombardment, after all, the German guns were even silent.

Then, just as the shore seemed to become slightly more visible, the German guns opened fire. Artillery and mortar shells crashed down, sending geysers of sea water streaming into the air. The boats, trying to find paths around the obstacles, were clear and targets from positions atop the beachhead. Many boats were destroyed, the others encountered machine gun fire that rattled against the ramps and the sides of the boats.

Once the boats' bottoms scratched the sand beneath them, the ramps were lowered. Some ambitious German machine gunners fired directly at the boats that had just lowered their ramps. Desperate soldiers struggled to get off the boats and into the water but dead bodies were in their way. Soldiers lined in columns within the crafts were hit by bullets that had passed through the bodies of the soldiers in front of them. Those that made it to the water faired only slightly better.

They plunged into the water to discover that it was neck-high and even above their heads in some cases. Many were unable to control their submerged since they were carrying nearly seventy pounds of ammunition and supplies. Bullets traveled through the water to hit them while they tried to remove some weight. Some drowned trying to reach the surface of the water.

Not all was lost at disembarkment though. Many men managed to reach dry land. Still the beaches were not inviting and provided little cover.

The Beaches and the Sea Wall

Obstacles for the amphibious boats and dead bodies provided for some cover from enemy fire. Staying in the water made death inevitable since the Germans were spraying the waterline with interlocking arcs of machine gun fire. The only alternative was to move as far inland as possible: the sea wall.

It must be taken into account that virtually all of the infantrymen were dropped far from their designated areas. The strong winds and vicious weather that had hampered the ships in the English Channel altered the anticipated current along the beach at Omaha. Most of the men that made it to the beach were actually displaced. Not only did they have to deal with the incoming fire, but they also had to somehow re-orient themselves now that the landmarks they had expected to see were nowhere in sight.

Commanding officers that were lucky enough to reach the beach had to assume the command of many disorganized groupings of soldiers that had washed ashore without their commanding officers. Even on the sea wall, the position was precarious. Even then, they were not adequately covered. Like the boat and the beach, the sea wall was a dangerous place to be and the place to go was through the minefields and the barbed wire onward to attack the German gun stations.

One of the most famous quotes to come out of "Bloody Omaha" came from Colonel George Taylor:

"Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die. Now let's get the hell out of here"

Freedom is not free !