D-Day was an astounding military mission carried out with exceptional planning, bravery and heroism 70 years ago today, and it marked the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler’s brutal regime in World War II.
It is an achievement whose significance is, sadly, often overlooked today by Americans who don’t fully appreciate the Nazis’ sinister threat to humanity.
Nor do they fully appreciate the difficulty of pulling off this victory in an era before high technology came to dominate warfare.
The Allies, with American Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in charge, deployed their carefully cultivated resources and profited handsomely from the various deceptions (code-named Operation Bodyguard) designed to deceive the Germans as to where in France the long-awaited invasion would take place.
The resulting confusion led Germany to deploy troops at Pas de Calais, the closest point on the continent to England, and therefore, the Germans believed, the logical place for an invasion.
Had the enemy recognized that Normandy was the target, the invasion would have been much more difficult. Even so, the dangers awaiting the Allied troops were daunting.
It is appropriate that as we observe today’s anniversary most of the attention is on the heroism of the troops who so courageously carried out their mission under truly treacherous conditions.
The assault began with an extensive naval bombardment and, critically, the landing of about 24,000 American, British and Canadian paratroopers behind enemy lines. Tampa’s late Sam Gibbons, who returned from war to serve in the state Legislature and in Congress, was among these heroes.
Other troops were delivered to the battle scene in gliders that risked rough landings in open fields.
Besides all the superbly trained and exceptionally brave troops sent into battle, modern marvels such as landing craft and improvised floating harbors (known as “mulberries”) helped make the invasion a success.
That’s why part of the credit goes to a Louisiana man, Andrew Jackson Higgins, who persuaded his initially skeptical government that his shallow-draft boats, first used in the 1920s to rescue flood victims, would be ideal for delivering foot soldiers and their weapons to the beaches on the Normandy coast.
Eisenhower once described Higgins as “the man who won the war for us.” Without the 20,000 landing craft he provided, the future president of the United States declared, “we never could have landed over an open beach … the whole strategy of the war would have been different.”
Far less attention is given to a less appealing aspect of D-Day, the plight of the French civilians who had no choice but to live among the German soldiers near the invasion site.
On D-Day alone, 3,000 French civilians were killed by Allied gunfire, the same number of Americans who lost their lives that day at Omaha Beach. And we seldom remember that by the time the Allies had driven the Germans out of Normandy altogether, more than 20,000 French civilians had died, most of them killed by Allied bombs.
Even so, the French National Assembly recently voted unanimously to deliver an official message of “thanks and gratitude” to the Allied forces that liberated France.
The assembly recognized that war cannot be waged without casualties and that these civilian deaths, no matter how regrettable, should not diminish our admiration and gratitude for the bravery of the troops who put their own lives on the line for the cause of freedom.
World War II is sometimes called the Good War. No war is good. But it was a just war, one fought with a national unity and commitment that is hard to imagine during this time of interminable partisan bickering.
As we pause to pay our heartfelt respects to those who gave so much to win the war, let us also consider the gratitude we owe those American warriors today who are willing to similarly face enemy fire to protect their country.
Such patriotism may not be as fashionable today. But it is just as essential as it was 70 years ago.