The defenders had spent the better part of two years building up a coastal network of fortified gun placements, mines and other obstacles reflecting their commander’s belief that the assault, when it came, must be repelled at the beach itself. Although the enemy expected the impending invasion to come via a more direct route, and thereby used less experienced troops to protect the ultimate location of the allied invasion, the recent movement of an additional armored division in the area enhanced their defenses. At 6:30 am on a cold, overcast June 6 the first invaders hit the beach.
Planning and training for the allied invasion had been on-going for over three years. At eight divisions, it would be the largest amphibious landing ever undertaken. Although the German high command expected the attack to come via a more direct route to Pas De Calais, Normandy, located further to the south, was selected as the ultimate invasion site. The landings would take place on five (5) Norman beaches, with British and Canadian forces assigned to Gold, Juno and Sword and their American allies having responsibility for the capture of Utah and Omaha.
Weather was a major concern as the day of the invasion grew nearer. Due to multiple considerations, if the invasion did not take place in early June it would be delayed for at least an additional 30 days. The poor weather forced the cancellation of the original target date of June 5, and only a small window in an on-coming front provided the allied powers with the ability to give the go ahead to for the invasion to proceed on the following day. In order to ensure the element of surprise, the pre-invasion naval bombardment lasted only 30 minutes, and due to a concern that their bombs may fall on their own troops, allied bomber pilots were instructed to hold their bombs for an additional few precious seconds leaving most of the ordinance to drop two to three miles inland while German fortifications and beach obstacles remained largely unscarred.
Unlike today’s volunteer military, the United States soldiers responsible for invading and toppling Hitler’s “Fortung Europa” represented a cross spectrum of the country at that time. The average GI had an eighth grade education and was 24 years old. They came from small towns and large urban areas, and as the Higgins boats approached the beaches, immigration attorney and engineers sat shoulder to shoulder with factory workers and mechanics and farm hands. Some had enlisted individually and others collectively. In one instance, an entire platoon was made up of the residents of a small Virginia town who had know each other since childhood—over 90% of them would be dead within five minutes of hitting the beach.
The fighting on the American beaches was fierce, particularly on Omaha. Due to its slightly convex shape, German troops were able to greet their adversaries with an enfilade of fire. For the initial few hours, the fate of the entire attack hung in the balance as the incoming troops huddled for safety near the water’s edge. Units were hopelessly intermixed, and many had landed far from their planned destinations. Gradually this mixed collection of husbands, brothers and sons came together and found it within themselves to advance toward the enemy despite its unrelenting fire. Some military experts say that once the shooting starts every war becomes a sergeant’s war. The underlying meaning being that the success or failure in every battle is ultimately based on the ingenuity and courage of small groups of men with a collective sense of purpose. Perhaps nowhere was this theory more visibly proven than on that long ago Tuesday morning in France.
Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The day when a relative handful of men began the process of liberating the people of Europe from the crushing fist of tyranny. Although the heroic efforts of the men who fought, and died, that day will be commemorated by some, for many of us the recognition and remembrance of their deeds and sacrifices will pass by unacknowledged. As I reflect on the events that took place on those beaches almost three quarters of a century ago, I find myself wondering if I would have performed as bravely as those men did that day. I hope that the answer would be yes, I thank God that we know how the brave soldiers on D-Day answered that same question.