Friday, June 06, 2014

The 70th Anniversary of D-Day

Today is the 70th anniversary of the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. On that day - June 6, 1944 - tens of thousands of American, British, Canadian, French, Polish, and other allied troops stormed the beaches of Nazi-occupied Europe, catching the German forces utterly by surprise. The Normandy invasion has become known to history as "D-Day," although in military terms, d-day is simply the date on which any operation is scheduled to commence. The tremendous logistical effort and incredibly detailed planning, never matched before or since, have given the term its capital letters and ensured that it will live on in the history of great military efforts.

The success of the invasion was due not just to the detailed planning and heroic efforts of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who stormed the beaches or fell from the skies behind the German lines, but also to the masterfully cunning strategic deception effort known as "Fortitude" that kept the Germans off balance and convinced that the Normandy attack was a mere feint to protect the real invasion, which would come across the narrowest part of the English Channel in the Pas de Calais region of France. You can read the thrilling story of Operation Fortitude in Anthony Cave Brown's brilliant book Bodyguard of Lies.

The opening of a "second front" in Western Europe had long been promised to Soviet leader Josef Stalin, whose forces had been fighting a brutal war against Germany since Hitler launched his invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Stalin was paranoid and highly suspicious of the Western Allies, who he assumed were deliberately delaying the promised invasion in the hopes that the Soviets would destroy Nazi Germany on their own, and be so devastated by the conflict as to pose no threat to Europe themselves. Indeed, the Russians had already scored enormous, if pyrrhic, victories over the Germans at Stalingrad (in 1942-3) and Kursk (in 1943) - long before the Allied attack in the West.

The story of D-Day is both thrilling and sobering. It would probably be impossible today to carry off such a massive effort, when reconnaissance by satellites and drones would detect the preparations for the assault early on, and it would almost certainly be impossible - in the era of Facebook, Twitter, smartphones, and self-important ass clowns like Edward Snowdon - to carry off the sort of all-encompassing deception plan that provided security for the effort and ensured that the Germans were taken by surprise.

It was a once-only event in history - we will never see its like again. And as the men and women who fought and died on the beaches of Normandy and in the subsequent campaign march off to their final rest, our opportunities to hear their stories first-hand grow fewer every year.

If you are interested in learning more about D-Day, there are many great books and films out there that help paint the picture. I've already mentioned Anthony Cave Brown's Bodyguard of Lies. Cornelius Ryan's book The Longest Day was turned into the great 1962 film of the same name. The more recent film Saving Private Ryan offered what may be the most intense and realistic 20 minutes ever filmed as it opened with a terrifying recreation of ordinary soldiers storming heavily-defended Omaha beach. And for those of you who might be interested in a look at D-Day from the German point of view, I can recommend Paul Carrell's superb book Invasion: They're Coming! There are many other books and movies out there, many of which (like Pegasus Bridge, by Stephen Ambrose), tell smaller parts of the big story, but these are among the best overall histories I've found.

Take a few minutes to reflect on the courage and sacrifice of those who fought and died on the beaches of Normandy seventy years ago today. I often wonder if I could have risen to the challenge as so many did on that day.

Have a good day. See you tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday.


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