When my kids bounced on me this morning, it was already past 7. My brother lives in Germany, and has told me that they’re six hours ahead, likely five hours ahead in Normandy. It struck me, on this 70th anniversary of D-Day, that for those families at home, getting up this morning 70 years ago, the invasion that would come to be one of the seminal moments of history, was already secure.
It was 1 am here in the Midwest, when the boots of Americans, Canadians and Englishmen hit the beaches and parachuted out of the skies, and glided in on wooden gliders (that tended to break on impact). By 7 am here in America and Canada’s eastern regions, the German stations were silent, manned by the dead that remained when the prisoners were taken.
As I’ve been watching documentaries and reading articles and papers about D-Day the past two weeks, I’m amazed at what went wrong, (a lot!), what went right, what the Germans had done that we didn’t expect (steel rebar-reinforced bunkers crossed with paranoid over-engineering), and what we did that the Germans didn’t expect (The Ghost Army and Operation Bodyguard), and how that all played out on the actual field of battle. As one military tactician said, “No battle plan survives reality”. All sorts of improvisation moment-by-moment on June 6, saved the day.
The reality was, Hitler didn’t expect the Allies to land at those beaches. There were two main reasons for this. The first was he and his advisors knew that any invasion would need to be reinforced by supply ships and more troops, and therefore, the Allies, when they landed, wherever they landed, would need to land in a place that had a deep-water bay and port that those ships could use.
He didn’t forsee that the Allies were already working on floating, pre-fab wave breakers to make an artificial bay, and floating pre-fab docks for an instant port.
The other reason was simple: Hitler expected us to land at the port city of Calais…because we told him so. All sorts of tent cities, and inflatable (not a typo—inflatable) weaponry and vehicles were stationed all around Dover where the German submarines and spies could easily see them, all ready to head to Calais. All sorts of double agents reported the movements of phantom troops heading to Dover with orders for Calais. Lots of radio traffic was intercepted all saying the same thing, Calais…Calais…Calais. Hitler built up Calais and the surrounding area, leaving the rest of France, including the soon-to-be-famous Norman beaches 150 miles away, relatively undefended.
But that didn’t mean that it was going to be easy. Hitler and Rommel had built “The Atlantic Wall” to keep the Allies out—a massive string of bunkers shielding massive guns and machine guns nests intended to drive out any invaders. Submarines spent the spring and summer of 1944 quietly watching the targeted beaches, looking for positions, landmarks, painting the landscape to help teach the coming troops, many still on their way from Canada and America, where they were and where the Germans were going to be. Whoever stepped foot on the beaches first, regardless of when or where, was going to face a hailstorm from even the few Germans left to defend it. The troops, from Eisenhower on down, knew it.
Due to the top secret nature of D-Day, known that day as Operation Overlord, the men involved couldn’t inform their families. Many wrote letters to be sent if they didn’t return, and the first groups to hit the beaches had more than 90% fatality rates, so many of those letters did find their ways home.
Beginning at midnight, the invasion quietly began with paratroopers and minesweepers, and by dawn, the largest naval invasion force ever assembled and coordinated, swept into the narrow lanes cleared through the minefield surrounding France, disembarking troops to re-take the captive nation. Many of these troops had been in school on December 7, 1941, when America entered the war. And too many wouldn’t make it past the beaches.
Just hours later, the engineers sank their artificial floating blocks to form the sheltered bay and linked the pre-fab floating docks for the ships together. LST ships, specially designed for this type of landing, hit the beaches (literally), discharging their cargoes of tank and trucks safe from the massive guns and machine gun nests now silent along the ridge.
So much had gone wrong. The Aerial bombs intended to destroy the German positions had missed by three miles due to fog, the naval bombardment hadn’t accounted for the steel skeleton within the concrete German bunkers, preventing their destruction, and the floating tanks designed to come in before the troops and demolish what remained of the German positions, could not withstand the rough water, and sank in the bay. When the troops ran down the ramp of their Higgins boats, they faced the full fury of the nearly unscathed German positions.
And yet…yet…the insistent constancy of the brave men continuing to run across the hedgehog-studded beach through the hail of gunfire had won the day. Despite what the Germans threw, the men kept coming, running, improvising attacks that took the Germans from their vulnerable side—from behind. By noon, the worst of the initial landing was over.
Now the fighting would take place hedgerow by hedgerow, fighting through the ancient stone walls and bushy fences built by a millennia of farmers. Many would consider this much more dangerous than the beach landing, but that was still largely in the future by noon on June 6.
The cost had been high: over four thousand Allied dead that morning, and they had to be take care of. With no access to embalming or means to take the dead home to their families, the names were recorded and the dead were interred in unofficial cemeteries. The English, Canadians, and Americans took care of their own, and also the Germans who had fallen in the battle and retreat. Still, a fifty-mile long battlefield was extensive, and many were missed for days, and then many were unable to be identified.
After the war, everyone returned. Wounds had to be bound up, and the dead collected. The country of France gave land, in perpetuity, free of taxes or fees, to France, America, Britain, Canada, and even Germany, to allow them to inter the dead.
As an American, when I think Normandy Cemetery, I instantly picture the row upon rows of white crosses set perfectly within a carpet of green at the Normandy American Cemetery. As vast as it is, however, when you go to the Normandy cemetery, you only see ONE-THIRD of the casualties in Normandy. When the remains of the men who died in Normandy were recovered in the years following the war, their families were given the choice to have their loved ones returned home or allowed to remain with their brothers in arms there in Normandy. Nearly two-thirds of the families asked for their sons and brothers and husbands to come home. In addition to those who died on or after June 6, a number of airmen who were shot down and died as early as 1942, were also returned by the French people who had buried them in honor within their own cemeteries. Despite all the records, there were still over 1,500 missing men, and their names were inscribed on a wall near the entrance to the cemetery. As the years have passed and more remains from this time were recovered, bronze rosettes were set next to those names whose remains were identified. Many names, however, remain unmarked.
The truth is, however, there are thirteen cemeteries honoring the dead of just the Norman invasion of WWII.
The Americans have the one Normandy American Cemetery.
The Canadians maintain two cemeteries: Bény-sur-Mer Canadian Cemetery and Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery.
There are four British Cemeteries: Bayeux War Cemetery, Ranville War Cemetery, Banneville-la-Campagne and St. Manvieu War Cemetery
, have now set free the Conqueror's Native Land." In addition, there is a German section, where 466 German soldiers rest, their graves also maintained by the same Commonwealth War Graves Commission that maintains this cemetery. Wikipedia Commons."”]And the Germans needed six cemeteries for their dead: La Cambe German War Cemetery; Champigny-St. André German War Cemetery, Marigny German War Cemetery, Mont-de-Huisnes German War Cemetery, Orglandes German War Cemetery, and Saint-Désier-de-Lisieux German War Cemetery.
Today, as many heads of state gather over those bluffs, remembering that day when young soldiers charged through blood-soaked sand to re-take a tiny piece of France, may we all pause. So many young people, from the infantry men who faced near certain death, to the paratroopers landing behind enemy lines, to the doctors and nurses who had to treat horrific injuries in field hospitals and ships at sea, chose to re-enter the war, and take down the Nazi regime because they believed in a good beyond themselves, and greater than their individual lives, that had to defeat the evil the Nazis wanted to take world wide. They chose to face death and the death of those around them, in order that those left behind them at home could continue to live free, and those living under enemy rule could re-gain the freedom lost.
The cost lies under so many “white trees” along that fifty-mile beach, and all over Europe and the Pacific, and within America’s borders.
Freedom truly isn’t free. And that proud tradition continues today with our men and women in uniform.
To those who gave their all and sleep beneath stones, thank you for giving it all up for me, and my family, and us all.
To those who continue to serve, thank you, and I pray that you do not need to lie beneath a tombstone for my sake, but thank you for being willing to do so. May we honor your service now and always.
And to those who lived through hell, who question, “why me? Why did I survive when so many good men and women did not?” I say, “I don’t know. But tell me about them and what happened.” May those of us who come after, listen to the cost, remember those who passed, and know that we stand on the shoulders of those willing to see and live beyond their own small world.
 As a comparison, in the eight years of fighting the Revolutionary War, the Americans had lost about 8,000 soldiers. Half of that number fell in just a couple of hours on June 6, 1944.