Historian Stephen Ambrose pointed out there were lots of “d-days” in World War II, the designation for the day of an assault on enemy territory, but the biggest amphibian landing of all was Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, so the battles on and around the Normandy beaches became enshrined as the D-Day. The stories and factual tidbits about D-Day are endless, but on this 75th anniversary here are a few of them.
Journalist Rachel Donadio in her article for theAtlantic.com Nothing Prepares You for Visiting Omaha Beach (highly recommended read) writes major ceremonies are held in Normandy every five years, but officials and historians believe this year’s commemoration may be the final one attended by a cohort of living D-Day veterans, all of whom are in their 90s. Donadio says about 35 vets are expected this year.
Naturally enough, D-Day war stories emerge from dusty drawers and file cabinets as June 6 approaches. One of the best I’ve read this year is from the Washington Post in an article titled My Grandfather’s Secret D-Day Journal. Navy Chief Bill Svrluga Sr. wrote an eloquent account of his D-Day contributions only to keep the narrative secret from everyone except his wife.
As usual, the cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer, France, will be the center of D-Day ceremonies on June 6. President Trump is expected to join French President Emmanuel Macron at the memorial to mark the somber anniversary. Brother-in-law Cary Johnson said it was indeed sobering to see grave after grave marked with the same day of death.
The cemetery covers 172.5 acres and also contains the remains of Army Air Corps crews shot down over France starting in 1942 and includes four women. There are also 150 Star of David monuments for Jewish service members. The cemetery by no means holds all the D-Day dead (Donadio says 225,000 Allied service members were killed, wounded or missing in Normandy from June to August 1944. The Germans lost 400,000, many of them conscripts from occupied territories including Russians who fought for the Nazis rather than rot in a POW camp). After the war, family members could choose to intern their loved one at the cemetery or bring them home.
President Trump and Queen Elizabeth II were to mark the launch of the D-Day invasion at Plymouth, England. The logistics of the invasion don’t get enough attention.
Operation Neptune, launched from Plymouth on June 5, involved 6,939 vessels including 1,213 warships, 4,126 landing ships and craft, 736 ancillary craft and 864 merchant vessels. Operation Neptune involved 196,000 personnel.
By the end of June 11, 326,547 troops, 54,000 vehicles and 104,000 tons of supplies had been landed on the Normandy beaches. British Admiral Bertram Ramsay organized the armada. Tragically, he died in January 1945 in a plane crash.
The beaches and Pointe du Hoc
Nancy and Cary’s guide at Normandy was the oft-quoted Adrian Ridley-Jones, a former British Army officer.
Ridley-Jones told them one of the big problems was the shallow water up to nearly 5 miles out at low tide so the soldiers were targets for a very long time as they slogged into shore from the landing craft. The guide said the water turned literally blood red. Support aircraft could not drop bombs as visibility was poor and they did not know where their own troops were — a major “fubar.” The battleships offshore provided some support, but the bunkers of the “Atlantic Wall” survived the shelling in many cases. Still, German Field Marshal Rommel’s vaunted “wall” was breached in a matter of hours.
Pointe du Hoc became a controversial part of the battle after Army Rangers spilled their blood to assault the position only to find the big gun casements were empty. One of this year’s D-Day feature stories is about Maisy Battery. Artifact collector and battlefield historian Gary Sterne discovered and excavated the long-buried German artillery position, which was near Utah Beach. Sterne argues it was Maisy Battery and not Pointe du Hoc that should have been attacked on D-Day.
I can understand the controversy about Pointe du Hoc, but I can’t imagine Allied commanders would want the promontory to stay in the hands of the enemy so it had to be assaulted somehow. In any event, Pointe du Hoc remains a hallowed symbol of wartime valor. President Ronald Reagan spoke from there in 1984 in his well-received speech “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc” where he extolled the sacrifices necessary to preserve freedom in the face of tyranny and oppression (at the time, read Soviet Union).