Crusade in Europe--70 Years Later

So today is the 70th Anniversary of D-Day...arguably one of the most important days of the 20th century.  On this day the Allied forces under Dwight Eisenhower assaulted the coast of Normandy to carry out a simple directive:
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
Sadly, I fear most American students, in both high school and college, are spending more time studying Caesar Chavez and Che Guevara and quoting Mao Tse-tung than studying Eisenhower, Patton, or even Audie Murphy. <--link for all you public school students.

What's interesting to note, as new and more substantial histories are written, is just how perilous this undertaking was.  As usual, most Americans simply assume that the Allies had to win due to superior material and manpower (one was kinda true, the other not so much---the American and British armies started running out of infantrymen in late 1944).  In fact even though the Allies did have naval and air supremacy after June 1944, that doesn't mean the invasion was fated to be a success.

Amphibious landings are one of the most risky military ventures in general (remember Gallipoli?) and the Allies had already had two amphibious assaults become near disasters in Italy---one at Salerno where a strong German counterattack nearly drove the landing back into the sea and another at Anzio, where the Germans bottled up the landing and kept the Allies from breaking out of the beaches for nearly 5 months. 

So the success of the Allied landings was not assured at all.  I recently finished up a magnificent new book on D-Day by my old history professor/mentor/advisor at Canoe U, Professor (Emeritus) Craig Symonds.  Now, I am a little biased about this book...obviously, but Professor Symonds does an excellent job of showing just how close run even carrying off the invasion was.

This book goes all the way back to early 1942, when the Axis was ascendent and the Allies were still gathering forces, blunting Axis advances and trying to determine strategy.  As the book points out, although American industrial might turned the tide of the war, it was not infinite, and choices made about production of planes, tanks, and ships had long lasting effects on strategy. 

The book points out once again the old adage that "Amateur talk tactics, while professional talk logistics" by showing that huge tradeoffs had to be made about Allied offensive efforts due to chronic shortages of shipping, especially specialized landing craft and amphibious ships, in particular Landing Ship Tank-class vessels (LSTs), which had the unique ability to beach on a hostile shore and directly unload tanks, artillery, trucks and heavy cargo, which made them THE crucial ship of the war, right after the ubiquitous Liberty ships.

The book has some interesting statistics about the buildup, training, and staging of men and materials in Britain prior to the invasion, and makes one shudder to think that some American military men wanted to invade France in 1942.  The total catastrophe of Dieppe should have put that notion to rest and it was a good thing that Churchill and Roosevelt ultimately decided that maybe North Africa was a better warm-up for the American Army.  Which was a pretty good thing, since the Germans totally kicked our ass at Kasserine Pass and it took a good year for the American GI to become a capable fighting man able to go head-to-head with the panzer-grenadiers of the Wehrmacht.

More importantly, once the troops got ashore, a race began between the Allies and Germans to build up forces to contest the hedgerows and villages of Normandy as British, Canadian, and American troops clawed their way out of Normandy en route to Paris and the German border.  Professor Symonds continues his narrative through the crucial first three weeks of the invasion as allied shipping continued to bring in men and material over the invasion beaches as the Allies fought to capture the deep water port of Cherbourg  and the city of Caen. 

Operation Neptune was not officially completed until almost July 1944 and the efforts of the US Navy not only made the D-Day landings possible, but the efforts of the destroyermen off Omaha Beach may literally have saved the entire  invasion effort as they allowed the hard-pressed infantry forces to fight their way off the beach.

So all Americans should be grateful today that there were Brave Men willing to wade ashore under machine gun and mortar fire at Omaha Beach, Utah Beach and the other invasion beaches and drop zones 70 years ago.