Seventy years ago this week, the most important battle on the continent of Europe in World War II took place in Normandy, France: D-Day.
The U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division, whose history we present at Cantigny, played a central role, and among its troops were many from this area.
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D-Day was the first and essential battle in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe that preceded the final Allied drive to Germany. It was the largest amphibious operation in history -- more than 5,000 ships placed 130,000 Allied soldiers on a hostile shore in a single day. From there, Allied forces began the liberation of Europe, eventually forcing the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.
Adolf Hitler's priority was always in the east where he sought Lebensraum, "living space" for the master German race. The Germans were on the strategic defensive in the west from the end of the Battle of Britain in September 1940. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Germans used the western theater as a place to rest troops.
Hitler believed he could secure Europe behind an impregnable "Atlantic Wall" of fixed fortifications, coastal artillery and obstacles -- "Festung Europa." On Nov. 3, 1943, Hitler stated that the Allied threat from the west outweighed that from the east. He appointed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, hero of the North African campaigns, to command Army Group B in northwest Europe.
Rommel believed an Allied invasion must be destroyed on the beaches. He ordered hundreds of thousands of obstacles and mines to be placed on likely landing beaches and thousands of fortifications constructed along the coast.
German forces in the west were not powerful. Many "fortress" divisions had no transport. The infantry included older men, convalescents, inexperienced officers and foreign volunteers -- Russians, Hungarians, Poles, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Romanians and Dutch. Available German "panzer" (tank or armor) divisions either had never seen action or had only recently arrived from the Eastern Front. Average battle strengths were low -- some 75 battle-ready tanks per division -- and many soldiers were in need of rest.
The Allies assembled their most experienced commanders. American Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower was selected as the overall commander. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was overall land commander and also commander of the 21st (British) Army Group. Eisenhower would take overall ground command once the 12th (U.S.) Army Group, under Gen. Omar Bradley, was activated ashore.
With the invasion force loaded and putting to sea in early June, the weather turned prohibitively severe. Eisenhower had to decide whether to postpone the invasion for two weeks, when conditions would improve, or delay for 24 hours, when a short break in the bad weather might provide suboptimal conditions. He chose the latter -- D-Day moved from June 5 to June 6, 1944.
There were five assault beaches along some 70 miles of shoreline. From west to east, they were Utah and Omaha to be seized by U.S. forces, and Gold, Juno and Sword, to be seized by British and Canadian forces. U.S. and British airborne forces would parachute into Normandy in the pre-dawn morning of D-Day to secure the west and east flanks, respectively.
Moving the invasion force across the English Channel was a formidable naval task that positioned the great battleships and cruisers of the shore bombardment force and allowed the careful sequencing of hundreds of troop ships to launch thousands of assault landing craft. The assault waves were thoroughly organized for bringing key weapons and capabilities onto the beaches in deliberate succession -- tanks, then infantry, then engineers to clear obstacles.
The heaviest fighting on D-Day occurred on Omaha Beach, where the reinforced 1st Infantry Division led the assault. The German defenses there were anchored on 12 wiederstandnesten or fortified strong points sited to defend the exits off the beach.
To open the exits, each boat landing team had a specific objective and had rehearsed its mission repeatedly. However, an off shore current unknown to planners shifted many landing craft well east of their objectives and onto unfamiliar stretches of beach. A heavy overcast made planned tactical air support and naval gunfire much less effective than desired. The dual-drive, floating tanks that were to lead the assault swamped and sank in the unanticipated heavy swells. The German 352nd Infantry Division had reinforced the beach defenses without being detected.
The first wave (which landed at low tide so the landing craft pilots could see and avoid obstacles) came under continuous, heavy fire as soon as it was sighted and thence all the way to the feeble cover of the high tide line.
Many landing craft were destroyed while others took extreme evasive action, further scattering the troops. Desperate soldiers abandoned their craft in deep water to avoid being killed before they could fight. There many drowned, at worst, or, at best, dropped their equipment to swim ashore.
By 7:30 a.m., an hour after H-hour, with the tide now rising behind them, some 1,200 soldiers of the 16th and 116th Infantry Regiments were pinned down on the beach -- disorganized, disoriented, missing leaders and key equipment, riddled by casualties. Senior officers in command vessels offshore believed the assault had failed.
Iron-willed infantrymen of all ranks met this crisis.
Col. George Taylor, commanding the 16th Infantry Regiment, urged his men that only the dead and those sure to die would stay on the beach; they must advance to the bluffs above. Sgt. John Pinder repeatedly left the slim safety of the high tide line to search for radio parts among the battle debris on the beach; he was wounded and then killed in the attempt. Gen. Willard Wyman calmly walked along the beach under heavy fire giving orders and direction to individual soldiers. Pvt. Carleton Barrett rescued many of his wounded comrades from certain drowning in the surf. Lt. John Spalding found a crease in the German bluff defenses and led his rifle platoon through it to the top. Lt. Jimmie Monteith commandeered two tanks that had made it ashore, directing their fire in support of his platoon that likewise scaled the bluffs to attack the German positions from flank and rear. Medic Charles Shay ran and crawled from one wounded comrade to another, desperately saving lives.
These and countless others took the battle into their own hands.
Meanwhile, U.S. Navy Capt. Harry Sanders ordered his eight destroyers to close the beach where several nearly went aground while placing five-inch shells directly over the heads of the infantry and into German pillboxes. These combined efforts allowed some of the critical beach exits to be cleared from behind by the end of the day.
Nevertheless, the Allied beachhead was in a precarious state. Although 130,000 Allied troops were ashore, the beachheads were not united, casualties had been heavy and German panzer divisions were expected. Had they arrived in strength and attacked immediately, they might have set back the invasion. But they did not, because the German high command was incapable of deciding to send them. While many factors explain the fitful German response, central to all of them was Hitler's incompetence and the toxic state of German command relationships.
The price for Allied success was high: some 10,000 Allied casualties on June 6 alone, including more than 4,000 dead. In the 1st Infantry Division, there were some 1,200 total casualties on June 6, and another 743 from the attached regiments of the 29th Infantry Division. German casualties on D-Day are estimated between 4,000 and 9,000. The larger battle into July and August cost another 425,000 Allied and German troops killed, wounded or missing. Between 15,000 and 20,000 French civilians were killed, mainly by Allied bombing. Thousands more fled their homes to escape the fighting.
The Battle for Normandy is important today because it was essential to the Allied victory in World War II; it ensured that the Western Allies would reach deep into Central Europe and thus set the stage for later victory in the Cold War; and it is a testament to Allied partnership and cooperation, and the valor of Allied servicemen. Their courage and sacrifice, and that of all the World War II veterans, freed us from the terrible dangers of the 1940s and the world visions of Adolf Hitler and the other Axis regimes. We should not forget, and we should cherish and nurture the freedom they bequeathed us.