The Allied world held its breath as its soldiers fought for a toehold on the narrow beaches of Hitler's `Fortress Europe' on June 6, 1944
FIFTY years ago today, the lead story on the front page of The Christian Science Monitor and of every other newspaper the world around said that ``the hour of invasion has arrived.''
It was the climactic moment of World War II, the day when British, Canadian, and American troops turned to the continent of Europe and opened the second front for which the Soviets, hard-pressed by German armies deep inside Russia, had been pleading.
Allied invasion Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower had chosen for his decisive battlefield the short, shallow Normandy peninsula - about 60 miles along the invasion front, in places less than 50 miles deep.
In some ways the choice favored the Germans.
After five years of war, they were short of manpower. Most of their best troops were in Russia. They could barely manage enough forces to cover their ``West wall,'' the ``invasion front'' on the English Channel. They had few reserves.
A short battle front with solid flanks served the Nazis and deprived the invading armies of the advantage of superior manpower. The number of troops that could be put ashore along the Normandy beaches was limited by space, not by numbers of men available.
But there were beaches along the Normandy shore - long miles of them. The Nazis did not know where the invasion would come. General Eisenhower had selected Normandy partly because it was relatively remote, partly because his intelligence experts told him that the Nazis had more reserves behind the beaches farther north, around Calais. They were not expecting him to come ashore on Normandy.
With his superior air power, Eisenhower could also more easily block the roads and rail lines to Normandy than the shorter and more numerous supply lines to the German front in the Calais area.
``Ike's'' first problem was to establish a beachhead. He had to break through the Nazi defenses somewhere. Normandy seemed to him the best place to try it, even though it gave him little room to maneuver. He could not begin to use his superior numbers until he could break out of the confines of Normandy.
Many Americans who were alive on the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor can remember where they were when first hearing the news. D-Day news was like that, too. We knew the invasion was coming, sometime. Newspapers and broadcasting networks had long since sent to England the reporters who were to cover the invasion. Those reporters had been briefed and sent to their embarkation points.
When the day came, those of us left behind had to be patient and wait for the news. We knew that the one big uncertainty was whether the invasion force could actually get ashore. Ultimately, the superior weight of Allied manpower and equipment would give the victory to the Allies - if they could get past the beach.
There were anxious hours as we waited for the news from the front line. The Nazis had the advantage not just of a small battlefield with solid flanks, but also of experience. Every German division had been battle-hardened in many a campaign. Few American units were experienced in battle.
The US First Division at Omaha Beach had come from heavy fighting in Africa, but the Fourth Division at Utah Beach was new to battle. Many Americans who came ashore 50 years ago were straight from training camps. More of the British were combat veterans, but not all of their first-wave troops had been in battle before. The Nazis' experience helped make up for their deficiency in numbers and their war-weariness.
Decisive to the outcome was an enormous Allied superiority in sea and air power. The British and American navies controlled the English Channel and covered it with an invasion fleet of some 5,300 ships. The only naval challenge came from a few Nazi torpedo boats that sank a Norwegian destroyer and fled. Few Luftwaffe planes attempted to challenge the Allied air forces that dominated the skies over the invasion beaches and protected the 23,400 airborne troops dropped behind the German front lines.
The invasion was roughly two years in the planning. Marvelous ingenuity went into the perfection of landing craft, two artificial harbors, tanks that could ``swim'' ashore, and others that could knock out mine fields with rotating chain flails. Special squads of frogmen were trained to demolish underwater obstructions. US Army Rangers practiced scaling cliffs. Seldom has the assault on a fortress been prepared so carefully, and never before had so big a fortress been stormed by so many.
UCH depended on that first day. The Nazis hoped, and perhaps expected, to throw back the first waves of the invasion. But looking back, it is obvious that once the beachheads had been won and reinforced, the issue was settled. With total command of sea and air lanes, the Allies could begin pumping in reserves.
The buildup began. It could not be stopped.
Hitler had overreached when he invaded Russia and brought the vast manpower of that country into the war. The Imperialist Japanese added to the burden by bringing the Americans into the war. When D-Day came, Hitler's armies were fighting the combined manpower and resources of Russia, the United States, and the British Empire. North Africa had been lost; Italy had been invaded.
The German Army of 1944 was the most experienced, efficiently supplied, and best-led of any army in the world. From D-Day until the end of the battle in Normandy, the attacking allies lost 5 men for every 2 Nazi soldiers killed. German tanks were the best in those final battles of the war, and the Nazi 88-millimeter antitank gun was without equal. But the combination of the resources of three great powers was too much.
A brilliant, well-executed plan, and superior Allied sea- and air-power made it possible to get those men and machines on the beach. Nearly a year of fighting lay before them until the end the following May, but the end was inevitable. Hitler lost World War II when he couldn't turn back that first wave of the invasion - 50 years ago today.