It is certainly proper that we take a moment in our busy schedules to remember the momentous event of seventy years ago today.
The 20th century, like any other, was fully provided with great and terrible moments, and instances that have changed the course of history. Nevertheless, if there be one day – one isolated day – that can truly be called the single most important day in the last century, then surely D-Day must be that day.
It was on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994 that I began periodically sending these historical notes. I must mark this anniversary, especially as there has recently been something of a distressing trend to minimize or denigrate the significance of D-Day. I feel some degree of personal connection to this crucial historic event because my late father, Bill Rawson, Senior, flew his first bombing missions, co-piloting a lead bomber at the age of 19, in support of the invasion.
Seventy years ago, Tuesday 6 June 1944, the leaders of the forces allied against Hitler’s terrible Reich gambled men and materièl on a scale the likes of which the world had never seen (and which we may ardently hope it never will see again!) At 0630 on 6 June, the first waves of what was to become a force 156,000 strong hit the beaches of Normandy to establish an allied toehold on the continent of Europe and to effect the beginning of the end for Hitler’s ghastly regime.
We know, live with, and daily benefit from the results of this day, but we may easily forget the risks that were then associated with the invasion and we rarely explore the dire consequences that a failure would have brought. It is easy to ignore the possibility of failure in the light of 70 years of hindsight, and we often tend to see that which has happened as inevitable. But to those involved at the time, the risks were real and the possibility of failure was keenly sensed; General Eisenhower carefully prepared his official statement in the event of failure. As it turned out, the invasion was successful beyond the most optimistic projections of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces.
Planners’ predictions of the day’s casualties ranged from a low of 12% to a high of 60%; the actual results were far, far better despite the terrible fighting on “Bloody Omaha.” Recently, extensive archival research has been conducted to provide an accurate and precise total for the day’s actual casualties. Historically, the total allied casualties for that day were reported as fewer than 6,000, about 4% of the 156,000 troops landed that day, with about 2,400 of these being fatalities. The recent research, as reported at the British D-Day Museum website, gives revised totals standing at nearly 10,000 total casualties and almost 4,000 fatalities. The final human cost was enormous, but even adjusted to the newer 6% figure, it was far below what had been expected. And for a historical perspective, These losses were about the same as those which Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia incurred in a single day at Gettysburg.
The invasion inescapably wrought death and destruction on the population of Normandy. The towns, villages, and farms of Normandy suffered under allied bombing and Nazi shelling, and from the ground battles that were fought across the Norman countryside. A 2009 article in the New York Times estimates that there were nearly 20,000 French civilian casualties as a result of the 10-weeks of fighting that followed the invasion. Allied tanks and armor bulldozed great swathes through the ancient hedgerows of the picturesque Norman farms. Driving through Normandy in early July of 1977, I noted that it was still easy to identify the route that the tanks had taken, because the relative newness of the hedgerows that had regrown was plainly visible, even 33 years after the invasion.
Within a few hours of the start of the invasion, it became clear that the allied forces could hold their beachheads. It took weeks for the armies to break out of Normandy, and it was almost a year before Germany capitulated, yet the outcome plainly hinged upon this daring gamble. The gamble succeeded for many, many reasons, of course. But today we should remember and be grateful to the soldiers of Free France, Canada, Great Britain, and The United States of America, as well as those of smaller contingents from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Poland, whose courage and determination made the victory a reality, and who allowed us to live and grow in a world where the open brutality and blunt terrorism of nations is less common, and the horrors of war less frequent than in the first half of the 20th century, albeit such horror is undeniably still far too frequent.
And we should remember that there are hundreds of thousands of men and women serving us around the world today. Some are directly in harm’s way, others well-removed from the front. But all serve. These people, too, deserve our thanks. So as we remember and honor the men and women of what Tom Brokaw has aptly styled “The Greatest Generation,” we should also say thank you to those who today rise to the challenge and serve a great nation even unto their last full measure.
My thanks to all who have served and who do serve in any capacity. I am deeply grateful for your sacrifices. Thank you. It cannot be said too frequently. Thank you.
Flower Mound, Texas
In war, resolution;
in defeat, defiance;
in victory magnanimity;
in peace, goodwill.
— Winston Churchill
The Portsmouth British D-Day Museum Website:
The U.S. National D-Day Museum Website:
New York Times Article:
For D-Day, there are, I feel, three essential books. First and foremost is Cornelius Ryan’s classic The Longest Day. First published in 1951, Ryan’s work was the first comprehensive distillation of the massive official documentation of D-Day (from both the archives of the allies and the Third Reich) supplemented with extensive personal interviews. Ryan was a journalist, and the style of The Longest Day reflects that background, but his work is a landmark of contemporary history. An excellent and highly readable work, The Longest Day is an excellent starting point from which to learn more about D-Day.
The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day, Cornelius Ryan; Simon & Schuster, 1994: ISBN: 0671890913
John Keegan, sometimes called “the Dean of Military History” was inspired by his childhood memories of watching the preparations leading up to D-Day in rural England. He became a historian and specialized in military history, bursting onto the mainstream literary scene in 1976 with his outstanding The Face of Battle, a study of three famous battles, comparing and contrasting them. In 1982, Keegan published Six Armies In Normandy, an account of D-Day that goes further that Ryan’s by following the invasion up to the Liberation of Paris two months later. Keegan is a wonderfully engaging writer who never forgets that history should be as interesting to read as the best fiction, while maintaining impeccable academic standards.
Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris, John Keegan; Penguin, 1994: ISBN: 0140235426
Stephen Ambrose completed D-Day as a tribute to the 50th anniversary 19 years ago. This book was one of Ambrose’s most successful efforts to reach beyond the academic world and into the mainstream. And in this book Ambrose managed to crossover into popular publishing without compromising academic rigorousness or integrity. (Later, his popular success led to unfortunate carelessness which resulted in accusations of plagiarism, but this book predates that time.) D-Day is scrupulously well-researched and includes material from thousands of interviews which Ambrose conducted. The book reads so breathtakingly that you find yourself almost anxious to learn the outcome! This is among Ambrose’s best, and a must-read to learn more about D-Day. Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers is an excellent supplement, containing extensive material from interviews with participants from D-Day through to The Bulge.
D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, Stephen E. Ambrose; Simon & Schuster, 1995: ISBN: 068480137X.