Friday is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the massive Allied invasion of France whose success made clear World War II was entering its final phases. The war in Europe had been under way almost five years and would slog on another eleven months, until the German government surrendered in May 1945.
Normandy was at the time the largest industrial operation in history, and may still hold the honor. For an American, the Normandy beaches are one of the most impressive sites in the world, bar none. We have taken friends and family there several times, but have never been able to explain adequately in advance the impact of the long line of beaches, the German pillboxes lined up one after the other along the length of the Western Wall, and the fact that Americans will be welcomed as honored friends even though the ancestors of many of the people now living along the beaches died during the fighting.
They haven’t lost the sure knowledge that something important happened on that day, and if it had failed the world would be a very different place now. And it could have failed. It was a close thing – so close that General Eisenhower wrote a personal mea culpa taking responsibility, a letter that was later buried in his library for 35 years. They weren’t withdrawn, and the liberation of France continued apace, from June 6 in Normandy to August in Paris (where the local citizens took their own fate in hand a week before the French Second Armored Division marched up Avenue d’Orleans). It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that if D-Day had failed the first atomic bomb would probably have targeted Berlin rather than Hiroshima.
Avenue d’Orleans was later renamed Avenue du Général Leclerc after the famous Deuxième Division Blindée. The Omaha Beach cemetery itself is one site that should not be missed. It sits on a broad expanse of green lawn at the top of Omaha Beach. It’s the final resting place of almost 10,000 American soldiers. On our last visit we were met by a group of old soldiers — French soldiers long past retirement age — anxious to explain the cemetery and its meaning. You could spend weeks driving slowly up and down the beaches from Le Havre to Cherbourg. There’s the cemetery, and there’s Point du Hoc, the famous spit of land at the top of a cliff that was to be the artillery emplacement that would drive away the invaders.
It was taken at high cost by Army Rangers who climbed the cliff, only to find that the artillery pieces had been moved. They found and spiked them, but it was one of many lessons in the value of good intelligence. There are dozens of other museums near the places where American, British and Canadian troops landed, fought and died. The web is full of good information about the D-Day landings. A list of links appears below the pictures.
The U.S. Army’s own informative D-Day site: http://www.army.mil/d-day/
The American Cemetery above Omaha Beach: http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials/europe/normandy-american-cemetery
Wikipedia, Normandy landings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normandy_landings
Why was it called D-Day? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D-Day_(military_term)
History Channel, with interesting videos: http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/d-day
Exploding the myths (which no one who’s read history carefully will think are myths): http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/05/opinion/opinion-d-day-myth-reality/
Encyclopedia Britannica’s extensive discussion: https://www.britannica.com/dday
Military History Online, with a broad discussion: http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/wwii/dday/
The National WWII Museum, New Orleans (very much worth a visit): http://nationalww2museum.org