Today is the 75th anniversary of one of the most ambitious and significant military campaigns in history – the D–Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France. Because of its strategy, scope and enormous impact on the future of the free world, historians today consider it one of the greatest military achievements ever.
The basic plan was this: Soldiers arriving from England by sea would land on the beaches in waves, one after another, beginning early in the morning.
After securing their beaches, the British and Canadians (red) would sweep northeast through France, Belgium and the Netherlands, liberating those countries from German control. Meanwhile, the Americans would plow through the heart of France, liberating it on their way into Germany. And all troops would eventually invade Germany.
To accomplish this, an amazing 156,000 Allied troops were slated to land in Normandy by sea or by air on D-Day.
The night before the invasion, General Eisenhower sent a message to the troops which said, in part: “The eyes of the world are upon you… The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
To get an idea of what the soldiers went through, let’s pretend you are part of the first wave. You belong to Able company, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. And you’re about to land on Omaha Beach.
A few hours earlier, you were given the biggest breakfast you’ve had in a long time. And for the past hour, as you weathered the rocky seas, you and your buddies have been vomiting everything you’ve eaten in the last three weeks. 1,000 yards from shore, artillery fire hits one of the six boats accompanying you and six men drown before your eyes.
What you don’t yet realize is that German forces are dug in deep into the bluffs above the beaches in massive, fortified bunkers nicknamed “pill boxes” that serve as artillery and machine gun nests. And their guns are trained on you.
Suddenly, machine gun bullets are whizzing over your head and hitting the sides of your boat. But you sail straight into this hail of bullets until you’re about 100 yards from shore.
Then the ramp on your landing craft suddenly drops, and your commanding officer is screaming at you to get out and start wading toward shore as fast as you can. Several guys in front of you are hit before they’ve even left boat, and you have to scramble over them to get out before you’re killed.
You jump overboard and find yourself in water that’s over your head. Shrugging off your heavy pack and dropping your gun, you finally manage to surface, but several of those around you are either drowning or already dead from machine gun fire.
You finally manage to swim inland enough to find solid ground and start running for the shore. Soldiers around you are dropping left and right and the sea is beginning to run red. No wonder this beach would later be known as “Bloody Omaha.”
And reaching the beach is far from reaching safety. It’s huge – maybe 200 yards deep, the equivalent of about two football fields. Even worse, there’s nowhere to hide…
So you get up and run straight through a relentless volley of bullets, grabbing a rifle from a dead soldier on the beach along the way. Within that first hour, 96% of your regiment is either killed or wounded and only one officer is still alive.
But somehow luck is with you. You manage to get to the beach’s retaining wall and scramble up the slopes. You and a band of soldiers you’ve never met before make it over the bluff, meet the German troops and fight fiercely, sometimes in hand-to-hand combat. And eventually, you and the other Allies manage to take the Germans from behind and win the plateau.
Meanwhile, back on the beach, wave after wave of Allied soldiers follows you, landing throughout the day and swarming inland. By the end of the day…
… Bloody Omaha looks like this and 34,000 troops have landed on this one beach.
As D- Day comes to a close, on the five Normandy beaches a total of 156,000 troops have landed, as well as 6,000 vehicles, 600 guns, and about 4,000 tons of supplies, definitely securing an Allied foothold. Within 100 days, those figures will swell to 2.5 million men, ½ million vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies.
And although the results are less successful than anticipated, thanks to poor visibility, miscalculated landings, ineffective bombing raids, and heavy fighting, all five beaches have secured. By the end of the month, Normandy as a whole is completely secured, and two months later, the Allies liberate Paris and are well on their way to winning the war.
Of course, all of this came at a price. Casualties on D-Day alone have been estimated at 8,442 Allied soldiers, 5,000 German soldiers and untold thousands of French civilians.
D-Day is almost universally considered a major landmark moment in World War II.
For many Americans, images of the troops landing on the beaches of Normandy have become iconic, symbolizing a superior cause and the ability to do the impossible.
Today we celebrate those who, 75 years ago, stared death in the face (and sometimes lost) while participating in the enormous, complex and high-risk operation known as D-Day, a major victory for liberty-loving people everywhere.
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