The Longest Day: 70 years later (Anteroom of a Centenary)

First of all, the author would like to pay a tribute to all of those brave souls that faced the most terrible horrors of the battle and gave the best of their effort, many paying with their lives, for the sake of freedom on that important day, making history, in an admirable deployment of courage and tenacity. Also the author would like to pay his respects and declare his admiration to those brave soldiers, capable of doing what others would not.

5th of June 1944. Much of Europe has been suffering under the hard rule of German occupation for four long years. Terrible crimes were being committed by the then German regime against civilians and allied soldiers alike. But despite the length and the degree of the iron fist and the dark night, the light of freedom is about to come from the shores of the English Channel.

D-Day or ‘Operation Overlord’ is widely regarded as one of the most impressive, ambitious and most meticulously planned military operations of all time. Its planning required a huge amount of careful preparation for the allied forces and meant a race against time for the Germans to prepare its defence. The allies had the experience of Dieppe in 1942 as a basis to select the type of ideal terrain to disembark (thus Normandy) and also the proximity of Calais to the German main centres of supply and a place that was easy to defend (Murray & Millet, 1998)[i]. Securing the beachhead required a flow of troops to reinforce it and also a need to cut off the routes that the Germans could use to send reinforcements and counterattack. What saved the day in that sense was the utilization of air power, both strategic and tactical, in order to destroy the nodes and lines of communication and to deny the possibility of any counterattack[ii]. The deployment of paratroopers to secure the flanks and important objectives was also an important tactic employed by the allies (Murray & Millet, 1998). Naval power played an essential role in transporting the troops to destinations, attacking the beach defences amongst many other tasks[iii].

The strategic and tactical preparations were also a nightmare in themselves, following Murray & Millet (1998). Firstly, the reaching of an agreement on the plan itself given the many different wishes of the allied commanders and politicians was no mean feat in and of itself. But secondly, keeping the Germans unaware of the scope and precise area of operations was an even greater challenge. In this case, the solution came by putting the best allied General, George Patton, to command a fake invasion army – literally a fake army with derelict assets – that would be ‘threatening’ the pass of Calais. Thirdly, the British and American commanders showed little or no interest in learning from the other commanders with experience in amphibious landings in the Pacific which is remarkable given that their task involved executing such a large number of landings well and also avoiding the obstacles placed by the Germans. Some outright rejected specialized vehicles that could have saved lives, such as at Omaha beach (Murray & Millet, 1998).

But despite the odds and the many difficulties faced that day, in the end D-Day was a major turning point for the definitive outcome of the Second World War. First of all, the allies had returned to Europe and were able to put an end to the iron fist regime of the Germans: after all, France and later on Western Europe were liberated (Murray & Millet, 1998). Also, Germany was weakened and directly threatened not only by the physical presence of allied troops on continental soil, but also by the Russian advances in the East (The D Day operations were the begged for “second front” that Stalin had asked of the allies in order to deviate German soldiers from the combats in Russia). Victory, of course, was not as fast as many would had expected after ‘Operation Overlord’, taking 9 months after the landings and the famous Battle of the Ardennes to stop the Third Reich once and for all (Murray & Millet, 1998; Adams, 2010).

Murray & Millet (1998) go even further, stating that ‘Operation Overlord’ formed the basis for future peace in Europe and the victory of Democracy against communism in the Cold War thus shaping the political future of Europe for the next decades. But did D-day have as much of a strategic impact as they claim? That the defeat of Germany was a certainty after Overlord is beyond any question, despite the long and painful remaining 9 months of war. But, what if for example, Operation Overlord had failed? After all, such a failure was, according to Stafford (2004), a highly likely possibility. So much so that General Eisenhower had a press release prepared in case the operation failed and another proposing a full-scale retreat of the American troops at Omaha Beach which would have compromised the whole operation.

In a more strategic sense, Staffor (2004), remarks that, had Operation Overlord failed, the allies would not have enjoyed the possibility of executing a similar operation in a future. For the Germans a failure would have meant a little respite and a pyrrhic victory: the German armies would have focused on the East but by that time the Red Army was already strong enough to be able to defeat Germany. Furthermore, it would have advanced to the River Rhine thus occupying the whole of Germany or worse; it could even have been able to advance until the English Channel and the North Sea[iv]. All of Europe could have been under the rule of another iron fist of different colour, the UK would have remained alone while the US would have retreated to isolationism once again (Safford, 2004).

Brinkley (2014) in turn, points out that if Operation Overlord would have failed, the massive resources gathered for the first attempt wouldn’t have been available for a second attempt; there was no back-up plan nor a new prospective landing zone for a second attempt. The difference in his appreciation is that Germany would have remained as a large belligerent force with one front less to worry about, able to develop the technology to repel the strategic raids made by the allies (the only choice after an eventual defeat on D-Day) and the Holocaust would have known no end at all. Even worse, Germany and the Soviet Union could have made an agreement, in a similar way to the First World War[v].

The prospectives of such scenarios, were of little chance but were by no means impossible and after all, Western Europe (and the whole World) was saved on that Summer day in June, 1944. Now, the real question is did Operation Overlord alone shape the outcome of the war and the nature of the following decades to come? The answer is undoubtedly yes. But we must remember that even if D-Day was an important milestone, it is also the result of a war that was itself the direct offspring of the First World War. Many, if not all of the belligerents, either in nature or strategic strength were so due to the consequences of that war.

The intention here, and as the title itself suggests, is to explain how the First World War led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and of communist totalitarianism through the epic and tragic events of Operation Overlord. In short, D-Day as we know it, with its good and fortunate outcome, could have never have happened if the First World War had had a different outcome[vi]. Furthermore, an operation such as Overlord would have taken place with different players and for a different cause, and probably in another scenario. Without a doubt, the First World War shaped the World in which both the Second World War and Operation Overlord took place – a fact that for different reasons often tends to be forgotten.

Welcome then, to the GPPW special series on the First World War and its impact on the history and geopolitics of Europe and the world.

 

Sources

Adams, M (2010). The Aftermath of D – Day. In: Humanities 360 – World Wars. Retrieved from: http://www.humanities360.com/index.php/the-aftermath-of-d-day-19906/ on 05.06.2014

Brinkley, D (2014). The Longest Day. In Time: D – Day – June 6, 1944. Retrieved from: http://time.com/102141/dday-longest-day/ on 05.06.2014

Dr Stafford, D (2004). What if D – Day had failed? In: BBC News. Retrieved from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3732417.stm on 05.06.2014

Laurenceau, M (n.a). Summary of the Normandy Landings. In: DDay – Overorld.com. The Battle of Normandy. http://www.dday-overlord.com/eng/summary_dday.htm

Murray, W. & Millet, A. R (2005). A War to be Won [La Guerra que Habia que Ganar]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica.

 

[i] For those interested in having a good overview of D-Day take a look at this outstanding source: Laurenceau, M (n.a). Summary of the Normandy Landings. In: DDay – Overorld.com. The Battle of Normandy. http://www.dday-overlord.com/eng/summary_dday.htm

[ii] This, according to Murray & Millet (1998) has to do with working with a wide time window prior to the operation and covering the entirety of France to avoid any hinting. The utilization of air power also implied a direct attack against the beach defences made by the Germans.

[iii] More than 7000 vessels and warships took part in the operation, according to Murray and Millet (1998).

[iv] The Red Army could have even advanced until Paris.

[v] This event is not so unthinkable if we bear in mind that the possibility of Germany being able to focus on one single front could have brought the events in the East to a stalemate and draw thus an agreement between the two dictatorships as another scenario.

[vi] Even if it failed, the general conditions in both political and strategic sense were simply there.

 

*Cover image ‘D-Day’ by Bill Damon

One response to “The Longest Day: 70 years later (Anteroom of a Centenary)

  1. Pingback: WWI Series. THE LONGEST DAY: 70 YEARS LATER (ANTEROOM OF A CENTENARY) | Drakkar: Defence, Strategy and Security·

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