“They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate.” — President Franklin D. Roosevelt, radio broadcast, June 6, 1944
The boat’s probably sprung a leak or two. The seas are choppy. Hardened men and new recruits alike are trying very hard to keep their breakfasts down. Weapons are checked and re-checked. If one were to peek over the edge of the landing craft, a hundred more would be visible on either side. And then, when the boat pushes onto shore and the door drops open, all literal hell breaks loose.
Fixed machine gun positions turn the first few rows of men packed together into paste. Men drown in their attempts to avoid the deadly hail. Those that make it onto the beach have to slip around hedgerows of metal and possibly even mines. Mortar rounds from pillboxes send soldiers and their body parts flying into the air. Medics struggle in vain to at least stabilize the wounded before snipers finish the job. Every inch of sand between the sea and the enemy position is paid for in blood.
Fifty years ago today, this was reality for over 150,000 Allied troops as Operation Neptune, the amphibious invasion of France to liberate it from Nazi Germany, was executed. While what is described above, and seen in films like Saving Private Ryan, makes the invasion seem costly and brutal, the fact is that things could have been much worse. Thanks to Allied intelligence efforts, the Germans had to defend huge swaths of the coastline, The Allies had air superiority, meaning they could bombard the defensive positions from the sky as well as the sea. French Resistance fighters disrupted bridges and supply convoys behind enemy lines, and the German command structure did not have the alacrity needed to adequately deal with the nature of the invasion.
Still, the fight was incredibly hard. Allied casualties were in the tens of thousands, with over 4,000 confirmed dead on the first day alone. None of the Allies’ major objectives were achieved by that point, and one of the biggest targets, the town of Caen, would not be captured until well into July. That said, it was a significant day in the war against Nazi Germany. This was a tangible new front opened on Hitler, causing him to split his attention between this combined force of British and American invaders, and the stalwart Russian defenders on his eastern flank. Between the paratroopers, specialized tanks, and air and sea bombardment, D-Day opened up that second front with gusto, even if casualties were high, especially at Omaha Beach, one of the five stretches of land chosen by the Allies in the months leading to the invasion.
It was seventy years ago today. It would be remiss of us, living in a world where the dream of free expression and equality is still viable, not to remember the sacrifices made that day. We have a long way to go. But like this invasion, it could be much worse.