I discuss the historical background behind the Normandy Landings, why there are important, what impact they had on history, and why it is important they be commemorated.
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which took place on the 6th of June 1944. The term “D-Day” is a generic military term which simply refers to the day on which an operation will be initiated, and is used for the purpose of secrecy and convenience. So, for example, military planners can lay out the sequence of objectives of an operation as occurring on D-Day, D+1, D+2, etc, without needing to refer to specific calendar dates which may be subject to change. Although still used in a generic sense, the term “D-Day” has now become strongly linked to the Allied invasion of German occupied France in 1944.
During the period of late 1939 and through to mid 1941, the Germans conducted a series of highly-successful military campaigns using a strategy which has come to be known as Blitzkrieg, or “Lightning War”. In this period, the Germans successfully defeated and occupied Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. In addition, the states of Hungary, Romania, Italy, Bulgaria, and Finland were allied to the Germans. Spain, though officially neutral, was under the control of Franco, a fascist dictator whom Hitler had assisted in coming to power in the Spanish Civil War. Likewise Sweden, though also neutral, was fairly willing to accommodate Nazi demands for resources and other cooperation. Taken together, therefore, the from roughly the period of mid 1941 to mid-late 1944, almost all of Continental Europe was essentially under either direct or indirect German control, in what was known as “Occupied Europe”.
I mention all this because I think it is important to understand the backdrop against which the D-Day landings took place. In a very short period of time, the Germans had brought almost all of Europe to its knees. The mighty French army, lead by Pétain , hero of the First World War, was defeated in a mere six weeks. Though the Germans were later to face defeats against the Soviets, and also against the Western Allies (that is, Britain and the USA) in North Africa and Italy, taking the war back to the mainland in the west once again represented an enormous undertaking, not merely in terms of manpower and logistics, but also in terms of psychology. The courage and commitment of the men and women who made this invasion possible, therefore, cannot easily be overestimated.
Almost immediately after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had been pressuring the Western Allies to open a “second front” in Western Europe. Some moves were made in this direction with the 1942 Torch landings in North Africa, and with the invasion of southern Italy in 1943, but neither of these campaigns represented the substantial commitment that Stalin wanted. He wanted a “real” second front, one which would pose a significant threat to Germany, and force the Germans to redirect substantial forces away from the Eastern Front. This, most fundamentally, was the purpose of the Normandy Landings: to open up a second front that would take significant pressure off the Soviet Union, and force Germany into a true two-front war, thereby draining its resources and bringing the war to an end as quickly as possible.
The Scale of the Landings
The D-Day landings remain to this day the largest amphibious military assault in history. About 160,000 Allied troops crossed the channel on D-Day itself, transported and escorted by some 5000 ships and landing craft. The landings were also accompanied by a massive bombing campaign of military targets all across the French coast, and also airborne landing of some 24,000 troops behind enemy lines to assist in securing the initial bridgeheads. Planning for the massive operation began over a year beforehand, and in addition to a very large buildup of ships, tanks, and troops in Southern Britain, preparations also included an elaborate campaign of deception designed to mislead the Germans as to the intended target of the operation. This deception proved to be so successful that, even many hours after the landings had begun, Hitler remained convinced that the attacks on Normandy were only a diversion, and that the real invasion would take place in the Pas de Calais, where the distance across the English Channel is shortest. By the end of June, some 900,000 Allied troops had been landed in France, a remarkable achievement.
What if D-Day had Failed?
Although today it seems, with the benefit of hindsight, that D-Day was an inevitable success, at the time this was by no means clear, and the operation was considered to be incredibly risky. Had any number of factors turned out differently, such as poor weather, German intelligence gaining better information about the time and place of the landings, or if Hitler had freed up the Panzer reserves earlier to counterattack the beachheads, the allies could very well have been driven back into the sea. Eisenhower even penned a brief message, never used, to be read in the event that the landings were a failure. Had this occurred, it would have been a massive blow to Allied morale, and a huge boon to that of the Germans. Given the immense scale of the operation and the resources involved, the Allies would likely have been unable to launch a second attempt until early 1945 at the earliest. The Allied high command structure would likely have been shaken up (e.g. it is quite plausible that Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander responsible for the Normandy Landings, would have resigned), and possibly (though in my view somewhat less likely) the Americans would have decided to refocus their energies and manpower on first defeating the Japanese in the Pacific.
Perhaps most importantly, huge numbers of German troops, tanks, aircraft, and other supplies would have been freed up for transfer to the Eastern Front to fight against the Soviet Union. To give some sense of the magnitude of this, during early 1942, when the threat of invasion was lowest, the Germans maintained only 32 divisions in Western Europe. This was gradually increased in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the Normandy Landings, reaching a peak of 79 German divisions in Western Europe by January 1945. This means that, if in the aftermath of a failed D-Day landing the Germans had been able to reduce troop levels in Western Europe to early 1942 levels, some 45 additional divisions would have been available for deployment on the Eastern Front, increasing German forces by about one third.
This substantial increase in German strength would also have been augmented by rising German production of tanks, aircraft, and munitions, which, in spite of losing ground in the East and coming under increasingly heavy attack in the Strategic Bombing Offensive, still actually peaked in August of 1944. As an illustration, the Soviet Union produced 24,000 tanks in 1942 and 29,000 in 1944, a fairly similar number. Germany, by contrast, increased tank production from a mere 6,000 in 1942 to 19,000 in 1944. Similarly, while the Soviets produced 10,000 fighter aircraft in 1942 compared to 5,500 by the Germans, in 1944 the balance had reversed, with 18,000 produced by the Soviets compared to 26,000 by the Germans. Thus, if D-Day had failed and the Germans been able to maintain these higher production levels their strength on the Eastern Front would have been substantially increased, thereby permitting the war to be prolonged considerably, and perhaps even shifting the balance in the Germans’ favour.
To this must also be added the “Wunderwaffe”, or ‘superweapons’ that German scientists and engineers were developing and beginning to deploy in late 1944 and early 1945. These weapons included the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rockets used to attack British cities, jet aircraft much faster than any of the propeller-driven machines possessed by the Allies, super-heavy tanks like the Tiger II virtually impenetrable to the guns of any Allied tank, the Elektroboot U-boats capable of operating fully-submerged, and the Sturmgewehr 44, the world’s first assault rifle which offered much higher rates of fire. None of these weapons were fielded in sufficient numbers to have any appreciable effect on the outcome of the war, but if the D-Day landings had failed and the war been prolonged, it is quite possible these weapons could have begun to have a significant effect.
As a result of all these factors, it is my belief that if the D-Day landings had failed, there is a small chance that Germany would have been able to win the war, or at least come to some sort of peace agreement with the Soviets after fighting them to a stalemate. More likely, I think, is that the Soviet Union would have been able to defeat Germany even without the second front, though with the continued assistance of the Allied aerial bombing campaign and also provision of materials and manufactured goods from America. This, however, would have lengthened the war considerably, probably by at least a year, and perhaps more if the German production increases and Wunderwaffe had a sufficiently large impact. The consequences of this prolongation of the war would have been enormous. The Soviet Union would likely have suffered several million more deaths, with the Germans also suffering perhaps one or two million more as well. In addition, it must not be forgotten that the Nazis were pushed back and defeated before they had completed their genocidal campaign against the Jews, such that by war’s end several hundred thousand Jews were still alive in each of Hungary and Romania, with hundreds of thousands more scattered throughout other occupied countries. If the Germans had an additional year or more to continue implementing their Endlösung, the Holocaust could have claimed many hundreds of thousands more victims.
A failure at D-Day would also have drastically changed the face of postwar Europe. At the very least, the Soviets would likely have occupied all of Germany and Austria, and quite possibly also some or all of France, Greece, and the Low Countries. This would have had enormous and unpredictable consequences for the development of Cold War politics, and also on the postwar social and economic development of Europe. Quite possibly the Cold War would not have ended in the same way as it did (for one thing there would have likely been no Berlin Wall, for Stalin probably would not have allowed the Western Allies into Berlin at all), and likely the European Union would not exist in anything like the form we know it today. Although the overall balance of consequences is impossible to assess, it seems highly likely to me that having most or all of Continental Europe dominated by the Soviet Union would not have been a desirable outcome, either for Europe itself or for the world at large.
Remembering the Past
In concluding this piece, I want to make a few remarks. First, I want to emphasize just how important the D-Day Landings were in shaping the outcome of World War Two, and hence also in effecting the progress of history ever since. The courage, boldness, and resolve of those who planned and supported the operation, and most especially of the Allied troops actually involved in the landings, is worthy of our greatest respect and esteem, something to be remembered for the rest of time. Their actions, as I have outlined above, likely saved millions of lives, and also helped to prevent tens of millions of people falling under the grip of Communism. What a truly amazing achievement.
Second, I want to emphasize something that I think is often overlooked in these discussions of D-Day, at least in the West, which is that, as important as the D-Day landings were, they should nonetheless still be considered to be essentially a ‘second act’, so to speak, to the main scene of the action in the Eastern Front. It is estimated that perhaps 70% of all German military manpower over the course of the war was directed to the Eastern Front. The sacrifice of the Soviet people was immense: total civilian and military losses in the war against Germany totaled about 27 million people, about 13% of the total population. The Western Allies, in comparison, lost only perhaps one million people in the fight against Germany. Thus, the importance of D-Day must always, in my view, be understood in the light of the enormous sacrifice by the Soviet Union in defeating the Nazis.
Third, I want to mention a point that I read in a number of articles that I read on the issue, which is that this will likely be the last major commemoration of the D-Day landings at which a significant number of veterans will be present. The landings were 70 years ago now, meaning even the youngest veterans are approaching 90 years of age. The Normandy Veterans Association, whose numbers have been rapidly dwindling in recent years, is set to disband in November this year. Within only a few decades, there will no longer be any World War Two veterans left alive. It will be up to us, therefore, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the generation who fought in the war, to remember their great sacrifice and courage.
Although this is slightly tangential to D-Day per se, I particularly worry about this with respect to the Holocaust. How will the memory of this most awful crime be kept alive in a real, visceral, meaningful way without living survivors to tell of it? I think it can be done, but doing so requires that we learn history, think about it, ponder what it means, consider how the actions and decisions of those in the past shapes the present and will continue to shape the future. It is in order to keep these memories alive, so that deeds of great valour and awful crimes alike, will not be forgotten and perhaps can even be learned from, that we commemorate anniversaries such as today.
Lest We Forget.