“Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
— Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Four days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler committed one of the most monumental blunders in history. Rushing back to Berlin from his Prussian headquarters on December 11, he went before the Reichstag and, in a short 334-word speech, declared war on the United States. In this single act of suicidal hubris he sealed the fate of the Third Reich.
Despite still being locked in a brutal war against Great Britain and the Soviet Union, when presented with the opportunity to declare war against a nation capable of producing as many munitions in one year as Germany could in five, Hitler did not hesitate or flinch. Hitler was certainly aware of America’s production potential, for he had written about it in Mein Kampf
. Despite this knowledge, he remained unimpressed with American military potential. In 1940, he had told Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov that the United States would not be a threat to Germany for decades — “1970 or 1980 at the earliest.” This was a colossal misjudgment, but not Hitler’s only one. Not unlike other dictators, Hitler believed it was impossible to transform pampered American youths into formidable soldiers.
Only two a half years after Hitler’s war declaration, a mighty American army was poised to cross the English Channel and bring Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich” to an end 988 years ahead of schedule. At Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s disposal was a superbly trained American and British army he believed capable of fulfilling Gen. George Marshall’s order to “reenter the continent of Europe and defeat the Nazi enemy.”
To accomplish this task, American industry, which an earlier German general had called the “pitiless beast,” had provided everything American and British forces required. On June 5, 1944, a vast armada of more than 5,000 vessels carried some 150,000 troops and 30,000 vehicles across the English Channel and onto the Normandy beaches. In the air, 800 aircraft, launching from nine British airfields, deposited more than 12,500 paratroopers onto flooded fields and towns behind the Normandy beaches.
Soon after, another 300 aircraft struck directly at the beaches themselves, dropping more than 13,000 bombs. Unfortunately, these bombers released their loads seconds late, killing a number of hapless cows but doing no damage to the German fortifications awaiting the Allied landings. These bombers, however, represented only a small fraction of the air armada that had been pounding German cities, industry, and transport centers for over two years. In just the two months prior to the invasion, the Allies flew 14,000 missions in support of D-Day operations, losing 12,000 airmen and 2,000 aircraft in the process. They lost another 127 planes on D-Day, and by the end of the Normandy campaign 28,000 airmen were dead.
Less than a week after the invasion, all five of the Normandy invasion beaches — Utah, Omaha, Gold Sword, and Juno — were secure. Within the beachheads were 340,000 troops — about the same as the population of Tampa or New Orleans — more than 50,000 vehicles and some 100,000 tons of supplies. But that was only the beginning of a massive military machine that landed tens of thousands troops and 20,000 tons of supplies every day. America’s “pitiless” industrial might, once turned towards war, had transformed a military that barely ranked in the global top 20 in 1940 into a mortal threat to Hitler’s Germany. Moreover, it had done so 25 years earlier than Hitler thought possible.
Everything industry produced, however, was useless unless it was wielded by intrepid soldiers, competently led. And it was in this regard that Hitler made his grossest miscalculation. The so-called pampered soldiers of democracy proved to be more than a match for the tyrannical armies of Nazi Germany and Japan (often forgotten is that as the Americans were crossing the English Channel another invasion force was leaving Pearl Harbor, heading for the Japanese-held island of Saipan).
I have had several opportunities to tour the Normandy beaches, and have always walked away awestruck. Standing at the 150-foot summit of Pointe du Hoc, one can only wonder at the bravery of the American Rangers who scaled that sheer under intense and constant German fire. I still find it unfathomable that unprotected infantrymen ran, stumbled, and crawled across 1,000 yards of open sand at Omaha Beach that was being swept by dozens of German machineguns, each firing over a 1,000 rounds a minute.