Remembering D-Day

by Victor Davis Hanson

D-Day was the largest amphibious invasion in history since King Xerxes’ 480 bc combined sea and land descent into Greece. The Americans, especially General George Marshall, had wanted to invade France as early as spring 1943, still confident from their World War I experience that they could land easily in France and within a year push back the German army to end the war. The British and their Dominions, mindful of disasters from the Somme to Dunkirk and Dieppe, were reluctant to land in France even in 1944. A good compromise was June 1944, when air and naval supremacy over and off the coast of France was achieved, sufficient landing craft were available, the Allies had learned a great deal about amphibious operations from North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and the Pacific, British and American strategic bombing was at last starting to pay off, and the huge Red Army had destroyed about 100 German divisions in the East.

For all the well-noted disasters on D-Day (e.g., air drops were often off target, naval shelling was too brief, intelligence about the Omaha Beach defenses and the Bocage was inadequate, the talented George S. Patton was left out of the planning and initial assault, etc.), the landings of some 150,00 troops were brilliantly conducted, and while costly (over 4,000 fatalities), were far less lethal than anticipated. And despite the subsequent six-week, post-D-Day stall due to fierce German resistance, difficult terrain, supply bottlenecks, the inability to take the Atlantic ports intact, and often sluggish generalship, by the end of July the Allied forces had at last broken out and were headed eastward at a phenomenal pace.

Joseph Stalin — who at one time or another would make non-aggression or alliance agreements with all the major Axis and Allied belligerents — had helped force a “second front” by unfairly deprecating the ongoing Anglo-American efforts in the Pacific, North Africa, Italy, the Battle of the Atlantic, the strategic bombing campaign, and massive Lend-Lease aid to the USSR. He had hoped that a second front in the West would tie up about 70 German divisions and ease his ongoing approach to Eastern Europe and Germany. It was likely that he had no idea that the Allied armies would cover nearly the same distance from the beaches to central Germany as from Moscow to Berlin in about a quarter of the time and at less than 20 percent of the casualties suffered by the Soviets.

For all the petty bickering, D-Day was a model of British, Canadian, and American cooperation of the sort sorely lacking on the Axis side. The raw courage of the troops, British experience and ingenuity (from the Mulberry harbors to Hobart’s “funnies”), American logistics and supply, superb deception, combined naval and tactical air support, and Eisenhower’s leadership and competent SHAEF planners ensured success. In contrast, the vaunted and more experienced German General Staff was paralyzed by surprise and easily deceived, bickering over the use of the Panzer reserves, plagued by the Luftwaffe impotence and incompetence, and hamstrung by Hitler’s disastrous micromanagement.

In the 72 years since D-Day, the Americans have matched the ingenuity of the landings (cf. Inchon), displayed comparable courage (at Chosin, Hue, and Fallujah), but never quite have been as united in seeing such a huge and vital operation succeed. Perhaps what has changed is not so much our military or even the magnitude of the existential threats we face (e.g., Hitler was never able to blow up 16 acres in Manhattan or threaten a U.S. city with a nuclear weapon), but the sense of purpose of a far larger, more powerful and affluent nation, which, unlike the generation of June 6, 1944, is more likely to feel that America must be perfect to be good.

The Corner

The one and only.