70 years have passed since, in the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, ‘Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies on the northern coast of France.’ Operation Overlord, or D-Day as the invasion is known to posterity, was astonishing in every sense; not least because weather conditions on 5/6th June 1944 were far from ideal to execute an amphibious landing against a well-entrenched enemy.
Even military men were surprised by the comparatively light casualties (4,413 killed); many had anticipated a bloodbath. Major General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice (a retired soldier who later turned to teaching military history at the University of London) wrote in the Spectator at the end of August 1944:
‘The campaign of Normandy is unique. Three years ago the problem of landing large armies on a closely watched and strongly defended coast was regarded as insoluble. Hitler evidently thought it was insoluble right up to D-Day.’
The problem had been solved, the major general said, by the realisation of an exceptional plan through the application of immense power – military, industrial, financial and scientific:
‘It has been solved by courageous strategy, supported by careful co-ordination of all the means which British and American science and industry have, during the war, placed at the disposal of the Allied land, sea and air forces. Before a landing on the French coast could be attempted we had to secure a high degree of control of the air and such mastery of the Channel as would prevent interference by E and U boats. With the number of Channel and Atlantic ports at the disposal of the enemy this last is probably the more difficult task of the two.‘
In the event, the U-boats, a menace for so much of the war, were routed. According to some estimates, 21 German submarines were sunk around the British Isles in June 1944, while the Allies lost just 5 merchant ships and 2 escorts in the Channel.
The Allied navy in the Channel, which numbered more than 1,200 vessels, embodied the Allies’ clear advantage in technology, arms and numbers. Overall superiority was to prove decisive in the subsequent (and very bloody) land battle for Normandy itself. ‘Strategicus’, the Spectator’s war commentator, noted that the Nazis had committed their army to a strategically worthless defence of north-western France. While the western allies could bear the cost of blunt engagements among the woods and hedgerows between Caen and St. Lo, the over-extended Germans could not. Strategicus wrote in the aftermath of a failed German counter-offensive launched in early August against the Americans in the vicinity of Avranches:
‘[Field Marshal] Kluge had some 65 divisions when the Allies landed. About 35 of them have been through the fires of Normandy; and of these, perhaps, 13 have been completely destroyed. None of the units which have been engaged in the fighting have escaped scot free. All of them have been called upon to undergo a pounding from the Allied bombers and artillery that must have worn them down. They have lost very heavily in material. In the counter-attack at Avranches, alone, they had 109 tanks destroyed; and that must represent an appreciable proportion of the armour engaged. Their transport has been battered so incessantly that in Normandy they have been driven to use the stand-by of another century—farm carts, etc.’
Kluge withdrew on his farm carts, and then the Allies motored across France and into the Low Countries. American, Free French and Anglo-Canadian forces landed near St. Tropez in mid-August, and began to wrap up German resistance on the Rhone. Meanwhile, the US Fifth Army captured Rome on 4 June 1944, and advanced with the British Eighth Army to the Gothic Line between Pisa and Bologna: the last defensive barrier in central Italy. And the Red Army had destroyed an entire German army group (over a million men) in Belorussia, Lithuania and eastern Poland; this was of even greater significance than the western allies’ exploits that summer in that it eradicated any hope Hitler had of stabilising the Eastern Front.
Germany’s position was hopeless, notwithstanding renewed loyalty to the Nazi regime after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944, and, more importantly, Josef Goebbels’s exploitation of Russian atrocities committed against German civilians in East Prussia. The only impediment to further progress in the west, Strategicus surmised, was supply. Eisenhower was transporting his materiel over 200 miles from the Normandy beachhead to the Rhine. Strategicus wrote in mid-September:
‘As it is, the Allies’ reach has exceeded their grasp, though even in the present conditions one cannot be certain that Patton and Hodges may not break through, because this is predominantly a human and not a mechanical problem.’
These words were published a week before the hubristic push towards Arnhem – a strategically incoherent operation in view of the alternative solution to the supply crisis, which was to drive north-east of the port of Antwerp, clear the harbour approaches of German forces, and then strike across the Rhine and into Hitler’s Reich. But, despite the tragic setback at Arnhem, the outcome of the war was certain.
The liberation of western Europe was set in motion by the success of Operation Overlord. What is, perhaps, lost to our eyes is the scale of the battle for Normandy. The mark of the dead serves as a reminder. There are 17 British and Commonwealth cemeteries in Normandy, which contain 22,421 dead (the names of 1,805 missing, including the artist Rex Whistler, are carved on the Bayeux Memorial). Some 25,000 Americans died during the campaign, of which 9,286 are buried in Normandy. Most telling of all, 78,000 nominally ‘German’ bodies rest in Normandy, some of whom were Austrians, Alsatians and other peoples Hitler had enslaved to prosecute his evil. And who knows how many thousands of French civilians were caught in the cross-fire and bombing raids? 5,000 are said to have died in Caen alone.
In 1989, the architectural writer Gavin Stamp visited the cemeteries of Normandy, and commented on how each site reflected something of a nation’s character. Of the British graves he wrote, ‘In these strangely beautiful places, the British genius for gardening and landscaping achieved poignant fulfilment.’ And he found one epitaph which articulates the fact that the Second World War was a national effort rooted in a personal sacrifice: Pte N. Lerner, Dorsetshire Regiment. Killed 28 June 1944, aged 29, ‘Fell Fighting Fascism from Cable St to Normandy’.
Private Lerner has our thanks, and so do those of his comrades who did not fall.