D-DayWritten by Scott Dreyer
This blog post is dedicated to all the brave souls who made D-Day a success on 6-6-1944, especially those who never returned home.
Yorktown. Gettysburg. D-Day.
These are some of the most famous and revered in American history. Yorktown is in Virginia, where the Americans basically won their independence from England. Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania; the battle was the turning point of the Civil War and helped the North eventually win. D-Day was fought across the Atlantic Ocean from the US, in France, but it is a key time in both American and world history. In fact, some have called D-Day, June 6, 1944, the single-most important day in the 20th century. Why?
Where does D-Day fit into the "Big Picture"?
You have surely heard of World War II, that titanic struggle between the Axis and Allied forces from 1939-1945. The war began on September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany attacked its innocent neighbor, Poland. The movie, The King's Speech, is set at this time, when the King of England had to tell his empire why Britain was going to war for the second time in twenty years. Poland surrendered within a few weeks, and the next spring, Hitler quickly took over Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and what had been considered a world power, France. The movies Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are set at that terrible time, May 1940, the time of the Fall of France. For about one year, Britain and its Empire basically stood alone, holding back the tide of the Axis powers Germany, Italy, and Japan. On the other side of the world, Japan was brutally attacking its neighbor China. During most of 1940 and 1941, the Axis Powers took over more and more of the world. A turning point, however, came on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, thus bringing the United States and its great might into the war on the side of the Allies. Learn more about Pearl Harbor in our blog. However, victory was still far off. With both the US and the USSR in the war on the Allied side, the tide gradually began to turn. The Russian Red Army was slowly pushing the Nazis out of the USSR. Still, most of Europe was solidly under German control. The Russians lost a staggering 20 million dead. The Allied leaders knew a second front had to be opened somewhere else in Europe, to relieve the Russians and start liberating Europe from the West. Since England was just across the English Channel from Nazi-held France, war planners decided to organize a sea attack across the channel. D-Day was the code name for June 6, 1944, the day when that attack on the beaches of Normandy, France would begin and thus start the liberation of Europe from the West.
What actually happened on D-Day?
Twelve nations participated in the D-Day landings, although forces from the US, Britain and Canada provided most of the effort.
The Supreme Allied Commander overseeing D-Day was US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who ironically had a German last name. It is hard for us to imagine the pressure he was under. Right before June 6, the weather in the area was very bad, with high wind and rain. Weather forecasting then was primitive compared to what we have today, but forecasts did indicate the weather might get a bit better. Some of Eisenhower's advisers suggested he postpone the attack, but others urged him to stay with the schedule. The Allies could not attack France any time they wanted; the landings had to be carefully timed to be a new moon (when the night was totally dark) and the tides were just right. So, if Eisenhower had postponed the June 6 landings, they might have been pushed back into July. After hearing the contradictory advice on what to do, Eisenhower stepped outside his headquarters, looked at the sky, and made the fateful decision: attack as planned. In his two pockets he prepared two letters: one announcing that the landings had been successful, and the other announcing a failure. He would later decide which letter to release to the public, based on how the landings went.
Ironically, the bad weather helped the Allies. The German commander at Normandy was Erwin Rommel, the so-called "Desert Fox." He had been away from his wife for a long time, and with the bad weather reports, Rommel did not think the Allies would attack then. So, he left his forces and went home to see his wife for her birthday; he wanted to surprise her with shoes he had gotten in Paris. (Paris was then under Nazi control.) So, when he got the news that the landings had begun, he was far away at home, in Germany. By that time, the Allies had controlled air superiority so Rommel was afraid to fly to Normandy. Instead he had to drive small country roads across North France to get his headquarters at the front, arriving at 10:00 pm on June 6. This is one of those fascinating "What Ifs" of history. What if Rommel had been on the scene on the morning of June 6, to coordinate the German counter-attack? Might the Nazis have succeeded?
While it was still dark in the early hours of June 6, many Allied soldiers parachuted or flew silent gliders into France, short distances behind the beaches. Their job was to band together on the ground to improve the chances for the soldiers to land a few hours later. Imagine the courage of those young men, parachuting or gliding into enemy lines. They knew if the landings failed, they would be stuck in enemy territory with no way to escape. There are stories of the paratroopers flying over the English Channel to France. They were so airsick and scared, many of them were vomiting into their helmets, and the planes stank. Many died as they fell behind enemy lines. Those who survived used little metal clickers that made a chirping noise like a cricket. Obviously the men had to band together after landing to improve their chances of survival, but they couldn't yell out in English "Hey everybody, I'm over here!" So instead they were to click their clickers to quietly help them identify each other and group up.
At 5:30 a.m., shortly after sunrise, Allied ships in the English Channel begin a heavy naval bombardment of the Nazi-held beaches. Seven battleships took part in the bombardment, including the USS Nevada. The Nevada was severely damaged in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese thought it would never see service again. On the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack, the navy band aboard the Nevada was playing The Star-Spangled Banner as they did their daily flag raising-- just as the bombs began to fall. That ironic moment is shown in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! Also, some 13,000 aircraft based at 70 airfields in Southern England flew missions across the Channel to bomb Nazi positions and cover the Allied landings. The Allied pilots feared what they called "the 4 F's." They were Flak (ground-based anti-aircraft fire), Fighters (enemy planes), Fear, and Fire (if their planes were hit.)
There were a total of five beaches where the Allies forces made landings that day: code-named Utah and Omaha beaches were where the US forces landed, the Brits landed at Gold and Sword beaches, and the Canadians were responsible for June beach. See the map. Soldiers crossed the English channel in ships and then moved into small landing craft. These landing crafts, small boats, were to get within 50-100 yards (45-90 meters) from the shore, drop their front door, and let the men out. The men jumped from their boats into cold sea water that was waist- or even neck-deep. When you consider they were wearing heavy uniforms and carrying heavy guns and equipment, you can see why many foundered in the water and drowned before even hitting the beach. Once they hit the beach, many had to run across 100 yards (90 meters) or more of open sand to get to the sea wall or small hills of sand. The Germans were dug-in with concrete pillboxes and emplacements.
It is hard to imagine the courage those young men had to have, on those open landing craft nearing the beach, under heavy gun and artillery fire, and then as the boat door swung down, they all had to scramble out, get across 50 yards (45 meters) or more of sea, then 50 yards or more of open beach, all while being shot at. And how many of these young men spoke French, understood French culture, or had relatives in France? Almost none! They obeyed the call to serve because they loved their country and the cause of freedom, and were willing to sacrifice their lives, not to conquer, but to liberate -- in their case, liberate total strangers.
You can see an excellent timeline of key D-Day events here.
Some 4,413 Allied troops lost their lives on that single day, although historians still debate the total death toll.
Why are there only a few photos from D-Day?
Robert Capa, a Hungarian-born photographer for Life magazine, went ashore with the first waves of soldiers at Omaha Beach. Amazingly he took over 100 photographs and sent them back to England for developing. Sadly, however, a nervous technician botched the job and ruined almost all the photos, so only about 11 faint images exist from the early landings. Read more here.
How does D-Day relate to me?
Do you value your freedom? Do you live in a free country? Do you value freedoms of speech, religion, the press, voting, or bearing arms? We enjoy those freedoms and so many more, thanks to the brave souls who fought in World War II and at D-Day. No wonder those people are now called "The Greatest Generation." We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. I may be wrong, but I think many of us Americans and people in the Free World are very naive about the reality of human evil. When we live in free countries based on the rule of law, representative democracy, individual liberties, etc., we are usually shielded from the worse excesses of human evil. Add to that the Judeo-Christian ethic that has helped create the moral framework that is a key basis of the Western World, and all this has helped create the wealthy, free world many of us enjoy today. However, these liberties have not always been enjoyed in human history. In fact, when you look at history, you will see that wealth and liberty are very rare. In 1981, I visited Europe for the first time, on a family trip to meet up with my brother who was on spring break from his Junior Year of college in Scotland. We visited the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, where the Nazis killed more than 41,000 innocent people, many at the hands of inhumane "medical experiments." In June 2019, friends in Nanjing, China took my wife and I to see the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. Many Americans have never even heard of the "Rape of Nanjing," a months-long bloodbath when the Japanese army entered what was then the capital of China and committed untold acts of evil, but we need to know our history. As I often tell my stories, World War II and the Holocaust were not ended by a peace conference, a treaty, or a letter-writing campaign. It ended when brave soldiers and others gave their all to stop Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan by force.
Why is the National D-Day Memorial in tiny Bedford, Virginia?
During World War II, the War Department often created military units from men from the same town or area. However, this had a huge risk. If one particular unit was in a dangerous place, then many of the men would be killed or injured and one small town would suffer a huge loss. That is why today, units are made up from soldiers from across the country, to spread out the risk. Company A lost 103 men on Omaha Beach on D-Day, 19 of them from Bedford. Another Bedford man was killed in Company F elsewhere that day. There were 32 Bedford men involved at D-Day, and over half of them perished. So, one day, the tiny town of Bedford, Virginia with a population then of some 3,000 lost 20 men. As a ratio of population, Bedford had heavier losses than any other American community on D-Day. So, to honor that loss, the National D-Day Memorial is in Bedford, only a 30-minute drive from the world headquarters of DreyerCoaching.com. I still remember when the Memorial was being built: there were many fundraisers and many restaurants in Southwest and Central Virginia had a small box at the cashier so people could make contributions on the way out. The Memorial was opened and dedicated on June 6, 2001, and President George W. Bush gave the opening speech. There was a huge push to build and finish the Memorial, because by that time, the D-Day veterans were in their 70's and many were leaving this earth. Visit the Memorial's website to learn much more about their work and D-Day.
How was the 75th anniversary of D-Day celebrated, and why is this year especially important?
June 6, 2019, the day I am writing this post, is the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. It is sad but true, the D-Day veterans now are at least 93 or older. This year's commemoration was called "The Final Salute," because this will be the last major anniversary where many survivors will be present. I watched the service online today. Remarkably, there were over 100 WW II vets at today's program. Near the end of the service, they came forward to receive a medal and handshakes for their service. Their name and places of service in WW II were called out. Many were in wheelchairs or with canes or walkers. Surprisingly, many were able to walk well by themselves, despite being in their 90's.
It was an important event. US Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech. One of my sons called me about 9:45 from Bonsack, Virginia, saying he has been caught in traffic. At first when we saw all the police cars, 5 helicopters and stopped traffic, he thought something bad had happened. Then, he learned it was Vice President Pence's motorcade.
Today's event case carried live by WDBJ Channel 7 and sponsored by F&S Construction, a successful Roanoke, Virginia-based business with a strong commitment to positive community involvement. Thank you WDBJ and F&S Construction!
History.com- how many casualties?
A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.dreyercoaching.com/en/about/scott-dreyer
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