Row after row of crosses and Stars of David at the Normandy American Cemetery and War Memorial mark the day, 71 years ago, tomorrow, that Allied Forces hit the beaches of northern France. But, reinforced by Germany’s “Atlantic Wall” fortifications, the beaches hit back.
While the D-Day Invasion was the beginning of the end for the nightmare of the Nazi Reich, the price paid in heroism and sacrifice by the US and other allies was tragically high. American forces landing at the beaches of “Omaha” and “Utah” lost more than 2,500 lives that day, while another 1,900 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Canada, Britain and at least another 10 allied countries were killed attempting to take the neighboring beaches, designated as “Gold,” ” Juno” and “Sword.”
The goal was to take the cliffs and bluffs, just a few hundred yards ahead, and to establish a beachhead. But, while most of the troops made it off the beaches, many, especially in the first wave of the invasion, didn’t.
It took two years of planning before 150,000 allied troops landed on those five beaches on that cloudy Tuesday morning of June 6, 1944. But, to read about it in an article or book does not do justice to the largest seaborne invasion in history.
Even having visited Normandy, beginning with Omaha Beach, as I did about 15 years ago, it takes a tremendous imagination to visualize the obstacles and challenges American and other allied troops faced as they stepped off their naval landing craft into the surf and rushed on to the sands of the Normandy beaches. Left in the open with no cover and the sea behind them, crossfire from bullets and shells from the cliffs ahead, as well as from the left and right flanks, weaved a ubiquitous net of death for many of those arriving in the first wave. Additionally, there were tens of thousands of tank traps and mines strategically placed by the Nazis over and under the sand to impede such an invasion.
My next stop was the coastal town of Arromanches, where the British had established a temporary pontoon port a week after the initial invasion to support and supply the D-Day invaders, who were already moving toward Paris. With a dozen or so of the giant pontoons, or caissons, still rusting and laying waste on the beach, the town’s invasion museum helped set the imagination on the massive logistical effort it took to tow the caissons one by one, across the channel from England.
Once in place, the port, referred to as a “Mulberry harbor,” landed more than 300,000 troop reinforcements, 50,000 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of supplies. Considering this was all accomplished in the heat and confusion of war, how can we not be astounded and ever so grateful for the efforts and successes of the Allied Forces 71 years ago, tomorrow?