Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Today is the 62nd anniversary of “Operation Overlord,” the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, a day to pay tribute and to honor those who fought and died on the Normandy beaches so that we and all future generations can enjoy the freedoms that Americans have been blessed with for more than 220 years.
On that historic day, more than six decades ago, five American divisions began to land in northern France to do battle with an intractable enemy and to begin the long road to victory over Nazi Germany. The weather that day was the worst in decades, with 18-knot westerly winds creating 3-foot waves along with heavy rains. More than 11,000 Allied aircraft, 5,200 ships of all types manned by more than 200,000 seamen and numerous Special Forces supported the Allied landings — the mightiest invasion force in history. Two of the five heavily defended coastal beaches were allotted to the initial American assault forces: the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions, the 1st, 4th and 29th U.S. Infantry divisions and two U.S. Ranger battalions. The airborne divisions began dropping inland shortly after midnight on June 6. Following this, the Rangers began scaling the Pointe du Hoc cliffs to silence a dangerous German 155 mm gun battery. Two infantry divisions and a Ranger battalion were to assault Omaha Beach and one infantry division was to land on Utah Beach. The three remaining beaches (code-named Gold, Juno and Sword) were invaded by British and Canadian forces while a British airborne unit stormed the eastern end of the 65-mile Normandy beachhead. By the end of the first 24 hours of June 6, the Allies had landed 155,000 troops, with Omaha Beach resembling a “horrorscape” of burned trucks, half-submerged tanks and shell-ripped jeeps. Landing craft, blackened and broken, rested at odd angles in the waves. Wounded soldiers were being carried out onto sea craft that would transport them back across the English Channel. Dead soldiers floated face-down in the water, the strong tide having carried them out from shore, then returning them. Corpses lay in rows on the beach, the toes of their shoes sticking out from under army blankets. Other bodies, uncollected, remained scattered on the dunes and in the high grass below the bluffs. Of the five D-Day beaches, Omaha would be the most remembered as the site of the most severe losses with about 3,500 casualties including 1,500 killed and missing during the first 24 hours; the place where the invasion almost came undone; the arena in which almost certain defeat was turned into a hard-won victory. Many thousands more had stormed ashore over the bodies of their fallen comrades, braved the intense fire, crawled through the minefields, lobbed grenades into pillbox openings, battled with defenders in their trenches and reached the top of 100-foot-high bluffs later in the day. On a positive note, American troops had advanced inland against heavy German fire and the five 155 mm German guns on Pointe du Hoc, which were “sighted in” on Utah and Omaha Beaches were silenced by American Rangers. As of the last moments of D-Day, American GIs had fought their way inland, holding the high ground above the beach, a four-mile-wide sliver that was nowhere more than 7,500 feet deep. Those who died on Normandy’s beaches had not died in vain; Hitler’s vaunted Atlantic Wall had been cracked wide open by the Allies in the span of a few hours. The first day of the Normandy Battle had gone to the Allies, due in large measure to the selfless courage of the men of the 1st and 29th U.S. Infantry Divisions. Nearly a year of hard fighting still lay ahead and many thousands of the men who survived D-Day would not live to celebrate the final victory. However, the Allies were back on the European Continent to stay — there would be no turning back now. The American GI had prevailed against horrendous odds and in spite of very heavy losses. Normandy was truly the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Third Reich.