A Day That Tried The Souls Of Men Normandy Landings

June 05, 1994|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Sun Staff Writer

After more than a year of preparations, the most ambitious and decisive Allied assault of World War II came down to three simple words uttered by a commander in chief whose chain smoking and 15 cup-a-day coffee habit had driven his blood pressure perilously high.

The notoriously bad weather over the English Channel broke. And U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, issued the order: "OK. Let's go."

D-Day was launched a half-century ago. After one false start, the final decision mas made to land June 6, 1944. Then, the "longest day" would begin.

A vast armada of 5,000 ships and over 800 aircraft carrying roughly 176,000 troops set off from England under troublesome skies and an uncertain outcome to liberate Europe in an adventure that would ultimately help defeat Nazi Germany.

They parachuted into places called Ste. Mere-Eglise and the Orne River. They landed in obscure fields and orchards. They swam, waded, and trudged ashore at beaches named Omaha, Utah and Juno on landing sites called Easy Red and Dog Green.

Omaha was the deadliest of them, and that was where the untried soldiers of Maryland and Virginia's 29th Division clambered ashore through a four-foot surf facing German fortifications atop 200 foot-high cliffs.

The Allies launched their fateful expedition full of anxiety. General Eisenhower's prepared official communique to the world confidently predicted success, but he carried in his pocket a statement scribbled on a piece of paper accepting blame for a colossal defeat.

Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, British chief of staff, predicted the invasion would fall short of expectations at best and, at worst, would be "the most ghastly failure of the whole war."

Commanding the U.S. ground troops, Maj. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, observing the landings from a vessel off the coast of Normandy, learned to his horror that hundreds of American troops were being mown down on the open, unprotected landing

sites at Omaha Beach. He contemplated retreat.

COURAGE OF DESPERATION

Indeed, by the time the sun set over Normandy on June 6, the Allies had suffered nearly 10,000 casualties. U.S. troops alone accounted for 6,603 dead, wounded and missing.

On the other side, Germany was taken by surprise, even though the invasion had long been anticipated. Many German commanders believed the Normandy assault was merely a diversion for the expected main invasion in the Pas-de-Calais.

Wherever the invasion came, German commanders fully comprehended its significance. Six weeks before the invasion, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of German forces in northern France, told his aide: ". . . the first 24 hours of the invasion will be important. . . . The fate of Germany depends on the outcome. . . . For the Allies as well as Germany, it will be the longest day."

At Adolf Hitler's alpine headquarters in Berchtesgaden, the German high command was afraid to awaken the Nazi leader to inform him of the landings. Rommel was at home in Germany celebrating his wife's birthday on the fateful day. Informed of the invasion by telephone, Rommel told his chief of staff: "How stupid of me."

In the ghastly carnage on Omaha Beach and in the deadly marshes and hedgerows where paratroopers had landed behind the beaches, sheer courage seemed to win the day for men who decided individually and collectively to move forward rather than retreat in the face of death.

Many memorable things were said that day, but the exhortation that seems to have captured the desperation of the event and what it would take to succeed was spoken by a U.S. colonel trying to rally his troops under withering fire: "Two kinds of people are staying on this beach -- the dead and those who are going to die. Now let's get the hell out of here."

The Allies turned their attention to an invasion of Europe even as British and American forces landed in North Africa in late 1942 to start the long road to Berlin. By the time D-Day began, they had already made their way through Italy and captured Rome.

But the Soviet leader, Josef V. Stalin, wanted the British and the Americans to pick up a greater burden of the war his people had been fighting for the last two years at a cost of millions of lives. He pressed President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for the commitment that led to the Allied invasion -- code-named Overlord, planned and commanded by General Eisenhower.

The final Overlord plan called for one British and two U.S. airborne divisions to land behind the Normandy beaches to capture key causeways and bridges and repel any German counterattack.

U.S. troops would land on beaches code-named Utah and Omaha and British and Canadian troops on beaches Gold, Juno and Sword.

Chosen to command the Allied ground forces was British Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, the hero of El Alamein, where "Monty's" British 8th Army finally turned the tide against Rommel's Afrika Korps in October 1942. Thus Rommel's nemesis was after him again.

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