When the U.S. Stepped Forward

June 05, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

NORMANDY, FRANCE — Normandy, France.--By June 6, 1944, the cream of the Wehrmacht, 2 million men, had been killed in Russia. And still the Normandy invasion was a hard-won success. If Hitler had not been a habitual late sleeper, if that morning he had unleashed the panzer divisions north of Paris, which Rommel might have got him to do if Rommel had not been in Germany for his wife's birthday, the war could have been even longer.

But even before D-Day the defeat of Germany was certain.

Any war is a braided cord of related battles. In the autumn of 1940, in the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force ended whatever chance Hitler had of invading the island. Hence he had to guard the Atlantic Wall with forces that could have been decisive if moved to the Eastern Front. The disastrous raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942, from which only 2,500 of the 6,000 mostly Canadian raiders returned to England, lulled Hitler. But by November 3, 1943, in Fuhrer Directive 51, he told the Wehrmacht that the likelihood of ''an Anglo-Saxon landing'' precluded further weakening of German defenses in the west. However, the war was won in the east, by Russians.

Most Americans say the war began December 7, 1941. Actually, that is the day the war that began September 1, 1939, began to end, because of two events 7,000 miles apart.

One was the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought U.S. industry into the war. Churchill, whose greatness included a gift for seeing the sweep of things, said he slept ''the sleep of the saved'' that night, knowing the war's outcome: ''So we had won after all!''

Also on December 7, a Soviet counterattack drove back German forces that had advanced to the outskirts of Moscow. That night Hitler drafted Directive 39: ''The severe winter weather which has come surprisingly early in the East, and the consequent difficulties in bringing up supplies, compel us to abandon immediately all major offensive operations and to go over to the defensive.'' There would be other German offensives, but the grinding down of Germany had begun.

The easy drive to Paris in 1940 convinced Hitler that his offensive revolution in arms -- tanks, motorized infantry with radio coordination, dive bombers functioning as flying artillery -- could negate the manufacturing weight of the democracies. He was wrong. In 1939 the U.S. Army of 170,000 was smaller than those of 15 other nations, including Romania. On D-Day that many Allied soldiers crossed the Channel. In 1939 America manufactured 800 aircraft, civilian and military. In 1940 it manufactured 40,000.

Hitler's racialist theories told him that America, enervated by prosperity and degraded by a polyglot population, could not produce worthy warriors. Wrong again.

Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower's biographer and president of the Day Museum being developed in New Orleans, calls D-Day ''a love song to democracy.'' German soldiers were magnificently obedient to orders, as befitted young men socialized by 11 years of totalitarianism. But Americans, with the talent for spontaneous self-organization that Tocqueville considered a national characteristic, adapted to the chaos of combat in a confined coastal strip.

Bold in conception and heroic in execution, the invasion was an astounding exercise not only of logistics but also of secrecy. Germany, misled by Allied intelligence services, did not know on which part of the coast the blow would fall, even though in May 1944, a gust of wind blew 12 copies of invasion plans out of a window of the British War Office in London. Eleven copies were quickly recovered by scrambling aides. Two agonizing hours later, a civilian, never identified, returned the 12th to a military sentry, and walked away.

D-Day came 30 years into the 75-year crisis that began in June 1914, with pistol shots in Sarajevo, and ended in Berlin, November 9, 1989, when the Wall crumbled. Arguably, the invasion was the third of the three most consequential battles in American history -- Saratoga, which saved the Revolution, Gettysburg, where the Confederacy crested, and Normandy, where the United States stepped forward as the leader of the West.

The invasion hastened the end of the war, and hence of the Holocaust. So let there also be remembrance of something else that happened June 6, 1944. That day Germans on Crete packed 400 Greek hostages, 300 Italian POWs, and 260 Jews on a boat, sent it to sea and scuttled it, killing all.

Such murderousness, writ large across a continent, was why they went ashore that day, those young men now grown old and those who did not get to grow old.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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