As we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, or D-Day, most of us think about how it was the largest amphibian invasion in the history of the world. We think about how the soldiers, sailors, and airmen — among the 156,000 who fought — there made enormous sacrifices to win a foothold on the continent of Hitler’s Europe and begin the defeat and destruction of Nazi Germany and her Axis Allies. The Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had the following message transmitted to every participant on June 5th , the eve of Operation Overlord:
“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force:
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle- hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory.
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
Eisenhower began drafting this address in February 1944, months before D- Day. It was optimistic and full of soaring statements of ideals and noble purposes. But many people do not know something that was not lost to historians: Eisenhower was full of doubt and worry about the success of the Normandy Invasion. He fretted over details for months before the invasion, losing sleep and becoming increasingly irritable, especially towards those subordinates who attempted to reassure him with predictions of success.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back almost came on June 5th when the meteorologists on Eisenhower’s staff gave him the glum news, that the weather prediction for June 6th in the English Channel and on the Normandy Coast was far from optimal. Delaying until the weather cleared meant delaying almost a month since the landings were timed to coincide with the most favorable tide conditions. Eisenhower, believing that the operational security of Overload could not be maintained for an additional month, gave the order to proceed. In the late hours of June 5th, Eisenhower hand-wrote a second message “in case of failure”:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
This, of course, was the D-Day address that Eisenhower never gave. But, in my mind, it is the principal historical lesson of Operation Overlord. Faced with a known probability of failure, battling unforeseeable circumstances that lowered the possibility of success, and with almost three million Allied personnel massed in England to launch the greatest military assault in history against the most awful and vicious tyranny ever known, Eisenhower and his leadership did not falter.
Consider what our world might be today if Overload had failed because of miscalculation or a delay. The Germans might well have perfected the V-3 ballistic rocket with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the eastern United States. The Pacific War might have been hindered by the lack of resources that were committed to that theater after VE Day, allowing the Japanese to consolidate and advance on their conquests. The Axis powers might have prevailed and the surrender in the Pacific might have been aboard the Yamato in San Francisco Bay.
Was Operation Overlord a gamble with no assurance of success? Absolutely.
And it makes me wonder if we as a nation have the same resolve today to undertake such an endeavor as dangerous as Overlord. Popular opinion, much better informed today than in 1944, tells me that we lack the political will to do it again. We rely on a professional military to do our bidding and the average American, not to mention the typical member of Congress, has no military experience, no children serving in the military, and thus no skin in the game. To quote former Army Chief of Staff General Gordon Sullivan, “when America’s Army goes to war, America goes to the mall.”
We hear all too often today about “endless wars” and “wars of convenience.” Those who criticize our military posture today forget the lesson of D-Day.
For decades prior, tired of the cost in human life and treasure in World War I, we withdrew from the world into isolationism. With the rise of Fascism and Hitler, we resorted to appeasement rather than confrontation and containment. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, it as clear that appeasement wasn’t working but it was almost too late. By the time that we had mobilized our military and our industrial base, Hitler had completed his conquest of Europe. Our only means of bringing the war to
Nazi Germany was to undertake a dangerous and likely tragic endeavor like Operation Overlord.
Popular opinion is malleable and fickle, as proven by recent elections where the victor at the polls is more likely to be the candidate who tells us what we want to hear and not what we need to know. One of my favorite quotes about Overload was reputedly made by General of the Army Omar Bradley, the ground forces commander at Normandy, who said later in life, “If CNN had been on Omaha Beach on D-Day, there wouldn’t have been a D+1.” Don’t interpret that as a slam on the media; it is a slam on our national resolve and willingness to shed the blood of our family and friends, not to mention our own, to protect this experiment in Republican Democracy.
Remember that when our leaders want to negotiate with rogue governments from North Korea to Iran who seek the ability to hit the United States from northeast Asia to the Middle East with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Will we wait until it is too late and leave ourselves with no strategic options than total nuclear retaliation? If so, would we have the will of the D-Day forces to see it through?