Lest We Forget

This past September, I did something I’ve longed to do for twenty years: Ed and I went to Utah Beach and Omaha Beach on the coast of Normandy. Two of the five beaches involved in the Allies June 6, 1944 invasion of France, colloquially known as D-Day. It is no exaggeration to say that D-Day was seen as a now-or-never, do-or-die effort to at last turn the tide of the war and defeat Hitler and the Nazis. A war that would claim the lives of 60 million people before it was over, 45 million of them civilians.  

You have to imagine the fear, the uncertainty, the desperation as year after year of the war dragged on, bringing new, more frightening, more destructive weapons—the Nazi’s V-1 flying bomb and later, before the carnage would end, the V-2 rocket missile. The race on both sides to create the ultimate killing machine, the atomic bomb. You have to picture the piles of burning rubble that just hours before had been home to hundreds. Hear the scream of the air raid sirens. Envision the desperate rush to descend into the Underground stations in London as the bombs fell. Feel the unrelenting weight, knowing every hour of the day that you might not live to see the next. Then you need to imagine enduring that for nearly five years. Only then can you understand what enormous hope was pinned on this all-out effort by British, American, and Canadian troops, aided by soldiers from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, the Netherlands. France, Greece, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, and Luxembourg.

As the largest naval, air and land operation in history, the Normandy invasion remains a testament to what people can do when they come together to fight fascism—and fascism is always with us, sometimes lying low, sometimes—as now—rearing its ugly head openly at home and around the globe.  

The Plan

The British began planning how they might invade Europe shortly after the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 (when Germany overran Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern France), but practical preparations for Operation Overlord—D-Day’s military codename—did not begin until July 1943, eighteen months after the first U.S. troops arrived in the UK and two years after Hitler had opened a second front of war against Russia thereby splitting his own forces. By this point, the Allies had gained the upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic. All vital developments if the invasion was to have any chance of success.

As Allied officers brainstormed strategies, they agreed that: 1) air operations must have a night with clear skies and a full moon; 2) naval operations—the safe transport of troops ashore—would require low winds and calm seas at dawn; 3) ground troops had to land at low tide when any obstacles on the German-occupied shore would be visible. Weather, tides, and the moon cycle must all come together to create the perfect conditions.

Unsplash: Sven Verweij

By December 1943, a committee headed by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower was busy planning the specific naval, air and land operations. British factories began pumping up production, their work aided by some nine million tons of supplies and equipment shipped from the U.S. and Canada. Spring saw over two million troops in Britain preparing for the invasion and, that May, a target landing date was set: June 5 (though bad weather in the days just prior would force Operation Overlord to be delayed until June 6). 

Meanwhile, a stunning deception campaign was in full swing to fool the Germans as to where the invasion would occur. Calais was the most plausible spot, as it was just across the channel from Britain, but it was also the most heavily fortified, so the Allies chose the Normandy coast 150 miles to the southwest, then set about creating the illusion that the invasion would be at Calais. Fictitious radio transmissions about Allied troop and supply movements were broadcast. Fake inflatable Sherman tanks were moved from location to location in the dead of night to simulate advance. Row upon row of dummy airplanes and an armada of decoy landing crafts were created from painted canvases over steel frames. All this to deceive Nazi radio and aerial reconnaissance.

Concurrently, the French Resistance and the British Special Operations Executive sabotaged German defenses and collected intelligence while the Allies stepped up their aerial attacks on Calais to keep the ruse going. To echo Churchill’s words at the Battle of Britain in 1940: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

The Day

The invasion was to take place at dawn on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast. Utah and Omaha beaches would be handled by U.S. troops, while the British would take Gold and Sword beaches, and the Canadian forces would overrun Juno.

In the wee hours leading to dawn on June 6, 15,000 paratroopers were dropped behind the invasion areas to provide tactical support for the infantry soon to arrive. Key among their objectives was to block all entrances leading into the Allied landing zones. But the Germans rallied quickly. A number of paratrooper planes were destroyed by German flak while many others were forced to make their drops off-target, creating chaos on the ground and preventing scores of pre-determined link-ups from happening. One soldier’s parachute snagged on a steeple, where he “played dead” for several hours while German soldiers rushed the grounds of the church below. But in the end, many paratroopers made their rendezvous and wreaked a fair amount of havoc along the German lines.

Meanwhile, the ground troops were arriving. On Omaha Beach, the Americans narrowly escaped defeat. The Germans had built a string of bunkers in the dunes along the Normandy coast, effectively shielding them from both enemy reconnaissance and the Allies’ preliminary air and naval bombardment which failed to knock out key targets on Omaha. Only two of the 29 amphibious tanks launched at sea reached the shore that day, and the first wave of infantrymen were gunned down in the rough surf before they made land. But the troops did not give up. Eventually more and more soldiers made it to the seawall and climbed the steep bluffs while U.S. warships moved in to fire on the German bunkers. Omaha would turn out to be the most heavily defended of the five beaches. Twenty-four hundred U.S. soldiers died there that day.

Despite months of calculating wind, weather, moonrise, and tides (best laid plans!), the morning of June 6 gave the Allied troops something more to deal with than German firepower. Strong winds made the seas rough, bringing the tide in sooner than expected. On Utah Beach, the first wave of troops was swept 2,000 yards south of their original target and visibility was severely hampered by the shore bombardment preceding the landings. Three of the four Allies’ designated control craft were destroyed by mines.    

The same high winds also caused the tide to rise rapidly along Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches, concealing obstacles on the shore. Fortunately, the air and naval bombardment prior to the ground troops’ landing had succeeded in weakening German defenses on Gold Beach. British troops were able to advance some six miles inland that day to make their rendezvous with the Canadian forces who landed on Juno.

The Canadians at Juno Beach had a tougher time of it. The turbulent seas had delayed their landing, and the rising tide had left only a thin strip of shore that quickly became jammed with Allied vehicles and equipment. Like Omaha Beach, Juno was heavily defended, making it difficult to clear the exits from the beach. Casualties ran high. But by midnight, the troops were on the march, had joined the Gold Beach forces, and were waiting only to link up with the British 3rd Division who had landed on Sword Beach.

The British assault on Sword Beach had also been slowed by the lack of room for the armored support vehicles needed to advance inland. Time moved at an agonizing crawl and German resistance was spotty but fierce. In the early afternoon, the British finally made it off the beach and linked up with airborne troops. Together, they managed to push a few miles inland toward their key objective for D-Day—to take the strategically vital city of Caen and its nearby Carpiquet airfield nine miles away—before encountering intense German opposition. It would take another six weeks for the Allies to make those last few miles and conquer Caen.            

The Past Always Matters

Despite the various difficulties they faced, the Allies persisted undaunted. Some 133,000 troops from England, Canada and the U.S. had landed on the Normandy coast with the assistance of 7,000 ships and landing craft manned by more than 195,000 naval personnel from eight countries who bombarded German coastal defenses and provided artillery support for the invading troops. The human cost for June 6 would be tragically high—more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded—but by the end of the day, the Allies had established themselves on shore and begun the advance into France. 

Operation Overlord did not bring an end to the war in Europe, which would drag on until May 1945, but it did kickstart the process through which victory was eventually achieved. By the close of August 1944, the German Army was in full retreat. Northern France had been liberated. It was the beginning of the end of a nightmare—Hitler’s maniacal fascist dream of a “Thousand Year Reich”—that had engulfed much of Europe and left tens of millions dead.

As I descended the dunes down to the shore on Omaha Beach and gazed out across that vast expanse of water, I thought back to a day I spent in our local library. A map that caught my eye as I gathered research for my World War II novel. A map of Europe 1940, shaded darkly with Hitler’s conquests. By June of that year, only Great Britain was unconquered. This small island nation that never gave up, never gave in to the Nazis. Tears streamed down my cheeks that day. Even now, writing this, my throat tightens, my eyes well up. We owe the British people of that era—the soldiers, the airmen, the navy, the government, the people everything. Everything. For eighteen months, before U.S. troops joined the fight, the British were the lone candle in a very dark world.

Before going to Normandy, Ed and I had spent a week in Paris. We ate breakfast daily at a lovely café across the road from our Airbnb, where we were usually served by a genial waiter, a man in his mid-40s. On our last day, he asked where we were going next. Ed told him the Normandy beaches. He was puzzled. “Where the Allies landed. D-Day,” I added. He shook his head and smiled. He had no idea what we were talking about. I did the math. He was probably born around 1975. His parents likely around 1950. Meaning his grandparents lived through the war as young adults.

Several years ago, trolling a directory for agents I could query about my WWII novel, I ran across an agency that said they had no interest in novels of that nature: “We’re moving past World War II now.” I beg to differ. Fascism is very much alive in the world today. Far-right and openly fascist leaders are seeking power everywhere, running for offices large and small, and getting elected. They are using social media platforms, and sometimes seizing the companies themselves, to fan the flames of racism, antisemitism, homo- and transphobia, and chauvinism. Recently, after acquiring Twitter, Elon Musk tweeted an image of Adolf Hitler with the words “Stop comparing me to Justin Trudeau. I had a budget.” Ah, Elon. So cute. So hilarious. Why don’t you trying telling that “joke” to the 11 million Jews, prisoners of war, Romany, Jehovah’s Witnesses, LGBTQ folk, and the mentally/physically disabled people who were murdered in Hitler’s concentration camps?

We have never so desperately needed to understand the horror, the devastation, the tragic cost of fascism as we do now. The poet and philosopher George Santayana observed that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We can’t afford to let the history of one generation vanish with the next. No one is coming to save us this time. We must save ourselves.

I’m leaving you with one of the most poignant, best-loved songs from World War II, “The White Cliffs of Dover”, penned by Walter Kent and Nat Burton, and made famous in 1942 by Vera Lynn. May you enjoy a happy, peaceful holiday season with your loved ones.

And never give up the fight for a better, more inclusive, more humane world.