[Excerpt from “Truth and Consequences: Making Sense of the D-Day Disaster at Normandy, 1944,” from The World War II Encyclopedia, Volume 7: 1944--The Year of Catastrophe, Oxford University Press, 1969.]
Everyone knew the invasion of Nazi-occupied Western Europe was going to happen; it was only a matter of when and where.
Its outcome was also anyone’s guess.
The results of 6-7 June 1944 were not inevitable, as is often assumed this many years later. Readers of history should remember that the results of battles—or campaigns or entire wars--are not forgone conclusions. The margins between victory of defeat are often razor thin. Such was the case with the attempted invasion of Normandy, an event that continues to spur theories among scholars, politicians, filmmakers, and the general public about “fault” for the Allied defeat and the “missed opportunities” for victory. Considering that many of the world’s postwar divisions find their origins in the failure at Normandy, such debates are understandable and, in the mind of this author, imperative if we are to keep learning from the D-Day debacle, an event whose outcome no one in the world could have predicted with any greater degree of certainty than anyone else.
Even General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the stoic American from Kansas serving as the Supreme Commander of all Allied forces in Europe, admitted privately at the time that the invasion had no better than even odds of success. Such was Eisenhower’s concern that he composed two statements for public release--one announcing victory, and another in case the Allied invaders were thrown back into the sea. The former was much more formal and eloquent; the latter was hand-written onto a stray scrap of paper, as if the very act of penning such nightmarish thoughts of defeat could itself bring about catastrophe on the beaches.
Eisenhower wasn’t the only one who understood the stakes of the largest seaborne invasion ever attempted—the rest of the world did, too. If Operation Overlord succeeded, it would mean the beginning of Nazi Germany’s final chapters. Establishing a beachhead on the long stretch of Normandy’s windswept sands and bluffs would subsequently lead to deeper Allied pushes into France, Belgium, and Holland before striking into the heart of the Third Reich. The landing and consolidation of American, British, Free French, and other Allied forces in Western Europe would have comprised the western half of the continent-wide pincer maneuver intended to squeeze Hitler’s Germany to death as the Allies’ eastern partner, the Soviet Union, marched its forces inexorably into Germany from the east. Hitler’s armies would certainly have put up an increasingly desperate defense as the Allied forces in the west approached and then breached German soil. Hitler might have attempted foolhardy counterattacks in the months following successful landings, but Germany’s fate would have likely been sealed far sooner that it ultimately was had the Allies achieved victory in Normandy. The only questions remaining would have been how many soldiers and civilians would die, and where exactly the invading armies would meet as they swallowed up Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich,” thus defining the postwar boundaries of war-torn Europe.
In the spirit of that hope of a quicker end to the war, Eisenhower released and distributed a written exhortation to his troops the night before the invasion, mere hours before the first paratrooper units parachuted into the hornet’s nest of Normandy:
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Forces:
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.
The stirring charge underscored everyone’s awareness of the risks at hand, and one could forgive Eisenhower if he hoped his fluid prose would bolster his own confidence alongside those of his gallant fighting men. For there would be no such words to assuage anyone in the case of disaster.
A failure of Overlord, Eisenhower knew before the battle, would kill thousands of young men in futility while introducing a series of calamitous future unknowns. Failure would prevent the Western Allies from following through on their promises to Joseph Stalin, the iron-fisted leader of the Soviet Union, to open a second front against Nazi Germany. It would mean that no ground troops from the United States, Great Britain, Free France, or any of their allies would take part in Hitler’s final defeat; only their relentless bombing campaign against German cities and industries could be their continued contribution to Hitler’s end. This, in turn, would mean the Red Army of the Soviet Union, already the largest military force in history by the summer of 1944, would swallow all of Germany--and likely the nations it had occupied after its 1940 blitzkrieg into Western Europe--in order to end the war. This would bring the worst nightmares of Allied leaders like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the swashbuckling American General, George S. Patton to life—Soviet communism in control of Europe from the Urals in the east to the Baltic Sea and English Channel in the west, including Normandy and the rest of the French Atlantic coast.
Obviously, it was the ruinous latter option that came to pass on that fateful day. The world will not soon forget the now infamous BBC broadcast of a slightly modified version of Eisenhower’s scribbled “in case of defeat” message:
Our landings in France have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn our troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. Our ground, air, and naval forces did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do to secure victory. If any blame or fault is to be attached to the invasion attempt in this time, place, or method, it is mine alone.
It was the only explanation necessary, and perhaps appropriate, at the time. But every day since, Eisenhower and his commanders have been second-guessed, excoriated, and blamed for the biggest defeat in the history of any of the nations who contributed soldiers to the effort. While the exact causes of the defeat are still hotly debated--with intelligence failures, communication breakdowns, and plain dumb luck often cited as the most convincing culprits--the continued inability to examine available documents from the German side make more complete investigation difficult. But whatever the truth of that day, the damage the failed invasion inflicted on the world only became clear in the months and years afterwards.
The list of such damages is long indeed; no Allied “boots on the ground” to occupy cities and drive out German defenders; no Allied personnel to tend to the stricken civilian populations that had suffered for years under Nazi occupation; no seizures of vital documents and other information about the conduct of German forces in the occupied areas, or verifiable proof of the fate of ethnic groups and other “enemies of the Reich” targeted by the Nazis--particularly European Jews--that had been shipped eastward, many never seen or heard from again; no ability to capture and interrogate the thousands of German military officers, SS men, Nazi Party officials, and others who could help the world understand how Hitler and the Nazis rose to power and consolidated their grip on the German people, or how Hitler reached his decisions, or how the massive Nazi bureaucracy carried out his wishes; no access to the brilliant minds of German scientists, engineers, and other experts who ended up as prisoners working for the Soviet juggernaut, leaving only a small handful of such men to the Western Allies. The subsequent superiorities in Soviet military, atomic, and space technologies over the past two decades are obvious consequences of this particular fact.
We should always be cautious in assigning too much value to one seminal event as a “decisive turning point” in history, but it is nevertheless undeniable that an Allied victory in Normandy would have produced a very different end to the Second World War and a postwar distribution of global power more advantageous to the free nations of the world. It remains the task of historians to study the D-Day collapse, while the larger circle of free humanity must seek to find, and learn from, the hard lessons learned that day for the continued pursuit of peace and freedom in the world.
--Daniel J. Weinberg, Ph.D.
Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace