By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Some say that students interested in history go through different phases of obsessing over wars and battles. For instance, some students may be intrigued by the American Civil War or the French Revolution or the First World War. Another common topic of interest is World War Two, since it is relatively close to us in time and has been extensively studied and discussed, which has subsequently led to an abundance of scholarship to read and peruse. I personally went through my Second World War phase in middle school, since my history teacher from 6th-8th grade was well-versed in all things pertaining to that area. At one point, I had memorized over 50 battles and operations that took place over the course of the war, fascinated by the fights that ensued in Operation Sea Lion, Roundup, Torch, Sledgehammer, Gomorrah, and others. However, I was most intrigued, proud of, and saddened by Operation Overlord, otherwise known as D-Day. Every year, I personally commemorate D-Day by posting about it on social media to raise awareness for the bravery of the allied soldiers who gave their lives for freedom and liberty against the Axis Powers.
Operation Overlord began on June 6, 1944 when about 156,000 American, British, and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along the coast of France’s Normandy region. This invasion was one of the largest “amphibious” military attacks in history, requiring extensive planning on the part of the Allied commanders. Before the invasion, the Allies conducted a large-scale deception campaign that was meant to mislead the German forces about what area they were going to target. Then, by late August 1944, all of northern France had been liberated, and in the spring of 1945, the Allies had officially defeated the Germans. Consequently, the Normandy landings of 1944 have been called the beginning of the end of war in Europe.
After World War II broke out in 1939, Germany invaded and occupied northwestern France. They maintained a strong hold over this area for several years since the Allied forces could not come together to liberate France. The United States entered the war in December 1941 after the Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor and by 1942, the U.S. forces along with the British army decided that it was time to come together to free northwestern France. The Allies planned for a trans-English Channel invasion, but were careful to not disclose exactly where they planned to initially strike. Adolf Hitler himself was aware of their plans, and put Erwin Rommel in charge of strategizing a defense operation in the region, without having exact knowledge of where and when to expect the enemy. To overcome this obstacle, Hitler instructed Rommel to oversee the construction of the Atlantic Wall, which was a 2,400 mile long fortification of bunkers, mines, and other traps, both on land and sea.
On the other side, General Dwight D. Eisenhower of the United States was put in charge of the Allied attack, termed Operation Overlord. In the months leading up to D-Day, the Allies, under General Eisenhower, carried out a massive operation of deception in an attempt to make the Germans think the main invasion target was Pas-de-Calais, which was the narrowest point between Britain and France, instead of Normandy. This was a tactical decision to steer most of the German forces away, clearing the path for American, British, and other Allied soldiers. Additionally, they falsely led the Germans to believe that Norway and other various locations were potential targets for the invasion. Much effort and strategy went into planting the seeds of deception, since the operation was so high-risk for the Allies. A “phantom army” led by George Patton was said to be based in England across from the decoy target, Pas-de-Calais, in order to confuse the Nazis and lead them astray. Double agents were also vital for feeding information to the enemy, along with fraudulent radio transmissions that were sent in misleading code.
Eisenhower initially chose June 5, 1944, as the date for the invasion; however, bad weather on the days leading up to the operation caused it to be delayed by one day. On the morning of June 5th, with the go-ahead from a meteorologist who predicted better weather conditions for the next day, Eisenhower commenced the beginning stages of Operation Overlord. He told his troops: “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.” This was a high pressure mission, and Eisenhower’s words were true: the fate of the war basically was in their hands. Eisenhower was worried about the results of the battle, since they were facing a highly-defended and well-prepared enemy. If the Allies could not secure a strong foothold on D-Day, they would be ordered into a full retreat, and he would subsequently be forced to make a public statement. He famously drafted a letter, which said “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.”
Later that day, on June 5th, over 5,000 ships and landing craft carrying troops and supplies were transported across the English Channel to France. At the same time, more than 11,000 aircraft were mobilized for the invasion. By dawn on June 6th, thousands of paratroopers and glider troops already were on the ground behind enemy lines The invasions by sea began at 6:30 a.m. By the end of the day, approximately 156,000 Allied troops had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches. It is estimated that more than 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives in the D-Day invasion. Thousands more were wounded or went missing.
Less than a week later, on June 11th, the beaches were fully secured. Over 326,000 troops had landed at Normandy. The Germans suffered from confusion in the absence of commander Rommel, who was away, since they did not know the Allies would be attacking in that region. Hitler himself even initially believed that the invasion was itself an attempt to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River and therefore actually refused to provide backup to join the counterattack. Consequently, the necessary reinforcements had to be called from farther away, causing fatal delays. The Allied air support was also detrimental to the Germans, since they destroyed many important bridges by air, forcing the German reinforcements to figure out alternate routes to Normandy.
In the weeks after D-Day, the Allies fought tooth and nail across the Normandy countryside, facing a determined German resistance and a dense, swampy landscape. However, by the end of June, the Allies had seized the port of Cherbourg, and landed about 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy. By the end of August 1944, the Allies had reached the Seine River, Paris was finally liberated from the Axis forces, and the Germans had effectively been removed from northwestern France. The Battle of Normandy was over, allowing the Allied forces to enter Germany itself.
World War II was one of the bloodiest wars in history. However, battles like D-Day remain testaments to the tenacity of human strength and will. Additionally, D-Day not only paved the way for the defeat of the Axis powers, but it also set up General Eisenhower to become one of the most effective and important presidents in the history of the United States. So this year, on June 6th, be sure to remember the glorious history of D-Day, and to be grateful for the sacrifices made on the fateful beaches of Normandy.
Anastasia (Stacey) Kaliabakos is a graduate of the Brearley School and is currently a Dana Scholar at the College of the Holy Cross majoring in Classics and Philosophy. She is an opinions editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper, The Spire, editor-in-chief of the Parnassus Classical Journal, and an avid matcha latte consumer. Anastasia has been featured in NEO Magazine and The National Herald and has contributed to WestView News since 2018.