Seventy years ago on 6 June 1944, the Western allies launched the Great Crusade across the English Channel on to the beaches of Normandy to free Europe from what Churchill called the ‘new Dark Age’ of Nazism. Code-named Overlord, the assault was, and remains, the greatest amphibious operation in the history of modern arms. As the US-led Allies stormed Hitler’s Festung Europa to free all those under the shadow of the swastika, the day became a bright and shining moment for all that’s noble in modern liberal democracy. Indeed, there has seldom been a date with greater moral clarity in the history of humanity at war than 6 June 1944. Read more
Yet the Allied liberation was always in the balance. The Germans had built a formidable Atlantic Wall of concrete, wire, machine guns, mines, and artillery. SS panzer divisions lurked in the wings and Erwin Rommel, the legendary ‘Desert Fox’ was on hand to hurl the Allies back into the sea. As Rommel famously remarked, ‘the first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive, the fate of Germany depends on the outcome … for the Allies as well as Germany it will be the longest day’.
And so it was for all those who fought on 6 June. The battle for Normandy turned on a combination of luck, surprise, chaos, elation and terror as the fog of war descended on its participants. General Dwight Eisenhower gambled on clear weather and succeeded; the Germans, expecting an invasion through the Pas de Calais, were taken by surprise; and in a twist of fate, the Wehrmacht’s martial talisman, Rommel, was away on leave in Germany. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was unable to unleash his panzer divisions to repulse the invasion because Hitler was asleep and no one dared wake the Führer to obtain authority.
Despite bitter German resistance, especially at Omaha Beach, the Americans, British and Canadians carried the day on 6 June and established a precious beachhead for the onward march of freedom. As Rommel had predicted, the longest day sealed Germany’s fate. It inaugurated the shortest year of the Nazi Reich, which eleven months later crumbled onto the scrap heap of history.
Michael Evans is the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University.
The historical significance of D-Day
We look at D-Day rather differently now than was the case even 30 or 40 years ago. The end of the Cold War and several decades of research in the former Soviet archives have rectified the tendency in the 1950s and 1960s to accord battles like Alamein and Normandy a primacy and pivotal status that they didn’t and don’t deserve. We now recognise, and can admit, what was always true: the German Army was destroyed on the Eastern Front by the Soviets who incurred unimaginable casualties in the process. The bulk of the German Army fought in the east and the bulk of German casualties were incurred there.
That correction shouldn’t diminish the importance of the return of the Western allies to the European continent even as it contextualises it. It was vital that the Allies take a full part in the defeat of the Nazis on land, and the ensuing 12 months would involve much hard and sometimes desperate fighting and relatively heavy casualties in their turn. Films like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers have reduced the scale on which we imagine D-Day and have tended to focus on it as an individual or small-group experience. It was both of those things, but it was also an enormous, complex and high-risk operation where the outcome was by no means certain. Its importance symbolically, strategically and operationally shouldn’t be underestimated.
Jeffrey Grey is a professor in the history program, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, at the University of New South Wales.
D-Day 70 years on
If any single day can credibly be presented as the defining moment of a century, it’s 6 June 1944, the day of the allied landings at Normandy. In a strategic sense Germany was well on the way to defeat at this stage of the war. The Wehrmacht had been broken in the east and was retreating, overwhelmed by Russian numbers and weather; German cities had been smashed by constant allied bombing and the Luftwaffe reduced to tiny pockets of resistance. What remained of German military power in France was significant but not of a scale that defeat could be resisted for long. But Normandy wasn’t a side show. Had the invasion been blunted the Soviet Union might well have been able to extend its control over much of Western Europe. As it was the successful allied landings announced America’s arrival as the world’s leading power, created the basis for Europe’s future wealth and stability, and established the claim that democracy and international collaboration would ultimately overcome totalitarianism.
On the 70th anniversary of the landings we’re sure to mark those strategic achievements as the founding moment of all that came after in terms of the global balance of power and the western model of organising societies. But even the largest wars are no more than the sum of individual experiences. My father, Ron Jennings, was one of thousands of British soldiers that went across the beaches of Normandy, in his case as a driver with the Royal Army Service Corps. His unit saw tough fighting through France and into Germany where, in 1946 as part of the British Army of the Rhine, he married my mother, Mary Strachan, a staff car driver in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. D-Day was the defining event in my parents’ lives. The British Army lifted them from the poorest parts of London and Glasgow and gave them the skills that ultimately propelled them to Africa and later Australia. The war also left a darkness in them that was impossible to bridge for those who hadn’t been through the same experience. In this they were no different to millions of individuals who survived the war scarred but stronger. The world is a poorer place for the passing of this tough-minded, softly-spoken generation.
Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI.
A tale of two narratives
Post-war generations in the Anglosphere learned to feel that while the world could be a harsh place, good guys eventually win and live happily ever after. In that broad narrative, D-Day was the moment when good began to triumph decisively over evil. Then the Keynesian revolution opened seemingly endless vistas of prosperity.
There were shadows of course: Cold War crises, Vietnam, the stagflation of the 1970s all clouded the Manichean paradigm. But the narrative was resuscitated by the amazingly painless end of the Cold War. Wars continued in less fortunate parts of the world, even close to the heart of Europe in the former Yugoslavia, but in the Global West—expanding inexorably—tranquility and prosperity held sway.
D-Day and the successful campaign in Western Europe that it set in motion were epic achievements. But from the outset there were downsides. While Stalin’s view was that D-Day came too late, in retrospect he must have been grateful for the chance to reach Berlin and set up puppet regimes in central-east Europe. And the Yalta settlement enshrined his triumph, ensuring that Europe was still far from whole and free.
Twenty years on from Gorbachev’s democratising revolution, Moscow has invaded and seized territory from a second country on its borders. Military exercises menace its neighbours, and aggressive overflights extend to NATO members, neutrals and Japan. Moscow has embarked on a $750 billion rearmament program to be realised inside a decade.
Simultaneously Putin’s domestic crack-down threatens to make Russia a police state. Moscow’s spying activities equal or exceed Soviet levels. In its external relations, Russia seemingly aspires to become Beijing’s junior partner in a new Holy Alliance to safeguard tyranny. An essentially Stalinist version of WWII has become holy writ in Russia. Some are proclaiming a new cold war.
The state of the Western alliance is just as depressing. The noughties brought sharp reverses for the West, resulting in its current introspection and loss of confidence. The Eurozone economic crisis drags on, and Snowden’s Verey pistol disclosed a diplomatic battlefield of transatlantic tension. The disunity and weakness of the European Union before an adversary with an economy one eighth its size leaves new members feeling exposed to Russian aggression.
D-Day was a formative moment in the Western narrative. But while it led to the fall of Hitler, it led too to Yalta, the imperfect legacy of which lives on.
John Besemeres is a visiting fellow in the ANU Centre for European Studies. He previously taught politics at Monash University and served some 30 years in several Australian government agencies, including PM&C and DFAT.
The critical decision
The single most important decision of WWII was announced on 29 March 1941, almost eight months before the United States actually entered the war. Secret discussions had been proceeding between American and British staff officers since January. Although the imminent invasion threat to the United Kingdom had passed, London was suffering nightly bombing raids, Rommel had just begun his offensive in North Africa, and Yugoslavia and Greece would fall within a month. Adolf Hitler was everywhere triumphant.
Winston Churchill’s policy of resolute defiance was appearing increasingly pointless. Facing political attack at home and military defeat in the field, pressure for a political settlement mounted. The British leader needed a reason to believe he might be eventually victorious. The outcome of the staff talks gave the PM a reason to hold on.
What made D-Day important wasn’t what happened on 6 June—far more crucial was the decision that it would, eventually, occur. That was the only action that held any hope of an Allied return to the continent and, in turn, the eventual prospect of victory.
It was the prospect of D-Day that convinced Churchill he would, eventually, win and thus kept the Empire in the war. And later, although the possibility that Hitler and Joseph Stalin could ever have brokered a separate peace was always remote, the pledge of eventual invasion helped bolster Russian resolve, ensuring it would keep fighting.
D-Day was vital. Not simply because of what it meant militarily but something far more important— a promise to keep the grand alliance together.
Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times.
The strategic meaning of D-Day
Seventy years on, we tend to think of 6 June as the anniversary of an especially important event in WWII. For those of us who weren’t there on the actual day in 1944, the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan give some sense of what it might’ve been like. But I’d like to paint its strategic importance on a broader canvas, by making three points: about Eurasia, WWII, and history.
First, by early 1944 two authoritarian great powers—Germany and the Soviet Union—were locked in a titanic struggle on the Eurasian continent. Democracy had been largely eradicated from western Europe, and so from the continent that Halford Mackinder had described as the World Island. D-Day was about more than defeating fascism; it was about the reseeding of democratic regimes on the Eurasian landmass.
Second, in terms of the war itself, D-Day should be seen as a roll of the dice on a global scale. Given the allies’ strategy was to win the war in Europe before turning their attention to Japan, the future course of the war in two theatres rested on its outcome. A setback at Normandy would’ve had echoes in Australia’s own region.
And third, we should see D-Day in its broader historical setting. True, if the D-Day landings had failed, the allies could’ve regrouped and tried again. The continental United States was still largely free of war’s damage. But a D-Day that failed in 1944 might’ve seen nuclear weapons used in a second attempt. And Eurasia in the meantime might’ve fallen more extensively under the control of the other authoritarian great power—an Iron Curtain that came down rather closer to the English Channel than the inner-German border.
Few days in any century can match the strategic significance of 6 June 1944.
Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.