Wednesday, June 1, 2016

THE LONGEST DAY (June 6, 1944) by Shirley Martin

It’s ironic that the first  person who coined the term, the longest day, was a German officer.  (Erwin Rommel,, The Desert Fox.)  Indeed, it must have seemed like the longest day to both Germans and Allies alike.

For a long time, Russia’s Stalin had urged the western Allies–the British and Americans–to open up a western front against Germany.  Russia had borne the brunt of the German onslaught for years, suffering horrific losses in desperate and cruel fighting.

Since 1943, the British and Americans had planned this second front, code-named Operation Overlord.  Now on the morning of June 6, 1944, all of that planning had come to fruition.  But it had been a long, tortuous  path that led to the operation.

Prior to June, ‘44, the Germans realized that the western Allies would  open up a second front.  Under Rommel’s stewardship, they had labored on the Atlantic Wall, a series of mines and obstacles meant to stop the Allies upon landing on the coast of France.  Yet much work remained to be done on the Atlantic Wall.

The narrowest distance across the English Channel between England and France is the Pas de Calais.  That would be the logical route the Allies would take and what the Germans would expect.  For that very reason, the Allies chose the Normandy coast on which to land.  The Allies launched an elaborate deception, code-named Fortitude, meant to fool the Germans into thinking that the landing would occur at the Pas de Calais.  A phony army with phony messages was created.

The English general Mongtomery devised a plan in which the British and Canadians would land on three Normandy beaches, and the Americans would land on two.  East to west, the British  beaches were Sword, Juno, and Gold.  The Americans would land on Omaha and Utah beaches.  As the head of SHAEF, (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force) General Eisenhower approved  this plan.

As the planning for the invasion progressed, the southern English coast was alive with over 6,000 ships and 4,000 landing craft.  Operation Neptune, the naval plan, included a bombardment force of 7 battleships, 23 cruisers, and 104 destroyers.  Their role was to destroy the coastal batteries of the Atlantic Wall.

The Allies had overwhelming air superiority.   The German Luftwaffe was only a shadow of its former power.

For years, the French Underground  had waited for this moment and knew the part they were to play.

After all the months and years of planning every large and small detail, the success of Overlord hinged on one factor:  the weather.  Sea and sky turned stormy in the Channel at the end of the first week of June.  June 4 was the day Eisenhower and Montgomery had chosen to launch the invasion.  On that day, heavy winds and waves buffeted the Channel.  The invasion had to be cancelled for that day.  However, the meteorologist had good news.  There would be a window of better weather on the morning of June 6.

Operation  Overlord  began fifteen minutes after midnight on the morning of June 6.  At that moment, men of the 101st and 82nd airborne divisions stepped out of the planes into a moonlit night over Normandy.  Five minutes later and 50 miles away, men of the British 6th Airborne division plunged out of their planes.  These men were the pathfinders,, the men who were to light the dropping zones for the paratrooper infantry that was soon to follow.  German flak drove many of these planes far off-course, and many of these paratroopers landed miles from their DZ.  Some were dropped in the river, and weighed down with eighty pounds of supplies on their backs, simply drowned.

As paratroopers fought the enemy near the coast of Normandy, the greatest armada the world had ever known began to gather off these beaches, almost 5,000 ships carrying 200,100 soldiers, sailors, and coast guardsmen.  The sky thundered with the passage of aircraft, and coastlines began to disappear with smoke and dust as the airplanes dropped bombs.

During the bombardment, the British, Canadians, and Americans debarked from the landing craft and waded ashore while the Germans fired from their concrete fortifications.  The Allies picked their way between the shore obstacles , diving for cover from enemy fire, and struggling to reach the shelter of the cliffs.  Many men didn’t make it to shore, falling in a hail of German bullets.  Many others helped their wounded to the shore.

For much of the morning, the fate of the free world was held in the balance, Omaha beach faring the worst.

Had the invasion failed, Eisenhower had prepared a message to deliver in which he took full blame for the Allied defeat.   Instead, by 9 a.m. local time, he delivered this message:

“Peoples of western Europe.  A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force.   This landing is part of the concerted Untied Nations plan for the liberation of Europe, made in conjunction with  our great Russian allies. . . .
This landing is but the opening phase of the campaign in Western Europe .  Great battles lie ahead.   I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us.  Keep your faith staunch –our arms are resolute.  Together we shall achieve victory.”

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