It cannot be long until the last man who has first-hand recollection of the Normandy invasion on D-Day will be gone. Nevertheless, as Abraham Lincoln said about the soldiers who fought at the battle at Gettysburg, the world can never forget what they did here this day, three score and ten years ago.
General (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his address to the American, British, and Canadian service members who were about to land on the beaches:
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 invasion was indeed a great crusade. The Nazi war machine had been battered in the East by the Russian ground forces, and by the British and American bombers over the their homeland, but was still formidable. Moreover, the defenses along the entire Atlantic coast had been hardened by the German army and engineers over the four year occupation of France and the low countries. As Ike went on to say:
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
They were about to discover that he got that right.
Anyone who saw the movie Saving Private Ryan has an inkling of what the invaders went through, but only that. I have heard veterans who were actually there say that the film only scratched the surface of the hardship, horror, and savagery of what came to be known as the Longest Day.
The Normandy landings were on beaches between the port of Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine and the Cherbourg peninsula. Five beach locations were designated by codes names. The British and Canadians landed to the east at Gold, Juno, and Sword; the U. S. 7th Corps at Utah at the foot of the peninsula and the U.S. 5th Corps at Omaha, northwest of the town of Bayeux.
Omaha Beach was the most hotly contested of the beaches and the one with the most American casualties. A visit there reveals the wide open beaches, the sheer cliffs, and the remainder of bunkers where German artillery and machineguns held sway. The tidelands were littered with obstructions designed to channel landing craft into killing zones. For many an American, the first sight of the beaches and the cliffs was his last. Often, those in the front were cut down by enemy fire as soon as the landing craft’s gate was opened. Many craft had to discharge their human cargo into the sea, where they had to get to land by their own power and ingenuity. The weight of arms, ammunition, and other supplies drowned soldiers caught by the tide’s undertow. In spite of the withering fire and the obstructions, even Omaha Beach was taken by day’s end. The Americans didn’t get much farther, though, and the casualties were huge.
Today, with our 24/7 near instant news cycle, and television coverage fed directly from the battlefield into our living rooms, the assault on Omaha Beach might have be reported as a botched operation, a disaster, or fiasco. There might have been political pressure to cut our losses and withdraw. We sacrificed too many men for too little ground. In those days, however, there were no satellites feeding instant images, and no television sets to receive them. There was no Internet, no e-mail, no instant messaging. Newspapers printed extra editions for breaking news, but the cold words in print did not convey the same impression. To actually see the action, one had to wait a week before film was developed and flown over the Atlantic to be shown on Movietone News at the local theater. By then the troops had established a permanent beachhead in France, and no basis for the pundits to carp.
For every victor there is a vanquished. There was no doubt then, or today, that the German Army was fighting for evil masters and a bad cause. Soldiers, most of whom in World War II were not fighting because they wanted to, can nevertheless fight honorably for an ignoble cause (or dishonorably for a good cause, for that matter). Soldiers know this, and once the fighting is over, they are often more inclined than the civilians far from the horrors to let bygones be bygones.
A poignant story related in a British history magazine relates the ordeal of two soldiers, an American and a German defender who shot him at Omaha Beach. Both survived the war. Heinrich Severloh manned a machinegun in a bunker in the cliff. He estimated that he fired over 12,000 rounds before he ran out of ammunition for it, and then picked up his carbine to continue shooting at the attacking Americans. Three of Severloh’s rounds hit David Silva, as he and other GIs were scrambling for cover on the beach. The German was later captured and held in a POW camp in Scotland until some time after the end of the war. He was repatriated in 1946 and took up farming to help feed the defeated and devastated country. After reading Cornelius Ryan’s book The Longest Day, published in 1959, Severloh learned that he was the one shot Silva. In 1963, the two former adversaries met each other in Germany. Silva, by that time had taken Holy Orders as a Catholic priest. The two formed a friendship, as former soldiers who fought honorably for opposing sides are often known to do, and corresponded for many years. Their bond was as much as that of the bands of brothers who fought on each side, both victims of the circumstances that attend the fog and maelstrom of war.
But the story of Severloh and Silva’s later relationship is only an aside. The honor today goes to David Silva and his fellow servicemen who stormed the beaches on the fateful day. They we salute.
Also see this link