On this June 6, its is again appropriate to repeat an essay I wrote and published almost a decade ago (with an update). Here goes.
The pleasant town of Bayeux in northern France is famous for its eponymous tapestry depicting the events leading to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Across from the railway station there is a café that serves cold beer and the apple cider the region is also famous for. That establishment bears a sign in English “Welcome to our liberators.” The sign might appear to be incongruous to some of us, except that ten kilometers to the northwest is a bluff overlooking a sandy expanse along the English Channel that for the past seventy-five years has been known to the world as Omaha Beach.
Many words will be written and spoken on this 77th anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of what General Eisenhower called the “Great Crusade” to end the Nazi occupation of Europe, and ultimately win World War II. Today, the word “crusade” is politically incorrect in some circles as being offensive to those who have vowed to kill us and actually have achieved some success in doing so. And we have become accustomed to euphemisms, direct and to the point speech being too harsh for our sensitive ears. That is just as well. The loudest, and most eloquent, statements to be made come from the 10,000 American graves at the top of the cliff and the sound of the waves below.
When visiting the beach even this long after the fact, it is not difficult to picture the horror and chaos experienced by the soldiers and sailors who stormed ashore that day. The Germans had fortified nearly the entire coastline of France, as well as the coasts of other occupied countries, into what was called the Atlantic Wall. Various barriers and obstacles had been placed in the water offshore to prevent landing craft from reaching dry land, and to channel invaders into killing zones covered by machine gun bunkers dug into the 100 feet high cliffs above. This required the assault to be made at low tide, leaving a 300 yard open expanse of sand to traverse before the slightest natural cover could be reached. Above the high tide line is another 50 yard stretch of loose sand. Walking unencumbered on loose sand can be difficult; running with 60 pounds of weaponry and equipment, all the while facing withering small arms and artillery fire, has to have been a nearly superhuman feat. Many of the invaders did not make it; that so many did is a credit to the quality of the military training and preparation, as well as the fortitude and power of the survival instinct of the troops. The actual film footage in the Normandy episode of the Victory at Sea documentary demonstrated some of the difficulty, but the bloodiest parts had to have been edited to make it suitable for a 1950s home audience. The fictional first 24 minutes of the film Saving Private Ryan might more accurately portray the horror and difficulty of the assault, but still may be an understatement.
Eisenhower said in his address to the American, British, and Canadian service members who were about to land on the beaches: “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.
It could have been worse. A major part of the plan was to deceive the defenders as to where and when the attack would be made. As previously mentioned, the entire coast-line was fortified. The defending German army was battle-hardened, and exceptionally well-led by Field Marshals Gerd von Runstedt and Erwin Rommel. Their main problem was manpower and munitions. Five years of war, and the continuing demands of the Russian front in the east made critical to the defenders the knowledge of the place and time of the landings. The deception, with some cooperation from the weather, worked. The German defenders were caught off guard at Normandy and were unable to bring the full weight of their forces to bear until a beachhead was established. But 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 that day, though, and the casualties were huge. This beachhead, established by those soldiers, whose ranks are now thinning day by day, made it possible to end the war in Europe. Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered eleven months and two days after D-Day. Those few that are left, and those who passed before them, merit the gratitude of us all.
For every victor there is a vanquished. So it must be added that within five years of the victory, the United States, and to some degree Great Britain and France, have become allies, if not friends with Germany during forty years of Cold War, and beyond. There was no doubt then, or today, that the German Army was fighting on behalf of 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 until sometime after the end of the war. He was repatriated in 1946 and took up farming. 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. They both suffered 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 Silva and his fellow servicemen who stormed the beaches on the fateful day. They we salute.