Friday, June 6, 2014

After 70 Years Still the Biggest Undertaking in the History of the World

Pinned down on the beach.

They are gathering today on the beaches of Normandy, in the neat, vast cemeteries where an eerie quiet belies the shattering chaos that brought the weary bodies to rest.  It is one of the nice round anniversaries ending in a zero.  This is number 70.  Milestones like that bring out extra pomp and Presidential visits.  And they seem more poignant now, each one attended by fewer and frailer survivors.  When the next big marker, the diamond anniversary, comes up in 2019 most of the old soldiers there today will be gone.  In 2024, the next nice round number, the whole generation except for a lingering atom or two, will be dissolved in the mist.  This is why we, their children and decedents, remember them.
On June 6, 1944 the Allies invaded Nazi occupied France under the overall command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. It is the iconic event of World War II in the American memory. 
It was the largest coordinated movements of men, arms and materiel in history and had to be conducted in enough secrecy to surprise the Germans who had at least 55 divisions in France while the allied effort could only put 8 ashore to secure the beachhead on the first day.
Nearly 2 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen were involved in the total Operation Overlord, including those landed after the first day.  195,000 naval personnel manned 6,039 vessels including 1,200 warships and 15 hospital ships.  The United States alone shipped 7 million tons of supplies, 14 billion pounds of material including 448,000 tons of ammunition. 
Air operations in support of D-Day, which began in April, included 14,000 missions with a loss of 2000 air craft and 12,000 airmen before the landing even began.  127 planes were lost on D-Day alone.
On June 6th U.S. casualties were reported as 6, 603 including 1,465 dead.  While these are awful numbers, there were several Civil War battles with greater dead.  The Soviets suffered more single day casualties four or five times.  And losses in some Pacific landings per men engaged were more than 5 times as high.  Total allied casualties that day among U.S. British, Canadian, Free French, and Polish troops are estimated to be in excess of 10,000.  German losses are less well documented but are estimated between four and nine thousand. 
After the beachhead was secured hundreds of thousands of men and tons of supplies landed across those sands because the Allies did not control any French port for weeks.  By July 14 over a million men had come ashore. 
But heavy German resistance confined the invaders to a small zone around the landing beaches until a breakout began on July 25. 
Once free, the Allied advance across France was remarkably swift.  Despite setbacks like the Battle of the Bulge in December and delays in getting a bridgehead across the Rhine into the German heartland, by the following April British and American units from the west met up with Soviet troops from the east.  Within a few days of that Hitler committed suicide, Berlin fell, and the German High Command surrendered unconditionally.
It has been my honor to know several men who either fought on D-Day or who landed on the Normandy beaches over the next few days.  One of them was my late father-in-law, Art Brady
All of them are gone now.  Within a few years the last of the veterans of D-Day will go the way of the ghosts of Gettysburg and Belleau Wood.  The latter battle reached its peak on another June 6 in 1918 when U.S. Marines suffered their worst single day losses in history.
So much war.  So much grief.

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