D plus 70 years


This was the Day of Days, and I am still overwhelmed by the enormity of what was undertaken, and the fact that it succeeded in spite of monumental mistakes and frightful odds:

  • The idea of putting 175,000 men in one day on a beach, every square inch of which was pre-sighted by German machine guns, artillery and mortars.
  • The decision that Eisenhower and Eisenhower alone had to make, giving the “go” signal after a day’s delay, with only the most primitive weather forecasting. A mind-bogglingly complex plan involving more than a million men, thousands of ships and boats, amounts of materiel that make today’s stockpiles look like nothing, all having to come together at the right instants. And he said “go,” knowing it could be a disaster — as it nearly was at Omaha, which would have rendered the whole beachhead untenable, and the invasion a failure.
  • The stupendous foul-ups that nevertheless didn’t keep the invasion from succeeding — the aerial bombardment that fell too far inland to do any good (the pilots were afraid of hitting the boats approaching the beach), the rocket barrage that fell short into the sea, the naval artillery battering that failed to take out any of the German gun emplacements, the complete chaos of the airborne drop, with paratroopers landing as much as 20 miles from their drop zones, all mixed up with troops from other units and unable to find their own.
  • The moment when Omar Bradley was close to declaring Omaha a failure, with a pitiful few wet, bleeding men huddled against the cliff, unable to advance or retreat, and reinforcements unable to land.
  • The individual initiative here and there by sergeants, lieutenants and captains who knew the plan had gone to hell and that they had to improvise, leading small bands of men up the cliff, and (among the paratroopers behind German lines) organizing tiny ad hoc units to attack targets as they presented themselves. As impressive as what the generals had done in planning and preparation, it was these small, improvised actions that saved the day. (And, to give the generals a little of the credit, a result of the American method of training soldiers, which — unlike the doctrines of many countries — emphasized initiative, critical thinking and improvisation.)
  • The incredibly difficult fighting through the hedgerows — something entirely unanticipated by intelligence, providing the Germans with multiple defensible positions to drop back to every few yards — over the coming month.

And so much more.

I’ve never in my life seen a pivot point of history condensed and crammed into one place and one day, and almost certainly never will. It just amazes me something like this, something so huge, so sweeping and momentous, such an effort, such a throw of the dice, occurred just nine years before I was born.

President Barack Obama chats with John Cummer of Blythewood, a World War II veteran in Normandy, France, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Winston Pownall of West Columbia, another veteran on the trip, is next to Cummer. SGT. MICHAEL REIHSCH — U.S. Army Europe

President Barack Obama chats with John Cummer of Blythewood, a World War II veteran in Normandy, France, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Winston Pownall of West Columbia, another veteran on the trip, is next to Cummer. SGT. MICHAEL REIHSCH — U.S. Army Europe

34 thoughts on “D plus 70 years

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    We think about the point of the spear — the guys landing on the beaches, or behind the lines via parachute and glider — but the logistics people performed heroic, mind-staggering feats as well.

    All of those thousands of ships and boats, for instance, had to be loaded with exactly the right men and exactly the right equipment, loaded in exactly the right order so they’d be accessible at exactly the right moments for each man and each item to go into action at his or its precisely scheduled time…

    And it was all done without computers — with nothing but, as someone said on a documentary I watched the other day, “a stubby pencil.”

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    … and it had to be a strategic surprise, even though the Germans knew we were coming, and soon. So all those elaborate fakeouts, such as the creation of an entire fictional army, commanded by Patton, stationed in the north and aimed toward Norway, the rows of inflatable fake tanks, the huge amounts of fake radio traffic, the capture and turning of Germany’s entire intelligence networks inside Britain.

    While the number of Overlords, people cleared for the hyper-secret information, was limited, just THINK how easy it would have been for that one, simple word to slip out — “Normandy.” Of course, that was one of the places they thought we may attack, which accounts for the extensive defenses, covering every square inch of beach. But keeping them guessing kept their resources spread as thin as possible — and kept Hitler from throwing his reserves into the battle for the beachhead, as he still believed this might be a feint, with the real invasion coming elsewhere.

    Thank GOD there was no such thing as a Julian Assange or an Edward Snowden in those days. Well, actually, there were similar people — they were called spies and traitors and Quislings. But they were not as empowered by technology as they are today. It wasn’t possible for some insignificant underling thousands of miles from London (think Snowden in Hawaii) to download the entire plan to his laptop, just sitting at his desk.

    1. Phillip

      With the success of D-Day such an unsure thing, that always makes me think about what would have been different had it failed. I’ve read a few speculations…one common one being that nukes would have been used first on Germany before Japan, though I’m not sure if US would have ok’d that, because of the different attitude Americans had towards Germans and Germany than they did towards Japan. Do you think Germany would still have lost eventually? But perhaps taking a longer time?

      1. Bryan Caskey

        It certainly would have taken longer. However, I think the Soviets would have continued their advance from the East. I think we all tend to forget about how large the scale of the Eastern Front was because we weren’t directly involved in it.

        If Germany had not launched Operation Barbarossa, and focused on destroying Britain first, the war would have gone much differently. I always see the Battle of Britain as on of the hinges of the war. It was the first time that the German military set a goal and then failed to achieve it. I think it also filled Britain with resolve and showed the Americans that Britain wouldn’t be knocked out of the war.

        I kind of doubt that Churchill and FDR would have sued for peace, had the D-Day landing been a defeat. They probably would have put more resources into Italy and/or into other areas.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        As to what would have happened if the invasion had failed… I don’t know. Too many variables. One thing seems fairly certain — Putin wouldn’t have attended that D-Day commemoration the other day, because the Russians would be really ticked at us to the present day for having failed to open that second front. They already felt like we had taken too long in June 1944.

        But yes, the Russians would have kept pushing from the East. Maybe Hitler could have slowed them down better without a Normandy front to fight on.

        If I recall correctly, Hitler hoped, as late as December ’44, for a negotiated peace on the Western front. What we call the Battle of the Bulge was his go-for-broke effort to bring that about — to knock the Western allies back on their heels enough that they would seek a separate peace, allowing him to turn all his resources toward the Russians.

        But it failed, after the first few days. Eisenhower brought superior force to bear more quickly than the Germans had anticipated. And from then on, the Third Reich was on borrowed time.

        Another wild card is the southern front, coming up through the South of France. That less-celebrated invasion (Operation Dragoon) played a role, too. Might we have thrown everything into THAT, into the “soft underbelly,” had Normandy failed? The logistics would have been tough, far tougher than shuttling men and materiel across the Channel…

        1. Bryan Caskey

          An interesting “what if” from my current book is “What if MacArthur had been the commanding general in charge of the Italian Campaign instead of Mark Clark?”

          Manchester’s implication is that MacArthur would have managed the offensive in Italy with less loss of life and better results.

          Even bigger “what if”: What if Germany had not invaded Russia and opened an Eastern front to begin with?

          Think about THAT.

          1. Brad Warthen

            Well, yeah, that’s the biggest. What you get is a scenario like Len Deighton’s SS-GB — one of the best of all alternative history novels.

            In the MacArthur scenario, would they have had a dugout for Doug in Italy?

            1. Bryan Caskey

              I may look in to those alt-history books, but I’d feel guilty about doing so. There’s so much actual history that I haven’t yet read about, I’d feel bad reading a “made-up” history book.

              Also, that’s the second MacArthur crack you’ve made. I’m certainly not carrying any water for the guy, but do you have something against him? Do you think he should have stayed in Bataan or led some kind of “Death or Glory” Pickett’s charge against the Japanese?

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              I agree with you. I am currently forcing myself to stop reading Patrick O’Brian over and over, and am simultaneously reading Brookhiser’s biography of James Madison and Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben Macintyre.

              But I strongly recommend both SS-GB and Turtledove’s Guns of the South, which I think rise above the genre. I’m a Deighton fan anyway, but SS-GB is a really compelling story about a homicide detective for Scotland Yard who finds himself working for the SS after Germany successfully invades and subdues Britain. It’s way, WAY better than the similar Fatherland. The big difference is that Hitler didn’t invade Russia. (The difference in Fatherland, I think, is that we didn’t break Enigma.) It works as a murder mystery and as a political thriller as well as a “what-if?” book.

              But… I wouldn’t recommend anyone without a solid grounding in the real history read these books. They could get confused. I think that’s why Hollywood hasn’t made these into films, even though SS-GB may be the most cinematic thing Deighton ever wrote (he also wrote The Ipcress File, one of the best Cold War spy novels, and Funeral in Berlin. They might figure their audience isn’t informed enough to know the difference. But HBO did make “Fatherland,” which is frustrating, because it just wasn’t at good a story.

            3. Brad Warthen Post author

              As to Dugout Doug… I don’t mean to offer serious criticism. It’s just me being a wise guy, and probably ignorant to boot. Here are the factors:

              — Most of what I’ve read about the Pacific, from Uris’ Battle Cry to With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene B. Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific by Robert Leckie, has been told through a Marine Corps lens. And that’s what Marines called MacArthur. About the only Army-oriented thing I’ve ever read about the Pacific is James Jones’ The Thin Red Line.

              — Even without that bias in my reading habits, I’d probably be prejudiced toward the “Marines won the Pacific and had to keep waiting for the Army to catch up” point of view because a) I grew up in the Navy, and b) the first thing I wanted to be when I grew up, starting when I was about 3 or 4, was a Marine. Didn’t work out. So I have to experience the Corps vicariously.

              — A certain family story that has always made MacArthur seem a bit of a joke. My uncle — my Dad’s older brother — was in the Army Corps of Engineers. He used to say that he was there when MacArthur walked ashore in his dramatic return to the Philippines. “I was building WACs’ barracks,” said my uncle. I don’t think that was literally true; it was just my uncle’s way of saying that the shooting was way over. Since that anecdote undermines a big element in the MacArthur legend, it sort of undermines MacArthur for me. I have this mental image of my uncle and his construction crew pausing briefly to watch the general wade ashore, then getting back to work…

              But I confess, I don’t know enough about the man and his accomplishments to fairly assess him.

    2. Phillip

      Incidentally, “spy” and “quisling” definitely would not be accurate terms for Snowden, no matter one’s perspective. “Quisling” refers specifically to somebody who is collaborating with a foreign occupying force. And last I checked, Al Qaeda was not occupying the United States. “Spy” implies somebody who is most definitely working on behalf of one entity in a war situation to secretly collect information on an adversary, specifically for use by the first entity. Snowden did not collect lots of information and then transmit it directly and secretly to Al Qaeda, for the specific purpose of their ability to utilize this information. He turned information over to the people of the United States and the world.

      “Traitor” is a more elusive and subjective term, and I’ll grant that in terms of how you see Snowden’s actions, that term at least could be more applicable. History will judge, ultimately.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I missed the part where Snowden made sure everybody in the world EXCEPT al Qaeda received the information.

        If we don’t call Snowden a spy — and yes, we usually think of an “agent,” someone acting on behalf of a specific principle — we need to come up with a new word for this new phenomenon. Never before in history has any ordinary individual been able to press a button and share secrets with the entire world, so it spawns a new kind of animal.

        It’s related to the question of whether a blogger is a journalist. Before journalists (like spies) had to be working FOR somebody. Now, they’re self-appointed. Like Snowden.

        And that is who he was working for — the almighty, unelected Edward Snowden, deciding for himself that the three branches of government with legal and constitutional oversight of this program were wrong, and deliberately doing everything he could to circumvent, usurp and undermine their decisions.

        Yeah, “Quisling” is a very specific sort of word. I just mention it because it was in vogue at the time. And people in 1944, faced with something like Snowden, would have been even more challenged than we are to come up with the right words.

        To borrow another word that they would have understood, how about “saboteur”? There seems little doubt he meant to torpedo our intelligence-gathering capability.

        But we need new words…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Perhaps, in the future, we will call someone who does what Snowden did a “Snowden,” since we have sort of a vocabulary vacuum there. In that sense, he would be very much like Quisling.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            That would probably really infuriate Assange — if Snowden got a word and he didn’t. Perhaps we should do it just for that reason, since he doesn’t seem likely to answer for his actions any other way. What better punishment for a narcissist?

            But then, we’d be REWARDING Snowden…

            1. Doug Ross

              I’m fine with whistleblower. He saw a government agency doing something he felt was wrong and exposed it. Do you have the same feeling for the people who exposed the VA cover-up? Should they have just tried to go through normal chain of command to address it?

            2. Brad Warthen

              OK, I’m reeling here.

              Something he FELT was wrong. Something HE felt was wrong….

              That’s what it’s all about, all right. Never mind the Constitution, or the checks and balances among our three branches of duly constituted government. Never mind our laws. Never mind national security. Never mind whatever confidentiality agreements he had to sign to get such access.

              All that should be tossed aside because some punk kid FEELS like it’s “wrong.” So he acts unilaterally, takes it upon himself. Snowden Almighty, acting on his infallible FEELINGS…

            3. Doug Ross

              Based on what Snowden has released so far, I think he did what he thought was right. He saw the government doing things that were outside the scope of what he understood they were allowed to do. And I recall you saying that he didn’t reveal anything that you didn’t know anyway, so it can’t be a big deal.

              And let’s not forget that in response to the Snowden release, Obama made some clear statements that policies would be reviewed and changes implemented. Would those have happened without Snowden?

              I’m still fairly certain Snowden and Greenwald have much more damaging information that they are holding onto as insurance against getting killed “accidentally”.

            4. Brad Warthen

              “Think” is always better than “feel.”

              But everything else I said — about this one, unelected young malcontent presuming that his opinion should supersede the considered decisions of our three branches of government — still applies. It’s still appalling.

              A society of laws and not of men cannot in any way tolerate what he did.

            5. Brad Warthen

              But I reacted the way I did because I think you hit the nail on the head. I think what he did, and the way many people have reacted to it, is more about feeling than thought…

            6. Doug Ross

              Didn’t Snowden just release documents and allow people to form their own analysis? Has anyone refuted the accuracy of what he has released?

            7. Kathryn Fenner

              Right, I am sure Miz Dubs was all over it when you told her, “I think I love you.”

            8. Brad Warthen Post author

              I would not do that. Only the Partridge Family would say that.

              I’m much more definite than that. For instance, at the newspaper, I didn’t allow phrases such as “we believe that” or “we think that” in editorials. State it as fact. If we didn’t THINK it was a fact, we wouldn’t say it. No reason to apologize for it. Say it.

            9. Brad Warthen Post author

              “Didn’t Snowden just release documents and allow people to form their own analysis?”

              No. He and Glenn Greenwald did nothing of the kind. The public isn’t reacting to the dull facts, such as “this warrant issued by the FISA court on this date, yadda yadda.”

              What the public reacted to was the wildly inaccurate, paranoid spin that Snowden and Greenwald put on everything. Read this post for an example of what I’m talking about.

              Consequently, a lot of people believe the government was doing things that were way, way worse than it was actually doing.

            10. Kathryn Fenner

              Well, sure, my editor daddy taught me that. Thing is, IRL, and for legal reasons, such qualifying is important. A friend who is a corporate communications specialist advised me, as a mouthy female, to couch my assertive comments in soft phrases like “I wonder….”

            11. Brad Warthen Post author

              Speaking of the “I think” construction…

              Mark Sanford’s most annoying verbal tick was putting “I would say…” in front of what seemed like every other sentence. He’d have a perfectly good speech written out in front of him, and he’d keep sticking in “I would say…”

              Which made me want to scream, Well, then, go ahead and SAY it!!!

          2. Doug Ross

            “A society of laws and not of men cannot in any way tolerate what he did.”

            Glad to see you are coming around on enforcing illegal immigration laws.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I’m for the rule of law in all cases. I just don’t believe that they way forward on immigration is throwing ever more resources into enforcement.

              And I think it’s a little ridiculous to compare crossing a line in the desert to take a job slaving in a chicken plant to feed your family to a solitary individual deciding unilaterally to undermine the US intelligence-gathering programs. Matter of proportionality..

            2. Doug Ross

              Crossing a recognized border illegally, taking a job illegally, not legally paying taxes, driving cars illegally.

              What did Snowden reveal that undermined U.S. military intelligence gathering capability? Have they stopped doing anything? Are we less safe today (in a proveable way) than we were six months ago?

              Did the VA whistleblowers undermine the capability of the VA to deliver the services they are supposed to deliver?

              Not everything the government does is righteous and noble. There’s enough history to indicate otherwise.

  3. bud

    A good family friend and former long-time employee of my father’s business, Joe Champy was among the 22 South Carolina veterans at the D-Day ceremony. There is a good picture of him in The State (I believe it was Thursday) helping lay a wreath at the D-Day monument at Normandy.

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