Yesterday evening I thought about what was occurring at the same time 65 years before in Europe. Young paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions as well as the British 6th Airborne Divison and 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion were headed in for night combat jumps with the mission of securing key bridges and road junctions and setting up blocking positions to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the beaches of Normandy. Of the 17,000 US airborne troops engaged in operation Overlord, 1,003 were KIA, 2,657 were WIA and 4,490 were declared MIA.
At the same time, off that coast, the largest amphibious assault fleet the world had ever seen, drawn from 8 allied navies (6,939 vessels: 1,213 warships, 4,126 transport vessels (landing ships and landing craft), and 736 ancillary craft and 864 merchant vessels), began gathering. 19 and 20 year old young men, who to that point had never seen a shot fired in anger nor fired one themselves, would get their baptism in war on Omaha, Gold, Utah, Swordand Juno beaches. In all 160,000 allied troops would land that day.
At Pointe du Hoc, the US 2nd Ranger Battalion assaulted the massive concrete gun emplacements that commanded the beach landing sites. They had to scale 100 foot cliffs under enemy automatic gunfire to reach them. When they did, the found out the guns had been moved further inland. They pressed their assault, found them and destroyed them and then defended the location for two days until relieved. The operation cost them 60% casualties. Of the 225 rangers who began the operation, only 90 were still able to fight at its end.
On Omaha beach, the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed opposite the veteran German 352nd Infantry Division. They had sited their defensive positions well and built concrete emplacements which were all but immune from bombardment. The initial assault waves of tanks, infantry and engineers took heavy casualties. Of the 16 tanks that landed upon the shores of Omaha Beach only 2 survived the landing. The official record stated that “within 10 minutes of the ramps being lowered, [the leading] company had become inert, leaderless and almost incapable of action. Every officer and sergeant had been killed or wounded […] It had become a struggle for survival and rescue”. Only a few gaps were blown in the beach obstacles, resulting in problems for subsequent landings.
Leaders considered abandoning Omaha, but the troops that had landed refused to stay trapped in a killing zone. In many cases, led by members of the 5th Ranger Battalion which had been mistakenly landed there, they formed ad hoc groups and infantrymen infiltrated the beach defenses and destroyed them, eventually opening the way for all. Of the 50,000 soldiers that landed, 5,000 became casualties of bloody Omaha.
Canadian forces landed at Juno. The first wave suffered 50% casualties in the ferocious fighting. The Canadians had to fight their way over a sea wall which they successfully did. The 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars) and The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada achieved their 6 June objectives, when they drove over 15 kilometres (9 mi) inland. In fact, they were the only group to reach their D-Day objectives.
By the end of D-Day, 15,000 Canadians had been successfully landed, and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division had penetrated further into France than any other Allied force, despite having faced strong resistance at the water’s edge and later counterattacks on the beachhead by elements of the German 21st and 12th SS Hitlerjugend Panzer divisions on June 7 and June 8.
The Brits landed at Sword and Gold beaches. At Gold the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division landed with heavy casualties, but overcame the obstacles and drove about 10 kilometers off the beach.
Led by amphibious tanks of the 13th and 18th Hussars, the landings on Sword went rather well with elements of the 8th Infantry Brigade driving 8 kilometers off the beach.
And the final beach, Utah, saw the 23,000 troops of the US 4th Infantry Division land. Through a navigation error they landed on the western most part of the beach. That happened to be the most lightly defended as well. Taking full advantage of the situation, the division fought their way off the beach and through the German defenses linking up with the 502nd and 506th Parachute Infantry Regiments of the 101st Airborne Division which had dropped in the night before and secured the inland side of the beach exits.
The liberation of Europe had begun. But it was costly. Of the total 10,000 casualties suffered that day on the beaches by the allies, the US had 6,603 of which 1,465 were killed in action. The Canadians suffered 1,074 casualties (359 KIA) and the British had 2,700.
Men who had never set foot on the continent of Europe before died trying to liberate it that day. Today most of them lie in quiet graveyards near where they fell, the only piece of land ever claimed, as Colin Powell said, was enough to lay them to rest. 65 years ago, as the guns boomed, the shells exploded and desperate and courageous men made life and death decisions on the bloody sands of Normandy beaches, the fate of the world literally hinged on their success.
I think it is important, on this day to remember that. It is also just as important to remember that had the rest of the world taken the threat posed by the evil of Nazi Germany seriously earlier than they did, the possibility exists that such a fateful landing would never have been necessary.
But it was. And to those who made it, liberated Europe and destroyed the evil that was Nazi Germany, they have my undying respect and deserve to have what they did -and why they did it – remembered by all for eternity.