Seventy-two years ago, on June 6, 1944, Allied troops waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. The night before, on June 5, American airborne forces had landed on the western flank of the invasion area near Sainte-Mère-Église, while British airborne forces secured the eastern flank and Pegasus Bridge. They jumped out of C-47 Dakota transport planes, through darkness and into glory. Some arrived by glider.
Pvt. John Steele of the 82nd Airborne landed on the steeple of the church at Sainte-Mère-Église. He managed to survive by playing dead.
Today a visitor to Sainte-Mère-Église can observe a mannequin representing Steele hanging from the church tower. Inside the church is a stained glass window of the Virgin Mary surrounded by American paratroopers.
On Utah Beach – all of the landing sites had code names – 56-year-old Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (the oldest son of former President Teddy Roosevelt) landed about a mile away from his intended target. When asked whether to re-embark the 4th Infantry Division, he simply said, “We’ll start the war from right here!”
Prior to the landing, Omaha Beach, soon to be known as Bloody Omaha, had received an abbreviated naval bombardment, lasting only 35 minutes. The bare stretches of beach offered no cover for the American invaders as German machine guns from fortified gun emplacements swept the beaches.
The Army’s Rangers, who had trained on the cliffs of Dorset, scaled the sheer cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc while being shot at by German soldiers. Their mission was to destroy artillery pieces targeted on the landing zones. Their commander was Lt. Col. James Rudder. Unknown to Rudder’s Rangers, most of the artillery had already been moved by the Germans. They held their position for two days in the face of fierce counterattacks by the German’s 916th Grenadiers. At the Ranger memorial at Pointe du Hoc, one can still see massive craters created by the Allied naval bombardment.
The Canadians stormed ashore on Juno Beach, with James Doohan, who later played Scotty on “Star Trek,” among them. Sword and Gold beaches were reserved for British forces. A small contingent of French commandos joined the British on Sword and helped capture Ouistreham, destroying a casino. A French officer said he wasn’t sorry to see those tables in ruins.
Despite the vast size of their armada and the relative openness of their societies, the Allies achieved a remarkable strategic surprise. On June 6, Erwin Rommel was in Germany celebrating his wife’s 50th birthday. Adolf Hitler believed the Normandy invasion was a feint, that the real blow would fall on Pas de Calais.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower planned the invasion from his offices at 20 Grosvenor Square in London, a few doors down from the American Embassy at 1 Grosvenor Square. Averell Harriman presided over lend-lease aid from 3 Grosvenor Square and the OSS (forerunner of the CIA), had offices at 70 Grosvenor Square. Small wonder the neighborhood was called Little America.
Imagine if the Normandy landing was being planned in 2016, the age of social media! Interactive polls would ask: “Which beach do you prefer?” Could the 101st Screaming Eagles, painted in war paint with Mohawk haircuts, resist taking selfies and posting them on Facebook? Doubtful.
So raise a glass to toast the heroism of all those young men who fought to liberate America’s oldest ally from Nazi occupation. Without their service and sacrifice, our world would be a darker place. Gen. George Patton said it best: “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
Christopher Kelly is co-author of “America Invades: How We’ve Invaded or Been Militarily Involved with Almost Every Country on Earth.” Visit www.americainvades.com.