June 6th, 1945.
It is hard to understand the scope and risk involved in the planning and execution of Operation Overlord. It was the largest amphibious invasion in history- more than 5,000 ships and landing craft, 11,000 warplanes, 13,000 paratroopers, 50,000 vehicles, and 156,000 Allied troops landed on the 50-mile section of Normandy’s coast with a single thought- change the war’s course.
And if you are like me, you are well aware that it was recently the 77th anniversary of that day because of social media memes and commercials. And maybe you offered up a small prayer of remembrance to everyone who lost their lives and survived that horrible day. And maybe, you wondered for just one second why this particular day is still a faint memory of world history. You are not alone, I racked my brain for all I had learned about WWII/D-Day, and all I could recall was what I watched on ‘Saving Private Ryan.’
So I poured a cup of coffee and started reading.
Planning started years before the invasion: Over two years before the fateful day- the BBC sent out an appeal for photographs and postcards from the coast of Europe- especially the shorelines of Norway to the Pyrenees. Millions of photos were sent in unknowingly to the War Office. Then, with the help of the French Resistance and air reconnaissance- the decision was made for the best landing spots for Operation Overlord.
What did the photographs help to discover? Unwilling participants (primarily French) had completed the Atlantic Wall on Hitler’s orders and under the supervision of Erwin Rommel- a massive coastal defensive structure that covered a distance of 1,670 miles. Its primary purpose was to repulse an Allied attack on Nazi-occupied Europe. The defenses of the wall included artillery emplacements built inland to provide additional protection against an attack. In addition, the beaches were strewn with anti-tank and anti-vehicle obstacles that were known as Rommel’s Teeth. Over six million obstacles were carefully placed to act as a deterrent during low tide, and during high tide, they were invisible to the eye.
The Atlantic Wall is still a topic of heartache for the French as many French construction companies got rich off of the build. Still, thousands of French men were forced into labor on it as part of an agreement between the Vichy government and the Albert Speer’s Organisation Todt. Rene-Georges Lubat recalled his memories when he said:
There was no choice about it. We had to go. Naturally we weren’t enthusiastic, but it is not as if we had any choice. The conditions were not terrible. We weren’t beaten or anything and we got a basic wage. At the start we could go home on Sundays, but after Stalingrad they put up barbed wire and we were stuck inside the work camp. Of course we knew we were building defences for the Germans, and it felt bad. I remember at the end of the war, my two brothers came home. One had been a prisoner, the other a deportee. I felt so bad I did not want to go to the party celebrating their return. But I do think the wall should be preserved now. It is important to remember what happened – the ignominy of it all, the cataclysm that we had to endure.”
The Landing Crafts was designed originally for the Louisiana swamps: I have never spent much time thinking about the design or construction of the military vehicles used during wars. They just all seem to be a part of the narrative that magically appeared. However, in the case of the Landing Craft, which is the visual focal point for D-Day, there is a story to be told. By 1943, over 12,000 of the American Navy’s 14,072 vessels has been designed by one man- Andrew Jackson Higgins.
Higgins was a master boat builder and industrialist who joined the National Guard after dropping out of Creighton High Prep School. His travels led him to New Orleans in 1910, where he was the manager for a lumber-exporting firm. He quickly started his own company, A.J. Jiggins Lumber and Export Company, which sold pine planks and cypress blocks worldwide. His need to transport the lumber out of the Louisiana swamps led to the creation of schooners and brigantines, which would eventually become the prototype for the landing craft used during the invasion.
The U.S. Navy picked up the design, and his company quickly expanded into eight plants citywide, employing more than 20,000 people. When the need for able body men to enlist diminished his workforce, Higgins did not blink an eye at hiring women, blacks, the elderly, and the disabled. What is equally impressive was that everyone who had the same job was paid the same wage!
Historian Jerry E. Strahan’s reports in his book Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World Warr II:
Without Higgins’s uniquely designed craft, there could not have been a mass landing of troops and materiel on European shores or the beaches of the Pacific islands, at least not without a tremendously higher rate of Allied casualties.
The son of President Teddy Roosevelt was among those who stormed the beaches: It is a little-known fact that Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was the oldest man and only general in the first wave of the invasion, landing on Utah Beach. His son, CPT. Quentin Roosevelt II was also present at Omaha beach, making this the only Father/Son team who fought at Normandy on D-Day.
When BG Roosevelt landed on that beach on June 6th, 1944, he was already a seasoned combat soldier who had been shot in the leg and gassed nearly blind in World War I. Yet, when he took his first step on Utah Beach, he used his cane and held a small pistol to lead the 4th Infantry Division, 8th Infantry Regiment, into battle. Once inland, he was found among the service members, riding in his Jeep ‘Rought Riders’, leading his troops even though they had drifted a mile from their targeted destination. It is reported that he told the troops that he did not care where they landed- ‘We’ll start the war from right here!” Gen. Omar Bradley later recalled that BG Roosevelt displayed the most heroic action he had ever seen in combat.
His Medal of Honor Citation reads:
His valor, courage, and presence in the very front of the attack and his complete unconcern at being under heavy fire inspired the troops to heights of enthusiasm and self-sacrifice. Although the enemy had the beach under constant direct fire, Brig. Gen. Roosevelt moved from one locality to another, rallying men around him, directed and personally led them against the enemy. Under his seasoned, precise, calm, and unfaltering leadership, assault troops reduced beach strong points and rapidly moved inland with minimum casualties. He thus contributed substantially to the successful establishment of the beachhead in France.
BG Roosevelt died of a heart attack five weeks after coming ashore and was buried in Ste. Mere-Eglise until he was moved to the Normandy American Cemetery near Omaha Beach.
Interestingly, BG Roosevelt was instrumental in the foundation of the American Legion, Inc, and presided over the St. Louis Caucus, where veterans drafted the Preamble to the American Legion Constitution.
9,387 Americans are buried at Omaha Beach: Thousands of men died during the invasion and the following operations. The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Collevill-sur-Mer, France, is located on the temporary American St. Laurent Cemetery site that the U.S first established on June 8th, 1944.
The site is 172.5 acres and contains the graves of 9,86 of our military dead, many of who lost their lives during D-Day operations and following operations. The memorial also houses the ‘Walls of the Missing’ where 1,557 names are inscribed; Rosettes mark the names of those who have since been recovered and identified.
Interesting Fact: All American service members were required to take out a $10,000 life insurance policy beforehand.
End Result: By June 11th, the beaches were fully secured, and over 326,000 troops, 50,000 vehicles, and over 100,000 tons of equipment landed on the shores of Normandy. Germany suffered from the confusion of the absence of Commander Rommel (who was on leave in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday) and Hitler’s lack of decisive orders (he had been sleeping during the initial attack- not waking until 10:00 am).
In the following weeks, the Allies fought their way across Normandy through German resistance and a dense landscape of marshes and hedgerows. By August 1944, the Allies had reached the Seine River, and Paris was liberated- it was the end of the Battle of Normandy! After that, however, the troops pushed on and prepared to enter Germany, meeting Soviet troops moving in from the East. On April 30th, 1945- Hitler committed suicide. On May 8th, 1945- the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.
On August 15th, 1945- Emperor Hirohito announces the surrender of Japan in his first-ever radio broadcast.
September 2nd, 1945- World War II officially ends when General Douglas MacArthur accepts Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S. battleship- Missouri.
At the core, the American citizen soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong, and they didn’t want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed. So they fought, and won, and we, all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful.
As always, my friends, I invite you to do more research on your own. There is no way I could fit the entirety of D-Day and WWII into a single blog; the most that I could ask for is maybe I gave you a few unknown facts that will invite you to do your own research. I would highly recommend checking out the National WWII Museum – New Orleans online (or in-person) as it has amazing lectures, exhibits, and further information.
Plan Your Visit | The National WWII Museum | New Orleans (nationalww2museum.org)
And remember- be Great at something you are Good at!
Further Research: D-Day Girls: The Spies who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose and Random House Audio D-Day by Stephen E. Ambrose Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of German by Stephen E. Ambrose
Bib: The Atlantic Wall – History Learning SiteThe Man Who Won The War For Us | AMERICAN HERITAGETheodore Roosevelt, Jr.: “We’ll start the war from right here!” | The American LegionNormandy American Cemetery | American Battle Monuments Commission (abmc.gov)D-Day: 10 things you might not know about the Normandy invasion – BBC News