The meaning of D-day
When I visit the American Cemetery at Colleville behind Omaha Beach, walking between the white crosses row by row in the green grass, I read the names of the almost 10,000 fallen from all of the American States, and I think of the families of those who have been laid to rest here.
Young men, some of them just big boys, gave their lives on these beaches, and in this landscape. What did the farmer in Idaho think of the loss of his son, who would have taken over after him? What did the mother of the young man, barely out of school, from New York think; and what about the little sister of GI Tom from Texas?
Did they accept that America once more should save Europe from itself? Did they understand what was at stake? Maybe they did not understand the big picture, but nevertheless, they willingly sent their boys into harm’s way for the second time in 25 years.
Visiting the cemetery at Colleville fills me with respect, gratitude and admiration.
We in Europe will forever be in debt to America.
But why is D-day; the invasion of Normandy on June 6th 1944, not just another battle to remember?
The D-day invasion of Normandy was a turning point in history. It is hard to overestimate how that day has influenced the course of history. On that day, at that place, the fate of the world was at stake. The outcome would for decades, centuries or maybe forever decide the future for millions of people in Europe and in the whole world. To understand why the fate of the world stood on a razor’s edge that day, we must look at the world in 1944, as it was and as people saw it.
At the beginning of 1944, the war had been going for five years. The German forces were still in the Soviet Union. Nazi Germany still commanded over most of Europe. The Allies had landed in Italy, but had made little progress. The frontline was not moving.
In Great Britain, the population was struggling to meet the demands of the war effort for a fifth year. The burden was becoming heavier. In the United States, the number of casualties grew daily. The fighting from island to island in the Pacific was taking its toll.
The Soviet Union was still the only country on the European continent fighting the German invaders on its own soil. The Soviet Union was superior to Germany in its number of men and production capacity, but they advanced slowly, loosing hundreds of thousands of men and enormous amounts of weapons and materials. The burden of the war was a heavy load for the Soviet population to bear.
For all warring parties the invasion in Western Europe would be a turning point of the war.
If the Allies succeeded in establishing a bridgehead in Normandy, and to form a front in Western Europe, the war could be over in months. If they failed, the war could drag on for years.
In case of a defeat, the Allies would have to build up a new invasion force. This would take time, making it impossible to try again before 1945.
By then, the Germans would have time to fortify; to build many more bunkers, gun and machine gun positions, and to place more obstacles on the beaches – making it more difficult to get ashore for a second invasion attempt. The V weapons would be ready and V-1 and V-2 missiles would rain over London and England during the preparation for the invasion.
The Germans would know that another invasion in 1944 was impossible. They would be able to relocate their troops to the Eastern Front, and the Soviet Union would face the full might of the Nazi war machine. Maybe Germany could take the initiative again.
In the occupied countries and in Germany itself, an Allied failure would have an enormous psychological effect. It would confirm Goebbels’ propaganda and renew the belief that the war could be won, or at least be brought to an acceptable end for Germany.
How would a war-weary Great Britain have reacted, had the invasion failed? Would it have been possible to make yet another gigantic effort to build up a new invasion force? Would there still have been support for continuing the war? Or would those who wished to end the war and come to some kind of understanding with Germany be able to establish negotiations between Great Britain and Germany? Winston Churchill, who symbolised the war effort, lost the election in the summer of 1945 after the victory. Would he still have been Prime Minister after a defeat in Normandy in 1944?
Would it have been possible to uphold support in the United States for the war effort in Europe? Since Pearl Harbor, forces in America and in the American military wanted to prioritise the war in The Pacific. Would they have gained momentum, and would the American population have demanded negotiations with Germany to bring home the tens of thousands of American war prisoners from the defeat in Normandy?
Would the United States have considered using the A-bomb on Germany once it was ready?
Another thought haunted the Western Allies: Could the Soviet Union be trusted? Was it possible that Stalin, faced with almost the total power of the German military, might try to come to some kind of understanding with Germany? The Soviet leaders had done this in 1917 and again in 1939. If the invasion failed, then there is no doubt that the suspicious Stalin would have considered that it suited the Allies well – giving the Germans the opportunity to destroy, or at least weaken the Soviet Union.
It is clear that if the invasion on June 6th 1944 failed, it would have meant the continuation of the war, consolidation of the Nazi regime and fortification of German control over occupied Europe.
Peace might not have come until many years into the future.
The potential consequences of failure were frightening for all the Allied countries and nobody today can, with any degree of certainty, say how they would have reacted.
The exact results of a failure in Normandy on D-day are pure speculation, but it is very likely that the German regime could have survived – maybe not with Hitler, but still as a powerful force in the middle of Europe; strongly influencing politics and neighbouring societies. The EU would not have been created and maybe the colonial empires would have survived, perhaps some African and Asian states would not have been liberated. Would the United States have isolated itself once more?
The questions are many, but one thing is certain: On June 6th 1944, the world stood at a crossroads and the outcome of that day determined the fate of each and every European and maybe of all citizens of the world. With a different outcome, all our lives would be different from what they are today.
God bless America
MA, Leader of International Military History Institute
Guide on the Normandy and Paris Tour