In 1933 a Germany that was humiliated and impoverished after World War I, was ripe for someone as charismatic and patriotic as Adolf Hitler. On January 30, President von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as German Chancellor, and within four months of his appointment the Nazis were already boycotting Jewish shops and burning their books.
A year and a half later in the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler assassinates more than 1000 of his political opponents, leaving him free to have a dictatorial position. When President von Hindenburg dies two months later, Hitler declares himself Furher – Guide. A year later, Jews are relegated to second class citizens and are unable to marry or have relations with Germans. In 1936, Germany creates an alliance with Japan and Italy as a first step towards world domination.
In 1938, Hitler demands that Austria become a protectorate of Germany, governed by him. And they comply!
He makes his determination known to occupy Czechoslovakia and promises that he will stop his territorial acquisitions there. The Prime Minister of Britain believes that he will keep his word. Winston Churchill predicts that Hitler will be a much greater threat than that and warns everyone against negotiating with him. In September of that year, following the murder of a German diplomat by a French Jew in the German Embassy in Paris, Jewish stores are looted, 91 Jews are killed, and 20,000 are taken to concentration camps.
In 1939, Poland continues to resist Germany’s demands that they surrender to them, and Britain and France decide to side with Poland (after having been rather tolerant of Germany’s aggression). US President Roosevelt tries to get assurance from Italy (who has invaded Albania) and Germany that they will not try to take more European territories, but he is ignored. The president knows that his hands are tied to aid one side or the other by the 1935 Neutrality Acts. Churchill predicts that war is imminent, and Stalin agrees to a non-aggression treaty with Germany. Hitler guarantees neutrality to Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Luxemburg and Switzerland.
For about a year and a half, France remains in a state of war with Germany, but it consists largely of propaganda and nothing of actual battles. The French generals are used to the trench warfare of World War I and spend all their efforts in fortifying and protecting the border between France and Germany in what is called the Maginot Line. Charles de Gaulle tries to warn the French about the Panzer – the extensive tanks the Germans are building – but nobody listens to him. He eventually flees to England and leads the French Resistance from there.
On May 10, 1940, Germany pushes through the forests of Belgium and Luxembourg to cut off the Allies who have advanced into Belgium.
Sir’s maternal grandfather, Etienne, rushes to assemble on the Belgian border, along with other divisions of the unprepared French army. On June 5th, Germany swiftly goes around the Maginot Line and invades France. The invasion is called “the debacle.” The French are just so seriously unprepared for war, although they shouldn’t have been. Their generals had had time to assemble the army and tanks after the first invasion, but having been influenced by WWI warfare, are slow to understand what Hitler is doing.
Sir’s grandfather flees for his life with the rest of the defeated army. His wife is staying with friends, expecting to receive the devastating news that her husband was killed, as everyone has heard what a complete rout it was. Suddenly – her husband appears at the door! The shock is so great she faints.
Paris is occupied by June 14th and a peace treaty goes into effect by June 25th. France is now occupied.
Vichy is the only part of France that remains free, but the North and West are occupied by Germans and the South has been conquered by the Italians, so it’s a precarious freedom at best. Sir’s other grandparents live near Vichy – the one whose brother was shot down with his ship, fighting against the Allies in the Bay of Casablanca.
In 1941, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor because of the fuel embargo imposed upon them for their involvement in the South Pacific, finally forcing the US into the war. Shortly afterwards, Germany declares war on the US because of its treaty with the Japanese, and that coincides with US interests to enter the European theatre. They have already been assisting the British by lending materials and engaging in secret warfare against Germany.
In 1942 the President, along with his Joint Chiefs of Staff, coordinate strategy with the British. Winston Churchill foresees that the key to overcoming Germany is to enter France through the formidable Normandy beaches – as unfriendly as they are, they are the least heavily guarded.
Churchill orders the construction of massive beachheads that would allow ships to bring tanks, ammunition, troops and other support into France.
They would extend from the beach out to sea and provide a series of fixed and floating ramps to deposit materials and return for more.
He begins making plans for a major Allied invasion across the channel. Hitler is prepared for an all-out invasion, but assumes the Normandy beaches will be too difficult and has his General, Erwin Rommel shore up the defenses on the Atlantic coast.
For two years the Allies plan the attack and build the beachheads that would allow them to import everything they will need for an extended war. They pinpoint the best day to attack based on the low tides (that would allow the ships to spot and avoid the mines planted by the Germans), and a full moon late in the night to have better visibility once the troops were on the ground.
In May the weather is auspicious, but it starts to turn at the beginning of June with heavy rain, gales of wind and high tides. The Allies are afraid they will have to push the invasion off for another month, which would have been nearly impossible as preparatory measures were already well underway. Finally, the team of meteorologists call for a slight improvement on June 6th, a day later than the invasion had been planned.
They meet Sunday night to discuss the possibility of invading on Monday. The final consent falls to General Eisenhower who has one night to make his decision. He is unable to sleep that night while wrestling with it. He knows what heavy casualties the US would sustain in the best of conditions, but the weather is unpredictable, which could make the outcome catastrophic. Yet, the prediction for slight improvement could be the only window they have. The next morning he sits silently in the room with the Allied forces for, what some would say was a full five minutes (to him it felt like just 45 seconds).
Finally Eisenhower speaks. “I say we go.”
In two seconds the room clears as people scurry away to begin preparations.
The General visits with the troops before they are about to embark, and upon seeing him they greet him cheerfully, saying, “Don’t worry General; we’ll take care of this thing for you.” He is encouraged by their fearlessness and confident of victory.
Shortly after midnight, thousands of paratroopers and glider troops are being flown in and dropped behind enemy lines. They are to secure bridges and other strongholds and be ready to close ranks with the soldiers invading from the beaches.
At 6:30 in the morning, the largest amphibious invasion in history begins. The US is responsible for taking Utah beach, and they erroneously land about a mile South of their projected target. This is a fortuitous error as the area is less heavily defended by the Germans and they are the least hit. The following divisions for Utah Beach are ordered to land in this new location.
The Canadians are responsible for Juno Beach to support the British troops taking Sword Beach to the East, and Gold Beach to the West. They are then to provide support for the British taking of Caen, as well as to capture the German airfield to the West. They are hit quite hard in the first wave as the air bombardment that was supposed to precede the attack had been less successful than planned, and the first wave of relief troops was delayed by the tide. Yet the Canadians push forward and secure the beach in two hours.
The British take Sword and Gold beaches with lighter opposition, but they still lose 1000 men between the two beaches due to the heavily mined shores and the remaining German resistance, which was not taken out by the aerial bombardment.
And that leaves the invasion that suffered the most casualties. Omaha Beach.
There is simply no protection from enemy fire coming from above.
The beach is vast and the enemy in prime position above the hill.
The troops pour in and take cover at the foot of the cliff or under what obstacles they find, but they are still slaughtered.
Within ten minutes of the first company landing, every officer and sergeant has been killed or wounded and it becomes a struggle for survival, rather than a coherently directed operation.
Meanwhile, a group of 225 Rangers are sent to scale Pointe du Hoc,
a steep cliff that holds the German defense believed to cover both Utah Beach to the East and Omaha Beach to the West. It is a key target, but very difficult to take. The Rangers scale the cliffs with special climbing equipment, despite being shot at and having grenades thrown at them from the Germans.
They reach the summit to find that a large amount of the German defenses had been annihilated by the air attacks,
and the ground filled with craters from the recent, intense preparatory bombing.
To their surprise, the rangers find that the casements are empty.
The Germans had already moved their artillery to another location.
The Rangers cautiously pick their way through the quiet countryside.
Only 155 of them have survived the initial attack on the steep cliffs.
They discover the cache of artillery, well camouflaged about a half mile away and secure it.
The Rangers resist increasingly heavy German counterattack for 36 hours. Due to navigational errors their mission is thought to have failed, and by the time the Rangers are finally relieved, there are only 90 men left.
At 10:30 that night, Arromanches is liberated, making way for 170,000 troops to come across the beachheads and push their way through Normandy. Germany surrenders on August 25th, 1944.
Of all the Normandy invasions on D-Day, Omaha beach sustained the heaviest casualties, with the death of 2000 American soldiers.
When I visit these places, why does my throat ache? Why do my eyes sting?
I am not insensible to the wars that are going on even now, to the wars that occurred well after this one that took place 60 years ago.
I am from an American family. I married a French man and my sister married a German man.
In this day and age, that is unremarkable.
But here in the Normandy beaches, buffeted by history, the tide of my blood and my roots crashes with that of my home and my life.
And the story it tells roars in my ears.
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Information gathered from here, here, here and here, as well as what I could gather from the museums. I am not a historian, so if I have unintentionally misrepresented facts, please feel free to correct me in the comment section.
We visited Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, the American Cemetery and the museum of Arromanches, which gives the history of the beachheads designed by Churchill. There is also a little free train in Arromanches that leaves every half hour to take you to a theatre on the hill that shows an 18 minute circular movie with footage from World War II. We didn’t have time to visit the Memorial of Caen, the German cemetery or the other beaches, as much as I would have liked to.