Saturday, June 05, 2004

By the way, I thought today was June 6th. Turns out it isn't.

By the way, if you doubt that it was the Soviets who beat the Germans, check out this chart of German troop deployments.

Today being the 60th anniversary of D-Day, I thought I'd drop a few thoughts.

First: Normandy is a lovely place for a vacation. I was there in 1995 as part of a trip to visit the invasion areas and study D-Day, but we did more than just that. The WW2 aspect of the place is indeed fascinating (if, like me, you are into that) and everything is well preserved and presented. But there's so much more to see!

For one thing, William the Bastard/the Conqueror was Duke of Normandy. You can see one of his castles in Caen. You can also see the cathedral run by his brother in Bayeaux. You can also see the Bayeaux Tapestry, which chronicles the 1066 invasion of England. It is mighty and impressive.

Another thing you'll want to do is just savour the general beauty of the place. Lovely. Lots of pretty little towns, well-kept farms, etc.

Also, being coastal and French, you can get some excellent seafood there. A friend and I went to one restaurant in Caen and accidentally ordered a steamed shellfish platter (it really was an accident) because neither of us were quite good enough with our French to decipher the explanation the waitress offered. It turns out to have been a gloriously fortunate accident, as the food was terrific and the price wasn't bad at all.

So, visit Normandy.

Now, a bit of historical stuff.

D-Day was the day the invasion aspect of Operation Overlord began. The operation itself began much earlier, with mustering of troops and ships in England, elaborate deception campaigns designed to wrong-foot the German defenders, and intense air and sea bombardment of the various shore defenses and inland infrastructure. One of the coolest aspects of the operation was the role played by the paratroopers and glider crews who dropped into France to help prepare for the invasion. These men (mostly Brits and Americans, but with lots of Canadians, Free French, and others) were often alone for days at a time, wandering through the countryside (many, MANY of them had been dropped in the wrong spot) sabatoging communications and road and rail infrastructure. The idea was that, once the invasion began, the Germans would try to rush reinforcements (especially tanks and artillery) into the area, and so it was vital that bridges across the various canals and streams be damaged or destroyed. Also, this would prevent the Germans who were already in place from being able to retreat and fight another day. In any event, many of these troops were successful, and many of them were killed trying. Without them, the invasion would have likely gone badly.

As for the invasion itself: the "American beaches" were code-named Omaha and Utah. Utah went well, as it is a fine place for such an invasion (although the area behind the dunes is a bit too marshy for the rapid movement of armor) because it was lightly defended and hard to defend (having only low dunes). Omaha beach, famously, was probably a mistake. Relatively high cliffs overlook the beach, and on top of (and in) those cliffs the Germans had built formidable gun implacements which were able to rake the beach with heavy fire. That's where the "Saving Private Ryan" images come from. The guns were supposed to be destroyed in whole or part by the air and naval bombardment, but they weren't. Most of them STILL haven't been: they were built to last. One battery (this is all from memory, so I may get details like this slightly wrong), was on a sheer cliff with no beach in front of it but was well placed to attack ships. A group of US Army Rangers (Texas, as it happens [if I recall correctly]) climbed the cliff and disabled the guns in close combat. Hard core.

The British and Canadian beaches (Sword, Juno, and the Other One) were not as well defended as Omaha, and so the landings were more like Utah. One of them, however, was very close to Caen (the major town in the area) and therefore a large contingent of German troops. This resulted in brutal fighting, LOTS of casualties, and heavy damage to the town. Unlike Omaha beach, which was brutal mostly due to miscalcuations by the Allies, this was expected. The strength of the German resistance, however, ended up delaying the Brit/Canadian advance longer than was intended, but it all worked out in the end (as we know).

All things considered, Operation Overlord was a raging success for the Allies. The planning was generally good, and in the long run luck was on their side, too (despite things like Omaha).

A few things worth noting, however: 1) there was a similar and nearly simultaneous series of landings in southern France which have been all but forgotten; 2) the invasions of Sicily and southern Italy in 1943 were awesome as well, and the fighting in Italy was nasty. This has been all but forgotten; 3) dozens of similar landings were being done from 1943 on on various Pacific islands. All but forgotten.

And most importantly 4) None of the above was what defeated the Germans. T'were the Soveits what done that. The VAST majority of (and highest quality) German troops were fighting a desparate, and quick, retreat across Poland in the summer of 1944, with the mighty Red Army advancing. My WW2 professor (Andy Wiest) put it more or less this way: D-Day saved France . . . from the Soviets. By 1944 (indeed, by 1943) it was pretty clear that the Germans would eventually lose. The only question was how fast. This takes nothing away from the impressive planning and horrible fighting in France, the Netherlands, and western Germany, and should do no dishonor to the men who died or were wounded in those places. Clearly Operation Overlord was important. BUT it was NOT what won WW2 in Europe.

Actually, if you are one of those people who just HAVE to give the Americans and Brits credit for beating the Nazis, I'll offer two better examples than D-Day to support you. 1) The brave sailors who ferried supplies through the Arctic Ocean to Murmansk and Archangel help the Soviets keep fighting; 2) Montgomery and Patton in North Africa, who stopped the Italians and Germans from gaining the Suez Canal and the oil behind it, and also kept open the supply routes through Iran (to help the Soviets keep fighting). Had those two things not been successful, the Soviets may not have been able to do the incredible things they did, and D-Day would never have happened because it would have been useless. Stalin would possibly have been forced to negotiate a cease fire with a line something like the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk from 1917, and Britain would have, once again, been forced to prepare for a German invasion.

Anyway, those are my few cents.