A magnificent and awesome military operation, and a moment of acute symbolism as the liberation of Europe began, D-day itself was not a great battle by the bloody standards of modern war.
At Omaha Beach, the scene of the worst confusion if not the hardest fighting of invasion day, the Americans had 2,220 casualties, mainly from the Rangers and the 1st Division. At Utah Beach, where the terrain was less hostile and the defenders more demoralized, the American 4th Division suffered 187 casualties. These amounted to about 5% of their losses in the training disaster earlier in the year at Slapton Sands.
By contrast, the U.S. Marines had lost 3,500 men in the amphibious assault on the single Japanese-held island of Tarawa. These casualty figures are collated by Stephen Ambrose, best known as the biographer of Eisenhower and Nixon; and for someone looking for just one among the flood of D-day books, his is the one to obtain.
And yet Ambrose never really proves the contention of his subtitle, that D-day was "the climactic battle of World War II." This is partly because of a fundamental change in the way military history is now written. Historians used to rely on the maps and the plans and the orders of generals, in which armies are portrayed by arrows sweeping around flanks.
But the surging growth of oral history in the recollections of individual soldiers has changed our perspective. A style of modern history pioneered by Cornelius Ryan, whose 30-year-old "The Longest Day" still reads marvelously well, this grunt's-eye view of chaos, blood and panic interspersed with moments of boredom and humor, is how battles are experienced. But they are not the full story of the way wars are decided.
And World War II was not decided on the Normandy beaches. On June 23, just 17 days after D-day, Hitler's Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front lost five divisions (over 50,000 men) at Vitebsk alone. Part of Operation Bagration, this parallel and simultaneous Soviet battle that smashed the German army and cleared the way to Warsaw, puts D-day into proportion. Until the invasion, the British and U.S. troops never faced more than a dozen German divisions. Even after D-day, they never fought more than 60. The Red Army fought and beat over 200 divisions and the bulk of the panzer armies.
The great merit of Gerhard Weinberg's monumental history of the war as a whole is to remind us of the vast sweep of the conflict, industrial as well as strategic. In Stephen Ambrose's riveting book, this industrial component of D-day is brought home when he quotes the comment of Gen. Eisenhower that "the man who won the war for us" was Andrew Higgins. In the teeth of official opposition, he designed, built and forced into production the essential landing craft.
From the almost token chapters given to the non-American role in D-day in this spate of 50th anniversary books, a casual reader might miss the fact that the Americans were a minority of the invading force. The Canadians at Juno Beach suffered rather worse than had the Americans at Omaha, losing 1,200 men, or one in 18 of those committed, compared to the U.S. loss of one in 19 up the coast at Omaha.
Even so, compared to the first serious test of Hitler's coastal defenses, the disastrous Dieppe raid in 1942, Juno Beach was a cakewalk. At Dieppe, the 2nd Canadian Division had taken more than 6,000 casualties in six hours. And the British, thanks in part to their special tanks, took only 630 casualties at Sword Beach and about 400 at Gold Beach, as they put 55,000 men ashore.
But with the exception of the Americans at Omaha, who stumbled upon the good Wehrmacht units of General Kraiss' 352nd Division, the Allies were fighting a ragbag force, the gleanings on which Hitler depended after five years of war.
At Utah Beach, Lt. Robert Brewer of the 101st Airborne captured four Koreans in German uniform. Originally conscripted by the Japanese, they had been captured and forced to fight by the Red Army, and then captured yet again and made to fight by the Germans.
At the time of the invasion, every sixth rifleman in the Wehrmacht forces in France was from an "Ost" battalion, captured Russians and Poles and Ukrainians and Balts. Germany was exhausted. The average age of the troops in the 709th Division, based in the Cotentin peninsula, was 36.
It was not just luck that put the Allied troops ashore in Normandy, where the defenses were relatively feeble, but planning. The best German troops, the six panzer divisions, were stuck in the Pas de Calais, where Hitler believed the real invasion was coming. A complex deception operation, with fake radio signals from fake Headquarters, succeeded brilliantly in fooling the Germans.
But if those Panzer divisions were not available to repel the invasion in its most vulnerable first few hours, they had to be fought later, in the long-grinding battles of June and July as the Allies tried to break out from their beachhead. Under Gen. Montgomery, the British attacks repeatedly failed. But they drew to their front around Caen the bulk of the German armor, opening the way for the Americans under Gen. Omar Bradley and Gen. George Patton to break out into the heart of France.
Nigel Hamilton's new book on Montgomery, an edited and truncated version of his three-volume biography, refights the rather silly postwar squabble of the Allied generals and their memoirs. Yes, Monty was a crotchety and arrogant ally who stretched the truth to claim that he had planned the American breakout all along. But with his first command decision in January of 1944, insisting that the Allied assault be made with five divisions rather than three, Monty probably won the battle.
The point about D-day was that it was not a single event, but part of a long campaign. With hindsight, we might even say that for the future, the battle of Arnhem three months later in September, 1944, was more significant.
Arnhem was a battle that concerned far more than the defeat of Germany; it was about the postwar map of Europe. The goal was for the British and American armies to use an airborne landing to bounce their way across the Rhine and into the heart of Germany before winter set in. The ambition was clear. With Germany's industrial heartland of the Ruhr under their guns, the Anglo-Americans could occupy Germany before the Russians did. Defeat at Arnhem kept the Western Allies on the wrong side of the Rhine until the spring of 1945 and helped define the parameters of the Cold War itself.
But that was not how it felt for the lonely parachutists, landing in the blackness of a hostile Normandy night. It was not how it seemed for the bewildered infantry of the U.S. 1st Division, dumped ashore at the wrong place, under intense fire and with most of their tanks sinking to the seabed.
For that flavor of D-day, Russell Miller's "Nothing Less Than Victory" is the most useful account, with each interview telling a coherent soldier's tale. Richard Goldstein, Ronald Drez and Gerald Astor have produced almost interchangeable narratives, peppered with ill-organized and random individual reminiscence.
Collectively, they show how not to use the rich archives of oral history, the largest collection of individual accounts of a single battle anywhere in the world, which are now gathered at the National D-Day Museum at New Orleans. Stephen Ambrose's book relies rather than depends upon them, using the intense personal perspective to illuminate a battle that amounted to rather more than the sum of individual experiences.
It took another 11 months of fighting, but D-day began the great peace that began to civilize Europe. It marked the moment when the fractious and warlike European tribes began to come under the adult supervision of the United States and Soviet Union, two superpowers with far too much at stake to permit the endless squabbles of the Old World to rise again.
More than just a peace, a kind of miracle emerged, in which the Europeans laid aside their martial pasts and adapted comfortably to the extraordinary new role of an economic giant that chose--perhaps for the first time in history--not to spend that wealth on becoming a military superpower.
The real essence of that European decision, whatever the inter-alliance squabbles along the way, was trust in the Americans as an honorable ally and a reliable custodian of the stability and the democratic hopes of Europe. And the real meaning of D-day was that it symbolized the moment when that trust was earned, in blood.