Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Last Tuesday

GEN Eisenhower addressing paratroopers of the famed 101st "Screaming Eagles" Division on the eve of D-Day.  Photo credit: U.S. Army.  Fair use and/or public domain claimed.
Greetings All:

Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, code-named, "Operation Overlord."  Although one could argue that there were several "turning points" in World War II (the battles of Midway and Stalingrad come to mind), this invasion is considered the most significant.  It is certainly better known than other "center-of-gravity altering" battles.  This is understandable.  D-Day marked the beginning of the end.  Hitler and his minions would never, to para-phrase a line from the movie, Valkyrie, see another June.  

World leaders gathered in Normandy.  President Obama gave an appropriate, and sure, I'll say it, inspiring speech.  If you'd like to check out President Obama's remarks in full, there's a link to it in the sources.  Here's a few lines I particularly liked, paying homage to the men who fought that day 70 years ago:

"These men waged war so that we might know peace. They sacrificed so that we might be free. They fought in hopes of a day when we'd no longer need to."  

Before I get into the main point of this blog, a nod of approval is in order to Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel for attending this event.  Oh sure, there were solid diplomatic reasons for her to be there as Vlad was also in town and there was some informal and "impromptu" meetings of world leaders.  (If you believe anything was not scripted about these meetings, then I'd like to interest you in some beachfront property in Blue Grass, Iowa.)  Still, this observance was about paying tribute to those who fought and died to free the world from Nazi domination.  Nazi domination was, as we know, run out of Berlin.  That's the same place where Merkel works.  I thought it was a class act on her part to show up and say, just by her presence, "We're not that Germany."

Back to the subject at hand, D-Day.  By 1944, the tide of the war had turned but the outcome was far from certain.  While the Red Army had started to push back against Nazi forces on the Eastern Front, the Nazis had plenty of fight left in them.  Stalin was screaming for the opening of a Western Front on the continent.  Just like a broken clock is right twice a day, he did have a point.  We needed to get ashore and start taking the fight to Hitler.  Aside from the noble goal of liberating Europe from the Nazi yoke, you had to get thru France, Belgium and Holland to get into Germany.  

But an invasion of Europe would not be easy.  Although we were fighting in Sicily and (I think) Italy by the spring of 1944, there was no way to get to France without getting wet.  In other words, crossing the English Channel.  While we did use paratroopers on D-Day, they could not be the main force.  While ships and planes could pound the hell out of the Nazi positions with bombs and shells, ground forces were a requirement.  As the inscription reads on the statute of the infantryman at Fort Dix "The Ultimate Weapon" states:  "If he's not there, you don't own it."  (Or words to that effect.)  The point is this- there had to be boots on the ground, or in this case, soaking wet on the beach, to make the invasion work.

For years, this invasion was planned.  It was an amazing feat just to position so many men and machines in one place in 1944.  There was what I'll call the "shadow dance" of throwing off the Nazis as to where we'd try to come ashore.  Then there was the incredibly complicated matter of the logistics of supporting the fight.  This involved ammunition and spare parts, food and water, medicine for the wounded and yes, recovery of the fallen.  This was a big deal and a million things could have gone wrong.

As Matt Stout writes in his in War on the Rocks yesterday (June 6th), going in by sea is fraught with peril.

"Amphibious landings are among the most dangerous of military operations, always teetering on the edge of disaster. The landings could perfectly well have gone down in the annals of history as one of the west’s greatest military disasters."

In other words, it was a gamble.  The final decision to go was made by General Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander.  "Ike" made the call.  It was a Tuesday.  It was time to go.  

The photo below is his message to the troops:

Eisenhower's message to the Expeditionary Force on the eve of D-Day, Photo credit:  U.S. Army Fair use and/or public domain claimed.

Like any military operation, things went wrong.  Paratroopers were dropped far away from their landing zones.  Bombs and naval artillery missed their marks.  Nazi resistance on the beaches was sadistically fierce.  Even with a break in the weather, the seas were rough and some troops died not from being shot but drowning.  The old addage, "No plan survives first contact" was sadly proven correct that Tuesday at places like Omaha Beach.

For about 9,000 service members, June 6th was more than D-Day.  It was their last Tuesday.  Thus is the price of liberation, war's swipe of the credit card of life.

A view from a landing craft on D-Day, photo credit the U.S. Coast Guard/DoD, public domain.

D-Day, like other historical events, has footnotes.  One of my favorites is the note "Ike" wrote and shoved in his pocket.  It was his way to ensure he would take sole ownership of the failure of the landings.  If you go to Mark's piece (link below) you can see a photo of the note.  Here is the transcribed version:

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My deci-sion to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devo-tion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

Mark comments on why having this note available was important, should the invasion failed: 

 "If that (the invasion failure) had happened, General Eisenhower was ready. The day before the landings he wrote a failure message (though he misdated it July 5th). It resides today in the U.S. National Archives. It is short and to the point. Eisenhower did not—could not—risk his life on D-Day but he risked the next most important thing he had."

That thing, I presume, is Ike's rep.  He knew that if the invasion failed, honor dictated, demanded even, he take ownership of it, public failure be damned.  It might even mean that this would be his last Tuesday in command.  This type of leadership by example is something that is not (ahem) on universal display today.  
While I'm working on keeping my blog posts shorter, this was not my intent with this one.  There's just too much to write about.  This might be my longest post yet.  I my own defense, I'll simply say it's only appropriate that my longest post be about "The Longest Day."

However, it is time to wrap this one up and I'll conclude with the image below.  I think it sums up why D-Day is important and why we should remember it, honor the memory of those who did not come home.   
From one of the cemeteries at Normandy, photo from Wikipedia Commons, public domain

I'd be remiss to not point out that anything written on the American flag is hardly ever appropriate.  However, within this specific context, the intent is what matters.  The words of thanks in French is the furthest thing from disrespect, at least in my opinion.  It is a way to honor Sergeant Seyler and the thousands of others for whom D-Day was their last Tuesday.

Be well my friends,


Other sources on D-Day

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