“Ok, let’s go!” General Dwight David Eisenhower uttered these words on the morning of June 5, 1944. These simple words from the Supreme Allied Commander unleashed the largest amphibious invasion the world had ever seen, put into motion an armed force of 6,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes and 160,000 troops, and determined that D-Day would forever be remembered as June 6, 1944 (The slightly less well-known H-Hour was 06:30).
While the main thrust of D-Day was Operation Overlord, there was another operation of equal import that ran simultaneously.
Operation Neptune preceded Operation Overlord by a few hours. Operation Neptune was the code name of the seaborne phase that ultimately carried over troops, munitions, heavy artillery and even tanks, on the morning of D-Day and for days to come. Operation Neptune was an elaborate deception campaign aimed at offering false information about location, timing, size and scope of the invasion that Hitler was expecting.
Operation Overlord brought England, the U.S. and Russia together in an uncommon alliance. In Churchill’s words of Operation Overlord, “What a plan. This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred.” In Stalin’s words, “the history of war does not know of an undertaking comparable to it for breadth of conception, grandeur of scale and mastery of execution.” And years later, Tom Brokaw, “the greatest military invasion in history, which was the beginning of the end for the greatest threat to Western civilization the world had known.”
No one offered a more sobering statement than Ike when he was addressing the troops hours before the invasion. “Soldiers, sailors and airmen. … You are about to embark on the Great Crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on the other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped and battled-hardened. He will fight savagely. But this is the year 1944. … The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory. Good luck. And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
One interesting tie to Georgia concerning D-Day is Fort Benning. The concept of paratroopers was invented during World War II, unfortunately by the Germans. In 1941, the U.S. Army created its first battalion (501st) and ultimately two divisions (82nd and 101st) at Fort Benning. The 82nd was the first paratrooper division to face combat, in 1943 in Sicily. Both divisions were subsequently deployed, with many other Allied country’s paratroopers, on D-Day, as almost 13,000 troops were dropped behind the beaches of Normandy the evening prior to the morning’s invasion. Today, Fort Benning is still the training ground for a vast majority of our paratroopers, including our highly specialized ranger paratrooper brigade.
And here we are, 75 years later, after the 20th century’s largest gamble. A somber day, recalling the deaths of almost 10,000 Allied troops on the beaches of Normandy alone. Even more distressing, remembering the almost 80 million military and civilian lives lost during the entire worldwide conflict. Almost 3 percent of the world’s population. A staggering thought only 75 years ago.
On June 6, the heads of state for most European countries, America and Russia meet near the cemeteries in Normandy to memorialize this day, pay tribute to Operation Overlord and remember the sacrifices made for freedom. This will mark the last time that this memorial will occur with living World War II veterans in attendance. Firsthand knowledge is rapidly evaporating, and nothing can replace their memories. More about the ceremony, and some of the veterans in attendance, next week.