By John Long
With the 75th Anniversary of D-Day arriving next week, I beg your indulgence to recycle this piece from five years ago, in honor of the few Normandy veterans left.
June 8, 1944: There was none of the usual Eisenhower buoyancy as the general approached the podium. He was drawn and dejected, physically stooped by the weight of defeat. The reporters, and the radio audience, already expecting the worst, listened intently.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” he read. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
Silence fell as the Supreme Commander concluded his brief statement. Millions around the world wondered: what now? The mightiest army ever assembled was now impotent, defeated by a weaker foe and a narrow ribbon of saltwater.
For Ike, the war was over. Having accepted responsibility for the failure of Operation Overlord, he could hardly remain in command in Europe. He was reassigned to a desk job with Marshall’s staff, and the next year accepted a quiet retirement. Though respected for what he had achieved in the Mediterranean before the Normandy debacle, his historical reputation was sealed.
The battle, he later told an interviewer, had been decided at Omaha Beach. When the stiff German resistance there repulsed the disorganized assault, it divided the other beachheads. The troops at Utah Beach could hold only a few more days, and the British/Canadian beaches to the east were too narrow to re-supply. The men would have been annihilated if not withdrawn. Omaha Beach had been the key to defeat.
Churchill and FDR remained publicly optimistic. We’ve lost a battle, they conceded, but the war goes on. The Germans were sealed in northern Europe — we couldn’t cross the Channel, so they certainly can’t. We still have unchallenged supremacy in the air and on the Channel. We’ll find another way to win!
But privately they found little cause for hope. Allied bombers were turning German cities into rubble; yet without French mud under Anglo-American combat boots, it was hard to see how an unconditional surrender could be achieved.
British voters admired Churchill, but having presided over two cross-channel evacuations in four years, he had lost their confidence. The next parliamentary elections returned him to the backbench. And most historians would credit the failure in Normandy with a weary FDR’s decision not to seek a fourth term that year. His successor promised a swift victory in the Pacific, which was delivered, but no successful strategy for Europe could then be envisioned.
Stalin, of course, was livid. Having long pushed for the “second front,” he accused his allies of timidity and betrayal. He cancelled preparations for his planned offensive that was to follow Overlord, and secretly opened up negotiations with Germany. With some territorial concessions on both sides, the two dictators announced a reversion to their prewar Nazi-Soviet Pact by 1945.
Britain and America could only follow suit. They negotiated the evacuation of France and some other territories, and called it victory. Few were fooled.
The so-called free nations of Europe soon became little more than Nazi satellite states. The dark cloud of tyranny remained over Europe. Only later did the full truth of what had happened in places like Auschwitz come to light. The civilized world was horrified, but by then scarcely any European Jews survived to tell the tale. The hopes of founding a Jewish state were never realized. The Jewish people remained a nation in diaspora.
A weakened Britain, shadow of its former self, watched its empire crumble. For the US, a bitter isolationism prevailed. We have two oceans protecting us — -let the rest of the world take care of itself. As Nazism dominated Europe, and as communism spread in other areas, there was no one to stand and proclaim that evil will not prevail, not today.
And so — evil prevailed. Because good had lost in Normandy in 1944.
Of course, this is a fictional scenario, maybe a far-fetched one. None of it ever happened (though Ike’s message above really existed, ready to be released, just in case). I only paint the “what-if” picture for you to illustrate the importance of what occurred in Normandy seventy-five years ago; how a few wet and frightened young men saved the world.
Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.