D-Day Mistakes

Roundup: Talking About History

Euan Ferguson, in the Guardian (May 9, 2004):

THERE ARE THIMBLES. Lighters. Coasters. Ashtrays. Key-rings, of course. Tea-towels and T-shirts, penknives and paperweights, rucksacks and shoehorns and tankards and teacups: a sourly impressive amount of laminated plasticky tourist dreck, drenched in memorabilia of red, white, blue and gaudy. D-Day, they say; and 6 Juin 1944. Le Debarquement. Welcome To Our Liberators. Normandy Landings. Aux Heroiques!

This, they say, will be the last big anniversary: the last and the grandest. In 10 years' time, most of the old British and American soldiers who regularly take the battlefield tours, who have made friends with each other and with the visiting French and Polish and, from time to time, returning Germans, will be no more. They have already had 60 more years than they expected, that morning. Many now say those few hours have shaped every day of those 60 years. As the day has shaped Normandy herself: from the tourist-traps of Arromanches to the quiet memorials hidden throughout the bocage , the sweetly treacherous hedgerow country where nightmares were born in the days following June 6 1944, there are reminders of one huge established fact: we won.

The Allied victory, begun on that morning on these 50 miles of beaches, was to lead directly to Berlin, the death of Hitler, the collapse of the 1,000-year Reich and the end of the most destructive human conflict in history: and that this happened, that this victory was always destined, seems today as unquestionable as the sea still sweeping in to the beaches of Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah and Omaha.

Except it wasn't. What you won't find, among the memorabilia, are any references to the doubts, or to the mistakes. You won't see reproductions of the note scribbled in pencil by Eisenhower on the morning of the invasion - later found crumpled in his shirt pocket by his aide, Harry Butcher - intended to be read to the press the next day if it all went wrong.

'Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and the troops have been withdrawn,' he wrote, then scored out the last phrase to remove the passive voice, to take responsibility: '. . .and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. . . . If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine.'

You won't find any of the fatigued uncertainty chronicled in Ten Days to D-Day , by David Stafford, one of the better of the great many books being issued and reissued for this 60th anniversary - one shop lists over 150 current titles - in which we learn just how much we take for granted, how much could have gone so wrong.

In the Normandy sunshine last weekend, buses puttered and clogged the lanes. Over 1.5 million people a year now visit the area to view the beaches, the cemeteries, the slow-rotting carcasses of gun emplacements among the sedge and dogwort: a good number are veterans or their extended families but many have no direct link to that day, are simply there to view history and romance. But the most popular monuments are, if you look a little closer, actually testament to the things that went wrong, reminders of quite how flimsy the day's victory was.

The top of the Pointe du Hoc, the jutting rock nose which housed the six pivoting 155mm howitzers the Germans planned to use to cover both 'American' beaches, is still pocked with craters, and swarmed by tourists. They come here to remember the staggering bravery of the US 2nd Ranger Battalion, 200 of them under Lt Col James Rudder, who climbed the nine-storey rock from the sea with bayonets and grappling-hooks, while grenades rained down, and took the placements. What is often forgotten is that, due to a complete failure of intelligence, no one on the Allied side knew the guns had been moved a mile back and hidden in an orchard: the Rangers captured nothing more than telegraph poles swathed in cloth camouflage. It took them two days to be relieved; casualties were by then over 60 per cent.

Buses limp, too, through the little town of Ste Mere Eglise, where the shops, too, are always full of victory, of certainty: but this town was in fact a disaster, Allied paratroopers dropping right into the middle of the guns in the main square; a parachute and mannequin still dangle from the church tower, testament to the luck of John Steel of the 82nd's 505 Parachute Infantry, who feigned death after being caught there; he survived, but watched many comrades die below. And many memorial services now focus on Easy Green, on the shore near the beautiful American cemetery above: the peace, and the sunshine, belie the fact that Easy Green was the site of near-unending carnage on that day.

'Even the weather, of course, was deeply unreliable,' says military historian Max Hastings. 'It wouldn't have needed to have been much worse to have changed an awful lot. On paper, certainly, the odds were with the Allies, simply numerically: we had more tanks, more ships, more aircraft. But the Germans were always an unknown quantity: Churchill in particular had been deeply shocked by losses, where we should have won. And the other terrifying thing, in hindsight, is simply how much there was at stake. It is impossible to exaggerate how much of a blow defeat would have brought to the grand alliance.'

Had Eisenhower had even greater foresight, as we have hindsight, it's generally agreed he would have done some things differently. New tactics would surely have been brought to Omaha beach, defended not, as most of the others were, by dispirited ex-Eastern Front Germans and prisoners of war, 'striplings and greybeards', but by 12,000 silently redeployed and battle-hardened men of the 352nd Division. Less reliance would have been placed on the amphibious tanks, 90 per cent of which sank as soon as they hit the water. Transfers to landing craft would have occurred closer to shore, reducing fatal errors of pilotage. Had he been in a biblical frame of mind, he may even have borne in mind the numerological warnings in Revelations, and thought twice before launching the most ambitious amphibious assault in history on, precisely, the sixth hour of the sixth day of the sixth month...


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