"One of the most decisive battles in world history" - In Remembrance: 70th Anniversary of D-Day
Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy, a British historian who wrote in 1851 about the 15 most decisive battles in the world — from the Battle of Marathon to Waterloo — defined each as a battle where a loss would signify the disappearance of western civilization.
“Clearly that definition applies to D-Day,” said Lt. Gen. Edward L. Rowny reflecting back on the Normandy invasion as we commemorate its 70th anniversary on June 6, 2014. “The strategic importance of D-Day cannot be overstated. It was the beginning of the largest and most deadly military conflict of the 20th century; it marked a turning point in World War II and was one of the most decisive battles in world history.”
Prior to D-Day even commencing, the U.S. had extended the better part of $50 billion (over $760 billion in today's money) in war machinery, weapons and ammunition to allies around the world as part of a lend-lease program to aid Allied success. For the D-Day invasion, the U.S. and Great Britain committed 156,000 men, over 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft to assure Allied victory. More immeasurable in terms of D-Day was the cost in lives, estimated at approximately 5,000 Allied soldiers killed in the invasion and thousands more wounded. All told, the final tally of deaths in WWII would reach 15 million with 25 million wounded and an estimated 45 million civilian deaths. Had D-Day not turned the tide in Europe, the downward spiral of civilization could have been unfathomable.
“As long as there is someone left to remember,” said Army chaplain George “Chappie” Wood, a paratrooper who jumped into Normandy with the men he served, “nobody ever dies. Their deeds live after them.”
On this the 70th anniversary, let us remember the sacrifices made to turn the tide.
General Rowny helps to recount the stories of some who made the ultimate sacrifice in Normandy in excerpts of a new book, which he co-authored with PJ Wilcox and Anne Kazel-Wilcox, titled West Point ’41: The Class That Went To War and Shaped America. General Rowny graduated with that 1941 class, which was the last to graduate the military academy before the U.S. entered World War II. Class officers, most still in their early twenties, were catapulted into early commands including in Normandy.
In the book, and in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Rowny tells the story of his close friend and classmate, Jack Norton, who was among the first to jump into Normandy at “H-Minus” — hours before the official commencement of D-Day began at H-Hour. At the time, Norton was a major with the 82nd Airborne.
So dense were the clouds that night as he jumped, and so fierce the winds, that the C-47 transport plane he was in had to scream toward the drop zone to avoid missing it. The high winds and plane’s velocity caused Norton to black out when he jumped. His automatic pistol and the WWI revolver of his father burst through their holsters on the way down, and Norton fell to the ground unconscious.
Norton survived and was among those to help capture St. Mère-Église, which was the first town in France liberated by the Allies. The chute of a private in his regiment, meanwhile, got caught on a church steeple and there he dangled, pretending to be dead rather than firing practice for the Germans. (He also survived.) Many paratroopers gave their lives that night, plucked from the skies by anti-aircraft fire as burning barns illuminated them from below. Others were swallowed by swampy marshes or encountered minefields upon landing.
It was all part of a new type of warfare — this jumping into it. Jack Norton had bandied about the concepts of this unconventional mode back at West Point with his tactical instructor and mentor, James Gavin. Gavin went on to become the youngest general in the U.S. Army in WWII, General “Jumpin’ Jim Gavin,” a commander of the 82nd Airborne.
In the hours before D-Day commenced, on June 5, 1944, General Gavin wrote a letter to his then 10-year-old daughter, Barbara [now Barbara Gavin Fauntleroy]:
“Someday you will no doubt wonder why in the world I got into this business when there are so many apparently safer ways to go to war . . . in an analytical way the reason will be evident throughout our service. . . . During this present phase of our development, the participation of airborne troops in the form of parachutists offers particular hazards because of the newness of our technique. But in time, parachuting or what will take its place will be no more dangerous than riding a tank is today. Until then therefore if progress is to be made, risks must be taken and, of course, will be taken by those who believe in what they are endeavoring to accomplish.”
Seventy years after that letter was written, Jack Norton’s son, John Norton Jr., said of those with his father’s parachute infantry regiment in the D-Day invasion, “None of them expected to live through the night, but they hoped and they prayed that liberty might be preserved.”
Rowny notes the courage of all those who participated in the invasion — ground, airborne and support troops alike. “As important as the bravery of the soldiers,” he adds, “victory was assured by a number of factors. First, General Marshall, who was selected to lead the U.S. effort, was the most competent officer among U.S. defense forces. Second, General Eisenhower — selected to command Operation Overlord — was not only a good leader but was also judged to be the only officer who could manage the disparate personalities and temperaments of U.S. and British officers such as Patton and Montgomery. Third, the U.S. turned out a mighty industrial effort to produce the military equipment necessary for Allied victory including tanks, artillery and ammunition, transport and landing aircraft, and strategic and tactical aircraft.”
To comprehend the importance of the Normandy campaign and its decisive role in the war, consider that in the U.S. Civil War, 620,000 soldiers were killed and 475,000 were wounded compared to the 15 million deaths and 25 million wounded in World War II.
Western civilization was preserved at a steep price indeed.
Let us all remember those sacrifices on this, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, lest we ever forget and history repeats itself.