Today, June 6 of 2019, is 75 years after the June 6, 1944 Anglo-American amphibious invasion of Normandy, France. But what did those brave men fight and die for?
The European theater of World War 2 began on September 1 of 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany ostensibly to save Poland, although both dithered in what’s called the Phony War, where bad faith promises were made to Finland during their Winter War. This was followed by a half-hearted defense of Norway that saw the Scandinavian country invaded and occupied by Germany.
France was invaded in May of 1940, being defeated in less than two months. The Wehrmacht occupied northern France, fortifying the coastline across the English Channel in order to prevent invasion. This allowed Hitler to send an enormous force eastward into the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, in Operation Barbarossa. While the titanic struggle between Germany and the Soviet union raged, the U.S. was thrust into the conflict after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Despite Stalin begging the Western Allies to open up a major European front in order to take pressure off the Red Army, Britain and the U.S. instead sent forces into North Africa, where Rommel was ostensibly assisting Mussolini’s forces, though doing most of the work. After the second battle of El-Alamein in October to November of 1942, Rommel’s army retreated into Tunisia, ultimately giving up in Africa in May of 1943. This allowed the Anglo-American forces to invade Italy by way of Sicily in July to August of 1943.
Mainland Italy was then invaded in September of 1943 in the south (British) and in Salerno (U.S.). The Anglo-American forces advanced northward through Italy, being slowed down at the Gustav line south and east of Rome. Being stuck there, the Western Allies looked to France for a new front.
D-Day – the invasion of Normandy in northern France, called Operation Overlord – occurred on June 6, 1944. Due to a number of factors, much of it was only lightly defended. The U.S. landings on Omaha beach, however, was met with heavy resistance. My own Grandfather, Henry Geurink, on my mother’s side, was one of the men who landed on this beach on that fateful day. He lived through the experience, but was shot and wounded some time later just outside of Saint-Lô.
The Soviet Union, only a couple weeks after the D-Day landings, would initiate a gargantuan assault in the east called Operation Bagration, on June 22 (the anniversery of Germany’s Operation Barbarossa) that dwarfed the Anglo-American efforts in France.
But what were these obviously brave men fighting for? The proximate answers were: defeat Fascism and liberate Europe. But did the war serve any sort of higher purpose than that? Did the sacrifices of these men have a greater meaning for the human species? It’s difficult to say. It remains to be seen if anyone has learned the hard lessons of history, or if the takeaway will be something much more destructive. The good news is that, for the proximate goals, the Allies were successful. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes easier to learn a lesson when being defeated.