D-Day’s lasting legacy

June 5, 2009

nick-hewitt_000006_1– Nick Hewitt is a historian in the Department of Research and Information at the Imperial War Museum in London. He studied history at Lancaster University and War Studies at King’s College, University of London, where he specialised in naval history. He joined the Imperial War Museum in 1995. The opinions expresed are his own.-

“D-Day at last! Invasion! Hurrah! God save the King!” wrote a Cheshire schoolgirl on the evening of 6 June 1944. For her, news of the successful D-Day landings clearly meant a great deal. But looking back after sixty-five years, what was the historical significance of D-Day?

In purely military terms, it is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of this extraordinary operation. Operation “Overlord” was the result of four years of hard-won experience, painstakingly acquired from the early commando raids, and then from amphibious operations of steadily increasing scale and complexity in the Mediterranean. By June 1944, the Allied sea, air and land forces were at a peak of efficiency and strength, but it had been a long, hard road.

“Overlord” was probably the most ambitious military operation in history. It involved putting ashore on one day around 133,000 men and as many as 10,000 vehicles along 50 miles of defended coastline, from more than 4,000 landing craft. A wealth of ingenious equipment had been developed, from new helmets, to swimming tanks and the “Mulberry” artificial harbours.

Over 1,200 naval warships defended the invasion fleet, and more than 23,000 airborne troops landed in support. (In comparison, the landings at San Carlos Bay during the 1982 Falklands War involved just 4,000 men and four assault ships.) And it is important to remember that amphibious assault landings were and remain by far the riskiest of all military operations. Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Britain’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote on 5 June that ‘it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the entire war. I wish to God it were safely over.’ Hindsight teaches us that D-Day was a great success, but at the time it was seen by many as an enormous gamble, a dramatic throw of the dice on which the highest of stakes rested.

For the people of Europe, D-Day meant liberation from four long years of occupation and oppression. For the British it meant a triumphant return to France, from which they had been humiliatingly evicted in June 1940. Senior American planners congratulated themselves that their confident preference for a direct assault across the Channel had been vindicated; the British, equally, congratulated themselves on delaying the operation until the time was right – had D-Day taken place in 1943 or even 1942, as some Americans wanted, the outcome would probably have been very different.

Since the war, the historical significance of D-Day has been cemented and, arguably, distorted by its position in popular culture. Its anniversary is always marked, perhaps at the expense of anniversaries from other campaigns, sometimes to the distress of veterans from these further-flung battlefields. Who, now, remembers that Rome fell the day before D-Day?

In Britain, we tend to focus on the distortion caused by American movies like Saving Private Ryan, when they fail to recognise British involvement, but for our part, we should remember that the bulk of the German Army was defeated in the east by Soviet forces, not by the western Allies. D-Day was an important element of a global effort made by millions of people from an unprecedented international coalition. D-Day alone did not bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Nevertheless, it was an operation of unprecedented scale, ingenuity, complexity and risk. Above all, it was a success. In forcing Germany to fight a two front war against, for the first time, the full combined weight of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, it was perhaps the tipping point that made the final collapse of the Third Reich inevitable.


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You rightly draw attention to the distortion of Saving Private Ryan, which ignored British involvement in D-Day, and took the usual cheap shots at Monty to please US audiences. But what very few people know is that not only were the British a major component of D-Day as a whole, they were also on Omaha Beach itself, albeit in a relatively small way. I know, because my father was one of them, in a unit called 15082 GCI (Ground Control Interception). There is a full account by another serviceman here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stori es/67/a1947567.shtml.

The unit suffered very heavy casualties (almost a third of their number).

Posted by Matthew | Report as abusive

The sacrifices were great on both sides during the invasion and I’m GREATFUL for the service men that gave their lives for his fellow man and country….I have never understood why the American and British forces had not continued moving Northward through italy until September of 44′ at least?…..this seems to me that this was a shorter route to Germany (the soft underbelly) this would of drawn many German units to the border of germany and Italy……this would of thinned the Normandy coast drastically of German divisions and would of saved many lives in the process………..does anyone concur with this out there??

Posted by just jim | Report as abusive

First of all, I by no means attempt to insult the servicemen who did their duty, or diminish the sacrifices they made. But in the Summer of 1944 the invasion was largely irrelevant to the defeat of Germany. It was already being defeated, inevitably and steadily, by the Red Army.
This invasion would have bean truly pivotal and instrumental in 1942 when the bulk of German forces, their best of the best, were fighting at Stalingrad. It would still have been actual in 1943 just before the start of the battle of Kursk. But in 1944 it was too little, too late. The fate of Hitler and his 1000 years Reich was already sealed in the East.
The leadership of Western Allies was waiting for Hitler defeating Russia in 1941 and in the meanwhile getting Germany exhausted there as much as possible. They were still waiting for it to happen in 1942. And in 1943. And then, all of a sudden, it appeared to them that Stalin can defeat Hitler and take all the spoils of war for himself, all on his own. Therefore the haste. Therefore the lack of planning and intelligence. Therefore unnecessary losses among both Allies and French population in Normandy.
The air bombardment and artillery barrages by most of Royal Navy and quite some US Navy were supposed to clear the way for the troops. Yet most of German troops and artillery positions were left intact, but the same can’t be said about the French locals.
But the most important goal of this and all the following Allied ops was achieved – at least the Western part of Europe was taken by the allies and so protected from Stalin establishing the Communist regimes there. Maybe, if the invasion happened in 1942, it could have also protected the East of Europe from falling under the Communist dictatorship for decades to come. But history is a very stubborn thing – it doesn’t recognize “what if”. Whatever has happened – has happened.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Sadly while you complain that the Americans forget the involvement of the British in the D-Day invasion, you also forget that of the 4 D-Day beaches, 2 were taken by Americans, 1 by the British and 1 by CANADIANS. If it wasnt for Canadian support of Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic and the Battle of Britain, Britain could very easily have fallen before the Americans entered the war in late ’41 and there would not have been a D-Day.

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

As an 84 year old RAF Veteran of a Mobile Signals Servicing Unit, in support of 15082GCI, who landed on Omaha Beach, I have just returned from President’s Obama 6 June 65th Commemoration Ceremony at the Colleville American Cemetery. Yes, I was one of 3 RAF D-day veterans lucky enough to secure the requisite security clearance. I took the opportunity of also visiting the the graves of my RAF comrades who were reinterred from Omaha Beach No.1 Cemetery to the Commonwaelth Cemetery in Bayeux. In torrential rain, last Sunday, I could only place wooden crosses, with my name and address on the six marked graves. There are a couple of RAF graves there marked “Unknown”. Would the webmaster please pass my email address to Matthew, who posted the first comment. Following my singular attendance at the 60th Anniversary five years ago I have been trying to spread the gospel, to American and British(!)Top Brass with limited success. Unfortunately, thoughout those five years, I have been unsuccessful in contacting the Author (David) of the account on the BBC website, quoted by Matthew. At least, this time, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Prince Charles, President Obama, President Sarkozy and his wife, with all of whom I shook hands and had a brief conversation, are now all aware why an 84 year old RAF Veteran was present among the American D-day veterans in the place of honour behind the podium, next to the Memorial.

Posted by Dr Leslie G Dobinson | Report as abusive