Friday, June 6, 2014

Over the shore

Seventy years ago today - as I'm sure you and everybody else within sight or hearing of some sort of broadcast implement knows - about 150,000 Allied troops landed on the north coast of the Normandy peninsula and reopened the Western Front of World War 2.

By dawn that morning my old unit, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, had already had a hell of a shitty day. The unit was badly scattered - note the little black dots on the map to the left each representing a C-47-load of paratroops - and many of the troopers had landed in the swampy fringes of the River Merderet invisible in the dark fields below and had been drowned by their equipment without firing a shot.

Worse, the Third Battalion of the regiment had been dropped directly on the small town of St. Mere Eglise whose garrison were out of their fartsacks already, what with all those C-47s flying around overhead and all, and tore apart the guys as the descended. For the young men of the 505th, and a hell of a lot of other guys 6 JUN 1944 really was a long day full of suck.

But...they hung on, and by nightfall the Western Allies had a toehold on the European continent they never relinquished. Before another June would arrive those armies would be along the Elbe and the war in Europe would be over.

That is a peculiarly American myopia to see D-Day as - in the words of LTC Bateman - "...on this day, this morning, 70 years ago...the world began to change."

That's not to say that D-Day wasn't a major event in World War 2, or a major historical event. That's not to say that the men - and women - who came ashore didn't play an important role in defeating the Axis.
But it was less than three weeks later that the Soviet Army opened up Oперация Багратион (Operatsiya Bagration). Operation Bagration destroyed an entire German Army Group and unhinged the Eastern Front. In that operation, lasting from June to July 1944 Armeegruppe Mitte...
"lost about a quarter of its Eastern Front manpower, similar to the percentage of loss at Stalingrad (about 17 full divisions)...included many experienced soldiers, NCOs and other officers, which at this stage of the war the Wehrmacht could not replace. An indication of the completeness of the Soviet victory is that 31 of the 47 German divisional or corps commanders involved were killed or captured. Exact German losses are unknown, but newer research indicates around 400,000 overall casualties. Soviet losses were also substantial, with 180,040 killed and missing, 590,848 wounded and sick, together with 2,957 tanks, 2,447 artillery pieces, and 822 aircraft also lost." (Wiki 2014)
I don't think we, that is, the people of the United States, have ever come to terms with the fact that the "Greatest Generation" of World War 2 was, very likely, the Soviet subjects born in the Teens and Twenties who fought, and died in millions to roll back the Nazi invasions. What destroyed the fighting strength of Germany was, largely, the Soviet Union. So when you read all the veneration of this day in the Western popular press, it's well to pause and consider that.


My father's generation, and the Western world they helped create, was shaped by days like this day seventy years ago. The importance of D-Day to them, and thus to us, is hard to elide...although we, at this remove, might do well to listen carefully past the speeches and paeans to the invasion beaches for the distant thunder of the guns in Ukraine and Belorussia. Those caught in the firestorm can't afford to spend time looking at the horizon; it is for those of us with space and time to be thoughtful and mindful that for all that what happens to us is the Most Important Thing in the World it is often our own viewpoint that distorts the size and shape of events, and that viewpoint is often skewed by hate, or fear, or lust, or simple ignorance.

As for my father and his cohort...this year is probably their last big anniversary; ten years from now I doubt more than a handful will remain. In twenty, the Longest Day and their war will be just a history story, different only in proximity from Verdun, or Shiloh, or Hohenlinden, or Cannae.


  1. My hat has always been tipped to the Allied forces that went ashore on D-Day. From a "Western experience", it was a monumental undertaking, just as many of the previous, however smaller, offensive operations that preceded it. Western Allied operations were increasing in size and crescendo, and this was the zenith, and the beginning of our part of the final blow to Nazi Germany.

    There are probably a raft of reasons the Eastern Front has been a neglected part of Western memory, not the least of which would be the virtual inability for folks to comprehend the enormity of the carnage, both military and civilian. But even more so, there is no "happy ending" on the Eastern Front, and a fair amount to evoke guilt and shame on the part of the Western Allies. For example, England "nobly" declared war on Germany in response to Hitler's invasion of Poland, yet by the time of Yalta, Roosevelt agreed to let Poland be a sacrificial lamb in the post war division of the spoils. Just as the Western Allies looked away from the Holocaust, they similarly looked away from the rape of Eastern Europe (displaced persons, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity) by Stalin, lest we loose a major ally in the war against Hitler. While in gross numbers, Stalin was fighting over 70% of the War, we looked away from the barbarity he practiced.

    While D-Day was indeed a "finest hour", the conduct of operations on the Eastern Front were far from same. Why would the Western Allies want to put the spotlight on something for which we were guilty by a pact with the Devil?

    1. One should spotlight these decisions precisely *because* they are pacts with the devil. Succeeding generations need to know everything from the angular curl of the Devil's horn to the length of spoon used in supping because this information may help them when *they* need to make truly tough decisions.

      Finally, it is important for people to come to terms with the limits of national abilities and ambition. Stalin arguably inhabits the same great evil dictator neighborhood as Hitler. Many of the reasons for fighting Hitler also apply to Stalin. Why didn't we insist on freeing Poland from Stalin?

    2. The rape of Poland is a long and complex story, Ael. Not even room for the Cliff Notes version in a comment's limited space. Suffice to say, there are many who offer that Churchill never forgave himself for being a fob of Stalin and a dying, distracted FDR at Yalta.

      I agree that we, in the West, have failed to openly fess up to what really happened on the eastern Front. Much like the glossing over of the extreme privation imposed upon German civilians from May 45 through Jul 47. Much easier on the collective conscience to say, "The war ended and the Marshall Plan was our beneficent graciousness over the vanquished". Similarly, it's easier on the collective conscience to act as if no one in power really knew or could influence what Stalin had in mind. Rather, "He was an Ally until he turned on us after the War." Stalin had already shown his true colors at Casablanca, much to Churchill's horror and FDR's acceptance. Yalta was just icing on the cake.

      So we rightfully commemorate D-Day and it's subsequent "happy ending" in the West, and leave the Eastern Front for the Russians to commemorate. Makes us feel like good guys rather than partners with the Devil.

    3. We can look back at Yalta and beat up on Churchill and FDR, but the reality is that they both knew that trying to convince their publics to face down Stalin and the Soviet Army - had it come to that - over Eastern Europe would have been problematic at best. Stalin wanted a western buffer and was willing to fight to get it, and in making common cause with the Soviets to beat Germany the Western Allies had done a LOT of "glossing over" the lack-of-a-happy-ending that their grand bargain implied.

      I really don't see much else that the Western leaders could have done - they needed the Soviet Army and by the time they didn't anymore the takeover of the East was done and dusted. To have tried to arm-wrestle Stalin whilst the German Army was still in the field would have been throwing away American and British lives, and their publics were already getting very tired of that.

      The thing is, I agree with Al that D-Day and the Western part of WW2 were a huge historical event and are worth commemorating. But it's also well and good to recall that those were a part of an even larger event, and that in magnifying our own contribution we helped confuse ourselves about what was likely to happen when the Soviet tanks reached the Elbe. Not that we shouldn't commemorate our own struggle and sacrifice. But, once that's done, we need to avoid wrapping everything up in pretty paper and putting it away until 2024...

    4. Having spent the first six of my many uniformed years in the Corps, I really didn't delve into the "details" of the ETO until CGSC, when a Medical Service Corps classmate wanted to do his thesis on military medical support to occupied civilian populations. Figured he'd find all kinds of material from the Occupation of Germany. His first "discovery" was the horrors imposed on the Germans during the first two years of our occupation of Germany, as we provided no humanitarian aid, no less medical.

      That was my introduction to history being, as you put it, "wrapped in pretty paper". Just skip over JSC 1067 (Morganthau Plan) to the Marshall Plan, and we come out as good guys. I think a similar exercise has taken place in the Western handling of Eastern Europe. The Cliff Notes version: The Nazis started the war and did nasty stuff. All those displaced persons, refugees, etc were a result of the war. Gloss over the Eastern Front, zoom from Hitler to Stalin (both really bad guys), don't pick into the details, and we remain the good guys. After all, we have all seen the 9,300 crosses lined up impeccably in rows at the US Cemetery in Normandy. However, few have seen or visited the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in St Petersburg, Russia, where some 420,000 civilian and 50,000 military casualties of the Battle of Leningrad lay in 186 mass graves. Even visually, the sacrifices of D-Day are of greater impact than the much more massive Eastern Front.

  2. AEL,
    I find it rather weird that England and France went to war over Poland when they had no ability to effect the equation. Also why did they declare war on Germany , but not on USSR when they invaded Poland.
    What strategic value did Poland achieve for British policy?
    I'd recommend Buchanans book-An unnecessary war.
    What happy ending was achieved in France?
    jim hruska

  3. France was "liberated", granted immediate self rule and there was no ethnic cleansing, nor shipment of citizens to forced labor camps, for example. Life wasn't "pretty", but they regained their homes and homeland.

    Eastern Europe was occupied, not granted self rule, ethnic cleansing was the order of the day and millions were shipped to Russia into forced labor and gulags. Millions of Eastern Europeans were driven as "displaced persons" into the West, based on religion and/or ethnic ancestors.

  4. Chief: How do the 82nd casualties compare to those of the 7th Fliegerdivision that you recently blogged about on your GFT blog back in May? And how do they compare to the British 6th Airborne Division that landed on the left flank at Normandy whose casualties seemed to come close to airborne losses at Crete?

    As far as Operation Bagration it never would have happened without the industrial might of the US supplying its logistics - AND the 8th Air Force drawing Luftwaffe fighter squadrons away from the Eastern Front - AND the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact which allowed Stalin to focus on a single theater of war.

    So IMHO the real heroes of D-Day were Rosie the Riveter and her cohorts - and the B-17 ball turret gunners et al who never made it to their 25th mission - and the US Pacific Fleet along with the Marine and Army troops who died fighting the USSRs pact partners.

    @Ranger: "Also why did they declare war on Germany , but not on USSR when they invaded Poland."

    Weren't the Brits were playing their old game - get someone else to fight for you - and that is why they never declared war on the USSR after Poland?

  5. mike- At the individual soldier level, combat is combat. Hard to differentiate the rigors of Guadalcanal, Torch. Sicily or Tarawa from Normandy. What truly distinguishes Normandy is the task at the planning and operational command level, especially transportation and logistics. Logistics all the way back to Rosie.

    Who was my key Soldier in Desert Storm? A 5 ft 6 inch soft spoken major who was my S-4 and who handled all the details of deploying, equipping supplying and maintaining four battalions from three different home stations from initial alert through to the arrival back home. Smallest shop in the brigade HQ, with the biggest job. Are jobs such as Rosie or an S-4 "heroic"? Not in common parlance. But without them, the fight would be lost in a heartbeat.

    And, you are absolutely spot on. Russia, alone, was the only major belligerent that had the luxury of fighting on a single, well defined land front. However, it was one hell of a front.

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  7. Al -

    I am not saying Pacific ground combat was tougher than in Europe or North Africa. I was trying (probably badly) to point out that with the exception of the Australians (god bless them) that Nimitz and MacArthur fought without any allies from late February 42 to the end of the war. Soviet help was never forthcoming. Soviet ships sailing to Vladivostok from Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco with Lend Lease supplies had carte blanche from the Japanese Navy and Air Force. Finally the Japanese came begging the Soviets to broker a peace deal with the U.S. for them. Which is when they (the Soviets) instead broke their neutrality pact to rape Manchuria and occupy North Korea.

    I do not mean to denigrate the millions of Soviet KIA during that war. It was as you say one hell of a front. But as for Operation Bagration success, we should remember it was started in conjunction with - and two weeks after D-Day while the OKW was focused on the west. Hitler had also drastically cut Germany's Army Group Center in order to beef up the south where most of his hollow allies (Hungary, Romania, Italy, et al) had wilted. And finally IMHO Bagration and the other of the so-alled "Stalin's Ten Victories" were all won with American logistics. Unfortunately if we are ever forced into another major war we will never see that level of support again. China is the new manufacturing powerhouse, let's hope she is on our side.

  8. mike- fully understand your comment about the US being the logistical engine for all the Allies. That was a major consideration in Marshall's "90 Division Gamble". The US could not conscript a % of the male population equal to other Allies and still produce the necessary materials. Stalin indeed stacked his deck to his advantage. He was in it solely for Soviet advantage, and didn't even make a serious pretense of concern for other Allies or nations. However, he had a hell of a lot of warm bodies in uniform to tie up Hitler's forces in the East.

    That said, popular history (again) paints the American GI as the primary victor in WWII. It is the rare tome that mentions that we were constantly lowering entrance standards as the manpower pool was stretched to field military units and staff factories. But then, until Dec 7, 1941, industrial output was all that FDR could really offer, freeing up Allied manpower to serve in uniform. And it is a lot easier to build an aircraft factory in a location that has virtually no chance of being bombed than in the war zone.

    Yup, as I said above, "Logistics all the way back to Rosie". Unfortunately, logistics just didn't get as much print as combat. I was fortunate to have gone to school with the grandson of the fellow who held the patent on ball chains. His dad would speak at school about how the company ramped up, licensed out their patent and subcontracted to meet the demand for dog tag chain, timing chains, etc. No way in hell they could have done it alone, and if they had, they knew that the plant capacity they built would have been far excess after the war. Thus, he worked with other small to medium machine shops to get the job done, and they all were able to pick up and carry on after the war, with just him doing ball chains and the others in what they wished.

    And I agree that we probably could not repeat such an effort today.