The Longest Day
6th June 2019 will mark the 75th anniversary of the Allied amphibious landings on the beaches of Normandy, France in 1944. The landings opened a second front against the Nazis, which led to the liberation of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and ultimately contributed to the defeat of Hitler.
Just to put the enormity of this event into its proper context. In May 1940 the panzers of Nazi Germany defeated France in just six weeks, and the British Expeditionary force was kicked out of continental Europe at Dunkirk. For almost a year Britain stood alone against Adolf Hitler. Then in June 1941 he launched Operation Barbarossa against Stalin’s Soviet Empire, which opened the Eastern front. From June 1940 the British fought Rommel in North Africa, before invading Italy in September 1943 with the Americans. They had entered the war in December 1941, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. On the Eastern front Stalin’s Soviet forces stopped the Nazi advance into Russia at Stalingrad (modern day Volgograd), in the cold depths of winter 1942/43. This marked the turning point of the war on the Eastern front. By the time the Allies landed on the beaches of France in June 1944, the Soviet forces had pushed the Germans back out of Russia into Poland and Ukraine.
The D-Day invasion still represent the largest ever amphibious assault. Firstly paratroopers and glider troops landed in the small hours of the 6th of June. Their objectives were to protect the flanks of the invasion beaches, secure key bridges whilst destroying other bridges, take out German gun batteries which could threaten the beaches, and generally disrupt the Nazi response. There were notable successes, but a significant number of airborne troops were dropped miles from the intended landing zones. In fact the drops were so disorganised the Germans initially struggled to figure out what the Allied objectives were. Then at 6:30 am on the morning of 6th June British, Canadian, and, US troops were landed on five beaches across a 50 mile stretch of the Normandy coast line. The fighting on the beaches was brutal and bitter. Allied troops had already endured a night sea crossing from southern England, and a choppy ride in open landing craft before hitting the beeches under fire from pre-prepared German positions. The Allies had bombed the German defences from the air, and shelled them from the sea. But the effectiveness of these measures were limited. Particularly on the American beach codenamed Omaha. The chaos on this beach was what Steven Spielberg depicted during the shocking start of his film Saving Private Ryan. His cinematic re-creation was in no way an exaggeration of difficulties the Americans faced that day. But ultimately because of months of careful planning, dedicated training, multiple layers of clever deception, and due to the courage of the troops dropped from the skies and landed on the beaches, Western Europe was freed from ideological, totalitarian rule.
Other than reflecting on the dedication, courage, and sacrifice, what can we learn from this heroic endeavour, 75 years later? The liberation of Europe was truly a collective effort by many nations. The Allied forces included, British, US, Canadian, Australian, Czechoslovakian, French, Norwegian, and Polish soldiers, sailors, and airmen. And for 3 years the Russians had been bleeding the Nazis white on the Eastern front. This was a multi-national force united against an obvious enemy: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. But the real enemy was the ideology of separateness and hate. Once you get people to hate, by telling them to see otherness in their fellow man, it isn’t difficult to get them to start killing these non-humans that they consider to be different.
And sadly the enemy that stalked the World in the 1940s stalks it still. Today it is harder to see, because it doesn’t always wear black shirts, strut around with flags, and invade peaceful countries, but it is still there. If we are unable to learn today that all expressions of being human are valid, then we will be doomed to repeat the lessons of the past tomorrow. The ideology of separateness leads to hate. And a spiral of violence is just a stone’s throw from hate. War knows no boundaries and heeds no laws. During the liberation of France the Allies were responsible for the deaths of 70,000 French civilians, what today we would call collateral damage. This is more than the number of British civilians killed in World War II by deliberate German bombing.
We are asked to remember the sacrifices of others for our freedoms. These sacrifices are not just represented by the white head stones of Allied soldiers in France. There were broken bodies, shattered lives, and tortured minds left throughout the world as a result of World War II. Which in many ways was itself a result of World War I. The freedom bought in blood in the 20th century is best spent on unity and peace in the 21st century. So support modern politicians who seek unity and peace. Resist the cheap, simplistic, ideological cries of those that want you to see difference in others. Be that by race, nationality, sex, religion, sexuality, or wealth. We can build a better world, if we choose to work together to do so.
“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” Bertrand Russell