Seventy-six years ago this morning, the United States and its allies launched the largest amphibious invasion in history when they attacked German forces occupying Normandy along the northern coast of France. The invasion—which came to be known as “D-Day”—consisted of approximately 7,000 vessels, 1,200 of which were warships. But most were transport vessels tasked with landing 150,000 allied soldiers and their equipment on five beaches—code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword—spanning some fifty miles.
The attack was preceded by an immense aerial and naval bombardment of the Normandy coast. Allied planes dropped more than 11,000 tons of bombs in the eight hours prior to the invasion, while the fleet’s artillery pounded the coast just before the troops went ashore. In 10 minutes, 600 naval guns fired 2,000 tons of shells at various German fortifications.
Before the barrage began, a German soldier manning a gun emplacement saw the armada stretched before him and later said: “I was struck speechless at the sight, which I had never imagined possible. * * * Even as I stared, more ships came into view, endlessly filling the sea. I remember, if I may be honest, that I began to tremble, and I broke out into a sweat.” One of his companions looked at him and said, in bitter fashion: “Are we sorry we started this war now?”
While the pre-dawn bombing and shelling noticeably weakened the German defenses at four of the beaches, the allied planes and ships missed virtually all of their assigned targets at Omaha, leaving the first two waves completely exposed to withering fire. Their misery was compounded by the decision to invade at low tide, which was done so that the obstacles installed by the Germans to impede landing craft and tanks would be visible. This greatly increased the amount of open ground the infantry, heavy-laden with equipment, was required to traverse.
One private later wrote: “There were men crying with fear, men defecating themselves. I lay there with some others, too petrified to move. No one was doing anything except lay there. It was like a mass paralysis. I couldn’t see an officer. At one point something hit me on the arm. I thought I had taken a bullet. It was somebody’s hand, taken clean off by something. It was too much.”
A member of a neighboring battalion recalled seeing his devout sergeant, “Pilgrim” Robertson, with a gaping wound in his forehead. “He was walking crazily in the water without his helmet. Then I saw him get down on his knees and start praying with his rosary beads. At this moment the Germans cut him in half with their deadly crossfire.”
For the better part of the morning, Omaha Beach had the makings of a disaster. If the allies were thrown back into the sea, then Utah Beach to the west on the Cherbourg Peninsula would be completely isolated and Gold Beach to the east would be exposed to a flank attack by German reinforcements. It was only after several small, but very determined, groups of men—most notably the Army Rangers—managed to scale the bluffs above the sea and root out the entrenched defenders that the tide began to turn.
In October of 2018, we spent three days roaming the beaches and battlefields of Normandy to gain a greater understanding of what transpired there on that fateful day. We began with a tour of the Caen Memorial Museum, which has one of the finest collections of World War II artifacts, memorabilia, and exhibits in the world.
We also stopped at Pegasus Bridge, site of a daring night landing by three large gliders during the early morning hours of D-Day. Led by Major John Howard, a British military officer, a force of 181 men prevented the Germans from demolishing a critical passageway to the interior of Normandy. Their exploits were later immortalized in the classic World War II movie, The Longest Day.
Still standing on one side of the bridge is Café Gondrée, which is owned by Arlette Gondrée, who was five-years old at the time of the liberation. She is an irascible old woman, we discovered, who doesn’t like making small talk with patrons.
Many of the residents of Normandy we encountered expressed their gratitude for the American GI’s who liberated their country. And I was quick to acknowledge that but for the financial and naval support provided by Louis the XVI, the American colonists likely would have lost the Revolutionary War.
Even though allied bombs unintentionally destroyed hundreds of homes and killed thousands of innocent French civilians, most residents understood that such “collateral damage” was a sacrifice they had to make in order to expel the Germans. Still, the experience of that conflict left an indelible impression on the psyche of the local residents we were told. Drawings by school children we saw on display inside a nearby French church suggest that peace has a deeper, intergenerational meaning for people who have experienced firsthand the horrors of war.
One afternoon we toured the remnants of a small German anti-aircraft gun operation set in the woods a mile or so from the beach. It sits on private land owned by a local Frenchman who frequently leases it to film studios. He sometimes makes his own battle reenactment videos, which he uses to market the location. Obtaining volunteers to play the parts of American and British fighters, along with members of the a French resistance, is easy. But he has to pay people to don a German uniform.
One of the most indelible memories of our visit occurred when I walked one morning to the water’s edge at Omaha Beach during low tide—and then turned around. How any man could have mustered the courage to cross that expanse with the fires of hell raging on all sides is beyond my imagination.
But what moved us most of all was the cemeteries.
Late one afternoon, as sunlight began to recede, we visited the Ranville War Cemetery in Normandy, which is the final resting place for approximately 2,500 British soldiers. It is adjacent to the village church, and set against the stonewall surrounding the churchyard are approximately 50 British graves, one of which is for an unknown soldier.
It is also where Private Robert Johns, a member of the 13th Parachute Battalion, is interred. He was only 16 when a sniper’s bullet took his life. His epitaph at the base of his tombstone reads: “He died as he lived, fearlessly.”
This site was chosen—along with the location of most other British cemeteries in Europe—for one simple reason: it is where most of these men died. For this reason, there are dozens of British military cemeteries scattered across Europe. The English buried their men where they fell. American cemeteries, by contrast, are fewer in number but larger in size.
British burial grounds also differ from their U.S. counterparts in one other respect: they include soldiers from other nations—including Germans, over three hundred of which are buried in Ranville. Some of them, according to our guide, were members of an SS unit.
Somewhat to the surprise of our guide, I asked to see the La Cambe German War Cemetery, which is located not too far from Omaha beach. It is home to over 21,000 German war dead and is maintained by the German War Graves Commission.
There are few crosses or traditional headstones in this cemetery; instead, the burial place of most soldiers is marked with dark-colored plaques above their graves. The names of two soldiers are inscribed on each one, with one man buried on top of the other.
We did notice a handful of German tourists during our stay in Normandy, many of whom, I suspect, were descendants of those who served in the Wehrmacht. It is tempting to disparage everyone who fought for Hitler’s war machine, but most were not members of the Nazi party and many were young men who had a patriotic desire to defend their country or were given no choice in the matter. And some were not German at all; they were Russian and Polish POWs who opted to fight in Normandy rather than endure the hardships of the camps (they were among the first to surrender to the allies, by the way).
Without a doubt, the most memorable part of the trip for me was an early-morning visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Here lie the dead of over 9,300 U.S. servicemen, along with four servicewomen, two of whom were of African-American descent.
The cemetery, consisting of 172 immaculately groomed acres, is situated on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. The moment you arrive, you know you are standing upon hallowed ground.
We saw the plot of Brigadier General and Medal of Honor recipient Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of our 26th President. And then there were the graves of the Niland brothers, one killed on D-Day, the other 24 hours later. They were two of four brothers all of whom saw combat during the Second World War and were the inspiration for Spielberg’s award-winning film, Saving Private Ryan.
The first time I passed a cross marked, “A Comrade In Arms Known but to God,” I paused for a moment and imagined the distress likely experienced by the man’s family who knew only that their son, grandson, nephew, or perhaps husband, was “missing in action.” And it brought me up short when I first saw a soldier whose date of death was June 6, 1944. But the most moving experience of the day was a product of fate, serendipity, or divine intervention, depending upon your perspective.
Seeking greater solitude, I made my way to the rear of the cemetery where I spied a small private gathering around a grave bordered on one side by a small American flag and, on the other, by the tricolor of France. The party was in the process of dispersing, and a cemetery maintenance worker was waiting for them to take their leave so he could continue his work. When I asked him who they were, he said they were related to the deceased soldier whose grave I had noticed. They had made special arrangements for a private commemorative service that morning.
I then quietly approached the grave. Though the man’s name was not one I recognized, his date of death caught my eye—July 28, 1944—the same day and month on which I was born nine years later. I suddenly felt a desire to learn more about this soldier, so, giving little thought to how my intrusive behavior would be received, I approached the couple that had come to pay their respects.
The gentleman, who graciously indulged my curiosity, said the deceased, Sergeant Erling C. Olsen, was a member of the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps. He was also the gentleman’s uncle. He was on a mission behind enemy lines when he was killed eight weeks after D-Day. His nephew was trying to learn more about his fallen relative, but much of the information about the CIC is apparently still classified. (The gold lettering on Sergeant Olsen’s gravestone, he told me, was produced by rubbing the inscription with sand from Omaha Beach.)
He said he felt a close bond with his uncle since he was born precisely two years later on the same day his uncle died. I smiled, and said: “I, too, was born on that day seven years after you.” His wife, who had been silent until then, asked, “Where do you live?” I responded: “In Clarendon, Virginia, less than a mile, as the crow flies, from Arlington National Cemetery.” At this she became somewhat emotional and withdrew. Her husband explained: “We live just a few miles from you in Burke, Virginia.” I didn’t know what else to say.
In Second Timothy, Chapter 4, we are told that Christ, “at his appearing and his kingdom,” shall judge “the quick [the living] and the dead.” Having seen the beaches and battlegrounds of Normandy, I can’t help but wonder how the soldiers who gave their lives during the Second World War—that freedom might be given yet another chance—would want to be measured and remembered? Earlier this week, while watching “The War,” an outstanding documentary about World War II produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, I found the answer in this two-minute tribute to some of the members of The Greatest Generation.
Think Not Only Upon Their Passing
Remember the Glory Of Their Spirit