Back before lefty ideas of war

The Longest Day was the first of a war that lasted for 45 years
By Kevin Myers
(Filed: 30/05/2004)

Sixty years ago, most of the landmass of the Eurasian continent and its
attendant islands was in thrall to totalitarian dictatorships. Freedom had
retreated to the Anglophone societies of Britain, its Empire and Commonwealth,
and its former colony the United States. In the history of the world, there has
never been such a titanic contest to the death between two sets of values: the
free, common-law societies of the English-speaking peoples against an entire
continent of various dictatorships with their hundreds of millions of
regimented slaves.

Yet only hindsight permits us to see the truth of that time. The concessions
made by Churchill and Roosevelt at Teheran in 1943 had effectively granted post-
war eastern Europe to Stalin, a despot as great as Hitler, and no one then
remotely suspected the dark night that would fall on those countries east of
what would soon be called the Iron Curtain. No, it was to Normandy and the days
ahead that Allied minds were turning 60 years ago.

The architect of the D-Day landings was General Bernard Law Montgomery, a
master of detail, and a man who engaged affection and fury in equal measure.
Socially he was inept, almost autistic. His conceit was atrocious, and grew
worse in old age, obscuring his great achievement in 1944. For he was the true
exponent of the set-piece battle, and D-Day was to be his finest triumph. It
was to be an encounter with his oldest adversary, Erwin Rommel, whom he had
frequently outgunned and outfought, but never before out-thought. But he did so
in the preparations for the Normandy landings.

Rommel assumed that the Allies would make their landings at high tide, to spare
the advancing infantry prolonged exposure to defensive fire. So his primary
beach defences were to be under water at high tide, and largely consisted of
mines on frames, to blow up the landing craft before they could reach the
shore. Montgomery’s plan was to avoid these defences by landing at low tide,
and to send armour forward to deal with the fortifications beyond, to be
followed by the infantry.

History allows us to contemplate this project with equanimity. There was none
in the minds of those who planned the assault. Churchill himself had been
responsible for two calamitous landings, at Gallipoli in 1915 and Narvik in
1940, that had ended in evacuation and defeat. Two major landings in Italy not
long before, against largely unprepared German defences, had been close-run
things. So the auguries were not good, and were made worse as D-Day approached
and the balmy days of May and early June gave way to tempests and high seas.
Amphibious operations were rendered impossible. The Supreme Allied Commander,
General Eisenhower, postponed the landings.

By this time, vast aerial efforts had gone into subduing the German defences,
at huge cost: 2,000 aircraft and 12,000 aircrew were lost within two months
over France alone. Now it seemed as if the invasion force of 6,483 vessels and
nearly 16,000 aircraft would have to be stood down for at least two weeks,
playing havoc with morale, organisation and timetables. However, meteorologists
spotted a break in the bad weather, and while Eisenhower ordered the invasion
to go ahead, Rommel – not having accurate forecasting of weather systems
arriving from the Atlantic – seized the chance to return home for his wife’s
50th birthday. It was the greatest mistake of his life. War favours the warrior
who makes fewest mistakes. A grievous Allied mistake was to focus too much on
the landings, and not plan properly for what would follow. This not merely
affected operations, almost fatally, but equally coloured much of popular
perception thereafter – that somehow or other, the D-Day landings made victory
inevitable, and fighting in France was quite different from that of the Great

Not so. Just as the planners for the Somme in 1916 gravely under-estimated the
defensive qualities of the German barbed-wire, the Allied planners in 1944
catastrophically failed to take into account the high Normandy hedgerows, the
bocage. This hugely limited visibility thereby nullifying Allied superiority in
materiel and in the air, and making fighting conditions almost totally
unrelated to the training the invaders had undergone in Britain.

D-Day did not provide a First Day on the Somme, as Churchill had dreaded:
instead of the 20,000 dead that he feared, British casualties – including
wounded and missing – on the day totalled 3,000. But for each day thereafter,
the fighting was every bit as intense and bloody as it had been in Picardy a
generation before. Allied losses in Normandy in the summer of 1944 were of
Great War proportions – 425,000 killed, wounded and missing, roughly double the
German losses.

Nor were casualties in any way confined to military personnel. At least 20,000
Norman civilians were killed and over 100,000 injured by Allied bombing.
Thousands died in the course of a single night raid by the RAF on Le Havre, and
thousands more in a comparable attack by the USAAF on St Lo during market day.
About 120,000 buildings in Normandy, including vast numbers of precious
medieval structures, were totally destroyed during the invasion, and many towns
and villages rendered uninhabitable for years. War caused a vast army of
refugees to flee across France, and when they returned, their homes were gone.

Moreover, rape by Allied soldiers was rather more common than is comfortable to
admit. Young men at war can be dangerous creatures, no matter how honourable
their cause. So Normandy did not savour liberation so much as pay an almost
unbearable price for it, one that left the region deeply traumatised for
decades to come. Military acts of liberation invariably involve dreadful moral
compromises, and can come at a terrible personal price for the liberated, as
events in Iraq in the past year have testified.

Equally, wherever it is at work, fanaticism finds strangely similar forms of
expression. Men of Kurt Meyer’s abominable 12th (Hitlerjugend) Division would
routinely tie Canadian and British prisoners of war to trees and cut their
throats. And as the battle progressed, Meyer’s SS men used to strap parcels of
explosives to themselves and blow themselves up beside British tanks.

Yet all this horror does not detract from the heroic achievements of the
soldiers, seamen and airmen of D-Day. The men who on June 6 forced their way
past the German defences on those now famous beaches, or who landed by glider
and parachute in the orchards and the pastures beyond, were to spend the summer
fighting there. In that deadly bocage, rifle companies suffered casualties
comparable to those on the Somme. Platoons that were built up over years were
within a few days destroyed, and replacements would arrive from other units,
would be rebadged, and sent into battle, often to die anonymously among
strangers. It is a melancholy tale of dogged bravery as unrelenting as anything
the Western Front could show.

Yet June 6 lives on, and properly, in the imagination of the world as a symbol
of freedom, when thousands of men closed with the Normandy coast, vomiting with
sea-sickness and terror. Opposite Omaha Beach, the special floating tanks
designed to reduce the German concrete fortifications were swamped by cross-
currents, and sank. What steel should have done would now have to be done with
flesh, and was, but at a cost of 5,000 casualties. In some Pennsylvania towns,
almost every family lost a relative or friend on the narrow sands of Omaha.

The Normandy landings were the first day in a Eurasian war that was to last 45
years, and would ultimately peel back totalitarianism from the Atlantic to the
Pacific. Initially the foe was Nazism; its kindred creed, Communism, soon
followed, to be confronted by economic might and military deterrence, until
victory was won in 1989. Both triumphs were achievable only by the colossal
sacrifices in men and riches of the US.

But the primary price in Normandy 60 years ago was of people. Sydney Jary, in
the book 18 Platoon, his account of his time in Normandy, relates how a private
in the Somerset Light Infantry was shot in the chest at Hill 112, south of
Caen, the bullet detonating an explosive phosphorus grenade in a pouch. Caught
on barbed wire, the soldier lay disembowelled for all to see, his writhing body
a smoking mass of burning phosphorus. Responding to his agonised screams to put
him out of his misery, his platoon commander shot him, as he thought, through
the heart.

” ‘Not there, sir,’ cried the young soldier, in a final frenzied plea. ‘Through
the head.’ The platoon commander obliged.” The price of freedom.