Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Longest Day

"The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive...the fate of Germany depends on the outcome...for the Allies as well as Germany, it will be the longest day."
(Erwin Rommel, Germany military commander)

Image courtesy

The Longest Day, by Cornelius Ryan, has sold tens of millions of copies and has been translated into 18 different languages since its publication in 1959.  Rather than a dry recounting of D-Day, full of facts, dates and battles, it brings to life the real-life characters who fought on the beaches that fateful day, June 6, 1944.  Mr. Ryan drew on 3000 interviews to write his story which has three chapters:  The Wait, The Night and The Day.

Photo courtesy

The story begins with Dwight D. Eisenhower's fateful decision:  what date will D-Day be?  General Eisenhower has many factors in weighing his decision:  the weather, the moon, the English channel tides.   He knows that the moon must be late rising so that the troops can land on the beaches in darkness.  He also knows that the tides must not be too strong but the water level needs to be high enough to navigate the mine-ridden Normandy coast.  This limits him to six days in the month.  Early June has inclement weather, particularly June 5 which is his original choice for D-Day.  His next option is June 6; if this date fails to work, he must postpone it until the next full moon, a month away, which is highly undesirable.  Haven't the Nazi-occupied Europeans waited long enough?

General Eisenhower gives the paratroopers the order "Full victory, nothing else!" on June 5, 1944 courtesy 

In the meantime, German commanders, who have been excepting an invasion for weeks now, have decided that June 6 will not be D-Day due to the weather and order the troops to stand down.  Their top guy, Erwin Rommel, has taken a few days off to celebrate his wife's birthday.  Hitler is convinced that the Allies will land at Pas de Calais, to the North of Normandy.  The Germans are caught napping.

An almost glorious shot of the Normandy beach on June 6, 1944 courtesy

Cornelius Ryan brings us on to the ships as they cross the English Channel.  With the long wait, and the soldiers' nerves on edge, every barf bag is filled, every empty helmet is put to use and every spot at the ship's rail is taken.  Finally, when the soldiers disembark, they make their way to shore under the light of the rising moon.  All is well until the Germans wake up; then they are met by a barrage of bullets.  While the Canadians land at Juno Beach, the Americans are particularly hard hit at Omaha Beach.  Gold and Sword Beaches are designated for the British troops.


Map of D-Day Normandy invasion courtesy

While the land assault is taking place, another landing is taking place from the air.  Twenty-four thousand paratroopers are set to jump out of planes over France.  Here is their dilemma:  if they jump too soon, they land in the English Channel; if they travel of course, they land in marshes or rivers.  In the end, many do land in marshes and some drown in as little as two feet of water, disoriented, their gear pulling them down.  Others get caught in trees and struggle to get out.  One paratrooper, hanging from a tree and surrounded by bullets, pretends he is dead for at least two hours before he is able to manoeuvre out of his parachute.

Photo of D-Day paratroopers landing courtesy

In the sleepy town of La Roche-Guyon, occupying Germans outnumber its 543 inhabitants 3 to 1.  An elderly schoolmarm wakes up early.  As she makes her way to the outhouse, she sees the sky erupt in colour in the distance.  At first she thinks her eyes are playing tricks on her.  So do the Germans.  Everyone thinks the raid is temporary.  Given how bad the weather was the day before, the Allies wouldn't plan an attack so soon?  Besides, paratroopers were spotted further down the coast (they turn out to be dummies).  As the villagers wake up, they realize that this raid is much more.

American troops prepare to eliminate a German sniper holed up in Vierville-sur-Mer, June 10, 1944 courtesy 

As the sun rises, Operation Overlord is now in full swing.  The Germans have arrived to meet the Allies.  While the Allies suffer heavy casualties, they are bound and determined to fulfill their mission to liberate Europe.

Allies advance after the Battle of the Hedgerows, Normandy, courtesy

While D-Day only lasts 24 hours, Operation Overlord continues.  The Allies fight their way through town after town, over bridge after bridge (although many of the bridges are bombed) and across river after river.  Operation Overlord is declared complete only when the General Eisenhower and the Allies cross over the River Seine on August 19, 1944.  The Allies liberate the city of Paris six days later.

Allies liberate Paris in August of 1944, marching in front of the Arc de Triomphe courtesy

What happened to Erwin Rommel who was celebrating his wife's birthday on D-Day?  The well-respected war general, who apparently was known for his humane treatment of war prisoners, and who ignored Hitler's orders to murder Jews, was connected with the plot to assassinate Hitler in July of 1944.  Hitler struck a deal with him, saying that if he commited suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule, he would spare his wife and children.  Rommel agreed and the German military officially declared his death the result of old war wounds.

Photo of Erwin Rommel courtesy

Note:  I dedicate this post to all of the Allied soldiers who sacrificed their lives on D-Day and in the subsequent months to liberate Europe and to secure our freedom today.

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