Tuesday, June 06, 2006

6 JUNE 1944 - D-DAY.

On June 6, 1944, 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops landed on the shores of Normandy in an attempt to wrest control of Western Europe from the Nazis, who occupied it since early summer 1940. From west to east there were five landing sectors, designated Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword, of which the first two were assigned to American forces and the other three to British and Canadian forces, although small contingents from many countries also took part in the operation. Opposing them was the German Seventh Army, which provided the infantry backbone for the redoubtable beach fortifications known as the Atlantikwall. The Omaha sector, or Omaha Beach, as it is better known, by far proved to be the toughest theater of the day. Troops from the famous US 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) and the untested US 29th Infantry Division (Blue and Gray), as well as a couple of Ranger battalions, were tasked with establishing a bridgehead on Omaha, and as fate would have it, it was here that they were not only faced with very strong coastal defences but also with a fearsome adversary in the form of the German 352nd Infantry Division.

The men in those landing craft which made it ashore and had the misfortune to land opposite machinegun nests were wiped out. Those who landed between forts found themselves pinned down on the beach in the middle of minefields. Preparatory bomb runs meant to neutralize or at least soften up the defenses had curiously achieved nothing. "War is Hell", as Sherman put it, and hell it was certainly on that grim day in June. Little by little small teams, using Bangalore torpedoes to carve a way through the minefields, were able to advance towards the bunkers, which were then neutralized in heavy hand-to-hand fighting with ample use of flamethrowers and grenades. At the end of the day, Omaha Beach was American territory. But at what a cost! More than 3,000 casualties (some sources say 3,881), of which officially 1,000 were KIA. Omaha proved to be the toughest landing ground. Overall casualties on all five beaches were some 10,000, of which roughly 2,500 were killed. The losses were heavy... but the allies were ashore, and although the Germans would not acknowledge it and keep on fighting for eleven long months more, June 6, 1944, was the irreversible point of no return towards their destruction. Had they been able to throw the invaders back into the sea, they might have been able to stall the Russian summer offensive and consolidate a position in Continental Europe so unbelievably strong that the Allied will to break the Nazi power might have faltered. They might have accepted the status quo, and not have dared to risk the A-bomb on Germany itself for fear of reprisals against the occupied countries.

Instead... the landing succeeded.

Reading about the sacrifices makes me numb and pensive. I am not a war junkie and I am always very reluctant to use the word "glory" in an Omaha-like context. But for some reason I keep reading stories like the ones about Omaha beach. The least noble reason I can think of is that I feel a certain fascination for these times when a life meant nothing - I have always wondered how the knowledge that every minute can be your last affects the human being.

The noblest reason I can think of is that we have an obligation to not forget the sacrifices of men who gave life and limb so that others could be free. Shelving their stories and forgetting those who gave all means burying them a second time. Reading their stories brings once again back their forgotten names, which in a way, is a meager, but nevertheless substantial substitute for lives tragically cut short.

Remember those heroes.


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