The truth about D-Day, 80 years on


The truth about D-Day, 80 years on

Troops were fighting for democracy at home as well as abroad.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Long-reads World

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Shortly after midnight on 6 June 1944, Operation Neptune, otherwise known as D-Day, began.

Thousands upon thousands of planes and ships bombed and shelled Nazi defences in Normandy. The Allies then sent in 23,000 men in three airborne divisions and mounted, with 4,000 landing craft, what remains the world’s largest ever amphibious assault: five divisions, attacking five separate beaches.

Meanwhile, poorly armed but with a third of a million adherents, the French Resistance struck the railways. It cut lines in 950 places. After Nazi repairs, it cut most of them again (1). As Anthony Beevor notes in his book, D-Day, these brave moves led to the Nazis executing several hundred members of the Resistance (2). Unperturbed, the Resistance ambushed the Nazis, disrupted their telecommunications and gave the Allies vital intelligence about them (3). Elsewhere, partisans in Italy, at the cost of 50,000 lives, pinned down eight Nazi divisions (4).

Then came Russia. Three days after D-Day, north of Leningrad, 1,600 Soviet bombers initiated a two-month ground offensive that helped drive Finland from the war. By 23 June, Moscow piled on further pressure with another two-month offensive in Belorussia, destroying 28 of 34 Nazi divisions there.

D-Day, then, needs to be seen from a global perspective. It was not just a victory for the Anglo-Americans, a relief to Russia, or a secret kept from Charles de Gaulle, France’s leader in exile, until just two days before it was launched (5). It also began the end of the Nazi yoke in Europe. Allied troops were greeted as liberators, and emboldened radicals everywhere.

Yet for Europe and America, D-Day ushered in not the genuine liberation of full democracy, but a new kind of top-down world. On top of further belt-tightening and plenty of repressive measures, it created a stifling unanimity around the idea that the war had been not just a military triumph, but also an unimpeachable political win for the left.

Unsung heroes

As Richard Overy points out in Why the Allies Won, the Allies had population numbers and raw-materials tonnages on their side. By 1943, they had built 151,000 aircraft against the Axis powers’ 43,000. However, for Overy, it was the speed and scale of American rearmament that really decided things. That, and the Soviets’ regrouping, rearmament and implacable land campaigns.

From 1942 onwards, Anglo-American forces prevailed on sea and in the air. Like Russia, they fielded improved aircraft, tanks, mobilisation technologies and training, eventually beginning to match the Nazis’ level of combat effectiveness.

In the days and weeks after D-Day, an Allied victory was by no means guaranteed. After three months, both sides had suffered similarly huge losses. The Wehrmacht lost nearly 250,000 men outright and another 200,000 to captivity, while the British, Canadians and Poles lost 83,000. The Americans lost more than 125,000. Allied airmen lost another 17,000 (6).

Nazi forces were encumbered by 67,000 horses. Relentless Allied bombing of Germany meant that it could only muster 170 planes, of which just two got to the Normandy beaches in daylight. The Nazis lacked mines, reinforcements, equipment, half-tracks, spares (especially tyres) and fuel. Despite all this, the German commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, still started with 34 divisions against the Allies’ five, and continued to outnumber Allied divisions until well into June. His 120,000 garrison troops were poor and weary from previous campaigns, yet they were more experienced than the invaders, and ready to fight without air support or artillery.

The numbers and hardware unveiled by the Anglo-Americans were visibly astounding. Yet the Soviet masses and the Resistance were the unsung heroes of D-Day’s success.

It’s rarely mentioned now, but Hitler’s primary target during the Second World War was always Moscow. That’s why, in 1944, the Axis had 180 full divisions and 60 weaker ones on the Eastern Front, compared with just 58 for the whole of France and the Low Countries (7). Moreover, Soviet successes from January to May – from the lifting of the siege of Leningrad to the conquest of Crimea – built up political pressure on Washington and London to open a second front against the Nazis. So, too, did heavy fighting by the French Maquis (the rural, guerilla branch of the Resistance) in March.

Maquis fighters on the march over a mountain trail, circa 1944.
Maquis fighters on the march over a mountain trail, circa 1944.

Meanwhile, American and British troops felt they were fighting not simply against Nazism abroad, but also for a better deal back home. On D-Day’s eve, British troops asked labour minister and top trade-union boss Ernest Bevin: ‘Ernie, when we have done this job for you, are we going back to the dole?’ Bevin’s reply, and that of Winston Churchill, was ‘No’ (8). The troops believed them.

Unemployment in Britain was reduced to just two per cent and less after the war. But it was achieved under a Labour government that initiated strike-breaking, enforced austerity and implemented food rationing that continued until 1954. For Overy, the Allies’ war did make democracy more secure in the West. But, as he observes, democracy was restricted in Britain and America during the war, and, after 1945, had ‘at best a chequered career’ elsewhere (9).

Internal battles

No doubt many in Whitehall and Washington wanted to rid Europe of Nazi oppression. Others, however, mixed ideals with cynical self-interest. This can be glimpsed in the Anglo-American disputes over the Normandy landings.

Britain’s elite was more cautious than America’s. Helped by a strong navy, but hindered by a weak economy, limited manpower and earlier wartime reversals, London favoured careful seaborne incursions against the Nazis in southern Europe, rather than a concentrated assault on heavily defended France (10).

America’s rulers were different. They were fresher to the struggle, blessed by a strong economy and possessed of a greater tradition of land war. Instead of attrition, they favoured a knockout punch. Since July 1941, US planners had banked on vast forces on land and in the air. After 1943, they pursued a naval focus and concentrated the war effort on the Atlantic, and on northern France, which they saw as the shortest route to Berlin (11).

There were further tensions dividing Britain and America. The British were concerned about protecting the gateways to the Raj in India, oilfields in the Middle East and the empire in Africa. By contrast, Washington aimed to dominate not just Germany, but all of continental Europe and Britain. It wanted Britain to decolonise India, exit Palestine and end its influence in Saudi Arabia and Australasia. America succeeded in all these objectives (12). As for Africa, US president Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) hinted that British power should end, denouncing British conduct in the Gambia, for instance, as ‘just plain exploitation’ (13).

So it was in August 1943, at the Quebec Conference, that America managed to push a reluctant Britain formally to agree to Operation Overlord – the codename for the plan to liberate Western Europe from the Nazis that began with D-Day. At the conference, Britain also submitted to the secret Quebec Agreement on joint atomic weapons research – a deal that also stipulated no British use of the bomb without America’s consent (14).

That was not all. America outwitted Britain at the November 1943 ‘Big Three’ conference in Soviet-occupied Tehran. Though Britain’s leaders resisted Overlord, FDR successfully connived with Stalin to force Churchill to overturn their advice.

There was one more key aspect of American power: Lend Lease. Through Lend Lease, America lent a bankrupt Britain and other allies billions of dollars with which to buy US goods and weapons. It emerged as a device to stop Britain discriminating against American imports. Indeed, Lend Lease also compelled Britain to sign up to the ‘largely American’ drafts of provisions founding the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (15). These provisions accompanied America’s Bretton Woods agreements, on 22 July 1944, for managing the world’s money.

All these moves consolidated America’s power over Britain. Washington’s decision for and control over the invasion of Normandy reflected the fact that it had usurped London’s role in the world long before the landings.

Whatever Washington had in common with London in the fight against the Nazis, Normandy helped it cut Britain down to size. Well ahead of Normandy, Britain had clearly become the subordinate partner in the relationship.

Nazi chaos

In his book, Overlord, Max Hastings argues that Adolf Hitler’s manic suspicion of his generals, and his attempt to play divide and rule among them, made for cumbersome Nazi command structures in occupied France (16). Hitler refused to allow Rommel to move his fearsome Panzer tank divisions to the coast. As Beevor notes, Hitler’s control freakery drove senior officers to distraction.

His interference and delusional fanaticism were indeed damaging. But by this point, the Nazis were also unable to obtain the weapons they needed. As military historian Azar Gat and others acknowledge, that was partly due to the ‘structural problems of competing authorities inherent in Germany’s totalitarian regime’ (17).

In contrast to the Nazi chaos, the Allies’ political systems could count on what US General Maxwell Taylor later described as ‘that wonderful flexibility and self-confidence imparted by democratic society’. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, called it ‘the fury of an aroused democracy’ (18). Moreover, neither FDR nor Eisenhower consciously organised rivalries among their generals the way Hitler did.

Nazism, then, was not just beaten by America’s GDP. It was also undone by its own totalitarianism. Conversely, democracy, though severely constrained by the war, benefitted the Allies.

The Allies were far from perfectly virtuous. Churchill left three million Indians to starve. America’s rulers were wholly racist in their conduct with black troops and their internment of Japanese-Americans. On 25 July, American planes used napalm and fragmentation bombs in France (19). When US president Harry S Truman (who succeeded FDR in 1945) told UK Labour prime minister Clement Attlee that the US Air Force was ready to drop an atomic bomb on Japan, Attlee ‘had no difficulty with Truman’s decision’ (20).

For all this, though, the Allies’ more democratic political systems proved to be more militarily efficient than fascism. At Normandy, that counted for a lot.

Allied strengths

Air power was central to the Allies’ success. By 1944, the US was manufacturing 8,000 planes a month. In March, P51 Mustang and P47 Thunderbolt fighters neutralised 60 per cent of their Nazi equivalents. On 5 April, they destroyed 53 planes (21). Importantly, they also helped Allied bombers eliminate Germany’s synthetic-oil facilities, which accounted for most of its fuel supplies. In May, Allied aircraft smashed 75 bridges and tunnels connecting Normandy with the east, effectively ruling out an immediate Nazi counter-attack.

A third of a million Allied civilians performed miracles to supply the front. Up to mid-June 1944, the Allies moved to Normandy 19 divisions, half-a-million men, 77,000 vehicles and 22,000 tons of supplies each day.

In Allied factories, conditions were often tough. In March 1944, when hundreds of members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) at a Pratt and Whitney engine plant in Detroit rioted after two workers were dismissed for smoking, UAW leaders denounced and betrayed them (22). This was a pattern repeated in Britain. It foreshadowed postwar labour relations in both countries.

The Allies still innovated, however. Despite the Nazis’ belated development of V1 unmanned aircraft, V2 rockets, jets, ground-to-air missiles and stealthy long-range submarines, Germany’s much-reduced cadre of strictly non-Jewish scientists stood in sharp and ineffective contrast to Allied research and development. The democracies achieved many breakthroughs in engineering and product design. Perhaps the most important of the Allies’ landing craft, the 12-knot, 328-feet LST, could carry up to 20 Sherman tanks (23).

A '2nd Invasion Extra' edition of the Worcester Telegram newspaper, published in Worcester, Massachusetts, reporting the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944.
A '2nd Invasion Extra' edition of the Worcester Telegram newspaper, published in Worcester, Massachusetts, reporting the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

The Allies also pulled off astonishing feats of deception, secrecy and signals intelligence. They dropped 300 fake parachutists, which were in fact exploding scarecrows, on Normandy. More importantly, before D-Day, fake camps, ships, planes and radio signals – along with inflatable tanks and even fake tank, truck and gunfire noises – spoofed German military intelligence. Germany’s intelligence organisation, the Abwehr, came to believe that massive armies lay in Britain’s south-east, bound for the narrow waters between Dover and Calais. Meanwhile, the Allies concealed the assembly of real forces in Britain’s south-west. Their secrecy was formidable. The Nazis had no idea where the enemy would come from.

Rommel did suspect some kind of Allied move on Normandy. As a consequence, he insisted on an uncharacteristic diffusion of German forces, not their concentration. That proved deadly.

At Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, Britain’s success in breaking the codes of German Enigma machines was to be critical. Codebreaking allowed the Allies to know both the Nazis’ order of battle and ‘exactly how the Abwehr was responding to some planted falsehood’ (24).

America and Britain were not as democratic then as is now remembered. Yet in terms of military cohesion, supply, technology, trickery and, above all, political motivation, the democracies won out over Nazi self-belief. Berlin spread its own forces thinly, imagining that the Allies would also put all their forces at one spot – the Pas de Calais. This was a blunder of epic proportions.

A fight for democracy

My uncle, Tony Richardson, was at Gold Beach on D-Day. At 21, he commanded a troop of Essex artillerymen. Seeing other, often grossly overburdened soldiers floundering in the sea, he told the skipper of his landing craft: ‘Run this thing up the beach. I’m going ashore dry.’ That way, he and his men could run and fight freely in dry clothes. Whatever else is said about D-Day, it’s hard not to wonder at the presence of mind and courage of so many like Richardson.

Whatever else is said, the scale of organisation shown by Britain before and after D-Day, and its coordination with Resistance and Soviet forces abroad, was remarkable.

From D-Day through to August, the Allied campaign destroyed Hitler’s forces on the Western Front and made them flee for the first time in their career. It sealed the Führer’s fate.

From Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day in 1959 to Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998, books, films, footage and stills about Normandy one-sidedly highlight the sacrifices made by the bloody infantry. Always they go back to the view, from landing craft, of obstacles and carnage on exposed beaches, complete with dark skies above and dark seas below.

The infantry’s outstanding heroism in the sand has come to look like the very face of democracy on the march – gritty, magical, noble, all-conquering. As Angus Calder’s The People’s War has it, civilians in Britain cheered troop convoys on during D-Day, as if it were ‘a Dunkirk in reverse’ (25). Today, the civilian side of D-Day preparations is still remembered, but the British elite paints the courage shown on Normandy’s beaches as the emblem of the Good War.

This narrative often obscures the nuances. It’s little wonder, for example, that the West does not mark the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki like it does D-Day. For those twin atrocities undermine what D-Day has been made to represent – namely, the Allied powers as an untainted force for good.

Normandy was, Beevor contends, ‘the most multinational clash of the whole war’. The participation of women in the Allied war effort also still looks good. But looks can be deceiving. While Eisenhower said he could not have won the war without women, they joined blacks and Japanese-Americans in being strictly segregated from the mainstream forces of the US military. The image of the unalloyed perfection of American and British democracy, created in some people’s minds by Normandy, is wide of the mark.

That, however, cannot diminish the victory won 80 years ago – and its crucial importance to banishing Nazism from Europe. Eighty years on, D-Day reminds us that democracy always has to be fought for.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.

This is an edited version of an essay originally published in 2019 as D-Day: beyond the myth of the Good War.

Pictures by: Getty.

(1) ‘What good did resistance do?’, by MRD Foot, in Resistance in Europe: 1939-45, Stephen Hawes and Ralph White (eds), Pelican, 1976, p211

(2) D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor, Penguin, 2019, p46

(3) Partly because it lacked ammunition, the Resistance’s intelligence and sabotage helped Normandy more than its guerrilla actions on troops: Beevor, p45. Even Alan Milward, a sceptic about the Resistance’s impact on his home turf of economics, logs how on 14 July, Resistants captured Puy-les-Vignes, Limousin, the top French mine extracting precious wolfram, from which tungsten for Nazi armour and armour-piercing munitions was made. See ‘The economic and strategic effectiveness of resistance’, in Resistance in Europe: 1939-45, Stephen Hawes and Ralph White (eds), Pelican, 1976, pp193-194

(4) This was a creditable eight divisions out of a Nazi total of 26. The Second World War: An Illustrated History, by AJP Taylor, Purnell Book Services, 1975, p192

(5) Roosevelt and de Gaulle: Allies in Conflict, by Raoul Aglion, The Free Press, 1988, p166. When Eisenhower issued a printed and broadcast proclamation to France that deliberately omitted de Gaulle and the Free French, de Gaulle unilaterally withdrew the 200 French liaison officers who were to embark with and help the Normandy landings. pp168, 169. Churchill became so angry with De Gaulle that he wanted him flown back to his base in Algiers – ‘in chains if necessary’. D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor, Penguin, 2019, p21

(6) D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, by Stephen E Ambrose, Simon & Schuster UK, 2016, p25; D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor, Penguin, p522

(7) The Second World War: An Illustrated History, by AJP Taylor, Purnell Book Services, 1975, p188; Why the Allies Won, by Richard Overy, WW Norton, 1996, p154

(8) Quoted in The Road to 1945, by Paul Addison, Cape, 1975, p242

(9) Why the Allies Won, by Richard Overy, WW Norton, 1996, p2

(10) Ike’s amphibious and successful invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Salerno failed to assuage British nerves about amphibian warfare. In these three episodes, defender fortifications were missing – in a way they were not at Dieppe and Normandy. D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, by Stephen E Ambrose, Simon & Schuster UK, 2016, p39

(11) ‘Winston Churchill and the “Second Front”: a reappraisal’, by Tuvia Ben-Moshe, The Journal of Modern History, Vol 62, No 3, September 1990, p510

(12) ‘The wartime Anglo-American alliance’, by David Reynolds, in WM Roger Louis and Hedley Bull (eds), The ‘Special Relationship’: Anglo-American Relations Since 1945, Clarendon Press, 1986, p29. The American historian John Lewis Gaddis records that the US decided that it would assume ‘global responsibilities’ in Asia in 1943, and in Continental Europe during the summer of 1944. The Long Peace: Enquiries into the History of the Cold War, by John Lewis Gaddis, OUP, 1989, p24

(13) At a press conference in February 1944, FDR described his reaction to Britain’s conduct in Africa after a stopover in Gambia on the way to the Casablanca conference the previous month. The British, he concluded, took better care of their livestock than they did the Gambians (the latter had a life expectancy of 26 years). Cited in The United States and the End of British Colonial Rule in Africa, 1941–1968, by James P Hubbard, McFarland, 2010, p6

(14) Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Britain’s First Nuclear Weapons Programme, by Graham Farmelo, Faber and Faber, 2014, p241

(15) ‘The wartime Anglo-American alliance’, by David Reynolds, in WM Roger Louis and Hedley Bull (eds), The ‘Special Relationship’: Anglo-American Relations Since 1945, Clarendon Press, 1986, p32

(16) Overlord: D-Day and the battle for Normandy (1984), by Max Hastings, Pan, 2015, pp63-64; Beevor, p223

(17) War in Human Civilisation, by Azar Gat, OUP, 2006, p563. Along with competing authorities, the Nazi war machine suffered from a very bureaucratic HQ. When, told of enemy activity in Normandy, the commander of the top SS division Hitler Jugend asked his superiors’ permission to move forward, his frustrated tank crews ‘spent many hours waiting in their vehicles until Führer headquarters finally agreed to release them for action’. Beevor, p55

(18) Quoted in D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, by Stephen E Ambrose, Simon & Schuster UK, 2016, pp53, 57

(19) Why the Allies Won, by Richard Overy, WW Norton, 1996, p208

(20) Reported in Cabinets and the Bomb, by Peter Hennessy, OUP/British Academy, 2007

(21) P51 Mustang, by Michael F Jerram, Haynes Publishing Group, 1984, p42

(22) Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II, by Nelson Lichtenstein, CUP, 1982, p191

(23) Invasion! D-Day & Operation Overlord in One Hundred Moments, by Scott Addington, Uniform, 2019, pp125-7

(24) Ultra Goes to War, by Ronald Lewin, Arrow edition, 1980, p306

(25) The People’s War: Britain 1939-45, by Angus Calder, Cape, 1969, p55

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