Today (June 6th) marks the 77th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Occupied Europe by the Western Allies, who subsequently fought their way across France, Belgium and into the heart of Germany to bring the Second World War to an end less than a year later. It was the biggest naval assault the world had ever seen, backed up by the most complex planning and logistics, involving over 150,000 troops. Many people and organisations will mark the event, usually among the lines of Heather Cox, who has blogged:
“Operation Overlord was a success, launching the final assault in which western democracy, defended by ordinary men and women, would destroy European fascism.”
While raking nothing away from either the professionalism and innovation of the organisation or the bravery and accomplishments of the troops who stormed ashore, eight decades have allowed western commentators to mould history to suit current purposes. “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” is an adage that applies today as much as it ever did. This condensed attempt to set the record straight may not please people, especially those wearing rose-tinted spectacles but the intention is to do honour equally to those who deserve it.
The September 1939 outbreak of World War 2 caught Britain unprepared and still pretending it was a world power. Its military shortcomings were revealed when it could do nothing to prevent Poland from being crushed inside three weeks and, despite eight months of “Phony War” in which to prepare, getting unceremoniously bundled out of France at Dunkirk after barely six weeks. Though Britain salvaged some prestige that same year by ejecting the Italians from half of their Libyan colony, the involvement of the German military in 1941 not only rolled them back into Egypt but bundled them out of Greece and Crete too.
At that point, it seemed to most people, whether friend or foe, that Britain standing alone was doomed. It is to Churchill’s and the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ of the British people that they did not capitulate at that point. But Hitler’s unexpected assault on the Soviet Union and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing America into the war boosted Britain’s beleaguered position into one of alliance with the two greatest powers on the planet, both from manpower and equipment/resources perspectives.
Because they were in the winning side, not much has been made of Britain’s manpower shortages, inadequacy of equipment and diversion of military strength into other services. Britain mobilised around 4 million men in the services, compared to 7 million in Germany and 12 million each in USA and the Soviet Union. Compounding this was the need for a strong Royal Navy to defend a global empire that no longer paid for itself and a strategic choice to build a heavy bomber force that was the sole means of “taking the war to the enemy”. Nobody seriously questioned whether either could defeat Germany. Without allies, could not have prevailed.
To put the 1941-43 ground effort in perspective, Britain fought the Axis only in the Middle East. Starting with one British and one Indian division, this was gradually augmented by two Australian, another Indian and a New Zealand divisions before a British Infantry and Armoured divisions made up the victorious Eighth Army at El Alamein in late 1942. These were opposed and often defeated by the three divisions of the German Africa Corps, plus around eight uneven divisions of the Italian Tenth Army.
To put this in perspective, the Eastern Front in Russia absorbed 160 German divisions, 19 of which were Panzer (armoured), 8 motorised and five elite formations of the Waffen SS. They were opposed by 400 Russian divisions, who, in the first year of the war, caused the Germans a million casualties by fighting tenaciously over the endless Russian landscape. Despite initial setbacks, the Soviets outfought and out-produced the Wehrmacht, who had been considered unbeatable for the first two years of WW2.
In ferocious battles like Stalingrad and Kursk, the Soviets tore the heart out of Germany’s finest troops. By the time of Overlord, they would soon eject them from their vast conquests in the Soviet Union itself, be poised to clear the Balkans and close up to the Oder river, threatening Berlin itself when the Western Allies had yet to cross the Rhine. Militarily, the Soviet Union won the war, and would have done so without any D-Day.
But the most fallacious aspect of “Western democracy beat fascist oppression” is that the Soviets did all this under a repressive regime that made fascism look cuddly by comparison. Stalin ran a dictatorship more repressive than Hitler’s. His security sidekick, Beria, was coldly efficient, compared to a bumbling, bespectacled Himmler. Gulags in Siberia could match Dachau or Buchenwald for sheer brutality. Frightening though the Gestapo were to German civilians, the NKVD also had units equipped with machine guns stationed behind army units in the field—and would use them against any who dared to retreat.
What the Germans called the Eastern Font was on a scale and pervaded with a brutality unknown and scarcely understood in the West. This does not imply that the fighting in and following Overlord was not fierce, nor deserving of grateful acknowledgement. But the German 7th and 15th Armies that opposed Bradley and Montgomery were a mixed bunch. Third-rate Static divisions full of press-ganged POWs and second-rate, horse-drawn Infantry divisions were stiffened with a handful of tough divisions—3rd & 5th Parachute; 2nd, 9th & 12th SS Panzer. But the latter were blanketed by overwhelming Allied air power and never able to achieve much more than dogged defence.
And, because of manpower shortages mentioned above, the British element of this, though important, became a lesser proportion of forces deployed. In early 1945, when the last major barrier of the Rhine was forced the Allies deployed four American armies (1sr, 3rd, 7th and 9th), the 1st French, 1st Canadian and only the 2nd British Army. To be fair, the British also had two other armies in the field: the 8th in Italy and the 14th in Burma. But, tough though both slogs were, neither made strategic contributions to ending the war and both included considerable non-British formations.
Veterans deserve all the accolades and respect we can give them. Whether their contribution was major and/or decisive or not, they risked their lives and did their duty in nightmare circumstances of which we have little concept. But let us not adopt the chest-beating and jingoistic approach favoured by the Daly Mail or the Conservative Party to boast how “we won the war” and “made the world safe for democracy” because our role, however doggedly and nobly fought, was secondary and we embraced some totalitarian allies, whose indifference to democracy locked half of Europe behind an iron curtain for 45 long years.