There’s Always More To The Story

Being a history nerd has its challenges. One of those challenges is the complete inability to accept just the “common view” when it comes to events about which you know a thing or two.  In life, as in (good) fiction, there is always more to the story.

Which brings me to today’s post…

Now, most folks (likely) realize that last Wednesday was the 74th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings. Honestly, that is one of those rare events in history that is burned into all of our memories. Most of us share the same iconic images of the soldiers wading ashore, most of us have seen the same movies, heard the same programs. Most of us have the same “common view.”

But to a history nerd — especially a naval history nerd, like me — there is just so much more to that day. Stories you don’t often hear, aspects of the invasion not “interesting enough” to make it into the movies, contingencies that are seldom remembered…

Operation Overlord was, at that particular moment in history, the single biggest logistical operation in the history of the world. In fact, even to this day, it has been eclipsed only one other time — by the invasion of Okinawa in 1945.

The images of D-Day that I find most intriguing, and most telling, are not those iconic pictures and movies of the soldiers wading ashore, but rather those from the days that followed. On June 6th, 160,000 men landed in Normandy. Each day thereafter, additional forces were brought ashore to join the fighting. And every single man had to supplied over those same beaches that they had so recently assaulted. In fact, it wasn’t until June 30th, when the Allied forces ashore had grown to almost a million men, that the port of Cherbourg was captured and the first deepwater ships were able to start coming in…

It takes a lot of bullets and beans (and boots…and band-aids…and benzene…and on and on) to supply a million men engaged in sustained combat. There is a famous Napoleonic quote that “amateurs discuss tactics, professionals discuss logistics.” Well, below are a few pictures showing what very few amateurs bother to think about:

The other thing to keep in mind is that D-Day was not the “unstoppable might” of the Allies rolling over an exhausted, quiescent German army. There was every chance the invasion would fail, and the men responsible for planning and carrying out the landing knew that fact very well. I think most folks are probably familiar with the letter Eisenhower released when the invasion kicked off. You know the one I’m talking about — it starts, “You are about the embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months…”

Well, that’s not the only letter he wrote about the landings. He also wrote one in case of failure…and it is as telling (and as unknown) as those pictures above:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Yes, failure was a very real possibility…as the man at the heart of that invasion knew so very well.

Look, I’m not going to do an actual history of D-Day in this post. There are amazing ones already out there, ones I turn to when I want the full story. For just a short list: go read Shaara’s historical fiction for the landings themselves, or try Samuel Morrison’s naval history for the USN role and activities.  Max Hastings and Stephen Ambrose both have outstanding books on the subject.  Hell, just go watch The Longest Day, or try Tom Selleck’s (surprisingly very good) biopic about Eisenhower.  Go read Churchill’s memoirs, or Eisenhower’s, or Montgomery’s.  Personally, on the memoirs front, I’m a huge fan of Omar Bradley’s autobiography, as it gives some amazing “behind the scenes” insights.  Or, in the end, you can turn to the best military historian of the last hundred years, and read John Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy.

Me, personally? I’ve started re-watching (yet again) Band of Brothers

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