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D-Day: What It Meant
A soldier who landed in the second wave on Omaha Beach assesses the broadest implications of what he and his comrades achieved there
May/June 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 3
That D-Day could have been an Allied defeat with farreaching consequences was a decidedly human probability. The generalized American soldier who was left, at the start of this essay, caught in the shambles of death and destruction on Omaha Beach would have been justified in thinking that the battle there had been lost. This thought also plagued Gen. Omar Bradley, commanding the American ground forces. In his autobiography General Bradley wrote that from reports he received around midday of the carnage on Omaha, he had to believe that the assault there “had suffered an irreversible catastrophe.” He wrote that at the time he privately considered shifting further landings to the American Utah Beach on the right and the British beaches on the left. Later in the afternoon, with reports of the attack moving inland, he gave no more thought to evacuating Omaha.
The “what ifs” of a lost Omaha are all ominous: an attempt to evacuate under fire would have been more costly in landing craft and casualties than the initial assault. Shifting the troops and equipment of the entire Army corps destined for Omaha to other beaches that were already crowded would have raised confusion to the level of chaos. A German counterattack, which never came, would have accomplished the same havoc as an ordered withdrawal. The loss of Omaha would have left a gap of some twenty miles between Utah and the British beaches.
The German high command was slow in identifying the June 6 assault as the Allies’ main effort and in assembling the first-class panzer and infantry divisions that it had available to contain and repulse it. Even so, it is highly unlikely that the gap in the Allies’ line would not have been quickly discovered and exploited to flank the adjoining beachheads. As it was, with Omaha Beach won, the situation of the Allies remained serious. Attacks beyond the beachheads were brought to a slow and bloody crawl by stiff resistance in the difficult hedgerow terrain. The British objective of taking the important communications center of Caen on the first day was not accomplished until six weeks later. General Bradley observed in his autobiography that had Hitler launched the forces he had available within the first week of the invasion, “he might well have overwhelmed us.”
The “human probability” that D-Day could have ended as a Dunkirk, or as did the amphibious assault on Gallipoli in the First World War, is too real to be disregarded. Had it happened, Pandora, that well-known packager and purveyor of disasters, would have had a memorable day. The immediate military ill would have been the reduction of Germany’s three-front land war to two fronts. Then the major part of their sixty-one divisions, including eleven panzer, stationed in France and the Low Countries, could have been shifted with small risk to both the Eastern Front confronting the Soviet Union and Italy confronting the Western Allies.
The Eastern Front stretched at the time from the tip of Finland south to the tip of Greece, well away from Germany’s eastern border. In Italy the Allies had taken Rome but were faced with continuing the slow, costly attacks up the mountainous spine of the Apennines.
Even with the major reinforcements made available by repulse of the invasion, it is unlikely that the German Army could have repeated its great offensives of the early war. But that it could have stalemated both fronts is a probability well within the human range.
Churchill, before the invasion, called it “much the greatest thing we have ever attempted.” Defeat would have been crushing to Britain, in both military losses and morale. America would have made good its own losses but would have had to brace for a longer, more costly war, and largely alone. The effect on Germany, of course, would have been a revival of faith in Hitler. It would also have provided time to produce new weapons that would have had dramatic effect on the war right up to its final exclamation point: the atomic bomb. On D-Day this bomb was some fourteen months away from its first appointment in Hiroshima.
Time is more of the essence in war than in any other destructive endeavor. Given fourteen months, Hitler’s Germany would certainly have been into mass production of the jet plane, ballistic missiles capable of wreaking great damage on Britain, and ground-to-air missiles that could destroy bombers by tracking the heat from their engines.
These were not really “secret” weapons. Allied intelligence knew of them and sought to destroy their development and production sites by heavy bombings, none of which was entirely successful. In Britain and in America the jet engine was in development, but not up to the German stage of production. Shortly after D-Day the first rocket missiles, the V-I, were launched against England. Had their launching sites not been overrun by the invasion, the V-I and the much more advanced V-2 would have done incalculable damage to British industry and morale. Forereach in weapons systems has changed the course of battles and of wars.