By Rob Ficiur
June 6, 1944 – 70 years ago – over 150,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. Their goal was to take back Europe that Hitler had conquered over the past five years. Volumes have been written on the subject. But I want to mention some basic facts that can help us (me) appreciate the true heroes that gave their lives seven decades ago.
By 1942 Hitler’s Nazi’s had taken over all over Europe. Their surprise attack into the Soviet Union put them only kilometers from Moscow and Leningrad. Much of Northern Africa was in Nazi control. Only Britain appeared to be the only country that could stop a complete Nazi take over. History shows that Hitler’s early success became his down fall. With his troops spread too thin, he was vulnerable to attack on several fronts.
Two years later, June 1944, the tide of war had turned against the unstoppable Nazi’s. Prior to D-Day, Allied troops had taken back Northern Africa. The southern half of Italy had been taken by Allied troops. The Soviets were also pushing the Germans back. D-Day was the final push to recapture France and eventually all of Europe.
-Thirty-two years ago my landlord Nick Wilson told me about his experience as a young solider on D-Day. (Maybe that is why this day became memorable to me). Before dawn the soldiers were sent to the beach on small landing barges. The landing barges were greeted by Nazi gun fire of all sorts. Nick told me that every solider on the landing barges before him were shot before they reached the beach. Somehow he got on to the beach and to safety. Since then war movies don’t look so heroic to me because I see Nick and feel some of the pain he had in his eyes when he shared his story.
-Though Generals had been planning D-Day for over a year, the invasion did not work out as planned. Prior to the troops landing on shore, bombers were sent over to destroy the German bunkers and pill boxes. Hitler’s goal had been to construct a cement barrier from Norway to Spain. From these bunkers the Nazi’s would fight back any and all Allied invasion attempts. Cloud cover the night before D-Day disrupted the bombing. Instead of destroying Hitler’s bunkers at the top of the beaches, sites a mile or two inland were bombed. When the soldiers arrived, they Nazi’s were waiting for them.
-Once on the beach, Nick and the other soldiers encountered land mines, barbed wire and continued shooting from the Germans on top of the beach. Those veterans interviewed in the History Channel’s D-Day to Victory series (http://ddaytovictory.ca/) all said the heroes of D-Day were the thousands of men who died on that beach. “We are survivors,” one commented. Decades later the veterans showed signs of survivor guilt as they shared with the world the ugliness of war.
-Navy Battleships came into to support the struggling soldiers. Even as they nearly ran aground they shot their cannons at the German high positions. Somehow by the end of June 6, the allied troops had taken the 20 miles of beaches were now call Normandy.
-In the days to come Allied troops were greeted as heroes by the French. Their four years of Nazi rule had come to an end because of the bravery and sacrifice of these young men. D-Day to Victory has seven one hour episodes that chronicle the struggle to take Europe back from Hitler.
-Hal Baumgarten is one of the veterans featured on D-Day to Victory. During the D-Day invasion he was shot (and injured) five times. As June 6, 1944 came to an end, Hal’s injuries were too much for him to fight anymore. He was being carried back to England. He would not see action again.
Hal described how his day of battle changed his life. He said that his D-Day experience taught him that life is short. None of us know how long we have. As his life went on, he would tell his wife and children daily (usually about five times a day) how much he loved them.
Sports fans easily talk about their athletes going to war against another team. Remembering D-Day and the other sacrifices made by our peace keepers puts in perspective what is important and how lucky we are to live where and when we do.
Correction to the veterans on the documentary – You are more than survivors you are heroes.