Operation Overlord, the landings on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, was the largest amphibious invasion in modern history, epic in every meaning of the word. Most Americans have been taught that this was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s reign of terror across Europe, that we were there to “personally shoot that paper-hanging son of a bitch” as General Patton so pithily promised in his speech before his Third Army.
But the key is the date D-Day took place: June 6th, 1944.
There is no doubt that almost every man and woman among the Allied nations would have heartily agreed with the general’s statement and would happily have bought tickets to watch the spectacle. By then, the decision among the Allies was “unconditional surrender” (which decision may well have prolonged the war). No cease-fire, no treaty, no letup in combat until the defeated surrendered without any promises of leniency or clemency by the victorious. We were going all-out for the blood of our enemies.
And hadn’t America and the United Kingdom moved heaven and earth to bring Nazi Germany to heel? There was the Battle of the Atlantic where we had to overcome Admiral Dönitz’ U-boat wolfpacks from 1942 through the end of 1943; Operation Torch where we invaded French North Africa in Nov. 1942 and our still-green troops were handily defeated by General Rommel’s Afrika Korps at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Feb. 1943; and the invasion of Italy in Sep. 1943 which culminated in the occupation of Rome on June 4th, 1944, a mere two days before the Normandy invasion. Who could possibly claim we hadn’t done all we could to defeat Hitler? This guy could:
So many Americans to this day don’t realize how the war on the Eastern Front was much greater by orders of magnitude than what our grandfathers faced on the Western Front. All by itself, the Eastern Front is considered the largest and deadliest military confrontation in human history, with nearly twice the total military death toll as in the entirety of World War I, which total does not include up to 24M civilian deaths. This was why as early as summer 1942, Stalin officially requested — begged, in diplomatic terms — both Churchill and FDR to open a second front by invading France. For a bit of perspective, here’s a graphic representation of the price Soviet Russia paid compared to our own (again, not counting the even greater number of civilian lives lost):
So why didn’t we invade earlier? Was it even possible to do so while the Battle of the Atlantic still raged? And if we had been able to carry out such an invasion, could we have done so without setting our green troops up to be massacred by the Nazis, many of whom were hardened veterans blooded on the steppes of the Eastern Front?
Yes, it does seem we could have, but chose not to do so. Why?
- Operation Torch — the invasion of French North Africa — was largely unnecessary. The Afrika Korps had been soundly defeated at the Second Battle of El Alamein by General Montgomery’s Desert Rats and no longer presented a real danger to Egypt, the crucial Suez Canal, and the Persian oil fields.
- The Battle of the Atlantic was not an obstacle to the invasion itself. One must bear in mind that during the Battle of the Atlantic, U-boats almost never attacked British or U.S. Navy vessels. Their targets were the merchantmen, the cargo vessels carrying not just military supplies, but also the food, fuel, and raw materiel needed so badly by the civilian population of the United Kingdom. The U-boat commanders refrained from attacking Navy vessels because to do so was to court death from the destroyers, cruisers, and — later — the aircraft carriers whose pilots increasingly specialized in sub-hunting. Instead of being used to invade French North Africa in late 1942, they could have been used in the North Atlantic to more safely shepherd the convoys and bring the U-boat threat to an end much more quickly.
- After losing the Battle of Britain in September 1940, Hitler had effectively ceded air superiority over the English Channel to the Royal Air Force and had sent most of Goering’s vaunted Luftwaffe to support the ongoing invasion of the Soviet Union.
- In his history of World War II, Churchill stated that one of the major obstacles to Operation Sea Lion — Hitler’s planned invasion of England itself — was that it had to occur before the end of summer, before the notorious weather of the English Channel became unpredictable and made any large-scale crossing impossible. The same dynamic would have applied in the opposite direction as well, so, combined with the ongoing Battle of the Atlantic, it would be understandable for the Allies to not be able to invade in 1942.
In other words, an invasion of the northern coast of France in the spring or summer of 1943 was entirely doable, especially had it been given the additional resources — men, materiel, supply, and naval support — which had instead been sent to conduct and support the invasions of French North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.
But what was the condition of the Wehrmacht at the beginning of 1943? Did FDR and Churchill have reason to believe an invasion of the northern coast of France was doomed to failure?
December 1941, the beginning of the long, slow death of the Wehrmacht
The first major defeat of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front was not at Stalingrad, but at the Battle of Moscow, which had ended almost exactly a year earlier. The Germans had pushed to the very outskirts of Moscow by late November 1941, but the Red Army’s counteroffensive, spearheaded by eighteen fresh divisions from the Soviet Far East, was launched on nearly the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7th, 1941. Those divisions — all long-accustomed to and trained to fight in the bitter Siberian cold — had been hurriedly transferred after Soviet spy Richard Sorge had informed the Kremlin that Japan was certainly not planning any invasion of Siberia, and by January 7th, 1942, those fresh and winter-hardened Soviet divisions had driven the Wehrmacht nearly 100 miles away from the Soviet capital.
America was soon informed of the Nazi defeat at the Battle of Moscow — the Soviets made sure of it by releasing a propaganda film named “Moscow Strikes Back” in New York City in February of 1942, less than two months after the end of the battle. In fact, the film was one of four winners at the 15th Academy Awards for Best Documentary. We now know that Hitler likely caused the defeat himself by delaying the initial advance on Moscow by two months, thus forcing the Wehrmacht to conduct an offensive to take the Russian capital just as the Russian winter was about to begin, and with precious little winter gear for the troops and equipment. His generals had to be thinking — but were too afraid for their lives to say out loud — “what the hell are you thinking, you blithering idiot?”
On a side note, in WWI, when Hitler was but a corporal yet to win his Iron Cross for courage under fire, the German Army was sent to war against France in August of 1914 without being supplied with proper winter clothing. They had been assured by Kaiser Wilhelm II (who assumed they would defeat France as easily as they had in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870) that “You’ll be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” It is truly ironic that Hitler, having lived with the results of that very blunder, would make the same mistake after having made the same assumption when he launched Operation Barbarossa.
In other words, by early 1942 both FDR and Churchill knew that history was likely beginning to rhyme once more, that the Wehrmacht were about to relive Napoleon’s greatest blunder. In hindsight, the fate of his Grand Armée was almost gentle compared to the one awaiting the Wehrmacht. But in early 1942, America was still recovering, getting its wits together following the attack on Pearl Harbor. There was no real hope that they could invade the northern coast of Nazi-occupied France before the English Channel would make such a crossing untenable in September.
Seen in this light, the Battle of Stalingrad, in every respect the most terrible battle of the war, was not the turning point of the war as it has been considered for generations. Instead, it was more of a horrific speed bump on the way down the steepening decline of the once-invincible Wehrmacht. That, and it was — it had to be — final confirmation to the West that the Red Army was going to defeat the Wehrmacht, that it was only a matter of time before General Georgy Zhukov would be knocking back shots of vodka in Berlin.
Still, why would Churchill and FDR — being the two men in whose hands lay the final decision — decide to delay an invasion of Nazi-occupied France, but instead send the troops to places where they did not present a clear and present danger to the Third Reich? Because the cruel calculus of America’s and the UK’s national interests presented a serendipitous opportunity for payback — not just against Nazi Germany, but against the Soviet Union.
The antipathy of the western democracies towards communism was implacable long before Russia’s October Revolution in 1917. American captains of industry were continually on the watch for the next Eugene Debs or Huey P. Long, for the next demagogue who would push for socialist reforms in a capitalist nation. Both America and England had been horrified at Lenin’s successful revolution — we even sent a few thousand troops to support Kerensky’s White Army against Lenin’s Red Army in 1919.
So when America and the United Kingdom saw Nazi Germany making war on Soviet Russia, they didn’t see “bad guy versus good guy”, but “bad guy versus bad guy”. In fact, the future president Harry S. Truman stated:
“If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.”
Of course we never helped Nazi Germany as Truman suggested…unless it was by not invading France to start that second front that Stalin wanted so badly.
That, and Churchill wanted — in modern terms — payback. Up until the very month Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet Union had been sending hundreds of thousands of tons of raw materials for the Nazi war effort, even after the Wehrmacht had crushed France and the Luftwaffe was warring for supremacy in the skies over London. Churchill had to know that at least some of those aircraft dropping bombs on London were there because of the raw materials the Soviets had supplied to Hitler.
The western Allies knew that Hitler was beaten, that he had no hope of stopping the advance of the Red Army. By the end of April 1944, the Red Army had beaten the Wehrmacht back almost completely outside the Soviet Union, all the way to the Polish frontier. The problem, the Allies saw, was no longer Hitler, but the Soviet Union. Once the Soviets took over Nazi Germany, what was to stop them from continuing their march westward through the Low Countries into France, to “save” Western Europe from Nazi occupiers that still remained? They realized that if they did not invade France, it too would soon be behind what Churchill in a 1946 speech termed the “Iron Curtain”.
This, then, is why America, the United Kingdom, and the British Commonwealth invaded the beaches of Normandy on June 6th, 1944: not to defeat Hitler, but to prevent the Soviet Union from taking over the rest of continental Europe.
Addendum: Several readers disagreed with my article’s contention, and I was able to respond effectively (IMHO) to all of them…except for one. John Griswold pointed out that by invading Italy, we were able to keep 70 divisions pinned down and unable to assist the 33 German divisions sent to repel the invasion at Normandy. I don’t have a good argument against that, so I must admit that it looks like I could very well be mistaken, and he deserves the credit (and my gratitude) for pointing out my error. Give him a follow — the man knows whereof he speaks.