Sunday, June 3, 11 a.m.. American Legion Post 12, County Street, Norwalk, another monthly ceremony commemorating a departed veteran was convened. His Honor, Harry Rilling, a Navy vet, was asked, as usual, to offer some remarks for the occasion. His short talk was heavily accented towards Operation: OVERLORD; or, D-Day, June 6, 1944. The gist of his oration was that Americans should never forget the sacrifices made by veterans on their behalf. But do we as citizens really understand the strategic significance of the sacrifices made by Americans, together with their Allies, at Normandy?
By 1944, it was apparent that the Fascist Powers were going to lose the war. Time was a factor for which the Allies had in abundance and Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire did not. In the Pacific, the United States Navy was sweeping the Imperial Japanese Navy from the globe’s largest ocean. Marines and GIs, together with their Australian and New Zealand compatriots, were successfully conducting the island-hopping campaign in the Central Pacific, as well sweeping up the Solomon Island chain and retaking New Guinea. Allied troops, together with their Chinese allies were pushing back the Japanese on the Asian mainland.
In the European Theater of Operations, British and American navies had won the battle of the Atlantic, preserving the Allied lifeline from the Arsenal of Democracy. North Africa and Sicily had already been taken and Allied armies were conducting a tough campaign up the Italian boot. However, it was on the Eastern Front, where the land war would be decided. Two huge armies were waging a life or death struggle which would determine the land campaign for the entire Second World War. It would be Stalin’s Red Army which would win the decisive contest . . . and do so largely on its own. Lend-Lease would be some ten percent of the Soviet effort. Stalin’s program of forced industrialization, beginning in 1927, had made the Soviet Union the globe’s second leading industrial power. This is seen in 1942. Germany produced 5,997 tanks and assault guns. Soviet assembly lines in the Urals poured out 24,668 tanks and assault guns, without American or British help. The Soviet tank-producing combine at Chelyabinsk was the world’s largest, producing some 115,000 to 121,000 tanks during the course of the war. Indeed, Soviet industrial production is one of the best kept secrets for Allied victory. It enabled the globe’s most prolific producer, the United States, to cater to almost every other front with overwhelming numbers of weapons and equipment. Plus the United States and the Soviet Union had, in abundance, that one resource a nation needs to be able to wage mass industrialized war on such a massive scale . . . oil.
In addition, the decisive land battles were fought by the Soviet Army: Minsk, Smolensk, Kiev, Vyazma and Bryansk, Moscow, Sebastopol, Stalingrad, Kursk (the greatest Air-Land battle in the history of war, where at one point the Germans were losing some 10,000 dead a day); the 872 day siege of Leningrad. . . Indeed, it is here, on the Eastern Front, in the face of the Soviet steamroller, that the essence of Normandy is to be appreciated.
Tehran Conference, November 1943, FDR, Churchill and Stalin meet. Stalin is brimming with confidence, knowing his army is doing 90 percent of the fighting and 90 percent of the dying in the most important land front of the war. It was here that FDR and Churchill informed Stalin that in May 1944, the Western Allies would land in France (later changed to June 6, 1944). Stalin promised that two weeks afterwards, he would unleash his summer offensive on the Eastern Front to take the pressure off the Western Front.
June 6, 1944, 156,000 American, British, Canadian, Free French and others dropped by parachute, crash-landed by glider or hit the beaches on a front some 50 to 60 miles wide, backed by some 5,000 ships and overwhelming air power. The invasion of northwest Europe was on. Meanwhile Stalin kept his word. On June 22, 1944, Operation: BAGRATION was unleashed. The Soviet attack in Belorussia was directed against German Army Group Center, on a front some 450 miles across, later broadened to 650 miles. 2,500,000 Soviet troops, backed by 4,070 tanks, more than 6,300 combat aircraft and 28,000 pieces of artillery waiting to digest 3,000,000 tons of artillery ammunition were thrown against German troops. In just eight weeks, of 800,000 German troops, 670,000 were casualties, of which at least 300,000 were killed.
Hitler’s armies were being squeezed between the jaws of the Allied vice. And by May 7, 1945, the Soviet Army had taken the capital of the Reich, at the cost of 100,000 dead and 200,000 wounded . . . which is why Roosevelt and Churchill did not want American and British troops fighting in the ruins of the German capital. However, is one to trust Stalin that he would stop his armies at Berlin and Prague? Keep in mind, it is important to understand that when the division of Germany and Eastern and Central Europe was agreed to, the armies were still in the field. What guarantee was there that Soviet armies would not push on further west?
That guarantee was supplied by Allied troops; and, in particular, those who landed in France. Witness Averell Harriman following the German surrender. In his capacity as the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, he congratulated Stalin, commemorating the gallant Soviet people for their steadfastness in the face of Nazi depredations; and the Soviet Army for its utter defeat of the German Army; and, Stalin for his leadership. One would think Stalin would have reciprocated, congratulating President Roosevelt, the American people and so forth . . . NO! He gazed back at Harriman with a face as bland as the floor, “Czar Alexander got to Paris.” Referencing, of course, Czar Alexander I following the defeat of Napoleon. Boots on the ground insured that Western Europe remained in the Allied camp following the war. Picture for a moment the postwar world if T-34 tanks had made it to the Channel. Keep in mind, Italy had a sizable Communist Party. France had a sizable Communist Party. Spain, despite Franco, had a Communist Party.
American troops, together with their comrades-in-arms, who risked life and limb on the shores of France did much more than serve Hitler his eviction notice from Western Europe. They won the first big battle of the Cold War.