This week marks one of the great turning points in modern history, the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France -- D-Day as it is famously known.
There are few alive today who lived through the carnage of the beach landings. Morley Piper, an Essex resident, survived the murderous German defenses at Omaha Beach, and throughout this week The Eagle-Tribune will tell his story through our news pages. Like many other veterans of D-Day, he is spending this week in France, attending ceremonies and visiting sites where 70 years ago he fought to liberate Normandy.
D-Day marks a major turning point in World War II. By the summer of 1944, France had endured four brutal years of Nazi occupation. The Allied invasion would liberate France, unravel the German defenses and lead to Germany’s surrender 11 months later.
On the morning of June 6, Piper and thousands of other Allied troops were sent ashore at five beaches along the Normandy coast. They faced a strong defensive barrier known as the Atlantic Wall, a complex web of concrete gun positions, minefields, barbed wire, and machine gun pits, backed up by an extensive network of artillery. The Atlantic Wall was designed to provide such a devastating amount of firepower the attackers would be hurled back into the sea.
At Omaha Beach, the Americans of the 29th and 1st Infantry divisions faced the most intense concentration of fire. The Allies best-laid plans to damage or destroy the defenses before the troops set ashore had utterly failed, and so Piper and thousands of other young men had to rely on their training, their courage, and each other to find a way to get through the maelstrom. The landing waves suffered enormous casualties as they pushed their way through the enemy’s concrete and steel. Had their efforts at Omaha Beach failed, many historians believe that the landings at the other four beaches would have been jeopardized, and D-Day itself could have failed.
D-Day was the first day of a long campaign to push the Germans out of France. The campaign was far more difficult and costly than Allied planners anticipated. Normandy had a unique physical aspect that made it ideal for German defenses -- virtually every field was surrounded by high embankments topped by overgrown “hedges.” Then Allies paid an extremely high cost to grind their way slowly through this impossibly tough terrain.
Each major anniversary of D-Day brings with it new information and knowledge that helps us to better understand the full picture. On this 70th anniversary, French authors have pointed to the enormous toll taken on the citizens of Normandy. Tens of thousands were killed in Allied bombing raids that destroyed cities and towns that were considered vital to the German lines of communication and supply. The large-scale destruction of Normandy towns is a fact that is not generally known by Americans. Our focus has long been on the cost in American lives, but war on the scale seen in World War II does not differentiate between soldiers and civilians.
This week we remember the courage, strength and sacrifice of the young men who stepped ashore in Normandy. They changed the course of history, and helped rid the world of an unimaginable evil.