---- — Even after the passage of 70 years, we stand in awe of the courage and determination of the American and allied forces who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
On that day, after years of planning, more than 130,000 troops -- largely American, British and Canadian -- assaulted a 50-mile stretch of the coast of northern France and established a beachhead against the forces of Nazi Germany that occupied much of Europe. Within a year, the Germans were defeated.
The invasion forces faced harsh resistance from Hitler’s infamous “Atlantic Wall”, the string of fortifications, gun emplacements, mines and other booby traps along the European coast designed to foil just such an attack. The Germans had years to prepare these defenses and by 1944 they were formidable. Allied losses were heavy with more than 4,400 confirmed dead.
Some of the toughest fighting was at one of the American landing sites -- Omaha Beach. Soldiers being ferried to the beach in landing craft faced withering fire from German positions on the bluff overlooking the beach. Those who made it to land were pinned in place by the heavy fire. Rangers scaled the cliff at Pointe du Hoc to take out the German guns overlooking American landing sites on both Omaha and Utah beaches. There was heavy fighting as the Americans struggled to find routes off the beach to take out the German positions.
The Allies failed to achieve many of their objectives for the first day of fighting. But the beachhead was established and Allied forces soon began pushing inland. The fighting didn’t get any easier as German forces resisted the Allied advance through hedgerow country.
The Normandy landings on D-Day were vital to opening up a “second front” in the European war against the Nazis. It drew German attention, manpower and equipment away from the front in the Soviet Union. It trapped the German Reich between the Soviets in the east and the Allies in the West, making Hitler’s defeat all but inevitable.
The planning and organization that went into the invasion was staggering and involved the gathering of troops and equipment in southern England, assembling the fleet needed to transport it all across the English Channel, the coordination of land, sea, and air attacks -- everything had to be just right, even the phase of the moon and tides, for the invasion to succeed.
But in the end, it was the bravery and spirit of the individual soldiers that made the invasion work. That is reflected in the stories of men like Morley Piper of Essex, who was a young lieutenant with the 29th Infantry Division as he landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Piper’s recollections of the invasion have been printed this week in The Eagle-Tribune.
Piper, now 89, is visiting Normandy with many of his fellow veterans in honor of today’s anniversary. In seeing today’s peaceful fields and hills of the French countryside, he remarked: “To see them now, you wonder if we were ever there at all.”
In the town of La Cambe, Piper and his fellow veterans were honored for their liberation of the town 70 years ago. In the center of the town is a monument honoring the 29th Infantry Division.
“Very stirring,” Piper told reporter Alan Burke. “Brings out the goosebumps and the tears. ... To think that we participated in this momentous event and got through it and are all back to remember it.”
The Normandy invasion was indeed one of the momentous events of history. We will forever remember and be grateful for the courage of those who made it and the liberation of Europe possible.