The Allies’ victory 75 years ago in the battle of D-Day was hard-won by the men on the ground.
The day after American, British, and Canadian troops landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, Ernie Pyle—America’s most popular war correspondent—stood on the beach and wrote a recap of the battle that had taken place.
After the so-called “Longest Day,” fighting continued a couple of miles inland. On the beach, troops still faced sniper and artillery fire, and the occasional land mine. Lining the beach, among the German traps and obstacles, was a mess of submerged tanks, burned trucks, overturned boats, and scattered personal belongings of the soldiers. Bodies of men were laid out in rows, covered in blankets, and many others still lined the beach.
Pyle wrote, “Now that it is over, it seems to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all.”
He likened the Allies’ victory to the probability of his winning a boxing match against Joe Louis, then the world heavyweight boxing champion. All odds were stacked against them, both in the sheer size of the force and in the deadly obstacle course that Allied troops had to navigate to even engage the enemy.
“Ashore, facing us, were more enemy troops than we had in our assault waves. The advantages were all theirs, the disadvantages all ours,” Pyle wrote. And bear in mind that even while being outnumbered in full force, the Allied troops had to land in waves, and the next wave couldn’t land until the preceding waves took to the beach.
In addition, the Germans had spent months building fortifications. In some areas, American troops were met with 100-foot bluffs covered with concrete gun emplacements that shot to the sides, rather than to the front—making them largely immune to naval fire. Lining the beach were tank traps (upward logs with mines to destroy landing boats), minefields in the sand, pipes rigged as flamethrowers, and fire from nearby artillery guns that could strike parts of the beach for miles.
The Germans had a network of trenches that were interconnected, allowing them to fire from cover at the Allied troops left to charge up the beach in the open. In all these fortifications, heavy machine guns could blanket the beaches with gunfire.
And in addition, in some places, the Germans had dug immense 15-foot-deep ditches that neither man nor vehicle could cross. Numerous other traps and obstacles included barbed wire and hidden ditches, and as Pyle again emphasized, “the enemy had four men on shore for every three men we had approaching the shore.”
When the Allied troops landed, Pyle explained: “Men were killed as they stepped out of landing craft. An officer whom I knew got a bullet through the head just as the door of his landing craft was let down. Some men were drowned.”
The troops, pinned down, dug foxholes on the edge of the water and tried to engage the enemy from there. Medical corpsman did their best to help the wounded. Since the men were trapped, the additional landing craft were unable to bring more troops.
Yet, facing that overwhelming force, the Americans took matters into their own hands. At the beach where Pyle landed, against all odds and all normal protocol, Navy ships rolled near the shore and went head-to-head with the German guns.
“They tell epic stories of destroyers that ran right up into shallow water and had it out point-blank with the big guns in those concrete emplacements ashore,” Pyle explained.
Officers organized their men, pushed inland, and circled the machine gun nests to take them from the rear. Doing this required many men to face certain death as they charged through gunfire, flames, and explosions.
The sight was similar to that of the U.S. helicopter pilots in the Vietnam War who, at significant risk to themselves—and sometimes even against orders from their superiors—flew their choppers into heavy enemy fire to rescue wounded American troops.
“Battle,” as Gen. George Patton is attributed as saying, “is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge.” All men are afraid in battle, he said, yet it’s something that brings out the best in some, while “the coward is the one who lets his fear overcome his sense of duty.”
War brings out the true nature of men, because, in the face of life and death, cowardice or heroism show themselves. And in the face of this, Americans have developed a reputation for the latter.
Americans are a people taught to think for themselves. A republic, as author G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1925, “used to be called a nation of kings.” And in a republic, independent people naturally oppose tyranny—and take it on themselves to stand against it.
Chesterton also wrote in 1926 that “the very virtues of America are rather the virtues of smallness than of largeness.” He described America as a place that hadn’t followed the “progressive” trends of Europe into tyranny, and where greatness wasn’t in the strength of big government, but instead in empowering the common people to take charge of themselves—to rise up and face the challenges before them.
What’s important to note on D-Day was that, despite its heavy toll, “our total casualties in driving this wedge into the continent of Europe were remarkably low—only a fraction, in fact, of what our commanders had been prepared to accept,” Pyle wrote.
What won the battle, against all odds, was the ability of common men to do great things, to overcome a challenge that seemed impossible, and, through courage and inner will, to come out better in the end that any number-cruncher thought possible. That spirit was seen on D-Day.
When the battle that day was over, Pyle wrote, “We did it with every advantage on the enemy’s side and every disadvantage on ours. In the light of a couple of days of retrospection, we sit and talk and call it a miracle.”