- James Houser
June 6, 1944 - The Unsung Heroes of D-Day
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 6, 1944. We know what happens today. We know the Omaha Beach, the airborne landings, the naval and air strikes and the bravery of every man in the Great Crusade. That is a story we all know – but I’m here to tell you what you may *not* know. My post today is about D-Day – but it’s about all the people behind the scenes who made it possible. Today I’m talking about the millions of ordinary people who made the greatest invasion in history a success.
This is not to diminish the men who carried rifles onto the beaches, who jumped out of the planes, who swam ashore under machine gun fire or scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. All of their bravery, though, would have meant nothing if they did not make it to the beach, if they were not armed and fed and supplied, if their enemy was not deceived and if their Allies had not given the last measure of their effort on every other front of the war. So who else made D-Day possible?
When Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, Hermann Goring, the Chief of the Luftwaffe, snidely remarked that “Americans can only make refrigerators and razor blades,” referring to the consumer product-based economy in the United States. When the war began, the U.S. was a completely civilian economy with almost no government control. Within months, however, the United States had completely retooled its entire economy for war. Strict rationing of everything from sugar to steel was imposed. More than half of America’s entire economic strength was completely devoted to the war effort, and immediately outweighed the entire Axis on its own.
The people who came to work in these factories came of their own free will, whereas Nazi Germany had to conscript slave labor and prisoners of war into their factories. The American capitalist economy was able to offer benefits to its people in the ways the autocracies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union never could, and all corners of American society poured forth on a massive scale to join the industrial effort. Women, with “Rosie the Riveter” as their mascot, entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and by 1945 they were more than 35% of the labor force. African-Americans flocked to the great industrial cities of Detroit and Los Angeles, and Hispanic-Americans labored in the oil fields of the southwest.
The product of this mass mobilization was staggering. Throughout all of World War II, the United States produced over 100,000 tanks, enough to arm both themselves and Britain as well as passing on many tanks to other Allies and the Soviet Union. The colossal factories of Ford and General Motors pumped out over 2,000,000 trucks and light vehicles, which turned the U.S. Army into the most mobile army in the world at a time when Germany was still pulling its artillery with horses. The United States produced more aircraft in 1943 than Germany had produced in five years of war. Without this arsenal of democracy, the United States could never have fought a war on two fronts, and could never have amassed the strength and power to carry out D-Day.
One of the most important industrial outputs of the war was the American shipbuilding capability, which could fully assemble a cargo-carrying “Liberty ship” in 42 days. This would be necessary for the next hurdle to cross in order for D-Day to be possible.
Making the weapons of war was one matter; carrying it over the ocean to Europe in order to carry the war to the enemy was another. Even before America’s declaration of war, Nazi Germany’s U-Boats had prowled the Atlantic in their bid to isolate and starve out Great Britain. When the United States began to ship troops and supplies to Britain in 1942, the U-Boats began to wreak havoc across the ocean. New York and Hampton Roads could see their ships burning off the Eastern Seaboard as the submarines hunted their prey.
Even the American shipyards could not pump out vessels faster than the deadly U-Boats could sink them. This was the “Battle of the Atlantic,” the great struggle to overcome the danger to Allied shipping lanes. It involved thousands of ships in desperately dangerous convoys plying their way across the deadly waters of the North Atlantic, as Allied naval and air forces did their best to protect them from underwater attack. 300 U-Boats ravaged the seas. No Allied invasion of Europe was possible without the defeat of the U-Boat. Total Allied losses in 1942 reached 1662 ships, an unsustainable number.
New technologies, new naval escort methods, improved air cover, and the work of Allied intelligence officers won the Battle of the Atlantic. But it remained a dangerous mission. In fact, being a crewman on a merchant ship in the Atlantic from 1942 to 1943 was a more dangerous job than being an infantryman in Normandy in 1944. One of every 26 merchant mariners died in World War II – a loss rate of almost 4%. Without their sacrifice and struggle to bring the supplies and men necessary to England, D-Day could not have happened.
It was not inevitable that the ships had somewhere to go. After the fall of France, it looked for a little while as if Great Britain might give in as well. Several voices within the Ministries actually voiced support for opening peace talks with Germany in 1940 before this talk was firmly quashed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Even as the Germans began to bombard London and its people in the Blitz, Churchill confidently said “London can take it.”
London, and Britain, took it. They withstood a year of war virtually alone, facing the might of Nazi Germany without any ally in the world. Even after the Soviet Union and the United States joined the war, Britain was constantly exposed to German air attack and threatened with isolation by the U-Boat menace. They suffered from shortages of basic goods, even their prized tea, and waited patiently for the United States to build its strength up and take the war back to Europe. Through all of this, British civilian morale remained unyielding, no matter what the cost. The British people stared Hitler in the eye for four long years before D-Day.
When D-Day did arrive, only two of its five beaches – Gold and Sword – were British targets. But Britain was critical; most of the planes flying over the English Channel on D-Day were British planes. The men of the Allied invasion force were housed and trained in British towns and in British fields. The planes flew from Britain, the ships sailed from Britain, and Britain took care of millions of American boys on their way to the war. D-Day could not have happened without the will and courage of the British people.
THE INTELLIGENCE WORKERS
Military intelligence was one of the greatest Allied successes of World War II. The work of intelligence officers and analysts in Britain, especially the cryptanalysts and decoders at Bletchley Park, was critical to every Allied operation.
The German Enigma machine, an encryption device used to transmit secret messages throughout the Nazi empire, was a complicated system that changed on a regular basis. Allied cryptanalysts worked overtime and mustered some of the greatest minds in the world – including mathematician Alan Turing – to crack the Enigma codes that gave them a window into Germany’s actions. It was the cracking of the naval Enigma codes that enabled the Allies to track German U-Boats in the Battle of the Atlantic, and further successes kept a log of what German forces were moving into and out of France. Without these triumphs, by both men and women working in the secret compound of Bletchley Park, the men on D-Day would have gone in blind.
Just as important were the efforts by intelligence officers to deceive the Germans before the invasion. Operation Fortitude was a colossal deception program designed to convince Hitler that the Allies planned to land in the Calais sector – near Belgium – rather than in Normandy. They assembled vast fleets of inflatable tanks and constructed fake camps; they distributed fake plans and dropped fake hints; they fed information to known German spies that they knew would make it back to Germany. Without this deception, the men on the beaches of D-Day would have attacked an enemy that knew they were coming. Hitler and the German commanders, though, spent their time waiting for the REAL attack to come at Calais. They would only realize their mistake when D-Day had already succeeded.
Ever since the invasion of 1940, the French had remained under the Nazi bootheel, but they did not stay there without a fight. Ever since the Germans had arrived, bands of committed French patriots had met in secret or assembled in the mountains to carry on the war any way they could. For several years, though, they had little to hope for; the Germans remained strong, and help was far away.
As the Allies prepared to invade France, though, their agents made contact with the French Resistance and began to coordinate their efforts. The Resistance gathered supplies, recruited trusted contacts, and listened to their carefully hidden radios for the critical code words that would spur them into action. Unlike the Allied soldiers in Normandy, they faced a much more personal threat: the Germans would be able to punish their families and children if they were caught in the act. Many French Resistance leaders and agents were captured, shipped to concentration camps, and died at the hands of the SS before D-Day.
As the Allies sent out their secret orders in the hours before D-Day, the Resistance sprang into action. All over France they blew up bridges, cut radio lines, wrecked trains and railway lines, and ambushed German forces on their way to the front. This was horribly dangerous, since the Germans had no mercy and took no prisoners from the Resistance. Many German divisions scattered across France were delayed by days or even weeks on their march to Normandy; the 2nd SS Panzer Division took almost 17 days to reach the battlefront thanks to the struggle put up by the Resistance. Frustrated with the delay, the SS massacred the entire population of the village of Oradour on June 10. This was only a taste of what the French could face from their defiance of the Nazis.
The French did what they could, and often paid for it horribly. They delayed German reinforcements for long enough to let the Allies gain a firm foothold in Normandy; without them, D-Day might never have succeeded.
We focus on the American effort in Normandy – and rightfully so, as the enormous courage of American soldiers from the assaulting waves secured the beaches against terrible German resistance. The British, of course, attacked two beaches as well. It’s worth remembering that the United States and the British alone, though, did not fight on the beaches and in the hills of Normandy.
One whole beach – Juno – was allotted to the Canadian Army, and the Canadians would contribute a whole army to Normandy within the next two months. Of all the Western Allies, a larger portion of Canada’s population took up arms than any other – and they were all volunteers, Canada never imposed a draft. The Canadians were some of the bravest and most motivated of all Allied units, and bore a heavy price in the fighting to come, as they faced some of the most lethal and elite German divisions – including the feared SS Panzer units. They were responsible for one fifth of D-Day.
Before the Normandy Campaign was over, the Free French and the Polish Armed Forces would have committed a division each to fight alongside the British, French and Canadians. The Allied air forces flying above Normandy included pilots from Australia, Poland, Belgium, France and Norway. The Belgian Pirot Brigade joined the fight in Normandy from August 1944, along with the Dutch Princess Irene Brigade. Of the ships, two Free French and one Polish cruisers, 10 Free French, seven Canadian, two Greek, two Norwegian, and two Polish destroyers escorted the men in the boats across the Channel to launch their great assault.
Though the Americans, British and Canadians carried the weight of the invasion, every Allied nation put in its ships and men to make D-Day possible; they deserve to be remembered for doing whatever they could to liberate themselves and the rest of Europe.
ALL GAVE SOME
The men on the beaches, in the planes, dropping from the skies, and manning the guns on the ships could never have made it there without all the people behind them:
The woman assembling the tank in the factories of Detroit.
The sailor risking death and destruction on the Atlantic to bring the food, supplies, and weapons to Britain.
The women and men working day and night to crack the German codes at Bletchley Park.
The people and leaders of Britain, holding out against all hope in the darkest hour of their history.
The French Resistance, risking their own lives and their families to cripple the Germans on the eve of D-Day.
It took nations, peoples, countries united to end Nazi Germany and make the world safe for liberty and democracy once again. None of them could have done it alone; they did it Allied. They made D-Day possible, against all odds and overcoming all obstacles. They were ordinary people, and in many cases never thought they were making their part in history, but history is built on ordinary people doing the extraordinary.
D-Day could never have happened without the everyday heroism of ordinary people, a light shining in deepest darkness that could never be snuffed out. It shines still.