D-Day at 75: What the Hell Happened to the Spirit That Saved Europe?
As I personally recall it, D-Day brought out the best of America and Britain and it was a vision to live by. Today it’s hard to imagine how that happened.
In the late spring of 1944, an 11-year-old boy was cycling down a bucolic country lane in southern England when he saw something so extraordinary that he thought it must be a mirage.
Between the rows of trees in an apple orchard were wingless military airplanes covered in camouflage netting. Like others of his age in wartime Britain the boy had learned to identify types of warplane—though in his case and to his eternal shame he had once erroneously identified one flying overhead as British only to see its bomb doors open and unload on a nearby railway.
This time he correctly recognized the machines sitting in the orchard as one of America’s finest fighters, the P-51 Mustang. Further down the lane in another orchard were larger four-engined British Stirling bombers, again wingless.
Amazingly, nobody was guarding these machines which, in their wingless form, seemed helplessly and incongruously immobilized. How did they get there? And why?
They were part of the massive assembly of military equipment concentrated in England for the largest gamble of the war, the Allied invasion of mainland Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944. England had become like one vast offshore aircraft carrier. But the size of the air armada and its location had to be hidden from German overflights, lest it betray D-Day’s target, the beaches of Normandy.
Nearer to that fateful day 75 years ago the parked fuselages would be transported out by road and reunited with their wings at the airfields where their crews waited. The Mustangs would escort bombers and the Stirlings would tow gliders carrying the thousands of special forces who would head silently in the night to positions beyond the beaches.
The boy on the bike was me. You don’t easily forget an experience like that – it was a small and personal window into something too large really to properly comprehend at the time it happened. I got off the cycle and walked around the Stirlings, trying to imagine what it must be like to sit exposed in the transparent nose turret over enemy territory.
The thrill was juvenile, but already part of a life that had adapted to the everyday movements of epic warfare to a point where they were as normal as the other routines of growing up in wartime Britain.
The quaint names of many of the villages in southern England—Chipping Ongar, Fowlmere, Matching Green, Thorpe Abbots—had suddenly become attached to airfields that emerged almost overnight as America sent her great bomber fleets across the Atlantic.
By mid-1943 the U.S. Eighth Air Force was bombing Germany almost every day from these airfields. The young men flying those missions suffered fearful losses but they knew why they were there: One of them, a New Yorker named Elmer Bendiner, wrote The Fall of Fortresses, one of the finest war memoirs, and he put it very clearly, when he said, “it was quite in order to believe that the world could be undone and reborn in the twinkling of an eye and that I was to be an agent of that cataclysmic revolution.”
Bendiner was one of a million Americans sent to Britain as the planning of D-Day began. The effects of this migration were profound and lasting for both nations, binding them together in a way that is virtually impossible to imagine now if you were not there. Nothing like it has happened before or since
It was as much a cultural occupation as it was a military one. The contrast between the war experience of the two nations was vast. The British had grown used to a war in which civilian populations were often living in the front line, bombed for nights on end, and depending for survival on skillfully managed but austere food rationing.
When General Omar Bradley, to become one of the key commanders on D-Day and during the battles beyond the beachheads, arrived at Prestwick in Scotland in September 1943, he was offered for breakfast a choice between boiled fish and stewed tomatoes. “Prestwick taught me to confine my breakfast thereafter to the U.S. Army mess,” wrote Bradley.
The reverse of this was that the British found the Americans to be enjoying a lifestyle that was for them mostly a distant memory: a normal American diet with plentiful red meat, far better tailored uniforms, and a general assumption that an efficient fighting force should be supported by creature comforts equal to those at home.
But as I recall it there was more admiration than resentment. After all, American culture in the form of music and movies had already made its own ocean crossing years before. The glamorous norms of American domestic life were vicariously enjoyed in cinemas as though existing on another planet. Hollywood supplied more than half of the movies shown.
Big band swing music was contagious. Dance halls were one of the few places where the young Americans could meet the British girls and schmooze to the beat familiar from the recordings of Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Artie Shaw and Glen Miller. James' wife, the movie siren Betty Grable, became a kind of Eighth Air Force voluptuary, a model for the pin-ups painted on the fuselages of B-17 bombers to remind crews of the girls they dreamed of—or, in many cases, of the British girls they dated and, if they survived, would take home as brides.
Meanwhile, at the more urgent and serious level of military planning, the so-called Grand Alliance of powers was less harmonious. D-Day required the collaboration of generals of very different experience, backgrounds and temperaments.
Compared to today’s elaborate military bureaucracies, the planning of the world’s greatest amphibious expedition began at a remarkably modest scale. In April 1943, fewer than 50 British and American officers of senior ranks were gathered under the British Lieutenant-General Frederick Morgan in Norfolk House in the center of London to conceive the invasion of mainland Europe.
The Americans arrived in London gung-ho to make a devastating assault that would drive ultimately all the way from the English Channel to Berlin. They were dismayed to discover that the British were far less decisive and, given the complexity of the operation, reluctant even to consider a concrete date for the landings.
Looming over the whole endeavor was the titanic presence of Winston Churchill. Britain’s greatest war leader had held fast against Hitler as the rest of Europe fell but now he was haunted by a specter of his own youthful audacity. In the World War I campaign against the Ottoman empire he had been the architect of an amphibious attack on a Turkish stronghold at Gallipoli that had ended in a bloody fiasco.
The prime minister hadn’t lost his nerve but right up to the moment 24 hours after the June 6 landings when it was finally clear that they were successful he remained unusually tense. Some of his staff had prepared an alternative plan based on the idea that—if left for long enough—the Nazi regime would collapse from internal opposition and no invasion would be needed.
Churchill knew this was wishful thinking. He also knew that the Allied forces were up against some of the best trained and equipped fighters in the world, the German Panzer divisions. Apart from one decisive victory in North Africa when the British defeated one of Hitler’s most capable generals, Erwin Rommel, the German army had proved hard to beat in western Europe. But, like Napoleon before him, Hitler had suffered huge losses by invading Russia, particularly to the strength of the Luftwaffe.
This had decisive consequences in Normandy: although the Panzers could match any Allied ground forces they had little air support. After confusion in the German high command delayed deployment of the Panzers their best tank, the Tiger, was the most devastating weapon facing the invaders on the ground. It was only because the Luftwaffe was incapable of providing them cover that they were unable to stop the break out from the beaches and the eventual thrust toward the Rhine and the German homeland.
Although the Supreme Commander on D-Day was General Dwight Eisenhower his three subordinates in charge of land, sea and air operations were all British—the last time that Britain would ever play such a significant role in any war. Of these the most talented and most irksome was the lean and eternally disputatious General Bernard Montgomery, victor of the great battle with Rommel.
Montgomery later rewrote history, claiming that Morgan’s staff had produced a flawed plan that he pulled apart and reconstructed. In fact, Morgan’s D-Day plan had correctly chosen Normandy over other sites and, with a clever scheme of deception, convinced the Germans that if there were landings they would be much further north. Moreover, many of the technical innovations that secured success, like whole pre-fabricated harbors, came out of Morgan’s visionary team. Montgomery did improve the planning and provided the dynamism to execute it, but he traduced Norman.
Historians of D-Day all agree that it was Eisenhower, a general with no battlefield campaign to his name, whose diplomatic and people skills were indispensable in reining in and deploying egos as large as Montgomery’s and his own strutting military genius General George Patton. Bradley, too, helped hold the volatile command together.
And so it was that on the morning of June 6, 1944, a massive force headed for five beaches on the French coast: 156,000 troops, nearly 7,000 vessels and 11,590 airplanes.
Among those airplanes were the previously wingless machines that I had found dispersed in the orchards among the apple blossom two months earlier. But on that June morning they were not what I saw. Soon after daylight the Eighth Air Force took off and, as I watched, formed up in waves of B-17 bombers over our villages and towns and headed east to pulverize the German military infrastructure in northern France in order to cripple the immediate response to the landings.
All of us who remember that time of exceptional fusion of American and British talent and bravery look on it now, 75 years later, with mixed emotions. It made me, forever afterward, deeply aware of what could be achieved when the very best of both nations could be galvanized into common purpose for the sake of civilization as we are able uniquely to fashion it. Europe was saved. The concordat of Atlanticism held good for several generations and with it unprecedented peace and prosperity.
Now large ideas, open minds and daring vision are in retreat. Populism in Europe poisons politics and weakens democracy. Instead of pushing on with the great European project that really began with D-Day, Britain is in the grip of the Little Englander fantasies of Brexit. Donald Trump will co-opt D-Day for his own purposes and once more show his profound gift for getting on the wrong side of history as only someone who knows no history can. And America was never more on the right side of history than on June 6, 1944.
As D-Day approached the U.S. Army Air Force had 450,000 men and women stationed in the United Kingdom. Of those, nearly 30,000 died in operations. The scale of this effort and sacrifice is manifest in the magnificent American Air Museum at Duxford, 40 miles from London, where a former wartime airfield has become a branch of Britain’s Imperial War Museum devoted to aviation. There are 18 U.S. warplanes exhibited but it is not the hardware that leaves the most visceral impact but hundreds of photographs of air crews and, strikingly, their youth. For them the sky was a vast constantly shifting battlefield dispersed over Europe. The gift of this museum is that it brings that battlefield into close focus under one soaring roof (the museum was designed by Norman Foster) in a way that makes it as intimately personal and concentrated as any land battle.