In 1979 I was a freshly minted college grad hitchhiking around Normandy, France, near the D-Day landing beaches. The 35th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France, D-Day, June 6, 1944, had just passed and the French people I met welcomed an American in their midst. I was about the same age as my father was when, as a soldier in the U.S. First Army, he had advanced through France and Belgium and on into Germany, to victory in World War II.
Despite the many glasses of Calvados I didn’t have to pay for at cafés in the towns where I stopped, at the time I couldn’t have told my new French friends where my father had been during World War II. The same could be said for many of my friends back home. Our fathers didn’t talk a lot about what they went through in the war. Thinking back to my travels around Normandy, one of the odd things was that there were so few other Americans there to mark a big D-Day anniversary. Tour companies and towns in England had advertised for former GIs to come back, but not many took up the offer. And France didn’t lay out the red carpet for returning Allied invaders like it does today.
On D-Day plus 35 years, not one world leader showed up to mark the day. The biggest commemorative event took place at Pointe du Hoc, the promontory cliffs which U.S. Army Rangers heroically scaled to knock out German artillery positions between the Utah and Omaha landing beaches. The elderly General Omar Bradley, who led U.S. Army forces during preparation for the landings, Operation Neptune, and commanded the First Army for the invasion of Normandy, Overlord, rolled out by wheelchair. He made a few dedicatory remarks at the new Ranger Dagger monument at the site. A wreath-laying ceremony was also held at a Canadian cemetery outside Caen, and a small parade of World War II-vintage jeeps and other military vehicles and soldiers ran through the narrow streets of Bayeux. (You can watch the video from the events here.) American media coverage was equally sparse, just a photo of a frail-looking General Bradley with a caption on the front page of The New York Times. That was pretty much it.
How things have changed. For the 75th anniversary of D-Day coming up, world leaders including President Donald Trump will have plenty to say while tens of thousands of Americans and others from what had once been the Allied nations will arrive in a second invasion that will overwhelm Normandy to a degree unseen in, well, 75 years. They’re coming of course to show their gratitude for the bloody and heroic actions that day when the liberation of France and the final defeat of Nazi Germany began. They’ll also be there to participate, if only by their presence on that hallowed ground, in a shared-sense mission and purpose, to celebrate what their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers achieved there.
But such nostalgia for D-Day and all it meant for ridding the world of the brutality of Nazism can mask the hidden costs of the liberation of Europe. Not thinking through fully what took place during the invasion of Normandy has led America to think of it as a model for other wars since seemingly intended to rid the world of other brutal, Hitler-like dictators.
We think we know D-Day. The greatest sea invasion in history is the most studied battle in the history of warfare. It appears no detail of the run-up to D-Day, the day of battle, and the taking of Normandy over three months after D-Day, cannot be re-explored and retold. Just this month, at least three major new D-Day books have appeared. They include Alex Kershaw’s very readable The First Wave, James Holland’s lively, more British-centric and, at 720 pages, more comprehensive Normandy ’44, and, at 1,072 pages heavier than some artillery shells, Peter Caddick-Adams’ monumentally detailed Sand and Steel.
We also think we have a good mental picture of the fighting that took place. The many documentaries and fictionalized movies and television series, including The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, and Band of Brothers, make D-Day also perhaps the most visually depicted battle in history.
As a result of all these studies and depictions, we think we know what happened that made D-Day a success, we think we know how the Germans were driven out of Normandy, and we think we know who the heroes were and who the villains. However, those versions of D-Day often fail to account for the costs born not just by the warriors who fought there but by the civilians the Allies came ashore to liberate.
Those histories and visualizations of D-Day show the Norman people almost only when they turned out to celebrate the arrival of their liberators. However, many of the liberated could not turn out and others had little enthusiasm to muster for the ouster of their German occupiers. Take a close look at the 1979 parade through Bayeux in that video. Most of the onlookers stand mute except for a wave here and there as their “liberators” drive past. They were perhaps expressing a profound awareness that not everything about their liberation was glorious.
In preparation for the Allied invasion, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower had redirected Allied strategic bombers and fighters previously used to attack German cities and industrial centers as flying artillery to soften the ground for the invasion of France. From the months prior to D-Day and throughout the struggle for the beachheads on, a steady air campaign rained bombs and strafing fire down on the landing zones and access routes leading to the beaches at Normandy, as well as strategic targets inland.
Long before technology made more precise targeting possible, high altitude air raids and naval bombardments were intended to knock out railroads, bridges, fuel and munitions depots, and other strategic infrastructure. But they also blasted their surroundings. Very often they only hit their surroundings. As the Allies gained control of the skies, bombers could fly lower and during daylight hours, resulting in better accuracy. Even then, surveys done in the fall of 1944 showed that only 7 percent of all bombs dropped by the United States Eighth Air Force landed within 1,000 feet of their aim point. Knocking out a target required massed raids and saturation bombing campaigns involving hundreds of aircraft at a time. The results in Normandy were a bloody mess.
Entire Norman and other nearby cities and towns were leveled. Le Mans, Rennes, Saint-Lô, Flers, Le Havre and other cities still filled with civilians were virtually annihilated. An estimated 11,000 to 19,000 Normans were killed during pre-invasion bombing. Eight hundred more French civilians were killed within two days of the D-Day invasion. Then came the Allied slog through Normandy.
In particular, some have come to view British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s order to bomb Caen, a city of 60,000 people, as a war crime and certainly tactically unnecessary. The pounding of Caen from air and sea obliterated almost three-quarters of the city—destruction comparable to what took place in the most devastated cities of Germany. The city’s 500-year-old university ceased to exist. The rubble from what was once Caen was piled 20 feet deep. One journalist remarked about what he saw of the city after its liberation, “The very earth was reduced to its original dust.”
In the end, the bombing of Caen that caused by some estimates upwards of 3,000 civilian casualties and left 35,000 residents homeless actually hindered the Allies’ advance.
Thanks to such heedless destruction, French civilians suffered far worse casualties as a result of their liberation by the Allies than were inflicted by their Nazi German occupiers. The liberation of Normandy killed an additional 13,632 to 19,890 French civilians with thousands more seriously wounded. A total of 70,000 French civilians were killed by the Allies throughout the course of the war.
In the 75 years since the liberation of France, when the civilian casualties are considered at all, they have most often been described as “collateral damage,” that execrable, casual euphemism for war waged without consideration for its consequences for noncombatants.
In my 1979 travels, I witnessed how much people in Normandy still remembered the brave young soldiers who ended their Nazi nightmare. However, they have not forgotten the awful price in blood and home they paid for their liberation. In the postwar world, French relations with Great Britain and the United States long remained strained in part because of what was done to make the invasion of Normandy a success. Following the end of the war, French Communists and nationalists gained power in part by blaming the Allies for their nation’s suffering.
There’s a lesson there, but Americans taking justifiable pride in what Gen. Bradley in 1979 praised as “people prepared to do the impossible” often fail to heed it. In early April 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney, the principal architect of the Iraq War, made a very public visit to the National D-Day Museum (today known as the National World War II Museum) in New Orleans. That morning he gave a speech in which he made explicit comparison between the ongoing American invasion of Iraq and that of Normandy in 1944. He spoke of America soldiers who arrived in Europe where “a squad of GIs… brought the biggest smiles you ever saw to people's lips and joy to their hearts…. America had sent the best of her young men around the world, not to conquer, but to liberate, not to terrorize, but to help.”
He proclaimed that like D-Day, “Ladies and gentlemen, in the spring of 2003 the American people and a watching world are seeing another great generation. The citizens of Iraq, like so many oppressed peoples before them, are coming to know the kind of men and women that America sends forth to meet danger and to defend freedom.”
That comparison showed just how little Vice President Cheney cared about the complex realities of D-Day. We know that D-Day had a great and necessary purpose in the fight to rid the world of Hitler’s evil. But we need to learn the lesson of D-Day that there are no “good” wars, even wars of liberation, and that collateral damage is in fact the destruction of human lives. The liberated will not forget their tragic losses, even if the victors do.
We failed to understand that in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. On the 75th anniversary of D-Day this June 6, let’s honor, remember and pray for the heroes and fallen by learning the lesson that their experience and that of a liberated Normandy should have taught us.