Hitler’s reich may not have lasted a thousand years, but a decades-long one was foreseeable as those troops set off from the coast of southern England on 6 June 1944.
Hitler’s reich may not have lasted a thousand years, but a decades-long one was foreseeable as those troops set off from the coast of southern England on 6 June 1944
70 years ago this morning, soldiers from the Allied Expeditionary Force began taking back France from the Nazi empire, hard yard by hard yard, in the first wave of Operation Neptune, better known as D-Day.
As they approached the Normandy coast, many did not even get the chance to leave their landing craft alive. Others had their war ended in the water. Still more died or were maimed on Juno, Gold, Omaha, Sword and Utah beaches.
In the preceding hours of darkness, airborne troops had also been killed and wounded, jumping or gliding in behind enemy lines. For those who did make it off the sands and out of the sky, and in to the surrounding villages and towns, it was The Longest Day.
Many thousands of comrades had already had their longest days, of course. The turning point in the Pacific was still to be reached. Rome had been liberated two days prior via the freezing, disease-ridden trenches of Monte Cassino. The Axis powers had surrendered in North Africa the previous year. As part of that campaign, in November 1942, Churchill had described the repelling of Rommel’s forces at El Alamein as ‘the end of the beginning’.
Finally, with D-Day, we had the beginning of the end.
There were setbacks to come – a bridge too far here, an embattled bulge there – but with Soviet forces pushing home the advantage in the East, Western Europe was free within a year. One evil ideology buried. Another sadly taking its place for half the continent.
One of the laziest criticisms of our recent military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan is how long they lasted in comparison to the ‘six years’ of the supposedly harder, grander World War Two. As well as wilfully ignoring the difference between conventional warfare and counter-insurgency, such views also mistake the 1939-45 conflict’s true beginning and end.
While there is that six year stretch that we officially call ‘WW II’, its roots lay in the First World War, which was preluded by the 1912-13 Balkan Wars. Then the quickly proceeding Cold War, and its theatres of ‘hot’ confrontations, lasted almost to the end of the 20th century, dissolving into civil wars and other proxy hostilities that continue to this day. It is not entirely clear that the Second World War has ended, even yet.
Nonetheless, a military endeavour on the scale that defeated Nazi Germany is never likely to be necessary again. Which is just as well. On a practical level, a Mulberry harbours project would spend years, perhaps decades tied up in today’s procurement processes. And an Operation Mincemeat would probably never get ministerial sign-off.
In political terms, leaders of all parties cannot wait to declare figurative war on the supposed latest scourges of our society (my particular favourite is the “war on carrier bags”; a bayonet-affixed SA80 could make a very effective litter-picker, as it goes). In his 1998 Reith Lectures, John Keegan described war, with chilling honesty, as “collective killing for a purpose”.
Today’s challenges are somewhat more pedestrian than the national existential threat posed by a continent-wide genocidal war machine, and require a combined approach falling very far short of ‘killing’. Yet it seems beyond our current politicians to muster so much as a sliver of the leadership, strategy, innovation and sense of a cause that drove us from our darkest to our finest of hours in the 1940s.
Such comparisons are made not for cheap party-political point scoring (it certainly is not intended as such) but rather to comment on the complacency of policy making and policy makers across the board and around the world.
Luckily, such complacency was wholly absent in the ministries and HQs of Britain, America and the Commonwealth seven decades ago. With the mass of story-telling, both fictional and documentary, that has arisen out of World War Two, it is easy to think of the eventual allied victory as somehow inevitable, as the happy ending that we expect our heroes to get, whatever obstacles are thrown up against them.
But there was nothing inevitable about it. Hitler’s reich may not have lasted a thousand years, but a decades-long one was foreseeable as those troops set off from the coast of southern England on 6 June 1944. That, in hindsight, there need never have been any doubt, is why they have our gratitude and admiration, today and always.
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