INTRO: June 6th is usually marked in France with high-spirited memorial events honoring the fallen soldiers and elderly veterans of the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy.
Due to coronavirus still shuttering parts of France, the anniversary of D-Day passed quietly this year. But even without the usual fanfare, the miracles behind the Allied military campaign that altered the course of World War II continue to reverberate across history.
By 1944, German armies had overrun most of Europe and North Africa and much of western Soviet Union. In a brief period of five years, they had set up murderous regimes in all the lands they occupied, hunting down, torturing and murdering millions.
With a vast network of professional murder squads, industrialized gas chambers, seemingly unlimited fire power and endless supplies of collaborators, the Nazis by 1944 had annihilated five million Jews and millions more Poles, Russians, disabled people and other “undesirables.”
Despite the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, the German war machine continued to subjugate and sow terror, decimating the remaining Jews of Europe. Aided by fascist regimes in Spain and Italy, the Nazis seemed all but invincible.
Eisenhower and Churchill Fought Over Strategy
Since 1941, the Allied command sought the opening of a second front in western Europe as a means of “bleeding” the mighty German army. Yet it was not until 1944 that the Soviet, British and American commanders could agree on a strategy to execute this aim.
Supreme Allied Commander Dwight (“Ike”) Eisenhower was convinced a Normandy invasion would prove the best strategy to establish a foothold in Europe, enabling the Allies to not only win but shorten the war.
To soften the enemy’s defenses, he was eager to begin diverting Allied bombers from bombing German industrial plants to pounding the French railway and road system. By crippling the transportation infrastructure, they would prevent the Germans from moving troops and equipment to the coastal region to counter the Allied invasion.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill disagreed. He felt the Normandy invasion would be too costly in Allied casualties, and would entail too much collateral damage to France, an important ally even though it was ruled by the Vichy puppet government at the time.
Eisenhower did not dispute the prediction of staggeringly high losses. A top war strategist had calculated that paratrooper casualties alone could be as high as 75 percent. But Eisenhower believed it was a cost they had to be willing to risk, in order to establish a vital infantry stronghold in France.
Facing protracted British opposition to his war strategy, Eisenhower threatened to step down from his command unless his authority prevailed. Churchill finally yielded, clearing the way for D-Day.
Allied military commanders had no illusions about the obstacles to the invasion’s success. Getting the massive numbers of troops and quantity of supplies across the English Channel into enemy territory would take a logistical miracle. But that was only the first stage.
Even after the landings, the crucial part of the operation would be to keep the fragile beachhead supplied with manpower and weaponry so that it could withstand the German counter-attacks.
As weather conditions worsened, Eisenhower faced a harrowing choice about whether to proceed or wait until things cleared up. Further delay would sacrifice the element of surprise—too dangerous to risk.
He gave the order to go ahead. And as the soldiers were about to cross the English Channel, their commander-in-chief gave them a rousing send-off.
“The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you!” Eisenhower reminded them. “In company with our brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
“Your task will not be an easy one,” he admitted. “Your enemy is well-trained and will fight savagely. But much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. The tide has turned! I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle.
“Good Luck!” were his parting words. “And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty G-d upon this great and noble undertaking.”
“During the somber lull between his decision to go ahead and the actual launch of the invasion, Ike scribbled a quick note and stuffed it in his wallet, intending it to be made public in the event D-Day failed,” wrote Tim Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower presidential library.
In the note, Eisenhower laid the entire blame on himself.
“Our landings have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” the provisional note said. “The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
On June 6, 1944, under “Operation Overlord,” more than 130,000 Allied troops landed on the 50-mile, heavily-fortified Normandy coastline consisting of five beaches, codenamed Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword, and Utah.
On the night before the landings, 23,000 US and British paratroopers landed in France behind the German defensive lines by parachutes and gliders. The invasion force of more than 155,000 troops included 1,000 tanks. Nearly 7,000 naval craft and more than 11,500 aircraft supported the invasion.
Allied air forces engaged in photo reconnaissance, fighter sweeps to ensure control of the air, and strategic and tactical bombing in the hopes of softening German defenses.
As early as 1942, Hitler knew that a large-scale Allied invasion of France could turn the tide of the war in Europe. He had ordered the military to begin construction on the Atlantic Wall, a 2,400-mile network of bunkers, mines and landing obstacles up and down the French coastline.
Under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Germans had deployed five infantry divisions, one airborne division and one tank division along the Normandy coast and held the advantage in battle positioning.
German machine-gunners mowed down hundreds of Allied soldiers before they ever got off the landing boats onto the Normandy beaches. Mines, flame throwers, massive steel and concrete obstacles and tanks blocked the beaches.
Allied losses were steep, as feared. The eight assault divisions now ashore had suffered 12,000 killed, wounded and missing, with thousands more unaccounted for. The Americans lost 8,230 of the total.
But by day’s end, the Allies gained a foothold in Continental Europe. Within ten days, there were half a million troops ashore, and within three weeks, there were two million.
Germany’s air force no longer had control of the skies, thus unable to spot the Allied build-up on England’s southern coast––and lacking the air power to destroy it. Thanks in large part to a brilliant Allied deception campaign, the Luftwaffe’s last remaining fighter squadrons in France had been moved far out of range from the Normandy beaches.
Once the invasion was underway, the movement of the panzers and other reinforcements was stopped by Allied air power. Without control of the air, Germany was hamstrung. But its counterattack was nonetheless ferocious.
Historians ascribe Germany’s failure to repel the invasion to several astounding miscalculations, strategic errors and bizarre blunders.
A key weakness the German forces faced was the lack of a supreme commander. Rommel was responsible for the defense of Normandy, but the German navy, air force, and SS were beyond his control.
Even in his theater of command, Rommel could not act independently; he was subordinate to a higher-ranking commander-in-chief and of course to Adolf Hitler who maintained a maniacal grip on military strategy, particularly on the use of German panzers.
In addition, notes Warfare History Network, [How Nazi Germany Botched Its D-Day Response], a number of key German commanders, believing the Allies would not launch an invasion during a violent English Channel storm, were absent from their posts during the critical first hours of the invasion.
These included Admiral Theodor Krancke, the naval commander in the west, and Field Marshal Rommel who had left Normandy for a trip back to Germany for his wife’s 50th birthday. General Friedrich Dollmann, commanding the Seventh Army in Normandy, had left his headquarters to attend a war-games exercise at Rennes,over 100 miles south of the Normandy coast.
Lt. Gen. Heinz Hellmich, commander of the 243rd Division, was heading there, too, as was Maj. Gen. Wilhelm Falley of the 91st Air-Landing Division.
Other absentee commanders included Maj. Gen. Edgar Feuchtinger, commander of the 21st Panzer Division, who was bound for Paris. The commander of the French region on the far eastern flank of the invasion area was also unaccountably absent.
The phenomenon of so many senior commanders being away from their posts in the most crucial phase of the Allied invasion proved catastrophic.
Duped by Allied “Dummy” Tanks
Historians point to another disastrous German error. The German high command was totally duped by the Allies’ deception plan that engineered a fictitious force (“First U.S. Army Group” or FUSAG) in Southeast England, with fake radio traffic, and hundreds of realistic-looking dummy tanks, trucks, landing craft and aircraft.
This massive “build-up” was spotted by German reconnaissance aircraft; German commanders took it for the real thing. The presence of U.S. General George Patton, commander of the U.S. Third Army, in the center of the dummy force further convinced the Germans that the invasion would take place at the French coastal city Calais, relatively close to Southeast England.
Even after the invasion began, the Germans still believed that Normandy was merely a diversion and that the real invasion would be launched at Calais, led by General Patton. Encouraging this deception were key German spies in Britain whom the Allies had been able to “flip” into double agents, who then fed false information to their bosses back in Germany.
By being able to crack German military codes, the Allies discovered that their efforts to plant false information were being swallowed by the enemy’s high command.
Even with the disastrous setbacks the Germans suffered as a result of their leaders’ miscalculations, and their falling prey to fake intelligence, the German counterattack was devastating. It took the Allies three months of intense fighting and heavy losses to break through German ranks and reach Paris, where they liberated the city.
In another eleven months, Germany would unconditionally surrender.
As important as D-Day was to the Allied victory and to the future of the free world, it tragically came too late to help millions of European Jews who had been slaughtered by the Nazis between 1939-1944.
Saving their lives had never been an Allied war aim, not even a low priority one. But snuffing out Jewish lives was high priority for the Nazis, even in the final stages of the war when the German defeat was imminent.
As the Allies were coming ashore at Normandy, the Nazis were making preparations to annihilate Hungarian Jews. Even later, as the Germans were forced into a humiliating retreat across Europe and German cities were being bombed, the deportation trains carrying the last surviving Jewish community to its death continued to roll.
430,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz from May 1944 to the end of July.
Jewish Soldiers in Allied Ranks
The liberation of Paris in August 1944 involved thousands of Jewish soldiers who served in Allied ranks. Some were British Jews who had fought from El Alamein in Egypt to Sicily to the Normandy beaches.
Some were American Jews, immigrants or children of immigrants, who spoke Yiddish and still had family in Europe. They had been closely following events in Europe, especially the Nazi campaign against the Jews, buried in the leading American media but widely reported in the Yiddish newspapers of the time.
A few thousand young Jewish soldiers had come directly from Germany in the 1930s, bringing with them first-hand experience of Nazi persecution. Manfred Gans, author of Life Gave Me A Second Chance, is a striking example.
Gans was 16, from an observant Jewish family in Borken, Germany, when his parents sent him to stay with a family friend in England in 1938 for the summer. When the situation for Jews became more hazardous in Germany, his parents urged him not to return.
With the outbreak of World War II, Gans was sent by the British government to the Isle of Man, where enemy aliens, primary German Jews who were not fully trusted, were interned. The 18-year old was staying in a kosher hotel with other Orthodox Jews and was able to continue his education, but he hated being interned behind barbed wire, classified as an “alien.”
From “Alien” to Elite
Then a call was issued by British authorities for military-aged men in this camp to join elite commando unit of native German speakers. Those who were accepted would be trained to infiltrate behind enemy lines, to break German codes and to interrogate prisoners. Manfred took a chance and applied. To his surprise, he was accepted.
He fought with British forces on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, taking part in a campaign to break through German lines. During the heavy fighting, he was wounded five times, receiving a battlefield promotion to officer in recognition of his bravery.
Manfred and his unit made their way across France and the Netherlands and into Germany. In March 1945, he helped liberate his hometown, Borken. His house on the outskirts of town had been used as a Nazi headquarters; the wine cellar had been converted to a torture chamber.
From the townspeople, most of them Catholic, Manfred learned that his parents, Moritz and Else Gans, had been deported. He knew he would have no peace until he learned their fate. His superior officers granted him a leave, even supplying him with a jeep and a driver, who was also a doctor.
The two men embarked on a journey that would take them across hundreds of miles of unconquered, German-held territory.
Early in May 1945, Gans and his driver crossed over the Sudeten Mountains into Czechoslovakia and approached the barbed-wire fences at Theresienstadt, outside Prague. Tens of thousands of Jews had starved to death or died of abuse at this camp, while thousands more had been shipped to Auschwitz.
A family friend had heard a rumor that Moritz and Else Gans had been deported here. Russian troops had recently seized the camp, and they let Gans and his driver enter.
“There were a massive number of people in there, all terribly crowded; most were too weak to get out of the way. They were crawling on the ground,” Gans recalled in his memoir.
At the camp office, a young girl scrolled through long lists of prisoners’ names. Then she looked up and said, ‘They’re still here! They’re alive!”
With pounding heart, Gans followed the girl to the building where his parents were housed. She went in first to prepare them. His memoir tries to capture the emotional reunion when they stepped outside.
“I suddenly find myself in their arms. They are both shocked, sobbing hysterically, clinging to me. I look at Father and have to bite my lips not to show shock. He is so decimated. If I had met him on the street I would not have recognized him. ”
The camp was a scene of misery, overcrowded with emaciated men, women and children. Yet once the crowd grasped the drama of the miraculous reunion unfolding before them, Gans recounted, “some sense of restored humanity and brotherhood overcame everyone’s distress. Cries of mazel tov and cheers rang out.”
He recalled that one could read the spark of desperate hope that fluttered in the eyes of these survivors. For if such a miracle had occurred to one family…perhaps one could still dare hope to find parents alive, perhaps brothers, sisters … perhaps even children…?
When America finally entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, young Jewish soldiers had a keen sense of the war’s meaning. Like most Americans they fought hard for their country, but they also fought to save their people.
Yiddish-speaking Jewish soldiers who were among the liberators of concentration camps could speak a common language with the broken souls they encountered there. They could listen to their heart-rending stories, offer them food and comfort, pray with them and rekindle a sense of their precious humanity.
The following letter written by Aaron Eiferman, a member of the 12th Armored Division, to his wife in the United States, is illustrative.
My dearest wife,
I read your letter about the death of President Roosevelt. All the soldiers were saddened to hear about it. He was a great man and will always be remembered. But we have seen something here that overpowers the death of anyone back home. We have seen the living dead.
The other day, we took control of a concentration camp where Jews from different parts of Europe were imprisoned. There were very few survivors here. As we entered the camp, we got the shock of our lives. There on the ground in the middle of burned buildings were the charred remains of Jewish slave workers, some with mouths opened in agony, others burned so bad you could not recognize them as people. The stench was unbearable.
I suddenly noticed something suspicious about 150 yards away so I took my gun and went to investigate. It seemed to be a person crouching under some gray blankets. Thinking it might be a German, I shouted at him to get up. He didn’t move, so I grabbed the blankets and pulled them off, keeping my gun pointed at him. The sight that hit me was shocking.
It was a Jew. He thought I was a German soldier and looked at me pleadingly from his position on the ground. When I told him (in Yiddish) that I’m an American soldier and also Jewish, he grabbed my hand and started to kiss it. It was too much for me. I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat too big to swallow.
This man told me he had hidden in the forests and fields for five days. He was so weak, he couldn’t stand. I quickly brought some food and water. He couldn’t drink enough water. One of the fellows called an ambulance for him and while waiting for it to arrive, we talked. He was only 30 years old but looked 50. He told me that children too young to work and folks too old were cremated. If a man became sick, the guards just killed him.
The poor man told me he had been married two years before the Germans took him. He didn’t know where his wife was but said as soon as he’s strong enough, he was going back to the town he lived in to wait for her, even if he had to wait the rest of his life.
There he was, weighing not more than 80 pounds, and not able to even lift a piece of bread to his mouth, talking about finding his wife again, and having children if she was still able. I’m crying as I write this. A man who was tortured for six years, facing death every single day, can still talk of the happy good things he is hoping to do, not the terrible things they did to him all those years?
As they put him in the ambulance, I could see he was praying. Although I may never be able talk about what I have witnessed today, I will never ever forget it…
[The original letter is preserved in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.]