Friday, June 06, 2014

Over the shore

Seventy years ago today - as I'm sure you and everybody else within sight or hearing of some sort of broadcast implement knows - about 150,000 Allied troops landed on the north coast of the Normandy peninsula and reopened the Western Front of World War 2.

By dawn that morning my old unit, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, had already had a hell of a shitty day. The unit was badly scattered - note the little black dots on the map to the left each representing a C-47-load of paratroops - and many of the troopers had landed in the swampy fringes of the River Merderet invisible in the dark fields below and had been drowned by their equipment without firing a shot.

Worse, the Third Battalion of the regiment had been dropped directly on the small town of St. Mere Eglise whose garrison were out of their fartsacks already, what with all those C-47s flying around overhead and all, and tore apart the guys as the descended. For the young men of the 505th, and a hell of a lot of other guys 6 JUN 1944 really was a long day full of suck.

But...they hung on, and by nightfall the Western Allies had a toehold on the European continent they never relinquished. Before another June would arrive those armies would be along the Elbe and the war in Europe would be over.

That is a peculiarly American myopia to see D-Day as - in the words of LTC Bateman - "...on this day, this morning, 70 years ago...the world began to change."

That's not to say that D-Day wasn't a major event in World War 2, or a major historical event. That's not to say that the men - and women - who came ashore didn't play an important role in defeating the Axis.
But it was less than three weeks later that the Soviet Army opened up Oперация Багратион (Operatsiya Bagration). Operation Bagration destroyed an entire German Army Group and unhinged the Eastern Front. In that operation, lasting from June to July 1944 Armeegruppe Mitte...
"lost about a quarter of its Eastern Front manpower, similar to the percentage of loss at Stalingrad (about 17 full divisions)...included many experienced soldiers, NCOs and other officers, which at this stage of the war the Wehrmacht could not replace. An indication of the completeness of the Soviet victory is that 31 of the 47 German divisional or corps commanders involved were killed or captured. Exact German losses are unknown, but newer research indicates around 400,000 overall casualties. Soviet losses were also substantial, with 180,040 killed and missing, 590,848 wounded and sick, together with 2,957 tanks, 2,447 artillery pieces, and 822 aircraft also lost." (Wiki 2014)
I don't think we, that is, the people of the United States, have ever come to terms with the fact that the "Greatest Generation" of World War 2 was, very likely, the Soviet subjects born in the Teens and Twenties who fought, and died in millions to roll back the Nazi invasions. What destroyed the fighting strength of Germany was, largely, the Soviet Union. So when you read all the veneration of this day in the Western popular press, it's well to pause and consider that.


My father's generation, and the Western world they helped create, was shaped by days like this day seventy years ago. The importance of D-Day to them, and thus to us, is hard to elide...although we, at this remove, might do well to listen carefully past the speeches and paeans to the invasion beaches for the distant thunder of the guns in Ukraine and Belorussia. Those caught in the firestorm can't afford to spend time looking at the horizon; it is for those of us with space and time to be thoughtful and mindful that for all that what happens to us is the Most Important Thing in the World it is often our own viewpoint that distorts the size and shape of events, and that viewpoint is often skewed by hate, or fear, or lust, or simple ignorance.

As for my father and his cohort...this year is probably their last big anniversary; ten years from now I doubt more than a handful will remain. In twenty, the Longest Day and their war will be just a history story, different only in proximity from Verdun, or Shiloh, or Hohenlinden, or Cannae.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

altSaw something that of the soviet in the early 20's 80% were killed or wounded.