- - Thursday, June 6, 2013

Thursday is the 69th anniversary of D-Day, the greatest seaborne invasion in history, which ultimately led to the demise of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. To be sure, most Americans and citizens of Allied nations in World War II are well aware of this military turning point. The irony is that, from a teacher’s point of view, D-Day had a difficult time emerging in lectures and especially textbooks.

One reason is that the name that stuck on the invasion was not a teachable one. The generic term, D-Day, references any specific day of a military operation, meaning that teachers attempting to explain the title found blank faces from their students. Operation Overlord was the code name for the invasion, Operation Neptune for the actual assault that was launched on June 6, and the ensuing fighting was called the Battle of Normandy — too much data to be described readily.

Second, the historic event was, to use Winston Churchill’s words, the “most complicated” ever undertaken. There was not a single invasion of the German-occupied Normandy area of France, but five, each distinct in the forces of three nations, the United States, Great Britain and Canada. The statistics of the battle were overwhelming: some 600 warships and 4,000 supporting craft, carrying 176,000 men, with 11,000 planes providing air cover. Then there were sea and weather conditions to describe, the topographical differences in the less-than-ideal conditions for landing in Normandy as opposed to the easier-to-reach Calais to the north, and, of course, the characteristics of German resistance in each of the five landing areas. That resistance wasn’t easy to convey, either, requiring elaboration on land mines, wire defenses, concrete pillboxes, tank traps, artillery emplacements and underwater obstructions.

When I co-authored my own American history textbook in 1988, I was successful in getting the publisher to agree to a full-page pullout on D-Day, replete with a map that was easy to follow. I lost my bid to get “D-Day” indexed as the first entry under the Ds in the back of the book (which some textbooks did, making it easier for students to find). Instead, D-Day followed, in alphabetical order, an entry for a non-event, namely, Dayton, Ohio, one of the first cities in the early 20th century to employ a city manager.

Fortunately, in recent years, the story of D-Day has been brought to the respectful attention it merits from Americans, thanks to extant films put together for television. The 50th anniversary of the assault in 1994, with some 50,000 veterans returning to the sites in Normandy, magnified the contributions of those who fought and those who gave their lives.

The real disseminator of the written story of this heroic invasion, though, was a historian and naval officer, Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976). A longtime mariner, Morison was a Harvard historian who served during World War I and went on to write numerous books, including the best biography of Christopher Columbus, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943.

When World War II broke out, Morison asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to let him return to active duty in order to write the history of the Navy from a firsthand perspective. The idea was approved, and Morison, commissioned a lieutenant commander and eventually rising to rear admiral, spent the rest of the war in numerous naval operations. Subsequently, he wrote a 15-volume account (published from 1947 to 1962), one book of which was devoted completely to the D-Day invasion.

Of course, not many Americans rushed out to make Morison’s multivolume work a best-seller, but his military history of the war was summarized in his popular college textbook and trade book, “The Oxford History of the American People” (1965). In four beautifully written pages, Morison sets out the essentials of D-Day.

The key to the success of the mission, in Morison’s view, was preparation, begun in early 1943. Options were eliminated, such as the strategy that massive bombings of German cities would make unnecessary a land invasion of France. The air raids, “frightfully expensive” in terms of losses, paved the way for the assault. By April 1944, Allied air forces had a 30-to-1 advantage over the Luftwaffe.

As for the actual invasion, “sheer guts and sound training saved the day,” although “the landings were only the beginning of a long and costly campaign.” However, the immediate effects were indelible: “The enemy, unable to bring up reinforcements, his communications wrecked and planes grounded, was bewildered. [Field Marshal Erwin] Rommel thought the situation hopeless and was preparing to try to negotiate with Eisenhower for a separate peace when Hitler had him arrested and killed. Other high-ranking officers attempted to assassinate Hitler on 20 July [1944], as the only way to end the war; but the Fuhrer survived, the conspirators were tortured to death, and the war went on.”

The die was cast, though. In less than a year, the war in Europe was over, as was “the Reich, which Hitler had boasted would last a thousand years.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University and lead co-author of “History of the United States” (McDougal Littell/Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

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