The Allied invasion of Normandy often appears as a seminal, even decisive turning point in the outcome of the Second World War, at least in Europe.
American historian Stephen E. Ambrose has called D-Day the “climatic battle” of the war, an argument based in part on the perspective that an Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France posed a direct threat to the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany, and therefore its ability, to continue the war.
Accordingly, Nazi Germany’s military leadership starting with Adolf Hitler considered it imperative to defeat any attempts by the Allies to establish a beachhead in France in addition to the one in Italy.
Not everybody agrees. Several English-speaking historians have joined their German and Russian colleagues to argue that the Red Army deserves the primary credit for defeating Nazi Germany. (Many of the Allied soldiers who stepped onto the beaches had never fired a single shot against German troops until then).
Russian victories outside Moscow (December 1941) and at Stalingrad (December 1942, January 1943) first stopped, then reversed the momentum of the Wehrmacht, which never regained the initiative on the eastern front, suffering a string of increasingly worse defeats through July 1943 to May 1945. These scholars have also pointed out that D-Day and the subsequent liberation of western Europe never matched the scale and suffering of the eastern front, with Russian military and civilian casualties approaching an estimated 27 million people.
Other historians, meanwhile, have argued the combined industrial and technological superiority of the anti-Hitler coalition would have eventually defeated Nazi Germany, even if their forces had repelled an invasion force and played for time on the eastern front.
This said, German military leaders like Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the man whom Hitler charged to defeat the invasion, undeniably appreciated that a successful Allied invasion of France would rob Nazi Germany of any chance to achieve what Rommel’s biographer David Fraser has called a “sufficiently stable strategic situation” from which the country could negotiate a “tolerable peace” by way of a stalemate. (This argument assumes that the anti-Hitler coalition, or parts of it, would have negotiated with a genocidal regime, an unlikely premise in light of the Holocaust and the German occupation of Europe).
Rommel nonetheless took this German military theory to its logical conclusion. Allied forces could not get off the beaches, period. Otherwise, Nazi Germany would have forfeited its chance to focus on the eastern front.
The outcome of the invasion itself and with it the direction of the war was not a given.
“At the outset the margin between success and failure was narrow,” wrote military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart in the History of the Second World War. “The ultimate triumph has obscured the fact that the Allies were in great danger at the outset, and had a very narrow shave.”
The first and perhaps the most famous of these narrow shaves happened on ‘Omaha’ beach where portions of the US 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One) touched down without adequate tank support in front of steep cliffs controlled by crack German troops, who used their commanding heights to decimate the attackers with withering fire.
“Had all the German defenders of the Normandy been as well-trained and resolute as those of the 352nd Division and had accident overtaken more of the swimming [Sherman tanks], the debacle at Omaha might have been repeated up and down all the five beaches, with catastrophic results,” writes military historian John Keegan in his The Second World War.
“Luckily,” Keegan continues, the fate of those Allied troops “was extreme.”
This said, the Allied grip on the beaches was tenuous, and the advance off the beach far behind the original time table. Planning had called for the capture of Caen at the eastern edge of the beachhead by British forces under Rommel’s old nemesis from the North African theatre, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery on June 6. It would not fall into Allied hands until more than a month later.
This failure caused the second Allied crisis that day when the only German armoured division in the area, the 21st Panzer Division, used Caen as a base for a strike into the gap that divided ‘Gold’ and ‘Juno’ beaches in the centre of the beachhead from ‘Sword’ beach on its eastern edge. Striking towards the beaches, the German division threatened to envelope Gold-Juno on its left and Sword on its right with Sword bearing the brunt of the attack.
This counter-attack represented the last roll of the dice by Germans to sweep the British-Canadian half of the landing forces back into the water before they could form a contiguous whole with the American half (Omaha and Utah beaches), a point not lost on German officers on the ground.
As the 21st Division prepared its attack, the commanding general of the division, Erich Marcks, impressed the following on one of his immediate subordinates, as quoted in Keegan’s account. “If you don’t succeed in throwing the British into the sea, we shall have lost the war.”
The words were prophetic. While German tanks actually reached the beach, their penetration was too shallow, and they eventually withdrew for fear of being encircled themselves. In the words of Keegan, the “crisis had passed.”
The actual fighting in Normandy continued until the middle of August as Allies consolidated and extended their foothold on the Cotentin Peninsula before breaking out of it into Brittany towards the west and more importantly towards Paris and the German border. But the battle itself — and perhaps with it the war, as some argue — resolved itself on D-Day, a point that increasingly dawned on Germany’s senior military leadership except for Hitler himself and his sycophants.
The total collapse of the Russian front from June 22, 1944, to early August 1944 only hastened this impression, yet Hitler and his enablers dismissed appeals for a separate peace with the western Allies and their respective blindness to the military situation only grew more intense with the failed plot on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944.
What followed after it was the deadliest period of the entire war as Nazi Germany fought on, bringing needless death and misery to millions across Europe, including millions of Germans themselves. As Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw wrote in The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944–1945, of the more than five million German servicemen who died during the conflict, some 2.6 million died between July 1944 and May 1945. Close to a million German civilians died during the same period. Millions suffered injury, rape or the loss of their homes.