June 6, 1944 was the turning point of WWII, unthinkable courage, largest amphibious assault ever attempted, and likely ever to be. It changed the war, but more. On this anniversary, 79 years after D-Day, it is worth asking “What if?”
The question is seldom asked, because once a daring feat is over, battle won and deed done, the mind looks forward without imagining – not daring to imagine – what might have been. Yet there is value in thinking back, reviewing what made this potentially disastrous gamble a humanity-changing success.
To do that, you have to rethink numbers. They are sobering. The five landing beaches – Omaha, Utah, Sword, Juno, and Gold – spanned 50 miles, had to be swiftly connected, or the Allies would be pushed back into the sea. There was no retreat.
They were defended by 40,000 German soldiers, 200,000 obstacles and emplacements. Germans held high ground, interlocking machinegun fields, cliffs hundreds of feet high, like at Pointe du Hoc.
Numbers are stunning, across the board. By D-Day, 1.5 million US soldiers were in England, 287,000 aboard 7000 ships. From air and sea, 156,115 would jump or slog into combat, 6000 die that day.
By the time the Allies made Paris, through deadly hedgerows and open fields, there were 60,000 casualties. On the day itself, in barely survivable weather, landing in unique shallow-draw, drop-ramp “Higgins boats,” the Allies put ashore 200,000 vehicles. 11,500 planes dropped 10,000 tons of bombs.
Total Allied casualties that day – dead, wounded, missing, captured – topped 10,500. Numbers were high for a reason – this was the “it,” make or break. Success meant rolling across Europe rolling up the Third Reich’s manifold horrors, undisguised inhumanity, blueprint for evil. Failure meant – they won.
You may think this an overstatement, somehow an overblown description of what might have happened, all displaced by inevitable history. That is not what those there at the time thought. As one WWII vet in combat 380 days told me in a whisper, “The Germans were hard fighters. Nothing was inevitable. The Nazis could have won.”
But they did not, nor the Japanese. Much credit belongs to Allied boys ages 16 to late 20s, 450,000 of whom died in the war, 16 million of whom stepped up. They and families across America prayed.
This is where the “what if” needs to be asked. How did we deploy so quickly, starting the war with nothing when Germany had 60 divisions? How did we prevail on that fateful day? Was it inevitable?
Hardly. General Bradley noted American boys were good with guns, used to shooting targets, squirrels, deer; that made training fast possible. And they were in it for freedom, loved their country, knew it.
What about divine intervention D-Day? Well, you tell me. The invasion was planned for June 5, and momentum is hard to change. A meteorologist, whom Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower trusted, British Captain James Stagg came to him. With no satellites, he predicted fast storms, one break.
Already at sea, Stagg advised Eisenhower to abandon June 5, go on the 6th, or two weeks later. Eisenhower took it in. Virtually his whole staff said go on the 5th. He trusted Stagg.
On June 5, seas proved impassable. On the alternate two weeks later, even if undetected, the landing would have failed – mass storms. Ike chose June 6. Stagg was right. Divine intervention, or luck?
To land successfully on those beaches required flat-bottomed, prop-enclosed, drop-ramp “Higgins boats,” invention of a Nebraska businessman and guardsman to get hard wood out of Louisiana swamps.
He tried to sell the boats, went bankrupt, but was a dogged American entrepreneur, never lost hope – kept innovating, designing. One day the US military found him – asked if he could build 20,000. They made possible Normandy, Anzio, and the Pacific landings.
Higgins might have given up, but he did not. No one else had ever designed such a craft. Eisenhower called Higgins “the man who won the war for us.” Divine intervention, or luck?
Truth is, Eisenhower knew the odds were long that day, risks high, potential for defeat real. Like Patton, a fact you seldom hear, Eisenhower wrestled with fear and prayed. Ike was Presbyterian, regularly sought divine intervention. Patton prayed too, and privately wept for the men sent into battle.
Looking back, D-Day was pivotal, the anniversary worth pondering – and all those “what ifs.” What if preparation were poor, courage lacking, morale down, wrong day, armada detected, bad weather, no Higgins? Sometimes you just have to give thanks, even 79 years later. Today is a good day for that.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman2 for AMAC.
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