It’s hard to believe that three-quarters of a century has passed since that day which changed the fate of the world as we know it. The story of the events on June 6th, 1944 have been told and retold countless times. So let’s take the time to examine why this event happened the way it did. Could it have been very different if leaders made other choices? There is a lot of fascinating history behind this important historical event, so let’s get started.
When Germany made the fateful decision to back up their Axis counterpart (Japan) and declare war on the United States that provided the Allies with a second major pool of manpower. Stalin began an immediate campaign for a second major front to be opened up against Germany to take pressure off the hard pressed Red Army. Stalin viewed the North African campaign as a side show and severely distrusted Britain's commitments. Stalin commented during the 1943 meeting in Teheran, “The war is being fought with British brains, American brawn, and Russian blood.” This was after being told how long it would take for there to be a significant buildup of American forces. Churchill managed a compromise to invade Italy with what military force was available. As the Italian campaign dragged into stagnation Moscow began clamoring for more direct involvement in continental Europe. Stalin’s insistence was reinforced by the growing concern about Hitler’s push to develop “super-weapons”, as a means to turn the tide of the conflict back to his favor.
Once the decision was made for a major invasion in Europe the question was where? Early plans included ideas for southern France, but the North African Coast had neither the ports nor marshaling areas to sustain the pre-invasion buildup being proposed. Later on this idea evolved into Operation Dragoon, a smaller scale invasion of the original, on August 15th 1944.
After laborious studies the Allied commanders realized Britain was the only suitable place from which to launch such an incredible undertaking. So would it be France, Belgium or even the Netherlands? All of these ideas were considered but modern warfare now forced extra consideration to one aspect of the target site; logistical expedience. The invasion would only be successful if the Allies could keep a large and steady flow of supplies coming into the theater. So a major harbor would need to be captured for use as a supply base.
Grabbing a map one could find initial options from Brest to Amsterdam. Closer examination eliminated Belgium and the Netherlands for a number of reasons. Besides, there was the obvious reason to liberate France above all others. France would be able to supply the most manpower in return to fight the Nazis.
Obviously the Germans came to the same conclusions as well and began fortifying the most obvious targets along the French coast. Normandy was selected because of its proximity to the port of Cherbourg and its location to Paris. The Allies could have landed forces much closer to Cherbourg, but they would then be too easily contained on that peninsula. There were several lessons learned from the fight in Italy. Normandy also provided cleaner routes for all of the individual invasions groups, both in the air and on the water. The other options would have compressed those groups into a dangerously small space at one or more points.
It was agreed during the Teheran Conference that if there was an invasion of Europe it would happen by May 1944. The allies needed the most time and best weather to support the invasion. Launching too early or too late in the year could have severe repercussions. Logistical issues forced an initial delay, but there was still an opportunity to go in May. What most people don’t realize is that you needed two separate conditions to line up for the invasion to have the best chance for success. The amphibious forces needed the tides at the levels required to get over the beach obstacles, but not so far away to leave the landing infantry over exposed. Meanwhile, the airborne forces needed a moon to provide enough light to use but not make their aircraft too easy to spot and engage with anti-aircraft artillery. These types of conditions only lined up a couple times a month, so there were limited opportunities from the start. They also needed enough days of good weather to enable Allied air power to support the inland advance.
There were concerns about the June 5/6 1944 window, but precious time would be lost with another delay. This gives you an idea the level of stress and anxiety being felt by the highest levels of command. Only after all of these major points were considered, the buildup completed, and the logistical support in place could the go ahead be given. Even then it was still a gamble that they would be victorious and not driven back into the sea. Eisenhower was so concerned he even prepared a response in case the landings failed. Luckily, the largest single human endeavor went off without a severe complication. Remember that no aspect of the D-Day invasion was either simple or easy. Take a little time on June 6th to remember all that was sacrificed and all that was gained.