Because war has become a routine and permanent part of life since 9/11, Americans today have become immune to war and its costs. Because few in America fight in these wars and even fewer see first hand the destruction it causes, their worries about future war are low to non-existent. Seventy-five years ago this month, however, the cost of war and a healthy fear of more were very much on every American’s mind: D-Day and the Normandy landings began the process that would free a continent—but unleashed a torrent of violence, destruction, and death in the process.
Hitler had annexed, absorbed or taken Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia without firing a shot in 1938, conquered Poland in 1930, and then obliterated France in 1940. After surviving the Battle of Britain in late 1940, Winston Churchill realized that to defeat the Nazis, the allies would eventually have to invade the European mainland. His meager forces, however, were woefully insufficient to mount such an operation. It wasn’t until the United States entered the war in December 1941—along with our massive industrial capacity and millions of military-aged males—that such an invasion could be realistically considered.
Churchill and U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) first broached the idea barely three months after Pearl Harbor, in March 1942. FDR told Churchill that while he understood the British leader’s desire to mount an invasion as quickly as possible, U.S. needs in the Pacific took priority. The earliest an invasion could even be considered was early 1943, he said.
Joseph Stalin, meanwhile, feeling increased pressure because of the devastating Nazi attack into the USSR the previous spring, began demanding his Western allies to invade France to put Hitler into a two-front war. Hitler’s troops were still on the outskirts of Moscow in early 1942 and were making preparations for their summer offensive; it wasn’t clear how long Stalin could hold out. Stalin’s preferences aside, logistics and the availability of critical war material would be the drivers for when an invasion could be launched.
What the United States would be willing to support, however, would be joining a limited invasion of North Africa. In November 1942, the American II Corps joined other allied forces in Operation Torch, conducting a seaborne invasion of Morocco and Algeria, attacking Germany’s vital access to resources and oil in Africa. The operation served as the opening salvo in what would be a string of beach landings that would eventually culminate in the Normandy invasion.
At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, Churchill and FDR again considered an invasion of Northern France, but logistics and demands from other theaters of war again prevented a near-term operation. What they could afford, however, was a smaller invasion force in what Churchill inaptly called Europe’s “soft underbelly” of Italy. If the allies could knock Italy out of the war, they could potentially open a land route into southern Germany.
In July 1943, the first landings took place on the island of Sicily, spearheaded by American general George Patton and British commander Bernard Montgomery. Routing the Germans off the island by August, the allies planned the jump to the Italian mainland. On September 3, 1943, the British under Montgomery landed at Calabria and the Americans under General Mark Clark stormed ashore at Salerno on September 9. The Battle of Italy had begun.
But as is so often the case in war—and as would be a defining characteristic of the Normandy landings a year later—the battle didn’t go according to plan. It was much tougher than anticipated. Slogging through the drenching and muddy ground, the rugged and rocky mountains of Italy, and fierce and effective German resistance slowed the allied advance.
Meanwhile, in November 1943, FDR, Churchill, and Stalin met at the Tehran Conference where the “big three” decided on joint war aims, the potential postwar order after the defeat of the Axis Powers, and, most critically, they agreed to the invasion of northern France. The site selected: Normandy. The initial date for Operation Overlord was set for May 1944. Back in Italy, however, German resistance continued to delay the Allied timeline.
To break the impasse and speed the way to the primary objective in the Italian campaign (taking Rome), the American and British commanders decided to try a new beach landing, this time at Anzio. The intent was to land in the German rear, causing the Nazis to withdraw their forces battling the allies further to the south, hopefully collapsing their resistance and hastening the capture of Rome.
In January 1944, amphibious forces landed at Anzio in conjunction with an attack at the Rapido River to the south. The attack was deemed necessary to win the Battle of Italy, but it put Operation Overlord at risk because many of the naval vessels and much of the landing craft used at Anzio would also be needed at Normandy. The experience gained at Anzio, however—especially combined with the landings at Sicily and Salerno—were to prove invaluable on D-Day.
Prior to the invasion in northern France, the Allies had planned meticulously, prepared with thousands of ships, tons of war material, and allocated 175,000 men for the operation. But as the allies learned to their pain in Italy, the German soldier would fight tenaciously, viciously, and professionally, regardless of how desperate the odds. A common saying among military men has always been that no plan survives first contact, and that would be on vivid display on the beaches of Normandy.
The battle would also show, however, that regardless of how relentlessly and effectively the German soldiers would fight, the American and British proved every bit as good. The day—the longest day—would be won by courageous, clever, and creative troops—but purchased at an incredibly high price in blood.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.