I had a lot in common with the man sitting beside me on the plane to Paris this summer. We were both Midwest transplants now living in the South, we were both wearing compression socks, and we were both highly anticipating our upcoming trips to Normandy.
He would depart for his shortly after we arrived in Paris, and his tour would take him to several sites culminating in Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. I still have some time before I make my way to Normandy for a day long tour of the five D-Day beaches, but I’ve been preparing for awhile now.
Like my general understanding of French history, my knowledge of what happened on D-Day has come and gone a few times over my lifetime. I’m sure I knew something about it in high school when I took AP US History and the movie Saving Private Ryan premiered (although I didn’t see it). I probably touched on it again in college when I studied abroad in Europe.
But most of what I knew then has been lost. So to prepare for myself for my Normandy tour, I’ve watched the first few episodes of Band of Brothers, I’ve listened to an abridged version of Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day audiobook, and I’ve visited the French Army Museum in Paris. On the plane, along with the man beside me, I watched The Longest Day, a 1962 film about the Normandy landings.
The films and the audiobook tend to jump around between different units, and my lack of knowledge of military terms (e.g., division, regiment, etc.) has kept me from following the storylines of any individual or group very well. But I have a sense of the larger picture now.
Here’s what I’ll be thinking about when I make my trip to Normandy and what I’m thinking about today on the 75th anniversary of D-Day:
- The extent of the physical obstacles the Allied soldiers faced on the beaches like land mines, barbed wire, barriers, the terrain, and the sea itself. Laden down with equipment, the troops navigated these obstacles while under intense fire from Germans positioned above them. They had to pass fellow soldiers lying dead or wounded on the ground.
- The magnitude of the Allied fleet that came to launch the attack: 7000 ships and landing craft with 156,000 Allied soldiers landing at Normandy.* There’s a scene in The Longest Day (that my seat mate on the plane had me watch for) where a German officer in a beach front barricade looks out to the horizon through binoculars and a wall of Allied ships appears before him.
- The French citizens in the towns behind the beaches who were waiting to be liberated after four years of German occupation.
- The problems that clouds and the weather introduced, making it difficult for the Allied air fleet to drop the paratroopers in their designated zones and to carry out an aerial bombing of the German defenses along the beaches before the infantry troops came ashore.
- The extent of the casualties among the Allied troops: over 10,000 with 4,414 of these confirmed deaths.**
As overwhelming as they are, these numbers represent one day in a war that lasted years. Learning about D-Day has reminded me of all the things I don’t know yet about World War II. Like what else happened on the Western front and what happened on the Eastern front, in North Africa, and in the Pacific theater.
The horror of D-Day is overwhelming and to continue to follow it means coming to grips with even more horror–military campaigns, concentration camps, and atomic bombings.
Knowing history can’t change it’s course, but I find I’m scared to learn it. Part of me wants to hide from the horror, but there’s another part of me, a stronger part, that wants to honor the memory of those involved by learning their stories in Normandy and beyond.
*From BBC News article “D-Day: 10 things you might not know about the Normandy invasion”
**From the Wikipedia entry on Normandy Landings