I spent D-Day in St Lo- about 20 miles south from the landing beaches and a strategic city in the American Sector for the 29th and 35th Infantry Divisions. This city was literally in ruins due to heavy fighting and bombardment. This fighting was particularly difficult and casualties very high as the units had to slug through the hedgerows and marsh country. I also attended numerous remembrance ceremonies and visited memorials while here including the memorial to Thomas Howie, the “Major of Saint-Lo.”
As a historian, I have analyzed war from many perspectives- tactics, strategies, technology, gender and social. Throughout this trip, however, I have sought to discover a different way to view this war; perhaps holistic is the term that best defines my approach. It is easy to segregate the war into separate silos: Allies and Axis powers; European and Pacific theaters; combatants and non-combatants; men and women who served; the list goes on and on. What clearly links these entities for me has been hearing first-hand from soldiers who fought on the battlefield; nurses who flew medi-vac missions of D-Day; French resistance fighters who were but young teenagers; French women who hid American paratroopers in their barn; American soldiers who started a school for young German boys in prisoner of war camps. These and many more stories enrich my understanding of the interconnectedness of war. The people I have met have truly inspired me and have strengthened my connection to this amazing generation.
I have much to write!
Omaha Beach. As a veteran, walking on Omaha beach is like walking on sacred ground. On this sand, 34,000 men and 3,300 vehicles from the 1st Infantry Division and 29th Infantry Division were chosen to make the first wave landings at the most difficult location on D-Day. Staggering obstacles faced these men including rough weather- 10 to 18 knot winds and 3-4 feet waves ( many men drowned exiting the landing crafts), loss of equipment,heavily fortified German defenses on this stretch of beach and on the bluffs above the beach….and 200+yards of no-man’s land open beach to cross to get to cover. Landings became so bogged down that at 10:00 am US Navy destroyers came to within 1000 yards of shore to supply direct suppressive fire in support of landing troops. Casualties are unknown but estimates range at 1000 + soldiers and sailors lost their lives that morning establishing the Allies foothold on the European Continent.
I find there is one continuous thread that ties together all of the events and places I have seen thus far at Normandy: leadership. Despite the chaos of war and the seemingly insurmountable challenges of D-Day and beyond, individual soldiers – irrespective of rank, stepped up in a moment of crisis to take decisive action, inspire others, and push forward to accomplish the mission. Hearing about theses individual stories and then walking the ground here at Normandy has truly broadened my knowledge and perspective as a military historian. Tomorrow is D-Day. We spend the day at formal remembrance ceremonies at St Lo and at the American Cemetary at Colleville. I end this blog with a video I took on Omaha Beach. The beach was quiet and peaceful as the tide lazily went out into the afternoon. May all those who fell on this beach and all the families they left behind find comfort tonight on this 72nd anniversary eve of D-Day.
Tonight I write my blog from the comfortable ferry terminal in Portsmouth, England, awaiting my night crossing of the English Channel. My thoughts are focused on the crossing made by so many 72 years ago in much more dire circumstances. In my research at the British Archives this past week, I had the opportunity to read over many of General Eisenhower’s planning papers for Operation Overlord. I cannot even fathom the burden he and the other commanders shouldered as they sent their soldiers, sailors, and airmen to almost certain death on Omaha and Utah Beaches and the other landing sights. It’s as if the entire free world held it’s breath on the eve of D-Day. I had the chance to read the papers of British and American military women women who also traveled to Normandy a mere 4 days after D-Day to set up field hospitals and assist with securing signal and communications networks as the armies made their hard fought breakout onto the continent. I include a few pictures of these women who landed D-Day +4 and D-Day plus a few weeks. I wrap up this entry with an interesting perspective from Cpl Daphnee Clark who worked in the rear HQ as an administrative clerk. Her brother had recently died a few weeks prior on the beaches on D-Day and in her journal she writes, ” I would not have missed this trip for all the world.” This was a truly unique generation from whom so much was asked and yet they so freely gave of their lives. This debt must be remembered. As less than one percent of our nation serve in the military today, this Memorial Day , I hope that all Americans will reflect on the sacrifices our military men and women voluntarily make for our nation. It’s the very least we can do.
My research time has ended and the students have arrived. We head to Bletchley Park today. I wish I had much more time in the archives here- particularly at the Imperial War Museum where they store a large collection of personal papers from women who served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, ATS (British equivalent of the American Women’s Army Corps, WAC) during WW II. All Btitish women born between 1897 and 1923 were conscripted during WW II and served in civil or military organizations. The ATS is the group I am focusing on as they served as a model for the WAC. In fact, leaders from the ATS traveled to America to advise and also to shore up support for the formation of the WAC in 1940. Initially, the British women in the ATS were tasked out to support the American 8th Air Force who were stationed in England supporting the Combined Bomber offensive early in the war. WACs were desperately needed to handle administrative, communication, and other important tasks and as soon as the American WACs arrived, the British ATS were able to return to their important roles . For example, Winston Churchill’s daughter, Mary, served as an anti-aircraft hunger during the Blitz (German bombing of London.) Remember – there were no computers or email at this time. All correspondence was dictated and typed for further distribution by curriers or wireless. In addition, WACs assisted with Signal operations by manning switchboards, etc. The day before D-Day, General Eisenhower ordered his WAC staff to type a note to each paratrooper bound for Normandy conveying his heart felt sentiments as their commander. I will provide some additional personal stories and pictures in this evening’s blog. Cheers!