“When I think of the beaches of Normandy choked with the flowers of American and British youth and when, in my mind’s eye I see the tides running red with blood, I have my doubts, Ike. I have my doubts.”
– British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day
It is hard to imagine these words were ever uttered by the jowly, defiant, cigar-champing lion of resistance, Winston Churchill. But they were. And who could blame him? The ruthless Nazi juggernaut which dominated the majority of Europe in less than one year had fortified its French and Mediterranean coasts. A multi-front war (Western European/North African front, Eastern European/Soviet front and Pacific theater) was being waged with an odd alliance of countries led by a conservative aristocrat, an idealistic liberal and a despotic communist. An enterprise of unparalleled ambition, unmatched resources and uncertain outcome aiming to cross the English channel and liberate Europe was being undertaken. And if that weren’t enough, there might be bad weather. It led Churchill to anxiously approach his wife as they were retiring the night of the invasion and ask,
“Do you realize that by the time you wake up in the morning 20,000 men may have been killed?”
She could offer no answer.
Winston Churchill wasn’t the only one weighed with concern. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower in his last preparations for the cross-Channel invasion felt obliged to scribble a note in case the attack failed.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
And speaking over the radio, President Franklin Roosevelt united his nation in prayer as the landings were in their infancy. His tone was hopeful, but equally grave.
“Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.”
And all the while, the young, shivering sea-sprayed soldiers skiffed in Higgins boats or flew in planes closer to the ominous shores with no little doubt and fear.
And yet. They did it…They did it.
As the American President would pray,
“For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.”
As the British Prime Minister’s words would aptly echo his speech from the first days of war,
“We are fighting to save the world from a pestilence of Nazi tyranny & in defense of all that is most sacred to man…It is a war…to establish on impregnable rocks the right of the individual. It is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.”
And as the Supreme Allied Commander would address in his letter to the men embarking on this mission,
“The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you…You will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe,
and security for ourselves in a free world.”
But perhaps even more convincing, they fought against dehumanization, summary executions & genocide.
Now, it may be argued that the horrors discovered in Europe long after D-Day exceeded anything that could have been imagined when the invasion began. But Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and men and women of the military knew the Nazi worldview: Aggression, Fanaticism, Hatred, Ruthlessness, Greed. Values antithetical to human dignity and freedom. The Nazi creed taken to its extreme, yet logical, end would lead to the concentration camp. And it needed to be stopped.
So 70 years after D-Day…what have we learned? Were there doubts? Absolutely. Trepidation and uncertainty coursed through every individual from the grunt to the generals. Was there a duty recognized by leaders and soldiers alike to liberate the European peoples? Unquestionably. And what was the outcome? Deliverance. Sweet deliverance at a very high price.
Doubt. Duty. Deliverance. To all veterans who have paid or been willing to pay that price, humbly, sincerely and endlessly…thank you.