Yale historian on the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy

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On D-Day, June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 American, British, and Canadian forces traveled across the England Channel and landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of France’s Normandy region. Codenamed Operation Overlord, it was one of the largest amphibious military invasions in history, with troops arriving via land, air, and sea.

The military operation took years to coordinate — with U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill at the helm — and included a plan of deception to misdirect the German troops into thinking the invasion was going to take place elsewhere. Tons of equipment and weaponry were transported across the Atlantic Ocean in advance of the invasion.

After a one-day delay due to inclement weather, on the morning of D-Day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, signaled the start of Operation Overlord. He sent a message to the troops that said in part:

The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, 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.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely. …

Our Home Fronts have given us a superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world marching together to Victory! …

More than 4,000 Allied soldiers lost their lives during the D-Day invasion, with thousands more either wounded or declared missing in action. The battle lasted until August 1944 and resulted in the Allied liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control.

Jay Winter, the Charles J. Stille Professor of History Emeritus at Yale
Jay Winter

Jay Winter, the Charles J. Stille Professor of History Emeritus, recently spoke with YaleNews about this historic anniversary. Winter is the author or co-author of 25 books, including, most recently, “War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present.” In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, the noted Yale historian designed and is leading a trip with a Yale Educational Travel group to retrace the steps of the Allied troops through Western Europe.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Why were the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy such significant events? How did they change the course of World War II and of world history?

The breach of the Atlantic Wall Hitler had built to defend Fortress Europe — the whole continent he dominated — announced the beginning of the end of the Second World War. It meant that Germany could not avoid defeat and that Europe and the world would be divided between the Soviet Union, driving west, and the United States, driving east.

What are some of the myths surrounding D-Day and the Battle of Normandy?

One of the myths surrounding D-Day is that it liberated France. That was a longer and bloodier victory, entailing an American invasion of France near St Tropez in the south and some very hard fighting, not all of which was successful. The German army pushed out of Normandy escaped encirclement, and fought hard for the next year.

You will accompany a Yale Educational Travel tour to commemorate this anniversary. What insights into D-Day do you hope to impart to the participants who are seeing these sights?

The first insight is to see just off the coast of Normandy the ruins of the “Mulberry harbors” or giant links in a portable harbor floated across the English Channel. These landing points were destroyed in terrible storms just 13 days after the landing, indicating to all who see them how near to defeat the landing was. The weather almost destroyed the operation.

What aspects of this event have you revisited or even learned anew from your participation in the planning of this tour?

You have to view the site to appreciate the courage of the men who made the landing possible. I have been moved many times by seeing both Point d’Hoc to the west of Omaha beach, where U.S. Rangers scaled 100-foot cliffs under fire, and the site of Pegasus bridge, where British Gliders flying on the night before the landing and launched in Dorset, landed 100 feet from its target, thereby blocking German reinforcements the following day.

Why is it important to recognize and reflect on the anniversaries of historic events such as these?

These events created the world in which we now live. We didn’t create this world alone; we did it in a grand alliance, in which millions of men and women from all over the world worked together to defeat the worst dictatorship the world had ever seen. The Greatest Generation was truly multi-national; it included men from 80 different countries and all of the world’s religions.

What are some present-day lessons that can be learned from D-Day and the Battle of Normandy?

The ugliness of war and the suffering of civilians during it are starkly visible to those of us privileged enough to come to Normandy. “Never again” is the message writ into this landscape.