On the night of June 5, 1944, Americans tuned their radios to hear FDR announce that the Italian fascists had been deposed under the force of Allied troops. The Italian and African campaigns had always been sideshows to the war in Europe and Russia, but the fall of Italy was symbolic, the first of the Axis nations to surrender. In the Roman square where Il Duce had once whipped crowds into a frenzy, the celebration was enormous.
Roosevelt was happy over the news ("One up and two to go!" he said), but he was understandably preoccupied. For even as the president spoke, 175,000 young Allied soldiers (many of them teenagers about to witness their first days in combat) were pushing off from the coast of England toward France in the largest amphibious operation in the history of war.
Operation Overlord, as it was called, was a massive logistical challenge. Along with the enormous fighting force (which was scheduled to grow to 2.5 million before the invasion was completed), it involved moving 50,000 motorcycles, tanks, and bulldozers across sixty miles of open water, employing 5,333 ships and 11,000 airplanes. All told, the operation of D-Day (the "D" stood for nothing more than a reinforcement of the word "Day") was roughly comparable, historian Stephen Ambrose has written, to transporting the cities of Green Bay, Racine, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, across Lake Michigan -- every man, woman, child, car, and truck -- and doing it all in one night.
But it was the strategy, much more than the logistics, that was the gamble. An amphibious invasion is an inherently dubious idea; historically, most have failed. The landing army arrives on a fortified coastline with its back already pushed to the sea and until it can sufficiently secure the beachhead to allow for trucks and artillery to come ashore, the attackers must move about on foot, a disadvantage that is rarely overcome. With Operation Overlord, there was all this against the Allies and more: the untested citizen-soldiers, tens of thousands of young men barely out of boot camp. On the morning of June 6, 1944, no one knew if they were up to the job.
Touring the bases under clearing skies (a torrential rain had forced the postponement of D-Day by twenty-four hours), General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied troops, went down to a Portsmouth pier to see off British units boarding a landing craft. He said farewell to twenty-three thousand Allied paratroopers at Newbury, aware of predictions that as many as 75 percent of them would be casualties. Holding lucky coins he had saved from his successful invasions of North Africa and Sicily, he chatted with the men of the 101st Airborne. Then, after saluting the planes as they took off for France, the stiff-lipped Kansan who would later occupy the White House turned away in tears.
For most Americans, D-Day was the climax of the war. It was their war, the trucks and tanks and armored vehicles carrying the Allied soldiers having recently slid off the assembly lines in Michigan and Illinois; the bombers and fighters ready for takeoff having emerged from assembly plants dotted throughout Ohio, Oregon, and California; the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers having been hammered together at shipyards on both coasts. People cheered the news of the invasion, which they had eagerly awaited. Churches rang their bells, factories sounded their whistles. Then, just as suddenly, everyone huddled in fear for the fate of their young boys, whose lives hung in the balance. On the night of June 6, Roosevelt, who had been too sick to go to London and participate in the planning of D-Day, came on radio to do the only thing that he, or for that matter, any American could do--pray. But the comfort that prayer provided at this moment was undermined by the knowledge that the God they depended upon now was the same one who had tolerated the carnage of Europe and the awful slaughters in the Pacific.
Excerpted from The Century by By Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprint.
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