“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender” – Winston Churchill
On June the 6th 1944, one of the most audacious, strategically important military operations, Operation Overlord, was put in to action. An attempt to gain a foothold in Continental Europe and launch an assault on Nazi forces. The operation started with the single largest naval invasion ever, Operation Neptune. 6939 sea-faring craft including Naval attack vessels, Merchant Navy ships and some 4126 landing craft crossed the English Channel with an aerial support from 11,590 aircraft.
With the French coast coming in to view, the landing craft pressed on under the intense bombardment of the German heavy artillery installations depositing 156,115 soldiers into the waters of the 5 beaches – Sword, Gold, Omaha, Utah and Juno. The aerial invasion dropped some 23,400 airborne troops behind enemy lines in the French countryside, launching an assault on the German troops and free the surrounding towns and villages.
Numerous soldiers died as they disembarked their landing craft, not even making it out of the surf, all the while a salvo of heavy artillery being exchanged between German installations and Allied Naval craft. As men made landfall, there was no time for celebration. The beaches, littered with barbed wire and immense metal structures designed to scupper the landing craft, causing them to drop their men in waist-deep swells, became killing fields.
Those that made it to land were faced with a stretch of beach, and a rising sand bank littered with armed German soldiers and fortified concrete gunnery bunkers, not to mention hidden mines. Against all odds, Allied forces broke down the enemy lines, and after intense, brutal and bloody fighting, the beaches were won. The strategic bridges at Benouvile and Ranville were captured, and the German forces were pushed back. The beaches were safe enough for amphibious vehicles and tanks to land for the ground assault.
Operation Fortitude succeeded in its job of diverting German attention and masking the true location of the assault. Without this success, the Nazi forces would have been far stronger. Operation Overlord was a success. But it was not without heavy human cost.
Having been lucky enough to visit the beaches of Normandy, see some of the German artillery placements, and have the moving experience of visiting military cemeteries for both sides, I am left in no doubt how important this day was. How vastly different would the recent past, present and future of Europe, and beyond, be if the day ended in failure?
70 years on to the day, and we still honour and remember the sacrifice, the losses, and the importance of what those hundreds of thousands of men have done for the world. And may they, and their actions, never be forgotten.