Why D-Day Mattered

Consider the alternative…

By Dave Kopel, of the Independence Institute

National Review Online, 6/06/00 9:00 a.m. (slightly revised, 6/2006). More by Kopel on World War II.

Today's academic historians are obsessed with race, sex, and class; one sad consequence of this is contempt for historical subjects which interested earlier generations of historians (since most of these historians were white males). Military history, therefore, is a very disfavored specialty for new Ph.D.'s who want to find jobs and eventually earn tenure.

The American public, however, remains quite interested in military-history books and movies. The Second World War is second only to the War Between the States as the favorite subject of a large section of the literate public. Yet some academics continue to produce superb works of military history. Perhaps the most eminent of these scholars is Dennis Showalter of Colorado College. Among Showalter's recent accomplishments is co-editing an excellent, but little-known, book of alternative history about World War II, titled What If? (Chicago: Emperor's Press, 1997). Showalter and nineteen other historians examine what might have happened if key decisions regarding the war had been made differently. For example, what if Britain and France had gone to war in March 1938, rather than signing the Munich Accord? Answer: Hitler would probably have been deposed by a coup of the German General Staff, which was strongly opposed to a war at that time.

And what if D-Day had failed, and the Allies had been driven off the Normandy beaches? In the long run, the biggest losers would have been the German people. The Allies would have continued fighting, of course. They could have reinforced Italy, where the Germans had brought an Allied advance to a halt. There could have been an invasion of the Balkans, or of southern France, or even of Norway. But it would have taken many months, or even a year, for any of these operations to be mounted with enough force to make a major impact on the war in Europe.

In the meantime, the relentless advance of the Red Army would have continued. Hitler would probably have tried a counter-attack against the Soviets, using the forces that he would not have needed for the Western counteroffensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. But the eastern offensive would have proven no more successful, in the long run, than the Battle of the Bulge, or than Hitler's 1943 eastern counteroffensive, which climaxed in the immense tank battle at Kursk. The war would have ended with the Soviet army marching all the way to the Rhine, in full control of Germany.

Although Stalin might have allowed the Allies some token participation in the government of Germany, the entire nation would have fallen under Soviet control. The disastrous Yalta conference in February 1945 would have been far worse, given the ineffectual contribution of the Allies in defeating Germany.

Had Germany not been forced to surrender in May 1945, it is likely that the United States would have used atomic bombs against Germany, as a final effort to do something substantial to destroy the Nazis. Contrary to assertions of many modern race-obsessed historians, there is no evidence that U.S. would have had any hesitation in using atomic warfare against the Germans because they were white. The Dresden fire-bombings are proof enough that the lives of German civilians were of no concern to Roosevelt.

Demolished by atomic bombs, all of Germany would have become a Soviet colony. Although the Normandy invasion certainly could have failed, Showalter and his co-authors suggest that Hitler's decision not to let Field Marshal Erwin Rommel launch a launch a massive counterattack with Panzer tank divisions — to attempt to crush the Allied beachheads before they could be consolidated and reinforced — would not have made a difference.

Hitler had held back the Panzers because he believed that Normandy was simply a diversion before the main Allied landing at the Pas de Calais. And while Rommel believed — correctly, it turned out — that the Allied landing had to be crushed within 48 hours or the war would be lost, Hitler was persuaded by Generals von Rundstedt and Geyr that the Panzers should be saved for a counterstroke further inland, out of range of Allied naval artillery.

Indeed, the Allied naval and air bombardment proved to be the key to D-Day's success, and likely would have blunted any large-scale Panzer counterattack. Although popular movies and books focus on the drama of the infantry and paratroop landings and the advance inland, it was naval and air power that made the difference in the first precarious days at Normandy. As Rommel later wrote:

Even the movement of the most minor formations on the battlefield — artillery going into position, tanks forming up, etc. — is instantly attacked from the air with devastating effect. During the day fighting troops and headquarters alike are forced to seek cover in wooded and close country to escape the continual pounding from the air. Up to 640 [naval] guns have been used. The effect is so immense that no operation of any kind is possible in the area commanded by this rapid-fire artillery, either by infantry or by tanks.

Among the many unsung heroes of D-Day, then, are the sailors on ships such as USS Arkansas and USS Texas, and pilots and bombardiers who so effectively suppressed Wehrmacht reinforcement during those critical days when the fate of the world hung by a thread.

What if the invasion of France had taken place in 1943, rather than 1944? Churchill and Roosevelt gave the idea little serious consideration; in fact, Churchill would have preferred to wait until 1945. In August 1942, a 6,000-man force, mostly Canadian, had launched a raid on the French port of Dieppe. The result was total defeat, with a 60 percent casualty rate — the worst of any major battle of the entire war, for the Allies.

Partly as a result, the Allies spent the rest of 1942 and all of 1943 on an invasion of Vichy North Africa (Operation Torch, November 1942), followed by a landing in Sicily (July 1943) and an attack on the Italian mainland. These offensives caused the fall of Mussolini and the collapse of the Italian army and navy; but the Germans were eventually able to establish the Kesselring Line south of the Po River, and stop the Allied advance for the rest of the war.

The seven-division Allied army that landed at Sicily was actually larger than the Normandy invasion force. In 1943, Rommel's Atlantic Wall in northern France (machine-gun bunkers, underwater barriers to block landing craft, and "asparagus" poles to prevent glider landings) was much inferior to the fortress that he had built by 1944. Thus, a D-Day in June 1943 very likely would have succeeded, and the invading army would have broken out into France more rapidly than the 1944 invaders did. The American and British armies could have conquered almost all of Germany.

There would have been no Yalta Conference, for Germany would have been defeated almost a year before. Whatever postwar conferences did take place would have found Churchill and Roosevelt in a much stronger position relative to Stalin. Eastern Europe might still have been in a Soviet sphere of influence, but Communist hegemony would not have been enforced by a Red Army that occupied so many nations by the end of the war. Most of the two million Jews who were killed during the last year of the Final Solution would have been saved.

So the decisions of individuals really can determine the course of history. The brave American, British, and Canadian men who made the ultimate sacrifice on those five Normandy beaches knew that. We honor them by remembering their valor, and by continuing to stand up for freedom.

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