Saving What We Could: Had the United States and the British Empire not intervened in June 1944, it is almost a certainty that the Red Army would have rolled on all the way to the English Channel. That was not something either power was willing to countenance. D-Day may have rescued half of Europe from Adolf Hitler, but it could not prevent the other half from falling under the sway of Joseph Stalin - leader of the nation that really won World War II.
ABOUT THIS TIME, 75 years ago, D-Day was at approximately T+24. That is to say, the seaborne invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe was fast approaching being exactly one day old.
In the United States, where most of the resources underpinning the invasion came from; and in what used to be known as the British Empire, which supplied a great many of the troops who spent June 1944 slogging their bloody way inland; D-Day has come to be seen as the pivot-point of the Second World War. The moment when the defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich became inevitable.
Indeed, D-Day is crucial to the mythology of that dreadful conflict. It reinforces the notion that the War was an existential struggle between Good and Evil – which Good won.
Except it wasn’t. And it didn’t.
In all the commemorative literature; in the seemingly endless grainy documentaries playing on the History Channel; in the grossly oversimplified D-Day stories broadcast on radio, television, and the Internet; one brutal fact will be, at best, glossed over, or, at worst (and much more probably) omitted altogether.
On 6 June 1944, as the first landing craft were making contact with the beaches of Normandy, fully nine-tenths of the German armed forces were engaged fighting the Soviet Union’s Red Army on the Eastern Front.
Had they not been, then D-Day would never have been attempted. Neither the United States, nor the British Empire, would have dreamed of sending an invasion force against the full strength of the German Army. Why not? Because it would have been an unmitigated disaster.
Even with 90 percent of Germany’s forces battling the Russians; even with the Allies reading virtually all of the Wehrmacht’s military communications; even with a drugged-up Fuhrer incapable of providing anything remotely resembling competent leadership; D-Day was, to borrow the Duke of Wellington’s terse summary of the Battle of Waterloo: “A damn near-run thing.” Had Erwin Rommel and the other German commanders been permitted the same degree of operational freedom in June 1944 as they had enjoyed in the invasion of France, just four years earlier, then “Eisenhower” might now be a by-word for abject military failure.
As for a battle between Good and Evil. Well. Even if we allow that the British Empire and its American ally represented the forces of justice, tolerance and liberal democracy (and that would be a ridiculously generous allowance!) no such generosity can be afforded to the regime of Joseph Stalin.
The battle that mattered: the one that raged across the Great European Plain following the truly pivotal Battle of Stalingrad (and after that, the epic Battle of Kursk) was not a struggle between Good and Evil; but a fight to the death between two equally evil ideologies: Fascism and Communism.
That Communism won the day was not due to any inherent superiority in its philosophical precepts, but simply because Stalin had a great many more human-beings to hurl into the meat-grinder of the Eastern Front than Hitler did. The Fuhrer also lacked military officers who were willing to countenance the deliberate machine-gunning of their own troops should they falter in the face of withering fire, or, worse still, attempt to retreat. Not even the Nazis dared issue an order that the wives of soldiers who dared to surrender to the enemy be sent to the death camps.
Winston Churchill, questioned about his support of the Soviet Union following the launching of “Operation Barbarossa” in June 1941, famously quipped: “If Hitler were to invade Hell, I would, at least, make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” It was a clever joke, but, as jokes so often do, it contained a hard kernel of truth.
“We” won the Second World War not because we had God on our side, but because we were allied with the second-best approximation of Lucifer to be found this side of the Gates of Hades. Adolf Hitler may have started the War; and his industrialised genocide may have come down to us as its most obscene emblem; but it was the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, who ended it. The combined losses of the British Empire and the United States barely exceeded one million. Soviet losses are estimated at 20-27 million.
In a moral, as well as a military sense: D-Day was the very least we could do.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 June 2019.