Sixty-nine years ago today, 160,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy. The Allied troops came as liberators. They came as free men. They came to save the world from tyranny. D-Day marked the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany's domination of Europe. But four years earlier it was a much different story.
In May of 1940, after consuming the Ruhr, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, the Nazi's invaded France. German Panzer divisions rushed through Luxemburg's Ardennes forest, slicing the French army in half. The British Expeditionary Force of 400,000 was cut off, trapped between the bulk of the German army and the British channel. They retreated, under withering fire, to the northern port city of Dunkirk, where they held on desperately, awaiting rescue. Thousands of British citizens and seamen came to their aid in anything that would float and under constant bombardment from the German Luftwaffe. On June 4, 1940, the last British soldier was rescued from Dunkirk. That same day, Winston Churchill, Britain's newly selected Prime Minister, stood in Parliament and said:
"We shall not flag or fail. 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!"
Two weeks later, the French surrendered to Hitler. England stood alone. Few expected them to survive, including Joseph Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to England. But the British people, inspired by Churchill, refused to capitulate. Against all odds, they hung on. Eventually the United States entered the war, and the tide began to turn.
Four years after Dunkirk, side by side with their American and Canadian allies, the British returned to France. A few hours before the D-Day mobilization began, Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke these words to the Allied troops:
"Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. 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. But this is the year 1944! ... The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!"
The Allies stormed the beaches. Thousands died that day and during the desperate battles over the following days.
Long after the war, U.S. General Omar Bradley memorialized the D-Day soldiers. "Even now it brings pain to recall what happened there on June 6, 1944. I have returned many times to honor the valiant men who died on that beach. They should never be forgotten. Nor should those who lived to carry the day by the slimmest of margins."
After nearly 70 years, and as the last of the Greatest Generation leave us, may we remember their sacrifices. To echo Churchill, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.
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