Today is the anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe which took place 70 years ago. Many of us had fathers or grandfathers who fought in that war, as part of what Tom Brokaw calls The Greatest Generation. However you feel about that designation (and arguments have been advanced that it was no better or worse than any other generation), a certain mystique surrounds them, an appeal perhaps to what seems like a simpler age, where good and evil were more easily to be found.
The Crusade in Europe, as Eisenhower called it, certainly seems to fit the bill, differing as it does from Bush’s war of self-aggrandizement in Iraq. Bush had no better excuses for invading Iraq than Hitler did Poland, the campaign that triggered the Second World War, but the United States had every reason in the world to join its allies to invade Europe in the summer of 1944. The specter of a world dominated by Hitler was not to be endured, and as Lincoln would have put it, many of them gave the last full measure of their devotion to ensure such a thing never came to pass.
We can take the shine off such noble sentiment by thinking about people who, like my father, told me he fought the Japanese because he hated them for Pearl Harbor, but fought the Germans because he was told to. The racial bias in his statement is not lost on me, and I know he is not the only member of the Greatest Generation to feel that way. But for all their faults and foibles, our fathers and grandfathers stormed ashore on June 6, 1944, and began to long-awaiting campaign to drive the Germans back to Germany and put paid to Adolf Hitler and his dreams of world domination.
Today we are celebrating D-Day. Obama gave a speech, praising the heroes of D-Day. He spoke of how we all live in a moment in time. The moment in time of those heroes was D-Day. But there were other heroes, unsung, whose moment in time came before D-Day, in the days, weeks, and months leading up to the epic landing. Their moments in time have gone unsung, and some consideration should be paid to them as well.
Craig L. Symonds’ Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings, is not a blow-by-blow account of the D-Day invasions, but rather a blow-by-blow account of all the decisions and events that went into making D-Day possible.
Symonds, Professor of History Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy, offers a fascinating discussion of the personalities involved in the planning and preparation for Operation Overlord, as the D-Day invasion was called, but you will find in his book charts and diagrams describing the landing craft employed, including comparisons of size and production information, the Neptune-Overlord command structure, and the build-up of American troop strength in Britain. It is a fascinating account.
For those who want to understand how D-Day came about, rather than what happened when the armies hit the beaches, or what Symonds terms “the backstory,” Neptune is the book for you. Going all the way back to early American plans for war in both Atlantic and Pacific (the so-called color-coded plans), he addresses the effects of Hitler’s early victories on American leadership, as well as Churchill’s manipulations at his meetings with FDR at Placentia Bay, and later, following the events of December 7, 1941, at the Arcadia conference.
As well as FDR’s struggles with Churchill, Symonds looks at the president’s struggles with his own military leadership, beginning with General George Marshall (later made famous by the Marshall Plan). From the very beginning, American planners had different goals from their British counterparts. Churchill wanted to pinprick Germany to death, strangling their lifelines and bombing them to the brink, and then, only then, actually invading northern Europe to finish them off.
As is well known, American planners favored a more direct approach (Eisenhower’s “We’ve got to go to Europe and fight!”), and Symonds describes and back and forth struggle to find an actual plan amid all the conflicting desires. It seems a wonder, reading about these struggles, that Overlord came about at all, or that it worked as well as it did. It is not, after all, that the Germans were surprised that the allies were coming.
Symonds looks at the logistics of the invasion from its very inception, including the production of much-needed landing craft, both British and American. He looks at shipping losses vs. the construction of new ships, the ability (or lack thereof) of America to send the needed troops to Britain in light of commitments in the Pacific, and also Churchill’s soft underbelly strategy in the Mediterranean, which siphoned off considerable American resources, including my father.
America is rightly seen as the Arsenal of Democracy, but Symonds makes it clear that even America had limits, and these were reached. In the end, due to these ongoing commitments, D-Day was launched despite a shortage of landing craft. My father’s on landing craft stayed, with many others, in the Mediterranean. He was at Salerno, but he would miss D-Day.
This is a well-written account, packed with information yet easy to read, one of those rare historical accounts that rather than overwhelming me with detail, made me eager to pick it up again and continue the journey to June 6, 1944, when Neptune at last bore fruit. Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings is an absolute must-read for those interested in the backstory to D-Day. Obama said that their story should be “seared into the memory of a future world,” and indeed it should, but that memory should include those who made that landing possible, and not be limited to those who stormed ashore on the beaches. Craig L. Symonds has done them all honor.
Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings was published May 8, 2014 by Oxford University Press and is available from Amazon and other booksellers.