D-Day not only divided Hitler’s armies on two fronts, it also kept the Soviets out of Western Europe.
By Denis Chrissikos
The amphibious landings on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944, popularly known as D-Day, were part of a larger strategic goal of the Western powers: opening a second front in the Western European theatre of war in support of the Soviet campaign in Eastern Europe. D-Day was also a political maneuver against the Soviet Union. The British and American forces had to reach Germany before the Soviets could completely overrun the country. D-Day was the stepping stone for the Western powers’ race to Berlin against the Soviet Union.
In 1939 – 1940 Nazi Germany overran Western Europe, knocking out Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France in the space of two years. By 1940 Germany had near-uncontested control of Western Europe and North Africa. Only Great Britain remained a threat to German ambitions until the entry of the United States into the war after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Shortly before the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a non-aggression treaty stipulating that both sides remain neutral towards each other. However, the pact also contained details on dividing up spheres of influence in Finland, Poland, the Baltic States, and Romania. Stalin also agreed to continue sending military and logistical exports to Germany, especially oil, a critical resource for German tank warfare.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler broke the non-aggression pact by launching Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, convinced that the Soviet Union would fall in a matter of months. With Britain and the United States unable to offer any direct military support to the Soviet Union, the ill-prepared Red Army fended for itself against the highly trained Wehrmacht. However, the British and Americans did assist the Soviets indirectly through Lend-Lease aid, shipping military equipment and supplies to the Soviet Union by way of Arctic sea convoys. American aid to the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease amounted to 7% of Soviet military output and $2.8 billion in non-military supplies. Although the Western powers were in effect funding the war machine of a totalitarian state, no other realistic option was available at the time. As long as the Soviet Union remained at war with Germany, the U.S. and Britain could build up their military forces until they were ready, without having to face the full might of the Nazi war machine.
Stalin constantly harangued the Western powers to open a second front in Europe to draw German infantry and tank divisions away from the Eastern Front. Plans were initially laid to invade France in 1942, but concerns over the lack of proper resources, landing craft and military preparedness to attempt an amphibious offensive resulted in delaying an invasion of France until 1944. Instead, in November 1942 the Western powers launched Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. This invasion tied down some German units in North Africa, especially Luftwaffe squadrons diverted to North Africa from the Eastern front.
Despite this effort, Stalin’s protestations continued, partly due to the Germans’ rapid advance into the Soviet Union in 1942 – 1943, partly from Stalin’s own paranoid fears that the Allies were stalling in the hopes that the Germans and Soviets would beat each other to exhaustion. Operation Torch was followed in 1943 by Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Italy, but Stalin continued to demand more be done to ease the pressure off his armies in Eastern Europe.
Operation Overlord, the seaborne invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day according to the invasion plan, finally silenced Stalin’s complaints. Overlord radically changed the strategic situation in the European theatre of war; Germany was now pincered between the Allies in Western France and the Soviets in Eastern Europe.
The landings themselves involved a colossal effort of disembarking hundreds of thousands of men and weaponry on a heavily fortified coast, dubbed the Atlantic Wall, that had been been undergoing preparation for four years. More than 5,000 ships and 8,000 aircraft supported the assault, and eight infantry divisions were to go on the beaches in the first wave of the landings.
Months before D-Day, a massive Allied deception campaign led by the British, Plan Fortitude, used false radio chatter, diversionary bombing attacks, and double agents through the Double Cross system to confuse German intelligence as to the location of the invasion.
D-Day was a huge gamble on the part of the Western powers; failure would mean an indefinite postponement of an invasion of France and a severe blow to morale. It would also leave Germany open to Soviet conquest. At the time of the D-Day landings, the Soviets were much closer to Berlin relative to the Western powers; British, Commonwealth and American armies would have to cover three times as much ground to reach the German capital.
Despite the nefarious nature of the Soviet regime and its intentions in the war, one must not discount the scale of the contribution of the Red Army to fighting Nazi Germany. The D-Day landings did indeed assist the Eastern Front by tying down German units in France; in late June, just before the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, Hitler transferred the II SS Panzer Corps to Normandy to bolster his armies there. Yet, the Western powers were facing 25% of the German armed forces, many of which were low quality reserve units. The Soviets were still left fighting 75% of the German army in the East as the British, Commonwealth and American forces fought their way through France and the Low Countries.
The U.S. and Britain were already looking ahead to the post-war phase and knew they had to step up their efforts to defeat Hitler before Stalin could steamroll his way through Germany. With that in mind, D-Day was a tremendous triumph for the Western powers: American, British, ANZAC and Canadian armies managed to break through the Atlantic Wall, France and the Low Countries fast enough to reach and occupy Western Germany. Had the main effort taken place through northern Italy or the Balkans as Churchill had initially intended, the mountainous terrain would have severely stalled the advance of Western forces into Germany. It is no exaggeration to argue that what took place on June 6, 1944 determined the fate of Europe for the next 50 years.