D-Day: splendid, glorious, heroic, sacrificial – and terribly wrong

In this double feature I’ll try to comment on the event we’ll be celebrating on Friday: D-Day, universally and rightly seen as a pivotal milestone in the history of the last big war.

Yet not everything about it is clear-cut. The Second World War was a complex drama, with the plot played out in the proscenium while multiple sub-plots unfolded behind the curtain.

The general public, good folk who just get on with their lives without being excessively bothered about modern history, are probably familiar with the plot and the dramatis personae in the key roles, although, after half a century of comprehensive education, this might be an unsafe assumption.

The sub-plots, on the other hand, remain in the shadows, often invisible even to those who take professional interest in such matters. D-Day, the term normally used to describe the Allied invasion of northern France is one such sub-plot.

In history’s greatest seaborne operation on 6 June, 1944, 6,939 ships landed 156,115 allied troops on Normandy beaches. Contrary to the misconception prevalent in the USA (“we won your war for you”), only 73,000 of them came from the US. The rest mostly flew the flags of Britain and her dominions.

The landing succeeded largely due to the undercover preparation work, preceded as the invasion had been by a massive deception operation. Consequently the SS tank divisions deployed to protect the coast of Pas-de-Calais didn’t make it to the beachhead in time to wipe it out. Even as it was, 10,000 Allied soldiers died amidst the dunes.

The resulting triumph of Allied arms could easily have turned into a disaster. In fact, even the most optimistic members of the Allied High Command had rated the chances of success as 50-50 at best.

These weren’t the kind of odds on which Anglo-American generals typically risked potential casualties in the hundreds of thousands. So what made them push the button this time? What dire operational necessity was guiding their finger?

The answer is, there was no operational necessity, dire or otherwise, for the invasion of Northern France. It wasn’t the bellicose god of war that drove the Allies across the Channel, but the shifty god of political chicanery.

Here we ought to remember that the three main Allied powers, Britain, the USA and the USSR, while united in their common goal of defeating Nazi Germany, also pursued aims of their own – and these were at odds.

In the run-up to the war, the Soviets had built up the biggest invasion force known in history, far outstripping the rest of the world’s armies put together in both manpower and materiel.

Stalin had a seven to one superiority in tanks over Germany, with his machines being technologically two generations ahead of the Wehrmacht’s (or anyone else’s). Soviet fighter planes had demonstrated their superiority over their German and Italian analogues during the Spanish Civil War. Stalin boasted more submarines than the rest of the world combined. And as to the human resources, the Soviets could match Germany three times over.

It would be tedious to argue the point that ought to be self-evident to any historian other than fully paid-up apologists for Stalin: that gigantic force, assembled at a cost of millions dead and hundreds of millions enslaved, was put together not to defend Russia but to conquer the world.

The plan was to provoke Hitler’s assault on the West, wait until his troops got mired either in France or, ideally, in Britain and then drive the juggernaut across the central European plains.

The entire Soviet policy from about 1932 onwards is intelligible only in the light of this objective. It’s to achieve it that in a few short years Stalin turned the Soviet Union into a giant military-labour camp, starved millions to death, courted Hitler, first secretly, then – after August 1939 – openly, provided the raw materials without which Nazi Germany couldn’t have attacked the West, invaded Poland from the east 17 days after the Nazis had invaded her from the west, provided the bombs that German planes rained on London.

Two developments prevented Stalin from launching his offensive in 1940, as had been planned (that operation went by the codename THUNDERSTORM). The first was the Winter War of 1939-1940, in which Stalin threw against Finland an army almost outnumbering the entire population of that tiny country.

The Finns heroically fought Stalin’s hordes to a standstill, inflicting 500,000 casualties, against 20,000-odd of their own. Brilliantly led by Marshal Mannerheim, who had learned his trade when serving as Lieutenant-General in the Tsar’s Guards, the Finns gave Stalin a reality check: his army was poorly trained, ineptly led and incompetently supplied.

Still, the Finns could keep up their heroic struggle only for so long: a country whose population was smaller than Leningrad’s was running out of resources. Yet just as Stalin was finally ready to overrun Finland, he was given another reality check.

The British government hinted, not so subtly, that, should Stalin refuse to accept an armistice with a token gain in Finnish territory, the Brits would use the RAF Mosul base in Iraq to take out the Baku oilfields, then the only source of Soviet oil. Stalin took the hint, sued for peace and delayed the planned invasion of Europe.

‘Delayed’ shouldn’t be understood to mean ‘cancelled’: THUNDERSTORM was to go ahead, but a year later than originally planned, around July-August, 1941. When Hitler finally realised what was going on, he took the wild gamble of delivering a pre-emptive strike, thus accepting what every German schoolchild knew would be catastrophic: a two-front war.

What those precocious schoolchildren didn’t know, and some eminent historians still don’t, was that Hitler no longer had a choice. Stalin’s monstrous juggernaut had to be destroyed before it had a chance to roll.


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