Today we take note of the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II. This operation turned the tide of the war, leading to the eventual collapse of the Third Reich and the cessation of the evil, death and destruction it had wreaked on Europe.
The amphibious landings were preceded by aerial and naval bombardment and an airborne assault, involving members of the 101st and 82nd Airborne. Many of you know that my son is currently serves proudly with the 82nd Airborne and had the honor of flying over Normandy and serving as a parachute Jump Master during last year’s celebrations, one the highlights of his service. They flew over the village of Ste Mere Eglise.
On D-Day in June of 1944, among the 24,000 US, Canadian and British airborne troops sent to precede the amphibious landings, the 82nd Airborne Division, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was assigned to capture of Ste Mere Eglise. Early on the morning of June 6 (12:20-1:40 AM), pathfinders were dropped behind the enemy lines in order to prepare the drop zones. At 1:40 AM, the men of the 82nd Airborne were dropped off over the Merderet River and marsh.
The poor weather conditions – low clouds and ground fog over the drop zones – altered the visibility of the marker flares installed by the pathfinders. Heavy German anti-aircraft fire added to the situation. As a result, the drops of both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were scattered over an area four times larger than the scheduled one. These men carried heavy packs, but no radios to communicate with each other. In addition, the aircraft carrying the paratroopers found themselves under severe anti-aircraft enemy fire as soon as they approached the coasts.
The 505th was the only Regiment to be dropped almost accurately to the northwest of Ste Mere Eglise, while many other paratroopers from the 101st touched ground far west from their planned drop zone.
At 1:00am, the constant enemy shelling triggered a fire in one of the houses situated by the town’s church, raising the alarm among the inhabitants and the Germans positioned in the village. The fire spread in the town and lit up the sky, allowing the Germans to locate the paratroopers as they were coming down.
Numbers of paratroopers were riddled with bullets before reaching the ground and others landed on trees or utility poles and were killed before they could even undo their parachutes. Still others fell into the fire.
The town was eventually wrested from the Germans by paratroopers under the command of a Lieutenant-Colonel Krause around 4:30 AM.
Sainte Mere Eglise became known to the world after the film The Longest Day because of the paratrooper John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Steele had landed on the church’s steeple and pretended to be dead to avoid being shot by the Germans. He stayed put, hanging in the air, for two long hours and watched helplessly as the Germans shot his comrades around him. The Germans eventually noticed him and took him prisoner, but he managed to escape and rejoin his division when it entered the village at 4.30am.
The town has hung a dummy paratrooper and his parachute on the steeple of the church as a monument to the men who liberated them, along with two commemorative stained glass windows.
The Allies landed more than 160,000 troops on the Normandy beaches, of which 73,000 were American and 83,115 British and Canadian forces, landing a total of two million men between June 6 and August 21. This was the largest amphibious assault in history, and the casualties were very high, especially on June 6. The men on the beach came under heavy fire from gun emplacements overlooking the beaches, and the shore was mined and covered with obstacles such as wooden stakes, metal tripods, and barbed wire, making the work of the beach-clearing teams difficult and dangerous. Casualties were heaviest at Omaha beach, with its high cliffs. Allied casualties were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead.
The Normandy American Cemetery is the resting place for 9,387 Americans, most of whom died during the landing operations and in the establishment of the beachhead. The names of 1,557 soldiers are inscribed on tablets in the cemetery’s Garden of the Missing. The remains of approximately 14,000 others originally buried in this region were returned home at the request of their next of kin. A father and his son are buried here, side by side, and in 33 instances two brothers rest side by side. The headstones are of white Italian marble — a Star of David for those of Jewish faith and a Latin Cross for all others. It is a place of beauty, tranquility and awe.
Today, I give thanks to all the men and women who gave a full measure of devotion in World War II to preserve our freedoms. The ‘greatest generation’ who fought this war is leaving us, and it is now our duty never to forget.