“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.” - Thucydides
Courage Under Fire
One may wonder if the young soldiers of Operation Overlord fully comprehended what lay before them as the landing craft doors were lowered and the first sniper bullets began to find their targets. If they did not grasp the magnitude of their task, then certainly they knew what failure on the Normandy beaches would mean to the Allied position.
D-Day ranks as one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history, involving more than 5,000 naval craft, 13,000 aircraft, and more than 150,000 soldiers. By the end of the day, nearly 9,000 Allied soldiers were dead or wounded, but more than 100,000 had managed to make it ashore and fortify the beaches. In the days and weeks following the Normandy invasion, the Allies were able to push the Germans back and liberate France. The rest, as they say, is history.
Success Was Not a Given
As years distance us from the invasion, we might begin to believe that the operation’s success was a given. However, the fact that General Eisenhower had prepared a disaster speech is telling of the outcome’s uncertainty. If Operation Overlord had failed, the Allies would have been unlikely to mount another major offensive for at least another year. Its fleet of landing craft would have been lost; Britain’s last available army would have been sacrificed, and Hitler would have continued to hammer away at England until it surrendered. America would have lost its most viable ally in the war, making victory that much more uncertain.
Criteria for Victory
So many criteria had to be met for the invasion to succeed. The element of surprise was crucial to the invasion’s success. The location of the landing has been called the biggest secret of the war. To mislead the Germans, the Allies went to considerable trouble to make it appear as though they would land in the Pas de Calais. A History Channel video details the elaborate deception campaign which included the use of a phantom army to fool German reconnaissance. The Allies also broadcasted hours of fake transmissions about their location and troop movement.
The weather alone threatened to cancel the operation twice. Due to tide conditions, only two days had been considered, May 17th and June 5th. The first was scrapped due to bad weather. The forecast for June 5th was no better. However, knowing that the tides would not be viable again until July, General Eisenhower chose to delay twenty-four hours rather than abandon the plan. A set of lesson plans from The National D-Day Memorial website gives learners some insight into the decision-making process used by commanders of the Allied armies. In The Most Important Weather Forecast in History, students use primary source documents to decide for themselves whether to support or refute General Eisenhower’s decision.
The paratroopers who went in advance of the amphibious invasion also faced a unique set of problems. Dropped behind enemy lines in heavy fog and under intense German gunfire, the paratroopers softened the German counterattack and secured certain targets for the Allies who would be coming by sea. However, in the event that the operation failed, the paratroopers knew there would be no chance of rescue. With this in mind, soldiers from the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions armed themselves with grenades, automatic pistols, HE explosives, and survival gear. Learners can examine the seventy-pound backpacks carried by the paratroopers when they watch a short video from the History Channel.
As we prepare to commemorate the 68th anniversary of D-Day, we might pause to appreciate not only the sacrifice made, but also the logistical and tactical brilliance necessary to carry out Operation Overlord.
To deepen your pupils' understanding of this historical event, consider these lesson plans:
This highly rated lesson plan from PBS utilizes the Ken Burns movie The War to engage middle and secondary learners in the decision of where to land the D-Day invasion. They research one of the three likely choices and then develop a multi-media presentation to support that particular landing place.
This eight-week set of lessons asks eleventh grade American History pupils to study America’s wars between 1898 and 1945. Learners then examine how America’s foreign policy changed after each war.
In this set of lessons, high schoolers are asked to make comparisons between the war in Iraq and WWII. The lessons make use of the film The Perilous Fight and its accompanying website. Learners will research a specific aspect of the wars to make a multi-media presentation.