Seventy years since the battle that shaped our world

It is seventy years since a friend of my family looked into the sky above his village in England and saw a cloud of aircraft fly over. And over. And over. The sky was filled with aircraft, and they were all going one way – to France.

Landing at D-Day. Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.
Landing at D-Day. Photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.

It was D-day, the first day of Operation OVERLORD – the Allied landing on the shores of Nazi-occupied Europe. It remains perhaps the most complex, audacious and risky military actions in the history of the world. The battle plan – two years or more in the making – relied on taking some of the strongest defences ever built in that war, and was detailed down to individual pill-boxes. Even after the landings, the lodgement was stuck in a maze of hedge-rows and ditches and there was every risk that the Germans might bring superior forces to bear before the Allies could get enough forces pushed into the lodgement.

The world we know today was shaped by events on that Normandy coast. If the Allies had been knocked off the lodgement – or if the storm that delayed the landing on 5 June had destroyed the invasion fleet – what then? Another assault could not have been staged for years, if at all. Part of the impact was surprise; Hitler, particularly, never expected them to land in Normandy. If it had failed, the Allies could have carried on their campaign in Italy, their blockade of the Axis economy and their air campaign against the German heartland. But they could not have got involved in war on the ground in northern Europe.

Naval bombardment plan for D-Day. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Naval bombardment plan for D-Day. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

That doesn’t mean that the Germans would have got away with it. if OVERLORD had failed, the war in Europe would still have been over by mid-late 1945 anyway, because by D-Day the Germans had already lost the war in the east. The monstrous battles around the Kursk salient in mid-1943 effectively ended any chance of the Germans fighting Stalin to a stalemate. After that the only real question was how long their commanders, tactically hobbled by Hitler’s foaming ‘no retreat’ demands, could delay the Soviet advance.

In absence of an Allied threat to western Europe, the Germans could have transferred the 50 divisions they had in the west to the eastern front. But it would have only deferred the inevitable. By this time the Soviets had around 300 divisions committed to the struggle. The Luftwaffe had lost air superiority, and that wasn’t going to change in a hurry – if at all. We can forget the ‘Luftwaffe 1946’ dieselpunk fantasy. Aside from the fact that Nazi super-science wasn’t actually all that advanced, the Germans were desperately short of key materials thanks to the Allied blockade. Particularly oil and chromium. Albert Speer estimated that war production would have to halt by early 1946, come what may, on the back of the chromium shortage alone.

If OVERLORD had failed, in short, the face of post-war Europe would have been Soviet. The spectre isn’t one of Soviet tanks sitting on the Channel coast, but of the Iron Curtain descending further west – perhaps on the Rhine – and France and likely Austria becoming Soviet puppets. The Cold War would have had a very different face – one without a strong Western Europe. And that begs questions about how it might have played out. I figure the Soviet system would still have collapsed – totalitarian systems do, sooner or later – but the detail of the later twentieth century would have been very different.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


20 thoughts on “Seventy years since the battle that shaped our world

  1. Have read various D-Day posts today and yesterday but not surprisingly, yours is the most succinct and cogent. It is interesting to ponder a Cold War that came out of an Iron Curtain that included France and Austria, and I will think on that, especially in light of the fact that by WWII’s end, we found a way to more quickly destroy the world than with tanks, planes, and infantry. It seems that a greater reach of totalitarianism (and I agree that such states ultimately do fall) could only have increased Cold War tensions, maybe pushing temperaments passed the brink of restraint. Regardless, it seems only more lives would have been lost. Would there have been a Marshall Plan and if so, what might that have looked like? Thoughtful and engaging post, Matthew.

    1. I suspect Britain would have been the recipient of the Marshal Plan in this alternative scenario. Though I think they would still have lost their Empire: the deeper mood towards the acceptability of such things was changing by the mid twentieth century and by 1945 India, certainly, was fundamentally on the road to independence. I find these speculations fascinating – in the history sense, exploring that road not so well travelled.

      1. Great post, perhaps the US with less ‘territory’ in Europe at the end of the war might have made a strategic decision to concentrate on hegemony in the Pacific and East Asia, and not been so nonchalant about letting Mao take over China. All speculation!
        Britain did actually get a quarter of the $12.5 billion handed out in the Marshall Plan (the lion’s share). Peter Hennessey’s book “Never Again” gives a fascinating account of the machinations of the Attlee government in wheedling money out of the US after WW2 to pay to recover their shattered economy. Correlli Barnett argued in fact the money was needed due to the unaffordable social policies which crippled Britain.
        Anyway back on topic, D Day was a phenomenal event. I’m going to rewatch the ‘World at War’ episode. Have you got a book recommendation – Beevor?

        1. A familiar name! I went into single combat with Beevor about a decade ago on NZ TV over his remarks about Sir Bernard Freyberg’s performance on Crete (which were factually wrong) – never met the guy, his claims and my rebuttal were filmed & aired separately. At that time I’d not yet completed my bio of Freyberg. Since then I’ve finished it, it’s been published…and gone out of print (sigh).

          I reviewed Beevor’s D-Day book a few years ago for one of the NZ literary magazines. It was OK, though populist. Max Hastings’ book is better IMHO.

          1. Given his reputation I’m a bit surprised about his errors – I knew it was written for a general audience but thought fairly well researched and sounds like he uses primary sources. Will look up your biography of Freyberg, I’ve got a pretty high opinion of him based on my Grandfather’s impressions and his actions at Gallipolli. No-one is perfect especially in the heat of battle.
            Are the inaccuracies in terms of his ‘misreading’ of ULTRA?

            1. It was mostly the allegation about ‘misreading’ ultra, which Beevor presented out of context and without reference to the New Zealand archival documentation.

  2. I remember seeing a documentary once on how the allies basically floated their tanks across the channel as part of the invasion. It was an incredible operation.

    The scenario you propose sounds like it could make an interesting alternative history novel. You’re welcome to the idea if you want it – I’ve not the research skills to pull that one off 😉

    1. The Sherman DD tank. One of many ‘funny’ vehicles the British invented which looked too eccentric to work but which actually made all the difference on their beaches. Yeah, it would be a great alternate history setting. The variant that the Nazis won has been done to death (and is untenable unless the author is VERY careful about the scenario). Whereas the D Day fail is plausible. Eisenhower wasn’t convinced it would work and had ‘fail’ news releases prepared.

  3. Having the advantage of retrospection, I’ve always felt that decisions made in 1941 made the war’s outcome inevitable. Though later events could have slowed the inevitable, invading the Soviet Union coupled with the US entry into the war were the beginning of the end. The Russian invasion created one vast front and the US entry (we were already backing the British anyway) meant vast human, natural, and economic resources for the Allies. Of course, there were also the concentration camps, which amounted to Germany fighting a war with itself. Besides being morally abhorrent on every level, they were also a military and economic drain. I understand that the “war” against the Jews aided Hitler’s rise to power, but I also see it as a disease and Germany the host. The Nazi rise to power, though sick and twisted, was also brilliant in its execution. Thing is, that much concentrated madness is bound to self-destruct and it did. Thank God.

    1. The Soviets won the land war with US logistics – and what an epic story that was, getting the material to them via Murmansk and Arctic convoys.

      You’re right about the Nazis. It worries, me actually. They did it all with rational, logical calculation. They got into power by offering Germany what it wanted – solace for the defeat of WWI – all carried with great theatre, sharp-cut uniforms, spectacular parades and so forth. A determined and thoroughly calculated sales effort. And then they applied rational logic and calculation to genocide. A whole new level of evil. Pure evil, unleashed upon the world with system and scale that was absolutely new. It is sobering and horrifying to think that humanity is even capable of this. As you say, this kind of system inevitably self-destructs; but we can imagine the appalling suffering the Nazis would have inflicted upon the world before they collapsed. A new dark age. Winston Churchill – who was not just a politician but also a very talented writer and historian – knew it: they had to be stopped – whatever it took. And he was right.

      1. Modern day politics and marketing owe a lot to the Nazi’s techniques. Orwell saw where their calculated efforts could take us and it’s disturbing when I see those parallels in modern day life. History can make you a little paranoid, but then that’s the lessons talking.

  4. Some interesting “what-if” scenarios to ponder! I was reading the other day, I wish I could remember where, about the possible use of the atomic bomb against Germany if D-Day had failed and the war in Europe prolonged. I guess that might have been the one Ace up the sleeve that the Americans and British had to attempt to end the war before Stalin gobbled up all of the continent. Would it have worked though? Fascinating to think how different the world may have been if the invasion had failed on that day of days….

    1. You’re right – there’s every chance that the A-bomb would have been dropped on Berlin, not Japan, if D-day hadn’t worked. Whether the threat of another being lobbed on to Moscow would have stopped Stalin from absorbing the rest of Europe – now that’s a fascinating what-if scenario. One filled with potential drama.

      I have to say that one of the more curious parts of the (real) Second World War is the way that it blended seamlessly into the Cold War – and that Kiwis were right at the point of conjunction, in Trieste, where they had to front up against Tito’s Communists in what’s now regarded as the first Cold War confrontation. I guess not too surprising if you look at the geopolitics of the 1930s with its split between the western democracies and the two flavours of totalitarianism, Nazi and communist. WWII always was ‘good vs evil vs evil’.

      1. I also wonder if an A-bomb on Berlin would have been enough to end the war quickly anyway – I can’t imagine Hitler waving a white flag when he was so bent on taking Germany down with him. Unless of course it took him out, or encouraged others to overthrow him. Either way I suspect the message to Stalin would have been more direct. All interesting scenarios to ponder!

        My great great Uncle once told me about the tense face-off with Tito’s forces. My great great Uncle had a long war – he had some military training before it started so was called up the night war was declared and even the end of the European war – staring down Tito – wasn’t the immediate end for my GG Uncle as he was told to start training for the invasion of Japan, which of course was no longer needed thanks to the actual use of the atomic bombs. I wish I could recall more about what he told me regarding the confrontation with Tito, and hadn’t realised until you mentioned it that it was considered to be the first Cold War confrontation. Something for me to read more about!

  5. I looked at the clock when i got to work this morning did a quick calculation and realized that seventy years ago to the hour, my father was coming ashore on Utah Beach. I started shaking at the thought of what was happening all along the Normandy coast that day. The next twelve months changed his life forever.

    1. It is sobering to think that, even 70 years on, the events of the Second World War echo in these very real ways. But they do – and with good reason. Such experiences give us the true dimension of those dark days. It would be great to read your Dad’s story, if it was right to tell it (I know, often, these stories are personal, and that’s to be respected).

  6. My mom and I were just discussing this last night. It is fascinating how one small change could have such a great impact. I am glad to see the progress that has been made since WWII – yes, there are problems in the world, but it also made the world a more democratic place.

    1. It did. In the 1930s, democracy was on the way out – the world had three major systems: democracy, totalitarian fascism and totalitarian communism. The latter two seemed to be winning, particularly after 1940 when France fell, leaving Britain the sole democracy in Europe. When Winston Churchill insisted that Britain had to stand, no matter what, he knew the stakes. Luckily for us. I doubt that any triumph by totalitarianism would have lasted – the systems aren’t stable. But it would have made the world a nastier place for quite a while until the dust settled.

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