I just realized that the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Normandy landings is this week. I found visiting the landing sites, which I did in 2014, to be an incredibly moving experience. It was on that trip that I decided to share my thoughts regularly in this space.
For the next couple of days, some reflections on D-Day.
They knew it was coming. Not the exact date or time, but there was a sense of inevitability. One day they would look out of the bunker and the English Channel would be filled with ships and soldiers.
They couldn’t take comfort in the propaganda boasts about the impregnability of their Atlantic Wall. They worked there, they knew the construction deficiencies; they knew where the gaps were. They remembered the propaganda boasts, from the other side about the impregnable Maginot Line. The Wehrmacht had swept by that, and many of those guns were now installed on these beaches, pointing towards the English Channel. The same Channel they had expected to cross in triumph four years previously.
Those days of piling up victory after victory were over. Now there was a sense of unease. North Africa was gone. The German troops had not quite managed to seize Suez. Their Italian allies turned out to be unable not only to repel the Allied invaders from their homeland, but had actually turned against Germany. The British, once on their knees, were resurgent.
And then there was Russia. Had the Fuhrer not understood history? Did he not know what had happened to Napoleon? The armies along the Atlantic Wall had too many young men, too many raw recruits because the best soldiers had died on the steppes of Russia.
Now the Americans were coming, a nation with seemingly unlimited resources of men and materials. What idiot Japanese general had chosen to stir up that hornet’s nest? Looking out from the bunker they knew it was only a matter of time before the ships would appear, wraith-like at first, then more solid, launching the battle for Germany’s soul.
As I stood in that German bunker on Normandy’s Juno beach, I thought about the soldiers who had been stationed there. They were (mostly) young men, probably no more politically active than young people today. They believed the leaders who told them Germany had legitimate grievances with other countries. They were old enough to remember the bad years of the Weimar Republic. At first the war had gone so well, it had seemed as if God was on their side, even if the Fuhrer didn’t seem to pay much attention to God.
Then it all began to fall apart. The advances slowed, then stopped, then became retreats. It didn’t take a military genius to realize that Germany’s resources would soon not be enough. Once on the defensive, there were problems.
On June 6, 1944 the worst nightmares of those German soldiers became a reality, as the largest invasion force the world had seen came out of the morning fog. Today those Normandy beaches, code-named Juno, Sword, Gold, Omaha and Utah, are places of pilgrimage for the descendants of the young men who landed there to begin the liberation of Europe and their long march to Berlin. There is only a hint of what was there 75 years ago.
This makes Juno Beach like so many other old battlefields. Time heals the wounds not only of the soldiers but of the scorched and scarred earth where the battles were fought. From the Juno Beach Centre, the Canadian museum, you can see a carrousel, children playing where 75 years ago men fought and died.
There is peace on Juno Beach today. Yesterday’s mortal enemies are today’s close friends, as we allow the past to be past, which is how it should be for both nations and individuals. Is it too much to hope that we have learned our lesson? Or at some point are we headed back to a metaphorical Juno Beach, waiting for the ships to appear out of the fog?