The greatest amphibious assault in world history took place seventy years ago on the shores of Normandy, France. The incredible story of how Allied soldiers, led by the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, boldly invaded German-occupied France in Operation Overlord has been told many times, but few historians have focused on the near miraculous planning and assembly of this world changing event.
Craig L. Symonds, award-winning author of numerous books on naval warfare and Civil War history, has spun an impressive account of how the free world gathered its strength and mobilized for “Operation Neptune,” the buildup that preceded Operation Overlord. Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings chronicles the monumental undertaking by Allied leaders like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt to unleash the American “Arsenal of Democracy” on French soil to liberate Europe from Nazi control.
Most accounts of the D-Day invasion start with landing craft opening their gates as courageous men rush out into German gun fire, but Symond’s brilliant narrative starts years earlier with American entry into WWII. The reader gains an incredible appreciation for the logistical masterpiece completed by Allied leaders and the careful, all-important buildup of the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain.
“Before the first landing craft nudged up onto the sand, before the first soldier stepped onto the beach to face that merciless machine gun fire, a great deal had to happen,” Symonds wrote. Operation Neptune became the largest seaborne assault in military history and included “over six thousand ships and more than a million men.”
Operation Neptune really began just after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Though regarded as a day of “infamy” in the United States, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw this event as the potential salvation of Great Britain and the Western world, which had been taking a pummeling from Nazi Germany since 1940.
When Churchill heard of the sneak attack in the Pacific, he called President Roosevelt. Roosevelt confirmed the attack and said exactly what Churchill wanted to hear: “We are all in the same boat now.”
Churchill’s immediate and instinctive reaction was elation. Leaping at once to the conclusion that this would bring America fully into the war, he believed it meant nothing less than victory–not at once, of course, but eventually, and without question.
Churchill understood, perhaps more than anybody, the awesome economic potential that the United States had, and as a historian of both British and American people he believed the United States would be relentless once committed to the cause.
Western leaders decided to take a “Europe first” strategy, ensuring that Germany would be prioritized over defeating Japan. The American public’s rage against the Japanese along with setbacks in the Pacific continually put this strategy in jeopardy; nevertheless, British nudging and American commitment to the long term cause kept U.S. military efforts on defeating Hitler.
Once it became clear that an attack on the shores of France was going to be the cornerstone of Allied strategy to take back Europe, a massive buildup of American men and material began in England. Symonds explained how the British Isles were practically invaded by American soldiers that were arriving by the tens and hundreds of thousands. From July of 1943 to May of 1944 over 100,000 American military personnel were landing each month.
It was a strange twist of history that American men-in-arms were being housed in the homes of British citizens a century and a half after the British Quartering Act of 1774 which in part launched the American Revolution.
The great, underrated hero of Operation Neptune was Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, whom Churchill called the “true organizer of victory” because of his immense administrative gifts. Marshall was a “courtly” Virginian as Symonds called him with a “deferential demeanor” that “sometimes led others to underestimate the steel within him.” He was the necessary link between the political and military worlds, the steady hand on the tiller that the vast and highly complex operation required.
However, despite the fact that Marshall led the organization of the Invasion of Normandy, he did not get to take command on the day on D-Day due to his invaluable role as organizer and Army Chief of Staff. Instead, the unified command of the Allied armed forces was given to General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, Marshall’s acolyte and next best choice. Marshall, good soldier that he was, never complained about losing the glory of conducting the operation at the finish line. He said, “the issue was too great for any personal feelings to be considered.”
Eisenhower turned out to be an inspired choice as he has both the measured temperament and absolute devotion to keeping the clunky alliance together that were necessary for the operation to succeed. Dealing with the vastly different command cultures and attitudes was particularly complex, but Eisenhower fit the bill perfectly and was the glue that held the diverse coalition together.
The ultimate test of Ike’s leadership came at the culmination of all the planning and preparation. On June, 5 1944, in the middle of a torrential storm that threatened the entire D-Day operation, he had to decide whether or not to carry out the planned invasion or delay another month or more. Weighing all the risks with his command staff, he said in his down-to-earth American fashion, “Ok, we’ll go.”
Though there is little doubt that without superior allied leadership and preparation Operations Neptune and Overlord would have failed, Symonds makes it clear that the “factor that produced allied victory was human judgment applied at a crisis moment, often instinctively and selflessly.”
From the Navy and Coast Guard officers guiding the landing craft, to the American soldiers under relentless machine gun fire at Omaha beach, to the British airborne commandos holding up Pegasus Bridge, and to the legendary Army Rangers scaling the cliffs at Pointe Du Hoc, great acts of skill and courage were required from everyone to win the day.
Symonds’ account of Operation Neptune and the lead up to the Invasion of Normandy is insightful and educational without being laboriously academic. Weaving in the facts of the operation, penetrating analysis of the leaders and command decisions that were crucial in the preparation, and fascinating stories that bring to life the men and culture of the time, Symonds has produced an informative and accessible book that is a must read for this year’s important 70th Anniversary of D-Day.