Could D-Day Have Happened Earlier?
December 24, 2020
BY JOHN MOSER
On June 6, we will observe the 69th anniversary of the D-Day landings—the Allied invasion of Normandy, which marked the start of the liberation of Western Europe from German occupation. The basic facts of that operation, the largest seaborne invasion, are fairly well known. It is the story of how more than 150,000 U.S., British, Canadian, and Free French troops landed at five beaches along the Normandy coast, and how in at least one case—Omaha Beach—the result was a near-disaster as U.S. forces, lacking armor support, found themselves up against well-entrenched elite units of the German Army.
What is less well known is that the Normandy invasion was a product of two and half years of often bitter wrangling between the United States and Great Britain. It was an episode that demonstrated the great gulf between the institutional cultures of the U.S. and British armed forces, and the difference in their understanding of how the war should be fought.
Talk of a cross-channel invasion first surfaced just days after the German declaration of war on the United States in December 1941. U.S. and British military planners met in Washington, D.C. later that same month to coordinate their efforts in the European and Pacific theaters. For American generals a landing in northern France, carried out as soon as humanly possible, was the natural way to wage war—what we might call today a “no-brainer.” This was, what military historian Russell Weigley calls “The American Way of War,” and had been since the days of Ulysses S. Grant. After all, this was precisely how Grant won the Civil War: by marshaling overwhelming force and smashing his way toward Richmond. Because the shortest route from London to Berlin ran through northern France, the argument went, a cross-channel invasion was the quickest and surest route to victory. In addition, a landing in northern France would relieve some of the pressure on the beleaguered Soviet Union, as the Red Army at that point was facing some 90 percent of German forces.
The British Imperial General Staff, as well as Prime Minister Winston Churchill, were horrified by this logic. The English Channel was a far cry from northern Virginia, and 1942 was not 1864. As these discussions were going on, the German Luftwaffe controlled the skies over Western Europe, and U-boats were prowling the Atlantic, sinking Allied merchant ships with seeming impunity. To Churchill and his generals the Americans appeared overconfident, even cocky. U.S. troops had never tasted combat, while the British had fought German forces in Norway, Belgium, France, Greece, and North Africa—and in almost every case had lost. Moreover, given the still-incomplete state of American mobilization, any cross-channel invasion would have to be a predominantly British affair. Memories of the Dunkirk evacuation remained fresh in their minds; if the invasion were to go sour, would the Allies be as lucky as they had been then, when the British Expeditionary Force had managed to escape (although without its tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons)? And if the invasion force did succeed in establishing a beachhead, might the result not just be another stationary front, and a repeat of the bloody stalemates of the Western Front in World War I?
The argument went on through the winter of 1941-42. President Roosevelt was ultimately convinced that there could be no invasion in 1942, and American generals had to settle for landings on the coast of relatively undefended French North Africa. The debate flared up again early in 1943, but this time Churchill persuaded Roosevelt that, with North Africa secured, Sicily and southern Italy were the logical next steps. But the U.S. Army had never given up on the idea of the cross-channel invasion, and the President himself would brook no further delays. At the Tehran Conference in late 1943 Roosevelt and Churchill both committed to an invasion of northern France in spring 1944—to the satisfaction of Stalin, who had been demanding the opening of a “Second Front” in Western Europe since December 1941.
Whether a cross-channel invasion could have been successful in 1943, or even 1942, remains one of the great “what-ifs” of World War II. Fortunately we know that the real D-Day—June 6, 1944—was a complete success.
John Moser is a professor of history at Ashland University and Co-Chair of the Master of Arts in American History and Government. He teaches undergraduate Ashbrook Scholars as well as teachers enrolled in Ashbrook’s Master of Arts in American History and Government.