“This is D Day,” the BBC announced at twelve. “This is the day. The invasion has begun. Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation? The liberation we’ve all talked so much about, which still seems too good, too much of a fairy tale ever to come true? Will this year, 1944, bring us victory? We don’t know yet. But where there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.”
This is from the diary of a young Jewish girl, Anne Frank, on June 6, 1944, 75 years ago tomorrow. She and her family had been in hiding from the Nazis for many years in a cramped set of hidden rooms.
This is also the way millions of people living in what the Germans called Fortress Europe felt. In countries throughout the continent, the Nazis had occupied lands and exterminated millions. In fact, in the spring of 1944, the SS at Auschwitz-Birkenau reached peak killing capacity, gassing as many as 6,000 Jews each day.
In France on the same day, British Lieutenant Herbert Denham “Den” Brotheridge with the 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry landed in a glider to capture two bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne a few miles northeast of Caen. They were helping to clear the crossroads so that soldiers landing on Sword Beach would be able to move off and inland. Otherwise, the Germans would trap them there and wipe them out. They captured those bridges.
On Omaha Beach, Robert Edlin, a member of the 2nd Ranger Battalion was part of the first wave of the assault. His assault craft got stuck on a sandbar about 75 yards from shore, and the men were forced to jump into the 45-50 degree water, which was up above their shoulders. Many drowned Rangers were floating all about the transports.
Edlin made it to the beach, which was still mined and had no promised shell holes for cover. Here is what happened next according to Edlin: “When I was about twenty yards from the seaway I was hit by what I assume was a sniper bullet. It shattered and broke my right leg. I fell, and as I did, it was like a searing hot poker rammed into my leg. My rifle fell ten feet or so in front of me. I crawled forward to get to it, picked it up, and as I rose on my left leg, another burst of I think machine gun fire tore the muscles out of that leg, knocking me down again.”
Somehow Edlin hobbled and crawled behind a wall. Unable to move farther, let alone help assault the cliffs above, and trained to expect a counterattack by the Germans, Edlin gathered the other wounded nearby, got them armed and prepared to defend the beach. That counterattack never came.
These are just a few of the individuals involved in the life and death struggle that was taking place on D-Day. From the beaches of Normandy to cities and small towns throughout Europe, a minute beam of light, of hope, shined for millions. It was the day for which they had prayed for years.
Anne Frank never got to see the allies liberate the Netherlands. She was captured and died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945, just months before the end of the war in Europe.
“Den” Brotheridge was caught in the light of a German flair as he led an assault on the bridge. A nearby Nazi machine gun emplacement spotted him and cut him down. He was the first allied D-Day soldier killed in action, having died not long after midnight.
Robert Edlin, who, though severely injured had organized the wounded to defend the beach, survived the war.
Tomorrow, when we solemnly remember the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we should not forget the individual stories of millions of American and allied soldiers and citizens who took part in this epic struggle for freedom. We honor the veterans and the many citizens who helped behind the lines to make the assault victorious.
We also remember all those who never lived beyond that June 6th. On D-Day alone, there were 2,499 American fatalities and 1,915 from the other Allied nations, a total of 4,414 dead. Allied deaths in the Battle of Normandy, which dragged on until August, topped 226,000. Many rest in peaceful cemeteries that dot the coast, near where they fell. We will never forget their sacrifices.
Yes, June 6, 1944, was “The Longest Day.” The nations of the world, however, united to establish a beachhead against the forces of evil and, together, proved that “where there’s hope, there’s life.”
Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.