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D-Day — 70 years on

BY MERRICK NEEDHAM

Friday, June 06, 2014    

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The Second World War was by far the largest, geographically most widespread and, above all, the most devastating military conflagration ever known.

It killed millions of people and destroyed a great deal of the Europe which had developed over the previous thousand years. The appalling death toll of at least 10 million in World War I (1914-18) was exceeded four times over by the staggeringly vast worldwide figure of 56 million killed in World War II.

The war started fully on September 1, 1939 with the invasion of Poland by the German troops of the evil Austrian genius Adolf Hitler. On December 7, 1941 Japan made a brilliant and spectacular, but treacherous attack on the Pacific Fleet of the neutral United States at Pearl Harbour -- what the US President Franklyn Roosevelt memorably described at the time as "a date which will live in infamy". Thus, the war spread to encompass the whole world.

D-Day

After four hard and bitter years, the free world had successfully fought back against the so-called axis powers of Nazi Germany, Japan, Italy, and their small number of inconsequential lesser allies, to the point where the major assault on German-occupied Europe could begin.

Amidst great secrecy, camouflaged intentions and ingenious deception as to the real landing point, the invasion, code-named Operation Overlord, began in the pre-dawn of June 6, 1944, on the beaches of Normandy in German-occupied northern France. This was D-Day!

It was the beginning of the end, which finally came the following year with the signing of, first the German, and then Japanese surrenders in 1945. Incredibly, however, the war really ended formally as recently as September 12, 1990, with the signing in Moscow by France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and by West and East Germany, of a treaty unifying the two German states.

The invasion of Normandy from Britain in the darkness of that June morning was the greatest amphibious military operation of all time. There were 59 German army divisions in France, each one much larger than the Jamaica Defence Force, and the rate at which the allied invasion forces could be landed was obviously limited.

Also, the German army in northern France, Army Group B, was commanded by one of the most able generals, the most universally popular German military commander of the whole war, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. (He was later forced to commit suicide because of his connection with the unsuccessful plot by a group of German army officers to assassinate Hitler.)

It was critical that the first allied troops should conquer their beachhead and advance far enough inland to make space for their own reinforcements without being overwhelmed. The vital forerunner to the landing of soldiers was widespread saturation air attacks.

These bombings in France deceived the Germans as to where the invasion would take place, and also prevented them from moving additional forces up to the invasion area. Without the overwhelming superiority which the allies had achieved in the air, the seaborne Operation Overlord could not have succeeded.

In this sphere of the operation, Jamaican members of the bomber crews of Britain's Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force made a notable contribution.

Gigantic

The invasion force was gigantic; it included seven battleships, the all-time naval mammoths of which only one or two World War II (and no subsequent) examples still exist, 27 cruisers, 164 destroyers, nearly 900 light warships including frigates, minesweepers and gunboats, torpedo boats and other small craft. All these more than 1,000 warships were dispatched in support of a nearly unbelievable 4,300 landing ships and craft. Perhaps most dramatic of all was the massive air support element of more than 10,000 aircraft!

It was enough to make it work. By midnight on D-Day some 132,000 troops, mainly American, British and Canadian had landed. As the invasion consolidated, even artificial ports called Mulberry harbours, constructed from specially redesigned merchant ships which were filled with concrete and then sunk, were built to compensate for the lack of ports in the area. By the end of July, the allies had landed 36 army divisions totalling more than one-and-a-half million men. The success of D-Day, eight weeks earlier, was assured.

Fifty years on...

Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, but on June 6, 1994, exactly half-a-century later, literally tens of thousands of Normandy veterans, joined by hundreds of state officials from many countries, commemorated not only the victory that saved the world from probably the most vicious tyranny of all time, but the sacrifice that they made, and which, for many of their former comrades, was supreme.

Her Majesty The Queen and then US President Bill Clinton were among something like a dozen heads of state who led the commemoration. Again, today, 70 years on, the commemoration takes place with The Queen, President Obama and French President Hollande present. Of course, there are fewer veterans, all now in their late 80s or even early 90s.

These are occasions on which the effort and sacrifice of the soldier is not forgotten, but often at other times the little rhyme of the 17th century Thomas Jordan rings all too true:

God and the solder we alike adore,

In time of danger, not before.

The danger past and all things righted,

God is forgotten, the soldier slighted.

Another invasion

As a footnote, 11 days later had marked not the 50th but the memorable 300th anniversary of another invasion which, sadly perhaps, passed without any commemoration whatever. On July 18 & 19, 1694, a French invasion force of over 20 ships and 1,500 men, a large enough force for its time, landed at Carlisle Bay in the only real invasion Jamaica has ever known, apart from the original English one 39 years earlier.

Unlike that in Normandy, this one was successfully repulsed by the Jamaican forces, resulting in the very rare honour of the granting of blue (coat) facings to an irregular unit, the old Jamaica Militia of 1662-1906.

It was this recognition, normally the prerogative, even in those days, of 'Royal' regular regiments that led to the blue in the Colours and cap bands of the First Battalion The Jamaica Regiment, today's direct descendant of that 250-year-old reserve force. But that is another story, for another time.

- Merrick Needham, who is a member of the Oversight Board of the Jamaican Military Museum & Library and who has a long voluntary working association with the Jamaica Defence Force, was what was known in the 1940s as a 'war child', and in late 1940 was evacuated to Jamaica, his mother's country of birth.

His father remained in Britain as the Admiralty engineer responsible for electrical installations at all Royal Navy dockyards and Fleet Air Arm bases in Northern Scotland and its Orkney and Shetland Islands. His relatives served with the Royal Air Force in the island fortress of Malta, with the British Army in North Africa, Europe and the Far East, and a cousin-in-law of his was wartime prime minister of Australia.

He vividly recalls hearing the D-Day radio coverage just as he was leaving for school on the morning of June 6, 1944.

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