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FSU Historian Recalls D-Day

Florida State University

Tuesday, June 6, 2017 marked the 73rd anniversary of D-Day, the massive Allied invasion of Normandy. A Florida State University historian has dedicated much of his professional life to studying this event, which was the beginning of the end of the War in Europe.

(voice of United News announcer from a June 9, 1944 newsreel film) “Then on the fifth day of June, 1944 – just as you see them here – a fleet of more than 4,000 ships put out from England. This was D-Day! Fourth anniversary of the Battle of Dunkirk and the Allied armies were striking back.”

Of course, the actual landing would come the following day, June 6th. But before delving into why D-Day was so important, FSU Professor Kurt Piehler was quick to stress that this was not the first invasion of Allied forces into Axis-held territory.

“There were other D-Days, particularly in Europe,” he noted. “There was the ‘Operation Torch’ in North Africa, there was the invasion of Sicily, invasion of Italy, second invasion of Italy to do a run-around of the Germans in Anzio. But D-Day was the ultimate of amphibious assaults.”

Just the raw numbers connected with the operation surpassed anything ever seen before. The total number of Allied troops in the invasion topped 156,000. They came aboard nearly 7,000 ships and more than 2,000 aircraft. Given that very few of those who actually took part in the D-Day operation are still alive, the primary way we know about the event is through the movies. And Professor Piehler believed two films in particular have portrayed it well from a historical perspective.

“There’s a lot I loved about Stephen Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’. What gets missing though is the big picture. That is captured by ‘The Longest Day’, that this was very much an Allied operation. And if you’re fortunate enough to tour the beaches, you get a real appreciation, particularly of the British and Canadian role.”

Although Piehler said the Allied nation that really benefited from the invasion wasn’t even present on the beaches of Normandy.

“D-Day was the long-awaited second front that the Soviet Union was desperate for the Allies – Great Britain and the United States – to open,” he explained. “The United States, Franklin Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, would have liked to have opened it in 1942, but it kept getting pushed back.”

But Piehler noted that nearly 2 year delay actually was a good thing for the invading forces.

“The British and the Americans were really fortunate never to have confronted the bulk of the German army,” he said. “The Soviet Union, from June of 1941 when they were invaded until the war’s end confronts the bulk of the German army and that’s why for Americans it’s the ‘Good War’, because if we had lost millions of men and women we would not have considered it the ‘Good War’. We might consider it the ‘Great Patriotic War’, but not the ‘Good War.’”

Even so, things were bloody enough. Especially on the American landing beach called “Omaha”, where nearly 4,000 troops were killed.

“Part of it was it was the most heavily defended, but there were flaws in the planning and debates,” Piehler recalled. “The British thought there should be much more shelling of the beaches and they ended up having to compromise. The result is the bombers dropped too far away from the target and there’s not enough shelling to do appreciable damage at Omaha Beach to the very entrenched Germans and the result is high loss of life. Omar Bradley thought he might have to abandon the assault. But in the end, they’re partly saved by the Navy. Four destroyers nearly beached themselves to level devastating fire at German emplacements.”

Professor Piehler said there are many little-known D-Day stories – some not yet part of the event’s formal history – awaiting the curious at FSU’s Institute on World War II and the Human Experience.

“The two joys of it is we have thousands of collections, which we’re stewarding, but one of my pleasures is to get scholars and students and the general public to know about us and use our great holdings. And among our great holdings are some wonderful materials on D-Day.”