Veterans gather for D-Day’s 70th anniversary

Under fire: US soldiers minutes before they landed on a heavily defended Normandy beach © PA

The invasion of Normandy was a crucial moment in WWII and today former soldiers and world leaders are gathering to remember it. But are we overlooking other major events of this global war?

It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. On the 6th of June 1944, after more than a year of planning, 156,000 Allied troops waded ashore onto the heavily fortified beaches of Normandy under a hail of German shells and bullets. On the bloodiest beach landing, it was said that there were two types of people: ‘the dead and those who are about to die.’

Around 4,500 Allied soldiers died in that first assault, as did 20,000 French civilians killed by bombardments. But by the end of the day, the Allies had established a crucial toehold in France. The end of Nazi Germany came 11 months later.

Now, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, 1,000 veterans and world leaders will gather on the Normandy coast to commemorate the event. It is a particularly poignant anniversary because, with the majority of the veterans now in their 80s and 90s, few will make the journey again.

The D-Day landing is embedded in the public memory and it has been notably depicted in numerous films, such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’. This is partly due to the sheer drama and scale of the invasion by which British, US and Commonwealth troops liberated France. Britain had faced a very real threat of invasion in 1940; Normandy was a notable turning point in its fortunes.

Yet while it is important to commemorate D-Day, many remind us that it should not skew our appreciation of the contribution made by others elsewhere. At least eight million Russian soldiers died in the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany, ten times the number killed from the US and Great Britain combined. And this is why many Russians took particular offence when Prince Charles recently compared Putin to Hitler.

But while other key moments of the war, such as Stalingrad, do receive attention, some historians note that we often fail to appreciate the scale of the carnage elsewhere. Poland was the first country to be attacked in the war, and it lost not only a fifth of its population in the bloodshed, but also its freedom when the war ended. When honouring the soldiers of Normandy, they say, we must remember the sacrifices many others also made.

Lest we forget

While we applaud the many veterans taking part in the memorial in Normandy today, many believe it is vital that we do not forget their sacrifice when they have gone. Nazism was a truly appalling blot in Europe’s history, and we must remember those who gave or risked their lives to defeat it.

But others point out that the war was a global event, and atrocities and feats of bravery and sacrifice took place from China to Africa, from Russia to Burma. D-Day is important of course, but we should not lose sight of the scale of destruction in places beyond the English-speaking world.

You Decide

  1. Do we focus too much on the US and UK’s efforts in World War Two and neglect other countries’ struggles?
  2. ‘In two generations, the second world war will feel just as alien and unrelatable as the Napoleonic Wars.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Class debate: ‘This House believes the youth of today do not appreciate the sacrifice made by soldiers who fought against Nazi Germany.’
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an Expert’ and the wider internet, research the countries involved in World War Two. Choose ten of them and list some of the key ways in which they were involved. Try to choose less well-known examples.

Some People Say...

“War should teach us that nothing good ever comes of hate. Sadly, mankind is a poor student.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should we care about all this when it happened so long ago?
Many argue that we should care deeply because those who defeated Nazi Germany fought for the fundamental freedoms that we now take for granted. And many also firmly believe that remembering the war’s causes and its results should help us to ensure that we never make the same mistakes again.
So who made the greatest contribution to defeating fascism during World War Two?
This is probably not a helpful way to think about the war, since occupied countries like France, Poland and the Ukraine resisted the Nazis and suffered greatly at their hands too. But it is true that the Soviet army suffered the heaviest losses in order to defeat Hitler.

Word Watch

Allied
This refers to all the nations allied in the fight against Nazi Germany. The D-Day invasion force included British, American, Canadian and Australian troops.
Bombardments
The Allies bombed Norman cities in the hope of damaging German communications, but it resulted in thousands of civilian deaths. One historian called it ‘stupid, counter-productive and above all very close to a war crime.’
Putin
Prince Charles recently compared Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s actions in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of WWII.
Stalingrad
This bloody five-month siege broke the back of Hitler’s invasion of Russia and was the turning point in the military struggle against the Nazis.
Ended
Poland was invaded and partitioned by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939, as agreed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
China
The second Sino-Japanese war took place between 1937-1945 and was the largest Asian war of the 20th century. Terrible atrocities were committed by the Japanese, particularly in the city of Nanjing. Many Chinese still harbour deep resentments towards Japan today.

Subjects

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