The sea of metal

Two of the most decisive moments of the Second World War that I can’t get enough of are the Battle of Stalingrad and the D-Day landings. In the Battle of Stalingrad, Adolf Hitler’s army suffered its first major defeat, signalling to Nazi Germany that it was just as capable of bleeding as any other regime, that its forces – despite the individual formidability of each German soldier – were capable of defeat. The D-Day landings were the proximate beginning of the end, allowing Allied forces to penetrate Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and, in due course, bring the fight to Germany.

These two battles played out differently in one way (among others, of course). The Battle of Stalingrad began on German initiative but turned into a Soviet siege that slowly but continuously drove home the point to German soldiers trapped in the Soviet city that they couldn’t possibly win. Eventually, on January 31, 1943, the Germans surrendered together with their leader, Friedrich Paulus, who also became the first Field Marshal of the Nazi armed forces to be captured by the enemy during the war. Operation Overlord – of which the D-Day landings were part – on the other hand hinged on a single, potentially decisive event: of blowing a hole in the Atlantic Wall at Normandy on June 6, 1944, and securing it for long enough for more Allied troops to land ashore as well as for those already inside France to assemble and establish communications.

The Allies succeeded of course, although slower than planned at first, but in all successfully marching from there to liberate France and then take Berlin on May 2, 1945 (Hitler would commit suicide on April 30 to avoid capture), effectively ending the war.

Operation Overlord is well-documented, particularly so from the Allied point of view, with records as well as video footage describing the great lengths to which American, Australian, Belgian, British, Canadian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, Greek, Luxembourger, New Zealander, Norwegian and Polish forces went to ensure it was a success. The Allies had to do five things: keep Hitler in the dark, or at least confused, about where the Allies were going to attack the Atlantic Wall; sabotage the Germans’ ability to respond quickly to wherever the Allies attacked; transport an army across the English Channel and land it ashore on a heavily fortified beach; establish and then link five beachheads; and capture the city of Caen. The documentary Greatest Events of WWII in Colour narrates these events to the accompaniment of riveting visual detail – a must-watch for anyone interested in military history, especially the Second World War.

I enjoyed some bits of it more than others, one of them about Operation Overlord itself. The Allied beach-landing at Normandy is perhaps the most important event of the Second World War, and it’s quite easy to find popular historical material about it; the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) come to mind. However, I’ve always wondered how the German soldiers sitting in their bunkers and pill-boxes on the shores of Normandy might have felt. To behold one of the largest armies in modern history rise unexpectedly out of the horizon is no trivial thing. Greatest Events of WWII in Colour documents this.

Narrator: As the dawn breaks, it’s the German soldiers in Normandy, not Calais [where Hitler et al were made to believe the Allies would attack], who witness the enormity of the Allied invasion fleet for the first time.

Peter Lieb, historian: For the Germans sitting in their bunkers in Normandy, the sight of the Allied armada must have been terrifying. A sea full of metal.

Geoffrey Wawro, professor of military history: Witnesses recall just absolute stunned disbelief. This was the greatest armada assembled in world history, and this thing suddenly appears out of the darkness off the coast of Normandy.

A sea of metal!

There’s a certain masculinity imbibed in the picture, a grand combination of brawn, self-righteousness and exhibition that wartime rhetoric prizes because its adrenaline elides the tragedy of war itself. The Second World War was a particularly brutal affair with crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Allied and Axis powers both, and continuing even after 1945 across multiple continents. However, it is also tempting to believe that the start of Operation Overlord, by striking fear in the Germans and bearing down upon a fascist government that had to be destroyed, is one of those rare acts of war that deserves to be recounted with this rousing rhetoric. Greatest Events of WWII in Colour is only shrewd enough to play along.