Three-quarters of a century have passed since American, British and Canadian forces landed on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944, in the greatest seaborne invasion in history. The attack began the liberation of Western Europe, the defeat of Nazi Germany and the events that followed led to Europe being divided between democracies and totalitarian communist regimes. But the democracies eventually prevailed and by the 1990s, almost all of Europe was led by freely elected governments. It all began with D-Day.
1.The impact on Canada
D-Day mattered greatly to Canada and Canadians. The Second World War had been underway for almost five years and the first Canadian soldiers had landed in England before the end of 1939. The air force had been in action since 1940, the navy since the start. But aside from the disaster of Dieppe, the army in England had not seen action.
The 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Armoured Brigade had taken part in the Sicily invasion only over the opposition of First Canadian Army commander, General A.G.L. McNaughton, and they had eventually been joined by the 5th Canadian Armoured Division to form a corps. But Italy unfortunately seemed a sideshow to the opening of a front in France.
Now D-Day was at hand and, on June 6, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Armoured Brigade landed at Juno Beach, making up one-fifth of the seaborne invasion force. The troops secured their lodgement and drove off German counterattacks. But then progress slowed along the Allied beachhead, and two months of fierce combat and heavy losses followed. The rest of Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds’ II Canadian Corps, the green 2nd Infantry Division and the 4th Armoured Division, joined the action in July, and First Canadian Army, now led by General Harry Crerar, fought its first battle on Aug. 8, 1944, driving south toward Falaise.
Progress was slow, the casualties again high, and Allies grumbled that the Canadians were hesitant. With the German defences crumbling later in August, General Bernard Montgomery shifted the Canadians to the French coast and then to dreadful fighting on the Scheldt. But the army was learning on the job, and by the opening of Antwerp in early November, the Canadians were becoming “the best little army in the world,” or so some judged them.
When I Canadian Corps moved from Italy and joined the fight in the Netherlands and Germany in April 1945, First Canadian Army was a formidable force of five divisions plus two armoured brigades, the largest Canadian force ever created. It was battle-tested, well-armed and led by skilful commanders and non-commissioned officers at all levels. Canada’s army had done its full share and earned plaudits.
So too did the Royal Canadian Air Force. It had grown to a force of a quarter-million men and women and operated aircraft of every type. It flew over the North Atlantic against German surface and submarine fleets, and formed a substantial part of Bomber Command that hit rail and road targets in France and Germany. The RCAF’s fighter squadrons and its Allied compatriots ruled the air above the battlefield, so much so that the Luftwaffe became virtually invisible.
The Royal Canadian Navy too had grown fifty-fold during the war, and by D-Day its corvettes and frigates were carrying out the bulk of convoy protection. RCN minesweepers cleared the beach approaches on D-Day, and big Tribal-class destroyers knocked out much of the remaining German surface fleet before and after the invasion.
Canada had played its role in battle, and the factories and fields at home had contributed massively to Allied arms. For a nation that had begun the war caught up in the Great Depression and with no military to speak of, it was an extraordinary period of growth and change. All this showed on D-Day, the beginning of the liberation of France and of Western Europe.
2. The liberation
Hitler’s Nazis conquered most of Western Europe in a few months of fighting in the spring of 1940. The Danes and Norwegians were swallowed up in April and May, the Dutch, Belgians and French in May and June, and the British (and a brigade of Canadian infantry sent to be part of a new front in western France) had been forced back to their home island.
Hitler ruled Europe, but he made two fatal errors: he invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, and he declared war on the United States days after Japan attacked the Americans, British and Dutch in the Pacific on Dec. 7, 1941.
The Soviets lost heavily in the first six months of the war in the East, but their lines in front of Moscow held in December. Over the next three and a half years, the Red Army ground westward, suffering massively but chewing up German division after division. By May 1945, the USSR controlled Eastern Europe and held Berlin.
The U.S. had been officially neutral until the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it took the Americans time to build up their forces and production capacity. The American generals had wanted to invade France as early as 1942, but good sense prevailed. The first task was to free North Africa and then to strike at Sicily and Italy.
By 1944, everything was ready for D-Day: plans were made, resources collected, soldiers trained and prepared. And the politicians understood that the Nazis had to be destroyed, and Western Europe, the heart of democratic Europe, had to be spared from the effects of a brutal Soviet liberation.
This was achieved, but narrowly. British and Canadian paratroops met the Russians days before they were to turn north to Denmark, and Copenhagen was spared. The Cold War had not yet been declared, but tensions between Moscow and the West were increasing. D-Day had started the liberation of Western Europe and the task was accomplished.
3. United States emerges as a superpower
The Second World War made the United States the most powerful nation on earth. The immense manufacturing might of the American heartland had turned out tanks, aircraft, ships and massive amounts of food, metals and minerals. The U.S. armed itself, but its capacity was such that it armed its allies too.
The American Lend-Lease policy nominally loaned or leased supplies and equipment to the British, Russians and virtually every other Allied combatant (but not to Canada, which operated its own program of mutual aid), but everyone understood that the flow of arms and supplies was a gift. American industry won the war.
So too did the American military. Starting from a relatively small base, the U.S. eventually put 10 million men and women into uniform, fought and won a war in the Pacific, and provided the leaders and forces responsible for the lion’s share of the defeat of the Germans in North Africa, Italy and Western Europe. On May 8, 1945—V-E Day—Germany surrendered.
At war’s end, the British and French economies were staggering, and the Dutch and Belgians were equally devastated. The victorious allies sought and received loans from Washington. (Although Canadians forget this, the British also received a huge loan from Ottawa.) North America, physically untouched by war, was rich; the Europeans struggled to cope. By 1948, with the Cold War in full force, the U.S. stepped forward with generosity.
Initially proposed in a June 1947 speech by Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the army general who had successfully built up U.S. forces during the war, the European Recovery Program (informally, but commonly, known as the Marshall Plan) offered American money to rebuild European economic health.
The Russians and their Eastern European neighbours were included, but declined to participate, suspecting a devious capitalist plot. But Western European nations eagerly took up the offer of $16 billion dollars (the equivalent of some $180 billion in 2019) in American supplies and goods.
The Marshall Plan’s creators understood clearly that American farmers and factories would be huge beneficiaries of this largesse, and they knew too that American wealth and power could only benefit from enhanced economic growth in Western Europe. The superpower was changing the rules and creating its own world. And Washington clearly realized that a strong Western Europe was needed to hold the Soviet Union and resurgent Western European communist parties at bay.
4. The Cold War
Canada was present at the start of the Cold War. In September 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a cipher officer at the Soviet Union’s embassy in Ottawa, defected with an armload of secret files. The documents made it clear that Moscow was running large spying operations against its wartime allies, and Gouzenko’s debriefings pointed to spies in high places in Britain and the U.S., some of them seeking—and securing—information on development of the atomic bomb.
The great alliance of wartime had been uncomfortable from the start, with Moscow mistrusting the capitalist powers as much as the West worried about the communists. The necessity of crushing Hitler had held them together, but with the war’s end, a chill of hostility took hold.
At the meeting of Josef Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at Yalta in the Crimea in 1945, Moscow’s de facto control of Eastern Europe was largely conceded in return for Soviet participation in the war against Japan. The Soviets did the job of establishing their control with ruthless efficiency, creating puppet governments in nations that soon unfailingly danced to Moscow’s tune.
Communist parties in France and Italy, completely attached to and financed by the Soviets, became strong enough to have a chance to take power. The Marshall Plan was an American effort to recreate economies strong enough to provide a better life for Western Europeans and a way of keeping democratic governments in power.
But there was also a military threat from the Soviet Union and its satellites. In 1948, the Soviets cut off land access to Berlin, the city controlled by the victorious powers but located deep within the Russian zone in Germany. A massive airlift kept Berlin supplied with food and fuel, and there were tense confrontations between American and Soviet soldiers.
Britain, Canada and the U.S. had already been discussing the need for joint defence, and the idea soon expanded to a plan to link Western Europe and North America in a defence agreement. The North Atlantic Treaty, signed in April 1949, was the result, and NATO’s military forces, initially commanded by Eisenhower and Montgomery, began to be rebuilt.
The Soviets still had a manpower advantage, and by 1949 they also had the atomic bomb, but the West had indicated that it was willing and ready to fight for its way of life. The road from D-Day in 1944 to Western unity in 1949 was led by the Americans.
5. Rehabilitation of Germany
To make NATO effective militarily, western Germany had to be included. This was hard to contemplate for the nations that had been crushed and conquered by the Nazis only a few years before, but the Germans had rebuilt their economy and adopted a democratic form of government.
The Cold War and the Soviet threat sped up the process, as did French and German efforts to build strong economic ties. In 1955, the Federal Republic of Germany joined the NATO alliance and began to rebuild its military. The Soviet Union had already created the Warsaw Pact, which bound its satellites together under Moscow’s military control, and democratic and communist forces faced each other across what Churchill in 1946 had dubbed the Iron Curtain.
The Federal Republic of Germany quickly build up its industrial might. West Germany—in stark contrast to the East German communist regime—became an economic superpower, the driving force for what became the European Common Market and eventually the European Union. It was no coincidence that the EU anthem, “Ode to Joy,” was by Ludwig Beethoven. Germany had revived, and the Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 by an East German government desperate to keep its people from fleeing to the democratic west, fell in 1991. A unified Germany became the strongest economic and financial power in a Europe that saw nascent democracies replace tyranny.
It had been a long, hard road with many twists and turns from D-Day to the new Europe of the 21st century led by Germany. The future remained uncertain, with Moscow again pushing the boundaries of the postwar rules-based order.
But there was no doubt that the United States had provided much of the military power that brought the Allied forces ashore on June 6, 1944, and its economic might, demonstrated in the Marshall Plan, had sustained Western Europe as a bulwark of democracy. With substantial assistance from Britain and Canada, the U.S. had created NATO, and the NATO nations had proved flexible enough to bring West Germany into their alliance. Necessity demanded this, but far-sighted statesmanship made it possible. That the West won the Cold War proved the wisdom of NATO’s creators. That D-Day had succeeded unquestionably was essential; had the invasion failed, Western Europe would likely have been “liberated” by the Soviet Union, and history would have been very different.