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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Defending “Fortress Europe”: The Atlantic Wall

My name is Tyler; I am a history major at the University of Virginia and am interning with the National D-Day Memorial over the summer. My primary internship responsibilities include the expansion and maintenance of our archives, giving tours, and assisting with our many education programs. Having been exposed to so much D-Day history in the past few months, I developed an interest in the obstacles these soldiers faced and decided to complete more research on the Atlantic Wall.
Steel 'hedgehogs' at the Pas de Calais, April 1944

On March 23, 1942 Adolf Hitler issued Fuhrer Directive No. 40 calling for the creation of the Atlantic Wall.  A nearly 2000-mile long line of coastal defenses, the Atlantic Wall stretched from the northern reaches of Norway, along the coast of continental Europe, and down to the Franco-Spanish border.  Its purpose, to defend against an Allied invasion of Europe no matter where it may come.

The monumental task of designing and building this defensive network was given to Organization Todt, the engineering group which had been responsible for both the Autobahn and the Siegfried Line which protected Germany’s western border.  Over half a million French workers were drafted through the Vichy regime’s compulsory labor program to build the defenses.  Many were paid for their labor, although not much, but slave labor was used as well.  Even with these savings in labor costs the project was enormously expensive, requiring both money and resources.  In France alone the cost was over 3.5 billion Deutschmarks, and the wall defenses as a whole required 600 million cubic feet of concrete and 1.3 million tons of steel.

Rommel surveying defenses along the French coast
Initially these defenses were concentrated around naval and U-boat bases. But starting in late 1943, the fortifications were expanded to cover virtually the entire coast.  In early 1944, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel was given the task of improving the defenses against an increasingly likely Allied invasion.  Because of his experience fighting the Allies in North Africa, Rommel believed that Allied air power posed the greatest threat.  Owing to this, he ordered the building of reinforced concrete bunkers and pillboxes capable of surviving an aerial bombardment.  Further inland, in the open fields of farmland, large sharpened logs were driven into the ground.  Known as “Rommel’s asparagus”, these were meant to destroy Allied gliders should they try to land.

Rommel also believed, quite rightly, that if the Allies were able to secure a beachhead then the war would be lost for Germany.  As such, the beaches were where he focused most of his attention.  Numerous beach obstacles were put in place to guard against Allied landing craft. Steel “hedgehogs” and tetrahedrons were placed in the water to tear out the hull of the invasion craft, and log ramps were erected to capsize them. Mines were used extensively, both in the water and behind the beaches as well; in Northern France alone, over 6 million of these mines were laid.  Rommel never believed that these obstacles would stop an invasion, but he hoped they would slow it down enough to allow reinforcements arrive and repulse the Allied forces.


Clearly, the task of invading France was no easy one, and the Allies knew they would need luck on their side in order to pull it off.  The reserve panzer divisions which could have repulsed the invasion could only be released upon the direct order of the Fuhrer himself. And as luck would have it, Adolf Hitler had taken a sleeping pill the night before the invasion and his staff refused to wake him.  Because of this one blunder, the entire defense network was rendered virtually useless and the Allied invasion succeeded.


-Tyler

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Flag Day and the 241st Birthday of the U.S. Army

On June 14, the United States observes two special events in American history: Flag Day and the 241st birthday of the United States Army.

Poster commemorating the 140th
Flag Day on June 14, 1917
Flag Day commemorates the adoption of the American Flag on June 14, 1777 by a Second Continental Congress resolution. Although the Fourth of July has been traditionally celebrated as the country’s birthday, the first movement towards a day to celebrate the flag originated around 1995. A schoolteacher in Wisconsin, BJ Cigrand, arranged for the students in his school district to observe June 14 as a day of celebration for the flag’s birthday. Soon after, other schools implemented similar ideas on June 14, including a program of celebrations in order to “Americanize” recent immigrants to the United States.

On June 14, 1914, Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, delivered a “Flag Day” speech, reiterating the words the flag reportedly had spoken to him that morning: "I am what you make me; nothing more. I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself”. On May 30, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation officially establishing June 14 as “Flag Day”. But it wasn’t until August 3, 1949, that President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating the holiday as “National Flag Day”.

June 14, 2016 is the Army's 241st Birthday
Also celebrated on June 14 is the birthday of the United States Army. On June 14, 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the enlistment of riflemen to serve the United Colonies for up to one year; the authorization of these riflemen is often recognized as the adoption of the “American Continental Army”. These “expert riflemen” were the first units directly raised by the Continentals. With the establishment of the Infantry, the Continental Congress also allowed for the establishment of four other basic branches of the Army: Adjutant General’s Corps (June 16, 1775), Corps of Engineers (June 16, 1775), Finance Corps (June 16, 1775), and the Quartermaster Corps (June 16, 1775). Over the next few centuries, the Army added additional basic branch components as well as Special Branches. Since its creation in 1775, the United States Army has been involved in all major conflicts in United States history, including the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, American Civil War, First World War, Second World War, Vietnam, Gulf War, and Iraqi War.

The National D-Day Memorial will honor Flag Day this Saturday with a special ceremony presented by the Bedford Elks Lodge 2844. The ceremony will begin at 10 a.m. and will include a history of the nation’s flag and a visual representation of those flags through the decades.
Regular admission fees apply. Adult admission is $10; veterans are $8; students are $6; children under 6 are always free. Active duty and reserve military service members are admitted free as part of the Blue Star Museum program (Memorial Day through Labor Day.) See full event details for this Saturday on our event page at: https://www.facebook.com/events/1787671074799890/


-Abby

Thursday, June 9, 2016

“Miracle of Deliverance”: The Evacuation of Dunkirk

Abby with Hayden Furrow, a WWII and D-Day Veteran
My name is Abby and I am an Education intern here at the National D-Day Memorial. As an intern, I assist with field trips and give tours of the Memorial. As the first full week of June comes to a close, I wanted to focus on one of the events that set the stage early on in the war: the evacuation of Dunkirk.

After the Germans invaded the Low Countries (comprised primarily of Belgium and the Netherlands), the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), along with French and Belgian troops, sent aid in order to prevent their fall. Despite sending aid, the Allied forces were unable to prevent the German panzer divisions from moving into the Ardennes and towards the English Channel. On May 20, the Germans cut off the BEF after capturing the coastline. The German objective then shifted to taking various Channel ports to prevent the Allied forces from successfully evacuating to the British mainland. On May 24, Hitler instructed General Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of the German forces in the Low Countries, to go forward with the attack against the cornered Allied forces. Rundstedt planned to utilize his infantry and armored divisions, along with Luftwaffe support, to finish the BEF off.

British soldiers shoot at attacking aircraft during invasion.
Fearing for the worst, General Lord John Gort, commander of the BEF, called for the evacuation of his forces from Northern France.  Gort withdrew the BEF and established their position around the port of Dunkirk. Back in England, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay met to plan the evacuation, codenamed “Operation Dynamo”. The evacuation called for a fleet of naval destroyers and merchant ships, supplemented by 700 “little ships” (civilian pleasure craft, fishing vessels, etc.). The operation hoped to take two days to rescue 45,000 men, as German interference was expected to end the evacuation after a 48 hour window.

British troops evacuating Dunkirk's beaches.
Operation Dynamo commenced on May 27. On the first day, 7,669 men were rescued, with many soldiers having to wade out to the boats in order to board. On May 28, 17,804 were rescued. Despite the original plan for the operation to last only two days, the evacuations continued past May 28, as the German perimeter around Dunkirk began to shrink. The Royal Air Force continued to push back the Luftwaffe’s attacks, allowing the evacuations to continue well into June. In early June, with increased attacks by the Luftwaffe, daylight operations were ended and evacuation ships only ran at night. On June 4, with German forces only three miles from the harbor, the last Allied ship (HMS Shikari), departed the port at 3:40 AM. Left alone, the remaining two French divisions were forced to surrender to the Germans.

With the general success of Operation Dynamo, a total of 332,226 men (including men from the BEF, French, Dutch, Belgian, and Polish forces) were rescued. In his We shall fight on the beaches speech of June 4, Winston Churchill dubbed the Dunkirk evacuation as a “miracle of deliverance”. Despite significant loses, the Dunkirk evacuation secured the core of the British Army and made it available for the immediate defense of Britain in upcoming campaigns, such as the Battle of Britain.

Sources:

Harman, Nicholas. Dunkirk, the Patriotic Myth. 1980. Print.