Amidst all the recent hyperbole surrounding the 70th anniversary of the Anglo-American and Canadian invasion of enemy-occupied France in the Second World War, which claims that it was the “beginning of the end” of the German army, we have lost sight of an important, and much-overlooked fact: Compared with the eastern front, it was a mere sideshow.
Objectively speaking, the real D-Day, the real “beginning of the end” for the Wehrmacht, and Nazi Germany, was the Soviet Operation Bagration. Consider the following:
The Wehrmacht had 58 divisions in the west, of which only 11 were deployed against the D-Day landings. At the same time, however, the Germans deployed 228 divisions in the east. Thus, the Germans had almost four times as many troops facing the Soviets. And they had less than one-20th of that number in Normandy. That alone is an indication of where their priorities lay.
At no time after June 6, 1944, did the German high command contemplate transferring forces from the east to the west to counter the Normandy landings.
The initial D-Day landings were made with approximately 175,000 Allied troops against about 80,000 Wehrmacht soldiers. These figures were dwarfed by the strengths on the eastern front, where Operation Bagration, which was launched on June 22, 1944, pitted 2.4 million Russian troops, supported by 36,400 artillery pieces, 5,200 tanks and 5,300 aircraft, against the Germans’ Army Group Centre, which numbered 700,000 men, 900 tanks and 1,350 aircraft.
The Soviets aimed to retake Byelorussia (now Belarus), and in the process, destroy Army Group Centre.
Within a month of launching, Bagration had succeeded. In relentless lightning attacks, Soviet forces annihilated 17 German divisions and reduced another 50 to half-strength, which translated into a net German loss of 42 divisions. Army Group Centre was no more. Moreover, the Soviets had punched a hole 400 kilometres wide and 160 kilometres long in the German front. By September, they would be knocking on German-occupied Warsaw’s door.
Meanwhile, the western Allies, wedded to Montgomery’s unimaginative tactics, were still mired on the Normandy beachhead. Only on July 26, 1944, did their attempts to break out succeed, under Patton’s — not Montgomery’s — leadership.
Their breakout was aided by the fact that Bagration had forced the Wehrmacht to redeploy 46 divisions, including some from France, to the eastern front. Even then, the western Allies’ failure to close the Falaise pocket in August allowed the retreating Germans to escape. The Soviet juggernaut made no such mistake. Indeed, as Bagration showed, by the time the western Allies got around to launching their second front, which Stalin had been clamouring for since 1941, the Red Army almost didn’t need it.
Western media continue to tiresomely trumpet D-Day as a history-making event. This term can be more accurately applied to Operation Bagration, and the earlier eastern-front battles of Stalingrad and Kursk. Taken together, these battles broke the back of the Wehrmacht, and made ultimate victory over the Nazis possible.
While I would be the last one to deny or belittle the sacrifice, heroism and dedication of the brave men who risked it all by landing in Normandy, the objective historical record clearly shows that Hitler’s defeat was due more to the efforts of Private Ivan than to the efforts of Private Ryan.
In the words of the eminent military historian Chris Bellamy: “If we compare the speed and scale of the Russian advances in Operation Bagration with the lengthy battle to break out of the Normandy bridgehead, which was going on at the same time, the Russian performance is clearly superior.” This fact is undeniable, and deserves fair recognition, notwithstanding what we might think of Vladimir Putin’s doings in Crimea and Ukraine.
I venture to propose that the time has come to abolish the commemoration of D-Day in favour of one that jointly commemorates D-Day and Operation Bagration. This would be a fitting acknowledgment of the enormous efforts of all the major Allied powers to defeat the scourge of Nazism that so threatened humanity seven decades ago.
Chandar S. Sundaram is a Victoria-based military historian, writer and educator.