June 6th … D- day.
The re-opening of the western front in 1944 is usually seen in the West as the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. 24 000 soldiers from the United States, Britain and Canada struggled up the beaches of Normandy making the way for 140 000 more to land behind them; or were dropped behind the Atlantic Wall by parachute or glider to claw out a beachhead against ferocious Axis resistance from 50 000 soldiers – many of them conscripts from eastern Europe -that left 10 000 allied and 4- 9 000 German causalities by the end of the first day – just under half of them dead.
The first 25 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” is a sickening vision of what this must have been like; and anyone tempted to spin this horror into cheap and easy glories to batten on, to stand on platforms taking salutes while dreaming of golf courses and real estate developments, or demean these men’s suffering into unearned patriotic bragging – “two World Wars and one World Cup, doo dah, doo dah” – should be forced to watch this sequence and imagine themselves in it.
This was a huge struggle. By the end of July, 1 332 000 allied troops in Normandy were pushing 380 000 Germans back towards Paris. Casualties at this stage were around 120 000 on each side. Large cemeteries had to be built to hold and commemorate them.
This much – in outline at least – we remember. There have been commemorations on the 50th, 60th and now the 75th anniversaries. There have been feature films. Google this and you will see “7 must see D Day films” – so there must be quite a few more that are “maybe see”. Those of us of a certain age will have seen “The Longest Day” almost as many times as “The Great Escape” and have memorised catch phrases from it – “the trouble with being one of the few is that you keep getting fewer”…”The Luftwaffe has had its moment” etc etc. We are not likely to forget.
But forgetfulness can sometimes be less significant than the things we are blind to in the first place. The British version of World War 2 puts us in the centre of things, much like maps here centre on the Greenwich meridian. The Eastern Front barely features in the collective world view here – in which “plucky little Britain” “stood up to Hitler” with a bit of help from the Yanks. The Russians barely feature at all, though, if pushed, some people could reference Stalingrad – the crushing defeat in 1942 that lost the German Army 17 divisions and its delusions of invincibility – as quite important.
There are no English language feature films about Operation Bagration. Most people here will never have heard of it unless they are military history buffs. This leads to – or grows from – an insular way of looking at the world that can further lead to serious self important mistakes when making judgments about it – in the same way that absorbing the proportions of Mercator’s projection maps makes appreciating the real and relative size of places almost impossible.
Between 23 June and 19 August 1944, an offensive by 1 670 000 Soviet troops killed or captured almost all of the half a million experienced German soldiers of Army Group Centre in what is now Belorussia. The scale of this is almost unimaginable. Army Group Centre was a quarter of the entire Wehrmacht on the eastern front. They suffered 400 000 casualties out of an initial force of 450 000. 20 Divisions were destroyed. Three quarters of the corps or divisional commanders were killed or captured. Prisoners taken in just one sector north of Minsk were paraded through Moscow 20 abreast and took an hour and a half to pass.
Red army losses were 180 000 killed and another 590 000 wounded.
So, if watching the coverage of today’s commemoration, cast your eyes and thoughts eastward as well, lest the things we are used to remembering block our minds from the things we need to know about.