They call it “85 days of Hell,” June 7, 1944, to the end of August 1944, the stretch immediately after D-Day’s June 6, 1944’s Normandy landings. We are right to hallow D-Day. Allied losses, especially Americans at Omaha, topped 4,400 – with 10,000 casualties. But that was not where the battle ended. That is where it began.
The “Normandy Breakout,” pushing off those beaches, taking miles of deadly hedgerows, liberating Paris 150 miles out, was costly. It took all the stamina and courage young Americans could muster. The average age of those boys on Omaha and Utah Beaches – was 20, like a sophomore in college.
The French fields were divided by “hedgerows,” ancient earth, and thick bush, 15 feet high. The Germans prepared for slaughter, setting machine gun nests to rake open corners, overlapping fields of fire, mowing down attempts to enter or cross. To be sure, they mined the fields and corners.
Imagine rising each morning, knowing that you were at it again – entering another field, preset for mayhem. But, the Americans were – as we still are – resourceful. They concocted a way to circumvent the killing fields. They welded forklift-like fingers to tanks, pushed through hedgerows, turning the game.
But again, this was just a weigh station. The Germans had a granite-hard line 30 miles inland from the coast. It seemed unbreakable. They were prepared, supplied, and motivated. Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, and the British Montgomery were stressed; they shifted, flexed, and reoriented.
With “Operation Cobra,” Allied troops flanked and encircled some of the Germans, forcing death, capture, retreat. But this again set the table for another challenge, as Hitler countered with attacks on American supply lines, hoping to leave Patton’s troops without fuel, food, and ammunition.
Hitler would try that again at the Bulge, when Patton’s Army relieved those holding Bastogne, including “Easy Company,” of “Band of Brothers” fame. Hitler lost both times, but not without impact.
Eventually, the Allied Armies stretched arms outward, Patton’s Third Army liberating 45,000 square miles to enclose the Germans – desperately trying to escape – from what is called the Falaise Pocket.
That “Normandy Breakout” – which led to Hitler’s retreat – allowed Allied Armies to liberate Paris and eventually arrive at Berlin and end the war. Unlike D-Day, it took months and is a hard story to retell in few words, albeit told well in Rick Atkinson’s trilogy, as well as Patton’s and Bradley’s autobiographies.
The main point is this. Freedom – the unwavering defense of freedom in any age – takes time, patience, stamina, and courage. It requires sustained, not one-time, effort. It calls for constant awareness, pressure, recalibrating, re-understanding the enemy, and it is always costly.
The Normandy Breakout, winning eventual control of that region, permitted power projection to the East – the ability to chase, capture, and defeat the Germans. While we lost 4,400 lives on D-Day, we lost 72,900 young men to retake Paris. The Allies suffered 226,386 casualties in those “85 days of hell.”
In an immediate sense, remembering D-Day’s June 6 anniversary – 77th remembrance – is a good reason to pause and to remember what followed. American, British, Canadian, and other Allied boys kept pushing, kept getting up, protecting each other, and fighting for freedom – come what may. They did what they had to do. Some never came home as a result. We live on the strength of their conviction.
But there is a second meaning in remembering what happened beyond June 6, 1944. The stretch is emblematic of a principle.
Freedom is never won easily, nor permanently. It is never secure for the ages. It is never without naysayers and detractors, the malevolent, misguided, and negligent in any age. That is why the defense of freedom is never done and why part of what lies beyond falls to us.
We must be determined to stay historically grounded, vocal about sacrifices, proud to defend the legacy of courageous boys, vigilant to protect what they fought for and what tens of thousands died for. They gave that to us. We must hand it forward, enhanced. For their “85 days of hell,” we got freedom – and we should stop to hallow it, just as we do their lives.
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