On June 6, 1944 the Western Allies launched Operation Overlord – better known as D-Day – an amphibious invasion of northern France that was a dramatic and unprecedented gamble for the future of Western Europe. It’s success ensured the defeat of Nazism by creating a western Second Front in Europe opposite the Soviet Union’s Red Army in the east. Their presence also guaranteed that Soviet influence would not extend beyond their furthest reach in the occupied eastern portion of Central Europe. If D-Day failed however, none of this, or even history as we know it would have come to fruition.
Today, D-Day is rightly remembered as a day of heroes with forces from every Allied nation assaulting the heavily defended beaches of Normandy. Through its mythologized retelling, countless consider the landing’s success a historical inevitability. However, that belief could not be further from the truth. Overlord’s architects who planned and executed the offensive understood that their efforts may have instead been mourned as one of the greatest disasters in military history. Yet with profound conviction Allied leaders accepted the risk because success might ensure the freedom of humanity from one of the greatest evils it had ever faced. On the other hand had it failed, world history would have become unrecognizable compared to our own.
To appreciate the sacrifice of those who boldly attacked the Atlantic Wall 73 years ago today, one must consider the world they risked their life to avoid. As we take a moment today to honor their sacrifice, let’s consider what that other course of history may have entailed. This piece postulates what turns the war may have taken if Germany had succeeded in repelling the Normandy attack, squashing the Allied invasion, and leaving the Second Front stillborn.
So, what if D-Day failed?
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, United States Army
D-Day & Democracy During Total War
Many historians debate if a true liberal representative democracy could emerge victorious and intact when faced with a total war. Had D-Day failed, an even higher sacrifice would be required to achieve a desirable victory in Europe.
The decision to undertake an even greater effort would have then faced the people of the Allied powers. The United States and Great Britain each lost over 350,000 members of their armed forces during the war. A failure of D-Day, and the need to renew their commitment to liberating Western Europe would have entailed an ever greater cost of life.
In historian Max Hastings estimation, the Soviet Union could likely have only survived their nightmare war with the Germans with the full mobilization of the Stalinist terror apparatus to scare the population into full resistance.
As similar tactics would never be used in the other Allied nations, the leaders and people of those countries would have needed to reassess their willingness to pay the great price of peace. Their answer would have had near incomprehensible consequences to history, whatever it might have been.
Finger Pointing Among the Allies if D-Day Failed
With a loss the magnitude of a D-Day failure, the finger pointing and blame would have extended far and wide. While in reality Allied leadership would be at a collective fault, it is unfortunately not the nature of politics to assume and proceed from such a rationale conclusion. In all likelihood, two outlooks would have prevailed between the Anglo-American nations.
The British Perspective: Lowering the Strategic Priority of D-Day
The British during the Second World War following their evacuation from France in June 1940 were very conservative in their ambitions for returning to Western Europe later in the war. British hesitancy was composed partly in their initially accurate assessment that the Allies were not yet properly prepared for that blood letting prior to summer 1944. In addition well to their national nightmare fighting the German land army during the Great War two decades prior.
Britain prior to 1944 would have been done most of the fighting with British Army divisions, as the United States was not yet fully mobilized for war. Britain because of this possessed the early upper hand in their strategic wrangling with the United States. American war planners originally expressed a more cavalier approach in creating a true Second Front by crossing the channel, shortly after entering the conflict in December 1941.
If the D-Day invasion had failed, the British would have likely claimed that their previously stated arguments for placing a cross-channel operation at the bottom of Allied strategic priorities should have been heeded.
The American Perspective: Or Reckoning the Fate of Western Europe Between Anvil, Hammer & Sickle Following a D-Day Failure
The U.S. would have laid the blame for the decision to delay Operation Anvil, the simultaneous invasion of the French Mediterranean coast executing simultaneously with the landings at Normandy. By design, the dual invasion was intended to force the Germans to divide their redeployment response in France to engage both Allied offensives.
Operation Anvil was ultimately canceled for June 6th because the necessary landing craft for the invasion were unavailable. The craft had been in use at Anzio, a failed attempt to break the deadlock at Casino in Italy. The invasion of southern France ultimately commenced as Operation Dragoon, on 15 August, 1944 – two months after its greatest potential for strategic significance had passed.
John P. Lucas, Major General and commander on the ground for the U.S. VI Corps is largely responsible for the tactical decisions leading to debacle at Anzio. Yet the general Anzio plan was Churchill’s brain-child initiative, leaving the political blame at his feet. Had D-Day failed, the U.S. would have pointed to the landing craft’s assignment to Anzio as a waste of resources in Italy. Moreover, it may well have created the opportunity for the Red Army to advance into Western Europe.
The Mediterranean “Suction Pump”
Italy was considered a diversionary theater of operations, and the landing crafts usage there would have been viewed by American war planners as foolishly squandering military resources. In doing so, concluding the crafts usage should have been used in the Mediterranean invasion supporting Operation Overlord in northern France: the theater of highest agreed upon strategic priority.
Moreover, U.S. leadership would point to Churchill for conceiving the foolhardy plan, squandering at the expense of their paramount objective.
As acrimonious as the diplomatic and military relations would be following a D-Day failure, the wide-spread political ramifications would have been catastrophic.
The 1944 U.S. Presidential Election After a D-Day Defeat
On June 6th, 1944 President Roosevelt was five months away from his fourth and final presidential election. The final result historically was not close against Republican challenger, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. FDR rode his continued popularity with the American public, as well as the significant Allied military progress by November of that year.
By Election Day not only had France been almost entirely liberated by Allied forces, but most of Belgium was largely in Allied hands. Meanwhile, Italy was also occupied just beyond Bologna.
Had a complete D-Day failure occurred, none of this would have been possible by Election Day. It would have colored the entirety of the 1944 election, leading the American public to consider very different issues at the polls.
The Major Questions at the Polls for the American Voters in the 1944 US Presidential Election
In a presidential race where the primary issue was choosing the candidate suited for creating the best American post-war peace, a D-Day failure would have immediately raised questions and issues where none existed historically:
“Is FDR up to the job?”
“Could he end the war successfully without an even greater sacrifice of American lives?”
“Can we actually defeat Hitler?”
If the voting public faced an Allied failure on D-Day, the likely answer to the first two questions would have been “no.”
The voters response to the final question may have demonstrated a crisis of confidence, whose resolution would have directed the future war effort. Nor would the Roosevelt Administration be alone on the political hot stove.
Survival of the Churchill Government following a D-Day Failure
Given the nature of British parliamentary democracy’s ability to enact swift and sweeping leadership change, the Churchill government would definitely have come under tremendous political scrutiny for a D-Day failure. Specifically in view of the aforementioned British losses experienced in northern France during the First World War, understandably scarring the British national memory after fighting the Germans there.
Churchill’s personal history for failed military adventurism, namely as architect for the disastrous landings at Gallipoli during the Great War serving as a factor as well. Churchill’s continued wartime leadership would be in serious peril.
Both instances embodied a tortuous legacy in the minds of all Britons at that time. Nor would this have been Churchill’s first significant challenging of his leadership and wartime cabinet.
The Stafford Cripps Factor
Prior to the victory at the Second Battle of El-Alamein in November 1942, Churchill’s premiership sat in a tenuous position having little to show in the way of a high value victory over the Germans on land. In addition to the collective disgrace following the surrender of forces stationed at Tobruk in June 1942.
Winston Churchill, despite his irreplaceable role rallying his nation for a continued fight effectively alone between summer 1940 and summer 1941, he was under pressure to deliver.
Labour MP and Leader of the House of Commons in Churchill’s wartime coalition government, Sir Stafford Cripps, was believed to be a genuine rival for the premiership in 1942. Cripps served as His Majesty’s Government (HMG) Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1942. Cripps became a popular figure in the U.K. at that point during the conflict championing an “All Aid to Russia” strategic approach to fighting the war.
Due to the minimal British military progress in 1942 on land, and the Soviet Union’s Red Army enduring the wrath of the Wehrmacht nearly alone, Cripps advocated a greater role in providing any and all resources to the Soviet Union, given prior British inability to achieve a favorable and definitive outcome themselves – specifically in North Africa. This political challenge to Churchill’s leadership ended with the British 8th Army’s decisive victory at the Second Battle of El-Alamein.
There were no serious contenders for the post of PM in summer 1944, following a period of sustained military success. Yet figures the likes of Cripps would have emerged quickly following a disaster with Operation Overlord. A D-Day defeat however would have outstripped anything Churchill’s political leadership endured prior.
When considering the design of the British parliamentary system, as well as the seriousness of a D-Day failure, it would have led to at least a serious shakeup of his serving War Cabinet members.
D-Day Disaster: The End of Germany First?
Prior to U.S. entry into the war, U.S. and British military representatives held a secret conference from January to March 1941 in Washington D.C. This clandestine meeting was dubbed “ABC” – American British Conversations – a perfectly innocuous title for the talks which established that, if the U.S. entered the war, Nazi occupied Europe would be the “decisive theater,” better known to historians as the “Germany First” policy. This determination was made only nine months before the war came to America.
With the full formation of the Grand Alliance, the coalition including Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States in December 1941, the one strategic priority each of the three powers unequivocally agreed upon was defeating Nazi Germany and its European Axis collaborators first and foremost. Specifically before turning their full attention and resources towards the Empire of Japan. Their decision was informed by the accurate perception that Nazi Germany presented as their most dangerous common adversary.
Resisting the Impulse for Vengeance: Keeping the US from adopting a “Japan First” Strategy
In early 1942 alarming public opinion polls found that 20% of Americans favored signing a separate peace with Hitler to focus the war effort entirely against the Japanese. Many Americans during this period held a visceral loathing of Japan for its surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor, and various other American Pacific territories. Consequently wishing to unleash their wrath against Japan.
Despite Germany declaring war against the US on December 11th, 1941, four days after Pearl Harbor; most Americans at that time did not harbor nearly as much animosity toward Germany compared to that of Japan.
It must be understood, however, that this belief existed several years prior to the clear public revelations of Nazi racial policy, and the resulting genocide of the Holocaust.
The Realistically Conditional Nature of Germany First in the United States
When all is considered, it was the proper strategic priority to focus first on the defeat of Nazi Germany over that of Japan. Consequently keeping the American public opinion on side, favoring Germany First was often contingent upon the success of the fighting in Europe, curbing loss of American lives, and the expediency of that success.
Had D-Day failed, the public and policy makers alike may have given in to their desire to enact their collective vengeance against the Japanese in the Pacific. If so, the resources necessary to attempt a second invasion, or even supporting progress elsewhere in Europe may have decreased significantly.
Any reduction in the level of the overwhelming resources invested by the United States would have placed the freedom of Western Europe in clear jeopardy.
What Were the Alternatives if D-Day failed?
Next Best Theater of Opportunity in Europe
With a failure on D-Day, and the invasion of France postponed indefinitely, Allied war planners would have had to determine a new possible theater of strategic opportunity. Italy was the only other area of mainland Europe where the Western Allies were engaging the Germans on the ground. With Churchill’s previous desire to enter Yugoslavia via Trieste and the so-called Ljubljana Gap, the cross channel invasion disaster may have given this idea new life and traction.
Italy was thought a serviceable diversionary theater prior to June 1944, as it caused Germany to further thinly disperse their forces throughout Europe. The Italian campaign was costly, as war in Italy proved highly attritional – mostly due to fighting in the Apennines mountain range. Nor did it serve its greatest purpose: drawing a significant number of divisions off the Eastern Front.
Advancing on Germany from southern Italy is like marching on Washington D.C. by invading Houston then traversing the Appalachian Mountains
Due to the harsh nature of combat in Italy – specifically invading from the south – it was deemed unsuitable as a main axis of advance toward the heart of Germany. The idea of fighting a million Axis troops well fortified in the Alps would have been nothing short of purgatory.
With a D-Day failure, it may have generated renewed interest in Churchill’s ambition to enter the Balkans. Yet fighting in Yugoslavia and other Balkan nations would have been no more pleasant than in northern Italy and Austria for precisely the same reasons.
Fighting in the Balkans: The Diplomatic Battle for Post-War Spheres of Influence
Additionally, the Soviet’s eyed the Balkans as within their future sphere of post-war influence, save Greece to the south by the “Percentages agreement.” A large Western Allied military presence in the Balkans would have undoubtedly created further significant friction between the Eastern and Western Allies, when factoring in the projected harder fight ahead for the Red Army had D-Day failed.
In all probability, the prospect of capitalizing on the Balkans as a hypothetical theater of opportunity would not have been an automatic contingency plan. It would have taken time to both amass the materials to do so properly, and determine the best way to engage the enemy.
It’s success would have certainly required the support of a US dedicated to victory in Europe, which in the scenario of a D-Day failure would have been no guarantee for the aforementioned political reasons.
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The Eastern Front Opposite D-Day
Operation Overlord by not achieving a victorious outcome, e.g. failing on D-Day, the war in Europe would reach its conclusion almost exclusively by the rival tyrannys on the Eastern Front. With Nazi Germany able to redeploy a significant number of divisions no longer needed in the West – including some of their most crack divisions – Germany’s possible renewed resistance would have unquestionably changed the look of the wars outcome, and the world itself.
Operation Bagration: Belorussia to Bordeaux?
In a less popular piece of history from the Second World War, Operation Bagration – also known as “Death of German Army Group Center” – was launched on 22 June, 1944. In scale, the Soviet offensive to clear German Army Group Center from Belorussia (modern day Belarus) was ten times the size of D-Day’s initial phase in manpower. For all intents and purposes, Bagration occurred simultaneously to Overlord.
The Soviet summer offensive liberated Minsk, portions of Latvia, Lithuania, southwest Poland, and it ended with the Red Army halting on the eastern bank of the Vistula opposite Warsaw. The Soviets effectively crushed Army Group Center, advancing up to 400 miles from their start line in easternmost Belorussia, doing so in just over one month. Their progress was incredible, and left the Red Army within reach of their ultimate target, Berlin.
Though without the major presence of the Allies in Western Europe if D-Day failed, there never would have been a symbolic embrace between East and West on the river Elbe. It would have created an opportunity to extend Soviet influence from Lisbon to Vladivostok, if Stalin was willing to cut the huge check necessary to achieve it.
With the inability to create a significant Second Front in Western Europe, the situation would have constituted a fundamental strategic shift for Germany with their new found available options to resist the Red Army. Had D-Day failed, it would have likely been the conclusion of the Germans that a similar invasion by the Western Allies would have taken no less than 18 months to remount – IF indeed they ever attempted another invasion again.
Between March 1943 and June 1944, the Wehrmacht stationed between 44 and 60 divisions awaiting to defend the expected Allied invasion of northern France. As the Wehrmacht sat deployed in various locations throughout France and the Benelux nations, they were of absolutely no use anywhere else.
If even 50 percent of those divisions had been redeployed to the fight in the East, the cost of Soviet progress would have been even more staggering than it already was.
30 divisions redeploying to the East in mid-1944 is the equivalent of an entire German Army Group. However, the Soviets historically were never fated for experiencing that catastrophe. The German forces in France were drowning up to the neck fighting the US and British, with the Western Allies successfully liberating more of France each day.
No War, No Peace: Nazi-Soviet Stalemate in the East?
Its impossible to know if additional German forces from the Western theater would have resulted in conducting a successful offensive in the East. When considering the manic decision making process of Adolf Hitler late in the war, any number of possibilities present themselves – strategically prudent or otherwise.
It is fair, however, to imagine a scenario in which the Germans sought to achieve a stalemate. Without a threat in the West if D-Day failed, Germany did not need to win the war in the East outright. Germany simply did not have to lose the war to ensure their continued existence.
Stalinism Spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific
Based on Soviet grand strategy and method of war, it appears unthinkable that Stalin could ever have accepted an end to hostilities that didn’t include the total capitulation of Nazi Germany. Given Stalin’s overwhelming desire to create a bloc of Communist aligned nations in Eastern Europe to buffer the USSR from another Western invasion, he could never have felt secure under conditions where the German threat remained.
Moreover despite the high cost, with the combination of a hostile neighboring Nazi Germany, plus the reward of establishing communism across two continents, as a leader who cared not at all for the lives lost in war – Stalin would have made whatever sacrifice was necessary to achieve that outcome.
Western Allied Pressures and Options
In addition to US public pressure to increase focus and resources to the war in the Pacific, there would have also likely been a push for an even greater level of Lend-Lease aid provided to the USSR following a D-Day failure. The British and American people then looking at the fighting on the Eastern front might conclude the Red Army was doing all the heavy lifting in defeating Hitler.
Therefore by failing on D-Day, the Western Allies due to compelling domestic pressure may have undertook providing all the material support they possibly could to the USSR. Even surpassing the exceptional amount of Lend-Lease they provided during the actual war.
A New Cold War Hot Spot
At the war’s conclusion, the Allies only predictable holdings on mainland Europe would have been their occupation of Italy. Given the extreme difficulties and predictable cost of forcing progress through the Alps – their position on the Italian peninsula may have proven fateful and long term.
With a new border through portions of northern Italy that meet with newly Communist aligned nations, it may have created a point that constituted an altogether different epicenter of cold-war tension, partitioning Turin instead of Berlin.
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A Nuclear Option That Is Not So Taboo: The Darkest Fallout if D-Day Failed
One of the greatest consequences if D-Day failed was its potential influence on humanity’s future use of nuclear weapons. Throughout the Second World War, the United States and Great Britain collaborated to create the first atomic bombs. In the Manhattan Project the Western Allied nations recruited scientists to work collaboratively in a secret site in New Mexico, all in hopes of being the first powers to possess the most destructive weapon in history.
There was particular haste for progress because the Germans had perused research to create nuclear weapons themselves through the use of heavy water. Hitler never pushed the project, unconvinced of the weapons feasibility, the Americans and British did not know that. Hence they spent over 2 billion US dollars to complete the project.
Trading Hiroshima and Nagasaki for Hannover and Nuremberg
It is well known that the first two – and only – atomic bombs used in war were dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan in August, 1945. In a world in which the Allies experienced a D-Day failure, the likelihood of the war in Europe ending in May 1945 were next to none.
Therefore Nazi Germany would have been the primary target for the newly developed U.S. atomic bombs, as they became available in July 1945.
Their creation was always intended for use on Germany, but did not occur historically because Nazi surrender occurred two months prior to their completion.
Despite the devastation caused by humanities first strategic nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that even such a weapon would have caused Hitler to surrender. Unlike Emperor Hirohito who surrendered before the major pressures of the atomic bombings and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, Hitler would have been unmoved.
A Nuclear Taboo that Never Existed
Due to Hitler’s presumed intransigence, the U.S. may have dropped many more atomic bombs on Germany as they became available.
In an age where no one fully understood the long term dangers of using nuclear weapons, such a situation may have irradiated Europe for generations to come. An even more disturbing possibility is that the bombs continued use may have never created the “nuclear taboo,” the guiding belief of all nations that possess nuclear weapons (possibly excluding North Korea) to never use them.
D-Day Success vs. if D-Day Failed: A Better World
What you have just read is undoubtedly a nightmare scenario in which all of our greatest fears came to pass. It is of course impossible to know exactly what course history may have taken, as a D-Day failure is a historic counter-factual scenario. It does however serve to invoke a newfound appreciation for what Operation Overlord really achieved, and more accurately, what it prevented.
Today we all raise our full glasses, with full hearts, to the achievement of those who played a role in one of the most critical events in human history. A military success that was fundamental in creating the world order that has ushered in the longest period of sustained peace between great powers in human history. We may never be able to repay the debt of our dearest blood, but we can honor it every day. As well as indeed taking a deep breadth that only a free people can genuinely appreciate.
Write to Paul K. DiCostanzo at firstname.lastname@example.org
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