PITTSFIELD -- Seventy years ago, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the most significant event of the 20th century, in the opinion of many, began soon after midnight: The invasion of the European continent by the Allied powers: D-Day.

Certainly, if it was not the most significant event, it was the largest planned amphibious invasion in the history of the world. Either way, it was a big deal.

And it should never, ever be
forgotten.

So for many, a little bit of a history lesson today. In 1944, the Nazis controlled Europe, and while they struggled in Russia earlier in the war, they were steamrollering west-central Europe. France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia had all come under German control in a shockingly short time. The "Master Race" was indeed proving formidable.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin began pushing in 1943 for the Allies (including the United States and England) to open up a second front in western Europe to occupy some of the Nazi forces besieging the Russians.

There were several options for the Allied landing. Nazi chancellor Adolf Hitler believed the strike would come at the Pas de Calais peninsula, the closest land mass to England.

German Field General Erwin Rommel disagreed.

"They will [invade] at Normandy," he said to his generals several months prior to the invasion. "Believe me, gentlemen, the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies, but also for the Germans, it will be the longest day the longest day.


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Rommel, an avid military historian, of course was right. In Berlin, Hitler and his staff were confident.

"Er soll nur kommen," sneered propaganda minister Josef Goebbels during one of his radio broadcasts. ("Let them come.")

Their confidence was fairly well-placed. Rommel's men had planted 4 million mines up and down the Atlantic Coast. When an officer complained that his men were exhausted from the work, Rommel scoffed.

"My dear Herr von Salmuth, what would your men rather like to be?" he said. "Exhausted or dead?"

The Germans had also positioned hundreds of heavy guns along the same span, as well as metal and wooden stakes on the beaches to thwart landing operations.

The invasion had been postponed several times. Allied commander-in-chief Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had the grim task of making the final decision as to when the launch would take place.

"He had a decision," noted his English chauffeur, Kay Summersby, "that no man should ever have to make: When to send thousands of men to their deaths."

But he made that decision, and it was the correct one. Eisenhower was a superb planner, and while D-Day itself didn't go very smoothly (war never goes smoothly), Ike's confidence in his men was justified: By 4 p.m., the beaches were secured. About 4,414 Allied soldiers were killed, 6,000 wounded. Pre-invasion casualty estimates had been much higher: About 40,000 of the 156,000 men who made it ashore.

Not all of the goals the Allies had set for that day were met. But they had gained a foothold. And the invasion of Europe was underway. Less than a year later, the war in Europe was over.

There aren't a lot people left who were in Normandy that day. Seventy years is a long time by human measure. But if you know a veteran, or remember a veteran who participated in that operation, or in that war, let them know you appreciate their service.

Derek Gentile is an Eagle staffer. He can be reached at dgentile@berkshireeagle.com.