BY JAMES W. DOLAN
SPECIAL TO THE REPORTER
After Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Joseph Stalin immediately began pleading with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to invade France, which, he said, he needed to reduce the pressure on Russian troops who were desperately resisting the Germans who were closing in on the Russian homeland. By then, Hitler had defeated France but had aborted plans to invade Great Britain due to the effectiveness of British air and naval forces in maintaining control of the English Channel.
The initial German assault against Stalin by 3 million men in 150 divisions was remarkably successful as Nazi troops overwhelmed poorly trained, shocked, and disorganized Russian defense forces. Fast-moving mechanized divisions advanced to the outskirts of Moscow before being stalled in December 1941 by a combination of the fearsome Russian winter and the difficult task of supplying troops. A Soviet winter counteroffensive pushed the invaders back and the tide slowly began to turn.
With the defeat of a German army at Stalingrad in February 1943 after a five-month battle, the initiative passed to the Soviet forces and thereafter Hitler’s troops were on the defensive. In battle after battle with enormous casualties on both sides, the Russians pushed the invaders back into Germany, eventually capturing Berlin in May 1945.
The Normandy invasion forced Hitler to fight on three fronts, Russia, Italy, and France. The size of the forces engaged on the Russian front dwarfed those fighting in Italy and France combined. The once powerful but over-extended German air force was virtually absent during D-Day. By any measure – troops involved, battles, casualties, prisoners and scope – the Russian campaign far exceeded the fighting elsewhere. An estimated 26 million Russians died in the war including more than 8 million military deaths.
While opening a second front in France was helpful and likely shortened the war; would the Allies victory have been achieved without it? By June 1944, Soviet armies were attacking on several fronts and steadily gaining ground. Probably as important as a second front were the supplies, principally food and military equipment, provided to Russia by the United States, particularly during the early stages of the war.
The Soviets depended on the Lend-Lease Program to blunt the unexpected invasion. Upon the Russians recovering from the initial shock and with the marshalling of their military and industrial resources, Germany was on the way to losing. Hitler had counted on a swift victory and Germany was not prepared for a long war of attrition. It was only a matter of time. German forces were also retreating in fierce fighting in Italy where Rome fell to allied forces on June 4, 1944, two day before D-Day.
Allied forces invaded southern France on Aug. 15, 1944 and quickly overcame German resistance, capturing most of southern France within a month. Until D-Day, Hitler had been able to shift much needed troops from France to the Eastern Front where his best troops were desperately trying to stop the Russian offensive. With the invasion in Normandy, German ground troops were actively engaged in northern and southern France, Italy, and Russia. Hitler no longer had the luxury of consolidating his depleted forces. The Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 was a last desperate effort by Germany to halt the progress of the allies on the western front before they entered the homeland.
Defeat was inevitable. A rational leader would have acknowledged that and entered into peace negotiations. But Hitler was a madman, determined to continue fighting even if it meant the total destruction of Germany. Absent the Normandy invasion, in my opinion, Germany would have still lost the war but it would have taken longer and more territory would have fallen behind what later in the decade became the Iron Curtain. Roosevelt and Churchill were committed to the invasion, having promised to open a second front to relieve pressure on Russians forces who had been fighting for three years.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.