The last day of Fortress Europe, called D-Day, was the day that the Western Allies broke through the Atlantic sea wall erect by the Germans after their conquest of Europe. Festung Europa, or “Fortress Europe” was a “propaganda phrase devised in the fall of 1942 to assure the German population, and to warn the Allies, that an invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe was doomed to fail because of the formidable defenses erected and manned by the German armed forces,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of the U.S. Military. Between the start of the war in Europe, 1 September 1939, and 6 June 1944, Germany’s “Third Reich” had extended itself from the Atlantic in the west to deep into the Soviet motherland in the east: almost to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), in the northeast, down toward Moscow, and almost to Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in the southeast. The Allies, were, however, pushing back: By June 6, the Red Army was forcing the Germans into retreat, and the Western Allies had invaded the Reich’s North Africa holdings, and were advancing up the Italian Peninsula.
But Europe in 1944 was a fortress ringed by the artillery and sea mines of a totalitarian regime in the west, and fighting the Allies in the East, South, and the Atlantic.
Only giant numbers seem adequate to describe any aspect of D-Day. First, the U.S sent about three million people to Britain between 10 December 1941 and the end of the war—almost an American invasion of that country of 40 million. The invasion force proceeding from Britain to the shores Normandy’s shores of about 150-160,000 troops (estimates vary) was the equivalent of moving the entire 151st largest US city in population (Elk Gove, CA) in a day. Starting on the 5th of June, Operation Neptune’s 6,000 ship armada did the move. This armada was 20 times the current size of the to-day’s entire United .States Navy! By the August liberation of Paris, Normandy’s new “city” had grown to two million—just shy of the population of Paris right now.
The Normandy invasion was attempted because Britain was almost isolated and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union asking for an invasion of Europe from the west. The Allies needed to establish a beachhead in northwest Europe for those reasons, and they needed to push toward the Red Army. France had become two countries: the “official” government had surrendered to Germany 5 June 1940-four years before D-Day almost to the day. Germany occupied Paris, and the French Government moved its provisional capital to Vichy, a city in central France. But many, many Frenchmen had rejected that government and were members of the French Resistance, secretly supporting the French Government-in-exile, or Free French, headquartered in London, and lead by General Charles de Gaulle. The French Resistance was born.
The battle for Normandy seventy years ago was a pivotal point in World War II, and affects us to-day. It was truly an allied operation, with people not just from the United Kingdom, United States, and France, but from more than 15 countries participating: the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, France, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, China, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, Greece, all opposing Germany—and this does not include the colonies of some of these countries. Many people nowadays wonder if their ancestors may have helped in that epic battle.
There are still some veterans of D-Day, still living—according to some estimates, less than 60,000. The veterans (mostly men, but a few women, too) of that great battle are in their very late eighties or their nineties: for people reading this article, one of these people may be a great grandparent, a grandparent, or maybe even a parent, or a cousin, great uncle, for instance. They could be a neighbor, a person in your congregation, or any other person of that age that you know. Ask them if they were in the “War.” Ask them if they participated in D-Day. An expensive way of learning about this great battle is to go to France to view the graves of those that died there and visit the towns of places like Cherbourg. There are less expensive methods as well. There are organizations that give clues about the participation of an ancestor or relative. In the United States, one such organization is the National Archives. They provide a method for obtaining service records of American veterans back before the War Between the States/Civil War, although there was a fire in the St. Louis Repository that destroyed some of the records. In addition, various units that participated in the battle have records of people that were there. The Canadian equivalent is Library and Archives Canada, in Britain it is the National Archives, in France, Service Historique de la Défense, and the German repository is Das Bundesarchiv, Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt) and the (US) National Archives, Collection Of Foreign Records Seized, and Genealoger
Veterans groups like the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars can provide clues. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs publishes a guide listing those groups chartered in the U.S. Similar help is available in the other countries participating in (or opposing) the D-Day invasion as well. The increase of the popularity of genealogy or family history, have fostered various online search tools to help involve us in the end of Fortress Europe. Some, like ancestry.com—advertised on TV) cost, and others like familyserach.org are free. These have a variety of sources of information, and provide access to records such as military service records in different countries.
So the means exist so that the events of 70 years ago can be fresh and relevant for to-day—the computer, video, but mainly talking—to both veterans of that great event, and to one another to discuss what we are learning from them. Thus, this generation will be connecting the last day of Fortress Europe to to-day.