D-Day at 75: Why the beginning of the end of WWII resonates today

It was, in so many ways, the beginning of the end of the Second World War. But 75 years after D-Day, the significance of what unfolded after Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, still resonates today.

Ceremonies next week will mark 75th anniversary of Allied forces' invasion of Normandy

Canadian troops land at Juno Beach, Courseulles-sur-Mer, Normandy, on June 6, 1944. (CWM 20020045-1453/George Metcalf Archival Collection/Canadian War Museum)

It was, in so many ways, the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

But 75 years after D-Day, the significance of what unfolded after Allied troops came ashore on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, still resonates.

"I think we would be living in a very different world today if the German Nazi regime had continued to dominate so much of Europe as it did," Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan said in an interview from Oxford, England.

Of course, at the time, there wasn't any certainty that Operation Overlord would prevail. Despite all the planning that had gone on in great secrecy for more than a year, there was no guarantee of the outcome we know today.

Consider just how risky it all was, taking so many people and all that equipment over water to launch the assault that spilled more than 150,000 troops onto Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches.

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"The Allies think that there's about a 50-50 chance that the divisions that make it onto those beaches are going to be alive at the end of the day," Tim Cook, historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, said in an interview.

Maybe the Germans would throw them back in the English Channel. Or maybe there'd be a counterattack in the coming days.

"We know how D-Day turned out, we know it's the beginning of the end, but for those soldiers and planners it might have very well been the end," said Cook.

Canadian soldiers study a German plan of the beach during D-Day landing operations in Normandy on June 6, 1944. (Lieutenant Ken Bell/Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/Reuters)

'Might have been a different story'

Other circumstances were at play, too.

"Partly the reason D-Day succeeded is because something like half a million German troops were held up in the north around Calais," said MacMillan. "If they had been down there in Normandy, it might have been a different story. So I think we should recognize that it wasn't a foregone conclusion."

Among the Allied forces, about 14,000 troops were Canadian. Their target: the beach code-named Juno. Supporting their efforts were 110 ships and 10,000 sailors from the Royal Canadian Navy. In the skies, 15 Royal Canadian Air Force fighter and fighter bomber squadrons were doing their part to hold off the enemy.

In that joint effort, some history was being made, setting Canada apart from the other Allies.

"It's one of the few battles where we have the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy and the army fighting together," said Cook, author of 11 books on Canadian military history, including a two-volume history of the Second World War, The Necessary War and Fight to the Finish.

"So you have Canadians from across the country who are here in all of the various units, and I think that there is an individual Canadian story that is perhaps different in that case than the British and the Americans."

For Canadians waiting for word from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, D-Day had its own resonance at the time.

"For people at home, it marked, I think, what people came to see as the beginning of the last stage of the war. It was very, very important," said MacMillan, an author and history professor at the University of Toronto and emeritus professor of international history at the University of Oxford in the U.K.

"The war had been a long slog," she said. "Canadians had contributed hugely to the war effort … the public felt it, as well … there was rationing in Canada."

Then there was the human, emotional toll. Most Canadians likely knew of someone — maybe a family member, maybe someone down the street or from the next farm over — who was involved in the war effort. Maybe they were overseas. Maybe they would come home. Maybe they wouldn't. On D-Day itself, there were 1,074 Canadian casualties, with 359 of those killed.

Canadian troops cross the English Channel for the D-Day landings in northern France on June 6, 1944. (National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)

Looking back now, D-Day may loom large, but it was only one day in the six-year conflict.

"D-Day matters, it's a symbol, but the battle of Normandy will continue for —  it's eventually 77 days — and after that there will be another six, seven months of brutal fighting against the Germans," said Cook. 

"We must remember that D-Day, I think, over time has become a powerful symbol, but it is one part in a very long, terrible and costly war."

Getting on with life

And after the war ended, maybe that wasn't something that people wanted to spend too much time thinking about.

"I think immediately after the war, a lot of people just wanted to get on with life," said MacMillan.

Consider the Canada of the time, as D-Day grew more distant.

"In the '60s and '70s and '80s, when we were a very different country, we didn't pay a lot of attention to our military history or to our veterans," said Cook.

Still, at some point, D-Day and the Second World War started to gain a bit more traction in the public psyche.

 "As time passed, I think people began to think back more," said MacMillan.

Authors and filmmakers mined D-Day for stories to put on the page or the big screen. Anniversaries that drew veterans and their families to those Normandy beaches focused attention on it once more.

"I peg it as the 50th anniversary [in 1994] ... where we woke up as Canadians and we saw thousands of veterans around us being celebrated as victors as liberators," said Cook. "I think it's from that point where we as a country began to pay more attention to our military history."

This year's anniversary of D-Day seems to carry special resonance. The number of veterans still living is dwindling. Those who remember those first uncertain moments that day on Juno Beach are most likely in their mid-90s.

"I think that this will be our last major anniversary celebration — or commemoration is probably a better word — with our veterans," said Cook.

MacMillan also sees differences among the D-Day anniversaries over the years.

"This one will be, I think, a time of reflection, partly because President Trump is coming [to international commemorations next week] and the alliance that held for so long among the Western allies after the end of Second World War now seems to be under pressure, so I think there will be a lot of thinking about far we've come since 1944."

An echo today

Depending on the country, the significance of D-Day varies, she said.

For the French, it's the beginning of the liberation of the country. For the Americans, it was a proving ground for their troops. And for Britain, it's something that has a unique echo today.

"The British are looking back at the Second World War, and I think it's partly influenced by the whole debate around Brexit," MacMillan said. "The Second World War has played a very important part in that debate because people look back and say we once counted, we were once something, and both Dunkirk in 1940, when the British and others were evacuated from Dunkirk, and D-Day are seen as terrific British victories."

For Canada, she said, it not necessarily seen as a "deep part" of who we are, but "it's a very important memory," probably up there with Vimy Ridge from the First World War.

Canadian veterans gather on Juno Beach following ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day at Courseulles-sur-Mer on June 6, 2004. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

"It seems like a time where Canadians showed what they were capable of and a time when Canadians proved themselves to be very efficient, very well organized, very brave. It's an important part, I think, of our story."

Cook looks at the D-Day commemorations that will unfold next week and sees significance there, too.

"This is a time when the world will come together to reflect upon the service and sacrifice and the horror and the tragedy of this war 75 years ago that forever shaped the world that we live in."

About the Author

Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.