Memorable Anniversaries of June 5th and 6th

It is the 6th of June here in the US and so even though I am a day late for NZ readers nonetheless early June commemorates two great events in military history.

The D – Day Landings
Today is the 73rd anniversary of D – Day. Operation Overlord still to this day is the single largest invasion in all military history. It began the Allied liberation of western Europe and it hastened the end of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Commonwealth nations tend to view D – Day in its entirety focusing on the five beaches that were assaulted that day (Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword) and they understandably focus on the efforts of the mostly British and Canadian forces at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. Here in the US, almost all commemorations of D-Day concentrate on Omaha beach as it was the site of the most intense opposition with the eventual securing of the beach head coming at a comparatively enormous cost of casualties compared to the other four beaches.

The magnitude of the task and the slaughter at Omaha beach was perhaps the most dramatically illustrated in the first 25 minutes of Stephen Spielberg’s epic Oscar winning 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg did not set out to create a blockbuster box office success, he merely wanted to appropriately honour his father’s war service by recreating as accurately as possible what he and his comrades-in-arms went through at D – Day. The brutal realism of war depicted in Saving Private Ryan was described by a WW 2 vet I know who recently passed away as “touchingly terrible and terribly touching”. Whilst Spielberg adopted a filming style that closely replicated the real footage taken by the US Army’s own cameramen sent to follow the first wave of troops at Omaha, he did draw on what has come to be described as THE definitive record of what transpired at Omaha on June 6th from the work of US Army Historian S.L.A. Marshall who assembled a range of first hand eye witness accounts of what happened and assembled it into a harrowing essay entitled “The First Wave at Omaha” and published first in the Atlantic magazine in November of 1960. The entire account is re-printed here and it is not for the faint hearted

Three years ago, I visited the Normandy beaches with an old high school mate en-route to WW 1 battlefields in Flanders in Belgium and France in search of his great uncle’s grave. We visited the US cemetery located on a plateau above Omaha at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. After going through the stunning US museum (the best of many great museums in Normandy), we trekked down a steep path past German pillboxes and bunkers still embedded in the side of the hill to the beach itself. Looking up to the plateau from the beach, one got a sense of why this assault was so very difficult (we had been to Utah beach first near Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and it was a cakewalk in comparison).

We ended our time at Omaha walking in the cemetery of the almost 10,000 US soldiers who were killed securing Utah and Omaha with 95% of these casualties occurring at Omaha. Now I had no family or connection to these graves and in fact knew no one who even had a relative who was lost at and yet I was not prepared for the amazing emotions that swept over me as I walked through the row upon row of beautifully manicured graves. I found tears streaming down my face as I contemplated the sheer enormity of what happened there back in 1944. I noticed that various others at the cemetery were similarly overcome and many were French citizens as apparently the largest number of visitors there are not US tourists but the French who come to pay homage to the site where their liberation began. If you are ever in France, I strongly urge you to take the time to visit the Normandy beaches (they are about a 2½ drive from Paris) and you will not be disappointed.

The in Israel
June 5th celebrates the 50th anniversary of the end of one of the most extraordinary wars in all human history – that of the 6 Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours (Egypt, Jordan and Syria). The 6 Day War has been often described as the most decisive military victory in the modern era of warfare, perhaps in the history of all wars.

Israel’s Arab League neighbours, led by the aggressive plans of Anwar Sadat [EDIT: Nasser] to avenge Egypt’s losses in the 1948 War of Independence and the 1956 Suez Canal conflict with Israel, laid plans to snuff out the still young state of Israel. With combined 3:1 advantage in armour and equipment and a 200:1 edge in combined Arab military spending over Israel, Israel faced the possibility of military annihilation. Israel’s defense chiefs laid plans for a preemptive strike to attack her neighbours before they attacked her. When Egypt closed the Straights of Tiran from the Red Sea shutting off her main supply line of oil shipments into the Port of Aqaba, this was sufficient casus belli for Israel to strike first.

On the night of June 4th, Israeli commandoes laid mines and underwater bombs designed to go off on the morning of June 5th crippling key ships of the Egyptian navy that ensured that Israel’s small navy would control all approaches to Israel from the Mediterranean. At a moment, precisely timed when Egyptian Air Force commanders were trapped in their staff cars in gridlocked Cairo traffic, the Israeli Air Force began a low-level bombing campaign of Egyptian airfields. Over a period of 3 hours, the IAF flew some 500 sorties back and forth, refueling at breakneck speed so that by the morning of the first day, they had destroyed more than half of the Egyptian Air Force and rendered all its airfields incapable of use. With air supremacy over the Sinai Desert, the Israeli Army could deploy rapidly across the Sinai and in by the end of the second day they had completely routed the Egyptians on the ground and had captured all the territory from Gaza to the Suez Canal.

Throughout the first two days of the war, Israel told Jordan and Syria to stay out or they would be attacked. On the third day, the Jordanians began shelling Jewish sites in west Jerusalem and so on the morning of the 7th of June, the IAF also destroyed the entire Jordanian and most of the Syrian Air Forces. The next two days saw a brutal struggle for the control of the remainder of Jerusalem with house by house and street by street battles until by the end of the fourth day, the Israelis had captured all of Jerusalem and the entire West Bank.

On Day 5 the Syrians began shelling Israeli villages from the Golan Heights and so Israel, having already annihilated the Syrian Airforce, engaged in an incredible tank battle for the Golan Heights. Israeli tanks were outnumbered 2 sometimes 3 to one but fought brilliant tactical battles and first withstood the onslaught of the Syrian tanks and then gained the upper hand, overran the Golan Heights and drove the Syrian Army up the main road to Damascus so fast that by the time the UN brokered a cease fire on June 10th, the IDF were only 15 miles from Damascus!

Michael Oren has been a prominent Israeli academic and then politician and was for some years the Israeli Ambassador to the US. His book “6 Days of War” is still the best definitive account of this extraordinary war. He recently summarized not only the impact of the 6 Day War but was able to put it into a great historical context with other crucial milestones in Israeli history
• the signing of the Balfour Declaration outling the British desire for a Palestinian and Jewish state in Palestine – this year is the 100th anniversary of its signing;
• The Peel Commission – UK House of Lords Committee that drew tentative boundaries for Jewish and Palestinian States – this year is the 80th anniversary;
• The UN Declaration of Independence – this year is the 70th anniversary of that landmark decision that paved the way to the formal formation of the State of Israel on May 14th, 1948.

The consequences of the 6 Day War are still reverberating through the region to this day with Israel still retaining the West Bank and Golan Heights as a security buffer from the Palestinians and Syrians respectively. Despite the bitter conflict in 1967 (and the Yom Kippur War in 1974), Israel still made a lasting peace with Egypt and Jordan. It holds out hope of a similar peace with Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Authority.

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