History, as we know, rarely discloses its alternatives. But on great occasions it can be useful to think about what-ifs and might-have-beens - as, for instance, the alternatives to success in "Overlord," the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe 50 years ago.
My own D-Day thoughts took that turn only after an agitated friend called to ask if I didn't agree that the celebration is out of hand, wildly overdone, distorting the history of the war. "What must the soldiers who liberated Rome be thinking?" he asked.
Upon reflection, I wish I'd had the wit to say that the celebration is not at all overdone. And here's why:
Amphibious landings on a hostile and heavily defended shore are the chanciest of military operations and rarely succeed at all. That is why, apart from his failure to gain air superiority in the Battle of Britain, Adolf Hitler scrapped "Sea Lion," the post-Dunkirk plan to invade Britain. It is why the Spanish Armada sent to depose the Protestant heretic Queen Elizabeth I failed - scattered by what English history books call "the Protestant wind." It is why Winston Churchill and others, with their vivid memories of Gallipoli in World War I, fretted about Overlord right up to D-Day, and beyond.
Any assessment of the magnitude of the events we now commemorate must begin with the audacity of the frontal assault on Hitler's Atlantic Wall, a riskier roll of the dice than is usually recalled. That it worked at all was a testimony to luck, planning, tenacity, valor and perhaps to the favor of heavenly powers.
The weather, for instance. It was rough on June 6 but far less so than it was two weeks later - the next time the tides and moon would have been right - when the heaviest winds in 40 years churned the Channel. And if the Germans had had their forces concentrated? A ruse persuaded them that the invasion would come across the Pas de Calais, the short way, rather than in Normandy - a deception that pinned some of the best German divisions north of the Seine, awaiting a "real" blow that never was to fall. And it was lucky, too, that the formidable Erwin Rommel had been denied the additional Panzer divisions he sought and the discretion to position them, as he …