Accessibility links

Europe: As World Marks D-Day, Russian Veterans Say Their Sacrifices Have Been Overlooked

  • Jeremy Bransten

On 6 June, world leaders and military veterans will gather in Normandy to mark the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Western Front in World War II. The occasion will be both solemn and joyous -- but not everyone is pleased.

Prague, 4 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. This landing is part of a concerted, united nations plan for the liberation of Europe, made in conjunction with our great Russian ally."

That was U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, speaking on the radio on 6 June 1944, hours after the launch of the massive Allied land operation that marked the start of the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi occupation.

More than 150,000 American, Canadian, British, and other troops backed by over 2,000 planes and a flotilla of nearly 7,000 ships made landfall on a string of beaches along France's Normandy coast. The German command was caught off-guard, having expected an attack further north at Calais.

Operation Overlord, or simply "D-Day," as its first day came to be known, ranks as a turning point in World War II and a testament to masterful planning. Like all battles in World War II, the price paid in lives was heavy. Total allied casualties on 6 June 1944 are estimated at 10,000, including 2,500 dead. Over the next two months, as the Allies progressed across Normandy, before liberating Paris, combined Allied and German casualties climbed to over 400,000.

On 6 June -- the 60th anniversary of D-Day -- heads of state from France, Britain, the United States, and thousands of surviving veterans will gather in France to mark the moment and honor the sacrifice of those who died. For the first time since commemorations began, the German chancellor has been invited to attend. The move has been welcomed by most veterans groups as an important reconciliation gesture. Russian President Vladimir Putin will also attend.

But a note of bitterness has seeped in, with Russian veterans' groups asking why they have been left off the guest list. Yuri Ivanov, of Russia's Federal Veterans' Committee, spoke to RFE/RL from Moscow.

"No one has sent any invitation to the War Veterans' Committee," Ivanov said.

No Soviet forces took part in the D-Day landings and the ensuing Battle of Normandy. But historians and veterans in Russia and the CIS point out that without Soviet victories on the Eastern Front -- victories which came at an enormous cost in lives -- World War II would not have been won. They complain that Western history books tend to emphasize the D-Day landings as a key turning point in the war, often forgetting that the Battle of Stalingrad the previous year marked the beginning of Hitler's retreat.

To answer that criticism RFE/RL contacted World War II historian Joe Maiolo, at the Department of War Studies of King's College London. He says the under-reporting of Stalingrad and other battles on the Eastern Front is in part a legacy of the Cold War. Soviet textbooks followed a mirror format, emphasizing Eastern Front battles while giving short shrift to the Western offensive. But Maiolo says current textbooks are more balanced.
More than 150,000 American, Canadian, British, and other troops backed by over 2,000 planes and a flotilla of nearly 7,000 ships made landfall on a string of beaches along France's Normandy coast.

He notes that historians like to speculate about the significance of individual battles and their influence on the outcome of the war -- it is part of their profession. But ultimately, he says, veterans and historians have to put events in the broader context.

"This historical game of playing 'Was the war won in the West or was it won in the East? Is Stalingrad of greater significance than Normandy? Did the Allied bomber offensive over Germany constitute a true second front?' -- all these sorts of questions are, in a sense, fun to play with and historians like to play with these questions, but the real question is how did these campaigns fit together in a wider war? -- in other words, events over time," Maiolo said.

For Maiolo, debates about who sacrificed more in which battle mean losing sight of the forest for the trees: "Any comparison is difficult and has to be made in the context of the wider war. You have to ask the broader question: why did the Allies win? And the Allies won because they fought together, maintained political unity and outproduced, outfought, and outstayed the Axis powers."

The fact, as Eisenhower noted in his announcement on D-Day, is that the war and ultimate victory over the Nazis was a collaborative effort whose individual actors and components cannot be seen in isolation. Unlike later conflicts, there was no one dominating actor. America's Lend-Lease program contributed to the Soviet war effort on the Eastern Front, but it was Soviet bravery and manpower that carried the day there. British and American victories in the West and North Africa were equally essential to bringing about Hitler's demise.

In that context, inviting Soviet veterans to Normandy would have been a nice gesture. When the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II is marked next year, all sides hope to be better represented.