D-Day: part of the anti-fascist struggle

June 6, 2014 at 7:01 pm (anti-fascism, Champagne Charlie, Europe, France, hell, history, imperialism, liberation, solidarity, war)

Ernest Mandel once proposed that World War Two should be seen as, simultaneously, an inter-imperialist dispute and an anti-fascist struggle. The two elements are difficult to disentangle, even in retrospect, but both should be recognised and, insofar as we can, distinguished between. D-Day was, I’d contend, indubitably part of the anti-fascist struggle. The young workers who fought and died then, and the dwindling band of elderly survivors, deserve our profound respect and gratitude.

Max Hastings (yes, I know he’s a Tory, but he’s also a damned good military historian), wrote in his superb book on WW2, All Hell Let Loose (Harper Press 2011):

Meticulous planning and immense armaments promised Overlord‘s success, but the hazards of weather and the skill of the German army fed apprehension in many British and American breasts. The consequences of failure must be appalling: civilian morale would plummet on both sides of the Atlantic; senior commanders would have to be sacked and replaced; the presige of the Western Allies, so long derided by Stalin for feebleness, would be grievously injured, likewise the authority of Roosevelt and Churchill. Even after three year’s attrition in the east, the German army remained a formidable fighting force. It was vital that Eisenhower should confront von Rundstedt’s sixty divisions in the west with superior combat power. Yet the invaders were supported by such a vast logistical and support ‘tail’ that, even when they reached their maximum strength in 1945, they would deploy only sixty American and twenty British and Canadian combat divisions. Air power, together with massive armoured and artillery strength, was called upon to compensate for inadequate infantry numbers.


For the young men who made the assault on 6 June 1944, however, such grand truths meant nothing: they recognised only the mortal peril each one must face, to breach Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. The invasion began with drops by one British and two  American airborne divisions on the night of5 June. The landings were chaotic but achieved their objectives, confusing the Germans and securing the flanks of the assault zone; paratroopers engaged enemy forces wherever they encountered them with an energy worthy of such elite formations.

Sgt. Mickey McCallum never forgot his first firefight, a few hours after landing. A German machine-gunner mortally wounded the man next to him, Private Bill Atlee. McCullum asked Attlee ‘if he was hit bad’. The soldier replied, ‘I’m dying Sergeant Mickey, but we’re going to win this damn war, aren’t we? You damn well A we are.’ McCallum did not know where Atlee hailed from, but thought his choice of words suggested an east coast man. He was passionately moved that this soldier, in his last moments, thought of the cause rather than himself. In the hours and days that followed, many other such young men displayed similar spirit and were obliged to make a matching sacrifice. At dawn on 6 June, six infantry divisions with supporting armour struck the beaches of Normandy across a thirty-mile front; one Canadian and two British formations landed on the left, three American divisions on the right.

Operation Overlord was the greatest combined operation in history. Some 5,300 ships carried 150,000 men and 1,500 tanks, scheduled to land in the first wave, supported by 12,000 aircraft. On the French coast that morning, a drama unfolded in three dimensions such as the world would never behold again, British and Canadian troops poured ashore at Sword, Juno and Gold beaches, exploiting innovative armoured technology to overwhelm the defences, many of them manned by Osttruppen of Hitler’s empire. ‘I was the first tank coming ashore and the Germans started opening up with machine-gun bullets,’ said Canadian Sgt. Leo Gariepy. ‘But when we came to a halt on the beach, it was only then that they realized we were a tank when we pulled down our canvas skirt, the flotation gear. Then they saw we were Shermans.’ Private Jim Cartwright of the South Lancashires said, ‘As soon as I hit the beach I wanted to get away from the water. I think I went across the beach like a hare.’

The Americans seized Utah, the elbow of the Cherbourg peninsula, with only a small loss. ‘You know, it sounds kind of dumb, but it was just like an exercise,’ said a private soldier wonderingly. ‘We waded ashore like kids in a crocodile and up the beach. A couple of shells came over but nowhere near us. I think I even felt somehow disappointed, a little let down.’ Further east at Omaha beach, however, Americans suffered the heaviest casualties of the day — more than eight hundred killed. The German defending unit , while no elite, was composed of better troops than those manning most of the Channel front, and kept up vigorous fire against the invaders. ‘No one was moving forward,’ wrote AP correspondent Don Whitehead. ‘Wounded men, drenched by cold water, lay in the gravel … “Oh God, lemme aboard the boat,” whimpered a youth in semi-delirium. Near him a shivering boy dug with bare fingers into the sand. Shells were bursting on all sides of us, some so close that they threw black water and dirt over us in showers.’

A private soldier wrote: ‘ There were men crying with fear, men defecating themselves. I lay there with some others, too petrified to move. No one was doing anything except lay there. It was like mass paralysis. I couldn’t see an officer. At one point something hit me on the arm. I thought I’d taken a bullet. It was somebody’s hand, taken clean off by something. It was too much.’ For half the morning, the Omaha assault hung on the edge of failure; only after several hours of apparent stalemate on the sands did small groups of determined men, Rangers notable among them, work their way up the bluffs above the sea, gradually overwhelming the defenders.


  1. Matthew Thompson said,

    Mandel actually saw WWII as a combination of five different wars:


  2. D-Day: part of the anti-fascist struggle | OzHouse said,

    […] Jun 06 2014 by admin […]

  3. Mick O said,

    Good post. I had a tear in my eye at times watching the ceremonies today. As a baby boomer I’m too young to have any personal experience of these times but grew up under the wing of plenty who did. A common refrain from our elders in my youth went something like “we didn’t go through the war for you to have long hair/ take drugs/indulge in promiscuity etc etc”. I am close enough to that generation to know that they also didn’t go through the war to create a society of extreme inequality, zero hours contracts, national assets flogged off and exploitation rife. It’s time the right was challenged regarding claiming war heroes for their side.

    • februarycallendar said,

      Well, the conflict between your generation and the WW2 generation is basically all about the Two Lefts – the central theme of most of my writing/thinking (it would be the centre of a book proposal I’m currently mulling over on the Beatles’ White Album – wrote a lengthy excerpt last night). I don’t think neoliberalism was the inevitable end point of the rise of pop culture among your generation but, when I read about the ideological background of many involved in offshore radio, I can understand why some do. But basically there was a conflict between those who wanted to use pop culture to create a kind of utopia (more libertarian-left than the post-WW2 consensus, but still of the Left) and those who wanted to use it simply for capitalist ends. The latter obviously won out, but I don’t think it was inevitable.

      The sad thing re. Max Hastings (and I’m not criticising citing him in this context, just making a broader point which I’m sure Charlie will agree with) is the way he celebrates the Falklands War – the Second World War’s nemesis and antithesis, in the British context – precisely for its role in enabling people like him to exploit and divide and conquer again. The way he glorifies that particular war for its contribution towards overturning the social goods done by the 1939-45 war makes you seriously question whether he was particularly supportive of WW2’s legacy prior to 1982, or whether he would be if the Left had won out. Quite a number of Right-wingers who glorify the Second World War now that it has been politically neutralised and its egalitarian effects thrown on the fire were highly sceptical about its value in the past, or at least their equivalents were – the Comic Strip’s version of the Famous Five wishing the Nazis had won may seem a rather obvious joke now, but it had a real political bite from people of that position during an era in our history which had only very recently ended in 1983.

  4. Mike Killingworth said,

    Indeed, it was by no means a given that we should fight that war with Stalin against Hitler. I like to think we (more accurately: my parents’ generation) fought it for the right to say they fought on the wrong side.

  5. Southpawpunch (@Southpawpunch) said,

    What a lot of pro-imperialist rubbish in the main post.

    I’m sure German soldiers, including even SS troops, did the occasional brave action (by anyone’s standards) yet as these were supporting fascism then their personal actions are to be seen as not the same as identical actions by Allied soldiers, including those on D-Day, because the latter were ‘anti-fascist’? You are making ‘heroes’ in a discriminatory way because of the type of capitalist regime for which they were obliged to fight.

    It’s not about individuals but the regimes they fought for. Although Britain was not fascist at home, the sole difference between it and Germany in other places it ruled was there was no particular wish to commit genocide, rather it was accepted as a necessary evil.

    Our glorious dead – http://www.indiatvnews.com/news/india/know-how-world-war-two-affected-india-24535.html?page=5

    PS Did anyone hear Canada mentioned at all yesterday?

    • Jim Denham said,

      Oh yes: I forgot that collaboration with the Nazis (a la Bose and Ryan) is OK according to SPP.

  6. James Robb said,

    Mandel’s article gives no support at all to the idea that D-day was part of an anti-fascist struggle. He talks about five wars (although #2 and #4 look much the same to me) – the inter-imperialist war (#1) the defensive and national liberation wars of the oppressed nations of China, Asia and Africa (#2 and #4), the defence of the Soviet workers state (#3) and the anti-fascist working class resistance war in the Balkans, Poland, and to a lesser extent France and Italy.
    I don’t see how D-day could possibly be considered as anything other than part of the inter-imperialist war. It was entirely a clash of the military forces of imperialist powers. The French resistance played relatively little part, and to the extent that they were involved at all (presumably by spying etc) they were, on this occasion at least, completely integrated into the imperialist war effort. Above all else, D-day was about US imperialism asserting its dominance over post-war Europe, by stepping in to take command after its imperialist rivals in Germany, the UK, and France had exhausted each other in four years of war.
    One of the worst results of the Stalinist political mis-education of the working class in the 1930s, the Popular Fronts etc, was that many workers came to believe that the way to defeat fascism was by supporting ‘democratic’ wing of the imperialist bourgeoisie. Many workers no doubt thought at the time that supporting the Allied war effort was part of the anti-fascist struggle. But there is no reason to present it as such today.

    • Jim Denham said,

      James: your last but-one sentence seems to me to be, in many ways, the most important: workers at the time believed they were fighting fascism, and saw no alternative means of doing so than to be part of the Allied war effort (not that they had much choice, of course).

      Yes, the French resistance was “completely integrated into the imperialist war effort”, but how could it not have been? And wouldn’t any working class anti-fascist resistance movement have found itself in the same position? If you think that such integration could have been avoided, I’d like to know how.

      As for the motives of US imperialism at that time: of course! What else would you expect? But does that mean we’d have *opposed* the D-Day invasion, or been neutral as between the bourgeois democracies of the Allies and Nazi genocidal totalitarianism ?

      I don’t think that’s a tenable position for socialists of whatever stripe. Trotsky and Cannon wrestled with this problem, and both quite clearly were searching for a formula that would allow them to fight the Nazis while remaining true to the old “revolutionary defeatism” appropriate to WW1: they failed, and the PMP is an incoherent attempt to square the circle. But their instincts were correct: they wanted to be part of the anti-fascist struggle and realised that the old formula of “revolutionary defeatism” did not answer the urgent requirements of the moment.

      • James Robb said,

        I agree that it was all but inevitable in the circumstances, given the legacy of Stalinist and Social-Democratic mis-education in the French workers movement, and the relationship of forces at the time, that the French resistance would be absorbed by the imperialist war machine (and that consequently the opportunities provided by the liberation would be lost).

        However, that is not the same as saying that forms of resistance independent of the bourgeoisie were not possible. Mandel, who was himself a resistance fighter, clearly believed it was possible. The proof of this is Yugoslavia, where, under even more difficult circumstances and despite the handicap of Stalinist leadership, the partisans resisted pressure both from the Western European powers and from Moscow, and took their own course, and built an army capable of both ridding the country of Nazi occupation and overthrowing capitalism.

        In Greece, by contrast, troops from democratic Britain did get a foothold – the Greek D-day, if you like – and the outcome was very different.

      • Jim Denham said,

        James: NO! it was NOT due to any “mis-education in the French workers movement” that the resistance found itself in ‘de facto’ alliance with the Allies:

        You really haven’t answered the question: in practice, what would the socialists have done at D-Day?

        We’re not here talking about Yugoslavia or Greece, but Europe and D-Day:

        I ask you again: should we have *opposed* the D-Day invasion, or been neutral as between the bourgeois democracies of the Allies and Nazi genocidal totalitarianism ?

      • James Robb said,

        I made the reference to Greece because you frame the question as one of either supporting the democratic Allies against totalitarian Germany, or adopting a stance of neutrality or indifference. I think this framing of the question is part of the problem, and Greece is the proof of this.
        The democratic Allies also invaded Greece as part of their war to drive back the German occupation of the Balkans – and once their troops were on the ground, proceeded to carry out an assault on the working class Greek partisans who had already largely defeated the German occupation. The Greek working class suffered the greatest defeat in its history. A key element in the ability of the imperialist Allies to deal this blow to our class was the decision by some elements among the Greek partisans – framing the question in the same way that you do – to support the British invasion. This fatal mistake politically disarmed the working class in face of the British assault.
        So, to return to your question and answer it directly in relation to France: I think socialists at the time would definitely not have supported the Allied invasion. The options were not limited to choosing between one or other gang of imperialist bandits to exploit us. But to call this stance ‘neutrality’ would be a misrepresentation. D-day was obviously a major event, and resistance fighters would have been following the developing situation closely, looking for opportunities to advance the independent interests of the working class as they arose, reporting on them in their underground press (there were many illegal publications in occupied France, including working class press) and preparing their forces for new openings for mass action. These openings were not long in coming. Workers actions were already spreading throughout occupied Europe from early 1944.
        In other words, they would have continued the work they had been doing under the Nazi occupation. You asked how integration into the imperialist war machine could have been avoided by the resistance fighters: the best example I know of is of the revolutionary fighter Abram Leon, a Jewish communist working in occupied Belgium, and comrade of Ernest Mandel. Leon and his co-thinkers managed to produce an underground newspaper, which they distributed among the rank-and-file German soldiers – an act of revolutionary courage rarely surpassed. Mandel wrote an obituary to him in 1947 which is available on the Marxists Internet Archive. It is a fascinating and inspiring account of how a revolutionary nucleus conducts itself under these conditions and is well worth reading.

      • Jim Denham said,

        “I think socialists at the time would definitely not have supported the Allied invasion”:

        I’m very sorry and disappointed to read that, James. Because it makes us people who fundamentally disagree. I cannot, for the life of me, think how a decent person, who considers themselves an anti-fascist and a democrat, can arrive at such a position.

        Frankly, I’m horrified, and now regard you as little more than indifferent to, and unserious about, the Nazi threat.

      • James Robb said,

        I’m sorry we couldn’t reach agreement, but appreciate the civil tone of the discussion nonetheless.

  7. Was the D-day invasion part of the struggle against fascism in Europe? A discussion   | A communist at large said,

    […] D-day, which I have not included here – anyone interested can find it on the original website here. I have made some very minor alterations to the wording of my contributions for the sake of […]

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