Leaders of the Western countries will gather for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, northern France, on 6 June.
They will present the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France as a moment when people united against Adolf Hitler and fascism.
And for Donald Trump and other Western leaders it’s an opportunity to push the myth that the US saved the world for democracy.
The reality is more complex than the myths.
Although for many there wasn’t “national unity” as hostility to the rich and their conduct of the war ran deep.
Across Nazi-occupied Europe, some people took part in resistance movements.
But the rulers of the US, Britain and Russia didn’t see it as a war to liberate the peoples of Europe from fascism.
They fought the war to determine who would control Europe and the world after Hitler’s defeat.
Relationships between US and British generals were fraught in the run-up to D-Day on 6 June 1944.
Alan Brooke, head of the British Army, wrote that US General Eisenhower was “quite unsuited to the post of supreme allied commander as far as running the war is concerned”.
These tensions reflected bigger rivalries among the US and British ruling classes.
After the defeat of France in 1940, British prime minister Winston Churchill aimed to hold out long enough to pressure the US to join the war.
But the main focus for Britain’s war effort was the Mediterranean.
To safeguard its Empire, Britain needed to keep control of Egypt and the Middle East.
Even before the US joined the war, it wanted to make sure that it would gain from the decline of the British Empire.
US and British leaders held a series of meetings where they agreed to focus on taking on Germany.
But the Japanese Empire, an ally of Germany, launched a surprise attack on the US’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. So the US deployed more resources in the Pacific for much of the war.
This started to change after Russia turned the tide on Germany. The US didn’t want Russia to control Europe after the war. But it had to force the plan to invade Normandy on Britain, which still wanted to focus on the Mediterranean and invading through Italy.
With over 150,000 US, British and other Allied troops, the D-Day landings were the largest seaborne invasion in history.
Throughout the war, help to Britain came at a price of promising to sign up to an international capitalist order led by the US after it finished. It set the stage for the Cold War where the US and Stalinist Russia competed for domination.
The landings were preceded by a massive naval barrage and bombardments by the Royal Air Force and US Air Force.
German General Joseph Reichert, the 711 Infantry Division’s commander, said that the “whole horizon appeared to be a solid mass of flames” when battleships fired their first salvos. The aim was to take a
50 mile stretch of five beaches—codenamed Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah and Sword.
As the boat doors opened, one US sergeant remembered “machine guns ripping into the ramps and men tumbling just like corn cobs off ramps”.
Some of the worst horror took place on Omaha beach, where winds had blown landing boats off course.
Another soldier said that the whole beach was “strewn with dead, wounded and shelter-seeking soldiers”.
The reality should dispel any right wing or nationalist romanticism about war.
Many soldiers had already had a taste of how deadly landings could be during Operation Tiger—a large scale training exercise off the Devon coast in April 1944.
Eisenhower and other officers insisted that the troops have some combat experience.
US troops defending the coast were supposed to fire live ammunition over the tops of approaching landing craft.
A foul-up over timings meant troops landed into a hail of bullets, killing as many as 450 of them.
By the end of D-Day the Allied assault had overwhelmed the German defences, but with around 10,000 casualties.
Of those 2,400 soldiers lay dead on the beaches—and around 9,000 died on the German side.
Allied deaths weren’t higher partly because the Nazi war machine had been severely ground down.
In the West, D-Day is often presented as the key turning point in the Second World War. But the Battle of Kursk on the Eastern Front in 1943—the biggest tank battle in history—had been far more decisive.
Russia suffered over 800,000 casualties and lost 6,064 tanks and artillery pieces, and nearly 2,000 aircraft. Afterwards the Germans were never able to launch a major offensive on the Eastern Front.
And two weeks after D-Day Russia launched “Operation Bagration”, the biggest military defeat suffered by Germany.
It drove the German army back to Warsaw in Poland.
These sorts of losses on the Eastern Front had a big impact on Nazi Germany’s ability to wage war.
Military defeats had increased infighting among different sections of the Nazi regime.
Hitler had gradually increased his influence over military strategy, not trusting his generals who had had a freer hand at the beginning of the war.
Germany’s officer corps, made up of conservative aristocrats, had backed the Nazi regime when things were going well.
Some now hoped to get rid of Hitler, make peace with the US, Britain and the Allies in the West, and focus on Russia.
General Rommel, who was commander in Normandy, only had control of one armoured division within striking distance of the beaches.
The bulk of the tanks were placed under the direct control of the High Command in Berlin and could not be moved without Hitler’s permission.
The Normandy coast was guarded by infantry that relied on foot or horse and cart for transport.
This was a far cry from the “Blitz Krieg”—lightning war—of tanks, motorised troops and air superiority that lay behind German military success.
Wars aren’t just won on the battlefield—economic power is just as decisive.
David Render, who served with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry tank unit, described the rate of attrition in Normandy.
He recalled, “There were three regiments in the brigade and each regiment had 50 tanks.
“To keep 150 tanks, they had to supply us with 1,073 new ones.
“I came out of three tanks—I didn’t lose the last one—and that was nothing.”
Virtually the whole of the German economy was geared towards war production by 1944.
And the Allies’ “strategic bombing” of factories often missed its targets.
But the Germans couldn’t keep up with losses to Russia on the Eastern Front and the US and to Britain in France and Italy.
The situation was made worse by a lack of fuel.
The German army had failed to capture the Russian oil fields in 1942—and lost the oil fields of Romania to the Russian army not long after D-Day in August 1944.
Britain could not have matched these sorts of losses by itself.
For all the bluster, it was an empire in terminal decline.
The real economic power behind the Western war effort was the US, which supplied the other Allies and Russia and saw its own economy expand.
The Second World War marked the moment when the US overtook Britain as an imperialist power.
This was obvious in the Middle East.
Throughout the war Roosevelt and Churchill competed for Saudi Arabia’s favour in the hope of gaining control over its large oil fields.
By 1945 US power had won, diminishing Britain as a player in Middle Eastern oil.
Throughout the war, help to Britain came at a price of promising to sign up to an international capitalist order led by the US after it finished.
It set the stage for the Cold War where the US and Stalinist Russia competed for domination.
Far from building a world of democracy after victory over fascism, the US built a deadly order that led to more conflict.