Remembering D-Day and the Sovereignty of God

While the 75th anniversary of the D-Day is observed with numerous, impressive events, it is also appropriate for Christians to reflect upon the sovereignty of God.

As we remember with deep gratitude the devotion to duty and the sacrifices of the American, British, and Canadian forces that landed at Normandy 75 years ago and their accompanying paratrooper, air, naval, and French resistance forces, all of which played critical roles in the outcome, may we also acknowledge the sovereignty of Him who, operating on the grand scale, determines the “appointed times, and the boundaries” of nations (Acts 17:26); and, on the individual level, “looks from heaven . . . [and] sees all the sons of men” (Psalm 33:13).

 

While the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings which marked the start of the final phase of the Second World War in Europe are observed with numerous, impressive events – as is fitting – perhaps it is also appropriate for Christians to take this occasion to reflect upon the sovereignty of God.

Generally, those on the American side of the Atlantic are especially in need of historical reminders, as D-Day’s anniversary provides, due to two broad phenomena: First, the reality that since the beginning of the United States of America, most Americans tended to view themselves as inordinately distinct and different from their European ancestors in traditions, institutions, and cultures – since America was a new experiment, history was deemed unimportant.

Second, by the mid-nineteenth century Americans – quite uniquely – enjoyed the security of two vast oceans to the east and west, and two large, relatively peaceful neighbors north and south. For a century after 1815, most Americans, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, did not have to think about war. National security was taken for granted. Again, why bother with history, especially military history. A point made by R.C. Sproul comes to mind: today, more and more Americans are “a-literate;” they can read, they just choose not to.

Many Scriptures call the reader or listener to remember God’s works, among them Psalm 88:12: “Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” As many observers have pointed out, America has become a land of forgetfulness.

One appropriate caveat here, however, is to state clearly that Reformed Christians ought not to view any contemporary nation – the United States or any other – as the modern equivalent of Old Testament Israel in terms of enjoying a favored position in God’s redemptive plan. Under the administration ushered in by Christ’s resurrection and Pentecost, the Church of the Lord Jesus has become, as Paul has it in Galatians 6:16, “the Israel of God.”

Recently, I read again in full Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 classic, The Longest Day, June 6, 1944. Once I’d read a few pages, I couldn’t put it down even though I’d read it before; it’s that good. Today, more people probably are familiar with the incredibly star-studded 1962 movie of the same name rather than with the book, making this anniversary an opportunity to highlight from the book at least one element, and its consequences, of the Allied assault on German-occupied France from the perspective of the sovereignty of the God who rules over the affairs of men and nations, whose counsel stands forever.

But first a little background. By May 1944, as the Allies neared their attempt to liberate Western Europe from Nazi tyranny, “southern England looked like a huge arsenal,” wrote Cornelius Ryan. He continued:

Hidden in the forests were mountainous piles of ammunition. Stretching across the moors, bumper to bumper, were tanks, half-tracks, armored cars, trucks, jeeps and ambulances – more than fifty thousand of them. . . . At central depots there were immense quantities of food, clothing and medical supplies, from pills for combating seasickness to 124,000 hospital beds. But the most staggering sight of all were the valleys filled with long lines of railroad rolling stock: almost one thousand brand-new locomotives, and nearly twenty thousand tanker cars and freight cars which would be used to replace the shattered French equipment after the beachhead had been established.

The statistics staggered the imagination; the force seemed overwhelming. Now this great weapon – the youth of the free world, the resources of the free world – waited on the decision of one man: Eisenhower.

In Ryan’s gripping account, several aspects of D-Day seem well-suited for discerning God’s sovereignty, especially, one could easily argue, meteorology and weather. Because Allied planners required both a low tide to reveal the beach obstacles the Germans – under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s direction – had emplaced there and enough moonlight for aircrews to see their drop zones, there were only a few possible dates for the assault to take place during June 1944. Ryan wrote: “Tide alone reduced the number of days in any one month for the attack to six, and three of those were moonless.” The first possible date was June 5, the second June 6th, and the third June 7.

But the bad weather during the first half of the month – the worst in twenty years for June over the Channel and along the Normandy coast – which brought low clouds, rains, and high winds – greatly complicated matters for the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, at least as much as did tides and moon. Yet Eisenhower’s poor weather options had an effect unknown to him upon his adversary. The weather acted, as Ryan wrote, “like a tranquilizer” throughout the German command structure in the West:

The various headquarters were quite confident that there would be no attack in the immediate future. Their reasoning was based on carefully assessed weather evaluations . . . of the Allied landings in North Africa, Italy, and Sicily. In each case conditions had varied, but [German meteorologists] had noted that the Allies had never attempted a landing unless the prospects of favorable weather were almost certain, particularly for covering air operations. To the methodical German mind, there was no deviation from this rule; the weather had to be just right or the Allies wouldn’t attack. And the weather wasn’t just right.

Not only did the general weather conditions in early June work in concert with the Germans’ assessment of Allied calculations on the risks that were acceptable weather-wise, but a late-developing change in the weather was to provide just enough time for the Allied landings to take place with the necessary accompanying air cover. At 9:30 p.m. on June 4, Eisenhower presided over what Ryan termed “the decisive conference” with his commanders to decide whether June 6th would be the day of the attack (June 5 had been Eisenhower’s first choice but the weather required postponement). The meeting opened with a briefing by the operation’s senior meteorologist, who stated that a rapid, unexpected weather front had been spotted which

. . . would move up the Channel within the next few hours and cause a gradual clearing over the assault areas. These improving conditions would last throughout the next day and continue up to the morning of June 6. After that the weather would begin to deteriorate again. During this promised period of fair weather, the winds would drop appreciably and the skies would be clear – enough at least for bombers to operate on the night of the fifth and throughout the morning of the sixth.

As Cornelius Ryan related, the tranquilizing effect of the bad weather on the German commanders charged with defending Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” against the impending Allied assault encouraged a large number of them to leave their posts for a few days, for one reason or another, in early June: “. . . one by one, senior officers from Rommel down had left the front on the very eve of the battle. All of them had reasons, but it was almost as though a capricious fate had manipulated their departure” [emphasis added].

Rommel, who was terribly fatigued from the last six months of doing all he could to make the Atlantic Wall a reality, had gone home to Germany to be with his wife for a few days. Her birthday was June 6. The German naval commander in the West, whose patrol boats could not leave harbor because of the rough seas, had set out for Bordeaux. The chief of staff of one army division had left for a hunting trip with his French mistress and could not be contacted. The army commander responsible for defending one side of the Cherbourg peninsula, departed for Rennes, as did several other senior officers who were due to participate in a large map exercise to be held there – on June 6. The exercise scenario was a theoretical invasion by the Allies supposed to take place in Normandy. Ryan called it “a capricious fate,” but students of the Bible know better in this case.

Of course, the superintendence of God over the Normandy weather in early June 1944 was only one of countless elements that might be examined as to their contribution to the Allies’ successful assault, including the inexplicable failure of the German Seventh Army to be alerted through intelligence channels that the attack was to take place within 48 hours of 0000 hours, June 6; the German High Command’s decision to transfer the remaining Luftwaffe fighter squadrons out of France to assist in the defense of Germany against the incessant Allied bombing strikes; and Hitler’s insistence that the two Panzer divisions situated within reach of the Normandy beaches were to be held under his personal control.

Thus, the German army located in the zone of France in which the attack was to take place remained in the dark as to the invasion’s timing; the German fighters that might have contested the Allies in the air or attacked troops on the beaches were out of reach; and the Panzers that might have hindered Allied efforts to establish the beachheads remained idle because no one wanted to awaken Hitler. The Fuhrer’s staff was especially loathe to do so if Normandy proved only a diversion and not the main assault, which the high command, and especially Hitler, expected to take place at the narrowest part of the Channel near Calais, which also possessed the excellent harbor facilities required by a large invasion force.

But God’s sovereignty, as all Bible readers know, is not limited to the great events of history; it also reaches to the mundane and to the individual. Ryan wrote of a 40-year-old Belgian, Fernand Broeckx, who for the last five years had been farming between the town of Colleville and the beach – later known to history as Omaha Beach. His pretty, 19-year-old daughter, Anne Marie, lived ten miles away in the town of Bayeux during the school year. She taught kindergarten there. The school year was to end on June 5, and the next morning she planned to bicycle home for the summer vacation. “Tomorrow also,” wrote Ryan, “a tall, lean American from Rhode Island whom she had never met would land on the beach almost in line with her father’s farm. She would marry him.” Fifteen years later when Ryan’s book appeared, former U.S. Army Private First Class Leo Heroux and his wife, Anne Marie, lived at the Broeckx farm in Colleville with their three children. Heroux ran an “auto-driving school” nearby.

As we remember with deep gratitude the devotion to duty and the sacrifices of the American, British, and Canadian forces that landed at Normandy 75 years ago and their accompanying paratrooper, air, naval, and French resistance forces, all of which played critical roles in the outcome, may we also acknowledge the sovereignty of Him who, operating on the grand scale, determines the “appointed times, and the boundaries” of nations (Acts 17:26); and, on the individual level, “looks from heaven . . . [and] sees all the sons of men” (Psalm 33:13).

Forrest Marion is a Ruling Elder in Eastwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Montgomery, Ala.