At 0227 hours on the morning of June 6, 1944, Lieutenant Robert Mathias saw the red light flash above the door of his C47 “Dakota” aircraft, signaling his men to get ready to parachute into a terrifying blackness that was streaked with machine-gun tracers and punctuated by exploding rounds from four-barrel 20-millimeter Flakvierling-38 anti-aircraft guns. The Cotentin Peninsula loomed beneath him as he stared into an abyss crackling with enemy fire and crawling with Nazi troops. Machine-gun rounds peppered their slow-moving, easily targetable transport, “sounding like rocks being shaken in a tin can,” Stephen Ambrose reports. Then, just as he was ready to jump, a shell exploded nearby, shredding his reserve chute, propelling red-hot flak into his chest, and slamming his body to the floor. The light flashed green. He got up. He didn’t have to. He could’ve crawled away, let his men jump without him, returned to England, get treated. But he got up anyway, struggled to the open door, yelled, “Follow me!” and leapt into the hellish maw of combat below, and to his death. And into the history books as well.
For they all knew they were making history, from the lowliest privates slugging it out with their M1 Garands, or BARs, or flamethrowers, to those at the peak of the Allied and German command structures. Everyone knew the stakes involved, especially Hitler, for whom the defeat of the invasion of France constituted “the sole decisive factor in the whole conduct of the war and hence in its final result.”
It is not hard to see why. The war had not been going well for the Third Reich, especially on the Russian front since the defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943, where the Russians had succeeded in demolishing entire armies in the German order of battle. Still, the situation for Germany was not hopeless; far from it. Indeed, the Germans had conquered so much territory that they could afford to exchange it for time to recoup their losses, strike back at the Soviets, stabilize the line in the east, and perhaps arrange for a separate peace, which is approximately what happened in World War I. Best of all, the grotesque alliance arrayed against Germany could not be expected to hold together. Or so he reasoned.