Fighting for different things: US and French resistance

Operation Imperial Overlord

Rishi Sunak committed a ‘gaffe’ by leaving the D-Day celebrations before Joe Biden’s speech, it is claimed by an over-excited media. But, asks Mike Macnair, what was the military and strategic meaning of the Normandy landings?

There has been a brief media storm over Rishi Sunak’s decision to attend only the first part of the celebration of the 80th anniversary of D-Day on June 6 - the beginning of Operation Overlord, the Anglo-American invasion of Nazi-occupied France.

Sunak attended the first (British) part of the event, and laid a wreath at the British Normandy Memorial of Ver-sur-Mer, but missed the international event at Omaha Beach, where US troops had suffered severe casualties in 1944. At this event Joe Biden gave a speech comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler and warning against US ‘isolationism’ (code for Donald Trump’s rhetoric against the Ukraine war and the US’s Nato allies failing to pay enough for defence).

Making matters worse, Sunak had left in order to record an interview with ITV. The media storm was intense, but has proved short-lived. Nigel Farage banged the national-culture drum, and commented that Sunak “is completely disconnected from the centre of this country. He has proved that he is not a patriotic leader”.1 This led spokespeople from other parties to turn on Farage, arguing that he was engaged in a dog-whistle against Sunak for his race.2 The effect has largely been to knock the story as a whole on the head. Even The Daily Telegraph, which on June 10 ran the story, ‘Farage overtakes Sunak after D-Day gaffe’,3 had on June 11 dropped it from its election coverage.

It is pretty certain that Sunak did not choose to attend the British event only, and not the US-international event, as any sort of political gesture. The politics is merely embarrassment at a mistaken judgment over the relative importance of the event. It is nonetheless worth asking whether a British prime minister boycotting the D-Day event would be desirable (however unlikely such an occurrence would be).

I am not saying that we should not commemorate World War II. During that conflict my father spent three years in prisoner-of-war camps, one of my uncles lost an arm, and another a leg. Many people sacrificed more. The questions posed are, first, what all the sacrifices were actually for; and, second, what is meant by commemorating specifically D-Day, as opposed to the war in general?

Good war

World War II tends to be seen as the ‘good war’, the war against fascism - as opposed to World War I, the ‘bad war’, the mistaken or senseless war, which brought an end to 19th century progress, or, from the left, the war for imperialist redivision of the world. This perspective is present on the left too. The Morning Star, for example, on June 5 ran the editorial, ‘Fight the far right to commemorate the D-Day heroes’, arguing that modern anti-immigration policy is “a betrayal of what the D-Day heroes fought for”.4

This story of the war against fascism is not a wholly untrue one. In the early 1900s, the regimes Europe-wide began to be seriously concerned by the rise of the workers’ movement on both the electoral and trade union front. The shift into nationalism and the celebration of empire temporarily headed off the problem, at the cost of a very destructive war from 1914; but the Russian Revolution in 1917 was widely understood by working class militants globally to pose the possibility of overthrowing capitalist rule and establishing socialism. From 1921, the means of a counteroffensive were found in the Italian fascist movement, unifying the pro-war nationalist socialists round Mussolini, with traditional conservatives, with veterans’ groups, to wage an undeclared civil war against the workers’ movement.

The 1922 March on Rome and the fascists’ (gradual and legal) acquisition of exclusive power made this offensive, and what followed - that is, an aggressively nationalist and militarist regime - a model copied widely in Europe, most notably in German Nazism. As emerging out of this history, 1939-1945 was in part the apogee of a European-wide civil war between the classes, in which the workers’ movement was at first crushed by German armies and their local collaborators, and then began to fight back, exploiting Allied support to resistance movements - to the point that, as Marc Mulholland has pointed out in Bourgeois liberty and the politics of fear, the post-war period saw a fairly extensive class purge of landlord, clerical, etc supporters of the fascists.

The war was, however, also a continuation of World War I - for the redivision of the world between rival imperialist camps; or, put another way, a war for the preservation of the British empire, but on the basis (after agreements made in spring-summer 1940) that ultimate control would be handed on to the USA.5

The involvement of India in the war could be seen as continued British rule and exploitation.6 In Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam the outcome was very unambiguously that Allied troops restored colonial order. In Ethiopia, the British client, Haile Selassie, ousted by Italian invasion in 1935-37, was restored. In Libya the Allies set up post-war a wholly artificial monarchy. In Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco French colonialism, which had continued under the collaborator Vichy regime, was untouched by the Allied invasion, which resulted in a deal with Vichy officials. Syria and Lebanon were handed over to the ‘Free French’ as colonial possessions. Iran was simply invaded by the Allies in order to create a supply route to Russia; Iraq was reconquered for British colonialism.7 And so on. Anti-colonial movements emerged during the war, or strengthened where they already existed; but they were not backed by the Allies. This was not a war for freedom.

D-Day dodgers

In 1944 Tory MP Lady Nancy Astor reportedly (she denied it) characterised British troops fighting in the Mediterranean theatre as ‘D-Day dodgers’, giving rise to a bitter satirical song, which has been remembered as a result of the D-Day commemoration ceremonies.8

The story expresses an underlying reality, which is an aspect of the imperialist character of the war. Germany declared war on the USA immediately after Pearl Harbor, in December 1941. It would be two and a half years before the Overlord invasion of France. What was happening in the meantime? The ‘western’ allies were fighting the imperial war. In June 1942 the naval battle of Midway destroyed Japanese capability as an active offensive threat to the USA. In July, the first battle of El Alamein, though stalemated, made clear that the German and Italian armies in north Africa could not be effectively supplied sufficiently to conquer Egypt.

The US now embarked on the Solomon Islands campaign in the Pacific, while the British and US moved onto counteroffensive in north Africa: the second battle of El Alamein in October-November 1942 and Operation Torch, US and British invasion of French north Africa, also in November. The western allies were prioritising British and US imperial interests over any restoration of democracy in Europe.

Axis troops in north Africa surrendered in May 1943; the Allies now elected to invade Sicily and Italy. The Italian government surrendered in September 1943, but German troops in Italy fought on with considerable success: the ‘D-Day dodgers’ took Rome on June 5 1944, the day before D-Day, but they did not break through the Gothic Line in the northern Apennines until April 1945 (to the accompaniment of a massive insurrection of Italian anti-fascist partisans in northern Italy). Churchill had aimed for a breakthrough in 1944 from Italy into Austria and Yugoslavia to block Soviet movement into eastern Europe, but the chiefs of staff had rejected this scheme.9

The judgment that the western allies were delaying the opening of the second front in their own interests, and expecting the Russians to bear the main burden of the fighting with Nazi Germany, is not a modern invention. It was a live political argument, in Britain in particular, through 1943. It was not only the left wing which raised it.10

Eastern front

Meanwhile on the eastern front … Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the USSR, began in June 1941. The Red Army had been pulled forward out of prepared positions and its plans dislocated by the annexation of eastern Poland under the Hitler-Stalin Pact; it was decisively defeated in the invasion, and the siege of Leningrad began in August. Vast areas of the USSR were occupied, including places which are back in the news today, like Kharkov/Kharkiv. But the German attempt to take Moscow in September-December 1941 failed and the invaders were driven back.

July 1942 to February 1943 saw a German offensive towards the Caucasus leading to the battle of Stalingrad - prolonged and savage fighting causing more than two million total casualties, and ending with the surrender of the surrounded German army. July-August saw the battle of Kursk, in which a German attempt to pinch off a Russian salient ended in German defeat. Now the Red Army was on the offensive, and August-November saw the battle of the Dniepr and November-December the battle of Kiev. December 1943-May 1944 was the Soviet Dnieper-Carpathian offensive, and in April-May in a sideshow the Red Army took Crimea. By the time of D-Day, therefore, the German position on the eastern front was collapsing - and it was doing so in the general area being fought over since 2014. Operation Bagration in Belarus, which collapsed the German army’s position in the north-central sector of the eastern front, started on June 22, 16 days after D-Day.

It is fairly clear, therefore, that the eastern front battles were decisive and that, if the British had dragged their feet further on Operation Overlord, the result would not have been Axis victory, but rather a cold war period with Soviet troops on the Rhine, rather than (as actually happened) on the Elbe.

Soviet military casualties were 9-10 million, while Axis casualties were around five million. In the invasion of Normandy and down to the liberation of Paris, the Germans suffered around 320,000 casualties and the western allies around 220,000. The Italian campaign was on a somewhat smaller scale: 60-70,000 Allied and around 100,000 Germans.


The meaning of all this is that celebrating D-Day in particular - as distinct from remembrance of World War II and its casualties in general - has a very particular meaning. It pretends that Anglo-American war operations were mainly directed towards liberating Europe (they were not!) and that these operations were decisive in the defeat of fascism (also untrue). It symbolises a ‘good war’ without the horrific casualties of the eastern front and its decisive role.

It is only natural, then, that Biden should use his D-Day speech to paint Vladimir Putin as Hitler and that, a few days later, he should announce that the USA is lifting its bar on arming the Azov regiment, on the basis that it has outgrown its neo-Nazi origins.11

If Rishi Sunak had boycotted the Omaha beach event on political grounds, he should have been praised, not damned!

  1. news.sky.com/video/nigel-farage-sunak-not-a-patriotic-leader-after-leaving-d-day-event-early-13149348.↩︎

  2. www.bbc.co.uk/news/articles/cx005vdgg5yo.↩︎

  3. www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2024/06/10/rishi-sunaks-popularity-falls-beneath-nigel-farage-d-day.↩︎

  4. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/editorial-fight-far-right-commemorate-d-day-heroes. The author has perhaps not noticed the previous history of nationality and anti-immigration policy, including the Aliens Act 1905, the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 and the British Nationality Act 1948 (www.gov.uk/government/publications/historical-background-information-on-nationality/historical-background-information-on-nationality-accessible).↩︎

  5. N Moss Nineteen weeks: America, Britain and the fateful summer of 1940 Boston 2003. The Brits subsequently attempted to wriggle out of the agreements, both at Bretton Woods in 1944 (see B Steil The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the making of a new world order Princeton NJ 2013) and with the Suez adventure in 1956, but failed.↩︎

  6. Eg, americandiplomacy.web.unc.edu/2017/01/world-war-two-provides-the-indo-british-breaking-point; on the ambiguities of Indian collaboration with the British, see CA Bayly, ‘“The nation within’: British India at war 1939-1947’ Proceedings of the British Academy Vol 125, 2004, pp265-85.↩︎

  7. A Jackson Persian Gulf command New Haven CT 2018.↩︎

  8. Eg, www.bbc.co.uk/news/articles/ce99vz560dno (May 31).↩︎

  9. Wikipedia at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_campaign_(World_War_II) cites US general Mark Clark’s memoir of the Mediterranean campaign.↩︎

  10. Eg, Hansard HL February 23 1943: api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1943/feb/23/second-front-in-europe.↩︎

  11. www.bbc.co.uk/news/articles/c1vv6p9k1z1o.↩︎