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Some Reversals of fortune in World War II would have had huge consequences and yet make for uninteresting counterfactuals. The shifts in outcome are simply too obvious.

In the case of Operation Overlord, the June 1944 D-Day landings, an Allied failure would have made a second invasion of northwestern Europe unlikely. A rebuff would doubtless have convinced the Allies that, even with meticulous preparation, they lacked the strength to breach Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. A flop would have compromised Normandy as a landing site. Other potential targets, around Le Havre or at Pas de Calais, were even more stoutly defended. The best the Allies could have done would have been to follow through with landings scheduled to take place in southern France—historically launched in August 1944. But without a successful Normandy invasion to keep the Germans from reinforcing the southern sector, it is doubtful the Allies would have gotten very far.

But what if only one of the five D-Day landings had failed? The obvious candidate is the assault on Omaha Beach, which historically did come close to disaster:

It is the morning of June 6, 1944. From the bridge of the heavy cruiser USS Augusta, General Omar N. Bradley peers through binoculars at the French beachhead code-named Omaha. The sky is overcast, the waters choppy, and the view ashore partially obscured by smoke and explosions. But the sketchy information Bradley has received, and everything he sees, indicates that the assault on Omaha is failing. Elements of two divisions—the veteran 1st Infantry and the untested 29th Infantry—are desperately trying to fight their way from the shoreline to the bluffs from which Germans manning mortars and machine guns are devastating everything on the beach. The American forces are all but paralyzed.

Bradley feels helpless. He will describe these hours as “a time of grave personal anxiety and frustration.” Eventually he decides the landing force has suffered an irreversible catastrophe, and orders the men ashore to withdraw. This proves impossible. Communications breakdowns keep many landing craft from even heading to shore. Of those that do, many are sunk en route or destroyed on the beach while they wait for pinned-down infantrymen to crawl toward them. For all practical purposes, the landing force is wiped out.

This devastating defeat leaves a 37-mile gap between the Canadian and British beaches to the east and the other American beach, Utah, to the west. Bradley knows that the 4th Infantry Division landings at Utah have gone unexpectedly smoothly, with only light casualties. But he also knows that with the Omaha force liquidated, Germans at that beach could shift toward Utah and launch a deadly attack on its left flank. Bradley could transfer elements of the Omaha force not yet ashore to reinforce Utah. In practice, this is impossible. To reposition, the 4th’s follow-on waves must reach shore, which will take hours. With no contingency for the 1st and 29th to land at Utah, the flotilla of transports and warships assigned to Omaha likely would unleash chaos if suddenly inserted into the fleet assigned to Utah.

The above scenario is historically correct in most respects. The Omaha landing did come within a hair’s breadth of failing. As Adrian R. Lewis points out in Omaha Beach: A Flawed Victory, the rigid plan for the landing simply fell apart amid the withering German fire, the dispersal of small units, and the deaths of many officers and NCOs. Soldiers ashore had to improvise a new approach. Only their valor in inching toward and destroying obstacles barring access to the beach exits prevented catastrophe. Bradley did consider evacuating Omaha Beach, but most military historians agree that he could not have done so, and that given the intricate nature of the D-Day landings, the transfer of the 1st and 29th to Utah likely would have meant chaos, not salvation, for the 4th Division troops already ashore.

Proponents of counterfactual theory speak of “nodes of contingency”—points in time at which events that went one way could have gone another. The D-Day invasion involved so many nodes of contingency that it would be absurd to say with certainty what would have occurred had the Omaha assault failed. It is reasonably certain that forces on the three Canadian and British beaches—Gold, Juno, and Sword—would have retained their foothold on the French coast. D-Day, then, would not have met with complete disaster.

But it is plausible that all available German forces near Utah, including the 352nd Infantry Division that historically defended Omaha Beach, would have descended on Utah Beach to contain or even destroy the invading forces. Airdrops of two American paratroop divisions behind Utah Beach to secure bridges and causeways the 4th Division needed to break out of the beach were historically scattered widely. They would have been unlikely to survive a well-organized German counterattack aimed at Utah. If the Allied presence on Utah remained intact, those forces’ isolation from the other beaches would have made an advance inland difficult if not impossible. Even the Allies’ overwhelming command of the air would probably not have sufficed to retrieve the situation.

Historically the Allies required six weeks to break out of their beachhead, due largely to the French hedgerow countryside that provided the German troops with a succession of nearly perfect defensive positions.

Loss of Omaha would have made an Allied breakout even more difficult. Loss of both Omaha and Utah might well have transmogrified the D-Day landings into something resembling the January 1944 landings at Anzio, Italy, where the beachhead became a trap that held the equivalent of three British and American divisions until May—able to break out thanks only to the approach of Allied forces creeping up the Italian mainland. Normandy offered no such option. Of Anzio, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat onto the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.” Overlord might have become a stranded whale, with implications far more serious than at Anzio.

In war, structural forces often count for a great deal. The American arsenal of democracy, for example, guaranteed that Japan could not win the Pacific War. But sometimes the actions of a few men are crucial. That was so at Omaha Beach, where a few hundred soldiers may have saved the entire Normandy invasion from calamity.