The Battle of Normandy, also known as D-Day, began on 6 June 1944, and resulted in the Allied liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control. Codenamed Operation Overlord, the battle began when some 156,000 Allied soldiers, transported by 1200 ships, went ashore on five beaches along a 50 mile stretch of a heavily fortified French coastline. The invasion was one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history. By late August 1944, all northern France had been liberated, and by the following spring, the Allies had defeated the Germans.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day this year, there were celebrations throughout Europe and in Normandy. Even as the number of living D-Day veterans falls, and the date recedes into the past, the event still stands, in the eyes of history and those who were there, as one of the most heroic and dramatic battles of the war. And the code names of the Normandy beach sections: Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword remain etched in the annals of 20th century warfare.
Whilst none of us were present, we know with some certainty what took place through the many recollections of veterans and films made about the landings. None more so than Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ Just as when we think of the Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea, we think of Cecile B DeMille and Charlton Heston. When we think of D-Day, it’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and Tom Hanks.
‘Saving Private Ryan’ was a 1998 American epic war film set during the invasion of Normandy. It is notable for its graphic and realistic portrayal of war, and for the intensity of its opening 27 minutes, which depict the Omaha Beach assault of June 6, 1944. It’s hard to ever forget those 27 minutes. They portray a brutal deathly struggle against German infantry, machine gun nests and artillery fire.
I remember first watching this film when sharing a curry with several friends. Needless to say, we lost our appetite very quickly. I’ve never forgotten the gruesome portrayal of war in this film. Let’s watch the trailer …
Army Ranger Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) survives the landing and leads a group of soldiers who penetrate the German defence. Meanwhile, at the US War Department in Washington DC, General George Marshall is learning that three of the four brothers of the Ryan family were killed in action and that their mother is to receive all three telegrams in the same day. He learns that her fourth son, Private James Francis Ryan, a paratrooper, is missing in action somewhere near Normandy. Marshall orders that Private Ryan be found and sent home immediately.
Three days after D-Day, Captain Miller receives orders to find Ryan and bring him back from the front. He assembles seven men from his company, and they move out. I’ll skip over the bulk of the movie, the struggle to find Private Ryan and what it cost in human lives – I’ll come to that a little later. There are three things I want you to think about this morning:
1.The Bravery of the Allied Soldiers
I always wonder how men today – myself included – would react to a war situation like the Normandy invasion. Would we be racing to shore despite the hail of bullets, or would we be cowering in the landing craft? I wonder, similarly, how we would have survived (or not) in the forests running from the Nazis, living in fear of instant death, surviving on food meant for animals or food stolen from someone’s kitchen.
The truth is we don’t know which we would have been, and we certainly don’t know whether we could come close to matching the courage and determination of the Allied troops at Normandy. At the very least, we must admire what they did. It may not be an exaggeration to say that their courage saved the free world. They should have our admiration and respect and appreciation – especially in this 75th anniversary year and especially on this Remembrance Sunday.
2. The Human Spirit
Thinking about D Day and Remembrance Sunday, I’m struck by the complicated reality that is the human spirit. On 6 June the media was full of reports on the observance of the anniversary in France, and interviews with some survivors, many of whom talk with great sadness, almost despondency about how they survived, and their colleagues didn’t. How were they not one of the thousands of soldiers killed during the assault?
How had they come through without a scratch? This isn’t an unusual reaction. I’ve heard old soldiers speak about this myself.
One veteran interviewed on D-Day was an American Veteran called Leo Scheer. On the day he learned he would be stationed out of the battle zone; he went alone to a secluded spot. He had been worried about his parents if he should be killed, but now he was anguished that he had lived:
You think you’re dead or going to die. I’ve wondered all my life … why did I survive? You think about all those dead kids. How did I get out of this myself, and not a scratch?
Isn’t that amazing – feeling guilty for not being killed? That is one kind of human reaction that speaks to the human spirit. The one portrayed at the point of finding Private Ryan in the movie is another. Ryan is told of his brothers’ deaths and that the soldiers facing him are on a mission to bring him home, and that two men have been lost in the quest to find him. He is distressed at the loss of his brothers but doesn’t feel it is fair to go home to abandon his fellow soldiers. So, he asks Captain Miller to tell his mother that he intends to stay with the only brothers he has left. The sense of brotherhood with men who are not your brothers, some special kind of human loyalty, despite the dangers, is on display in this and many other war stories.
We human beings are so complicated – what an amazing creation we are! Just try to appreciate the feelings seen here: guilt that one soldier didn’t himself die in the battle, loyalty to fellow soldiers passing a chance to go home safe and put himself in mortal danger instead. The human spirit is so complex and so amazing.
This interview with D-Day Veteran Harry Billinge on BBC Breakfast on 8 November 2019 is very moving. It’s 11 mins long but watch it all if you can. Especially when he begins to talk about his Christian faith.
I’m not brave – I’m lucky.
3. Earn This
In the final two scenes, Captain Miller’s small squad cannot extract itself from its rescue mission and instead must fight a large and well-equipped German unit. In the battle there are many German casualties, but three more of the Americans are killed and Miller is shot and mortally wounded.
Private Ryan is with Captain Miller as he dies and his last words are: “Earn this, James. Earn this.” Six men died to save him, and Miller challenges him to make their sacrifice worth making. “Earn this.”
The final scene takes place in the present day, the now elderly Ryan and his family are visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Ryan stands at Captain Miller’s grave and asks his wife to confirm that he has led a good life, that he is a good man and thus worthy of the sacrifice of Miller and the others. Did he in fact “Earn it?” His wife replies that he did. At this point Ryan stands at attention and delivers a military salute towards Miller’s grave. An unforgettable scene.
In John 15, Jesus said: “Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” On this Remembrance Sunday it’s right to honour those who sacrificed their lives on our behalf. And whilst it’s right to remember those who sacrificed their lives so that we might live in freedom, we must understand that mankind can only do that on an individual basis for their family, or collectively, a nation.
Jesus, however, made the ultimate sacrifice for the whole of the world in order that the past wrongs in our lives can be forgiven and that we can have a fresh start in life. We have been saved from a greater danger through the death of Jesus on the cross. Have we earned what he has given us?
As Psalm 46 reminded us: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea … nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; the earth melts …”
Remembrance Sunday is a time when we recall those who gave themselves for us and to remember why it was, they did what they did. Some people suggest that Remembrance Sunday glorifies war. But that misses the point of Remembrance Sunday altogether. It’s a time to remember the horror of war and vow ‘never again’. It’s a time to commit ourselves, once again, to the struggle against evil – the struggle against the very things that to lead to war in the first place.
At the War Memorial we will honour those who have fallen in a two-minute silence. As we do so let us be thankful for those who risked and gave their lives for our freedom. Let us thank God who created us in the brave and complicated ways we are, and let us ask ourselves: have we earned what they did on our behalf? Amen.