The landing by Allied troops on the beaches of Normandy could have been 'the most ghastly disaster of the whole war'. Duncan Anderson explains how meticulous planning, good luck and sheer guts made D-Day one of the greatest triumphs.
A controversial plan
The Allied landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944 were among the most desperate undertakings in the history of war. Amphibious operations against an enemy in a strong defensive position will almost always lead to heavy casualties.
In November 1943, the United States Marine Corps' capture of the tiny atoll of Tarawa in the central Pacific had cost more than 3,000 casualties. American censors banned a public screening of the US Navy film of this event, arguing that its shocking images of a lagoon red with soldiers' blood would undermine the morale of US forces and the Home Front.
The British and Canadians had suffered their own disaster at Dieppe on 18 August 1942. More than two thirds of a 6,000-man raiding force had been left behind on the shingle beach, dead, wounded and prisoners.
On the eve of D-Day the Allied leadership was in a state of neurotic anxiety. Just after midnight on 6 June, a restless Churchill, haunted by memories of the disastrous Allied landings at Gallipoli 29 years earlier, bade his wife goodnight with the words, 'Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning twenty thousand men may have been killed?'
The same night, the chief of the imperial general staff, General Alan Brooke, confided to his diary that '... it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war. I wish to God it were safely over '.
At about 22.00 the supreme allied commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, had made an impromptu visit to paratroopers of the 101st Airborne at Greenham Common airfield near Newbury. His driver, Kay Summersby, recorded that the general, overwhelmed by emotion, climbed back into the car with his shoulders sagged.
Eisenhower had already written a letter accepting full responsibility if D-Day turned out to be a disaster.
Churchill had assured him that they would go together. The Allied high command anticipated that a successful landing would cost 10,000 dead and perhaps 30,000 wounded, but were steeling themselves for much heavier casualties.
The British had never liked the idea of a direct assault on the coast of north-west Europe. They much preferred an indirect strategy - operations in the Mediterranean and the Balkans.
Since the late summer of 1942 the Germans had been constructing the 'Atlantic Wall', a formidable complex of defences running from the Franco-Spanish border to Denmark. It was the largest construction project in European history, involving at any one time more than 100,000 workers.
Under the direction of General Erwin Rommel, all beaches on which a landing was considered possible had been festooned with belts of obstacles and minefields, and covered by machine-gun and mortar emplacements.
Further back, bunkers of enormous strength at Merville, Longues and Pointe du Hoc on the Normandy coast enabled large-calibre German guns to bombard a landing force. In order to frustrate an airborne attack,
German engineers flooded low-lying areas and strung wires across fields to deter glider landings.
The Americans had come to Europe to finish the war as quickly as possible, and this meant taking the shortest, most direct route to Germany. However, the disaster at Dieppe and their own experiences in the Pacific had qualified their optimism. Thus the D-Day landings were to be the most highly planned operations in military history.
In spring 1943, Lieutenant General Frederick Morgan was appointed chief of staff supreme allied commander (COSSAC). He took charge of planning until the appointment of Eisenhower as supreme allied commander at the end 1943. Aided by Lord Louis Mountbatten, the head of Combined Operations, they chose Normandy; although further from Germany than the Pas de Calais, Normandy's long sandy beaches were sheltered from the prevailing south-west winds by the Cotentin Peninsula, and the two large ports, Cherbourg and Le Havre, could be captured from the landward side.
Build-up and bluff
Meanwhile Operation Bolero, codename for the American build-up in Britain, transformed southern England into an armed camp. By early June 1944 more than two million Americans had arrived, along with a quarter-of-a-million Canadians.
Despite massive amounts of equipment, including thousands of aircraft, tanks and guns, many American divisions were poorly trained. Some British veteran formations, survivors of action in North Africa, Sicily and
Italy, were unenthusiastic about a frontal assault on Hitler's Fortress Europe.
The planners did all they could to ensure a successful assault. By the spring of 1944 all the divisions taking part in the initial seaborne landing had participated in extensive amphibious exercises, usually off the coast of Scotland. During one exercise, off Slapton Sands in Devon, German E Boats sank three landing craft, drowning more than 700 American personnel.
The British created 79th Armoured Division, a formation of specialised armoured assault vehicles, including Duplex drive (DD) 'swimming' tanks, mine-clearing (Flail) tanks, tanks with enormous Petard mortars which could drop explosive charges next to bunkers, cracking the concrete, and tanks with flame-throwers
(Crocodiles), which would then pump liquid fire through the cracks, effectively cooking the defenders.
All the British and Canadian assault divisions had units of the 79th Division attached to them. The British offered the Americans the equipment as well, but the US High Command turned down everything except the DD tanks.
Secrecy was absolutely crucial. To mislead the Germans, the British devised ingenious deception plans, notably Operation Fortitude. They deliberately transmitted and broadcast all the radio traffic generated by US forces in south-west England, and British and Canadian forces in south central England, from radio stations in
Kent. Vast, fake army camps appeared around Maidstone and Canterbury, with thousands of partly concealed dummy tanks and aircraft.
One of the Allies' most flamboyant generals, George Patton, toured the area. German agents 'turned' by MI5 leaked the news that the Allies' most powerful assault formation, US 3rd Army, was destined to assault the Pas de Calais.
The deception worked. The Germans concentrated their most powerful formation, 15th Army, in the Pas de Calais. Normandy was held by the smaller, but still formidable 7th Army. Had 15th Army had turned up on D-Day, the landings would probably have ended in disaster.
Window of opportunity
A successful operation required air superiority and tactical and operational surprise. The planners had to persuade the 'Bomber Barons' of the RAF and USAAF to divert resources from what they regarded as the main effort - the strategic bombing of Germany. It took many months of table-thumping argument to win their support.
From March 1944, north-western France became the focal point for air activity, the largest sustained air offensive of the war, codenamed the Transportation Plan. By the first week in June, French rail and road communications had been seriously degraded and the Luftwaffe in France reduced to about 800 operational machines. But the cost had been enormous. Two thousand Allied aircraft were lost and 12,000 airmen killed.
On the 6 June, Allied planning paid off, but they also had luck. Eisenhower's exploitation of a small window in a period of very bad weather caught the Germans completely off guard. Rommel thought an invasion so unlikely he left for Germany on the morning of 5 June to celebrate his wife's 50th birthday.
Key officers in many formations also took advantage of the bad weather to attend a war game in Rouen, while the commander of 21st Panzer Division, the only armoured formation within striking distance of the invasion beaches, went to visit his mistress in Paris.
German communications had been severely weakened by bombing. Allied paratroopers and the French Resistance made them worse by cutting telephone lines. At the strategic level, neither Rommel, nor von Rundstedt, could move powerful armoured reserves without Hitler's express approval. Thus the German response in the first hours was spasmodic and uncoordinated.
In the early hours of 6 June RAF bombers dropped aluminium foil of the Pas de Calais to simulate the radar profile of a great invasion fleet. Meanwhile more than 7,000 vessels, the largest naval task force ever assembled, moved to the Normandy coast.
Shortly after midnight the British 6th and American 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions began landing. On the eastern flank, British glider-borne troops seized the vital 'Pegasus' Bridge across the Orne River, while others attacked and temporarily disabled a German battery at Merville, the guns of which covered Sword Beach.
Subsequent drops allowed 6th Airborne Division to form a defensive crust protecting the eastern flank of the beachhead.
The American airborne landings went less well. Cloud cover and heavy flak over the Cotentin Peninsula broke up the formations, causing the Americans to be dropped over an area of 1,000 square miles. But this in itself caused the Germans immense confusion. The divisional reserve for the Omaha beach defences, for example, went racing south at 03.00 to attack paratroopers they couldn't locate. By the time they returned to the beach, the Americans were well ashore.
Shortly after 05.00 naval gunfire opened up on German defences along 50 miles of Normandy coast. Chief amongst these was Pointe du Hoc, the guns of which could hit both Utah and Omaha beaches. The task of silencing the battery, already bombed and shelled, was carried out by a Ranger battalion, who scaled the 100-foot vertical cliffs, and discovered the guns camouflaged in fields about a mile inland. It was up to the bravery of men carrying the thermite explosive charges to ensure that these guns remained silent on D-Day.
First to land was the US 4th Division on Utah beach. It came ashore about 1,000 yards south of its intended landing place, luckily avoiding heavy defences, and consequently suffered few of the expected casualties.
But the situation was very different only a few miles further east on Omaha beach. Here the first elements of the US 29th Division and the 1st Division ran into stiff opposition. Without armour support - most of the DD 'swimming' tanks had foundered in the heavy swell - the infantry was cut down by heavy German fire.
Very soon an immense traffic jam of landing craft and amphibious vehicles built up about 1,000 yards offshore. By 09.00 the beach was packed with thousands of dead and wounded men, while hundreds of bodies floated in the blood-red surf.
The American operational commander, General Omar Bradley, radioed Eisenhower for permission to evacuate the beachhead, but the signal got lost in radio traffic. By the time it reached Eisenhower, naval gunfire support and the sheer guts of some exceptional officers and men had pushed the Germans from the bluffs.
On Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, British and Canadian troops were supported by the specialised assault vehicles of 79th Armoured Division. On all three, German strongpoints initially inflicted heavy casualties, but a combination of Petard mortar and Crocodile tank soon smashed the defenses.
On Gold and Juno, British and Canadian forces pushed inland rapidly. On Sword, British 3rd Division was held up three miles short of Caen by a network of German defensive positions along a ridge. Finally, late that afternoon, the 21st Panzer Division launched a counterattack. Some units managed to reach the coast, though they were too weak to hold their positions.
The worldlearned the invasion was underway from German state radio, which announced landings in Normandy on its 07.00 news service, and promised the invaders would be swiftly annihilated.
A special BBC news bulletin came two-and-a-half hours later. John Snagge announced that D-Day had come and all was going according to plan. At 12.00 Churchill repeated this news in a statement to the House of
Commons. Despite Eisenhower's worries about the situation on Omaha beach, by mid-afternoon it was clear that even on Omaha the battle was running in the Allies' favour.
When Churchill again addressed the House of Commons at 18.00 it was to announce an astounding success.
To secure a lodgement on the coast of France, the Allies had taken 10,000 casualties, 3,000 of whom were dead - mostly airborne troops or those who had landed at Omaha Beach.
Losses were far lighter than anticipated, a tribute to years of planning and preparation, a bold command decision, and a lot of good luck.
Operation Overlord: D-Day to Paris
By Lloyd Clark 2/17/11
In the space of three crucial months in 1944, the Allies progressed from landing 150,000 troops on five Normandy beaches, to a victory march through Paris. Lloyd Clark charts the remarkable execution of Operation Overlord.
Making for the Seine
The Americans moved quickly, but Bradley deemed that a reorientation in the thrust was necessary, and on 3 August ordered Patton to leave a covering force in Brittany and divert the rest of his army east to the Seine river. This would outflank the German forces facing the Anglo-Canadians around Caen and force a withdrawal.
Montgomery supported this move and directed Dempsey to attack towards the Vire river, in Operation Bluecoat, in late July. This was an attempt to ensure that the enemy did not redeploy to counter Patton's advance.
The American plan worked well, and in spite of a German counter attack at Mortain on 6-7 August, captured ground quickly. On 8 August, Patton's men took Le Mans and then swept forward to seize Nantes and Angers before approaching the Seine via Chartres and Orléans.
The Allies made good progress, but there was a feeling that the Germans could be further undermined by an operation that aimed to trap them in a great pocket, created by envelopment. Thus, as some of Patton's troops struck out to the Seine, units further to the north were ordered to advance to Argentan, where they were to link up with Anglo-Canadians attacking south from Caen and Falaise.
Before the Falaise Pocket was closed on 21 August, approximately 40,000 Germans escaped the clutches of the Allied troops. But significant numbers of Germany's forces were nevertheless destroyed and, as a result, the German army in Normandy ceased to exist. Meanwhile, Patton's troops had continued to charge eastwards, and on 20 August had crossed the Seine at Mantes-Gassicourt.
In Paris, meanwhile, Communist-led members of the French forces of the interior had seized various public buildings in the capital in anticipation of liberation. Fighting through the city, however, was not a prospect that Eisenhower relished, and he intended to by-pass the capital altogether in order to maintain pressure on the withdrawing Germans.
At that moment, General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French, took matters into his own hands. Fearing a Communist take-over, he ordered major general Jacques Philippe Leclerc to lead his French 2nd Armoured Division into Paris in order to liberate the city. Eisenhower had little option under the circumstances but to order US units to follow.
As French troops fought their way through the suburbs the population of Paris rose in revolt against their occupiers, but it was not until late on 24 August that tanks of the French 2nd Armoured Division reached the centre. It took another 24 hours to complete the liberation, and on 26 August, in spite of German snipers, de Gaulle led a victory parade down the Champs Elysées. In this way ensuring that he, rather than the communists, was in control of France.
Despite suffering massive setbacks, Hitler's forces were not beaten yet. While the end of the war in Europe may have been in sight at the end of summer 1944, there were many more miles to travel and plenty more battles to fight before Allied troops finally set foot in the German Fatherland.
*Three Level I (explicit) Questions *Two Level II (implicit) Questions *One Level III (thematic) Question