Posted By Andrew on April 1, 2013
On June 6th, 1944 the western allies launched the greatest amphibious assault in history in Normandy to destroy Nazi Germany and liberate Western Europe. Despite enjoying air and naval supremacy there was no guarantee they would successfully invade the continent, let alone defeat the German army in France. To win the campaign the allies relied upon air supremacy, an elaborate deception campaign, and their ability to significantly reinforce and supply their forces much quicker than the Germans. The successful execution of the Normandy campaign was the quickest way to defeat Germany, allowed Britain and America to liberate Western Europe before the Russians, and thus won both the war and the subsequent peace to the best advantage possible for the western allies.
While there has been considerable debate, during the war and in hindsight, as to whether or not an allied invasion of Northern France was necessary, there were many important reasons to justify its necessity. During the war some thought strategic bombing could bring Germany to its knees. Additionally, while the Americans were always committed to such an invasion as soon as they had entered the war much of the British political and military elite, including Churchill and Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Francis Brooke, were wary of the likelihood of extensive casualties and preferred focusing on the Mediterranean instead. The British fear of high casualties was obviously due to the memory of the bloody battles waged on the Western Front during the “First World War.” Indeed, Britain suffered significantly more deaths in this conflict than she would in the fight against Nazi Germany. The British preference for making the main allied effort in the Mediterranean was to safeguard Britain’s imperial interests there, especially safeguarding their lines of communication to India, as well as hoping to forestall the Soviets from conquering all of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
In the case of the former consideration it was understandable that the British were concerned about casualties due to the ever decreasing amount of manpower they could deploy against the Germans, but as the Russians on the Eastern Front were already, and would continue, to fight and destroy the majority of German forces and as the Americans with their army would do most of the fighting on the Western Front, this was not of critical importance. In the case of the latter considerations while it is hard to blame the British for wanting to safeguard their own imperial interests the added prospect of wanting to forestall the Soviets in Eastern Europe and the Balkans was unrealistic given the logistical constraints and the topographical nature in the region that would have severely limited the advance of the western allies. Considering how long and costly the Italian campaign was it is hard to see the western allies making major gains in this theatre of war.
Additionally, such campaigns were unlikely to offer the chance of severely damaging the German war machine or ending the war as soon as a campaign in Western Europe would. Finally, there was the chance if the allies had spent all of their efforts in the Mediterranean where the terrain did not favor quick advances or mobile warfare the Soviets could have gobbled up all of Germany and Western Europe (territories that were certainly more valuable in the geopolitical sense of populations, resources and economics). Considering how much more valuable, from a realpolitik view Western Europe is more than Eastern Europe and the Balkans (especially given the later prospect of the Cold War), and considering the western allies could not have seriously forestalled the Russians in the East or the Balkans anyway, it would have been foolish not to have invaded Northern France.
While the western allies were right to invade Italy in 1943 (which ultimately secured British interests in the Mediterranean) as they did not have the capabilities then to invade Northern France, they were right to keep operations in the Mediterranean limited. The invasion of Italy knocked Germany’s most important ally out of the war, forced significant German forces from more important fronts, improved allied sea communications, and gave the western allies useful amphibious, as well as combat, experience that would prove decisive in 1944 in Normandy.
Arguments made in hindsight suggesting that the allies should not have invaded France, or should have done so in 1943, are likewise disingenuous. The main reason pundits and armchair generals believe the invasion was not necessary was that it could be argued the Red Army would have won the war without such a campaign anyway. This is probably, though not unequivocally, true. While given the Soviet’s superior manpower and more efficient means of producing more viable weapons than the Germans suggests it was only a matter of time before the Reds would have defeated Germany there are significant factors to consider.
Firstly, German industrial production during 1944 nearly caught up to the Russians and as German weaponry was generally superior this could have eventually evened the odds and arguably allowed the Germans to at-least produce a stalemate. Indeed, the main reason German industrial production was finally pulverized was due to the western allies’ strategic bombing campaign in the last year of the war, especially after France had been occupied and there was no longer a buffer zone between their air forces and the Reich. The majority of bombs dropped on Germany as part of the campaign occurred after July 1st, 1944, perhaps more than 70% of the total 1,360,000 tons of explosives.
More over, while the Russians would continue to fight the lion-share of German forces, after the invasion of Normandy it would become less lopsided between them and the western allies. Indeed, before the invasion the western allies fought a fraction of the German army compared to the Soviets. For example the highest number of German divisions the western allies had to face at once from 1941 until “D-Day” was less than 25 (the most being in Italy), while the Soviets fought as many as 180 by the time of Kursk in 1943. However, by 1945 the proportion of German forces facing the western allies became considerably more even at around 40%, principally in France and Italy. Needless to say, had the western allies made the major effort in the Mediterranean the Germans could have held them up with much smaller forces, given the logistical and topographic difficulties the allies would have faced, and devoted much more to the Eastern Front. While none of this suggests Germany would have won the war, it is conceivable they could have managed a stalemate, or at least the war would have gone on much longer, with much more death and destruction overall.
Why they could have managed a stalemate is because the Russians may have decided to make a separate peace with Germany. While not probable, it certainly had a better chance of happening had the western allies made their main effort in the Mediterranean. Considering that German industries would have produced much more weapons (as their buffer zone in Western Europe against the allied bombers would have remained unoccupied), since the Russians would have been forced to continue to fight the vast majority of German forces, and as once again the western allies would have disappointed Stalin by failing to launch a significant “Second Front” to release considerable pressure off the Eastern Front, it is conceivable such a move by the West would have been enough to push Stalin to conclude a separate peace. Without Russian forces the western allies would still have had air and sea superiority and kept England afloat, but certainly could not have liberated Europe by themselves.
There remains the argument that the western allies could have waited for the completion of the atomic bomb. Certainly those who argue it was justified to drop nukes on Japan could not object to dropping some on Germany. Yet the consequences of waiting for the bomb would have been that the war in Europe would have probably lasted until at least August 1945, which in fact was when the 2 bombs were dropped on Japan. The obvious consequences being that the war would have been prolonged, much more people would have died, and that the war in the pacific would also have taken longer as the Russians would not have been ready to attack Manchuria as quickly (as the fight against Germany would have been prolonged) and the U.S. would have had to expend much more time and effort to build additional nukes to drop on Japan.
If the argument is simply one of wanting to spare U.S. and British lives then not having a campaign in Western Europe would certainly have done so. Yet regarding most other countries, Axis or Allied, or regarding soldiers or civilian, Jews or Chinese, etc, all of them would haves suffered and lost countless more people. Either way if you look at U.S. and British casualties, military and civilian, for the war they suffered much less, in
numbers and proportionately, compared to most nations, big and small, powerful or weak. For a few examples the Soviets lost at least 20 million soldiers and civilians, the Chinese arguably lost 10 million, a small country like Poland lost roughly 5 million, and of course 6 million Jews died during the holocaust. Meanwhile Britain and America got off lightly in comparison with less than half a million lost each.
As for the controversy whether or not the western allies could have invaded Northern France earlier than 1944 there are several reasons to suggest it was unlikely. From an aerial point of view the Luftwaffe was not decisively weakened until the Spring of 1944 thanks to the introduction of P-51 Mustangs and fuel tanks which allowed them to escort American heavy bombers to Germany and back. This means that had the allies tried to invade France in 1943 their air forces would have had to fight a still potent Luftwaffe in the air while simultaneously trying to cover the invasion, interdict German reinforcements from reaching the battlefield, as well as providing close air support to troops on the ground.
It also means that the strategic bombing campaign to soften up German communications and logistics in Western Europe to delay German reinforcements to Normandy would have been much more difficult to conduct, both thanks to the lack of long range fuel tanks, and because much of the navigational aids and bombing practices which aided the strategic and tactical fighter bombers had not been sufficiently developed or tested by then. It was only after the aerial battles over Germany and France in the spring of 1944 that German airpower was thoroughly neutralized in the west and thus the allies had free rein to use their tactical and strategic airpower more or less unhindered to prepare for the invasion, launch the invasion, and dominate the fighting in Normandy.
From a naval point of view an invasion in 1943 was also unlikely. In fact the U-Boat menace was only defeated in the summer of 1943, which finally allowed the allies to change priorities from just keeping England alive to building up significant forces of U.S. troops in the British isles to even contemplate an invasion of Europe. Indeed it was only in 1944 that enough U.S. forces had been sent to England that such an invasion was even feasible. Additionally, the specialized landing craft that were needed to land troops on the beaches only become plentiful in 1944.
Plus there was the consideration that the western allies did not even agree on the objective of invading Western Europe, let alone commence serious planning, until after the “Tehran conference” in November 1943. Finally, it could be argued that the western allies did not have enough combat experience in 1943 to land and defeat the German army in France. American forces in early 1943 were mostly green and only had limited experience fighting the Germans in North Africa. It could be argued that even the British were not well prepared despite the fact they had years of experience. Given the often mediocre performance of their army in the “North African campaign” this was no small consideration.
It should noted that the experience of the western allies in Sicily and Italy was often brutal and the conduct of their armies in such battles as Salerno, Anzio and Monte Casino is often described by historians as less than charitable. General Omar Bradley, who had been an advocate of landing in France as early as possible, quickly realized after the “Torch landings” in North Africa that the allies were not ready to invade France in 1943.
As for the planning of operation “Overlord” there were many components. The first consideration was where the landings should take place. Due to logistical constraints and the range of allied warplanes the viable places to land were restricted to around Calais and Normandy. The advantages of Calais was that is was very close to the British isles, only 21 miles in fact, the terrain was generally open (and thus facilitated mobile warfare) and that Calais was much closer than Normandy to Germany and the Ruhr, its industrial heartland. Conversely, Normandy was further from the British isles, much further from the Ruhr, and littered with less favorable terrain for mobile operations.
However, there were two reasons, in the end decisive, why the allies chose Normandy instead. Firstly, the Germans expected that the allies would land in Calais and had thus massed the majority of their western forces there and secondly the fortifications on the Atlantic wall were strongest there while they were considerably weaker in Normandy. Given these considerations it was wise the allies chose Normandy.
Once the landing zone had been chosen the allies had to plan pre-invasion operations, the landings themselves, and how to fight the battle in Normandy.
The operations mounted leading up to the invasion were crucial for the success of the campaign. As the allies had overwhelming naval supremacy in 1944 and had decisively defeated the U-Boat menace in mid-1943 there was little to worry about the naval situation. However, in early 1944 the allies did have to worry about at least 3 major issues prior to invasion. These included wearing down the German air force in Western Europe to guarantee aerial supremacy, convincing the Germans that they would land around Calais instead of Normandy to prevent the German army from concentrating its forces in Normandy, and destroying or neutralizing communications and logistics in Western Europe to isolate Normandy from, or at least delay, German reinforcements.
How the German Luftwaffe was worn down in Western Europe has been briefly described above. Needless to say the Luftwaffe bled itself white trying to stop the American day time bomber fleets from decimating Germany. While the Germans had held the upper hand in 1943 when U.S. fighters did not have the range to escort their bombers to Germany and back the situation changed drastically in early 1944 with the introduction of long range fuel tanks to allied fighters, especially the P-51 Mustangs. Not only were these fighters superior to the German Me 109s and FW 190s but the Americans also enjoyed numerical superiority. This, along with the fact that the American airmen at this point generally had more training time, meant the Germans were at a severe disadvantage in the air. The end result being that the German planes were shot out of the sky in disproportionate numbers.
While it is true that German production allowed them to replace their fighters much of the time the real issue was that the Luftwaffe was losing its best pilots and combined with the shorter training programs the Germans had versus the Americans meant that more planes were being shot down in greater numbers as time went on. Thus by the summer of 1944 not only were the western air forces much stronger and more experienced but their opponent across the English Channel was weaker in terms of numbers, experience and quality. Perhaps the best examples of this was that on “D-Day” itself the allied air forces launched nearly 14,000 aerial sorties vs. 260 by the Luftwaffe.
The next major issue facing the allies, how to convince the Germans they would be invading near Calais instead of Normandy, was vital for the success of the whole operation. If the Germans had correctly identified Normandy as the landing site they could have stationed the majority of their troops and tanks there. Either the invasion and ground campaign in Normandy would have been much lengthier and bloodier than it ended up being or the Germans might have defeated the invasion outright. To fool the Germans the allies concocted perhaps the most famous and sophisticated deception plan in the history of war.
As Abram Shulsky wrote in Silent Warfare “the prerequisites of successful deception is blocking true signals and manufacturing false ones.” In the case of “Overlord” this meant hiding both the build up of forces in South West England as well as the indications that Normandy was the site of the planned invasion while simultaneously creating the illusion of built up forces in South East England and implying the real target of invasion was Calais. Regarding the former a major effort was given to camouflaging and hiding the considerable forces in South West England, limiting signals communications in this area, enforcing a blackout at night, etc. In the case of the latter a huge army of dummy tanks, vehicles and supplies were placed in the open in South East England. As well, a considerable volume of fake signals communications was used in this area, and German reconnaissance planes were not seriously interdicted from viewing the area. Significantly General Patton, who had been sidelined since Sicily for slapping a soldier, and who was arguably the western General the Germans feared the most, was put in charge of a massive fake army just across from Calais.
A major coup at deceiving the Germans was the “double cross system” which involved using the German spies captured in England to transmit false information suggesting that Calais was the target of invasion. Finally, in the lead up to the invasion the area around Calais was subjected to a disproportionate amount of aerial reconnaissance and bombing versus Normandy to settle any remaining doubts for the Germans. After the invasion itself the emphasis of the allied deception effort switched to encouraging the Germans to believe that the landings in Normandy was just a feint and that the major allied effort would still mounted around Calais. Part of this effort involved showing the Germans the allies had considerably more forces than they actually had. Indeed, the Germans thought the western allies had nearly 90 divisions in England to support the invasions when in reality they only had 37 initially. As the German army in Western Europe had 60 divisions this illusion was necessary to keep them from concentrating against the allied bridgehead in Normandy. Yet perhaps the number of German divisions was not as serious as it would appear as they were significantly undermanned, due to losses, compared to the allies’ divisions.
In the event the allied deception plan, before, during, and after the invasion, succeeded beyond all expectations. The Germans massed the lion-share of their army around Calais before the landings, and even after the invasion kept most of it there until the allies broke out of Normandy into the French countryside and thus the battle for Western Europe had been effectively lost. The Germans even fell for a bogus allied plan suggesting there would be landings in Norway and stationed 400,000 troops there that ended up sitting out the rest of the war.
The third major issue in the lead up to the invasion for the allies was destroying or neutralizing the key communication and logistics hubs in Western Europe to isolate Normandy and interdict, or at least delay, German reinforcements from reaching the area, and thus allow the allies to build up forces in Normandy quicker than the enemy. To accomplish this feat the allies used their heavy strategic bombers as well as smaller fighter bombers in the weeks prior to the invasion. The strategic bombers focused on the railways, specifically marshaling and repair yards, as well as coastal areas and German air defenses, while the fighter bombers targeted vital bridges and tunnels.
Just getting the heads of the strategic bombing forces, Air Marshal Harris and General Spaatz, to relinquish their bombers to attack such targets was a hard fought battle by the Supreme Allied Command of the invasion, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Both of these airmen were convinced that strategic bombing could win the war on its own, either by destroying German morale or attacking vital choke-points in the German war effort such as oil facilities. They guarded their bombers jealously and it took a threat by Eisenhower to resign to pressure Churchill and other leaders to get the airmen to relent. However, even after this Churchill further delayed the use heavy bombers because he was afraid that the projected collateral damage of the bombing campaign would result in significant French civilian casualties. It would take pressure from President Roosevelt to convince Churchill to give in. At this point it was early May and the allied air forces had less than a month to complete their objectives. Fortunately though the bombers had already been attacking railway communications in Eastern France and the Ruhr and in the event the reduced time to strike around Normandy did not significantly effect the results.
Even so it is debatable if the heavy bombers were even effective in their goals. While they did reduce rail traffic in France by two thirds the Germans compensated by prioritizing the rails for military use and employed mobile repair teams. The collateral damage of the massive air strikes was between 10,000-15,000 French civilian deaths and considerably more injured.
However, while the results of the heavy bombers were disappointing the much fewer, and considerably more precise, strikes mounted by the fighter bombers were far more decisive and cost significantly fewer civilian lives. These knocked out 74 vital bridges and tunnels and effectively sealed off Normandy from the rest of the country and would seriously delay German units reaching the battlefield. Indeed, what would have normally taken hours to traverse ended up taking days. This combined with allied aerial supremacy that made the movement of vast forces in daylight suicide meant that it took longer for German forces to reach Normandy from Eastern France than it did for the same forces moving from Russia to Eastern France. This gave the allies a key advantage regarding logistics and during the “Battle of Normandy” they would receive reinforcements and supplies much quicker than the Germans.
Initial planning for the invasion itself began in 1943 under British General Frederick Morgan. However, serious planning and the real impetus to launch the operation only began after the “Tehran conference” where President Roosevelt and Stalin effectively bullied Churchill into committing to invade France in 1944.
The original plan was modest and consisted of merely three divisions landing on the beaches of Normandy. The American General Eisenhower, who would be Supreme Allied Commander of the invasion, and British General Bernard Montgomery, who would conduct the actual invasion and campaign in Normandy, found the forces committed in this plan too small and the frontage to be attacked too narrow. They ultimately decided to expand the invasion force to 5 divisions to invade the beaches via amphibious assault while 3 air borne divisions would drop on the sides to distract the Germans, secure the invasion’s flanks, and take key bridges and junctions to limit the effectiveness of any German counterattack. The amphibious force itself consisted of two American divisions, one landing on Utah beach on the Cotentin Peninsula and the other at Omaha beach, and two British and one Canadian divisions landing at Sword, Gold, and Juno beaches. The 3 Airborne divisions consisted of the 101st and 82nd American airborne divisions landing near the American beaches, and the 6th British airborne near the British beaches.
The basic strategy of the campaign was for the British to take the city of Caen (Normandy’s biggest city), hopefully the first day, gain a secure position to allow the build up of troops and capture airfields, and then hold down the lion-share of Germans forces in their sector. It was hoped this would allow the Americans to take Cherbourg (among the largest ports in Europe) to ease the supply situation, and then move south, break out of Normandy and rout the German army in France. After the capture of Paris the campaign would be over and the allies would head for Germany and the Ruhr. In the event progress would be much slower and costlier than anticipated.
Regarding the leadership of the campaign the allies made the right choices. While Eisenhower, who would be in overall command, had little combat experience he was a solid organizer and diplomat who knew how to command respect and could make difficult subordinates and allies work together. These qualities may seem trivial but in fact were of the utmost importance given the significant rivalry and distrust between the American and British forces and due to the fact that most of the other potential candidates were either prima donnas, lacked tact, or at least did not understand the diplomatic niceties the held the western alliance together. General Marshall was modest enough, but not as diplomatic as Eisenhower (as well President Roosevelt felt he was irreplaceable in Washington to organize the war effort at home). General Alanbrooke, Britain’s top soldier and arguably the allies’ best strategist, was perhaps too brilliant and often impatient with the countless soldiers and politicians who did not possess the strategic foresight he was blessed with. Indeed, his war diaries are filled with caustic criticism of his American allies, his colleagues, and even his political superiors. General Montgomery had considerable combat experience and was well qualified to execute the kind of set-piece battle the first part of the campaign in Normandy would essentially be. However, his well known arrogance and self-promotion alienated allies and colleagues alike. General Patton, the western General the Germans feared the most was likewise a prima donna and a loud mouth.
With hindsight Eisenhower was the obvious choice. The Supreme Allied Commander was in reality a political, and organizational position, and as long as he had competent subordinates to conduct the actual battles Eisenhower’s lack of combat experience was no real issue.
As stated above the conduct of the actual invasion force and the “Normandy Campaign” was bestowed to General Montgomery. This was a good compromise given the set piece nature of the invasion, and Eisenhower’s relative lack of combat experience. However, it would be an understatement to say that Montgomery was controversial. Besides his obviously arrogant demeanor, many felt as though he was inflexible, cautious, and slow. During the “North African campaign” many senior officers felt as though his caution allowed Rommel’s army to escape early annihilation. While a case can be made that Montgomery’s tendency to micromanage often produced indecisive results on the battlefield, it was arguably needed in the first phases of the Normandy campaign where overwhelming force and circumspection was needed against a German army that had more experience, better tanks and enjoyed terrain that favored the defense. However, the charges against Montgomery that he was overly cautious perhaps deserves less censure considering he had to manage an ever decreasing pool of manpower for the British army, as well as the fact that the German army had consistently bested the British during the first years of the war.
The other obvious candidate to conduct the actual invasion and campaign was General Patton. General Patton’s philosophy of war was the opposite of Montgomery’s, it was aggressive, risky, and mobile, whereas Montgomery’s was slow, cautious and attritional. While obviously talented General Patton was arguably not well suited to the first phase of the campaign where caution, attrition, and overwhelming force were the order of the day. Considering Patton would have preferred attacking the Calais region where the majority of German forces and best defenses were located had he commanded the invasion the result would have been much bloodier and riskier than under Montgomery. However, none of this suggests that Patton was not a good general, nor that Montgomery was a better one. While Montgomery was the right choice to conduct the invasion and first stage of the campaign, Patton’s aggressive style meant that he was the best choice to conduct the pursuit, and rout, of the German forces after the breakout of Normandy had been achieved. In the event Patton would decimate the German army in France once he was unleashed upon it after the Americans broke out of Normandy.
Operating under Montgomery was General Omar Bradley, who would control the U.S. First Army, and General Dempsey, who would control the British 2nd Army. Both of these armies were part of the 21st Army Group commanded directly by Montgomery. Both officers were well respected and popular with their men. When enough American forces had landed later in the campaign these would split into the 12th American Group under Bradley while the 2nd British army and newly formed 1st Canadian army would merge to become the new 21st army group under Montgomery. At this point Eisenhower would relieve Montgomery and take command of all allied forces. In the event Eisenhower would only relieve Montgomery once the campaign was over.
While the allies were preparing to invade France the German army across the Channel was preparing for the massive assault. The overall commander of the German forces in Western Europe was the old fashioned Field Marshall Von Rundstedt. While generally seen as competent according to most sources he was somewhat cautious. Indeed, many historians have blamed his circumspection during the “Battle of France” for giving the British army the chance to escape, as he and Hitler had ordered the German Panzers to halt and recuperate during the part of the campaign where they could have seized the channel ports before the the allies reached them to evacuate. He, like the rest of the German high command who fell for the allied deception effort so thoroughly, believed the allies would land around Calais.
Yet despite having nearly 60 divisions at his disposal he had to spread them out along the coast to guard against raids and just in case the invasion occurred somewhere else. However, the real issue was where to station the panzer (armored) divisions and how to use them against the allied invasion. Von Rundstedt, like much of the conservative officers in the German army, favored holding the Panzers in a centralized position, and once the location of the invasion had been determined, and when a considerable portion of the Allied forces had landed, too throw the bulk of them against it.
His subordinate, who would directly command the German forces opposing the invasion, was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox.” Rommel was, and probably remains, Germany’s most popular General. He was bold, aggressive and always took the initiative. He was somewhat disliked by the older German generals for his brashness, but ironically he was also well respected, even liked, by much of the allies. He also had an extremely impressive record, both as a young officer in “World War 1″ by captured thousands of allied soldiers due to his cunning, and as a General in “World War 2″ by consistently defeated significantly stronger forces in France and then in North Africa. Montgomery, who would face him in Normandy, had finally routed him in North Africa, though not without first amassing vastly superior resources.
Rommel’s view of how to defeat the allied invasion differed from Rundstedt’s. Whereas Rundstedt wanted to hold back the German tanks to counter attack en mass once the allies had come ashore in significant numbers, Rommel believed the allies could only be defeated at the water’s edge and wanted to keep the Panzer divisions near the beaches of the likely invasion points (mostly near Calais, but also some at Normandy and other locations just in case). While Rundstedt’s argument made sense from the point of view of saving the Panzers for a massed blow against any allied bridgehead, Rommel argued that allied aerial supremacy would inevitably wreak havoc among such armored divisions massing to attack it after it had been established. Having seen, unlike many of the German generals stations in France, the power of the western allied air forces in North Africa at decimating his supply lines, as well as breaking up German assaults against tenuous allied bridgeheads in Italy Rommel was undoubtedly right regarding this strategic debate. While there is no guarantee that the Germans would have succeeded in pushing the allies back into the sea on “D-Day” had their armored forces been stationed near the beaches given the overwhelming numbers and firepower the allies devoted to the assault there is little doubt such a strategy stood a better chance of success than Rundstedt’s. Considering the allies’ superior capabilities to reinforce Normandy quicker than the Germans and that once they had established themselves ashore their air force would have stopped any significant German counter attack, the idea of holding back the German tanks was strategic suicide.
In the end it was Hitler, as always, who broke the impasse and decided the course of action. It was a compromise that suited neither school of thought. Most of the valuable Panzer divisions would be held in reserve, some would be deployed near Calais, a few in Southern France and other locations, and a single one would be deployed near Normandy. Thus Germany’s armor in France would be too dispersed to either mass for a theoretical counter-attack against a built up allied bridgehead, or to defeat any initial invasion on the beaches themselves. Perhaps most absurdly the release of the armor reserves for combat could only be granted by Hitler himself. In the event the allies invaded in the early morning of June 6th and as none of Hitler’s subordinates bothered telling him before he woke up in the afternoon precious hours were lost. Even worse for the Germans was that since the allied deception plan had worked so comprehensively they believed that the landings in Normandy were a diversion and kept most of the reserves in place to defend Calais.
Regarding the planning of the amphibious aspects and the initial part of the “Normandy Campaign” the architects of the operation kept in mind the many lessons that had been learned, often at significant human cost, during amphibious assaults launched earlier in the war. While the pacific campaign obviously involved countless such endeavors the amphibious assaults launched in the European theatre of operations were more relevant as the topography, nature of the fighting, and the enemy was significantly different than in the pacific. Besides a few commando raids launched in France and Norway the major amphibious assaults launched by the allies in Europe prior to “D-Day” were the “Dieppe raid” in August 1942, the “Torch landings” in Algeria and Morocco in November 1942, the invasion of Sicily in May 1943, the invasion of Italy in September 1943 and the landings at Anzio in January 1944. The lessons learned from these operations were crucial for the successful outcome in Normandy and warrant detailed analysis.
The “Dieppe raid” was launched in August 1942 due to a combination of factors including the British wanting to appease the Russians, the Canadian government wanting to see its troops going into action before the Americans, and to test the feasibility of seizing a port via direct assault. In the event the Russians were not impressed, the mostly Canadian force suffered heavy casualties, and the attempt to take the port failed abysmally. The main lesson of the raid was to illustrate, both in planning and execution, how not to conduct an amphibious assault.
The main landing site, which the author had a chance to tour in 2004, was poorly chosen with cliffs dominating the flanks, a shoreline with an incline where the invading troops could not see the city or port until they had climbed it, and a beach covered with countless small, sharp stones that immobilized most of the tanks that made it ashore. The plan also suffered from the lack of a sufficient aerial or naval bombardment (thanks to Air Chief Marshal Harris’s stubbornness and the Admiralty’s fear of German airpower operating near the English Channel) which ultimately neither kept the Germans’ heads down, or neutralized their defenses. The landing craft were also generally inadequate to land soldiers, tanks and supplies quickly, or efficiently, on the beaches. For the troops and tanks that did manage to advance some distance up the beaches there were tank traps, obstacles, and other defenses that stalled their progress. The creation of specialized tanks and deploying combat engineers to blow up such defenses would not be introduced for quite some time. Finally the element of surprise was lost due to French double agents and a German naval convoy that ran into the invading armada early in the operation.
Perhaps no amphibious assault launched in Europe during the war is more controversial than the “Dieppe raid.” It was by far the most disastrous, and most poorly executed. There was much to learn from it: The futility of attacking a port head on, the need for extensive naval and aerial bombardments, the necessity of accurate intelligence regarding the landing zones, the importance of specialized landing craft, the consideration for specialized tanks and combat engineers to clear beach obstacles and defenses, and achieving the element of surprise. After the war the British and Canadians predictably blamed each other, while some like Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had ultimate responsibility for the raid, suggested that “for every man who died in Dieppe at least 10 more must have been spared in Normandy in 1944.” However, the most disappointing thing about the raid was that many of its lessons were not implemented in later assaults and had to learned again before the Normandy landings.
The “Torch landings,” which gave the allies a foothold in the Western Mediterranean, and the invasion of Sicily, which toppled Mussolini from power, were not nearly as disastrous due to the lack of enemy resistance in the former, and the landings being unopposed in the latter. The main lesson from Torch, which had been apparent at Dieppe, was the need to create specialized landing craft, especially to quickly land troops and tanks on the beaches (as the landings there had been scattered and time consuming), while perhaps the main lesson from the invasion of Sicily was to not fly gliders and paratroopers directly above the invading armada (hence why the aerial assault on “D-Day” was mounted on the flanks) as many seamen misidentified them as enemy units and opened fired and caused many casualties. Yet perhaps the criticism of not having sufficient specialized landing craft at Torch is unfair as the interval between Dieppe and Torch was less than 3 months, which is hardly a realistic timeframe to develop, test, produce, and deploy such equipment.
The invasion of Italy in September 1943, especially around Salerno, and the assault around Anzio in January 1944 were more dangerous affairs and edged towards failure, once again illustrating that an allied invasion of France in 1943 would have been a very risky venture. The invasion of Italy began with a British attack across the Strait of Messina to the toe of Italy, followed by the main attack at Salerno a few days later. The former attack led by Montgomery met little resistance but his advance to relieve the allies at Salerno was slow due to a lack of transport and his ever cautious nature. Meanwhile, even though the invasion at Salerno did not accomplish all of its initial objectives, not least due to lack of surprise as well as the fact the allies did not even mount a preliminary bombardment, it managed to establish two beach heads on a broad front. However, the front was too broad as the two beaches were too far away to support each other and thanks to the poor supply situation the beach heads were severely undermanned initially. Additionally, the topography benefited the German defenders more so than the allies, as it would during most of the fighting in Italy.
Being able to reinforce the landing area quicker than the allies Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander in Italy, amassed significant forces and tried to overrun the beaches before Montgomery’s forces arrived. Due to their superior numbers and having more combat experience they came close to doing so but in the end the allies’ supremacy in firepower (artillery, aerial and naval) pushed them back and saved the situation. Realizing he couldn’t push the allies back into the sea Kesselring retreated to the Gustav defensive line constructed by the Germans south of Rome to delay the allied advance up the Italian peninsula.
The assault around Anzio was launched in early 1944 to outflank the Gustav Line, to force the Germans to split their forces and hopefully either allow the allies to overrun a weakened Gustav line, or move onto Rome. The force landed around Anzio was too small, initially only 36,000 men, to accomplish anything significant and the Commander of the force was not given express orders to quickly seize the high ground around the beachhead or act aggressively against the Germans. While the landings achieved complete surprise, unlike at Salerno, the passive conduct of the allies around Anzio enabled the cunning Kesselring to seize the high ground around the beaches (which allowed the Germans to see and shell any allied position), reinforce the area quicker than the allies and launch brutal counter attacks that once again nearly defeated the allied lodgment. Unsurprisingly the allies were once more saved by their superior firepower and the battle around Anzio degenerated into stalemate for the next few months.
The lessons from Salerno and Anzio were as vital as those from Dieppe. Obvious lessons from the latter, including using an overwhelming preliminary bombardment, and the importance of achieving surprise were noted more thoroughly. More crucial though was the fact that the numbers of troops in the initial landings were not strong enough, and that on both occasions the Germans were able to reinforce their armies around the beach heads quicker than the allies. Additionally, the practice of assaulting on a broad front, as at Salerno made sense to land more troops quicker and to give the Germans a bigger target to attack. However, such a broad assault would only work if there were enough troops to man the whole front (as the gap between the allied forces at Salerno had allowed the Germans to attack them piecemeal).
Solving the broad front dilemma and reinforcing allied soldiers were not hard tasks. The allies simply needed more ships, especially specialized landing craft, considerably more American forces transported across the Atlantic, and more experience in amphibious operations. Additionally, as either directly assaulting a port, or the hope of capturing one early on after an amphibious assault was seen as unlikely the allies created two massive artificial ports via old merchant ships and piers (called Mulberries) and would tow them across the English Channel after “D-Day” to ease the supply situation.
As for the need to prevent the Germans from quickly reinforcing the battlefield around any beachhead, the allies began to experiment with interdiction efforts via airpower to slow German reinforcements during the “Italian Campaign.” While the lack of sufficient aircraft and experience and the topography of Italy made interdiction efforts in Italy mostly mediocre they did pave the way, as stated earlier, towards the successful interdiction campaign launched before and during the “Normandy Campaign.” This along with the deception campaign designed to initially convince the Germans that Calais was the target of invasion, and later that Normandy was a mere diversion, decisively gave the allies the advantage of reinforcements and supplies during “D-Day” and the “Normandy Campaign.”
The invasion itself was set for June 5th, 1944. However, during the 4th the senior allied meteorologist estimated that the weather during the 5th would be unfavorable for invasion and the allies decided to postpone the assault at least 24 hours. Yet the next day the meteorologist suggested that a window of opportunity to invade existed for 48 hours after the 5th. He believed that the next earliest opportunity to invade afterwards would be 2 weeks later. Eisenhower queried the rest of his staff, Montgomery was willing to go, the airmen were hesitant, but Admiral Ramsey, who was in charge of the naval effort said that if there was no firm decision within half an hour they would have to stand down. After a short pause Eisenhower, who bore ultimate responsibility, sanctioned the invasion by simply saying “okay, let’s go.” It was fortuitous that Eisenhower did not postpone the invasion for two weeks as in the event the worst storm the English Channel had witnessed in 40 years occurred and it would have been disastrous for the allied armada.
Ironically thanks to the poor weather the Germans were convinced that no invasion would occur. Indeed, the German navy canceled their daily patrol of the Channel, much of the senior leadership in France travelled to Rennes to conduct war-games, and Rommel left for Germany to celebrate his wife’s birthday.
As stated above the allies’ plan was to land 5 divisions on the beaches of Normandy, as well as dropping 3 divisions of paratroopers on the sides of the amphibious force to confuse the Germans, protect the invasion’s flanks, and seize important bridges, roads and junctions to frustrate German counter-attacks. The British would hopefully take Caen the first day, secure a good defensive position in the east, and make feint attacks to suggest the main allied assault would be directed from here to breakthrough to the Seine river. This was designed to ease pressure off the Americans to allow them to focus on taking Cherbourg to ease the supply situation, and then move mouth south and breakout of Normandy. Thereupon the objective would be to encircle, or at least defeat, the German forces in France and the Low Countries, invade Germany and overrun the Ruhr, and with the Russians advancing from the east, occupy the country and end the war in Europe. Like many plans in war it was simple, direct and strategically sound.
However, as Clausewitz noted “everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” While the plan for the “Normandy campaign” was easy enough its execution would prove to be much more complicated than originally hoped. While it is unfair to seriously criticize the western allies given hindsight and the fact they overwhelmingly won the contest in Normandy, there is little doubt their estimations on how the campaign would develop was overly optimistic. The hope Caen would fall the first day, that Cherbourg could be captured with its port facilities largely intact, the idea that they could make swift advances in such a small, enclosed, area full of Germans soldiers who were ordered not to retreat an inch in topography that clearly favored the defense (especially in the American sector) were all examples of wishful thinking. With hindsight the campaign in Normandy was always more likely to have evolved into an unsophisticated battle of attrition than swift maneuvers conducted by great captains of history.
Given the relative advantages of the western allies versus the German forces this seems inevitable. While there are exceptions and it often fluctuated during the conflict it is generally true that throughout the war the German ground forces were better trained, better equipped (in quality, not quantity), had more combat experience, and when not hamstrung by Hitler or his political sycophants, better led. To compensate for this the allies resorted to better production (superior numbers), logistics (superior mobility and resupply), intelligence (both in knowing the enemy’s intentions and concealing their own) and especially firepower (air power, artillery and often even naval bombardments). Simply put the German ground forces were man for man and tank for tank superior to the western allies and to compensate for this the allies used numerical superiority and firepower to win battles, and their superior intelligence and logistics to supply their forces quicker and deceive the Germans of their intentions. This is how the battle in Normandy was won and while there is no lack of armchair generals who argue the German army was better than its western equivalents they seem to forget that in the end the the latter’s methods of waging war were ultimately superior to what turned out to be narrow, outdated, Prussian militarism.
The “Normandy Campaign” commenced on June 6th, 1944 and was supported by approximately 12,000 aircraft and 7000 vessels, while nearly 160,000 allied soldiers crossed over to France the 1st day. The initial assault was made by the paratroopers and gliders who landed on the flanks with the amphibious assault following a few hours later. A massive naval and air bombardment preceded the latter forces landings, much directed at Normandy but most of which was directed around Calais as part of the allies’ ongoing deception campaign.
Despite being scattered hopelessly across Normandy the airborne troops managed to accomplish their goals of confusing the Germans and capturing vital points to protect the beaches. Regarding the beaches the British and Canadian forces at Sword, Beach, and Juno did well and did not suffer heavy casualties thanks in no small part to the specialized tanks that had been developed after Dieppe to clear the beaches. However, the counter attack by the 21st Panzer division (the only tank division stationed near Normandy), and the unrealistic plan to take Caen the first day of the invasion would frustrate the allies efforts in the campaign for weeks to come. Meanwhile the Americans got lucky at Utah beach when they landed in the wrong spot, which had less troops and defenses, and established a respectable perimeter and suffered the least casualties that day.
However, at Omaha beach the Americans had considerable trouble and nearly lost their foothold. The first waves were slaughtered on the beaches and little progress was made until commanders convinced their men to fight or die, as Colonel George Taylor famously declared “there are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die” and several destroyers came in close to bombard the Germans. The slaughter on Omaha was a combination of bad luck and bad planning. The defenses here were the strongest in Normandy, allied intelligence had missed that the Germans had been recently reinforced, the high ground overlooking the beach decimated the U.S. forces, and most of the tanks in the initial assault sent to the beach sank when their landing craft collapsed in the channel. Additionally, the naval bombardment was too short and the bombers dropped their loads too far inland because they were afraid of hitting their own men. Fortunately despite the horrific losses the U.S. forces rallied and secured a tenuous beachhead.
At the end of the 6th of June the allies were cautiously optimistic. While they had not taken Caen and the Omaha beachhead was less than ideal, they had secured a bridgehead on the continent and given their advantages in airpower and logistics had every reason to be confident of pushing inland and defeating the Germans. As for the Germans despite the landings they were still convinced this was a diversion and the main assault would still occur near Calais. However, they had not stopped the invasion on the beaches and thanks to allied air power that would break up their panzer formations in the next days, and throughout the campaign (showing that Rommel had been right in his recommendations about deploying the tanks prior to invasion), it slowly dawned on the Germans fighting in Normandy, if not the leadership in Berlin, that the invasion could not be contained or repulsed and that the war was lost.
From this point until the end of July the campaign in Normandy evolved into a slow battle of attrition. The British and Canadians’ objectives were to take Caen, hold down most German forces in the region, and convince them that the major allied effort to break out would come from their front. Meanwhile the Americans sought to take Cherbourg to ease the allies’ logistics then turn south to break out of Normandy. The Germans went from trying to mass their forces to throw the allies back into the sea to desperately trying to contain the ever swelling numbers of troops and equipment the allies landed in Normandy.
The immediate aim of the allies was to link up the beach heads, bring in more troops and supplies, and secure their positions on land against counter-attacks. Thanks to the strategic bombing campaign that decimated France’s infrastructure the allies were able to reinforce their army quicker, and their air supremacy frustrated any chance of the Germans maneuvering and counter-attacking during the day, the allies faced no major threat against their lodgments and managed to connect all beachheads by June 12th.
However, despite safeguarding their position it would take significantly longer for the allies to accomplish their next objectives. While the U.S. effort to take Cherbourg was not unduly time consuming, being secured on the 26th, the Germans sabotaged it enough (as they would do for most ports) to render its importance for logistics less than adequate. Yet this was the only significant bright spot for the allies during June as the Americans were stalled from breaking out of Normandy due to the closed in terrain comprising of flooded areas and bocage in their sector, the British and Canadians became bogged down trying to take Caen, and the brutal storm that hit the channel two weeks after the invasion destroyed one of the two Mulberry ports and set back the allies logistics and resupply effort significantly. Indeed from June 19-22nd the allies rate of resupply fell from 22,000 tons to 1000 per day and to would take until the end of July to recuperate.
While the Americans struggled with the Germans in the Bocage country Montgomery was desperate to take Caen and the area around it. Having failed to take Caen the first day Montgomery went on to launch several offensives from then until the Americans broke out of Normandy in late July. These operations can be described briefly.
The operations were generally designed to either take, or encircle Caen, and then later to secure the surrounding area, wear down the German army in Normandy, and distract them from attacking the U.S. forces in the West. They were preceded by disproportionate firepower (often with hundreds of heavy bombers), often made significant initial gains, but were usually checked by the German defenders. Given allied air supremacy and numerical superiority several critics, then and since, have suggested that the slow progress of Montgomery at Caen and the vital lodgment around it before the Americans broke out of Normandy was an indication of his excess caution at best, or being a mediocre general at worst. Yet while Montgomery was often caution and was certainly not the great captain he pretended to be there were many legitimate reasons why the British and Canadian forces in Normandy did not achieve the spectacular advances hoped for.
As stated above the German troops and tanks were generally better than their allied counter parts. Additionally, just as at Stalingrad, Monte Casino and other urban battlefields in the “Second World War”, the effort to dislodge the Germans from Caen was bound to be slow and costly. Perhaps more importantly, the Germans defenders around Caen deployed defense in depth and were masters of camouflage. For example, when the British launched “Operation Goodwood” after having taken Caen the Germans defensive zone generally consisted of 5 lines. This included:
1). A light infantry screen to absorb the artillery, naval and air bombardments.
2). A small tank force to launch an immediate counterattack.
3). Small villages full of infantry with anti-tank weapons.
4). Several 88 mm anti-tank batteries stationed on the Bourguebus ridge (which dominated the battlefield).
5). Another infantry and tank reserve behind this.
If you look at this deployment it is ideal to stop the sort of attacks the British were launching. The first line, which would absorb most of the initial allied firepower, was lightly held and not expected to stop the advance. If the British initial attack did not go well the 2nd line of German tanks would either stop it, or at least fragment its cohesion. However, if the attack continued it was hoped either the 3rd line of anti-tank personnel in the villages, or the batteries on the 4th line on Bourguebus ridge, would end it. Failing that, a last ditch counter-attack by fresh forces in the 5th line (who could be used at any point in the operation) could be launched. Considering that the German troops generally had more combat experience, that their tanks were superior, that they were camouflaged and fighting on terrain they knew, such a deployment compensated for their lack of airpower and numerical inferiority.
However, the main reason the British and Canadians had such a rough time in the campaign was that the Germans massed the majority of their forces, especially their tanks, against them instead of the Americans. This was due to the fact that the area around Caen was more suited to mobile warfare and because it was closer to the Seine and thus a breakout from the allied beachhead in this area was seen as more disastrous than from the American sector with broken terrain and further away from the Seine. If you look at the statistics of the “Normandy Campaign” most German troops and the vast majority of German tanks were deployed against the British and Canadians. By June 13th the Germans had 4 Panzer divisions near Caen and hardly any tanks confronting the Americans. By the end of June there were 700 tanks there compared to 140 opposing the Americans, and at the end of July (right before the U.S. forces broke out of Normandy) there was still 650 German tanks around Caen and 190 confronting the Americans.
This was actually what the allies had hoped for, the whole concept of the campaign in Normandy was for the British to hold off the main German forces to allow the Americans to break into the countryside and then encircle them. Though it is obvious that it would have been better if Montgomery had taken Caen the first day, or if he had secured more territory around the city earlier to gain a better position or allow allied airfields to be deployed in France faster, the fact remains that his main purpose was holding down the lion-share of the German forces in Normandy to allow the Americans to win the campaign. While the British and Canadian campaign in Normandy was an un-glorified catalogue of small advances and attrition it was completely vital and no less important than the subsequent American breakout, and then encirclement, of the German forces.
As the British and Canadians were struggling around Caen the Americans, after having taken Cherbourg, tried advancing south to break out of Normandy. However, progress was slow and costly due to several factors. Despite having airpower and material supremacy the Americans found it hard to dislodge the German defenders from the Bocage terrain, with its large hedgerows that concealed them. Besides this the Americans also had to deal with flooded areas and marshlands. Additionally, the Germans, just like around Caen, adopted defense in depth. Finally, the American advance also suffered due to the small scale and broad nature of Bradley’s early attacks which allowed the numerically inferior Germans to defeat them rather easily.
To regain the initiative the Americans introduced a few stratagems. Initially they adopted “marching fire” which meant they would advance slowly and shoot at every conceivable hiding spot the Germans could use. While this did allow them to move forward it was also exceedingly slow, very costly regarding ammunition, and often resulted in considerable collateral damage. It was also not always effective against the hedgerows that littered the terrain. To solve this issue, the Americans simply installed “metal teeth” to the front of tanks which scooped out the hedgerows and exposed the Germans trying to hide behind them. Bradley also came around and started to launch larger attacks concentrated on a more narrow front.
These new stratagems, combined with attrition that slowly ate away at an enemy that received few reinforcements due to the allied interdiction campaign, and the fact that the British held down the lion-share of the German forces near Caen, finally allowed the Americans to break out of Normandy in late July. When Bradley launched “Operation Cobra” to this effect it was proceeded by 1500 heavy bombers and considerable fighter bombers and artillery. This use of extensive firepower decimated the Germans in its path but also caused significant allied friendly fire. Undeterred Bradley continued the advance and by August was breaking out of Normandy and threatening the rear of the German forces operating there.
At this point things became increasingly desperate for the Germans. While they had received reinforcements in a very unpredictable and piecemeal fashion, the allies now had millions of troops in Normandy and had roughly 4500 tanks versus perhaps 850 for the Germans. By early August the Germans finally realized that Normandy was not a feint and that there would be no allied assault near Calais. Thus Hitler finally authorized the transfer of significant reserves from there to reinforce Normandy. In the event these forces would not arrive in time to effect the struggle. He also ordered the new German commander in France, Field Marshal Von Kluge (who replaced Runstedt due to the latter suggesting the war in the West was lost and that Germany should make peace), to mount a counter-offensive against Bradley’s forces breaking out of Normandy.
Looking at a map it seemed plausible to cut off and destroy the extended American forces moving south on a narrow front from Normandy but in practice it was impossible given allied air supremacy and superiority of numbers, and the dilapidated state of the remaining German forces. However, Kluge dutifully assembled 400 tanks for a last ditch effort and attacked at Mortain towards the coast to stop the breakthrough. Thanks to intelligence warnings Bradley assembled adequate forces to combat the threat, and these along with significant artillery and airpower easily broke up the assault and inflicted significant casualties on the Germans.
With the failed German counter-attack at Mortain it was a matter of time before the German army in Normandy would be encircled. Field Marshal Model, who Hitler often used to rescue dire situations, was sent to replace the hapless Kluge in mid-August after the fiasco at Mortain. Like every other German commander he quickly realized the futility of the German position in France. However, unlike the other commanders who had little political clout with the German leader, Model successfully lobbied Hitler to finally allow the German forces to retreat. The order was given just in time to allow some forces to retreat through the ever narrowing Falaise Gap.
The conduct of the allies regarding the Falaise Gap is one of the more controversial aspects of the campaign. After the failed German counter-attack at Mortain General Montgomery, who was still in command of all allied ground forces in Normandy, ordered the U.S, British and Canadian forces to encircle the German forces near Falaise. What should have been an easy victory was delayed due to several factors.
Firstly, Patton’s 3rd army, the most powerful allied formation, had initially been ordered to take the ports in Brittany after breaking out of Normandy. This had been the plan from the beginning and considering the issues the allies were having with resupplying their forces it made sense. With hindsight the German garrisons in Brittany would hold out in, or destroy, the port facilities and thus defeat the purpose of this advance, but the allies had no way of knowing this would occur at the time. Either way the time Patton spent advancing in Brittany could have been used to close the Falaise Gap much sooner. Secondly, the Canadians, who had been given the task of closing the Gap on the other side, were not given enough support from Montgomery to complete their task. As good as the Canadian soldiers were they simply did not have the means necessary to do so on their own. Finally, Bradley and Montgomery did not effectively coordinate with each other to close the gap, essentially fighting their own wars when the operation should have been conducted as a single battle. Not surprisingly in various histories of the campaign written after the war blame is often assigned based on the nationality of the author (the Americans blame the British, the British blame the Americans, the Canadians blame both, etc.). A more objective verdict would suggest that in a military alliance where no country yet dominated the decision making process that all countries bore some responsibility.
However, the criticism of the allies regarding the outcome of the Falaise Gap is mostly unwarranted anyway. Looking at the statistics of the operation itself, and comparing it to the bigger issues of the war, the suggestion that the allies lost a great opportunity at Falaise is absurd. Most estimates regarding the German forces at Falaise cite roughly 50,000 captured, 10,000 dead and that at most 50,000 got away (however leaving most of their equipment behind). Yet 50,000 soldiers with no equipment is of little consequence in a war of millions of soldiers and countless machines. By this point the western allies had 3 million soldiers in France, the Russians considerably more on the a Eastern Front, and even the Germans and their allies could still scrounge up a few million to fight as well. If you look at the amount of planes, artillery and tanks at this point in the war the numbers were even more lopsided against the Germans.
Somehow several histories of the war suggest that these 50,000 soldiers retreated across the Seine, were re-equipped, and after having been reinforced by some token German forces managed to stall the allied advance in late September and doomed the chance of the western allies winning the war in 1944. This is ludicrous, the allied advance on the Western Front was brought to a halt due to their tenuous supply situation. Only with the invasion of Southern France, the capture of Antwerp and the clearing of the Scheldt (not accomplished until late autumn) did the allies finally solve their logistical problems.
While the German army in Normandy was being routed around Falaise the Allies launched an amphibious assault in Southern France on August 15th. This assault, dubbed “Operation Dragoon”, was originally planned to take place around the time of Normandy, but the lack of sufficient landing craft, and British skepticism regarding its strategic usefulness, saw it shelved for the time being. However, after “D-Day” a combination of factors facilitated its rebirth. Arguably the most important of these was regarding logistics in Normandy as the destruction of one of the Mulberry ports in June, and the German sabotage of port facilities in Cherbourg both significantly decreased the allied ability to resupply their forces. Additionally, after “D-Day” the scarce landing craft became available for another operation. Finally, French pressure to liberate Southern France and the prospect of using the considerable Free French forces in the Mediterranean for operations in Europe enticed the Americans to resurrect Dragoon.
In the event the operation went relatively smoothly, Southern France was liberated quickly and the German forces there were mostly captured or pushed back to the Reich. Needless to say allied airpower and material superiority, the fact the German army in Northern France was all but defeated by the time Dragoon was launched, and the poor state of German forces in Southern France, were all major considerations.
While there has been some criticism of the operation because it diverted divisions from Italy, and deployed significant allied resources towards Southern France where the Germans would have been cut off after Normandy anyway, such criticism ignores more important factors. Regarding taking considerable resources from Italy this was not important as the main purpose of the Italian campaign, knocking Italy out of the war and forcing the Germans to divert forces from Russia and France, became redundant after “D-Day”. After this point it would have been strategically and logistically unrealistic to expect significant results from this front such as advancing on Vienna or Central or Eastern Europe.
And while it is easy looking at a map of Europe to suggest that liberating Southern France and fighting the Germans there would be less useful than cutting them off and devoting as many forces as possible to North West Europe it ignores the decisive importance of logistics in warfare. During the campaign in Normandy, the pursuit across France, and the advance to the Ruhr logistics was the Achilles’ heel of the allies. The destruction of one of the Mulberry ports, and the German demolition/holding onto port facilities in Western Europe were unequivocally the limiting factors regarding allied operations and thus the seizure of the significant ports in Southern France (including Toulon and Marseilles) was of vital importance in sustaining the allied advance against Germany. In the event France’s southern ports would supply 1/3rd of all supplies for the campaign from “D-Day” to the capitulation of Germany, and considering the only other major coup for allied logistics occurred after the seizing of Antwerp and the clearing of the Scheldt estuary, which nearly took until December 1944, the importance of “Operation Dragoon” cannot be overestimated. As the allied forces devoted to it was not much larger than 200,000 while several million were involved in Normandy it is unfair to suggest that it represented a serious drain on allied resources.
After the closure of the Falaise Gap and the liberation of Southern France the remaining German forces in France were essentially routed and retreated in disorder. With the liberation of Paris on August 25th the “Normandy campaign” was successful concluded. Significantly, while the fighting in Normandy had taken considerable longer than anticipated the capture of the French capital occurred ahead of schedule.
What about the German conduct of the Normandy campaign? With all the criticism heaped on the allies in countless histories it is sometimes convenient to forget they won. Yet unequivocally the Germans deserve much more censure regarding their conduct. Strategically their deployment of tank divisions before the invasion made no sense, Richard Overy even suggested that “the allies could not have disposed German forces more favorably if they had done it themselves.” Regarding intelligence the vast majority of scenario German commanders never questioned that Calais would be the target of invasion, or that after the invasion itself Normandy was a mere diversion. Operationally the policy of never allowing even limited retreats to more defendable positions forced the Germans into a battle of attrition they could never hope to win.
However, to be fair the Germans were brilliant, as always, when it came to tactics. They were masters of cover and camouflage, their system of defense in depth was hard to crack, and the allies needed considerable airpower and numerical superiority to win any significant engagement.
Either way after the allies established a secure foothold on the continent on “D-Day” it is likely the Germans were doomed to lose the campaign. Allied airpower and artillery would break up any significant counter-attack, the interdiction campaign would limit the rate of reinforcements and the western allies superior numbers and logistics would have overwhelmed the Germans eventually. The only chance, not even a good one, of the Germans winning in Normandy would have been to defeat the allies at the water’s edge by stationing panzer divisions near the beaches. Failing that the best they could have done would have been to send most of their forces from Calais to Normandy to prolong the fighting and inflict more casualties. Otherwise little else would have made a difference. The odds were so stacked against the Germans that even the wounding of such a leader like Field Marshal Rommel in late July by a British plane arguably changed nothing.
The “Normandy Campaign” lasted from “D-Day” on June 6th until the liberation of Paris on August 25th. The allies accomplished all their goals with the important exception of capturing enough port facilities to adequately supply their forces. Statistics vary according to different accounts but the allies suffered roughly 220,000 casualties while the Germans suffered approximately 400-500,000 casualties, perhaps half of them being taken prisoner. There was also roughly 20,000 French civilian deaths, and many more injuries, during the campaign on top of the previous casualties taken during the bombing offensive against French infrastructure. While the allies suffered significantly more losses than the Germans regarding tanks and airplanes they could afford such losses and had plenty of them at the end of the campaign while most of the German divisions, and almost all of their equipment, had been wiped out in the campaign. It would be the tenuous supply situation for the allies, not German resistance, that would slow the advance in late 1944.
Even worse for the Germans was that during the “Normandy Campaign” the Russians, who had and would continue to fight the lion-share of the German army, launched a massive assault against Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front and inflicted upon the Germans their greatest defeat of the war. While the battle in Normandy was slow and attritional the Russians managed to destroy 30 German divisions in less than 2 months and reached the eastern outskirts of Warsaw. Having to halt their advance due to logistics the Russians spent the rest of 1944 knocking out most of Germany’s remaining allies in Europe including Finland, Romania and Bulgaria (only a rump state of Hungary survived). Besides the loss of so many forces and allies the loss of the Romanian Ploesti oilfields, Germany’s last major source of oil, was a particularly harsh blow to Hitler, who had obsessed over them for years.
These setbacks, along with the German collapse in Western Europe, effectively sealed the fate of the Third Reich and it was only a question of time until the war would be over. While there would be plenty of disappointments and setbacks after the “Normandy Campaign” including the failure of “Operation Market Garden,” the severe problems with logistics and the German counterattack in December which resulted in the “Battle of the Bulge” there was no question that the war was as good as won. Even though there would be plenty of historians and armchair generals who would criticize the campaign itself, the allied conduct afterwards, or the failure to take Berlin before the Russians, the fact remains that once the allies won the “Battle of Normandy” when the Germans failed to throw the invasion back into the sea on June 6th the issue of the war was essentially decided.
Regarding the situation vis a vis the Russians the partition of Germany had already been agreed upon beforehand and there was no way the western allies would have reached Poland or most other East European nations before the Soviets anyway. All the accounts written by naive historians or the memoirs of bitter allied Generals or politicians who begrudged the Russians seem to forget that the Soviets destroyed the lion-share of the German army and that after having losing nearly 27 million people they were not about to let the western allies overrun their buffer zone in Eastern Europe. Frankly liberating Western Europe and Western Germany, which were geopolitically more important than Eastern Europe anyway, was the best the western allies could have hoped for at this point in the war. There is no doubt that the Soviets would have conquered all of Europe if they had the chance, and that it was right for Britain and America to confront them during the “Cold War” but provoking them and risking another conflict at the end of “World War 2″ would have been absurd and likewise unacceptable to public opinion in the democracies that had been taught that the Russians were their friends during the conflict.
The invasion of Normandy was the quickest way to end the “Second World War” in Europe and necessary to prevent Western Europe and most of Germany from falling to the Soviets. The allies were not predestined to win and while failure would probably not have lost the war the end result would have been significantly less favorable to Britain, America, Western Europe, and democracy in general. The allies won the campaign due to their deception campaign, aerial supremacy, and their ability to significantly resupply their forces quicker than the Germans. Despite the fact that the campaign in Normandy took longer, and was more costly than originally anticipated, the western allies eventually accomplished all of their war aims while the Germans were comprehensively defeated. The invasion of Normandy was arguably the most important campaign launched by the western allies during the war and effectively won both the war and the subsequent peace.
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Article from “Air University Review”: Attrition and the Luftwaffe by Williamson Murray, April 1983. http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/airchronicles/aureview/1983/mar-apr/murray.htm
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Wikipedia article on “Operation Overlord”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Overlord [March, 2013]
Wikipedia article on “Western Front (World War 2)”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Front_(World_War_II) [March, 2013]
Wikipedia article on “World War 2 casualties”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties [March, 2013]