“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
So as I promised here is a bit of a post on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings. I thought i’d start with a bit of historical context, what led up to the operation, why did we need to do it etc. Then I’ll move on to the landings themselves, i’ll try and keep my focus on the 6th June and not get caught up in the rest of the Normandy campaign although to fully explain some points that will likely be unavoidable. Finally I thought I’d play a little game of ‘What if?’ What if the invasion had failed, or had just never taken place. What effect could that have had on the rest of the war and the Cold War that followed.
Lets rewind four years to May 27th – June 4th 1940 and look at a little Operation called Dynamo. This was the evacuation from the Dunkirk beaches of nearly 350,000 British and French troops in the face of the German advance. They had to abandon virtually all their heavy equipment and clamber aboard whatever floating vessel was presented to get away. The Third Reich controlled all of the western European mainland from that point on, with only Britain stubbornly refusing to go down. Hitler was given four years to construct his Atlantic Wall, a series of fortifications, weapon emplacements, minefields and strings of barbed wire. In 1942 the raid on Dieppe was launched with the aim of demonstrating resolve, proving that it was possible to take and seize a major occupied port and to gather intelligence. It was a costly failure that arguably achieved none of its aims.
It wouldn’t be until 1943 that the Allies would successfully take and hold a beachhead in Europe once more. The landings in Sicily and later southern Italy following the successful North African campaign provided proof that action in the west could occur. It was hoped that these landings would relieve pressure on the Soviets, who had been fighting constantly since 1941, and would also remove Italy from the war and turn the Mediterranean into a secure shipping channel. Winston Churchill called Italy ‘the soft underbelly of the axis’, General Mark Clark (commander of US 5th Army, one of the principal formations used in the landings) later described it as ‘one tough gut’. The location of the landings meant that the Allied forces faced a long tough slog, the length of Italy, over horrible terrain with very little room for strategic manoeuvre. Rome was taken on June 4th 1944. Not long after the bulk of the experienced Free French and US formations were pulled out of Italy in preparation for the invasion of southern France (Operation Dragoon).
As mentioned the Soviet Union had been fighting the Axis powers since 1941. Although by 1943 the Soviet Union was in a much better place strategically they were still crying out for a real second front to be opened in western Europe to relieve some of the pressure by diverting German reinforcements away from the Eastern front. In May 1943 the UK and US governments agreed at the Trident Conference that a cross channel invasion of Europe would take place in 1944.
The planning that went into the invasion was incredible. This was the biggest amphibious operation ever attempted, approximately 160,000 allied troops were landed on 6th June supported by almost 6,000 naval vessels ranging from landing craft to destroyers to battleships. Furthermore 24,000 airborne troops were either parachuted in or landed by glider to secure key objectives prior to the landings. Five beaches; Utah, Omaha, Sword, Juno & Gold were the targets on the Normandy coastline. US forces were landed on Utah and Omaha (Omaha had the highest casualty rate of all the beaches, it is possible that none of the first wave made it off the beach), British forces were landed on Sword and Gold and Canadian forces were landed on Juno.
So what was the objective? Obviously secure a foothold on the European mainland that could be used to pour reinforcements into so that France could be liberated and Germany defeated. From a logistical point of view, it was crucial that a proper deep water port was taken. By the end of August almost 3 million allied troops would have landed in France. The amount of supplies it would take to keep those forces fighting was enormous and could not be brought in over a beach, no matter how good advancements like the Mulberry Harbour were (a temporary and portable harbour that could be set up in the area of the invasion beaches to offload supplies). The US forces were assigned the task of taking Cherbourg whilst the British and Canadian troops were tasked with capturing Caen.
On the far left flank of the invasion the British 6th Airborne division was tasked with taking vital river crossings over the Orne and the Caen canal, their most famous action being the taking of Pegasus bridge. On the far right the US 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions were tasked with securing causeways and vital communications points such as the town of Carentan. This part of the plan nearly ended in disaster as the airborne forces were scattered far and wide with some troops landed nearly 20 miles from their landing zones. The skill, training and determination of the airborne troops shone through and despite the difficulties they managed to achieve their objectives eventually. These airborne forces were there to protect the flanks of the very vulnerable invasion beaches.
So what were the Germans up to whilst all this was going on?
With the massing of allied forces in southern England, the Germans knew that an invasion was going to happen at some point, but where? Thanks to the inability of German intelligence to get anything out of the UK, coupled with a massive allied deception plan, the Germans were unsure where the actual invasion would take place. The commander in chief of the West, Field Marshal Von Rundstedt, believed that the invasion would come at the closest point between Britain and the mainland i.e. the area around the Pas de Calais. To him this made the greatest strategic sense, and this man’s strategic sense was nothing to be sniffed at. However according to Lidell – Hart, Hitler had a hunch it would be around the Normandy area due in part to the layout of the forces in southern England and the realisation of the allied need to secure a deep water port. Erwin Rommel (The Desert Fox) had been given the task of strengthening the defences of the Atlantic Wall and although he had improved them considerably over what they were, he did not have the time to get them to the state he wanted.
Hitler, Von Rundstedt and Rommel. These three figures were key in the German response to the invasion and luckily they did not function in a harmonious way. Rommel believed that the best way to defeat the invasion was to smash it on the beaches and not let it develop a secure beachhead. This would be when they were most vulnerable he argued. Once they were established ashore it would be much more difficult to dislodge them. Therefore he argued for a greater proportion of the German’s armoured strength to be deployed forward where it could rapidly converge on the invasion areas and overwhelm them. Von Rundstedt, Rommels superior officer, argued that it would be best to let the allies establish themselves and then use the German’s superior local strength to defeat them in a classic manoeuvre battle when they attempted to move out of the beachheads. Therefore he wanted to keep the German armoured forces further back until he could deploy them at a time and place of his choosing to destroy the allied spearheads. Rommel tried to counter this by pointing out that the overwhelming air superiority enjoyed by the allied forces would seriously hamper any efforts by the German armoured forces to mass later on for an attack once the allies were ashore. And he was right :-). To further complicate issues Hitler ordered that four of the ten German armoured divisions would be placed under his direct control and would therefore require his explicit permission for them to be deployed anywhere. This could have been gotten around, Rommel still had a good relationship with Hitler at this point and could have likely gotten what he needed. However, Hitler was a man who stayed up very late and subsequently slept very late. When reports of the invasion came in and requests were made to release the reserves, General Jodl refused to wake the Fuhrer and so the reserves were not released until it was too late. This was not the only example of the command structure not functioning effectively on June 6th. Several high ranking German officers, including Rommel, were out of position at various meetings, training exercises and romantic liaisons when the invasion commenced, meaning it was several crucial hours before they were able to influence the course of the battle.
Operation Overlord was a very close shave. Allied problems (airborne mis-drops, amphibious assaults being blown off course, sheer difficulty in getting off the beach ( watch Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day)) could have spelt disaster. The German response was disjointed enough to not take proper advantage of these issues and so luck and the initiative remained with the allies. The landings were a success, although it took far longer to achieve the initial objectives than had initially been planned. The liberation of western Europe followed and by May 1945 the war in Europe was over. That sentence does not give proper weight to the struggles that would occur in that time…
What would have happened if Overlord had been a failure?
Would the allies have tried again? I think not in the north of France, certainly not in the same area. I think the invasion of southern France would still have gone ahead and perhaps we would have seen an invasion attempt near the low countries. While this was being decided I believe the air campaign would have been stepped up in its intensity. If time had dragged on would we have seen the A-bomb used on Germany? Would somewhere like Essen have suffered the same fate as Hiroshima? That is a spectre that would have forever changed the European landscape, both physically and mentally. Thankfully we never had to find out…
What would have happened if the allies (for whatever reason) had decided not invade western Europe?
Well obviously the war would have gone on for longer. However the Red Army was starting to build momentum in the east and I feel it was unlikely that the Germans would have been able to hold off the Soviets for ever. So assuming a German defeat at some point it is fair to further assume that the Red Army would not have stopped at Berlin. They would likely have gone the rest of the way through Germany. Would they have gone further and ‘liberated’ western Europe? Conversations were already taking place in 1944 about the possibility of having to fight the Soviet Union once Germany had been defeated. The ideological clash between capitalist west and communist east had already been sparking from the end of the First World War through the Russian civil war, the Spanish civil war and was only temporarily forgotten about during the events of the late 1930’s through to the end of the Second World War. The frontline of the Cold War could easily have been the French – German border or possibly even the English Channel. The EEC/EU/other European treaties would not have occurred during the time they did. Without the buffer of Western Europe, Britain would have likely become even more of an armed camp during the period marked by the Cold War. Again we are lucky that these are just idle musings rather than a study of historical facts.
We are lucky that Overlord was a success.
We must never forget.