“Tomorrow is our day of conscience. For although it is a monument to victory, it is also a symbol of failure. Just as it honors the dead, so must it humble the living. Armistice Day is a constant reminder that we won a war and lost a peace…” General Omar Bradley November 10th 1948, Boston Massachusetts.
It was the “War to End All War” or so thought President Woodrow Wilson and other American idealists. However that war to end all wars birthed a series of wars which made the losses of the First World War fade into insignificance as wars of ideology replaced wars for the preservation of the state.
In the First World War there were over 22 million casualties including over 5 million dead of which over 116,000 were Americans. President Woodrow Wilson established what we know now as Veteran’s Day as Armistice Day in November 1919, a year after the guns went silent.
Wilson wrote: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”
That initial proclamation was followed nearly 40 years later by one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower signed into law what we now know as Veteran’s Day in 1954. In a sense I wish we had two holidays, one for Veterans from all wars in general and this one which we should never forget. It seems that in combining them we have lost some of the sacredness of the original. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.” I will remember all who served this weekend but I will not forget why we do so.
All that being said for many in the United States and Western Europe the experience of or even the thoughts of such a bloodletting is unimaginable. Yet to those of us who have gone to war and studied past wars the end result is not so distant. It is a part of our lives even today.
This weekend marks the 95th anniversary of the end in World War One. For the United States the cost in the short time that its forces went into action and the armistice it was costly, though not nearly as costly as it was for the nations of Europe. From the time United States forces went into action in 1917 116,516 Americans were killed, 204,002 wounded, and 4,500 missing; 7.1% of the force of 4,355,000 the nation mobilized for war. (PBS the Great War UNC TV http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/resources/casdeath_pop.html)
However our costs pale in comparison with the European nations who had for over four years bled themselves dry. If one wonders why Europeans seem to have so little desire for involvement in war one only needs to see how the concentrated killing of the First World War decimated the best and brightest of that generation. Out of nearly 8.5 million Frenchmen mobilized lost 1,357,000 killed, 4,266,000 wounded and 537,000 missing, 6,160,000 casualties or 73.3% of its forces. Other nations has similar casualty figures.
The human costs were horrifying. In all over over 65 million men served under arms in the war. Over 8.5 million were killed, over 21 million wounded, 7.75 million missing or prisoners or almost 37.5 million casualties. That total would be roughly equivalent to every citizen of the 30 largest American cities being killed, wounded or missing.
Much of Europe was devastated, mass numbers of refugees the dissolution of previously stable empires, civil wars, border conflicts between new states with deep seated ethnic hatreds, economic disasters and the rise of totalitarian regimes which spawned another even more costly world war and a 40 year cold war. The bitter results of the First World War are still felt today as conflicts in the Middle East in part fueled by the decisions of Britain and France at the end of the war rage on.
The epic war poem In Flanders Fields written by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea symbolizes the cost of that war and the feelings of the warriors who endured its hell.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Yes there are always consequences to actions. This weekend as we remember what we now call Veteran’s Day, or Remembrance Day in Britain let us not forget that the genus of these holidays was the blood shed by so many in places like Verdun, Gallipoli, Caporetto, Passchendaele, the Marne, the Argonne, Tannenberg, Galicia and on Flanders Fields.
President John F Kennedy said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
In the hope of peace and an end to war.
Field Marshal William Slim
Field Marshal William Slim was one of the most brilliant commanders of the Second World War. He gets little press and there are not a lot of books written about him. Slim was one of those unique officers who served on the periphery of the British Empire as an office in the British Indian Army. He was a clerk in a factory who attended the University of Birmingham and commissioned as a reserve officer through its reserve officer training course; he did not attend Sandhurst, the British equivalent of the U.S. Military Academy. He was commissioned in 1914 and assigned to the Indian Army. He served at Gallipoli and Mesopotamia in the First World War and at Gallipoli saw the immense waste of human life which led him in his future commands never to sacrifice his men in senseless operations. Between the wars he served in India with the Gurkhas and also spent a significant time as a student and an instructor. He did was not promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given command of a battalion at the age of 46. However during the war he rose from Battalion to Brigade and then Division command and achieved his Generalship through wartime promotions remaining a Colonel on the regular list while serving in the British campaign against the Italians in the Sudan and the invasion of Iraq. When the war was at its lowest point and British forces were collapsing against the relentless Japanese advance in Burma he was assigned to command Burma Corps which eventually became the British 14th Army, sometimes better known as the “Forgotten Army.” He took command and had to conduct a 900 mile withdraw under desperate conditions. His Army was emaciated, poorly equipped and beaten, but his leadership during that retreat saved his army and kept their spirit alive. However it was his leadership that turned the Army around restored it and then conducted an amazing campaign to drive the Japanese out of Burma.
Slim has some of the most brilliant insights into leadership and I am just going to throw out one here.
Morale is a state of mind. It is that intangible force which will move a whole group of men to give their last ounce to achieve something, without counting the cost to themselves; that makes them feel they are part of something greater than themselves. If they are to feel that, their morale must, if it is to endure–and the essence of morale is that it should endure–have certain foundations. These foundations are spiritual, intellectual, and material, and that is the order of their importance. Spiritual first, because only spiritual foundations can stand real strain. Next intellectual, because men are swayed by reason as well as feeling. Material last–important, but last–because the very highest kinds of morale are often met when material conditions are lowest.
This is something that is really important and something that I think that we have lost all sense of in the West and why we struggle against insurgents who are inferior to us in every military aspect. We focus on the material first, technology has become our God, and it is our answer to everything. Next we do emphasize the intellectual but often what we emphasize is formulas, templates or the learning of abstract principles that that are hard to apply in the real world. We often study things that don’t necessarily apply to the war that we are currently engaged and try to make the reality fit our templates rather than taking the time to really learn. With all our technology we have also lost much of the sense of personal leadership where leaders actually know their soldiers.
Slim understood these principles and they were not abstract, they were real because he took the time to know his soldiers and they knew that in spite of the incredible hardships of the war in Burma that Slim understood them and would not sacrifice them needlessly. He trained his men hard in the tactics that would be needed to drive the Japanese from Burma and his leadership would pay off. His ability to hold leaders accountable for the welfare of their soldiers and his ability to relate to all kinds of soldiers made him one of the most unique and successful commanders of the war. After the war he retired but was called out of retirement to replace Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff indeed a rare feat for a man who began his career as a clerk in a factory.
I am going to come back to Slim in later writings. This is just a taste of Slim’s thought and my interpretation of it.
The planning for the Normandy invasion began in earnest after the QUADRANT conference in Quebec in August 1943 and its timetable was established at the Tehran conference where Stalin sided with the Americans on the need for an invasion of France in the spring of 1944.[i] Prior to this there had been some planning by both the British and Americans for the eventual invasion initially named ROUNDUP including a large scale raid at Dieppe in 1942 which ended in disaster but which provided needed experience in what not to do in an amphibious assault on a heavily defended beach. Dieppe also darkened the mood of the Allies, the British in particular to the success of such operations, bringing to mind the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915 as well as the opposed landings at Salerno and the USMC experience at Tarawa.[ii] Despite this the Americans led by General Marshall pushed for an early invasion of northwest Europe while the Churchill and the British due to their weakness in land power pushed for land operations in the Mediterranean, and even in Norway as an option to the assault in France. The mindset of the Allies left them in the position of planning almost exclusively for the success of the initial landings and build up to the near exclusion of planning for the subsequent campaign, especially “the maze of troubles awaiting behind the French shore.”[iii]
Despite this the Normandy landings planned for in NEPTUNE and OVERLORD moved ahead and with the appointment of Eisenhower as the commander of SHAEF and his major subordinates for Land, Air and Sea which caused consternation on both sides of the Atlantic,[iv] [v]and expanding the operation from the initial 3 division assault on a narrow front to a minimum 5 division assault on a broad front across Normandy[vi] supplemented by a strong airborne force.[vii] Overall the plan as it developed reflected a distinctly “American willingness to confront the enemy head-on in a collision which Britain’s leaders had sought for so long to defer.”[viii] It is ironic in a sense that the British avoidance of the head on attack was based on their known lack of manpower, especially infantry reserves to sustain the war effort and the Americans only late recognized their own deficiency in both quantity and quality of infantry forces on which their strategy depended. That the western allies, so rich in material and natural resources would be so deficient in infantry manpower was a key constraint on the subsequent campaign in France and Germany. The Germans too faced manpower shortages resulting in smaller divisions and the creation of many “static” divisions manned by elderly or invalid Germans, as well as “volksdeutsch” and foreign “volunteers.”
Prior to the final decision to mount an invasion the Allied planners had first contended with the location of the assault in northwestern France. The Pas de Calais while providing a direct route was rejected because it was where the Germans would expect the strike to occur and because it was where the German defenses were strongest, and the fiasco at Dieppe had provided ample proof of making the assault into a heavily fortified port. Likewise the mouth of the Seine near Le Harve was rejected because of the number and quantity of landing beaches and because the forces would be split on both sides of the river. Brittany was excluded due to its distance from the campaigns objectives in Germany.[ix] This left Normandy which offered access to a sufficient number of ports and offered some protection from the weather and which offered options to advance the campaign toward the “Breton ports or Le Harve as might be convenient.”[x] Omaha beach, situated on the center right of the strike would be crucial to the success of the assault situated to the left of UTAH and the right of the British beaches.
Once Normandy was selected as the location for the strike Planning was at times contentious especially over the amount and type of amphibious lift that could be provided in particular the larger types of landing ships and craft to support the Normandy invasion and the planned invasion of southern France, Operation ANVIL. The increase in OVERLORD requirements for landing craft did have an impact in the Mediterranean and resulted in ANVIL being postponed until later in the summer.
As part of their preparations the Allies launched a massive deception campaign, Operation FORTITUDE utilizing the fictitious First Army Group under LTG George Patton. Patton still smarting from his relief of command of 7th Army following slapping commanded an “Army Group” incorporating the use of dummy camp sites, dummy tanks, aircraft and vehicles, falsified orders of battle and communications to deceive German intelligence.[xi] The success of this effort which was heightened by the fact that all German Abwehr agents in the U.K. had been neutralized or turned, and the Luftwaffe limited air reconnaissance could only confirmed the pre-invasion build ups throughout England without determining the target of the invasion.[xii] The German intelligence chief in the west, Colonel Baron von Roenne “was deceived by FORTITUDE’s fantasy invasion force for the Pas de Calais.”[xiii] Despite this 7th Army commander recognized by 1943 that Normandy was a likely Allied target and efforts were made to shift 7th Army’s center of gravity from Brittany to Normandy. The one potential German success in getting wind of when the Allied landings would occur was lost when German intelligence discovered two lines of Verlaine’s “Chason d’ Automme” in January 1944 which were to alert the French Resistance of the invasion. The security section of 15th Army heard them transmitted on the afternoon of 5 June and notified General Jodl at OKW, but no action was taken to alert forces on the coast.[xiv]Allied intelligence was aided by ULTRA intercepts of coded German wireless transmissions though less so than they were during the African and Italian campaigns as more German communications were sent via secure telephone and telegraph lines vice wireless.[xv] Allied deception efforts were for the most part successful in identifying German forces deployed in Normandy, but were uncertain about the 352nd Infantry Division which had been deployed along OMAHA as it had taken units of the 709th Infantry Division under its command when it moved to the coast.[xvi]
The Allied air campaign leading up to the invasion was based on attempting to isolate the invasion site from German reinforcements. Leigh-Mallory the Air Chief developed the “TRANSPORTATION PLAN” which focused efforts on destroying the French railroad infrastructure.[xvii] A more effective effort was led by General Brereton and his Ninth Air Force which was composed of medium bombers and fighters. His aircraft attacked bridges and rapidly achieved success in crippling German efforts to reinforce Normandy.[xviii] Hastings gives more credit to the American bombing campaign in Germany led by General Spaatz and the 8th Air Force in destroying both German production capacity in oil and petroleum as well as the degradation of the German fighter force achieved in the American daylight raids, which so seriously degraded the German fighter force that it could not mount effective resistance to the invasion.[xix] Weigley too notes that Albert Speer the Reich Armaments Minister said that “it was the oil raids of 1944 that decided the war.”[xx]
Planning and preparations for OMAHA were based around getting the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions ashore and them securing a beachhead “twenty-five kilometers wide and eight or nine kilometers deep.”[xxi] American preparations were thorough and ambitious, but the American assault would go through the most heavily defended sector of German defenses in Normandy with wide beaches bordered by dunes which were nearly impassable to vehicles and “scrub covered bluffs thirty to fifty meters high…rough and impassable to vehicles even to tracked vehicles except at a few places. The exits were unimproved roads running through four or five draws that cut the bluffs.”[xxii] Dug in along those bluffs would be the better part of the 352nd Division. Compounding the selection of a difficult and heavily defended landing zone the Americans failed to take advantage of many of the “gadgets” that were offered by the British which in hindsight could have aided the Americans greatly. The Americans made use of two battalions of DD (Dual Drive) tanks but turned down the offer of flail tanks, flamethrower tanks, and engineer tanks, the “funnies” developed by General Hobart and the British 79th Armored Division.[xxiii] Weigley believes that the American view of “tanks as instruments of mobility rather than of breakthrough power.” And the fact that American victories in the First World War were won by infantry.[xxiv] In this aspect the Americans were less receptive to utilizing all available technology than the British whose use of the Armor on the beaches to provide direct fire into German strong points lessened their infantry casualties on D-Day. Due to this lack of armor support on the beach American forces on OMAHA had little opportunity to exercise true combined arms operations.[xxv]
German preparations for an Allied landing in Normandy were less advanced than the Pas de Calais, although Field Marshal Rommel had increased defensive preparations along the front, including the Normandy beaches. One of Rommel’s initiatives was to deploy Panzer Divisions near the coast where they could rapidly respond to an invasion however he did not get everything that he wanted rather than two Panzer Divisions deployed near the Normandy beaches, only one, the 21st Panzer Division was deployed near Caen in the British sector. One wonders the result had the 12th SS Panzer Division been deployed behind OMAHA. [xxvi]
[ii] Ibid pp. 34-35
[iii] Ibid p.35
[iv] General Montgomery 21st Army group and Land Forces, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey as Allied Naval Expeditionary Force and Air Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory as Commander in Chief Allied Expeditionary Air Force. Weigley p.43
[v] Max Hastings in Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984, comments that many in Britain wondered if Eisenhower with the lack of actual battle experience could be a effective commander and that Eisenhower was disappointed in the appointment of Leigh-Mallory and Ramsey, and had preferred Alexander over Montgomery, pp. 28-29.
[vi] Ibid. Weigley p.40. Montgomery was the first to object to the 3 division narrow front invasion rightly recognizing that seizing Caen with its road junctions could provide a springboard for the campaign into open country.
[vii] Ibid. p.37
[viii] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.29 Hastings finds the irony in the selection of the British officers to execute the plan that reflected the American way of thinking.
[ix] The Germans agreed with this in their planning leaving Brittany very lightly defended. See Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” p.27 The report of General Blumentritt, Chief of Staff OB West noted that only 3 divisions were assigned to Brittany.
[x] Ibid. Weigley, pp. 39-40
[xi] Ibid. p.73
[xii] See Isby p. 69. General Max Pemsel of 7th Army noted that “During the spring of 1944, Seventh Army received only tow good photographs of British southern ports, which showed large concentrations of landing craft.”
[xiii] Ibid. Hastings p.63. Hastings comments also about the success of using the turned Abwehr agents.
[xiv] Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Pp.422-423
[xv] Ibid. Weigley pp. 53-54
[xvi] Ibid. p. 67
[xvii] Ibid. pp.57-64 Weigley spends a great deal of time on the wrangling between Eisenhower, Leigh Mallory and Spaatz on the nature of the plan, the allocation of forces both strategic and tactical assigned to carry it out and its success, or in the light of postwar analysis the lack of effect that it had on German operations.
[xviii] Ibid. p.67-68.
[xix] Ibid. Hastings pp. 43-44 In large part due to the long range P-51 Mustang which accompanied the American bombing raids beginning in 1943. Another comment is that the campaign drew the German fighters home to defend Germany proper and prevented their use in any appreciable numbers over the invasion beaches.
[xx] Ibid. Weigley p.69
[xxi] Ibid. p.89
[xxii] Ibid. pp. 88-89
[xxiii] Ibid. p.87
[xxiv] Ibid. Weigley also talks about the rejection of General Corlett’s ideas to use Amtracks used by the Marines in the Pacific to land on less desirable, but less defended beaches to lessen casualties on the beaches and the need for additional support equipment even on smooth beaches. One of Corlett’s criticisms was that too little ammunition was allotted to supporting the landings and not enough supporting equipment was provided. pp. 46-47
[xxv] Hastings notes that with the strength and firepower of the German forces on OMAHA that many of these vehicles had they been employed would like have ended up destroyed further cluttering the beachhead. “Overlord” p.102
[xxvi] The battle over the deployment of the Panzer Divisions is covered by numerous historians. The source of the conflict was between Rommel who desired to place the Panzer Divisions on the Coast under his command due to the fear that Allied air superiority would prevent the traditional Panzer counterthrust, General Gyer von Schweppenburg commander of Panzer Group West (Later the 5th Panzer Army) and Field Marshal Von Rundstedt who desired to deploy the divisions order the command of Rundstedt for a counter attack once the invasion had been launched, a strategy which was standard on the Eastern Front, and Hitler who held most of the Panzer reserve including the SS Panzer Divisions under his control at OKW. Hitler would negotiate a compromise that gave Rommel the satisfaction of having three Panzer Divisions deployed behind coast areas in the Army Group B area of responsibility. 21st Panzer had those duties in Normandy.