Tag Archives: operation overlord

The Responsibility Of Command: Eisenhower’s Letter in Case the D-Day Invasion Failed

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz noted: “It is now quite clear how greatly the objective of war makes it a matter of assessing probabilities. Only one more element is needed to make war a gamble – chance: the very last thing that war lacks. No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance. And through through the element of guesswork and luck come to play a great part in war…. If we now consider briefly the subjective nature of war – the means by which war has to be fought – it will look more like a gamble. The highest of all moral qualities in time of danger is certainly courage.”

For a year General Dwight D. Eisenhower had worked to marshal the largest force possible to launch the long awaited invasion of Nazi Occupied France. Eisenhower surrounded himself with an exceptional staff, but had to fight for what he would need for the coming invasion. He had to struggle with Admiral Ernest King for the landing ships and crafts he needed, against the competing needs of Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur’s Forces in the Pacific Theatre of operations. He had to battle Allied bomber commands, British Bomber Command, and 8th Air Force for bombers to support the invasion, taking them away from the strategic bombing command against the heart of German industry; and finally he had to battle Winston Churchill to be in overall command of the multi-national force being assembled to attack.

The invasion was in fact his baby. He had the ultimate responsibility for its success or failure. He knew the dangers. In 1942 the British launched a raid using Canadian troops on the English Channel port of Dieppe. It was a disaster. With all the work he had done to get his forces ready for the invasion, Eisenhower knew that he owned the result.

Eisenhower understood that everything in war is a gamble and that success is not guaranteed. The weather conditions of the English Channel are unpredictable and only offer a few month window of opportunity to successfully mount a cross channel invasion. The Germans found that out in 1940 when after their failure to clear the skies of the Royal Air Force that the a favorable opportunity for Operation Sea Lion had passed.

The Allied invasion required a full moon for a nighttime paratroop drop, and favorable weather for the landing craft to get ashore. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating. High winds, seas, and rain forced a cancellation of the planned June 5th invasion, the open question was whether conditions would be on the 6th would be favorable. If not the next opportunity would not be for at least two more weeks.

The German weather forecasters, having lost the ability to observe weather in the western and mid-Atlantic anticipated that the weather would continue to be unfavorable for an invasion. With this in mind, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B which had operational control over the potential landing beaches, decided to make a visit to his wife for her birthday and a trip to Berlin to plead for more resources. Other Senior German Commanders departed to inland areas to conduct war games and were not with their units.

Meanwhile, forecasters at Eisenhower’s headquarters who had access to weather data from the mid-Atlantic, predicted a brief lull, not perfect weather, but acceptable. Eisenhower met with his staff and made the decision to go ahead with the invasion in the night of June 5th and June 6th.

But the weather was but one factor, the Allies did not know the latest German deployments, including the movement of the crack 352nd Infantry Division to Omaha Beach. Likewise, a prompt German response with heavy Panzer units could throw the invaders back into the sea if they moved fast enough. However, neither Eisenhower or his staff knew of the conflict in the German High Command and Hitler regarding the deployment of the Panzer Divisions. Rommel argued that the Panzer Divisions should be deployed near the potential invasion beaches, but traditionalists in the German command and Hitler decided that most of the Panzer Divisions should be held back awaiting the point that they could make a decisive counterattack. Rommel, a veteran of Africa and the West knew the power of allied tactical air assets, and the havoc they could inflict on the Panzers. Rommel believed that the invasion had to be defeated on the beachheads and not given the chance to advance inland.

Eisenhower also knew that the success of the invasion depended on the success of the landings. A disaster at any of the landing beaches could doom the invasion. In light of this and so many other ways that could fail, Eisenhower, wrote a letter to his troops and the world when the invasion commenced. It read:

“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force:

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 oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations1 have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory.

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.

Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

However, prepared for any eventuality he also also wrote a letter in case the invasion failed, as it nearly did on Omaha Beach. That letter noted:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

It was dated July 5th, not June 5th, the mistake obviously due to the pressure of what he was feeling for his soldiers, the mission, and if the mission failed, his adversaries in the United States military and in Britain would have seen to his relief. It also could have aided those in the United States and Britain willing to make peace with Germany, which could have destroyed the allied alliance that ended up defeating Germany and rebuilding a democratic Europe, establishing NATO, the United Nations, and many other international organizations that have done much good for America and the world, but which are now under threat from leaders in the United States and Europe who would rather go back to the days of Hitler than advance into a better future.

Eisenhower did not make excuses if the invasion failed. He was ready to take full responsibility if Overlord failed, regardless of how it happened.

Likewise, he knew that the failure of the invasion would have made it possible for the Nazis to divert needed forces to the Eastern Front, where they might have been able to turn back the Soviet Operation Bagration which destroyed the German Army Group Center and opened the way for the Soviets to drive the Nazis from Soviet territory, advance to Warsaw, and knock key German allies out of the war. Before long, Hungary, Romania, and Finland were abandoning the Germans.

The fact that the invasion succeeded was as much as luck as it was the careful planning, and the exceptional courage, and dogged determination of the Allied troops.

Eisenhower’s willingness to take responsibility for defeat as well as give his troops credit for the eventual victory over the Nazis sets him apart from so many others then, and now who would deflect blame for a failed operation to their subordinates and lie about the results achieved.

In the age of Trump it is something to remember.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under History, leadership, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary, us army, world war two in europe

France 1944: Missed Opportunities from Mortain to Market Garden

Arnhem Bridge

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In 1985 Judy and I visited her cousin and her family in the Netherlands when I was an Army Lieutenant in Germany. Since I was a history major in college and had done a lot of reading and study about Operation Market Garden, which most people associate with the movie Bridge Too Far I decided that on our way back to Germany that we needed to stop by Arnhem and Oosterbeek to visit the battlefield and the British Airborne Museum. It was one of those places that even today evokes poignant memories. When we walked through the British cemetery across from the museum which is in the former British headquarters, the Hartenstein Hotel I saw a grave marker. It read Capt. J.S. (James Strathern) Dundas, 7th KOSB (7th King’s Own Scottish Borderers) of the British 1st Airborne Division. He was the 2IC, or Executive Officer of Company B of that Regiment. He assumed command of the company on the 19th after its commander was reported missing in action. He commanded the company until his death on September 25th 1944 when commanding the rearguard of the battalion as it and the remnants of the 1st Airborne Division evacuated the bridgehead over the Rhine. It was a sobering reminder of the cost of war. 

Grave marker of Captain J.S. Dundas at the British Cemetery at Oosterbeek

September 17th 2018 will be the 74th anniversary of the Allied attempt to liberate the Netherlands, secure a crossing across the Rhine and plunge into the heart of German industry and war making capacity the Ruhr basin. The plan is better known as Operation “Market-Garden” and was the first major use of Airborne Divisions in a strategic jump versus a tactical or operational mode.  What made this operation different was the distance that the Airborne would be dropped from the front lines and the number of obstacles that the ground troops would have to cross to get to them.  It was a high risk strategic plan to end the war early.  However this operation did not occur in a vacuum and was the product of operational and strategic decisions that the Allies made from the time of the Normandy breakout.  Each decision was made on the fly as the situation rapidly developed from a static slugfest in the hedgerows to the pursuit of a broken enemy.  As the Allies advanced across France decisions had to be made of how the advance would be made which became a major bone of contention between Eisenhower and his subordinates.  To understand how the Allies got to the point of launching Market-Garden one has to look back at the events leading up to it beginning with the Allied decisions made shortly after the breakout.  The actual campaign does not always correlate to popular myths nor does it allow for a uncritical analysis or generalization of the events which made up this part of the campaign in Western Europe.

It is a campaign that teaches us even today that mundane things such as logistics, weather and the failure to recognize moments of opportunity and times for caution matter in a military campaign. The campaign is a reminder that every military campaign has risks and that even crippled enemy can inflict costly defeats on superior forces and regain lost initiative. 

 

Introduction 

Patton Bradley and Montgomery, Time Magazine Photo

Lieutenant General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group breakout from Normandy opened a realm of possibilities for the Allies to defeat the German Army in detail and end the war.  The manner in which the Allies exploited their success and their failure to destroy the German Army in the west in the late summer of 1944 was a key factor in prolonging the war.  Both the Allies and the Germans faced challenges due to the change in the nature of the campaign. For nearly two months they had waged a nearly static war of attrition in the Norman hedgerows.  The breakout changed the dynamic of the campaign to one of maneuver.  In the post-breakout period the Allies had several opportunities to envelope large portions of the German Army in western France, Belgium and southern Holland.  The campaign became one of maneuver and a “commander’s battle” in which it was “the decisions of the generals that determined the manner in which events unfolded in August, their successes and failures which brought about the position that was achieved by September.”[1] Prior to the breakout success in the hedgerows was determined on “the ability of British, American and Canadian units to seize ground from their German opponents on the next ridge, the next hedge, beyond the next road.” [2]The change would expose the weaknesses in the quality of allied generalship and logistics management.  The Allies failure to recognize the ability of the Germans to recover from disaster conspired with key elements in the campaign to end the war by Christmas.[3]

Grenadiers and Tanks of 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitler Jugend) in Normandy

A key decision reached early in the campaign was for Bradley’s XII Army Group to capture Brest and other Brittany ports.  This decision meant that when 3rdArmy exploited the break out the preponderance of its forces went west, the opposite way that the battle was developing.  This deprived the Americans of forces and logistical assets that could have supported the envelopment of the major part of the German Army still engaged in Normandy. Russell Weigley lays the blame for this decision on Bradley.  The dash into Brittany did little to help the Allied logistical problems and diverted much needed troops away from the focal point of the action in Normandy.[4] Hastings criticizes Bradley’s lack of imagination in the initial stages of the breakout in adhering to the original OVERLORD exploitation plan[5] rather than adapting to the situation on the ground. Patton’s biographer Carlo D’Este seconds this opinion and it makes sense from an operational standpoint.[6] Why send significant forces to an area far away from the critical part of the battle for little practical gain?  In the end German forces held out, in some cases to the end of the war, denying the Americans the use of the ports either by just holding out or by demolishing the port facilities.

Mortain: German Counter Attack and the Short Envelopment

The American exploitation of the breakout, notably by elements of Patton’s 3rdArmy pushing east combined with the continued pressure of the British Army Group toward Falaise. The breakout forced forced the Germans into a strategic decision to attempt to restore the front in Normandy or withdraw to the Seine or further east as there was no “defensive position short of the permanent fortifications of the West Wall on Germany’s frontier offered so many defensive strengths as the Normandy line the Americans had just breached and turned.”[7]

With limited options Hitler determined that German forces again needed to ensnare the allies in the hedgerows.[8] There was disagreement between Hitler and Field Marshal von Kluge regarding the offensive while von Kluge opposed it.  Hitler believed that the American breakout gave the Germans a chance to cut off the American forces in Brittany and possibly more believing that “once the coast had been reached at Avranches a beginning should be made with rolling up the entire Allied position in Normandy!”[9]

The German attack named Operation Lüttich was led by XLVII Panzer Corps assisted by elements of 1st SS Panzer Division.  Despite warnings from ULTRA the panzers achieved tactical surprise on the front of the 30th US Division at Mortain on the night of 6-7 August when the Germans attacked without the customary preparatory artillery bombardment.[10] The Germans made initial progress against the 30th Division which had recently taken over positions at Mortain.  However the 2nd Battalion 120th Infantry “Old Hickory” Regiment held key ground which enabled them to call artillery fire and air strikes on German forces attempting to advance on Avranches.[11] The Americans quickly reinforced 30th Division with elements of 2nd Armored Division, 35th Infantry Division and the veteran 4th Infantry Division to hold the line against the weakened German Panzer divisions.  Bradley and other American commanders viewed Lüttich as “an opportunity, not a threat.”[12] Bradley was “not merely confident of withstanding them, but expected to destroy them.”[13] Bradley attempted to lure more Germans into the potential trap by radio transmissions hoping that the Germans to persist in their attacks around Mortain.[14]

American Armor Advancing in Normandy

The German plan included the use of a significant number of aircraft to support the attack.  However this did not happen and German troops were furious at the failure of the Luftwaffe to shield them from Allied air attacks which devastated the Panzers.  The 300 fighters promised by the commander of Luftwaffe forces were engaged by British and American fighters and savaged so badly that no Luftwaffe units made an appearance over Mortain.[15] Despite some local success the German ground forces were turned back by the Americans who did not even halt their eastward movement further imperiling the German forces in Normandy.

Knocked out Panzer V Panther Tank at Mortain

With the Germans ensnared at Mortain, the 3rd Army driving east and the Canadians advancing on towards Falaise, Bradley suggested a short envelopment in which over 100,000 German troops would be trapped between the Patton’s troops and the Canadians who had opened their TOTALIZE offensive from Caen to Falaise on August 8th.  This modified plans for a deep envelopment by XV Corps of 3rd Army to entrap the Germans against the Seine crossings with an operation that might promise “still surer results.”[16] Speaking to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Mongenthau Bradley said that “he told the Cabinet officer he had “an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We’re about to destroy and entire hostile army.”[17] However the short envelopment was predicated on the Germans continuing their advance, had they as Hastings notes “behaved rationally, recognized the threat of envelopment to their entire front and begun a full-scale retreat east, then Bradley could indeed been accused of losing his armies a great prize.”[18]

The decision to turn the better part of 3rd Army west into Brittany deprived Bradley of forces that could have better accomplished the mission of enveloping the German 7th Army.  General Wood of 4th Armored Division to his dying day “remained embittered over the lost opportunity”[19] lost when his division was turned back into Brittany rather than being allowed to move east toward the Seine.   Weigley points out an even deeper flaw regarding the Brittany decision that was that OVERLORD planners “had not thought anything resembling the Avranches breakout and pursuit without pause to the Seine likely…” Weigley critically stated that it is among the worst forms of generalship that takes counsel of its fears. Yet that was exactly the condition of OVERLORD logistical planning.”[20]

The Falaise Pocket

Luftwaffe Fallschirmjaeger in France

The Allies did have a chance to destroy the German 7th Army.  LXVII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps as well as the remnants of II Parachute Corps and other formations battered in Normandy were attempting to move east from Mortain following the failure to break through.  The remnants of I SS Panzer Corps led by 12 SS Panzer Division Hitlerjügend and various battle groups of other decimated divisions and Army units such as 21st Panzer Division offered determined resistance to the Canadians toward Falaise.  In the south only scattered Kampfgruppen of divisions shattered in Normandy opposed Patton’s forces at Avranches.  These German units, outnumbered and without air support were aided by a fortuitous decision of the commander of the 2nd French Armored Division to move a combat command along a road needed by the American 5thArmored Division.  The delay allowed the Germans to send a battalion into the town which could have “fallen easily a few hours before.”[21]

Grenadiers of the 12th SS at Falaise

At this point the Allies were bedeviled by several failures which prevented the short double envelopment from occurring and allowed the remnants of 7th Army to escape to fight again. The Germans suffered grievous losses in men, material, and especially armored fighting vehicles, artillery and motor transport but more often than not their units retained their cohesion and ability to operate.

Carnage in the Falaise Pocket

The first failure belonged to the Canadians who failed to push the Germans out of Falaise despite overwhelming material and air superiority.  The Canadian attack Operation TOTALIZE was planned by the best of the Canadian generals, Simonds.  The operation began on a promising note but bogged down halfway to Falaise due to a quick counterattack by 12th SS Panzer kampfgruppen. The Canadians were not helped when a misguided bombing attack by “friendly” air units hit them rather than the Germans.  Likewise the inexperience of the Canadian 4th and Polish 1st Armored Divisions showed when they paused to eliminate strong points rather than bypassing them and advancing to disrupt the Germans.  As such they gave the Germans the opportunity to reform their lines.[22] The second failure was that of Montgomery who had refused to adjust army group boundaries with Americans which put more pressure on the Canadians to “renew their drive promptly and vigorously.”[23] Rather than pushing on General Crerar of Canadian 1st Army spent five days “doing what really battlewise generalship could do by regrouping and making diversionary attacks.”[24] It took Crerar over 48 hours to launch a determined attack to close the gap despite the weakness of German forces that opposed him despite the fact that even Montgomery personally called him urging him to “Close the gap between First Canadian Army and 3rd U.S. Army.”[25] General Kurt Meyer of 12th SS faulted the Canadian leadership with a failure to use imaginative planning, and noted that “none of the Canadian attacks showed the genius of a great commander.”[26] American units which Patton had cautiously advanced north of Argentan towards Falaise were recalled after Bradley was unable to convince Montgomery to alter the army-group boundary in light of the new circumstances.[27] Patton recounts that he believed that his units could have “easily entered Falaise and closed the gap” and that the “halt was a great mistake.”[28] Weigley blames Bradley as much for the halt order as much he does Montgomery for “discouraging whatever might have been done to rectify the blunder- even discouraging on August 13th a call from the Supreme Commander to Montgomery about the inter-allied boundary.”[29] Thus through a series of Allied mistakes particularly by senior commanders the first opportunity to envelop the Germans passed into history as a great yet incomplete victory.

Opportunities in South France: Operations ANVIL and DRAGOON

The invasion of South France Operations ANVIL and DRAGOON[30] had been debated by the Allies as early as April 1943.  The British resisted ANVIL from the beginning with Winston Churchill not yielding “his struggle until five days before the eventual D-Day of August 15th.”[31] American planners saw the need for the operation and had never given up on it despite its postponement due to a shortage of amphibious lift at the time of OVERLORD.  Following the invasion the perilous logistic situation created by the lack of operational major ports in Normandy and Brittany caused American planners to “believe that ANVIL was virtually imperative.”[32] Landings in the south offered significant advantages to the logistical needs of the Allies.  The major seaports and naval bases at Marseilles and Toulon were both closer to Germany than Cherbourg.  Both offered major modern port facilities and the south included rail nets that had not suffered significant damage from Allied air attacks. Likewise the presence of a major navigable river, the Rhone, made it possible to move supplies into the heart of France by water.  From a strategic point of view the move into southern France would “help Eisenhower form a front along the whole German border from the North Sea to Switzerland, to stretch the German army as perilously thin as possible for its defense of the Fatherland.”[33] ANVIL also offered the opportunity to bring more trained American divisions into the fight which could not otherwise come ashore in Normandy due to the port and supply problems.[34]

The Allies initially allotted three American divisions of 7th Army and VI Corps as well as units of the French Army based in the Mediterranean to the invasion.  Commanding VI Corps and its three veteran Divisions, the Regular Army 3rdInfantry Division, the “Rock of the Marne”, the 36th “Texas” Division and 45th“Thunderbird” Division of the National Guard was Lieutenant General Lucian Truscott.  Truscott was of the best American Corps commanders. Early in the war he had created the Rangers and had distinguished himself in Italy commanding 3rd Infantry Division.  He followed this by taking over to rescue the unhappy Anzio campaign from utter fiasco.[35] A hard driving officer and prewar friend of Patton Truscott was the ideal commander for the operation.[36]

Truscott’s forces were opposed by the weak and widely scattered German 19thArmy of General Blaskowitz’s Army Group G.  The landings were highly successful and the Americans made rapid progress inflicting heavy casualties and capturing large numbers of Germans with relatively low American casualties.  However in Blaskowitz the Americans faced a skilled commander who managed to extricate the bulk of his forces and form a continuous front with the remnants of Army Group B by mid September.  Hitler had recognized the necessity of this link up but held Blaskowitz in low regard due to his resistance to Nazi policy while Military Governor of Poland in 1939, said to Field Marshall von Rundstedt of Blaskowitz: “If he contrives to do that (i.e. join up 19th Army rapidly with the main body) then I will make him a solemn apology for everything.”[37]

Truscott made the German army his objective. Truscott pushed his units hard but was hampered by his meager forces and his tendency to outrun his supplies.  German delaying actions hampered the American advance and prevented the Americans from utterly destroying the 19th Army.   Despite this the campaign in the south prevented the Allied logistical situation in France from becoming “insurmountable” in the fall of 1944 and “contributed directly and mightily to bringing the bulk of the American Army to grips with the German army in the West, to defeat and destroy it.”[38] Had Truscott had more forces and adequate supplies he may have achieved even more than he did. One can only imagine the “what if” scenarios that could have developed in the West with the application of more force to this option rather than feed the limited number of American divisions into the cauldron of the hedgerow country.

To the Seine and Beyond

With the closing of the Falaise pocket too late to catch most of the German forces the next opportunity for the now postponed “long envelopment” was now staring the Allies in the face.  The Seine beckoned.  Could the Allies prevent the fleeing remnants of the 7th Army and Panzer Group West, soon to be renamed the 5thPanzer Army from escaping across the Seine?   Bradley’s belated decision to restart the drive to the Seine on 14 August was beset with the problem of the logistical sustainment.  The logistics problem was not limited to port facilities.  The Allies had moved well past the eastern edge of the Normandy lodgment area over two weeks before planners anticipated. Fuel to propel the Allied armies forward became a critical consideration. Despite this the Allied high command saw the opportunity to complete the destruction of the German forces fleeing Normandy and Montgomery “anticipated for weeks the possibility of the long envelopment at the Seine.”[39] Adjustments were made on the fly. The plan to pause at the Seine dictated by OVERLORD was discarded in favor of trying to cross it on the run.  XV Corps of 3rd Army had reached Mantes crossing into the British 21st Army Group zone.  Montgomery refused an American offer of trucks to assist the British and Canadians to Mantes to complete the envelopment from the west. However he gave permission for XV Corps to continue its advance into the British zone in the hopes of completing the encirclement of the estimated 75,000 German troops west of the Seine.[40]

American Soldiers Cross the Seine

Yet again the Allied hopes for the encirclement of German forces west of the Seine were dashed.  XIX Corps came up to assist XV Corps in its advance into the German rear on the 24th of August at Elbeuf.  However a scratch Kampfgrüppemade up of elements of eight panzer divisions made a stand that delayed the American forces five days.[41] The British and Canadian forces did not push hard.  The determined resistance of the panzer battle group and the failure of the British and Canadians to push harder enabled Army Group B to evacuate many of its troops, 25,000 vehicles and most of its higher headquarters across the Seine before the Canadians and XIX Corps linked up on 26 August.[42] [43] While the envelopment attempt ran its course the Americans pushed across the Seine. The Americans allowed the French 2nd Armored division to liberate Paris on August 25th and rapidly began to move east in pursuit of the German forces.

Despite horrendous losses in men and material including all but about 100 of the 2300 tanks and assault guns committed to Normandy[44] the German command rapidly organized the survivors into Kampfgrüppen.  These battle groups though hastily organized were well led and usually comprised of hardened veterans skilled in the active defense.  Field Marshall Model “Hitler’s Fireman” took command of Army Group B after Von Kluge committed suicide when returning to Germany after being implicated in the attempt on Hitler’s life.  Hitler gave the western front priority on tank replacements. Likewise reinforcements of newly formed Panzer Brigades flowed into France even as the Americans advanced east fighting not only the Germans but the gasoline shortage.[45] Patton’s army reached the Moselle but by September 2nd its tanks had run dry.  “Third Army received just 25,390 gallons, when its divisions needed at least 450,000 gallons to resume their advance.”[46] Patton continued by scavenging fuel wherever he could get it whether captured German stocks or by various creative means. Patton had his logistics officers divert fuel or send raiding parties into 1st Army’s depots. His agents bartered for fuel at port facilities and depots by offering captured souvenirs to those running those facilities in exchange for gas.[47]

American M-8 Armored Car at the Arch d’Triumph during the Liberation of Paris

The Allied shortage of gasoline, a product of both the lack of ports, damage to the French rail system and the unexpected rate of advance[48] ultimately forced Eisenhower to make the decision to halt Patton’s advance in favor of a push by Montgomery in the north. Now complicating Eisenhower’s situation the Germans Likewise the ability of the Germans to join Army Group B with Army Group G’s 1st and 19th Armies from Army Group G further assisted the German defense.  The German army’s self preservation in late August and early September became known to them as the “Miracle of the West.”[49] A successful envelopment of German forces took place at Mons just south of the Belgium border where 1st Army captured over 25,000 prisoners from units that had escaped from Normandy.[50] Throughout the campaign in France the Allies were beset by logistical problems and sometimes by bad generalship as they attempted to change the campaign plan on the fly.[51]

Antwerp and the Scheldt: Missed Opportunity

While Bradley and Patton’s American units sped across France “advancing faster and further than any Army in history,” Montgomery’s 21st Army Group crossed the Seine and began a drive that rivaled the Americans in speed.  XXX Corps under the recently appointed General Horrocks attacked out of the Seine bridgehead on 29 August.  After overcoming initial stiff resistance from the German Kampfgrüppen defending the area XXX Corps advanced with great speed capturing Brussels and Antwerp by 4 September.  Logistics also tied Montgomery’s hands just as it had Patton in the south.[52] He was forced to immobilize 8th Corps to supply XXX Corps which advanced north as 1st Canadian Army attempted to capture the channel ports.[53]

Canadian Soldiers during the Battle of the Scheldt

The quickness of the advance and erroneous decision making kept the XXX Corps attack from complete success.  This caused serious complications to further operations and which gave the Germans the break that they needed to stabilize the front.  General “Pip” Roberts commander of 11th Armored division which had just liberated Antwerp assumed that the British drive would turn east toward the Ruhr industrial area of Germany. In doing so he failed to capture the crossings over the Albert Canal.[54] Additionally he failed to advance the few miles needed to cut off the German 15th Army on the Scheldt thus missing the opportunity to trap an entire German Army against the sea.  Hastings lays the blame for this not entirely on the Division and Corps Commanders, Roberts and XXX Corps commander Horrocks, but on those responsible for the overall strategy, Eisenhower, Montgomery and Dempsey who should have realized this and especially that Montgomery “might have been expected to see for himself the pivotal importance of the Antwerp approaches.”[55] While the British rested in Antwerp the Germans blew the bridges over the Albert Canal. General Von Zangen of 15th Army took the opportunity to extricate his Army using any vessel available to cross the Scheldt. He occupied the strategic island of Walchern on the Antwerp approaches and placed his troops in position to assist in the defense of Holland and northern Germany.  Due to British inaction and his own creativity Von Zangen evacuated 65,000 troops, 225 guns, 750 vehicles and over 1000 horses across the waterway in 16 days to fight again.[56]

North of the Albert General Kurt Chill in the typical fashion of so many German commanders in a crisis situation took charge and halted the panicked retreat of German forces into Holland. Chill organized personnel from all branches of the German military into something resembling an Army.[57] Likewise Generals Bittrich of II SS Panzer Corps and Harmel of 10th SS Panzer Division salvaged “vehicles abandoned by other groups and weapons from deserted army depots” including 12 brand new howitzers on abandoned train.  The improvisation of the German commanders in these few days would be of decisive importance in the coming days.[58]

While the British paused to regroup in Belgium the Germans took the opportunity to form a new Army, the 1st Parachute Army under the Luftwaffe paratroop expert, General Kurt Student. 1st Parachute Army was hardly an army at all, barely the size of a fully manned allied division.  Made up of battle groups formed around remnants of the elite 6th Parachute regiment, assorted parachute training battalions, Flak units, a hodge-podge of Army Kampfgrüppen, General Chill’s units and divisions evacuated from the Scheldt, Student laid out a defensive line along the Albert Canal.[59] Student expected the British to attack when he was so terribly weak. He could not believe that he was not attacked when his line was most vulnerable to a determined assault that much of the German command believed would cause the front in Belgium to collapse.  The British Guards Armored division slowly advanced from the Albert to the Meuse-Escaut canal but the German defense had assured that any further advance to the north would be on a narrow front with a vulnerable left flank.[60] Von Rundstedt’s new Chief of staff at OB West Siegfried Westphal noted that “the situation was desperate. A major defeat anywhere along the front-which was so full of gaps that it did not deserve that name would lead to catastrophe if the enemy were to fully exploit the opportunities.”[61] Hastings and Weigley both note that the British failure to close the gap were of decisive importance to the coming campaign in Holland.[62]

Arnhem: The Failed Vertical Envelopment

Operation Market Garden, the Largest Airborne Operation in History

The Allies still believed there was the chance to break into Germany in 1944.  Lacking the logistical base to sustain a wide front advance Eisenhower opted to make Montgomery the primary effort. Montgomery planned to utilize the 1stAllied Airborne Army in a bold and “in the context of Anglo-American generalship in France, refreshingly daring”[63] operation.[64] The concept of “vertical envelopment” had been advocated by General Marshall and General H.H. Arnold and throughout the campaign 18 airborne exploitation operations had been planned “each of them cancelled by the rapidity of the advance of the ground forces.”[65] Eisenhower made Montgomery the primary effort on September 10th and Montgomery “immediately detailed planning …for an idea he had already conceived to use the airborne reserve.”[66]

American Paratroops in Holland

The plan was Operation MARKET-GARDEN and to be successful Montgomery’s forces would have to cross 8 water obstacles including 3 major rivers.[67] He had to use one two lane highway bordered by soft Dutch podder, thick woods and drainage ditches that restricted armor and mechanized forces to the road itself.[68] The was for three Allied airborne divisions, the American 82nd and 101st, the British 1st Airborne and the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade to secure the bridges over the waterways between the front and Arnhem 65 miles north of the front.  The goal was to establish a bridgehead over the Rhine for the British Second Army to advance deep into the German heartland.  XXX Corps was to advance up this “corridor of death” and link up with each of the airborne divisions with the goal of breaking the German defense in the west.

British Paras in the ruins of Arnhem

Nearly all the writers agree that had the offensive been launched 7-10 days earlier when the Germans were in complete disarray it might have succeeded in its objective of crossing the Rhine and getting into Germany.  Hastings and Weigley both believe that the axis of the offensive was wrong and that the attack should have been made further south using 21st Army Group and 1st Army to drive to the Rhine.[69] All believe that an attack by Patton’s 3rd Army would not have achieved significant strategic gain as he now faced the bulk of the Wehrmacht’s strength and that there was little of strategic value in the part of Germany he could attack.

German Sturmgeschutz III in Arnhem 

The attack was made on 17 September.   The shortcomings of the plan became rapidly apparent.[70] German resistance in South Holland was much stronger than expected, the Son bridge was demolished by the Germans which created a major delay as bridging equipment had to be found and brought forward.  Due to the presence of battle groups from the 10th SS Panzer Division and other units dug in the city around the bridge the 82nd could not secure the Nijmegen Bridge until XXX Corps arrived.  The 1st Airborne was landed too far away from Arnhem Bridge to secure it in the face of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions of II SS Panzer Corps.  Due to a shortage of aircraft and refusal of the air transport command to make two drops on the first day the drops took 3 days to get all the airborne units into the fight.  The single road ensured that the spearhead of the XXX Corps advance was limited to a squadron of tanks and supporting infantry on a front two tanks wide.[71] The flanks were weakly held and German units salvaged from the Scheldt attacked the west and units from the Germany proper attacked the 82nd’s lodgment area.  Communications problems in the 1st Airborne Division prevented it from communicating with its own units as well as higher headquarters leaving everyone wondering what was happening.[72] The advance of XXX Corps was often both before Eindhoven and after Nijmegen lacking in urgency.[73] When all was said and done 1st Airborne Division was all but destroyed and had to be evacuated from its bridgehead and the operation ended in failure.[74] Numerous events contributed to the failure of the operation, many of which occurred before it was planned.  The German ability to make an army out of nothing coupled with planning which was based more on assumptions about what the Germans were incapable of doing rather than what was happening on the ground was a major fact. Likewise the British command discounted intelligence reports of Panzers in or near the drop the drop zones.

SS Panzer Grenadiers in Arnhem

The plan itself left much to chance and was built around the assumption that the Germans lacked the ability to stop them, neglecting the restrictions in which the Allied forces would have to execute the plan. If things could go wrong they did, especially in the 1st Airborne area of operations. Critical equipment failed to arrive, communications broke down, 2 of 3 battalions detailed to seize the Arnhem Bridge were stopped by a mixed bag of German forces including Panzers, an SS training battalion and various Army units and only one battalion reached the bridge. The failure to plan for and establish a landing zone on the south side of the Rhine kept them from being able to take the bridge, which became a key factor in the German ability to move troops from Arnhem to Njimegen. General Urquart was trapped in a house by German units which posted themselves around it and the commander of 1st Airborne Brigade was wounded.  The Germans succeeded in over running the drop zones and without communications British Airborne could not let the air transport know that supplies were not getting to them.

Summary

This phase of the French campaign exhibited the best and the worst of Allied generalship. The reasons; generally inexperienced American leadership at this level of warfare and poor leadership by the more experienced British command.  The key failures were logistics management and the strategic focus following the breakout which changed the nature of the planned campaign. The Allies were running at the limit of their capacity, shortages of fuel and other supplies and heavy casualties incurred in Normandy weakened the Allied advance demonstrating von Clausewitz’s understanding of what happens when a offensive reaches its culminating point. The drive into Brittany, the failure at the Falaise gap, the failure to close the door at the Seine, the failure to trap the 15th Army at the Scheldt and its failure to cross the Albert Canal, as well as the Market-Garden fiasco can all be directly attributed to Allied leadership at high levels.  Likewise the extraordinary ability of German commanders to restore seemingly hopeless situations all demonstrated how Clausewitz’s understood “genius” in war.

The campaign from the Normandy to Arnhem was one of spotty performance by the Allies especially in terms of generalship and logistics planning and the ability to improvise.  The Germans suffered from Hitler’s interference, especially at Mortain where he insisted on counterattack versus withdraw. Likewise they suffered from a critical lack of air support.  However German commanders were masters of improvisation taking advantage of Allied errors and confusion to recover the situation time and time again.

Notes

[1] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.280

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hastings, Max. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 Alfred a Knopf, New York, 2004 p.37.  Hastings comments that “British planners threw away it had learned since 1939 about the speed of reaction of Hitler’s army, its brilliance at improvisation, its dogged skill in defense, its readiness always to punish allied mistakes.”

[4] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981pp.184-186

[5] Ibid. Hastings. Overlord pp.282-283

[6] D’Este,  Carlo. Patton: A Genius for War. Harper Collins Publishers New York, 1995 pp.632-633

[7] Ibid.  p.195

[8] Ibid. Also

[9] Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45 Presidio Press, Novato CA 1964 pp.449-450.

[10] Ibid pp.195-196. Weigley notes that Montgomery and most other Allied commanders  had been optimistic in not anticipating the German counter attack despite the ULTRA warnings, while Bradley and Patton were cautious in making troop deployments.

[11] Michael Reynolds in Steel Inferno: The 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandynotes that the Americans inflicted “astonishing casualties on the northern thrusts of 2nd SS Panzer and remained undefeated when the Germans withdrew 4 days later.”  Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: The 1st SS Panzer Corps in NormandyDell Publishing, New York, 1997 p.264

[12] Ibid. Hastings Overlord p.283

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. Weigley p.199.

[15] Carrell, Paul. Invasion! They’re Coming!” Trans. E. Osers, Originally published as Sie Kommen! Gerhard Stalling Verlag 1960, Bantam Books New York, 1964, 5th Printing June 1984. p. 249

[16] Ibid. Weigley p. 199

[17] Ibid. p.200

[18] Ibid. Hastings. Overlord. pp.282-283

[19] Ibid. D’Este. p.631

[20] Ibid. Weigley. p.286  He also points out that the Brittany diversion could have been “worse had it not been for Montgomery’s influence”  p.288

[21] Ibid. p. 202

[22] Ibid. p.204

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy Dell Publishing New York, 1997. p.320.

[26] Meyer, Kurt Grenadiers trans. By  Michael Mende and Robert J.  Edwards, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Inc. Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada 2001 p.290.

[27] Ibid. Hastings Overlord pp.288-289.

[28] Patton, George S. War As I Knew It Bantam Books NY  published 1980, originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company 1947. pp.101-102

[29] Ibid. Weigley p.209  Weigley quotes Major Hansen, Bradley’s aide in stating that the Falaise halt orde was “the only decision he has ever questioned.”

[30] DRAGOON was the airborne component of he south France operation.

[31] Ibid. p.218

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid. pp.222-224

[36] Patton and Truscott had a clash during the Sicilian campaign over Patton’s push for an amphibious operation accusing him of being “afraid to fight” and threatening to relieve him but then throwing his arm around him and offering him a drink. See D’Este pp.526-528  This incident was made famous in the movie “Patton.”

[37] Giziowski, Richard. The Enigma of General Blaskowitz. Hippocrene Books, New York 1997 p.338

[38] Ibid. Weigley

[39] Ibid. p.241

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid. p.243

[42] Ibid. p.246

[43] Hans Von Luck, the commanding a Kampfgrüppe of 21st Panzer Division describes how he and his troops camouflaged his “Schwimmwagen” with bushes to cross the Seine successfully disguising the vehicle to avoid persistant Allied air attacks. VonLuck, Hans Panzer Commander Dell Publishing New York 1989. p.209

[44] Ibid. Weigley. p.255

[45] Weigley, Hastings and D’Este all place a fair amount of blame for the logistical crisis on the commander of the COMMZ, General John C.H. Lee.

[46] Ibid. Hastings, Armageddon p.24

[47] Ibid D’Este pp.647-652

[48] Weigley notes that OVERLORD plans had not envision support American divisions for offensive operations across the Seine until D+120, yet by “D+90, sixteen United States divisions were already 200 kilometers beyond the Seine.” p.268.  Hastings and Weigley also note the waste in the American supply system noting that of “twenty-two million fuel jerrycans shipped to France since D-Day, half had vanished since September.” Hastings. Armageddon p.23.

[49] Ibid. Weigley

[50] Ibid. p.275-276

[51] Both Weigley and Hastings note the logistical problems of the British which not only included the problems that beset the Americans but problems of their own making including poor trucks of numerous makes rather than the standardized American trucks.  Hastings notes that for a time around Antwerp that “Montgomery’s armies were obliged for a time to commandeer thousands of horse-drawn wagons abandoned by the Wehrmacht, to make good its shortage of vehicles for the haulage of supplies.” Hastings. Armageddon p.23

[52] Weigley notes that Montgomery had a fiasco of British logistics in which some “1,400 British three-ton lorries, plus all the replacement engines for this model, had been discovered to have faulty pistons rendering them useless.” p.281.

[53] Ibid. Hastings. Armageddon. p.20

[54] Ryan in A BridgeToo Far quotes the XXX Corps Commander Horrocks who said in his memoirs “My excuse is that my eyes were entirely fixed on the Rhine and everything else seemed of subsidiary importance.” Ryan, Corrnelius. A Bridge Too Far Fawcett Popular Library by Arrangement with Simon and Schuster Publishing, New York, 1974  p.60

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid. Hastings p.20.  Weigley on p.293 gives a higher figure of 86,000 troops, 600 artillery pieces, 6,000 vehicles and 6,000 horses.

[57] Ibid. Ryan. p.49

[58] Reynolds, Michael Sons of the Reich Casemate, Havertown PA 2002 p.98

[59] A significant unit that was to plan a key role in the German defense against XXX Corps was Kampfgrüppe Walter formed around the 6th Parachute Regiment and other assorted units.  It is noted in almost every volume devoted to the campaign.

[60] Ibid. Weigley. p.294

[61] Ibid. Ryan. p.52

[62] See Hastings p.22 “The fumbled handling of Antwerp was among the principal causes of Allied failure to break into Germany in 1944.  It was not merely that the port was unavailable for the shipment of supplies; through two months that followed, a large part of Montgomery’s forces had to be employed upon a task that could have been accomplished in days if the necessary energy and “grip” been exercised at the beginning of September, when the enemy was incapable of resistance.”  and Weigley pp.293-294

[63] Ibid. Weigley p.288

[64] Hastings notes that since the Airborne Army had been created that “the apostles of the new art of envelopment from the sky were determined that it should be used.” Armageddon p.35

[65] Ibid. p.289

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid. Weigley. p.291

[68] Ibid. p.295

[69] Also see Ryan. p.81 Ryan notes that in the planning General Dempsey because of his doubts about the ability of 2nd Army suggested an attack “seizing the Rhine crossing at Wesel….” as “it would be better, he believed to advance in conjunction with the U.S. First Army northward toward Wesel.”

[70] All the commentators make reference too the misgivings voiced at the final planning conference. Hastings comments on Gavin who believed that “If I get through this one, I will be very lucky.”

[71] Ibid. Weigley. p.295

[72] Hastings comments “It was a scandal-for which in the Russian or German armies some signals officers would have been shot-that the communications of 1stAirborne Division remained almost non-existent from 17 September onwards.Armaggedon p.58

[73] Ibid. p.293

[74] Casualties in 1st Airborne were high, of “the original 10,005 man force only 2,163 troopers, along with 160 Poles and 75 Dorsets, came back across the Rhine. After nine days the division had approximately 1,200 dead and 6,642 missing, wounded or captured.” Ryan p.509.

Bibliography

Carrell, Paul. Invasion! They’re Coming!” Trans. E. Osers, Originally published as Sie Kommen! Gerhard Stalling Verlag 1960, Bantam Books New York, 1964, 5th Printing June 1984

D’Este,  Carlo. Patton: A Genius for War. Harper Collins Publishers New York, 1995

Giziowski, Richard. The Enigma of General Blaskowitz. Hippocrene Books, New York 1997

Hastings, Max. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 Alfred a Knopf, New York, 2004

Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984

Meyer, Kurt Grenadiers trans. By  Michael Mende and Robert J.  Edwards, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Inc. Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada 2001

Patton, George S. War As I Knew It Bantam Books NY  published 1980, originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company 1947.

Reynolds, Michael Sons of the Reich Casemate, Havertown PA 2002

Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy Dell Publishing New York, 1997

Ryan, Corrnelius. A Bridge Too Far Fawcett Popular Library by Arrangement with Simon and Schuster Publishing, New York, 1974

Von Luck, Hans Panzer Commander Dell Publishing New York 1989

Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45 Presidio Press, Novato CA 1964

Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981

1 Comment

Filed under History, Military, nazi germany, us army, world war two in europe

The Longest Day and Afterwards: D-Day and the Normandy Campaign, an Introduction

The author with Marines at Point du Hoc, Normandy in 2004

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every year about this time I try to write about D-Day.  This year I spent more time on the Battle of Midway writing or rewriting a total of five articles.

Since we are now about to begin a time of major repairs to our home due to flooding from an plugged air conditioning condensation drains I have decided to do is to re-post a short research paper that I did for one of my Master’s degree courses tonight, actually posting it on Sunday night for publication today, and hope to follow it up with some more articles over the week on specific aspects and personalities of the campaign.  What I hope is that people that are not familiar with the campaign as well as those that are can use this as a portal to other resources on the web and in print.

I have visited Normandy once in 2004 on a trip with the Marines of the Marine Security Force Company Europe that took me to Belleau Wood as well as Normandy.  In both places I had the good fortune to be able to explain aspects of both battles, at Normandy discussing the invasion from the German side of the fence.  The Normandy battlefields are well worth visiting.  Hopefully in the next few years I will get a chance to go back and do some serious exploring.

Introduction

General Dwight D Eisenhower Commander in Chief Allied Forces Europe

The American landings on Omaha Beach were critical to the success of the Allied invasion northwestern Europe in the overall Overlord plan.  Without success at Omaha there would have been a strong chance that the German 7th Army and Panzer Group West could have isolated the remaining beachheads, and even if unsuccessful at throwing the Allies into the sea could have produced a stalemate that would have bled the Allies white.  This quite possibly could have led to a political and military debacle for the western allies which would have certainly changed the course of World War II and maybe the course of history.[i] This is not to say the Germans would have won the war, but merely to state that a defeat on Omaha could have changed the outcomes of the war significantly.   Subsequent to the successful landing there were opportunities both for the Allies and the Germans to change the way that the campaign unfolded, thus the battles leading up to the breakout at Avranches are critical to its development and the subsequent campaign in France.

OVERLORD: The Preparations

Eisenhower’s Key Lieutenants: Patton, Bradley and Montgomery

The planning for the Normandy invasion began in earnest after the QUADRANT conference in Quebec in August 1943.  The timetable for the operation 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.[ii] Prior to this there had been some planning by both the British and Americans for the eventual invasion initially named ROUNDUP.  These preparations and plans included 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.        The failure at 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.[iii] Despite this the Americans led by General Marshall pushed for an early invasion of northwest Europe. 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 conflicted 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 once they landed. This especially included what one writer described as “the maze of troubles awaiting behind the French shore.”[iv]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B

Despite conflicts between the Americans and British political and military leadership the planning for the Normandy landings detailed in NEPTUNE and OVERLORD moved ahead.  General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed as the commander of SHAEF with his major subordinates for Land, Air and Sea which caused consternation on both sides of the Atlantic.[v] [vi] The planned operation was expanded from the initial 3 division assault on a narrow front to a minimum 5 division assault on a broad front across Normandy[vii]supplemented by a strong airborne force.[viii] 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.”[ix] It is ironic in a sense that the British avoidance of the head on attack was based on their known lack of manpower.  Britain had few 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 shortage of infantry forces would cause great consternation among the Allies as the campaign in France wore on.

German Beach Obstacles

The Germans too faced manpower shortages due to the immense losses sustained on the Eastern front, those lost in Africa and those tied down in Italy, the Balkans and Norway as well as the drain caused by Luftwaffe Field Divisions and troops diverted into the Waffen-SS.   The German Army resorted to smaller divisions and the created many “static” divisions manned by elderly or invalid Germans to plug the gaps along the Atlantic wall. The Germans were also forced to recruit “Volksdeutsch” and foreign “volunteers” to fill out both Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formations.

German fortifications at the Pas de Calais

Prior to the final decision to mount an invasion the Allied planners had contended with the location of the assault in northwestern France.  The Pas de Calais provided 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.  The fiasco at Dieppe had provided ample proof of what could happen when making an assault into a heavily fortified port.  Likewise the mouth of the Seine near Le Harve was rejected because of the few beaches suitable for landing 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.[x]This left Normandy which offered access to a sufficient number of ports and offered some protection from the weather. Normandy offered options to advance the campaign toward the “Breton ports or Le Harve as might be convenient.”[xi] 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.

Rommel inspecting beach obstacles

Once Normandy was selected as the location for the strike by the Allies, the planning sessions remained contentious.  This was especially true when the Allies debated the amount and type of amphibious lift that could be provided for the landings, particularly 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 had an impact in the Mediterranean and resulted in ANVIL being postponed until later in the summer.

“Dummy” Sherman Tank: The Allies created a fictional Army Group to deceive German planners

As part of their preparations the Allies launched a massive deception campaign, Operation FORTITUDE.  This operation utilized the fictitious First Army Group under the “command” of General George Patton. Patton was still smarting from his relief of command of 7th Army following slapping commanded an “Army Group” which incorporated the use of dummy camp sites, dummy tanks, aircraft and vehicles, falsified orders of battle and communications to deceive German intelligence.[xii] The success of this effort was heightened by the fact that all German intelligence agents in the U.K. had been neutralized or turned by the British secret service.  Additionally the Luftwaffe’s limited air reconnaissance could only confirm the pre-invasion build ups throughout England without determining the target of the invasion.[xiii] The German intelligence chief in the west, Colonel Baron von Roenne “was deceived by FORTITUDE’s fantasy invasion force for the Pas de Calais.”[xiv] Despite this Commander of the 7thArmy 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 June 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.[xv] Allied intelligence was aided by ULTRA intercepts of coded German wireless transmissions. However this was less of a factor than during the African and Italian campaigns as more German communications were sent via secure telephone and telegraph lines vice wireless.[xvi] Allied deception efforts were for the most part successful in identifying German forces deployed in Normandy. However they were uncertain about the location of the 352nd Infantry Division which had been deployed along OMAHA and taken units of the 709th Infantry Division under its command when it moved to the coast.[xvii]

USAAF B-17 Bombers and others helped isolate German forces in Normandy by bombing railroads, bridges, and supply lines

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.[xviii] A more effective effort was led by General Brereton and his Ninth Air Force which was composed of medium bombers and fighters.  Brereton’s aircraft attacked bridges and rapidly achieved success in crippling German efforts to reinforce Normandy.[xix] Max Hastings gives more credit to the American bombing campaign in Germany to crippling the German defense in the west. General Spaatz and the 8th Air Force destroyed German production capacity in oil and petroleum as well as the degraded the German fighter force.  The American daylight raids so seriously degraded the German fighter force that it could not mount effective resistance to the invasion.[xx] Russell Weigley also notes that Albert Speer the Reich Armaments Minister said that “it was the oil raids of 1944 that decided the war.”[xxi]

 

US Navy LST’s being loaded for the invasion

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.”[xxii] American preparations were thorough and ambitious, but the American assault would go through the most heavily defended sector of German defenses in Normandy.  The landing beaches were wide and 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.”[xxiii] Dug in along those bluffs was the better part of the 352nd Division. The Americans compounded their 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.[xxiv]

Dual Drive amphibious tanks were included as part of the US invasion package

Weigley believes that the American view of “tanks as instruments of mobility rather than of breakthrough power.” Likewise the Americans victories in the First World War were won by infantry with little tank support.[xxv] In this aspect the Americans were less receptive to utilizing all available technology to support their landings, something that when considering the fact that Americans were great lovers of gadgets and technology. The British use of the Armor, including the “Funnies” 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 during the initial landings.[xxvi]

 

Rommel with Artillerymen of the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy

German preparations for an Allied landing in Normandy were less advanced than the Pas de Calais.  However they had made great strides since late 1943. Field Marshal Rommel greatly 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 Rommel did not get everything that he wanted.  The OKW only allotted him two Panzer Divisions to be deployed near the Normandy beaches.  Only one of these 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. [xxvii]

OMAHA: The Landings

The venerable USS Nevada, resurrected from the mud of Pearl Harbor bombarding German positions at Utah Beach

Like the rest of the Allied invasion forces the 1st and 29th U.S. Infantry Divisions set sail from their embarkation ports with the intent of landing on June 5th.  General Bradley, commanding the First Army until the American XII Army Group would be activated accompanied the invasion force.  The OMAHA landing was under the command of General Gerow and his V Corps while VII Corps led by the 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah supported by airdrops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions inland.  American command and control during the invasion was exercised from sea as in the Pacific, although General Officers were to go ashore with each of the American divisions.  A severe channel storm disrupted the plan to land on the 5th and Eisenhower delayed the invasion one day catching a break in the weather and electing to go on the 6th.[xxviii] This delay while uncomfortable for the embarked troops caused the Germans to believe that no invasion would take place until the next favorable tide and moon cycle later in the month.[xxix] The assumption that no invasion was possible ensured that a number of key senior German leaders, including Rommel were absent from the invasion front when the Allies landed.[xxx]

US Troops ride a LCVP toward Omaha 

The landing beaches at OMAHA stretched about 6500 meters from Colleville-Sur-Mer to Vierville-Sur-Mere in the west.  The beaches are wide with bluffs overlooking them and a seawall between the beaches and the bluffs.  Additionally several small towns dot the beach. To the west of the town of Vierville, a prominent height overlooked the entire beachhead.  Named Pont du Hoc, it was believed to house a 150mm battery sighted where it could enfilade the OMAHA landing zones.  The Americans assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion to make a seaborne assault to land, scale the cliffs and take the battery.  Companies from this battalion made a heroic landing and scaled the cliffs to capture the strongpoint only to discover that the guns had not been emplaced.  The Rangers took heavy casualties and held their isolated beachhead against German counterattacks until relieved by the 29th Division on the morning of June 8th.[xxxi]

Landing craft passing the USS Augusta in heavy seas heading toward Omaha Beach

H-Hour for OMAHA was 0630.  Unfortunately the assault troops were transferred to their LCVP landing craft 16-20 kilometers from the beach.  The result was a long and dangerous ride in the small craft for the infantry.  Most of the infantry were completely soaked in sea spay and seasick before going ashore and they carried loads far above what they normally would carry into battle.[xxxii] The Armor support was one battalion of DD tanks, the 741stArmored Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry Regiment of 1st Infantry Division. These were also launched too far out and nearly all of the tanks were swamped and lost before firing a shot in anger.[xxxiii] Other American support units needed to provide firepower on the beach were equally unfortunate. Weigley notes that at OMAHA “at least 10 of the LCVPs sank” as did “the craft carrying almost all of the 105mm howitzers that were to be the first artillery ashore after the tanks.”[xxxiv] The losses would cripple the assault on OMAHA and nearly cause its abandonment.

Bloody Omaha

As the soldiers of the American divisions on OMAHA came ashore they faced German defenders of the 352nd, 716th and a regiment of the 709th Infantry Division, the latter under the tactical command of the 352nd.   Without the bulk of their tanks artillery and lacking close air support the Americans struggled across the beaches and were cut down in large numbers before being pinned down behind the sea wall.[xxxv] With the Americans pinned down on the beach unable to advance, the time tables for the reinforcing waves became snarled amid the German beach obstacles which had not been cleared.  This was in large part due to 40% casualties among the Combat Engineers and the loss of all but five bulldozers.[xxxvi] Naval officers were frustrated in their attempts to provide naval gunfire support by the lack of identifiable targets on the beaches.  Yet German strongpoint’s were “knocked out by either by superbly directed vigorous gunfire from destroyers steaming as close as 800 yards offshore, or by determined action from Rangers or infantry.[xxxvii]

 

US Infantry struggles ashore at Omaha

Soldiers ashore discovered that they were not facing the static 716th Division but the veteran 352nd Division as well.[xxxviii] Only the leadership and actions of Brigadier General Norman Cota the 29th Division’s Deputy Commander and Colonel Charles Canham of the 116th Infantry kept the situation from complete collapse.  They were able to rally their troops. Under their leadership small units from the 116th which had its linage back to the “Stonewall Brigade” as well as elements of the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments began to move forward.  Surviving junior leaders began to lead survivors through the dunes and up the bluffs to attack German defenders of the roads leading up from the beach from the flank and rear.  A mid-day break in the weather allowed some close tactical air support giving the troops badly needed support.

US 1st Infantry Division Troops at the Omaha sea wall

With the situation desperate General Bradley considered the evacuation of OMAHA.  At sea events were as confused as Bradley and his staff attempted to make sense of what was going on.  Even later in the evening there was discussion of diverting all further reinforcements from OMAHA to the British beaches.[xxxix]At 1330 hours “Gerow signaled Bradley: “Troops formerly pinned down on beaches…advancing up heights behind beaches.”[xl] By the end of the day Bradley’s aid Major Hansen noted Bradley’s comments to Collins: “They are digging in on Omaha beach with their fingernails. I hope they can push in and get some stuff ashore.”  And Montgomery: “Someday I’ll tell Gen[eral] Eisenhower just how close it was for a few hours.”[xli]

German Fallschirmjaeger Trüppen in Normandy, the German Parachute forces fighting in an infantry role were very effective in the Normandy campaign

The landings at OMAHA succeeded at a cost of over 2000 casualties.  Critical to the success of the landings were the German inability to reinforce their defending troops on the beach.  Likewise the weakness of the units available to mount the standard counterattack that was critical to German defensive plans on D-Day itself kept the Germans from driving the Americans back into the Channel. The 352nd Division fought superbly under the full weight of V Corps and the British XXX Corps on its right suffering heavy casualties as they contested every inch of ground.  The 716th Division composed of second rate troops melted under the onslaught.  Allied air supremacy played a key role as sorties by the 8th and 9th Air Forces helped keep German reinforcements from arriving and interdicted counter attacks inland.  Weigley credits the Allied air superiority with the success of the landings and with limiting casualties.[xlii]Von Rundstedt and other German commanders in France were limited by the delay and refusal of Hitler and OKW to release Panzer reserves when needed most early on June 6th.  By the close of D-Day allied forces had secured the five invasion beaches but not achieved their objectives of taking Caen and Bayuex.  Since the forces on the various beachheads had not linked up the beaches would have been extremely vulnerable had the Germans been able to mount a rapid counterattack by Panzers and strong infantry formations as they had at Salerno.

Major Battles to the Breakout at Avranches

Securing the Beachheads

It took the V and VII Corps nearly a week to secure the beachheads. German forces including the stalwart 352nd Division resisted stubbornly and mounted sharp local counterattacks which kept the Americans off balance.  Elements of the 29th Division and the 90th Division began to push inland and to expand the beachhead toward UTAH. Opposed by the 352nd Division and elements of the 91st Airlanding Division and other non-divisional units the fighting revealed the inexperience of the American infantry formations and the uneven quality of their leadership.  As the Americans tackled the Germans in the labyrinth of the Bocage country the defensive skill of the Germans cost many American lives and delayed the joining of the beachheads. On the 13th the link up was solid enough to enabling the Americans to conduct the follow up operations needed to expand the beachhead, secure Cherbourg and clear the Cotentin.

A Panther tank of the Panzer Lehr Division in Normandy

In some American divisions the hard fighting triggered a leadership crisis.  The lack of success of the 90th Division led General “Lightening Joe” Collins of VII Corps relieve the division commander and two regimental commanders of command, a portent of things to come with other American units.[xliii] As the V and VII corps pushed into the “Bocage” they were followed by a massive build up of troops and equipment delivered to the beaches and to the artificial “Mulberry” harbors.  Despite their numeric superiority, air supremacy and massive Naval gunfire support and facing the weakened 352nd, 91st and the 6thParachute Regiment and other less than quality formations, survivors of the static divisions, the Americans made painfully slow progress as they moved off the beachhead and into the Bocage.[xliv]

The Capture of Cherbourg

US Soldiers of the 29th Division surrender to German Fallschirmjaeger in Normandy

Once the beachheads had been consolidated the Americans turned their attention toward Cherbourg. Cherbourg was the major naval port at the far northwest tip of the Cotentin.  D-Day planners counted on its swift capture and rehabilitation to serve as a supply port for the Allied forces. The 9th Division drove south to the coast near Barneville on the 18th of June cutting off the German forces covering the approaches to Cherbourg.[xlv] This put the Germans in a bind as the 7th Army “had to split its forces in the peninsula in order to hold the fortress a little longer and thus to gain time for the establishment of the southern front on the Cotentin peninsula.[xlvi] The German forces arrayed before Cherbourg waged a desperate defense centered around the 243rd Infantry Division and other assorted battle groups of LXXXIV Corps, whose commander General Marcks one of the best German Generals was killed in action on 12 June.[xlvii] The U.S. VII Corps under Collins with the 9th, 4th and 79th Divisions pushed up the peninsula capturing Cherbourg on June 29th.  Bradley pushed hard for the capture of the port as the Mulberries had been ravaged by a severe Channel storm the week prior. The port of Cherbourg was thoroughly demolished by German engineers and would not be fully operational for months. The loss of the Mulberries and delay in Cherbourg’s availability meant that few supplies were landed on the beaches would “hinder the escape from the constricting land of the hedgerows into which the Americans had come in search of a port.[xlviii]

The Battle of Caumont Gap

Panzer IV Tank in Normandy

V Corps under Gerow made a cautious advance by phase lines toward Caumont, St Lo and Carentan.  The deliberate advance by the Corps toward a line weakly held by the Reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was directed by Bradley who did not want to divert attention from the effort against Cherbourg.   After capturing Caumont V Corps halted and continued aggressive patrolling to deceive the Germans while digging in.[xlix] The possibility existed that a strong push against the weak German line could have led to an opportunity to envelope the German line west of Caen. This was a missed opportunity that in part led to the bloody and controversial campaign to capture Caen.[l]

British efforts around Caen

German Panzer Ace Waffen SS Captain Michale Wittman single handedly destroyed a British Battalion at Villers Bocage in his Tiger Tank

Montgomery had ambitious plans to break out of Normandy by capturing Caen on D-Day and driving toward Falaise and Argentan.  The British plans for this were frustrated by the rapid reinforcement of the sector by the Germans and the activities of 21st Panzer, Panzer Lehr, and the 12th SS Panzer Divisions.  A flanking maneuver at Villers-Bocage was frustrated by a few Tiger tanks led by the legendary Waffen SS Panzer commander Captain Michael Wittman whose tanks devastated a British Armored battalion.[li]

Wreckage of a British Battalion at Villers Bocage

A series of disastrous attacks toward Caen (EPSOM, CHARNWOOD and GOODWOOD) strongly supported by air strikes and Naval gunfire finally succeeded in taking that unfortunate city on July 18th but failed to take the heights beyond the town.[lii]

British operations like Operation Epsom met setback after setback against dug in German forces outside of Caen

Against crack well dug in German forces the British took heavy casualties in tanks and infantry seriously straining their ability to conduct high intensity combat operations in the future.[liii] The one benefit, which Montgomery would claim after the war as his original plan was that German forces were fixed before Caen and ground down so they could not be used against Bradley’s breakout in the west at St Lo.[liv]

Clearing the Bocage: The Battle of the Cotentin Plain

US M-5 Light Tank in Normandy

Other German forces arrived, and reinforced the Caumont gap which no longer “yawned invitingly in front of V Corps.” [lv] Bradley wished to push forward rapidly to achieve a breakthrough in the American sector.[lvi] Facing the most difficult terrain in France amid the Bocage and swamps that limited avenues of approach to the American divisions committed to the offensive.  The Americans now faced their old foe the 352nd division as well various elements of II Parachute Corps, the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Lehr Divisions.  American tanks and infantry made slow progress and incurred high losses as they dueled the Germans at close range.  In the VIII Corps sector alone the attack “consumed twelve days and 10,000 casualties to cross eleven kilometers of the Bocage…the achievements of the VII and XIX Corps were no better than comparable.[lvii]

St. Lo

US Tanks advancing with German prisoners moving back to US lines at St Lo

St. Lo was a key to Bradley’s breakout efforts.  His Army had to capture it and the roads leading out of it to launch Operation COBRA along the coast.  The task of capturing St. Lo was assigned to GEROW’S V Corps and Corlett’s XIX Corps.  They faced opposition from the tough paratroops of the German 3rd Parachute Division of II Parachute Corps.  The 2nd, 29th, 30th and 83rd Divisions fought a tough battle advancing eleven kilometers again with high numbers of casualties especially among the infantry to secure St. Lo on 18 July.[lviii] They finally had cleared the hedgerows.  St Lo epitomized the struggle that the American Army had to overcome in the Bocage.  Hard fighting but outnumbered German troops in excellent defensive country exacted a terrible price in American blood despite the Allied control of the skies.[lix]

Operation COBRA

US 155mm Howitzers in Normandy, the Germans had profound respect for American Artillery, a respect that they did not share for American Infantry or Armor forces

With the Bocage behind him Bradley desired to push the Germans hard.  COBRA was his plan to break out of Normandy.  Bradley ably assisted by Collins they realized that the better terrain, road networks favored a breakout.  American preparations included a technical advance that allowed tanks to plow through hedgerows. This was the “Rhino” device fashioned by American troops which was installed on 3 of every 5 First Army Tanks for the operation.[lx] VII Corps was to lead the attack which was to begin on July 24th. American planning was more advanced than in past operations.  Collins and Bradley planned for exploitation operations once the breakthrough had been made. A massive air bombardment would precede the attack along with an artillery barrage by Collins corps artillery which was reinforced by additional battalions.   A mistake by the heavy bombers in the 24th resulted in the American troops being hit with heavy casualties and a postponement of the attack until the 25th.[lxi] The following day the attack commenced.  Another mistake by the bombers led to more American casualties[lxii] but VII Corps units pressed forward against the determined resistance of the survivors of Panzer Lehr and the remnants of units that had fought the Americans since the invasion began.  Although it was a “slow go” on the 25th Bradley and his commanders were already planning for and beginning to execute the breakout before the Germans could move up reinforcements.  The 26th of June brought renewed attacks accompanied by massive air strikes.

The Devastated town of St Lo 

While not much progress was made on the 26th, the Americans discovered on the 27th that the German forces were retreating.  The capture of Marigny allowed VIII Corps to begin exploitation down the coastal highway to Coutances.  On the 27th General Patton was authorized to take immediate command of VIII Corps a precursor to the activation of his 3rdArmy.  COBRA ripped a hole in the German line and inflicted such heavy casualties on the German 7th Army that it could do little to stop the American push.[lxiii] As the American forces pushed forward they reinforced their left flank absorbing the local German counterattacks which were hampered by the Allied close air support.

Avranches and Beyond

US Forces advance through the ruins of St Lo

As the breakthrough was exploited the command of the forces leading it shifted to Patton and the newly activated 3rd Army. By the 28th VIII Corps led by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions had reached Avranches and established bridgeheads over the See River with additional bridges being captured intact on the 30th.[lxiv] The capture of Avranches allowed the Americans to begin exploitation operations into Brittany and east toward the Seine. Weigley notes that for the first time in the campaign that in Patton the Americans finally had a commander who understood strategic maneuver and would use it to great effect.[lxv]

Conclusion

The American campaign in Normandy cost the U.S. Army a great deal. It revealed weaknesses in the infantry, the inferiority of the M4 Sherman tank to most German types, problems in tank-infantry cooperation and also deficiencies in leadership at senior, mid-grade and junior levels. Heavy casualties among infantry formations would lead to problems later in the campaign. Numerous officers were relieved including Division and Regimental commanders.  Nonetheless during the campaign the Americans grew in their ability to coordinate air and ground forces and adapt to the conditions imposed on them by their placement in the Cotentin.  The deficiencies would show up in later battles but the American Army learned its trade even impressing some German commanders on the ground in Normandy.[lxvi]

[i] See the alternative history of by Peter Tsouras Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, Greenhill Books, London 1994. Tsouras describes the defeat of the Omaha landings and the effect on the course of the campaign leading to the overthrow of Hitler and a negotiated armistice in the west.  While this outcome could be rigorously debated other outcomes could have led to the fall of the Roosevelt and Churchill governments and their replacement by those not committed to unconditional surrender or a continuation of the war that brought about more German missile attacks on the U.K. and the introduction of other advanced German weapons that could have forced such a settlement. Another option could have led to the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on a German city vice Hiroshima.

Notes 

[ii] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981 p.33

[iii] Ibid pp. 34-35

[iv] Ibid p.35

[v] 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

[vi] 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.

[vii] 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.

[viii] Ibid. p.37

[ix] 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.

[x] 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.

[xi] Ibid. Weigley, pp. 39-40

[xii] Ibid. p.73

[xiii] 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.”

[xiv] Ibid. Hastings p.63.  Hastings comments also about the success of using the turned Abwehr agents.

[xv] 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

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley pp. 53-54

[xvii] Ibid. p. 67

[xviii] 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.

[xix] Ibid. p.67-68.

[xx] 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.

[xxi] Ibid. Weigley p.69

[xxii] Ibid. p.89

[xxiii] Ibid. pp. 88-89

[xxiv] Ibid. p.87

[xxv] 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

[xxvi] 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

[xxvii] 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.  21stPanzer had those duties in Normandy.

[xxviii] Ibid. p.74-75

[xxix] Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989 pp. 169-170.  Von Luck a regiment commander in 21st Panzer noted that General Marcks of 84th Corps had predicted a 5 June invasion at a conference May 30th.

[xxx] Almost every D-Day historian talks about the weather factor and its effect on the German high command’s reaction to the invasion.  Rommel was visiting his wife for her birthday and planned to make a call on Hitler. Others including commanders of key divisions such as the 91st Airlanding Division were off to a war game in Rennes and the 21st Panzer Division to Paris.

[xxxi] Ibid. Weigley p. 96

[xxxii] See Cornelius Ryan, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959. pp. 189-193 for a vivid description of the challenges faced by soldiers going from ship to landing craft and their ride in to the beaches.

[xxxiii] Ibid. Weigley. p.78 Weigley talks about the order for the tanks to be carried ashore on their LCTs that did not get transmitted to the 741st.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid. Weigley  p. 87 The weather prevented the aerial bombardment from being effective. Because the bombers could not see their targets they dropped their bomb loads further inland, depriving the infantry of support that they were expecting.  Naval gunfire support had some effect but had to be lifted as the troops hit the beach leaving much of that support to come from Destroyers and specially equipped landing craft which mounted rockets and guns.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Hastings. pp. 90-91.

[xxxvii] Ibid. p.99

[xxxviii] Ibid. Weigley p.80

[xxxix] Ibid. p.101  Also see Weigley p.80

[xl] Ibid. p.99

[xli] Ibid. Weigleyp.95

[xlii] Ibid. p.94

[xliii] Ibid. p.99 Both Weigley and Hastings make note of the failure of both the Americans and British to train their troops to fight in the bocage once they had left the beaches.

[xliv] Ibid. Hastings. pp.152-153

[xlv] Ibid. Weigley p.101

[xlvi] Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London,  2001.  p.143

[xlvii] Ibid. Hastings p.173 Allied fighter bombers exacted a fearful toll among German commanders. The Commanders of the 243rd and 77th Divisions fighting in the Cotentin were also killed by air attacks on the 17th and 18th.   Further east facing the British the commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, Fritz Witt on the 17th.

[xlviii] Ibid. Weigley. p.108

[xlix] Ibid. p.111-112.

[l] Ibid.

[li] The efforts of the 51st Highland Division and 7th Armored Division were turned aside by the Germans in the area and were dramatized by the destruction of  a British armored battalion by SS Captain Michael Wittman and his platoon of Tiger tanks.  See Hastings pp.131-135.

[lii] The British 8th Corps under General O’Connor lost 270 tanks and 1,500 men on 18 July attempting to crack the German gun line on the ridge beyond Caen. Weigley, pp.145-146.

[liii] Hastings comments about the critical British manpower shortage and the pressures on Montgomery to not take heavy casualties that could not be replaced. Overlord. pp.241-242.

[liv] Ibid. Weigley pp.116-120

[lv] Ibid. p.122

[lvi] Ibid. p121 Bradley told Eisenhower “when we hit the enemy this time we will hit him with such power that we can keep going and cause a major disaster.”

[lvii] Ibid. 134

[lviii] Ibid. Weigley. pp. 138-143.  Weigley notes of 40,000 U.S. casualties in Normandy up to the capture of St. Lo that 90% were concentrated among the infantry.

[lix] Weigley quotes the 329th Regiment, 83rd Division historian “We won the battle of Normandy, [but] considering the high price in American lives we lost. P.143. This is actually a provocative statement that reflects America’s aversion to massive casualties in any war.

[lx] Ibid. p.149

[lxi] Ibid. p. 152

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 152-153.  Among the casualties were the command group of the 9th Division’s 3rd Battalion 47th Infantry and General Leslie McNair who had come to observe the assault.

[lxiii] Ibid. pp.161-169. Weigley notes the advances in U.S. tactical air support, the employment of massive numbers of U.S. divisions against the depleted German LXXXIV Corps, and the advantage that the “Rhino” device gave to American tanks by giving them the ability to maneuver off the roads for the first time.

[lxiv] Ibid. pp.172-173.

[lxv] Ibid. p.172

[lxvi] Ibid. Isby, David C. “Fighting in Normandy,” p.184, an officer of the 352nd Division referred to the American soldier “was to prove himself a in this terrain an agile and superior fighter.”

Bibliography

Carell, Paul. “Invasion: They’re Coming!” Translated from the German by E. Osers, Bantam, New York 1964.

Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984

Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” Greenhill Books, London 2004

Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London, 2001.

Ryan, Cornelius, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959

Tsouras, Peter. “Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944,”Greenhill Books, London 1994.

Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989

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. 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.

Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981

Leave a comment

Filed under History, leadership, Military, nazi germany, us army, US Army Air Corps, world war two in europe

D-Day at 70 Years and Forever: Courage, Sacrifice and Reconciliation…

d-day-opener1Omaha Beach

“We are on this Earth for only a moment in time.  And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago.  As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to have him here, than this day.  So we have to tell their stories for them.  We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for.  We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.” President Barack Obama at the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings, June 6th 2014

Seventy years ago the liberation of France began on the beaches of Normandy.  Soldiers from 6 Allied Infantry and 3 Airborne Divisions supported by an Armada of over 5000 ships and landing craft and several thousand aircraft braved weather, heavy seas and in places fierce German resistance to gain the foothold on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Over the next seven weeks the Allied soldiers advanced yard by yard through the hedgerows and villages of Normandy against ferocious German resistance before they were able to break out of the lodgement area and begin the drive across France.

dday371

The fighting was bloody, most American, British and Canadian infantry battalions and regiments suffered nearly 100% casualty rates in Normandy.  Replacements were fed in at a cyclic rate to make up the losses even as fresh divisions flowed ashore, but the losses were terrible.  By the time the landings took place, the British having been at war for nearly five years were bled out.  They had little left to replace their losses.  From Normandy on the British were losing combat power at a rate that they could not make up.

For the Americans there was another problem.  The US High command decided to limit the Army to 90 Divisions.  Many of these were committed to the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters.   Likewise, American Infantry units were generally made up of the lowest caliber of recruits, led often by the poorest officers, the best went to either the Air Corps or technical branches of the Army.

Now this is not to criticize veterans, but it is a factor in the campaign.  Most US Infantry Divisions with the exceptions of those previously blooded in North Africa and Sicily often performed badly in action.  Some, after being manhandled by the Germans had their leadership replaced and became excellent combat units.  However, every new division that arrived in France after D-Day always got the worst of their initial engagement against German forces.

While performance suffered there was another problem for the Americans.  With the limitation in number of divisions, they stopped building infantry divisions, upon whom the bulk of the campaign depended. Thus they had little in the way of trained infantry replacements to make up heavy losses in Normandy.  By late 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge the American infantry crisis was so bad that 30,000 Air Corps candidates were trained as infantry and soldiers support units such as Ant-Aircraft battalions were used to bolster infantry units.

tiger2falaise16hh1

Had the Germans been able to hold out and had they not been bled white by the Red Army on the Easter Front, had they not lost the nearly their entire Army Group Center in the Red Army offensive of 1944 it is conceivable that the British and American offensive in the West would have ground to a halt for lank of infantry in 1945.  In spite of this there was no lack of individual courage among the troops engaged; the courage and sacrifice of all who fought there should not be forgotten.

caen_ruins1The Ruins of Caen

The human toll among the combatants both Allied and German, as well as the local populace was especially traumatic.  While the American, Canadian and British people are keen to remember the sacrifices made by our soldiers we often forget the toll among the French civilian population of Normandy as well as the German soldiers, mostly conscripts, sacrificed by the Nazi regime.  Normandy suffered more than any part of France during the liberation.  In the months leading up to D-Day Allied Air Forces unleashed hell on Normandy to attempt to lessen potential German resistance.  The Allied Naval bombardment added to the carnage ashore and once the campaign began the combined fires of both Allied and German forces devastated the region.  Whole cites such as Caen were destroyed by Allied Air forces and an estimated 30,000 French civilians were killed during the Normandy campaign, 3000 on D-Day alone.  I think it can be said that the blood of the civilians of Normandy was shed for the freedom of all of France.

Normandie, Fallschirmjäger mit MG 42

The campaign in Normandy was one of the most viciously contested in western military history.  German forces, especially Paratroops of the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th Fallschirmjager Divisions, German Army Panzer Divisions such as the 2nd, 21st, 116th and Panzer Lehr and those of the Waffen-SS, especially the 1st, 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions held the line against ever increasing Allied forces.  As they sacrificed themselves Hitler refused to commit more forces to Normandy and insisted that his Army contest every meter of ground.  He forbade his commanders to withdraw to more defensible positions along the Seine.

Hitler’s decisions actually shortened the campaign.  Whatever the crimes of the Hitler Regime and Nazism, which were among the most heinous in history, one can never question the valor, courage and sacrifice of ordinary German soldiers.  For those Americans who lump all Germans who fought in World War II with the evil of the Nazi regime, please do not forget this fact:  There are those today, even in this country that make the same charge against Americans who have fought in Iraq and those at home and abroad who have labeled the US as an aggressor nation.  When you judge others, know that the same standard will be applied to you someday. It is as Justice Robert Jackson who served as the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal wrote:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Normandy was a near run thing for the Allies.  First the weather almost delayed it by 2 to 4 weeks.  Had that happened the Germans might have been even better prepared to meet the invasion.  Likewise, the Red Army’s devastating offensive which annihilated Army Group Center in June kept the Germans from transferring additional forces from the Russian Front to Normandy.  On D-Day itself there were a number of times where Lady Luck, or maybe the Deity Herself, saved the Allies from disaster.

Any person who has seen Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day or Band of Brothers knows a little bit about how close Overlord came to failure.  Allied Airborne units were dispersed throughout the region after they drooped.  Many units were not fully operational for more than a day as they sought to organize themselves and gather their troops.  At Omaha Beach the Americans had not counted on the presence of the first rate German 352nd Infantry Division.  This division, despite being pounded by naval and air forces almost cause General Bradley to withdraw from Omaha.  At Utah the soldiers of the 4th Infantry division escaped a similar mauling by landing on the wrong beach.  Had they landed at the planned beaches they would have ran into the same kind of resistance from well dug in German forces.  At Gold Juno and Sword British forces benefited from confusion in the German command which kept the 21st Panzer Division from descending on the British forces and quite possibly splitting the British zones.

The Allies benefited from the absence of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B who because of the ad weather assumed no invasion was possible and traveled to German to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  Finally, and perhaps most important they benefited by Hitler’s refusal to immediately commit forces, including his Panzer reserve to defeat the invasion at the beachhead.

For those who fought in Normandy and those civilians who lived through it the memories are still vivid. Many suffer the effects of PTSD, grief and other wounds, physical, emotional and spiritual.  When one is exposed to the danger and destruction of war, the smell of death, the sight of burned out cities, vehicles and the suffering of the wounded and dying, it makes for a lifetime of often painful memories.

For some of the German, British and American veterans, the struggle in Normandy has given way to long lasting friendships.  Many of those who fought against the Allied onslaught became fast friends after the war. Those who fought against each other were soon allies as part of NATO and soldiers of nations which were once bitter enemies serve together in harm’s way in Afghanistan.  The generation that fought at Normandy is rapidly passing away, their numbers ever dwindling they remain a witness to courage, sacrifice and reconciliation.

In the end it is reconciliation and healing that matters. Some scars of war never pass away; some memories are far too painful to release.  Yet we strive to reconcile.  In 2002 while deployed at sea for Operation Enduring Freedom I was an advisor to a boarding team from my ship.  It was our job to make sure that impounded ships which were breaking the UN embargo on Iraq were not in danger of sinking, and that their crews had food, water and medical care.  Since many of these ships remained at anchor for 2-4 weeks in the heat of the Arabian Gulf, this was important.

The delays imposed by UN rules sometimes meant that the sailors of these ships grew resentful.  It was my job to spend time with the Master’s of these ships to keep things calm and work out any issues that arose.  On one of these ships I met an Iraqi merchant skipper.  The man was well traveled, educated in the U.K. in the 1960s and in his career a frequent visitor to the US. In 1990 he was the senior captain of the Kuwaiti shipping line.  Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  As a result of this when Kuwait was liberated he lost his job.  His nation was an international pariah.  Since his life was the sea he took up the only job possible to support his family, what he knew best, captaining ships.  He was most apologetic for the trouble that he and others like him caused us.  We shared much during those visits.   One of his daughters was in medical school and other children in university.  He longed for the day when Iraq would be free.  On our last talk before his ship was released he remarked to me “I hope one day we will meet again.  Maybe someday like the American, British and German soldiers after the war, we can meet in a pub, share a drink and be friends.” 

dinner-w-bg-sabah1Me with Iraqi General Sabah in his Quarters in Ramadi 2007

I too pray for that, especially after my tour in Al Anbar five years after I encountered that Iraqi Merchant Captain.  Maybe someday we will. I thought of him almost every day that I was in Iraq. I only hope that he and his family have survived the war, the continuing violence in Iraq and are doing well. There is hardly a day that goes by that I do not think of this man or the Iraqis that I had the honor of serving alongside in Al Anbar in 2007 and 2008.

President Obama remarked in Normandy last week about the veterans of the 9-11 Generation of service members, of which I and so many others like me are part:

“And this generation — this 9/11 Generation of service members — they, too, felt something.  They answered some call; they said “I will go.”  They, too, chose to serve a cause that’s greater than self — many even after they knew they’d be sent into harm’s way.  And for more than a decade, they have endured tour after tour.”

God bless all those who fought at Normandy and give your peace to all who have served since then. Be with our troops as they serve in Afghanistan. Heal the wounds of war and bring your peace to the nations. Amen

Peace, Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, News and current events, world war two in europe

Missed Opportunities: The Allies in Europe from Mortain to Market Garden

Arnhem Bridge

In 1985 Judy and I visited her cousin and her family in the Netherlands when I was an Army Lieutenant in Germany. Since I was a history major in college and had done a lot of reading and study about Operation Market Garden, which most people associate with the movie A Bridge Too Far I decided that on our way back to Germany that we needed to stop by Arnhem and Oosterbeek to visit the battlefield and the British Airborne Museum. It was one of those places that even today evokes poignant memories. When we walked through the British cemetery across from the museum which is in the former British headquarters, the Hartenstein Hotel I saw a grave marker. It read Capt. J.S. (James Strathern) Dundas, 7th KOSB (7th King’s Own Scottish Borderers) of the British 1st Airborne Division. He was the 2IC, or Executive Officer of Company B of that Regiment. He assumed command of the company on the 19th after its commander was reported missing in action. He commanded the unit until his death on September 25th when commanding the rearguard of the battalion as it and the remnants of the 1st Airborne Division evacuated the bridgehead over the Rhine. It was a sobering reminder of the cost of war. 

Grave marker of Captain J.S. Dundas at the British Cemetery at Oosterbeek

September 17th was the 68th anniversary of the Allied attempt to liberate the Netherlands, secure a crossing across the Rhine and plunge into the heart of German industry and war making capacity the Ruhr basin. The plan is better known as Operation “Market-Garden” and was the first major use of Airborne Divisions in a strategic jump versus a tactical or operational mode.  What made this operation different was the distance that the Airborne would be dropped from the front lines and the number of obstacles that the ground troops would have to cross to get to them.  It was a high risk strategic plan to end the war early.  However this operation did not occur in a vacuum and was the product of operational and strategic decisions that the Allies made from the time of the Normandy breakout.  Each decision was made on the fly as the situation rapidly developed from a static slugfest in the hedgerows to the pursuit of a broken enemy.  As the Allies advanced across France decisions had to be made of how the advance would be made which became a major bone of contention between Eisenhower and his subordinates.  To understand how the Allies got to the point of launching Market-Garden one has to look back at the events leading up to it beginning with the Allied decisions made shortly after the breakout.  The actual campaign does not always correlate to popular myths nor does it allow for a uncritical analysis or generalization of the events which made up this part of the campaign in Western Europe.

It is a campaign that teaches us even today that mundane things such as logistics, weather and the failure to recognize moments of opportunity and times for caution matter in a military campaign. The campaign is a reminder that every military campaign has risks and that even crippled enemy can inflict costly defeats on superior forces and regain lost initiative. 

Introduction 

Patton Bradley and Montgomery, Time Magazine Photo

Lieutenant General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group breakout from Normandy opened a realm of possibilities for the Allies to defeat the German Army in detail and end the war.  The manner in which the Allies exploited their success and their failure to destroy the German Army in the west in the late summer of 1944 was a key factor in prolonging the war.  Both the Allies and the Germans faced challenges due to the change in the nature of the campaign. For nearly two months they had waged a nearly static war of attrition in the Norman hedgerows.  The breakout changed the dynamic of the campaign to one of maneuver.  In the post-breakout period the Allies had several opportunities to envelope large portions of the German Army in western France, Belgium and southern Holland.  The campaign became one of maneuver and a “commander’s battle” in which it was “the decisions of the generals that determined the manner in which events unfolded in August, their successes and failures which brought about the position that was achieved by September.”[1] Prior to the breakout success in the hedgerows was determined on “the ability of British, American and Canadian units to seize ground from their German opponents on the next ridge, the next hedge, beyond the next road.” [2]The change would expose the weaknesses in the quality of allied generalship and logistics management.  The Allies failure to recognize the ability of the Germans to recover from disaster conspired with key elements in the campaign to end the war by Christmas.[3]

Grenadiers and Tanks of 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitler Jugend) in Normandy

A key decision reached early in the campaign was for Bradley’s XII Army Group to capture Brest and other Brittany ports.  This decision meant that when 3rdArmy exploited the break out the preponderance of its forces went west, the opposite way that the battle was developing.  This deprived the Americans of forces and logistical assets that could have supported the envelopment of the major part of the German Army still engaged in Normandy. Russell Weigley lays the blame for this decision on Bradley.  The dash into Brittany did little to help the Allied logistical problems and diverted much needed troops away from the focal point of the action in Normandy.[4] Hastings criticizes Bradley’s lack of imagination in the initial stages of the breakout in adhering to the original OVERLORD exploitation plan[5] rather than adapting to the situation on the ground. Patton’s biographer Carlo D’Este seconds this opinion and it makes sense from an operational standpoint.[6] Why send significant forces to an area far away from the critical part of the battle for little practical gain?  In the end German forces held out, in some cases to the end of the war, denying the Americans the use of the ports either by just holding out or by demolishing the port facilities.

Mortain: German Counter Attack and the Short Envelopment

The American exploitation of the breakout, notably by elements of Patton’s 3rdArmy pushing east combined with the continued pressure of the British Army Group toward Falaise. The breakout forced forced the Germans into a strategic decision to attempt to restore the front in Normandy or withdraw to the Seine or further east as there was no “defensive position short of the permanent fortifications of the West Wall on Germany’s frontier offered so many defensive strengths as the Normandy line the Americans had just breached and turned.”[7]

With limited options Hitler determined that German forces again needed to ensnare the allies in the hedgerows.[8] There was disagreement between Hitler and Field Marshal von Kluge regarding the offensive while von Kluge opposed it.  Hitler believed that the American breakout gave the Germans a chance to cut off the American forces in Brittany and possibly more believing that “once the coast had been reached at Avranches a beginning should be made with rolling up the entire Allied position in Normandy!”[9]

The German attack named Operation Lüttich was led by XLVII Panzer Corps assisted by elements of 1st SS Panzer Division.  Despite warnings from ULTRA the panzers achieved tactical surprise on the front of the 30th US Division at Mortain on the night of 6-7 August when the Germans attacked without the customary preparatory artillery bombardment.[10] The Germans made initial progress against the 30th Division which had recently taken over positions at Mortain.  However the 2nd Battalion 120th Infantry “Old Hickory” Regiment held key ground which enabled them to call artillery fire and air strikes on German forces attempting to advance on Avranches.[11] The Americans quickly reinforced 30th Division with elements of 2nd Armored Division, 35th Infantry Division and the veteran 4th Infantry Division to hold the line against the weakened German Panzer divisions.  Bradley and other American commanders viewed Lüttich as “an opportunity, not a threat.”[12] Bradley was “not merely confident of withstanding them, but expected to destroy them.”[13] Bradley attempted to lure more Germans into the potential trap by radio transmissions hoping that the Germans to persist in their attacks around Mortain.[14]

American Armor Advancing in Normandy

The German plan included the use of a significant number of aircraft to support the attack.  However this did not happen and German troops were furious at the failure of the Luftwaffe to shield them from Allied air attacks which devastated the Panzers.  The 300 fighters promised by the commander of Luftwaffe forces were engaged by British and American fighters and savaged so badly that no Luftwaffe units made an appearance over Mortain.[15] Despite some local success the German ground forces were turned back by the Americans who did not even halt their eastward movement further imperiling the German forces in Normandy.

Knocked out Panzer V Panther Tank at Mortain

With the Germans ensnared at Mortain, the 3rd Army driving east and the Canadians advancing on towards Falaise, Bradley suggested a short envelopment in which over 100,000 German troops would be trapped between the Patton’s troops and the Canadians who had opened their TOTALIZE offensive from Caen to Falaise on August 8th.  This modified plans for a deep envelopment by XV Corps of 3rd Army to entrap the Germans against the Seine crossings with an operation that might promise “still surer results.”[16] Speaking to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Mongenthau Bradley said that “he told the Cabinet officer he had “an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We’re about to destroy and entire hostile army.”[17] However the short envelopment was predicated on the Germans continuing their advance, had they as Hastings notes “behaved rationally, recognized the threat of envelopment to their entire front and begun a full-scale retreat east, then Bradley could indeed been accused of losing his armies a great prize.”[18]

The decision to turn the better part of 3rd Army west into Brittany deprived Bradley of forces that could have better accomplished the mission of enveloping the German 7th Army.  General Wood of 4th Armored Division to his dying day “remained embittered over the lost opportunity”[19] lost when his division was turned back into Brittany rather than being allowed to move east toward the Seine.   Weigley points out an even deeper flaw regarding the Brittany decision that was that OVERLORD planners “had not thought anything resembling the Avranches breakout and pursuit without pause to the Seine likely…” Weigley critically stated that it is among the worst forms of generalship that takes counsel of its fears. Yet that was exactly the condition of OVERLORD logistical planning.”[20]

The Falaise Pocket

Fallschirmjaeger in France

The Allies did have a chance to destroy the German 7th Army.  LXVII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps as well as the remnants of II Parachute Corps and other formations battered in Normandy were attempting to move east from Mortain following the failure to break through.  The remnants of I SS Panzer Corps led by 12 SS Panzer Division Hitlerjügend and various battle groups of other decimated divisions and Army units such as 21st Panzer Division offered determined resistance to the Canadians toward Falaise.  In the south only scattered Kampfgruppen of divisions shattered in Normandy opposed Patton’s forces at Avranches.  These German units, outnumbered and without air support were aided by a fortuitous decision of the commander of the 2nd French Armored Division to move a combat command along a road needed by the American 5thArmored Division.  The delay allowed the Germans to send a battalion into the town which could have “fallen easily a few hours before.”[21]

Grenadiers of the 12th SS at Falaise

At this point the Allies were bedeviled by several failures which prevented the short double envelopment from occurring and allowed the remnants of 7th Army to escape to fight again. The Germans suffered grievous losses in men, material, and especially armored fighting vehicles, artillery and motor transport but more often than not their units retained their cohesion and ability to operate.

Carnage in the Falaise Pocket

The first failure belonged to the Canadians who failed to push the Germans out of Falaise despite overwhelming material and air superiority.  The Canadian attack Operation TOTALIZE was planned by the best of the Canadian generals, Simonds.  The operation began on a promising note but bogged down halfway to Falaise due to a quick counterattack by 12th SS Panzer kampfgruppen. The Canadians were not helped when a misguided bombing attack by “friendly” air units hit them rather than the Germans.  Likewise the inexperience of the Canadian 4th and Polish 1st Armored Divisions showed when they paused to eliminate strong points rather than bypassing them and advancing to disrupt the Germans.  As such they gave the Germans the opportunity to reform their lines.[22] The second failure was that of Montgomery who had refused to adjust army group boundaries with Americans which put more pressure on the Canadians to “renew their drive promptly and vigorously.”[23] Rather than pushing on General Crerar of Canadian 1st Army spent five days “doing what really battlewise generalship could do by regrouping and making diversionary attacks.”[24] It took Crerar over 48 hours to launch a determined attack to close the gap despite the weakness of German forces that opposed him despite the fact that even Montgomery personally called him urging him to “Close the gap between First Canadian Army and 3rd U.S. Army.”[25] General Kurt Meyer of 12th SS faulted the Canadian leadership with a failure to use imaginative planning, and noted that “none of the Canadian attacks showed the genius of a great commander.”[26] American units which Patton had cautiously advanced north of Argentan towards Falaise were recalled after Bradley was unable to convince Montgomery to alter the army-group boundary in light of the new circumstances.[27] Patton recounts that he believed that his units could have “easily entered Falaise and closed the gap” and that the “halt was a great mistake.”[28] Weigley blames Bradley as much for the halt order as much he does Montgomery for “discouraging whatever might have been done to rectify the blunder- even discouraging on August 13th a call from the Supreme Commander to Montgomery about the inter-allied boundary.”[29] Thus through a series of Allied mistakes particularly by senior commanders the first opportunity to envelop the Germans passed into history as a great yet incomplete victory.

Opportunities in South France

The invasion of South France Operations ANVIL and DRAGOON[30] had been debated by the Allies as early as April 1943.  The British resisted ANVIL from the beginning with Winston Churchill not yielding “his struggle until five days before the eventual D-Day of August 15th.”[31] American planners saw the need for the operation and had never given up on it despite its postponement due to a shortage of amphibious lift at the time of OVERLORD.  Following the invasion the perilous logistic situation created by the lack of operational major ports in Normandy and Brittany caused American planners to “believe that ANVIL was virtually imperative.”[32] Landings in the south offered significant advantages to the logistical needs of the Allies.  The major seaports and naval bases at Marseilles and Toulon were both closer to Germany than Cherbourg.  Both offered major modern port facilities and the south included rail nets that had not suffered significant damage from Allied air attacks. Likewise the presence of a major navigable river, the Rhone, made it possible to move supplies into the heart of France by water.  From a strategic point of view the move into southern France would “help Eisenhower form a front along the whole German border from the North Sea to Switzerland, to stretch the German army as perilously thin as possible for its defense of the Fatherland.”[33] ANVIL also offered the opportunity to bring more trained American divisions into the fight which could not otherwise come ashore in Normandy due to the port and supply problems.[34]

The Allies initially allotted three American divisions of 7th Army and VI Corps as well as units of the French Army based in the Mediterranean to the invasion.  Commanding VI Corps and its three veteran Divisions, the Regular Army 3rdInfantry Division, the “Rock of the Marne”, the 36th “Texas” Division and 45th“Thunderbird” Division of the National Guard was Lieutenant General Lucian Truscott.  Truscott was of the best American Corps commanders. Early in the war he had created the Rangers and had distinguished himself in Italy commanding 3rd Infantry Division.  He followed this by taking over to rescue the unhappy Anzio campaign from utter fiasco.[35] A hard driving officer and prewar friend of Patton Truscott was the ideal commander for the operation.[36]

Truscott’s forces were opposed by the weak and widely scattered German 19thArmy of General Blaskowitz’s Army Group G.  The landings were highly successful and the Americans made rapid progress inflicting heavy casualties and capturing large numbers of Germans with relatively low American casualties.  However in Blaskowitz the Americans faced a skilled commander who managed to extricate the bulk of his forces and form a continuous front with the remnants of Army Group B by mid September.  Hitler had recognized the necessity of this link up but held Blaskowitz in low regard due to his resistance to Nazi policy while Military Governor of Poland in 1939, said to Field Marshall von Rundstedt of Blaskowitz: “If he contrives to do that (i.e. join up 19th Army rapidly with the main body) then I will make him a solemn apology for everything.”[37]

Truscott made the German army his objective. Truscott pushed his units hard but was hampered by his meager forces and his tendency to outrun his supplies.  German delaying actions hampered the American advance and prevented the Americans from utterly destroying the 19th Army.   Despite this the campaign in the south prevented the Allied logistical situation in France from becoming “insurmountable” in the fall of 1944 and “contributed directly and mightily to bringing the bulk of the American Army to grips with the German army in the West, to defeat and destroy it.”[38] Had Truscott had more forces and adequate supplies he may have achieved even more than he did. One can only imagine the “what if” scenarios that could have developed in the West with the application of more force to this option rather than feed the limited number of American divisions into the cauldron of the hedgerow country.

The Seine and Beyond

With the closing of the Falaise pocket too late to catch most of the German forces the next opportunity for the now postponed “long envelopment” was now staring the Allies in the face.  The Seine beckoned.  Could the Allies prevent the fleeing remnants of the 7th Army and Panzer Group West, soon to be renamed the 5thPanzer Army from escaping across the Seine?   Bradley’s belated decision to restart the drive to the Seine on 14 August was beset with the problem of the logistical sustainment.  The logistics problem was not limited to port facilities.  The Allies had moved well past the eastern edge of the Normandy lodgment area over two weeks before planners anticipated. Fuel to propel the Allied armies forward became a critical consideration. Despite this the Allied high command saw the opportunity to complete the destruction of the German forces fleeing Normandy and Montgomery “anticipated for weeks the possibility of the long envelopment at the Seine.”[39] Adjustments were made on the fly. The plan to pause at the Seine dictated by OVERLORD was discarded in favor of trying to cross it on the run.  XV Corps of 3rd Army had reached Mantes crossing into the British 21st Army Group zone.  Montgomery refused an American offer of trucks to assist the British and Canadians to Mantes to complete the envelopment from the west. However he gave permission for XV Corps to continue its advance into the British zone in the hopes of completing the encirclement of the estimated 75,000 German troops west of the Seine.[40]

American Soldiers Cross the Seine

Yet again the Allied hopes for the encirclement of German forces west of the Seine were dashed.  XIX Corps came up to assist XV Corps in its advance into the German rear on the 24th of August at Elbeuf.  However a scratch Kampfgrüppemade up of elements of eight panzer divisions made a stand that delayed the American forces five days.[41] The British and Canadian forces did not push hard.  The determined resistance of the panzer battle group and the failure of the British and Canadians to push harder enabled Army Group B to evacuate many of its troops, 25,000 vehicles and most of its higher headquarters across the Seine before the Canadians and XIX Corps linked up on 26 August.[42] [43] While the envelopment attempt ran its course the Americans pushed across the Seine. The Americans allowed the French 2nd Armored division to liberate Paris on August 25th and rapidly began to move east in pursuit of the German forces.

Despite horrendous losses in men and material including all but about 100 of the 2300 tanks and assault guns committed to Normandy[44] the German command rapidly organized the survivors into Kampfgrüppen.  These battle groups though hastily organized were well led and usually comprised of hardened veterans skilled in the active defense.  Field Marshall Model “Hitler’s Fireman” took command of Army Group B after Von Kluge committed suicide when returning to Germany after being implicated in the attempt on Hitler’s life.  Hitler gave the western front priority on tank replacements. Likewise reinforcements of newly formed Panzer Brigades flowed into France even as the Americans advanced east fighting not only the Germans but the gasoline shortage.[45] Patton’s army reached the Moselle but by September 2nd its tanks had run dry.  “Third Army received just 25,390 gallons, when its divisions needed at least 450,000 gallons to resume their advance.”[46] Patton continued by scavenging fuel wherever he could get it whether captured German stocks or by various creative means. Patton had his logistics officers divert fuel or send raiding parties into 1st Army’s depots. His agents bartered for fuel at port facilities and depots by offering captured souvenirs to those running those facilities in exchange for gas.[47]

American M-8 Armored Car at the Arch d’Triumph during the Liberation of Paris

The Allied shortage of gasoline, a product of both the lack of ports, damage to the French rail system and the unexpected rate of advance[48] ultimately forced Eisenhower to make the decision to halt Patton’s advance in favor of a push by Montgomery in the north. Now complicating Eisenhower’s situation the Germans Likewise the ability of the Germans to join Army Group B with Army Group G’s 1st and 19th Armies from Army Group G further assisted the German defense.  The German army’s self preservation in late August and early September became known to them as the “Miracle of the West.”[49] A successful envelopment of German forces took place at Mons just south of the Belgium border where 1st Army captured over 25,000 prisoners from units that had escaped from Normandy.[50] Throughout the campaign in France the Allies were beset by logistical problems and sometimes by bad generalship as they attempted to change the campaign plan on the fly.[51]

Antwerp and the Scheldt: Missed Opportunity

While Bradley and Patton’s American units sped across France “advancing faster and further than any Army in history,” Montgomery’s 21st Army Group crossed the Seine and began a drive that rivaled the Americans in speed.  XXX Corps under the recently appointed General Horrocks attacked out of the Seine bridgehead on 29 August.  After overcoming initial stiff resistance from the German Kampfgrüppen defending the area XXX Corps advanced with great speed capturing Brussels and Antwerp by 4 September.  Logistics also tied Montgomery’s hands just as it had Patton in the south.[52] He was forced to immobilize 8th Corps to supply XXX Corps which advanced north as 1st Canadian Army attempted to capture the channel ports.[53]

Canadian Soldiers during the Battle of the Scheldt

The quickness of the advance and erroneous decision making kept the XXX Corps attack from complete success.  This caused serious complications to further operations and which gave the Germans the break that they needed to stabilize the front.  General “Pip” Roberts commander of 11th Armored division which had just liberated Antwerp assumed that the British drive would turn east toward the Ruhr industrial area of Germany. In doing so he failed to capture the crossings over the Albert Canal.[54] Additionally he failed to advance the few miles needed to cut off the German 15th Army on the Scheldt thus missing the opportunity to trap an entire German Army against the sea.  Hastings lays the blame for this not entirely on the Division and Corps Commanders, Roberts and XXX Corps commander Horrocks, but on those responsible for the overall strategy, Eisenhower, Montgomery and Dempsey who should have realized this and especially that Montgomery “might have been expected to see for himself the pivotal importance of the Antwerp approaches.”[55] While the British rested in Antwerp the Germans blew the bridges over the Albert Canal. General Von Zangen of 15th Army took the opportunity to extricate his Army using any vessel available to cross the Scheldt. He occupied the strategic island of Walchern on the Antwerp approaches and placed his troops in position to assist in the defense of Holland and northern Germany.  Due to British inaction and his own creativity Von Zangen evacuated 65,000 troops, 225 guns, 750 vehicles and over 1000 horses across the waterway in 16 days to fight again.[56]

North of the Albert General Kurt Chill in the typical fashion of so many German commanders in a crisis situation took charge and halted the panicked retreat of German forces into Holland. Chill organized personnel from all branches of the German military into something resembling an Army.[57] Likewise Generals Bittrich of II SS Panzer Corps and Harmel of 10th SS Panzer Division salvaged “vehicles abandoned by other groups and weapons from deserted army depots” including 12 brand new howitzers on abandoned train.  The improvisation of the German commanders in these few days would be of decisive importance in the coming days.[58]

While the British paused to regroup in Belgium the Germans took the opportunity to form a new Army, the 1st Parachute Army under the Luftwaffe paratroop expert, General Kurt Student. 1st Parachute Army was hardly an army at all, barely the size of a fully manned allied division.  Made up of battle groups formed around remnants of the elite 6th Parachute regiment, assorted parachute training battalions, Flak units, a hodge-podge of Army Kampfgrüppen, General Chill’s units and divisions evacuated from the Scheldt, Student laid out a defensive line along the Albert Canal.[59] Student expected the British to attack when he was so terribly weak. He could not believe that he was not attacked when his line was most vulnerable to a determined assault that much of the German command believed would cause the front in Belgium to collapse.  The British Guards Armored division slowly advanced from the Albert to the Meuse-Escaut canal but the German defense had assured that any further advance to the north would be on a narrow front with a vulnerable left flank.[60] Von Rundstedt’s new Chief of staff at OB West Siegfried Westphal noted that “the situation was desperate. A major defeat anywhere along the front-which was so full of gaps that it did not deserve that name would lead to catastrophe if the enemy were to fully exploit the opportunities.”[61] Hastings and Weigley both note that the British failure to close the gap were of decisive importance to the coming campaign in Holland.[62]

Arnhem: The Failed Vertical Envelopment

Operation Market Garden, the Largest Airborne Operation in History

The Allies still believed there was the chance to break into Germany in 1944.  Lacking the logistical base to sustain a wide front advance Eisenhower opted to make Montgomery the primary effort. Montgomery planned to utilize the 1stAllied Airborne Army in a bold and “in the context of Anglo-American generalship in France, refreshingly daring”[63] operation.[64] The concept of “vertical envelopment” had been advocated by General Marshall and General H.H. Arnold and throughout the campaign 18 airborne exploitation operations had been planned “each of them cancelled by the rapidity of the advance of the ground forces.”[65] Eisenhower made Montgomery the primary effort on September 10th and Montgomery “immediately detailed planning …for an idea he had already conceived to use the airborne reserve.”[66]

American Paratroops in Holland

The plan was Operation MARKET-GARDEN and to be successful Montgomery’s forces would have to cross 8 water obstacles including 3 major rivers.[67] He had to use one two lane highway bordered by soft Dutch podder, thick woods and drainage ditches that restricted armor and mechanized forces to the road itself.[68] The was for three Allied airborne divisions, the American 82nd and 101st, the British 1st Airborne and the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade to secure the bridges over the waterways between the front and Arnhem 65 miles north of the front.  The goal was to establish a bridgehead over the Rhine for the British Second Army to advance deep into the German heartland.  XXX Corps was to advance up this “corridor of death” and link up with each of the airborne divisions with the goal of breaking the German defense in the west.

British Paras in the ruins of Arnhem

Nearly all the writers agree that had the offensive been launched 7-10 days earlier when the Germans were in complete disarray it might have succeeded in its objective of crossing the Rhine and getting into Germany.  Hastings and Weigley both believe that the axis of the offensive was wrong and that the attack should have been made further south using 21st Army Group and 1st Army to drive to the Rhine.[69] All believe that an attack by Patton’s 3rd Army would not have achieved significant strategic gain as he now faced the bulk of the Wehrmacht’s strength and that there was little of strategic value in the part of Germany he could attack.

German Sturmgeschutz III in Arnhem 

The attack was made on 17 September.   The shortcomings of the plan became rapidly apparent.[70] German resistance in South Holland was much stronger than expected, the Son bridge was demolished by the Germans which created a major delay as bridging equipment had to be found and brought forward.  Due to the presence of battle groups from the 10th SS Panzer Division and other units dug in the city around the bridge the 82nd could not secure the Nijmegen Bridge until XXX Corps arrived.  The 1st Airborne was landed too far away from Arnhem Bridge to secure it in the face of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions of II SS Panzer Corps.  Due to a shortage of aircraft and refusal of the air transport command to make two drops on the first day the drops took 3 days to get all the airborne units into the fight.  The single road ensured that the spearhead of the XXX Corps advance was limited to a squadron of tanks and supporting infantry on a front two tanks wide.[71] The flanks were weakly held and German units salvaged from the Scheldt attacked the west and units from the Germany proper attacked the 82nd’s lodgment area.  Communications problems in the 1st Airborne Division prevented it from communicating with its own units as well as higher headquarters leaving everyone wondering what was happening.[72] The advance of XXX Corps was often both before Eindhoven and after Nijmegen lacking in urgency.[73] When all was said and done 1st Airborne Division was all but destroyed and had to be evacuated from its bridgehead and the operation ended in failure.[74] Numerous events contributed to the failure of the operation, many of which occurred before it was planned.  The German ability to make an army out of nothing coupled with planning which was based more on assumptions about what the Germans were incapable of doing rather than what was happening on the ground was a major fact. Likewise the British command discounted intelligence reports of Panzers in or near the drop the drop zones.

SS Panzer Grenadiers in Arnhem

The plan itself left much to chance and was built around the assumption that the Germans lacked the ability to stop them, neglecting the restrictions in which the Allied forces would have to execute the plan. If things could go wrong they did, especially in the 1st Airborne area of operations. Critical equipment failed to arrive, communications broke down, 2 of 3 battalions detailed to seize the Arnhem Bridge were stopped by a mixed bag of German forces including Panzers, an SS training battalion and various Army units and only one battalion reached the bridge. The failure to plan for and establish a landing zone on the south side of the Rhine kept them from being able to take the bridge, which became a key factor in the German ability to move troops from Arnhem to Njimegen. General Urquart was trapped in a house by German units which posted themselves around it and the commander of 1st Airborne Brigade was wounded.  The Germans succeeded in over running the drop zones and without communications British Airborne could not let the air transport know that supplies were not getting to them.

Summary

This phase of the French campaign exhibited the best and the worst of Allied generalship. The reasons; generally inexperienced American leadership at this level of warfare and poor leadership by the more experienced British command.  The key failures were logistics management and the strategic focus following the breakout which changed the nature of the planned campaign. The Allies were running at the limit of their capacity, shortages of fuel and other supplies and heavy casualties incurred in Normandy weakened the Allied advance demonstrating von Clausewitz’s understanding of what happens when a offensive reaches its culminating point. The drive into Brittany, the failure at the Falaise gap, the failure to close the door at the Seine, the failure to trap the 15th Army at the Scheldt and its failure to cross the Albert Canal, as well as the Market-Garden fiasco can all be directly attributed to Allied leadership at high levels.  Likewise the extraordinary ability of German commanders to restore seemingly hopeless situations all demonstrated how Clausewitz’s understood “genius” in war.

The campaign from the Normandy to Arnhem was one of spotty performance by the Allies especially in terms of generalship and logistics planning and the ability to improvise.  The Germans suffered from Hitler’s interference, especially at Mortain where he insisted on counterattack versus withdraw. Likewise they suffered from a critical lack of air support.  However German commanders were masters of improvisation taking advantage of Allied errors and confusion to recover the situation time and time again.

[1] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.280

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hastings, Max. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 Alfred a Knopf, New York, 2004 p.37.  Hastings comments that “British planners threw away it had learned since 1939 about the speed of reaction of Hitler’s army, its brilliance at improvisation, its dogged skill in defense, its readiness always to punish allied mistakes.”

[4] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981pp.184-186

[5] Ibid. Hastings. Overlord pp.282-283

[6] D’Este,  Carlo. Patton: A Genius for War. Harper Collins Publishers New York, 1995 pp.632-633

[7] Ibid.  p.195

[8] Ibid. Also

[9] Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45 Presidio Press, Novato CA 1964 pp.449-450.

[10] Ibid pp.195-196. Weigley notes that Montgomery and most other Allied commanders  had been optimistic in not anticipating the German counter attack despite the ULTRA warnings, while Bradley and Patton were cautious in making troop deployments.

[11] Michael Reynolds in Steel Inferno: The 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandynotes that the Americans inflicted “astonishing casualties on the northern thrusts of 2nd SS Panzer and remained undefeated when the Germans withdrew 4 days later.”  Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: The 1st SS Panzer Corps in NormandyDell Publishing, New York, 1997 p.264

[12] Ibid. Hastings Overlord p.283

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. Weigley p.199.

[15] Carrell, Paul. Invasion! They’re Coming!” Trans. E. Osers, Originally published as Sie Kommen! Gerhard Stalling Verlag 1960, Bantam Books New York, 1964, 5th Printing June 1984. p. 249

[16] Ibid. Weigley p. 199

[17] Ibid. p.200

[18] Ibid. Hastings. Overlord. pp.282-283

[19] Ibid. D’Este. p.631

[20] Ibid. Weigley. p.286  He also points out that the Brittany diversion could have been “worse had it not been for Montgomery’s influence”  p.288

[21] Ibid. p. 202

[22] Ibid. p.204

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy Dell Publishing New York, 1997. p.320.

[26] Meyer, Kurt Grenadiers trans. By  Michael Mende and Robert J.  Edwards, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Inc. Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada 2001 p.290.

[27] Ibid. Hastings Overlord pp.288-289.

[28] Patton, George S. War As I Knew It Bantam Books NY  published 1980, originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company 1947. pp.101-102

[29] Ibid. Weigley p.209  Weigley quotes Major Hansen, Bradley’s aide in stating that the Falaise halt orde was “the only decision he has ever questioned.”

[30] DRAGOON was the airborne component of he south France operation.

[31] Ibid. p.218

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid. pp.222-224

[36] Patton and Truscott had a clash during the Sicilian campaign over Patton’s push for an amphibious operation accusing him of being “afraid to fight” and threatening to relieve him but then throwing his arm around him and offering him a drink. See D’Este pp.526-528  This incident was made famous in the movie “Patton.”

[37] Giziowski, Richard. The Enigma of General Blaskowitz. Hippocrene Books, New York 1997 p.338

[38] Ibid. Weigley

[39] Ibid. p.241

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid. p.243

[42] Ibid. p.246

[43] Hans Von Luck, the commanding a Kampfgrüppe of 21st Panzer Division describes how he and his troops camouflaged his “Schwimmwagen” with bushes to cross the Seine successfully disguising the vehicle to avoid persistant Allied air attacks. VonLuck, Hans Panzer Commander Dell Publishing New York 1989. p.209

[44] Ibid. Weigley. p.255

[45] Weigley, Hastings and D’Este all place a fair amount of blame for the logistical crisis on the commander of the COMMZ, General John C.H. Lee.

[46] Ibid. Hastings, Armageddon p.24

[47] Ibid D’Este pp.647-652

[48] Weigley notes that OVERLORD plans had not envision support American divisions for offensive operations across the Seine until D+120, yet by “D+90, sixteen United States divisions were already 200 kilometers beyond the Seine.” p.268.  Hastings and Weigley also note the waste in the American supply system noting that of “twenty-two million fuel jerrycans shipped to France since D-Day, half had vanished since September.” Hastings. Armageddon p.23.

[49] Ibid. Weigley

[50] Ibid. p.275-276

[51] Both Weigley and Hastings note the logistical problems of the British which not only included the problems that beset the Americans but problems of their own making including poor trucks of numerous makes rather than the standardized American trucks.  Hastings notes that for a time around Antwerp that “Montgomery’s armies were obliged for a time to commandeer thousands of horse-drawn wagons abandoned by the Wehrmacht, to make good its shortage of vehicles for the haulage of supplies.” Hastings. Armageddon p.23

[52] Weigley notes that Montgomery had a fiasco of British logistics in which some “1,400 British three-ton lorries, plus all the replacement engines for this model, had been discovered to have faulty pistons rendering them useless.” p.281.

[53] Ibid. Hastings. Armageddon. p.20

[54] Ryan in A BridgeToo Far quotes the XXX Corps Commander Horrocks who said in his memoirs “My excuse is that my eyes were entirely fixed on the Rhine and everything else seemed of subsidiary importance.” Ryan, Corrnelius. A Bridge Too Far Fawcett Popular Library by Arrangement with Simon and Schuster Publishing, New York, 1974  p.60

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid. Hastings p.20.  Weigley on p.293 gives a higher figure of 86,000 troops, 600 artillery pieces, 6,000 vehicles and 6,000 horses.

[57] Ibid. Ryan. p.49

[58] Reynolds, Michael Sons of the Reich Casemate, Havertown PA 2002 p.98

[59] A significant unit that was to plan a key role in the German defense against XXX Corps was Kampfgrüppe Walter formed around the 6th Parachute Regiment and other assorted units.  It is noted in almost every volume devoted to the campaign.

[60] Ibid. Weigley. p.294

[61] Ibid. Ryan. p.52

[62] See Hastings p.22 “The fumbled handling of Antwerp was among the principal causes of Allied failure to break into Germany in 1944.  It was not merely that the port was unavailable for the shipment of supplies; through two months that followed, a large part of Montgomery’s forces had to be employed upon a task that could have been accomplished in days if the necessary energy and “grip” been exercised at the beginning of September, when the enemy was incapable of resistance.”  and Weigley pp.293-294

[63] Ibid. Weigley p.288

[64] Hastings notes that since the Airborne Army had been created that “the apostles of the new art of envelopment from the sky were determined that it should be used.” Armageddon p.35

[65] Ibid. p.289

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid. Weigley. p.291

[68] Ibid. p.295

[69] Also see Ryan. p.81 Ryan notes that in the planning General Dempsey because of his doubts about the ability of 2nd Army suggested an attack “seizing the Rhine crossing at Wesel….” as “it would be better, he believed to advance in conjunction with the U.S. First Army northward toward Wesel.”

[70] All the commentators make reference too the misgivings voiced at the final planning conference. Hastings comments on Gavin who believed that “If I get through this one, I will be very lucky.”

[71] Ibid. Weigley. p.295

[72] Hastings comments “It was a scandal-for which in the Russian or German armies some signals officers would have been shot-that the communications of 1stAirborne Division remained almost non-existent from 17 September onwards.Armaggedon p.58

[73] Ibid. p.293

[74] Casualties in 1st Airborne were high, of “the original 10,005 man force only 2,163 troopers, along with 160 Poles and 75 Dorsets, came back across the Rhine. After nine days the division had approximately 1,200 dead and 6,642 missing, wounded or captured.” Ryan p.509.

Bibliography

Carrell, Paul. Invasion! They’re Coming!” Trans. E. Osers, Originally published as Sie Kommen! Gerhard Stalling Verlag 1960, Bantam Books New York, 1964, 5th Printing June 1984

D’Este,  Carlo. Patton: A Genius for War. Harper Collins Publishers New York, 1995

Giziowski, Richard. The Enigma of General Blaskowitz. Hippocrene Books, New York 1997

Hastings, Max. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 Alfred a Knopf, New York, 2004

Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984

Meyer, Kurt Grenadiers trans. By  Michael Mende and Robert J.  Edwards, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Inc. Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada 2001

Patton, George S. War As I Knew It Bantam Books NY  published 1980, originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company 1947.

Reynolds, Michael Sons of the Reich Casemate, Havertown PA 2002

Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy Dell Publishing New York, 1997

Ryan, Corrnelius. A Bridge Too Far Fawcett Popular Library by Arrangement with Simon and Schuster Publishing, New York, 1974

Von Luck, Hans Panzer Commander Dell Publishing New York 1989

Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45 Presidio Press, Novato CA 1964

Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981

2 Comments

Filed under History, Military, world war two in europe

An Introduction to D-Day and the Normandy Campaign

The author with Marines at Point du Hoc, Normandy in 2004

Every year about this time I try to write about D-Day. Last year I posted several articles as I had in 2009 as well.  This year I spent more time on the Battle of Midway writing three articles. Today I have been on the road much of the day and as I drove back to my Island Hermitage I began to think about what I wanted to do this year. When I have decided to do is to re-post a short research paper that I did for one of my Master’s degree courses tonight and follow it with some articles over the week on specific aspects and personalities of the campaign.  What I hope is that people that are not familiar with the campaign as well as those that are can use this as a portal to other resources on the web and in print.

I have visited Normandy once in 2004 on a trip with the Marines of the Marine Security Force Company Europe that took me to Belleau Wood as well as Normandy.  In both places I had the good fortune to be able to explain aspects of both battles, at Normandy discussing the invasion from the German side of the fence.  The Normandy battlefields are well worth visiting.  Hopefully in the next few years I will get a chance to go back and do some serious exploring.

Introduction

General Dwight D Eisenhower Commander in Chief Allied Forces Europe

The American landings on Omaha Beach were critical to the success of the Allied invasion northwestern Europe in the overall Overlord plan.  Without success at Omaha there would have been a strong chance that the German 7th Army and Panzer Group West could have isolated the remaining beachheads, and even if unsuccessful at throwing the Allies into the sea could have produced a stalemate that would have bled the Allies white.  This quite possibly could have led to a political and military debacle for the western allies which would have certainly changed the course of World War II and maybe the course of history.[i] This is not to say the Germans would have won the war, but merely to state that a defeat on Omaha could have changed the outcomes of the war significantly.   Subsequent to the successful landing there were opportunities both for the Allies and the Germans to change the way that the campaign unfolded, thus the battles leading up to the breakout at Avranches are critical to its development and the subsequent campaign in France.

OVERLORD: The Preparations

Eisenhower’s Key Lieutenants: Patton, Bradley and Montgomery

The planning for the Normandy invasion began in earnest after the QUADRANT conference in Quebec in August 1943.  The timetable for the operation 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.[ii] Prior to this there had been some planning by both the British and Americans for the eventual invasion initially named ROUNDUP.  These preparations and plans included 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.        The failure at 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.[iii] Despite this the Americans led by General Marshall pushed for an early invasion of northwest Europe. 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 conflicted 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 once they landed. This especially included what one writer described as “the maze of troubles awaiting behind the French shore.”[iv]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B

Despite conflicts between the Americans and British political and military leadership the planning for the Normandy landings detailed in NEPTUNE and OVERLORD moved ahead.  General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed as the commander of SHAEF with his major subordinates for Land, Air and Sea which caused consternation on both sides of the Atlantic.[v] [vi] The planned operation was expanded from the initial 3 division assault on a narrow front to a minimum 5 division assault on a broad front across Normandy[vii]supplemented by a strong airborne force.[viii] 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.”[ix] It is ironic in a sense that the British avoidance of the head on attack was based on their known lack of manpower.  Britain had few 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 shortage of infantry forces would cause great consternation among the Allies as the campaign in France wore on.

German Beach Obstacles

The Germans too faced manpower shortages due to the immense losses sustained on the Eastern front, those lost in Africa and those tied down in Italy, the Balkans and Norway as well as the drain caused by Luftwaffe Field Divisions and troops diverted into the Waffen-SS.   The German Army resorted to smaller divisions and the created many “static” divisions manned by elderly or invalid Germans to plug the gaps along the Atlantic wall. The Germans were also forced to recruit “Volksdeutsch” and foreign “volunteers” to fill out both Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formations.

German fortifications at the Pas de Calais

Prior to the final decision to mount an invasion the Allied planners had contended with the location of the assault in northwestern France.  The Pas de Calais provided 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.  The fiasco at Dieppe had provided ample proof of what could happen when making an assault into a heavily fortified port.  Likewise the mouth of the Seine near Le Harve was rejected because of the few beaches suitable for landing 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.[x]This left Normandy which offered access to a sufficient number of ports and offered some protection from the weather. Normandy offered options to advance the campaign toward the “Breton ports or Le Harve as might be convenient.”[xi] 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.

Rommel inspecting beach obstacles

Once Normandy was selected as the location for the strike by the Allies, the planning sessions remained contentious.  This was especially true when the Allies debated the amount and type of amphibious lift that could be provided for the landings, particularly 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 had an impact in the Mediterranean and resulted in ANVIL being postponed until later in the summer.

“Dummy” Sherman Tank: The Allies created a fictional Army Group to deceive German planners

As part of their preparations the Allies launched a massive deception campaign, Operation FORTITUDE.  This operation utilized the fictitious First Army Group under the “command” of General George Patton. Patton was still smarting from his relief of command of 7th Army following slapping commanded an “Army Group” which incorporated the use of dummy camp sites, dummy tanks, aircraft and vehicles, falsified orders of battle and communications to deceive German intelligence.[xii] The success of this effort was heightened by the fact that all German intelligence agents in the U.K. had been neutralized or turned by the British secret service.  Additionally the Luftwaffe’s limited air reconnaissance could only confirm the pre-invasion build ups throughout England without determining the target of the invasion.[xiii] The German intelligence chief in the west, Colonel Baron von Roenne “was deceived by FORTITUDE’s fantasy invasion force for the Pas de Calais.”[xiv] Despite this Commander of the 7thArmy 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 June 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.[xv] Allied intelligence was aided by ULTRA intercepts of coded German wireless transmissions. However this was less of a factor than during the African and Italian campaigns as more German communications were sent via secure telephone and telegraph lines vice wireless.[xvi] Allied deception efforts were for the most part successful in identifying German forces deployed in Normandy. However they were uncertain about the location of the 352nd Infantry Division which had been deployed along OMAHA and taken units of the 709th Infantry Division under its command when it moved to the coast.[xvii]

 

US Army Air Corps B-17s were part of the strategic air campaign to isolate the German beach defenses

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.[xviii] A more effective effort was led by General Brereton and his Ninth Air Force which was composed of medium bombers and fighters.  Brereton’s aircraft attacked bridges and rapidly achieved success in crippling German efforts to reinforce Normandy.[xix] Max Hastings gives more credit to the American bombing campaign in Germany to crippling the German defense in the west. General Spaatz and the 8th Air Force destroyed German production capacity in oil and petroleum as well as the degraded the German fighter force.  The American daylight raids so seriously degraded the German fighter force that it could not mount effective resistance to the invasion.[xx] Russell Weigley also notes that Albert Speer the Reich Armaments Minister said that “it was the oil raids of 1944 that decided the war.”[xxi]

 

US Navy LST’s being loaded for the invasion

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.”[xxii] American preparations were thorough and ambitious, but the American assault would go through the most heavily defended sector of German defenses in Normandy.  The landing beaches were wide and 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.”[xxiii] Dug in along those bluffs was the better part of the 352nd Division. The Americans compounded their 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.[xxiv]

Dual Drive amphibious tanks were included as part of the US invasion package

Weigley believes that the American view of “tanks as instruments of mobility rather than of breakthrough power.” Likewise the Americans victories in the First World War were won by infantry with little tank support.[xxv] In this aspect the Americans were less receptive to utilizing all available technology to support their landings, something that when considering the fact that Americans were great lovers of gadgets and technology. The British use of the Armor, including the “Funnies” 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 during the initial landings.[xxvi]

 

Rommel with Artillerymen of the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy

German preparations for an Allied landing in Normandy were less advanced than the Pas de Calais.  However they had made great strides since late 1943. Field Marshal Rommel greatly 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 Rommel did not get everything that he wanted.  The OKW only allotted him two Panzer Divisions to be deployed near the Normandy beaches.  Only one of these 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. [xxvii]

OMAHA: The Landings

The venerable USS Nevada, resurrected from the mud of Pearl Harbor bombarding German positions at Utah Beach

Like the rest of the Allied invasion forces the 1st and 29th U.S. Infantry Divisions set sail from their embarkation ports with the intent of landing on June 5th.  General Bradley, commanding the First Army until the American XII Army Group would be activated accompanied the invasion force.  The OMAHA landing was under the command of General Gerow and his V Corps while VII Corps led by the 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah supported by airdrops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions inland.  American command and control during the invasion was exercised from sea as in the Pacific, although General Officers were to go ashore with each of the American divisions.  A severe channel storm disrupted the plan to land on the 5th and Eisenhower delayed the invasion one day catching a break in the weather and electing to go on the 6th.[xxviii] This delay while uncomfortable for the embarked troops caused the Germans to believe that no invasion would take place until the next favorable tide and moon cycle later in the month.[xxix] The assumption that no invasion was possible ensured that a number of key senior German leaders, including Rommel were absent from the invasion front when the Allies landed.[xxx]

US Troops ride a LCVP toward Omaha 

The landing beaches at OMAHA stretched about 6500 meters from Colleville-Sur-Mer to Vierville-Sur-Mere in the west.  The beaches are wide with bluffs overlooking them and a seawall between the beaches and the bluffs.  Additionally several small towns dot the beach. To the west of the town of Vierville, a prominent height overlooked the entire beachhead.  Named Pont du Hoc, it was believed to house a 150mm battery sighted where it could enfilade the OMAHA landing zones.  The Americans assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion to make a seaborne assault to land, scale the cliffs and take the battery.  Companies from this battalion made a heroic landing and scaled the cliffs to capture the strongpoint only to discover that the guns had not been emplaced.  The Rangers took heavy casualties and held their isolated beachhead against German counterattacks until relieved by the 29th Division on the morning of June 8th.[xxxi]

Landing craft passing the USS Augusta in heavy seas heading toward Omaha Beach

H-Hour for OMAHA was 0630.  Unfortunately the assault troops were transferred to their LCVP landing craft 16-20 kilometers from the beach.  The result was a long and dangerous ride in the small craft for the infantry.  Most of the infantry were completely soaked in sea spay and seasick before going ashore and they carried loads far above what they normally would carry into battle.[xxxii] The Armor support was one battalion of DD tanks, the 741stArmored Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry Regiment of 1st Infantry Division. These were also launched too far out and nearly all of the tanks were swamped and lost before firing a shot in anger.[xxxiii] Other American support units needed to provide firepower on the beach were equally unfortunate. Weigley notes that at OMAHA “at least 10 of the LCVPs sank” as did “the craft carrying almost all of the 105mm howitzers that were to be the first artillery ashore after the tanks.”[xxxiv] The losses would cripple the assault on OMAHA and nearly cause its abandonment.

Bloody Omaha

As the soldiers of the American divisions on OMAHA came ashore they faced German defenders of the 352nd, 716th and a regiment of the 709th Infantry Division, the latter under the tactical command of the 352nd.   Without the bulk of their tanks artillery and lacking close air support the Americans struggled across the beaches and were cut down in large numbers before being pinned down behind the sea wall.[xxxv] With the Americans pinned down on the beach unable to advance, the time tables for the reinforcing waves became snarled amid the German beach obstacles which had not been cleared.  This was in large part due to 40% casualties among the Combat Engineers and the loss of all but five bulldozers.[xxxvi] Naval officers were frustrated in their attempts to provide naval gunfire support by the lack of identifiable targets on the beaches.  Yet German strongpoint’s were “knocked out by either by superbly directed vigorous gunfire from destroyers steaming as close as 800 yards offshore, or by determined action from Rangers or infantry.[xxxvii]

 

US Infantry struggles ashore at Omaha

Soldiers ashore discovered that they were not facing the static 716th Division but the veteran 352nd Division as well.[xxxviii] Only the leadership and actions of Brigadier General Norman Cota the 29th Division’s Deputy Commander and Colonel Charles Canham of the 116th Infantry kept the situation from complete collapse.  They were able to rally their troops. Under their leadership small units from the 116th which had its linage back to the “Stonewall Brigade” as well as elements of the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments began to move forward.  Surviving junior leaders began to lead survivors through the dunes and up the bluffs to attack German defenders of the roads leading up from the beach from the flank and rear.  A mid-day break in the weather allowed some close tactical air support giving the troops badly needed support.

US 1st Infantry Division Troops at the Omaha sea wall

With the situation desperate General Bradley considered the evacuation of OMAHA.  At sea events were as confused as Bradley and his staff attempted to make sense of what was going on.  Even later in the evening there was discussion of diverting all further reinforcements from OMAHA to the British beaches.[xxxix]At 1330 hours “Gerow signaled Bradley: “Troops formerly pinned down on beaches…advancing up heights behind beaches.”[xl] By the end of the day Bradley’s aid Major Hansen noted Bradley’s comments to Collins: “They are digging in on Omaha beach with their fingernails. I hope they can push in and get some stuff ashore.”  And Montgomery: “Someday I’ll tell Gen[eral] Eisenhower just how close it was for a few hours.”[xli]

German Fallschirmjaeger Trüppen in Normandy, the German Parachute forces fighting in an infantry role were very effective in the Normandy campaign

The landings at OMAHA succeeded at a cost of over 2000 casualties.  Critical to the success of the landings were the German inability to reinforce their defending troops on the beach.  Likewise the weakness of the units available to mount the standard counterattack that was critical to German defensive plans on D-Day itself kept the Germans from driving the Americans back into the Channel. The 352nd Division fought superbly under the full weight of V Corps and the British XXX Corps on its right suffering heavy casualties as they contested every inch of ground.  The 716th Division composed of second rate troops melted under the onslaught.  Allied air supremacy played a key role as sorties by the 8th and 9th Air Forces helped keep German reinforcements from arriving and interdicted counter attacks inland.  Weigley credits the Allied air superiority with the success of the landings and with limiting casualties.[xlii]Von Rundstedt and other German commanders in France were limited by the delay and refusal of Hitler and OKW to release Panzer reserves when needed most early on June 6th.  By the close of D-Day allied forces had secured the five invasion beaches but not achieved their objectives of taking Caen and Bayuex.  Since the forces on the various beachheads had not linked up the beaches would have been extremely vulnerable had the Germans been able to mount a rapid counterattack by Panzers and strong infantry formations as they had at Salerno.

Major Battles to the Breakout at Avranches

Securing the Beachheads

P-47 firing rockets at a ground target. Close air support was vital to Allied forces in Normandy

It took the V and VII Corps nearly a week to secure the beachheads. German forces including the stalwart 352nd Division resisted stubbornly and mounted sharp local counterattacks which kept the Americans off balance.  Elements of the 29th Division and the 90th Division began to push inland and to expand the beachhead toward UTAH. Opposed by the 352nd Division and elements of the 91st Airlanding Division and other non-divisional units the fighting revealed the inexperience of the American infantry formations and the uneven quality of their leadership.  As the Americans tackled the Germans in the labyrinth of the Bocage country the defensive skill of the Germans cost many American lives and delayed the joining of the beachheads. On the 13th the link up was solid enough to enabling the Americans to conduct the follow up operations needed to expand the beachhead, secure Cherbourg and clear the Cotentin.

A Panther tank of the Panzer Lehr Division in Normandy

In some American divisions the hard fighting triggered a leadership crisis.  The lack of success of the 90th Division led General “Lightening Joe” Collins of VII Corps relieve the division commander and two regimental commanders of command, a portent of things to come with other American units.[xliii] As the V and VII corps pushed into the “Bocage” they were followed by a massive build up of troops and equipment delivered to the beaches and to the artificial “Mulberry” harbors.  Despite their numeric superiority, air supremacy and massive Naval gunfire support and facing the weakened 352nd, 91st and the 6thParachute Regiment and other less than quality formations, survivors of the static divisions, the Americans made painfully slow progress as they moved off the beachhead and into the Bocage.[xliv]

The Capture of Cherbourg

US Soldiers of the 29th Division surrender to German Fallschirmjaeger in Normandy

Once the beachheads had been consolidated the Americans turned their attention toward Cherbourg. Cherbourg was the major naval port at the far northwest tip of the Cotentin.  D-Day planners counted on its swift capture and rehabilitation to serve as a supply port for the Allied forces. The 9th Division drove south to the coast near Barneville on the 18th of June cutting off the German forces covering the approaches to Cherbourg.[xlv] This put the Germans in a bind as the 7th Army “had to split its forces in the peninsula in order to hold the fortress a little longer and thus to gain time for the establishment of the southern front on the Cotentin peninsula.[xlvi] The German forces arrayed before Cherbourg waged a desperate defense centered around the 243rd Infantry Division and other assorted battle groups of LXXXIV Corps, whose commander General Marcks one of the best German Generals was killed in action on 12 June.[xlvii] The U.S. VII Corps under Collins with the 9th, 4th and 79th Divisions pushed up the peninsula capturing Cherbourg on June 29th.  Bradley pushed hard for the capture of the port as the Mulberries had been ravaged by a severe Channel storm the week prior. The port of Cherbourg was thoroughly demolished by German engineers and would not be fully operational for months. The loss of the Mulberries and delay in Cherbourg’s availability meant that few supplies were landed on the beaches would “hinder the escape from the constricting land of the hedgerows into which the Americans had come in search of a port.[xlviii]

The Battle of Caumont Gap

Panzer IV Tank in Normandy

V Corps under Gerow made a cautious advance by phase lines toward Caumont, St Lo and Carentan.  The deliberate advance by the Corps toward a line weakly held by the Reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was directed by Bradley who did not want to divert attention from the effort against Cherbourg.   After capturing Caumont V Corps halted and continued aggressive patrolling to deceive the Germans while digging in.[xlix] The possibility existed that a strong push against the weak German line could have led to an opportunity to envelope the German line west of Caen. This was a missed opportunity that in part led to the bloody and controversial campaign to capture Caen.[l]

British efforts around Caen

German Panzer Ace Waffen SS Captain Michale Wittman single handedly destroyed a British Battalion at Villers Bocage in his Tiger Tank

Montgomery had ambitious plans to break out of Normandy by capturing Caen on D-Day and driving toward Falaise and Argentan.  The British plans for this were frustrated by the rapid reinforcement of the sector by the Germans and the activities of 21st Panzer, Panzer Lehr, and the 12th SS Panzer Divisions.  A flanking maneuver at Villers-Bocage was frustrated by a few Tiger tanks led by the legendary Waffen SS Panzer commander Captain Michael Wittman whose tanks devastated a British Armored battalion.[li]

Wreckage of a British Battalion at Villers Bocage

A series of disastrous attacks toward Caen (EPSOM, CHARNWOOD and GOODWOOD) strongly supported by air strikes and Naval gunfire finally succeeded in taking that unfortunate city on July 18th but failed to take the heights beyond the town.[lii]

British operations like Operation Epsom met setback after setback against dug in German forces outside of Caen

Against crack well dug in German forces the British took heavy casualties in tanks and infantry seriously straining their ability to conduct high intensity combat operations in the future.[liii] The one benefit, which Montgomery would claim after the war as his original plan was that German forces were fixed before Caen and ground down so they could not be used against Bradley’s breakout in the west at St Lo.[liv]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearing the Bocage: The Battle of the Cotentin Plain

US M-5 Light Tank in Normandy

Other German forces arrived, and reinforced the Caumont gap which no longer “yawned invitingly in front of V Corps.” [lv] Bradley wished to push forward rapidly to achieve a breakthrough in the American sector.[lvi] Facing the most difficult terrain in France amid the Bocage and swamps that limited avenues of approach to the American divisions committed to the offensive.  The Americans now faced their old foe the 352nd division as well various elements of II Parachute Corps, the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Lehr Divisions.  American tanks and infantry made slow progress and incurred high losses as they dueled the Germans at close range.  In the VIII Corps sector alone the attack “consumed twelve days and 10,000 casualties to cross eleven kilometers of the Bocage…the achievements of the VII and XIX Corps were no better than comparable.[lvii]

St. Lo

US Tanks advancing with German prisoners moving back to US lines at St Lo

St. Lo was a key to Bradley’s breakout efforts.  His Army had to capture it and the roads leading out of it to launch Operation COBRA along the coast.  The task of capturing St. Lo was assigned to GEROW’S V Corps and Corlett’s XIX Corps.  They faced opposition from the tough paratroops of the German 3rd Parachute Division of II Parachute Corps.  The 2nd, 29th, 30th and 83rd Divisions fought a tough battle advancing eleven kilometers again with high numbers of casualties especially among the infantry to secure St. Lo on 18 July.[lviii] They finally had cleared the hedgerows.  St Lo epitomized the struggle that the American Army had to overcome in the Bocage.  Hard fighting but outnumbered German troops in excellent defensive country exacted a terrible price in American blood despite the Allied control of the skies.[lix]

Operation COBRA

US 155mm Howitzers in Normandy, the Germans had profound respect for American Artillery, a respect that they did not share for American Infantry or Armor forces

With the Bocage behind him Bradley desired to push the Germans hard.  COBRA was his plan to break out of Normandy.  Bradley ably assisted by Collins they realized that the better terrain, road networks favored a breakout.  American preparations included a technical advance that allowed tanks to plow through hedgerows. This was the “Rhino” device fashioned by American troops which was installed on 3 of every 5 First Army Tanks for the operation.[lx] VII Corps was to lead the attack which was to begin on July 24th. American planning was more advanced than in past operations.  Collins and Bradley planned for exploitation operations once the breakthrough had been made. A massive air bombardment would precede the attack along with an artillery barrage by Collins corps artillery which was reinforced by additional battalions.   A mistake by the heavy bombers in the 24th resulted in the American troops being hit with heavy casualties and a postponement of the attack until the 25th.[lxi] The following day the attack commenced.  Another mistake by the bombers led to more American casualties[lxii] but VII Corps units pressed forward against the determined resistance of the survivors of Panzer Lehr and the remnants of units that had fought the Americans since the invasion began.  Although it was a “slow go” on the 25th Bradley and his commanders were already planning for and beginning to execute the breakout before the Germans could move up reinforcements.  The 26th of June brought renewed attacks accompanied by massive air strikes.

St Lo 

While not much progress was made on the 26th, the Americans discovered on the 27th that the German forces were retreating.  The capture of Marigny allowed VIII Corps to begin exploitation down the coastal highway to Coutances.  On the 27th General Patton was authorized to take immediate command of VIII Corps a precursor to the activation of his 3rdArmy.  COBRA ripped a hole in the German line and inflicted such heavy casualties on the German 7th Army that it could do little to stop the American push.[lxiii] As the American forces pushed forward they reinforced their left flank absorbing the local German counterattacks which were hampered by the Allied close air support.

Avranches and Beyond

US Forces advance through the ruins of St Lo

As the breakthrough was exploited the command of the forces leading it shifted to Patton and the newly activated 3rd Army. By the 28th VIII Corps led by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions had reached Avranches and established bridgeheads over the See River with additional bridges being captured intact on the 30th.[lxiv] The capture of Avranches allowed the Americans to begin exploitation operations into Brittany and east toward the Seine. Weigley notes that for the first time in the campaign that in Patton the Americans finally had a commander who understood strategic maneuver and would use it to great effect.[lxv]

Conclusion

The American campaign in Normandy cost the U.S. Army a great deal. It revealed weaknesses in the infantry, the inferiority of the M4 Sherman tank to most German types, problems in tank-infantry cooperation and also deficiencies in leadership at senior, mid-grade and junior levels. Heavy casualties among infantry formations would lead to problems later in the campaign. Numerous officers were relieved including Division and Regimental commanders.  Nonetheless during the campaign the Americans grew in their ability to coordinate air and ground forces and adapt to the conditions imposed on them by their placement in the Cotentin.  The deficiencies would show up in later battles but the American Army learned its trade even impressing some German commanders on the ground in Normandy.[lxvi]

[i] See the alternative history of by Peter Tsouras Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, Greenhill Books, London 1994. Tsouras describes the defeat of the Omaha landings and the effect on the course of the campaign leading to the overthrow of Hitler and a negotiated armistice in the west.  While this outcome could be rigorously debated other outcomes could have led to the fall of the Roosevelt and Churchill governments and their replacement by those not committed to unconditional surrender or a continuation of the war that brought about more German missile attacks on the U.K. and the introduction of other advanced German weapons that could have forced such a settlement. Another option could have led to the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on a German city vice Hiroshima.

[ii] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981 p.33

[iii] Ibid pp. 34-35

[iv] Ibid p.35

[v] 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

[vi] 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.

[vii] 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.

[viii] Ibid. p.37

[ix] 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.

[x] 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.

[xi] Ibid. Weigley, pp. 39-40

[xii] Ibid. p.73

[xiii] 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.”

[xiv] Ibid. Hastings p.63.  Hastings comments also about the success of using the turned Abwehr agents.

[xv] 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

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley pp. 53-54

[xvii] Ibid. p. 67

[xviii] 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.

[xix] Ibid. p.67-68.

[xx] 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.

[xxi] Ibid. Weigley p.69

[xxii] Ibid. p.89

[xxiii] Ibid. pp. 88-89

[xxiv] Ibid. p.87

[xxv] 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

[xxvi] 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

[xxvii] 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.  21stPanzer had those duties in Normandy.

[xxviii] Ibid. p.74-75

[xxix] Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989 pp. 169-170.  Von Luck a regiment commander in 21st Panzer noted that General Marcks of 84th Corps had predicted a 5 June invasion at a conference May 30th.

[xxx] Almost every D-Day historian talks about the weather factor and its effect on the German high command’s reaction to the invasion.  Rommel was visiting his wife for her birthday and planned to make a call on Hitler. Others including commanders of key divisions such as the 91st Airlanding Division were off to a war game in Rennes and the 21st Panzer Division to Paris.

[xxxi] Ibid. Weigley p. 96

[xxxii] See Cornelius Ryan, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959. pp. 189-193 for a vivid description of the challenges faced by soldiers going from ship to landing craft and their ride in to the beaches.

[xxxiii] Ibid. Weigley. p.78 Weigley talks about the order for the tanks to be carried ashore on their LCTs that did not get transmitted to the 741st.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid. Weigley  p. 87 The weather prevented the aerial bombardment from being effective. Because the bombers could not see their targets they dropped their bomb loads further inland, depriving the infantry of support that they were expecting.  Naval gunfire support had some effect but had to be lifted as the troops hit the beach leaving much of that support to come from Destroyers and specially equipped landing craft which mounted rockets and guns.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Hastings. pp. 90-91.

[xxxvii] Ibid. p.99

[xxxviii] Ibid. Weigley p.80

[xxxix] Ibid. p.101  Also see Weigley p.80

[xl] Ibid. p.99

[xli] Ibid. Weigleyp.95

[xlii] Ibid. p.94

[xliii] Ibid. p.99 Both Weigley and Hastings make note of the failure of both the Americans and British to train their troops to fight in the bocage once they had left the beaches.

[xliv] Ibid. Hastings. pp.152-153

[xlv] Ibid. Weigley p.101

[xlvi] Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London,  2001.  p.143

[xlvii] Ibid. Hastings p.173 Allied fighter bombers exacted a fearful toll among German commanders. The Commanders of the 243rd and 77th Divisions fighting in the Cotentin were also killed by air attacks on the 17th and 18th.   Further east facing the British the commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, Fritz Witt on the 17th.

[xlviii] Ibid. Weigley. p.108

[xlix] Ibid. p.111-112.

[l] Ibid.

[li] The efforts of the 51st Highland Division and 7th Armored Division were turned aside by the Germans in the area and were dramatized by the destruction of  a British armored battalion by SS Captain Michael Wittman and his platoon of Tiger tanks.  See Hastings pp.131-135.

[lii] The British 8th Corps under General O’Connor lost 270 tanks and 1,500 men on 18 July attempting to crack the German gun line on the ridge beyond Caen. Weigley, pp.145-146.

[liii] Hastings comments about the critical British manpower shortage and the pressures on Montgomery to not take heavy casualties that could not be replaced. Overlord. pp.241-242.

[liv] Ibid. Weigley pp.116-120

[lv] Ibid. p.122

[lvi] Ibid. p121 Bradley told Eisenhower “when we hit the enemy this time we will hit him with such power that we can keep going and cause a major disaster.”

[lvii] Ibid. 134

[lviii] Ibid. Weigley. pp. 138-143.  Weigley notes of 40,000 U.S. casualties in Normandy up to the capture of St. Lo that 90% were concentrated among the infantry.

[lix] Weigley quotes the 329th Regiment, 83rd Division historian “We won the battle of Normandy, [but] considering the high price in American lives we lost. P.143. This is actually a provocative statement that reflects America’s aversion to massive casualties in any war.

[lx] Ibid. p.149

[lxi] Ibid. p. 152

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 152-153.  Among the casualties were the command group of the 9th Division’s 3rd Battalion 47th Infantry and General Leslie McNair who had come to observe the assault.

[lxiii] Ibid. pp.161-169. Weigley notes the advances in U.S. tactical air support, the employment of massive numbers of U.S. divisions against the depleted German LXXXIV Corps, and the advantage that the “Rhino” device gave to American tanks by giving them the ability to maneuver off the roads for the first time.

[lxiv] Ibid. pp.172-173.

[lxv] Ibid. p.172

[lxvi] Ibid. Isby, David C. “Fighting in Normandy,” p.184, an officer of the 352nd Division referred to the American soldier “was to prove himself a in this terrain an agile and superior fighter.”

Bibliography

Carell, Paul. “Invasion: They’re Coming!” Translated from the German by E. Osers, Bantam, New York 1964.

Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984

Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” Greenhill Books, London 2004

Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London, 2001.

Ryan, Cornelius, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959

Tsouras, Peter. “Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944,”Greenhill Books, London 1994.

Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989

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. 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.

Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981

5 Comments

Filed under History, Military, world war two in europe

The Breakout from Normandy

Map of Normandy Breakout

The breakout from Normandy by Bradley’s 12th Army Group at St Lo opened a realm of possibilities for the Allies to defeat the German Army in detail and end the war.  Unfortunately for the Allies the manner that they would exploit their success achieved during Operation COBRA led to their failure to completely destroy the German Army in the west in the late summer of 1944 would ultimately prolong the war.

The Allied and German problem in August 1944 was the sudden change in the nature of the campaign from a nearly static war of attrition in the Norman hedgerows to a campaign of maneuver.  This change brought about a number of opportunities for the Allies to envelope large portions of the German Army in western France as well as in Belgium and southern Holland. Max Hastings notes that the campaign became more of a “commander’s battle” in which it was “the decisions of the generals that determined the manner in which events unfolded in August, their successes and failures which brought about the position that was achieved by September.”[i] This was a major change as Hastings correctly notes in that prior to the breakout success in the hedgerows had been determined on “the ability of British, American and Canadian units to seize ground from their German opponents on the next ridge, the next hedge, beyond the next road.” [ii] In the hedgerows there was not much room for higher level commanders to influence the battle but once the breakout occurred the decisions made by commanders on both sides had greater influence in the following operations. This would become important as the weaknesses in the quality of allied generalship would begin to show, along with logistics management issues and the failure of the Allied High Command to recognize the resiliency of German forces and the resourcefulness of German leaders in their ability to cope with disaster and recover from it.  These were key elements in the campaign that kept the Allies from ending the war by Christmas.[iii]

US M5 Light Tank advancing through Coutances

Early in the campaign it was decided that Bradley’s forces needed to capture the Brittany ports, particularly Brest to alleviate shortages of supplies which all still were being delivered across the beaches.  However, the implications of this decision were strategically short sighted and deprived the Allies of a decisive victory in France.  As Third Army exploited the break out from Normandy into the French interior the preponderance of its forces went west which deprived the Americans of the better part of two army corps as well as the logistical assets needed to trap the major part of the German Army in Normandy.  The campaign in Brittany would prove a diversion which did nothing to help the Allied cause.  The divisions committed, casualties taken and supplies expended in an attempt to capture ports that the Germans destroyed before the Americans could capture them. Russell Weigley points this out as a major mistake by Bradley which did little to help the Allied logistical problems and diverted much needed troops away from the focal point of the action in Normandy.[iv] Max Hastings criticized Bradley’s lack of imagination in the initial stages of the breakout by adhering to the original Overlord plan.[v] This is seconded by Patton’s biographer Carlo D’Este.[vi]

Tiger Tank in Normandy

Patton’s 3rd Army’s weakened eastern push coupled with the continued pressure of the British Army Group toward Falaise put the Germans in a strategic dilemma. With the gate open at Avranches they could attempt to restore the front in Normandy by pinching off the advance or withdraw to the Seine or even further as no “defensive position short of the permanent fortifications of the West Wall on Germany’s frontier offered so many defensive strengths as the Normandy line the Americans had just breached and turned.”[vii] The choice advocated by some senior German commanders was an orderly withdraw to the Seine which would have removed the danger of being enveloped in Normandy as well as make the Allies attack across a major water obstacle defended by still formidable formations.

5th Armored Division Shermans near Argentan

With limited options the Hitler decided on a course of no withdraw and ordered his commanders to marshal their panzer divisions seal the breach and ensnare the allies in the hedgerows.[viii] Hitler and Field Marshal von Kluge disagreed in regard to the offensive which Kluge saw as a limited offensive but which Hitler believed gave the Germans a chance to cut off the American forces in Brittany and possibly even more.  Hitler believed that “once the coast had been reached at Avranches a beginning should be made with rolling up the entire Allied position in Normandy!”[ix] General Eugen Meindl of II Parachute Corps was blunt in his assessment of the attack. Paul Carrel in his book “Invasion! They’re Coming” quotes Meindl speaking with Von Kluge’s son a first lieutenant serving at the front:

“Kindly convey to your father exactly what I’m going to say to you. The time has come when Normandy can no longer be held. It cannot be held because the troops are exhausted. This is the fault mainly of orders to hold out in hopeless positions, but we are still being ordered to hold out even now. The enemy will break through to the west and outflank us. If your father knew what is was to operate against an enemy with downright fabulous command of the air, then he would know that our only hope of doing something useful is by attacking at night. Tomorrow’s tank attack is going to be a failure…and all that’s left for the grenadiers to do is lie down and sacrifice their lives. It’s heartbreaking to have to stand by and watch!”

Grenadiers of the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Jugend”

The German attack, Operation Lüttich was led by XLVII Panzer Corps assisted by elements of 1st SS Panzer Division.  Despite warnings from ULTRA the panzers achieved tactical surprise on the front of the 30th US Division at Mortain on the night of 6-7 August advancing without the customary preparatory artillery bombardment.[x] The Germans initially made progress against the 30th Division which had recently taken over positions at Mortain. However the Americans of the 2nd Battalion 120th Infantry “Old Hickory” Regiment held onto key high ground which enabled them to call artillery fire and air strikes on the German forces attacking toward Avranches which included the elite 2nd, 116th, 2nd SS, and part of the 1st SS Panzer Divisions along with a kampfgruppe cobbled together from the remnants of Panzer Lehr and four battered infantry divisions.[xi] The Americans quickly reinforced 30th Division with elements of 2nd Armored Division, 35th Infantry Division and the veteran 4th Infantry Division to hold the line against the weakened German Panzer divisions.  Bradley and other American commanders viewed Lüttich as “an opportunity, not a threat”[xii] which could enable the Allies to entrap the vast majority of German forces in France.  Bradley was “not merely confident of withstanding them, but expected to destroy them.”[xiii] Bradley attempted to lure more Germans into the potential trap hoping that the Germans would press their attacks around Mortain.[xiv]

On the German side the ground commanders were furious at the failure of the Luftwaffe to shield them from Allied air attacks which devastated the Panzers.  The Luftwaffe and promised that 300 fighters would support the attack to provide protection from Allied close air support.  However the Luftwaffe squadrons were engaged by British and American fighters and so badly mauled that no Luftwaffe units made a appearance over Mortain.[xv] Thus despite their initial success which had promise of cutting off the advancing American spearheads the German Panzers were turned back by the Americans who did not even halt their eastward movement which further imperiled the German forces in Normandy.

With the German Panzer divisions ensnared at Mortain, the 3rd Army drove east while the Canadian army attacked towards Falaise. Bradley suggested that the Allies attempt a short envelopment of German forces at Falaise in which over 100,000 German troops would be trapped between the Patton’s troops advancing north and the Canadians.  The Canadians opened their TOTALIZE offensive from Caen to Falaise on August 8th but as was the case in every part of the campaign against determined German resistance as the XV Corps of 3rd Army advanced east.  Bradley’s plan ended the deep envelopment by XV Corps of 3rd Army designed to entrap the Germans against the Seine crossings, an operation that might promise “still surer results.”[xvi] Bradley told Treasury Henry Morgenthau that he had “an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We’re about to destroy and entire hostile army.”[xvii] Hastings noted that “had the Germans “behaved rationally, recognized the threat of envelopment to their entire front and begun a full-scale retreat east, then Bradley could indeed been accused of losing his armies a great prize.”[xviii]

Wrecked German vehicles near Mortain

The decision by Bradley to turn the better part of 3rd Army west into Brittany had deprived him of forces that could have better accomplished mission of entrapping the Germans.  General Wood of 4th Armored Division to his dying day “remained embittered over the lost opportunity”[xix] when his division was turned back into Brittany rather than being allowed to move east toward the Seine.   Weigley points out an even deeper flaw regarding the Brittany decision.  This was that that the OVERLORD planners “had not thought anything resembling the Avranches breakout and pursuit without pause to the Seine likely… stating that it is among the worst forms of generalship that takes counsel of its fears. Yet that was exactly the condition of OVERLORD logistical planning.”[xx] Weigley’s point is well taken, the Allies had not planned for success nor had they anticipated in the OVERLORD planning the full range of possibilities that might open to them once a breakout had occurred.

12th SS Panzer Division Machine Gun team

The Allies did have a chance to destroy the German 7th Army.  The LXVII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps as well as the remnants of II Parachute Corps and other formations battered in Normandy were attempting to withdraw to the east from Mortain. The remnants of I SS Panzer Corps led by 12 SS Panzer Division and Army Panzer divisions such as the 21st Panzer Division offered determined resistance to the Canadians who were attacking toward Falaise.  To the south only scattered Kampfgruppen of divisions shattered in Normandy opposed Patton’s forces at Argentan. The Germans were aided by a fortuitous decision of the commander of the 2nd French Armored Division to move a combat command along a road needed by the American 5th Armored Division delaying it and allowing the Germans to send a battalion into the Argentan which could have “fallen easily a few hours before.”[xxi] The Allies were bedeviled by several other failures which prevented the short double envelopment from occurring and allowing the remnants of 7th Army to escape to fight again despite grievous losses in men, material, and especially armored fighting vehicles, artillery and motor transport.

Canadians advance in Falaise

The first of these was the Canadian failure to push the Germans out of Falaise despite overwhelming material and air superiority.  The Canadian offensive Operation TOTALIZE was planned by the best of the Canadian generals, General Simonds. Unfortunately Simonds was not in command of the operation.  Totalize was a promising attack but bogged down halfway to Falaise due to a quick counterattack by 12th SS Panzer kampfgruppen, as well as a misguided bombing attack on the attacking forces by Allied air units, and the inexperience of the attacking units.  The Canadian 4th Armored Division and Polish 1st Armored Divisions paused to eliminate strong points rather than bypass them which allowed the Germans to reform their lines.[xxii] The second failure was that of Montgomery who refused to adjust army group boundaries with Americans and instead ordered the Canadians “renew their drive promptly and vigorously.”[xxiii] This refusal held the Americans advance at Argentan while the Canadians battered themselves against far stronger German opposition.  However, General Crerar of Canadian 1st Army was as bad of Army commander as could be found.  Weigley somewhat sarcastically points out that Crerar spent five days “doing what really battlewise generalship could do by regrouping and making diversionary attacks.”[xxiv] It took over 48 hours for Crerar to launch a determined attack to close the gap despite the weakness of German forces. Even a personal phone call by Montgomery to Crerar urging him to “close the gap between First Canadian Army and 3rd U.S. Army” did nothing to move the Canadian general and Crerar’s dawdling allowed many Germans to escape from Normandy to fight again.[xxv] Despite the vice that had closed around them the Germans successfully withdrew experienced battle groups of elite Wermacht and SS Panzer Divisions as well as the Paratroopers of II Parachute Corps to fight again.  General Meindl himself led a battle group of Falschirmjaeger from his Corps during their breakout through the Allied lines.  Despite the loss of 40,000 soldiers in the Falaise Pocket the Germans had saved a substantial part of their Army.

US Infantry advancing near Argentan

General Kurt Meyer of 12th SS Panzer Division faulted the Canadian leadership with a failure to use imaginative planning, and noted that “none of the Canadian attacks showed the genius of a great commander.”[xxvi] American units which Patton had cautiously advanced north of Argentan towards Falaise were recalled after Bradley was unable to convince Montgomery to alter the army-group boundary in light of the new circumstances.[xxvii] Patton recounted that he believed that his units could have “easily entered Falaise and closed the gap” and that the “halt was a great mistake.”[xxviii]

Knocked out Sherman of the Polish Armored Division next to a knocked out Panther

Weigley blames Bradley as much for the halt order as much as Montgomery for “discouraging whatever might have been done to rectify the blunder- even discouraging on August 13th a call from the Supreme Commander to Montgomery about the inter-allied boundary.”[xxix] Thus through a series of Allied mistakes particularly by senior commanders the first opportunity to envelop the Germans passed into history as a great yet incomplete victory.  A victory which though impressive allowed experienced German forces to escape to fight again. As the Germans escaped from Falaise the Allies began a pursuit in conjunction with landings in the south of France that would take them to the borders of Germany.

Polish Soldiers at the Corridor of Death


[i] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.280

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Hastings, Max. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 Alfred a Knopf, New York, 2004 p.37.  Hastings comments that “British planners threw away it had learned since 1939 about the speed of reaction of Hitler’s army, its brilliance at improvisation, its dogged skill in defense, its readiness always to punish allied mistakes.”

[iv] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981pp.184-186

[v] Ibid. Hastings. Overlord pp.282-283

[vi] D’Este,  Carlo. Patton: A Genius for War. Harper Collins Publishers New York, 1995 pp.632-633

[vii] Ibid.  p.195

[viii] Ibid. Also

[ix] Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45 Presidio Press, Novato CA 1964 pp.449-450.

[x] Ibid pp.195-196. Weigley notes that Montgomery and most other Allied commanders  had been optimistic in not anticipating the German counter attack despite the ULTRA warnings, while Bradley and Patton were cautious in making troop deployments.

[xi] Michael Reynolds in Steel Inferno: The 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy notes that the Americans inflicted “astonishing casualties on the northern thrusts of 2nd SS Panzer and remained undefeated when the Germans withdrew 4 days later.”  Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: The 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy Dell Publishing, New York, 1997 p.264

[xii] Ibid. Hastings Overlord p.283

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid. Weigley p.199.

[xv] Carrell, Paul. Invasion! They’re Coming!” Trans. E. Osers, Originally published as Sie Kommen! Gerhard Stalling Verlag 1960, Bantam Books New York, 1964, 5th Printing June 1984. p. 249

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley p. 199

[xvii] Ibid. p.200

[xviii] Ibid. Hastings. Overlord. pp.282-283

[xix] Ibid. D’Este. p.631

[xx] Ibid. Weigley. p.286  He also points out that the Brittany diversion could have been “worse had it not been for Montgomery’s influence”  p.288

[xxi] Ibid. p. 202

[xxii] Ibid. p.204

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy Dell Publishing New York, 1997. p.320.

[xxvi] Meyer, Kurt Grenadiers trans. By  Michael Mende and Robert J.  Edwards, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Inc. Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada 2001 p.290.

[xxvii] Ibid. Hastings Overlord pp.288-289.

[xxviii] Patton, George S. War As I Knew It Bantam Books NY  published 1980, originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company 1947. pp.101-102

[xxix] Ibid. Weigley p.209  Weigley quotes Major Hansen, Bradley’s aide in stating that the Falaise halt orde was “the only decision he has ever questioned.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Loose thoughts and musings