Tag Archives: vii corps

D-Day and After: Battling Through the Bocage

US 155mm Howitzer in Normandy. The American artillery was considered the best branch of the American combat arms by the German commanders

It took nearly a week for the American V and VII Corps on Omaha Beach and Utah Beach to link up with each other and secure their beachheads against fierce German resistance.    Elements of the 29th Division and the 90th Division pushed inland from OMAHA to expand the beachhead toward UTAH. Opposed by the 352nd Division, elements of the 91st Airlanding Division and other non-divisional units the American divisions took heavy casualties.  The fighting revealed the inexperience of the American infantry formations and the uneven quality of their leadership as they tackled the Germans in the labyrinth of the Bocage country. However by June13th the link up was solid enabling the Americans to conduct the follow up operations needed to expand the beachhead, secure Cherbourg and clear the Cotentin.

German Falschirmjaeger with 81mm mortar. This simple weapon was one of the most lethal in the German arsenal and accounted for a large number of Allied infantry casualties

The lack of success of the 90th Division, led the VII Corps commander General “Lightening Joe” Collins to relieve the division commander and two of his regimental commanders.   This was a portent of things to come with other American units as they took heavy casualties despite having a vast superiority in firepower over the Germans.[i] As the two 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 available Naval gunfire support and facing few units of high quality save the 352nd, 91st and the 6th Parachute Regiment, the Americans made painfully slow progress as they expanded the beachhead.[ii]

Poor training and leadership caused many US infantry casualties and many GIs to be captured. Here a Falschirmjaeger accepts a cigarette from a GI of the 29th Infantry Division

Once the beachheads had been consolidated the Americans turned their attention toward Cherbourg. This was the major Naval Port at the far northwest tip of the Cotentin and considered vital to the resupply of the Allied forces as they pushed into the heart of France.  D-Day planners counted on the swift capture of Cherbourg and rehabilitation to serve as a supply port for the Allied forces to lessen the dependency on the artificial Mulberry harbors. The first task was to isolate Cherbourg and to do this the 9th Division drove south from the beaches to the coast near Barneville.  The corps captured Barnville on the 18th of June cutting off the German forces covering the approaches to Cherbourg.[iii] 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.[iv]

General Erich Marcks a one legged veteran of the Eastern Front led a spirited defense until he was killed in action

The German forces arrayed before Cherbourg waged a desperate defense centered on the 243rd Infantry Division and other assorted battle groups of LXXXIV Corps. During the fighting the LXXXIV Corps commander General Marcks was killed in action on 12 June.[v] This was a tough loss for the Germans as Marcks was a resourceful planner and resolute leader and considered one of the best German commanders in Normandy.

Once Cherbourg was cut off from German support Collins and the U.S. VII Corps composed of 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 greatly diminishing the over the beach logistics support. Cherbourg’s port 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.  This would “hinder the escape from the constricting land of the hedgerows into which the Americans had come in search of a port” [vi] and was a setback to allied planning.

US 1st Infantry Division soldiers pause during operations in Normandy

To the east of VII Corps the V Corps under Major General Leonard 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.  A more aggressive commander might have tried to push further to expand the beachhead but caution was a hallmark of the American campaign in Normandy up to Operation COBRA.  After capturing Caumont V Corps halted and continued aggressive patrolling to deceive the Germans while digging in.[vii] Bradley’s decision to err on the side of caution had an effect on the broader campaign in Normandy.   Had Bradley directed a strong push against the weak German line it could have led to an opportunity to envelope the German line west of Caen. The opportunity lost through caution helped lead to the bloody and controversial campaign to capture Caen.[viii] Throughout the campaign in the Bocage American units were badly handled by their commanders, especially at lower levels and the experience and initiative shown by German battle groups and small unit leaders constantly stymied to American advance.

German Panzergrenadiers on Hill 112 awaiting a British attack beyond Caen

The Americans were not alone in their struggle against the Germans. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery had ambitious plans to break out of Normandy by capturing Caen on D-Day and driving toward Falaise and Argentan.  The British failed to capture Caen and their plans were frustrated by the rapid reinforcement of the sector by the Germans.   The 21st Panzer, Panzer Lehr, and the 12th SS Panzer Divisions skillfully defended the area taking a fearful toll on the British and Canadians arrayed against Caen.

Captain Michael Wittmann of the 101st SchwererPanzer Battalion (Heavy Tank Battalion) in Normandy

A flanking maneuver at Villers-Bocage was frustrated by a few Tiger tanks of SS Heavy Tank Battalion under the command of Captain Michael Wittmann that destroyed 14 tanks and 15 personnel carriers of the British 7th Armoured Divsion along with 2 anti-tank guns within the space of 15 minutes. [ix]

Vehicles Destroyed by Wittmann’s detachment at Villers-Bocage

Likewise a series of disastrous attacks toward Caen (EPSOM, CHARNWOOD and GOODWOOD) which were strongly supported by air strikes and naval gunfire were mauled by German forces and only finally succeeded in taking the unfortunate city of Caen on July 18th.

British Ammo Carrier goes up in flames after being hit by German fire during Operation Epsom

However the British failed to take the heights beyond the town[x] which led to more attacks against crack well dug in German forces.  In the campaign to take Caen and the hills beyond it the British took heavy casualties in tanks and infantry which seriously strained their ability to conduct high intensity combat operations in the future.[xi] 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.[xii]

US M-10 Tank Destroyer firing at German positions in Normandy

The Caumont gap no longer “yawned invitingly in front of V Corps;”[xiii] as the Germans had reinforced the sector while the Americans dug in, yet now Bradley wished to push forward rapidly to achieve a breakthrough in the American sector.[xiv] 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 elite II Parachute Corps, the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Lehr Divisions.

German Falschirmjaeger in Normandy

American tanks and infantry made slow progress and incurred high losses as they fought the Germans yard by yard in the Bocage.  The Americans incurred high numbers of casualties and 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.[xv] Such losses incurred so early during the campaign would have far reaching effects when the Americans reached the Alsace-Lorraine and the German border.

M-8 Gun carrier of a reconnaissance battalion advancing in Normandy

In order to break out of the Bocage the town of St Lo had to be captured.  It lay at a vital road juncture and its capture would help open the way into the French interior, thus St. Lo was key to Bradley’s breakout efforts.  His First Army had to capture it and the roads leading of it to launch Operation COBRA along the coast.  The task of capturing St. Lo was assigned to Gerow’s V Corps and Charles “Cowboy Pete” Corlett’s XIX Corps.  They faced opposition from the tough paratroops of the German 3rd Falschirmjaeger (Parachute) Division of II Parachute Corps commanded by General Eugen Meindl a tough veteran paratrooper and resourceful commander who had been shot through the chest at Crete.

General Eugen Meindl of II Falschirmjaeger Corps decorating troops. In contrast to many Allied commanders many senior German officers like Meindl led following the doctrine of “Auftragstaktik” from the front sharing the hardships and dangers of their soldiers

The 2nd, 29th, 30th and 83rd Divisions of XIX Corps fought a tough battle advancing eleven kilometers against the German defenders again taking high numbers of casualties especially among the infantry.  However they were successful and secured St. Lo on 18 July.[xvi]

US Vehicles advancing through the shattered city of St Lo

With St Lo in their possession the Americans had finally cleared the hedgerows of the Bocage and now looked at the open country of the French interior.  St Lo epitomized the struggle that the American Army had to overcome in the Bocage.

B-24’s Bombing St Lo on July 25th an attack that went awry killing many US soldiers near the front

Americans faced hard fighting against heavily outnumbered but superiorly led German troops that occupied excellent defensive country that inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans for every yard of ground given up. The Germans for all of their disadvantages exacted a terrible price in American blood between D-Day and the capture of St Lo despite the Allied control of the skies and the numerical superiority of the American Army.[xvii]

A Panzer IV camouflaged in a Normandy town

With the Bocage behind him Bradley desired to push the Germans hard and moved from a cautious to bold strategy to break the German line.  COBRA was his plan to break out of Normandy.  Bradley ably assisted by Collins realized that the better terrain, road networks past St Lo favored a decisive breakout.  American preparations for the attack included a technical advance that allowed tanks to plow through hedgerows, the “Rhino” device fashioned by American troops which was installed on three of every five First Army Tanks participating in the operation.[xviii] The Rhino device allowed the American Tanks to cut through the thick earthen hedgerows instead of being forced to climb them and expose their unprotected bellies to German anti-tank weapons or limit their movement to the constricted road net.

Sherman Tank equipped with the Rhinoceros device

As the Americans prepared the Germans continued to conduct a spirited active defense but were hampered by a lack of reinforcements.  As it happened they did not receive reinforcements in anywhere close to the numbers needed as the German Replacement Army was hoarding vast numbers of troops in Germany in anticipation of the plot to assassinate Hitler of which several high ranking members of the Replacement Army were leading conspirators. The Germans at the front were being starved of replacement divisions even as the Allies continued to build up their own forces in Normandy.

GI inspecting a knocked out Panzer IV

VII Corps was designated to lead the attack which was to begin on July 24th. American planning, reflecting more experience against the Germans was more advanced than in past operations.  Collins and Bradley planned for exploitation operations once the breakthrough had been made as part of the overall operational plan.  The aircraft of the 8th and 9th Air Forces were designated to conduct a massive air bombardment that would precede the attack. Division, Corps and additional artillery battalions were allotted to pulverize German positions to assist in the breakthrough.   A mistake by the heavy bombers in the 24th resulted in the heavy casualties to forward units which led to a postponement of the attack until the 25th of July.[xix]

German Panzers and Panzer Grenadiers advancing in Normandy

The attack commenced on the 25th and yet another mistake by the bombers led to more American casualties[xx] and the dead included Lieutenant General Leslie McNair.  McNair was the Commander of Army Ground Forces, a position from which he directed the organization and training of American ground forces.

Men of Co D 117th Infantry being dug out after being bomber by “friendly” US Bombers at St Lo

Many of McNair’s decisions were responsible for the lack of adequate training received by American soldiers as individuals and units which had a direct correlation to the less than stellar performance of many American divisions in the European campaign. However the effect of the bombardment on the German forces was profound as men, equipment and fortifications were blasted by a barrage that the Germans had not yet encountered on the western front.  VII Corps units pressed forward against the determined resistance of Panzer Lehr survivors 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.

Infantry of the 30th Infantry Division

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 operations down the coastal highway to Coutances and for the first time since the invasion the campaign entered a phase of maneuver warfare where the mechanization and motorization of US Army forces gave them an advantage that they did not have in the Bocage.

General George S Patton, Omar Bradley and Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery in Normandy, in Patton the Allies found a senior officer that understood the importance of strategic maneuver

On the 27th General George S Patton was authorized to take immediate command of VIII Corps a precursor to the activation of his 3rd Army.  COBRA ripped a hole in the German line and inflicted such heavy casualties on the already depleted German 7th Army that it could do little to stop the American push despite heroic performances by many units which were operating at 50% or below of their authorized strength.[xxi] 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.  As the breakthrough was exploited the command of the forces leading it shifted to Patton and the 3rd Army.

German prisoners being escorted to the rear past a Sherman

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.[xxii] 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.[xxiii]

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.  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 in training and leadership would continue to show up in later battles but the American Army learned its trade even impressing some of the German commanders on the ground in Normandy.[xxiv]


[i] 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.

[ii] Ibid. Hastings. pp.152-153

[iii] Ibid. Weigley p.101

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

[v] 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.

[vi] Ibid. Weigley. p.108

[vii] Ibid. p.111-112.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] 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.

[x] 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.

[xi] 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.

[xii] Ibid. Weigley pp.116-120

[xiii] Ibid. p.122

[xiv] 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.”

[xv] Ibid. 134

[xvi] 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.

[xvii] 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.

[xviii] Ibid. p.149

[xix] Ibid. p. 152

[xx] 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.

[xxi] 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.

[xxii] Ibid. pp.172-173.

[xxiii] Ibid. p.172

[xxiv] 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

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D-Day: Omaha Beach

LCVP’s pass USS Augusta

Like the rest of the Allied invasion forces the 1st and 29th Divisions set sail from their embarkation ports with the intent of landing on June 5th.  General Bradley, commanding the First Army until the American Army Group would be activated accompanied the invasion force.  The OMAHA landing was placed under General Gerow and his V Corps while VII Corps landed the 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah supported by airdrops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions inland.  American command and control was exercised from sea although General Officers went 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.[i] 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[ii] a break which caused a number of senior German leaders, including Rommel to be absent from the invasion front when the Allies landed.[iii]

US Soldier struggling in surf at Omaha Beach

The landing beaches at OMAHA stretched about 6500 meters from Colleville-Sur-Mer to Vierville-Sur-Mere in the west.  A further objective to the west of Vierville; Pont du Hoc, was believed to house a 150mm battery sighted where it could enfilade OMAHA and was assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion.  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 and held their isolated beachhead until relieved by the 29th Division on the morning of June 8th.[iv]

H-Hour for OMAHA was 0630.  Unfortunately the assault troops were transferred to their LCVPs 16-20 kilometers from the beach resulting in 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 carrying loads far above what they normally would carry into battle.[v] One battalion of DD tanks, the 741st Armored Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry of 1st Infantry Division was launched too far out and nearly all of its tanks were swamped and lost before firing a shot in anger.[vi] 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.”[vii] The losses would cripple the assault on OMAHA and nearly cause its abandonment.

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.[viii] As the Americans pinned down on the beach failed to advance the time tables for the reinforcing waves became snarled amid the German beach obstacles which had not been cleared due to 40% casualties among the Combat Engineers and the loss of all but five bulldozers.[ix] Naval officers were frustrated in their attempts to provide support by the lack of identifiable targets on the beaches but strongpoints 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.[x]

Grenadiers of 352nd Infantry Division move to counter-attack

Soldiers ashore discovered the truth that they were not facing the static 716th Division but the 352nd Division as well.[xi] But for the leadership of Brigadier General Norman Cota, assistant division commander of 29th Infantry Division and Colonel Charles Canham of the 116th Infantry who were able to rally their troops and just enough leaders and small units from the 116th which had its linage back to the “Stonewall Brigade” as well as units of the 1st Divisions’ 16th and 18th Regiments  who kept their heads and 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 as well as a mid-day break in the weather which allowed some close tactical air support General Bradley may have ordered the evacuation of OMAHA.

Omaha Beach rescue of wounded from surf

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.[xii]At 1330 hours “Gerow signaled Bradley: “Troops formerly pinned down on beaches…advancing up heights behind beaches.”[xiii] 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.”[xiv]

Omaha Beach Wreckage

The landings at OMAHA did succeed at a cost of over 2000 casualties, critical to their success were the German inability to reinforce their defending troops on the beach and the weakness of the units available to mount the standard counterattack that was critical to German defensive plans on D-Day itself. 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 units 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 the cost of allied lives.[xv] 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 and forces had not linked up leaving the beaches extremely vulnerable had the Germans been able to mount a rapid counterattack by Panzers and strong infantry formations.

The author lecturing at Pont du Hoc Omaha Beach 2004


[i] Ibid. p.74-75

[ii] 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.

[iii] 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.

[iv] Ibid. Weigley p. 96

[v] 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.

[vi] 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.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] 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.

[ix] Ibid. Hastings. pp. 90-91.

[x] Ibid. p.99

[xi] Ibid. Weigley p.80

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

[xiii] Ibid. p.99

[xiv] Ibid. Weigley. p.95

[xv] Ibid. p.94

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The Anomaly of Operation Desert Storm and Its Consequences Today

Armor Advancing During Operation Desert Storm

There are few occasions in history where an army is given exactly the scenario to which its organization, training and doctrine coalesce against an opponent that uses the template of organization and training that it has been designed to defeat.  Operation Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait by the United States and its coalition from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army and Republican Guard was such a war. The operation was built up in the popular media to the extent that it created a false image of the cost of war and belief that wars can be won “one the cheap” because of superior technology and organization.  That belief was shattered during the Iraq insurgency which began in earnest following the occupation of Iraq following the defeat of Saddam in 2003 by a significantly smaller US force than was used to liberate Kuwait twelve years before.

Architects of Desert Storm

The superior performance of the Army in the Gulf War did not turn out to be the template of how future wars would be fought.  In the following years the US military has become embroiled in conflicts where opponents use inexpensive and often crude off the shelf technology to counter conventional US superiority in firepower and organization.

During the First Gulf War the Army was aided in that the doctrine that it developed to fight a war in Europe against the Warsaw Pact, the Airland Battle was “perhaps best suited to armored warfare in the open desert.”[i] Of course during Desert Storm this was exactly the setting that the Army would be called on to fight.  Unlike Vietnam where the Army attempted to fight an unconventional war with conventional tactics the Army had the chance to fight exactly the battle that it had trained for, against an enemy trained in the tactics and using the equipment of its former Soviet adversary.

The Army enjoyed the advantages of having “reached a high level of training and technological proficiency”[ii] against the Soviet threat. The fact that the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact had melted down unexpectedly in 1989 and 1990 and removed any conventional threat in Europe which allowed the Army to concentrate massive amount of forces including the VII Corps from Germany to the Middle East was nothing short of incredible.  Additionally the Army had the advantages of superior weaponry and the fortuitous timing of the war before the effects of the post-Cold War drawdown were realized.

For the Army the “1980s were a golden age of military thought and debate,”[iii] and the Airland Battle concept “was greeted with enthusiasm throughout the Army.” Terms such as initiative, agility, synchronization and depth….soon became part of every officer’s vernacular.”[iv] Colonel Harry Summers who had written a critical history of the Vietnam War noted that FM 100-5, the Army’s primary manual of operations, was the “operational blueprint for Operation Desert Storm.”[v] That blueprint had a well trained and disciplined force schooled in the conduct of the Airland Battle concept enunciated in FM-100-5. David Halberstam noted that Operation Desert Storm was fought by a “professional army-a very professional army.”[vi] Seldom in the history of warfare was any army trained and equipped to fight the exact battle for which it found itself.

The Highway of Death

The foundation of doctrine, training, technology and organization laid in the 1980s was solid.  The Army was not only effective in the Gulf War, it was overwhelming.  This is not to say that the Army did not encounter problems.  It did, some which against a better trained and equipped force might have negatively impacts its operations. However the problems encountered did not keep it from dominating the battlefield.

The US rapidly deployed a blocking force of paratroops and Marines following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait at the end of August.  While few in number they served as a deterrent that Saddam did not test. There was great concern that had Saddam pushed into Saudi Arabia when forces were small and lightly equipped that he might have succeeded in capturing the northeaster Saudi oil fields and production facilities.  The military leadership continually reinforced these forces first to a substantial defensive force and then with the addition of more forces a significant offensive force.  Thus when the decision was made to liberate Kuwait under the United Nations resolution the forces were there and ready.

When the war began advances in Joint warfare and C3 was evident in the effectiveness of the operations.[vii] Particular successes included the movement of VII and XVIII Airborne Corps into the desert to outflank the Iraqis in Kuwait[viii] and every actual engagement between Iraqi and American forces.  Of note was the performance of Major General Barry McCafferey’s 24th Mechanized Division,[ix] and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at 73 Easting against the Republican Guard’s Talwahkana Division.[x] Likewise the action of 2nd Brigade 1st Armored Division against the Guard’s Adnan Division at Madinah Ridge[xi] displayed the effectiveness and lethality of the Airland Battle and joint warfare concepts developed in the 1980s.

There were weaknesses and these included various aspects of command and control and fratricide[xii] brought about by the fast pace of operations and the fog of war. Likewise conflicts between General Schwartzkopf and some of his Army commanders, notably Generals Franks[xiii] and Yeosock hindered operations.  This occurred most notably in the failure to destroy the Republican Guard prior to the cessation of hostilities. This was partially was due to political considerations and faulty intelligence but was operational decision of Schwartzkopf to halt McCafferty’s  24th Mechanized Division before it could finish off Republican Guard units facing it or letting Franks complete his double encirclement of the Guard or encircle the key southern Iraqi city of  Basrah.[xiv]

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Despite the successes of Operation Desert Storm the planners failed to anticipate the end state of what would happen when hostilities had ceased.  The conditions of the cessation of hostilities were the chief contention of many against the end to the ground war at the 100 hour point. Some argue that the early end of hostilities allowed the victory to be less than it could have been.  Some even today argue that the offensive should have gone forward with the goal of overthrowing Saddam, however despite its success the Army was not prepared for an occupation nor would have the coalition supporting the US have survived an invasion and occupation of Iraq.  The actual mistakes were not in the stopping of the war, but rather the faulty conditions of the cease fire which enabled Saddam to recover the internal control of Iraq and put down attempts to revolt especially around Basra in the Shia south.  Rick Atkinson in his book Crusade notes that there were “errors would be made in establishing conditions of the ceasefire…but stopping the war was no mistake.”[xv]

While the debate about Operation Desert Storm still persists nearly 20 years after the fact the more important lesson was not learned.  That lesson was that Operation Desert Storm was not the new face of war, but rather an anomaly.  It was a war that was the swan song of the Cold War where the doctrine, technology, organization and trained to and practiced were inflicted on a less well trained and equipped version of the force that they were designed to defeat, forces which were badly deployed and already isolated by airpower even prior to the ground war. Once the ground war started the Iraqi forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq had little chance against the massive US and coalition force arrayed against it short of preemptively using the chemical and biological weapons of which Iraq had an ample supply.  It did not employ these weapons for a number of reasons, but without them Iraqi forces exposed in the open desert with no air support and cut off from much of their supply by constant air attacks were easily defeated.

In the past 20 years the United States and the west have only once been able to reprise the type of war displayed during Operation Desert Storm.  That was in the initial 2003 invasion of Iraq.  While the forces deployed were successful in defeating the Iraqi military and overthrowing Saddam Hussein they were insufficient to secure the country especially after the decision to disestablish all Iraqi police and military forces which might have assisted US forces in securing the country.  Perhaps planners forgot that German military police, police and civil servants were employed by the western allies in the period immediately after the war even during the period of “de-Nazification.”

Instead of a litany of Desert Storm like scenarios US forces as well as those of NATO and UN allies have had to deal with terrorism, insurgencies, revolutionary wars, tribal wars of genocide and wars waged by religious extremists. Despite more than a decade in dealing with these types of war, many in the military and political establishment as well as the media and public opinion believed that Desert Storm was the model for future wars. As such after the brief period of euphoria which occurred after the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom the grim reality of war has stared Americans and others in the west in the face.  While the military has performed well, it has had to adjust and learn lessons about war that it wanted to avoid during and after Vietnam.  Those were the lessons of counterinsurgency, unglamorous and unexciting they were the lessons buried after Vietnam which were ignored until it was nearly too late in Iraq and possibly now too late in Afghanistan.  Desert Storm was an anomaly and one does not base the future of war on the swan song of the last war.


[i] Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1993. p.253

[ii] Gordon, Michael R. and Trainor, Bernard E. The Generals’ War, Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Company, Boston and New York 1995. p.467

[iii] Peters, Ralph. Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg , PA p.xi

[iv] Ibid. Atkinson.

[v] Summers Harry G. On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War, Dell Publishing a Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York NY 1992. p.159

[vi] Halberstam, David. War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, New York 2001. p.153.  Gordon and Trainor note that the “never in the history of the Republic has a more competent and more professional military been fielded.

[vii] See Summers pp. 243-245.  Summers is very complimentary of the advances in the Joint aspects of command and control that impacted the campaign.  He notes several points at the strategic and operational levels which are complimentary of individuals including comparing General Colin Powell to General George Marshall. Gordon and Trainor writing a few years later are more critical of the “jointness” of the Americans including valid criticism of the air campaign, fire support coordination, and differences in doctrine between Marines and Army and the way the VII Corps and XVIII Corps operated based on the way that they trained and organized. Pp.471-473

[viii] Atkinson pp.309-310.  Atkinson discusses the fact that American commanders involved had seldom maneuvered units of battalion or brigade size prior to this operation.

[ix] The 24th made a great advance to the Euphrates but as Atkinson notes that it had “encountered no enemy resistance at all.” p.406

[x] See Atkinson pp. 441-448

[xi] See Atkinson pp.466-467.  In a 40minute fight the M1A1s destroyed 60 T-72s and dozens of APCs at a cost of one American KIA.  Atkinson notes that this battle like the action at 73 Easting “was waged with tactical acumen and devastating firepower….”

[xii] Ibid Atkinson pp.315-316.  Atkinson notes that there were 28 incidents with 35 killed and 72 wounded.

[xiii] Ibid. pp.405-407.  Schwartzkopf felt that Franks was not aggressive enough and that VII Corps was “sluggish” and “ceding the initiative to the Republican Guard.”  Schwatzkopf even threatened Yeosock that he would fire Franks.

[xiv] Ibid. Atkinson p.476

[xv] Ibid. p.477

Bibliography

Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1993

Gordon, Michael R. and Trainor, Bernard E. The Generals’ War, Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Company, Boston and New York 1995

Halberstam, David. War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, New York 2001

Ralph. Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg , PA

Summers Harry G. On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War, Dell Publishing a Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York NY 1992.

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