Archive for the ‘Operation Overlord’ Tag

Commemorating the Normandy Landings   1 comment

Documenting D-Day:

This Thursday, 6th June, many of the world’s leaders will be gathering on the beaches in Normandy to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy. Those veterans who survived the landings and the rest of the war are now well into their nineties, but many will make the crossing of the English Channel once more to commemorate their fallen comrades and recall the events of June 1944. But what exactly was ‘Operation Overlord’, what happened along the coast of Normandy seventy-five years ago, and what was the significance of those events in the war itself and over the following period? To gain a true understanding, we should not simply rely on Hollywood films or even documentaries. We also need to consult the documents and other primary, eye-witness testimonies from the time, with the help of serious historians. Otherwise, there is a danger that the sacrifice of those who took part, whether they died or survived, will be trivialised and turned into a military comic-book.

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One of the joint commanders of the Operation, Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, wrote an account as a Supplement to the London Gazette in September 1946:

I arrived in England on 2nd January, 1944, after handing over command of the Eighth Army, and immediately started a detailed study of the plans for the assault of the Continent – Operation OVERLORD. …

The intention was to assault, simultaneously, beaches on the Normandy coast. … The Normandy beaches were selected because they offered a better shelter for shipping and were less heavily defended than other possible beach areas along the Channel coast. …

The absence of major ports was overcome by the gigantic engineering feat of constructing two artificial ports in the United Kingdom; these were towed across the Channel in sections and erected, one in the United States sector and one in the British sector. …

My plan of assault, as approved by the Supreme Commander, provided for simultaneous landings by eight equivalent brigades – of which three were British and two were Canadian brigades, and three were American combat teams. … The total initial lift in the assault and follow-up naval forces was of the order of 130,000 personnel and 20,000 vehicles, all of which were to be landed on the first three tides. …

The Assault:

At 02.00 hours 6 June (1944) a ‘coup de main’ party of 6 Airborne Division was dropped near Benouville, to seize the bridges over the Canal de Caen and the River Orne. Surprise was complete, both bridges were captured intact and a close bridgehead was established. …

Meanwhile, the Allied sea armada drew in towards the coast of France, preceded by its flotillas of minesweepers. Not until the leading ships had reached their lowering positions, some seven to eleven miles offshore, and the naval bombardment squadrons had opened fire on the shore defences, was there any appreciable enemy activity. …

The Airborne and Seaborne Assault:

The Ninety men from D Company of the 2nd Battalion, the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry who, under the command of Major John Howard, had debouched from the gliders and captured Pegasus Bridge without difficulty earlier that morning, held it until they were relieved by Lord Lovat’s Commandos at 13.00 hours. Lovat’s had marched from the beach up to the canal towpath to the sound of bagpipes played by piper Bill Millin (pictured disembarking below), blowing away for all he was worth. The Americans were less accurate in finding their landing zones, some units landing as much as thirty-five miles off target. But this added to the practice of dropping dummy parachutists, so confusing German intelligence that it estimated a hundred thousand Allied troops had landed by air, more than four times the actual number. The majority of the paratroopers landed in the correct drop-zones, however, and were to play an invaluable part in attacking the beaches from the rear and holding back the inevitable German counter-attack.

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The French Resistance had been ordered to ready itself for the invasion by the BBC broadcast on 1 June of the first line of the poem Autumn Song by Paul Verlaine, which went Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automme (‘The long sobs of the autumn violins’). The Abwehr had tortured a ‘Maquis’ leader and learnt that when the second line – Blessent mon coeur d’une langeur monotone (‘wound my heart with monotonous languour’) – was broadcast, it meant that the invasion was imminent. So when it was duly broadcast on 5 June at 23.15, the commander of the German Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais put his troops on alert, but no one warned the Seventh Army in Normandy. At Army Group B’s chateau headquarters at La Roche-Guyon, it was assumed that it must be more disinformation, as they could not believe that the Allies would have announced the invasion over the BBC. Certainly, the Germans were not expecting the offensive when it came. Shortly before 05.00, the Seventh Army’s chief of staff warned Army Group B that the attack was indeed taking place, Rommel was unavailable as he was in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday. He only made it back to La Roche-Guyon at six o’clock that evening. His chief of staff, General Hans Speidel, ordered the Twelfth SS Hitler Youth Panzer Division to counter-attack at Caen at first light, but some of the 4,500 bombers that the Allies fielded that day severely blunted this attack. As Rommel later pointed out:

Even the movement of the most minor formations on the battlefield – artillery going into position, tanks forming up, etc. – is instantly attacked from the air with devastating effect. During the day fighting troops and headquarters alike are forced to seek cover in wooded and close country in order to escape the constant pounding of the air. Up to 640 (naval) guns have been used. The effect is so immense that no operation of any kind is possible in the area commanded by this rapid fire artillery, either by infantry or tanks.

The German Reactions to the Assault:

Interrogated after the war, Speidel quoted Rommel as having said, very perceptively:

Elements which are not in contact with the enemy at the moment of invasion will never get into action, because of the enormous air superiority of the enemy … If we do not succeed in carrying out our combat mission of warding off the Allies or hurling them from the mainland in the first forty-eight hours, the invasion has succeeded and the war is lost for lack of strategic reserves and lack of Luftwaffe in the west.

Although Hitler was not woken at Berchtesgaden with the news of the Normandy landings – he had been up with Goebbels until three o’clock the previous night, exchanging reminiscences, taking pleasure in the many fine days and weeks we have had together, as Goebbels recorded. Even by the lunchtime conference, the High Command was unsure that this was a true attack rather than a diversion. By the time the two Panzer divisions were sent against the beaches a hundred miles away, much valuable time had been lost. Rommel felt that the Allies had to be stopped from getting ashore, telling his Staff that the first twenty-four hours will be decisive. In all, there were fifty-nine German divisions in the west at the time of D-day, of which eight were in Holland and Belgium. More than half the overall totals were mere coastal-defence or training divisions, and of the twenty-seven field divisions only ten were armoured, with three of these in the south and one near Antwerp. Six divisions, four of them coastal defence were stationed along the two hundred miles of Normandy coast west of the Seine where the Allies attacked. The commanders later admitted that all of these divisions were better described as coastal protection forces rather than as true defence.

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The Beaches – Utah & Omaha:

It was 05.50 that a massive naval bombardment opened up on the German beach fortifications and the villages along the Normandy coast. The troop crossings had taken several hours in some cases and, as it had been feared that the Germans would use gas on the beaches, the anti-gas chemical with which uniforms were sprinkled smelt so disgusting that, once added to the landing crafts’ tossing about on the waves, it induced vomiting in the many troops who had not already been seasick. At H-hour, 06.30, the main American landings took place on Utah beach, followed by those on Omaha beach, with the British and Canadians arriving on their three beaches an hour later, as Montgomery himself later recorded:

On Utah beach, VII United States Corps assaulted on a front of one regimental combat team. … On Omaha beach, H Hour for the assault had been fixed for 06.45 hours. V United States Corps assaulted on a broad front. … By nightfall V United States Corps had secured a beach head about a mile in depth.

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At Utah, 23,000 men got ashore with only 210 killed or wounded, partly because the current had swept the US Fourth Division’s landing craft some two thousand yards south of the original area designated for the attack, on to a relatively lightly defended part of the coastline, and twenty-eight of the thirty-two amphibious Duplex Drive (DD)  Sherman tanks got ashore. The one regiment facing them from the German 709th Division surrendered in large numbers once the 101st Airborne had secured at least four exits from the beaches.

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On Omaha beach, however, where two-thirds of the American effort that day was to land, it was a very different state of affairs. The veteran US 1st Division (known as the Big Red One from its shoulder flash) and the 29th Division, which had never seen combat before, were to suffer tenfold the losses as did the 4th Division at Utah. Despite all the meticulous preparation, the ground had been ill-chosen for the attack. However, once the decision had been taken to expand the area to be secured by Overlord from which further operations could be conducted to take in Utah beach to the west, Omaha was the only feasible landing area between Utah and the British and Canadian beaches. The cliffs and bluffs at Omaha were, in some places, more than a hundred and fifty feet above the sea wall at the end of the dunes and the inward curvature of the bay at that stretch helped the German fields of fire to overlap.  Underwater sand bars and ridges snagged the landing craft, and the well-placed fortifications, which can still be seen today, were not silenced by the naval shelling; the anti-personnel mines, barbed wire and huge steel anti-tank ‘hedgehogs’ proved murderous obstacles; accurate German artillery fire and crack infantry troops caused havoc. Rather than the four battalions of defenders that had been planned for, there were eight, but by the time this was discovered it was too late to alter the plan of attack. These battalions provided, according to the military historian Max Hastings, by far the greatest concentration of German fire on the entire invasion front.

‘An American magazine spiked my review as it did not share the widespread adulation’ … Tom Hanks and Matt Damon in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.After a truly extraordinary opening – probably the most realistic battle sequence ever filmed – everything changes and becomes formulaic. The opening scenes of the movie, Saving Private Ryan (pictured right) give the best cinematographic representation of those first monstrous minutes of the Omaha landings, but even that cannot begin to show the extent of the chaos and carnage on the beaches. It would have been even worse had Rommel been right about the Allies arriving at high tide, as every gun had been fixed for this eventuality. As it was they chose low tide in order to make the obstacles more visible. The six thousand yards of Omaha beach along which the Americans landed was soon a scene of utter destruction and confusion. The American soldiers, who aged on average twenty and a half, far younger than the British, at twenty-four, and the Canadians, at twenty-nine, had to leap out of their landing craft into a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire loaded down with sixty-eight pounds of equipment, including a gas-mask, grenades, TNT blocks, two bandoliers of ammunition, rations, water-bottles and related kit. Many simply drowned when the water proved deeper than they had expected.

Although the ‘British’ beaches were in part cleared of German killing apparatus by a series of specialized tank-based gadgets, Generals Bradley and Gerow preferred a massive frontal assault. Because of heavy seas and being transferred to their landing vessels eleven and a half miles out, ten landing craft and twenty-six artillery pieces sank on their way to the beaches. The British transferred at six and a half miles out and suffered fewer sinkings as a result of less turbulent water. The loss of twenty-seven of the twenty-nine DD ‘floating tanks’, launched six thousand yards from the Omaha shore, denied the Americans the necessary firepower to get off the beach early. The RAF support planes observed a shambles … on the beach … burning tanks, jeeps, abandoned vehicles, a terrific crossfire. The official account of what happened to Able Company of 116th Infantry, 29th Division, after its landing craft hit Omaha beach at 06.36 gives a sense of the horror of those next few minutes:

Ramps are dropped along the boat line and the men jump off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a man’s head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine gun fire from both ends of the beach. … The first men out … are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning , doomed by the water-logging of of their overloaded packs. … Already the sea runs red. … A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upwards, so that their nostrils are out of the water, they creep towards the land  at the same rate as the tide. This is how most of the survivors make it. … Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless.

It was not until 13.30, after seven hours being pinned down on the beaches, that Gerow could signal to Omar Bradley, who was on board a ship trying to make out what was going on through binoculars, that troops were finally advancing up heights behind beaches. Although there were two thousand Americans killed on Omaha beach, by nightfall a total of 34,000 men had made it ashore, including two Ranger battalions that had silenced the German coastal battery at Pointe du Hoc to the west after scaling cliffs with rope ladders. At one point the 5th Rangers had to don gas masks in order to charge through the dense smoke coming from the undergrowth of a hillside that suddenly caught fire. In Saving Private Ryan, after its truly extraordinary opening – probably the most realistic battle sequence ever filmed – everything changes and becomes formulaic. Eight US rangers under the command of a captain, having survived the initial D-day bloodbath, are detailed to seek out and save a single man, Private Ryan. Although continually voted the best war movie ever, in a recent article for The Guardian, the historian Antony Beevor has repeated his balanced criticism of Spielberg’s claims for the movie:  

Steven Spielberg’s storyline rightly dramatises the clash between patriotic and therefore collective loyalty, and the struggle of the individual for survival. Those mutually contradictory values are, in many ways, the essence of war. Spielberg said at the time that he sees the second world war as the “defining moment” in history. One also suspects that he wanted this film to be seen as the defining movie of the war. If so, it is a uniquely American definition of history, with no reference to the British let alone the Soviet role.

Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches:

The conditions faced by British and Canadian forces prior to reaching the beaches were no less harsh than those which the US soldiers had to contend with, but they met with far less resistance in their sectors and, as Montgomery later recorded, were able to establish control far more quickly, though still sustaining significant casualties:

… Second British Army assaulted on the right in the Gold sector. … H Hour for 3 British Division was fixed for 07.25 hours and the assault waves reached the beaches well on time. The leading brigade was soon a mile inland … by nightfall the Division was well-established. … 

John Watney’s eye-witness account in The Enemy Within (1946), describes in more detail the ‘order from chaos’ which was made on the ‘British’ beaches, due to the closer range of the fleet to the shore and the steady progress made by the soldiers under the cover provided by the Royal Navy’s assault:

On the beaches themselves all was feverish activity. Invasion craft of every kind and description lay at all angles in the sand; most had gone in head foremost and now lay a little off keel, half way up the beach or just in the water; others had been swung sideways and lay like rowing boats flung up by the breakers; others were still afloat, moored in the shallow waters that rippled over the grey sands, while dark splotches, which turned at close sight into tanks, carriers, guns and trucks, poured out of all these ships and crawled away in long queues across the sands, to disappear against the green of the fields. …

All around us lay the immense fleet that had brought us to this Normandy bay. There were ships of every kind, from the clear outlines of cruisers to the tubby fussiness of tugs. … Away to our left a cruiser was firing in spaced, steady salvos; to our right a second cruiser accompanied her, while behind me, out at sea, through the mist could be seen the orange flashes from what appeared to be a battleship. …

The tide left us dry at last and on the glassy stretches of the sands the ships lay in line, their bows open, spilling their cargoes on to the grey sands, in the grey light. The air was full of the roar of vehicles, the decks shook as the tanks clanked over them and nosed on to the ramps; then, rushing down the steep slopes, grasped the water-logged sand in their tracks and, with a jerking roar, heaved themselves inland. Clouds of steam accompanied these exertions, and, as I watched the tanks crawl out of the bellies of the line of the waiting ships, I was reminded of some fearsome tale of interplanetary warfare. …

Into this colourless nightmare arena of sands and tanks there came at last a touch of humanity; the first marching troops were landing now; like pony gladiators, weighed down with kit, they scrambled down the ramps and on to the wet sands; then, hunching up their packs and tightening their blankets (rolled Spanish-ways across their shoulders), they straggled off in the resisting sand, towards the land that now looked strong and real; their voices floated back, high and thin, against the din, like the muttering of a radio set tuned low in a room full of chattering people. 

There were no high cliffs at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, and more time for the naval bombardment to soften up the German defences; however, by late afternoon part of the 21st Panzer Division attacked in the gap between Juno and Sword beaches and almost made it to the Channel before being turned back by naval fire. The British suffered over three thousand casualties, but by the end of the day, the Canadians who suffered over a thousand themselves, got the furthest inland, with their 9th Brigade advancing to within three miles of the outskirts of Caen. Montgomery concluded:

As a result of our D-Day operations a foothold had been gained on the Continent of Europe.

Surprise had been achieved, the troops had fought magnificently, and our losses had been much lower than had ever seemed possible.

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Successes, Errors & Sacrifices:

At 16.00 hour Hitler, who had dithered about the best way to react to what he still suspected was a diversionary attack, finally agreed to his Chief of Staff’s request to send two Panzer Divisions into the battle in addition to the 12th SS and 21st Panzer Divisions already committed. But as the German historian Gerhard Weinberg has pointed out,

The reinforcements dribbled into the invasion front were never enough, and the Allied air forces as well as the sabotage effort of the French resistance and Allied special teams slowed down whatever was sent. The German armoured divisions, therefore, arrived one at a time and quite slowly, were never able to punch through, and ended up being mired in positional warfare because they continued to be needed at the front in the absence of infantry divisions.

Allied aerial supremacy over the battlefield made it impossible for the German tanks to be better deployed than in piecemeal fashion in daylight. Yet five armoured divisions of the reserve in France, and no fewer than nineteen divisions of the Fifteenth Army a hundred and twenty miles to the south, simply stayed in place waiting for the ‘real’ attack in the Pas de Calais. Meanwhile, Runstedt and Rommel became more and more convinced that Normandy was indeed the true Schwerpunkt, whereas the Führer continued to doubt it. The German troops were critically under-reinforced in Normandy, partly because of the success of the Allies’ elaborate though never conspicuously uniform deception plans. A determined German ground counter-offensive had once again been staved off by Allied air power. The 7th Army had thrown into battle every available unit in the Coastal defence forces, and bringing units from Brittany would take time. That was a commodity of which they had very little since they had failed in their initial objective of flinging the invasion forces back into the English Channel immediately. Both the capacity and willingness of the Wehrmacht to push the Allies back into the sea were still there, but they were overwhelmed by the ability of the RAF and the USAAF to attack the unprotected armour from above, where it was weakest. The bombing campaigns against the Luftwaffe factories and the attritional war against the German fighters once they had been built had paid off spectacularly. Such were the forces alighting from the Arromanches Mulberry Harbour, even though the second harbour off Omaha was rendered inoperable by a storm on 19 June, that by 1 July they exceeded a million men, 150,000 vehicles and 500,000 tons of supplies.

In total, D-Day itself saw around nine thousand Allied casualties, of whom more than half were killed, a high proportion for combat in the Second World War. The Allied dead comprised 2,500 Americans, and 2,000 British and Canadians. In addition, fifteen ANZAC soldiers and fifty-seven Norwegians, Free French and Belgian soldiers were killed, making 4,572 Allied troops in total. Although expected to lose eighty per cent of their numbers, the actual figure was fifteen per cent. The American cemetery at Collesville-sur-Mer above Omaha beach bears testimony to the sacrifice of the US servicemen. The news of D-day gave sudden, soaring hope to Occupied Europe. Ann Frank, the German-Jewish author who was about to celebrate her fourteenth birthday in hiding in the hidden attic of her father’s warehouse in Amsterdam, wrote poignantly in her now well-known Diary, of her excitement at the news and of her renewed hopes for her future:

The invasion has begun! Great commotion in the Secret Annexe! Would the long-awaited liberation that has been talked of so much but still seems too wonderful, too much like a fairy-tale, ever come true? Could we be granted victory this year, 1944? We don’t know yet, but hope is revived within us; it gives us fresh courage, and makes us strong again.

A Fallen Poet:

One of those who did not survive the Normandy campaign was Keith Castellain Douglas (24 January 1920 – 9 June 1944, pictured below right), an English poet noted for his war poetry during the Second World War and his wry memoir of the Western Desert campaign, Alamein to Zem Zem. Like so many others who fell in Normandy, Douglas had lived a short life but fought a long war. He was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, the son of Capt. Keith Sholto Douglas, MC (retired) and Marie Josephine Castellain. Marie Douglas faced persistent ill-health, the collapse of her marriage and extreme financial distress, so much so that only the generosity of the Edgeborough Prep School headmaster Mr James permitted Douglas to attend school in 1930–1931, his last year there. Douglas sat in 1931 for the entrance examination to Christ’s Hospital, where education was free and there was monetary assistance to cover all other costs. He was accepted, and joined Christ’s Hospital, near Horsham, in September 1931, studying there till 1938. It was at this school that his considerable poetic talent and artistic ability were recognised.

After a bruising brush with authority in 1935, Douglas settled down to a less troubled and more productive period at school, during which he excelled both at studies and games, and at the end of which he won an open exhibition to Merton College, Oxford in 1938 to read History and English. The First World War-veteran and well-known poet Edmund Blunden was his tutor at Merton and regarded his poetic talent highly. Blunden sent his poems to T. S. Eliot, the doyen of English poetry, who found Douglas’s verses ‘impressive’.

Keith Douglas.jpg

Within days of the declaration of war he reported to an army recruiting centre with the intention of joining a cavalry regiment, but like many others keen to serve he had to wait, and it was not until July 1940 that he started his training. After attending the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, he was commissioned on 1 February 1941 into the 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry at Ripon. He was posted to the Middle East in July 1941 and transferred to the Nottinghamshire (Sherwood Rangers) Yeomanry. Posted initially at Cairo and Palestine, he found himself stuck at headquarters twenty miles behind El Alamein as a camouflage officer as the Second Battle of El Alamein began.

At dawn on 24 October 1942, the Regiment advanced, and suffered numerous casualties from enemy anti-tank guns. Chafing at inactivity, Douglas took off against orders on 27 October, drove to the Regimental HQ in a truck, and reported to the C.O., Colonel E. O. Kellett, lying that he had been instructed to go to the front. Luckily this escapade did not land him in serious trouble and he got off with an apology. Desperately needing officer replacements, the Colonel posted him to A Squadron and gave him the opportunity to take part as a fighting tanker in the Eighth Army’s victorious sweep through North Africa vividly recounted in his memoir Alamein to Zem Zem, illustrated with his own drawings.

Captain Douglas returned from North Africa to England in December 1943 and took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. He survived the Allied landings but was killed by enemy mortar fire on 9 June, while his regiment was advancing from Bayeux. The regimental chaplain Captain Leslie Skinner buried him by a hedge, close to where he had died on forward slopes point 102. Shortly after the war, his remains were reburied at Tilly-Sur-Seulles War Cemetery (14 km south of Bayeux).

Douglas described his poetic style as “extrospective”; that is, he focused on external impressions rather than inner emotions. The result is poetry which, according to his detractors, can be callous in the midst of war’s atrocities. For others, Douglas’s work is powerful and unsettling because its exact descriptions eschew egotism and shift the burden of emotion from the poet to the reader. His best poetry is generally considered to rank alongside the 20th century’s finest soldier-poetry.

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Douglas’ poems were published in The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas by Faber & Faber (1978). Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, has written that while Douglas’ north-African poems may take a seemingly insouciant attitude towards battles, they leave us in no doubt about war’s misery and waste. In Vergissmeinnicht, he juxtaposes the roles of lover and killer in the rotting corpse of a German soldier:

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone

returning over the nightmare ground

we found the place again, and found

the soldier sprawling in the sun.

 

The frowning barrel of his gun

overshadowing. As we came on

that day, he hit my tank with one

like the entry of a demon.

 

Look. Here in the same gun-pit spoil

the dishonoured picture of his girl

who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht

in a copybook gothic script.

 

We see him almost with content,

abased, and seeming to have paid

and mocked at by his own equipment

that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

 

But she would weep to see today

how on his skin the swart flies move;

the dust upon the paper eye

and the burst stomach like a cave.

 

For here the lover and the killer are mingled

who had one body and one heart.

And death who had the soldier singled

has done the lover mortal hurt. 

Sources:

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Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

The Guardian History of the Second World War (2009).

Andrew Motion (ed.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. Faber & Faber.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hitchinson Educational.

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