A page featuring selected quotes from this military history book from 1976 on the Battle of Normandy, focusing on the armies — American, British, Canadian, German, Polish, France — which fought there.
Five years ago, in
a book I called 'The Face of Battle', I set out to explore the predicament
of an individual on the battlefield... But despite my concentration on
the individual and the small group, I was also drawn to a recognition of
the peculiar nature of the larger body to which both belong, the army itself.
Armies are universal institutions which, in the dimension of purpose and
authority, closely resemble each other. Yet each is also a mirror of its
own society and its values: in some places and at some times an agent of
national pride or a bulwark against national fears, or perhaps even the
last symbol of the nation itself; elsewhere and otherwise an instrument
of national power deprecated, disregardedand of very last resort. It seemed
to me worth finding some episode through which the varying status of national
armies might be exemplified. And in the Normandy campaign of 1944 I believed
that I had stumbled upon it.
~ Prologue - In
the Invasion Area
~ Chapter 1 - Journey to the Second Front
~ Chapter 2 - All American Screaming Eagles
~ Chapter 3 - Canada: To the South Shore
~ Chapter 4 - Scottish Corridor
~ Chapter 5 - The Yeomen of England
~ Chapter 6 - The Honour of the German Army
~ Chapter 7 - A Polish Battlefield
~ Chapter 8 - Free France
~ Epilogue - From the Atlantic Wall to the Iron Curtain
~ Beyond The Book
[Prologue: In the Invasion Area]
I had a good war — the good war not of a near-warrior at the safe end of one of the sunnier theatres of operationss, but of a small boy whisked from London at the first wail of the sirens to a green and remote corner of the west of England and kept there until the echo of the last shot fired was drowned in the sighs of the world's relief in August 1945.
At the age of 6 or 7, I began my discovery of the secret world of the English countryside - in 1940 literally secret, for among the flurry of anti-invasion directives issued after the fall of France was one ordering the uprooting of all rural signposts.
I was seeing the last days, know it though I could not, of a thousand years of heavy-horse farming.
I remember no wartime winter. The German 6th Army froze in its filty, iron-hard foxholes at Stalingrad; I pined for snow on a bright Christmas Even and thought myself cheated when the morrow brought not a flake... The Hunger Winter of 1944 sent Dutch families to scratch for overlooked potatoes in the twice-dug earth of north Holland; I cracked hazelnuts in the November sun on Sunday afternoon walks with my father... Perhaps there were other corners of war-enwrapped Europe where children lived as well-fed, warm and carefree as us. But I wonder if any retain, as I do, a memory of 6 years so consistently illuminated by sunlight, so deeply suffused by happiness, so utterly unmenaced by danger? Today conscience attacks the memory with accusations of involuntary guilt at what I was spared. But at the time it was simply as if the war was not. Chance decreed that I had no close relatives of an age to serve in the armed forces... Locality ensured that not a bomb fell within 30 miles of our retreat... Habits of rural independence and self-sufficiency spared us any real want.
The only deprivations I therefore suffered were entirely psychological and largely formed by reading. I yearned in particular for the company of Roger, Susan, Nancy and the rest of Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons" children, whose Lakeland life seemed so enviably and eventfully different from ours but which, save for the absence of a stretch of navigable water, I now recognize mine must have closely resembled.
I walked to school each morning in the pleasant confidence that between arithmetic and Latin there would be half an hour of commando raids behind the football hut, or hard-driven bargains in Dinky Toy models of Blenheims and Hurricanes, or detailed technical discussions of the Lee-Enfield rifle...
Perhaps the later models (of aircraft) lacked the very striking grace of the designs conceived in the interwar years, when aesthetics could take a claim beside mere lethality.
The fixed conviction I had formed as soon as my consciousness grasped the issues was that Britain was going to win the war. I knew, with an unshakeable moral and and intellectual certainty, that Britain could not lose... The conviction had its roots, I now diagnose, in two circumstances. The first was my sense of place at the centre of an enormous empire.
Standing one day at the roadside, dismounted from my bicycle to let a convoy (of American troops) by, I was assaulted from the back of each truch as it passed by a volley of small missiles, which fell into the ditch beside me... But when I burrowed in the dead leaves to discover the cause I unearthed not walnuts but a little treasure of Hershey bars, Chelsea candy and Jack Frost sugar-cubes, perhaps a month's ration, of sweet things casually disbured in a few seconds. There was, I reflected as I crammed the spoil into my pockets, something going on in the west of England about which Hitler should be very worried indeed.
I had had my first sight of a method of war which I had not dreamt, a glider assault on the rear of the enemy. But not my last. One evening the sky over our house began to fill with the sound of aircraft, which swelled until it overflowed the darkness from edge to edge... it seemed as if every aircraft in the world was in flight - Long after the last had passed from view and the thunder of their passage had died into the silence of the night... we remained transfixed and wordless on the spot where we stood, gripped by a wild surmise at what power, majesty and menace of the great migratory flight could portend.
A cross-Channel invasion was not, as it happened, how I had visualized the war would be won... If anything, I had imagined some gigantic, climactic duel of aircraft, in which Spitfires without number would have overwhelmed the Germans first in the sky and them on the ground. But if a cross-Channel invasion it was to be, that was an end to it... They were going to win. The Germans were going to lose.
And thus, in a curious
way, the war released me from its grasp. Another world of the imagination,
that of the more distant past, had already begun to possess me, and for
what remained of my enchanted exile in the countryside, it was there that
I dwelt - medieval churches, Georgian villages and townships... a vision
of the past at once Catholic and Anglican, Plantagenet and Hanoverian,
feudal and municipal, pastoral and mercantile, and throughout friendly,
easeful and utterly pacific.
Time, teaching and reading would show me that it was all the most perfect nonsense; that the world of the past was not a potpourri of its quainter elements but as getting-and-spending a one as that of the present, the getting harder, the spending stingier; that its prevailing mood was not harmony but conflict, which man's nastier qualities were more often deployed to resolve than charity or reason; that the lyrical emotions it aroused in me, dissolving all differences of class, interest, period and place in a poetic haze, were a positive obstacles to grasping its passions, hopes and needs. I struggled against the death of romance and the dissolution of my peaceable kingdom. How could an age that had built Glastonbury Abbey not be kinder than that which had built cotton mills? How could a world of hand tools not be more satisfying to work in that a world of machines? How could travel by horse not be more fun than by steam or oil?
...The inhabitants of my imagined and vanished England were afflicted in the vast majority by seasonal hunger, winter cold, constant poverty, backbreaking labour for little return, legal iniquity, illiteracy, ignorance and frequent disorder.
In the process... of unlearning the myths of beauty and peace... I was taught a great deal about other places and times than the England of the late middle and early modern age and of other subjects... I learnt enough imperial history to accept that it had two sides, enough political history to perceive that power was importand and parties had purpose, enough intellectual history to distinguish between debate and dissent, enough economic history to see that work was about business not pleasure, enough military history to grasp the cardinality of force, dubiety of valour and marginality of the just cause.
As a child of war, it was military history which particularly aroused me. In time I grasped that I had lived through great events and that the determinism I had imposed on them - the certainty of victory, the indulgent contempt for the enemy, the patronizing acceptance of allies - was merely an index of how limited and local had been my viewpoint.
[#1 Journey to the Second Front]
The 'Second Front debate' was, it gradually become clear, the crux of the most important of all wartime Anglo-American misunderstandings.
The Americans were acutely sensitive to the ordeal which Russia was undergoing... About 5 million Russian soldiers had thus far met death or been taken prisoner, the latter fate usually but a brief postponement of the former. The Germans were now were now inflicting further heavy losses in their battle for the Crimea... Roosevelt infelicitiously raised the proposal with Molotov that Lend-Lease shipments to Russian ports be reduced from 4.5 to 2.5 milliont tons over the coming year so that larger stocks for the Second Front might be accumulated in Britain, Molotov's icy politeness cracked. Roosevelt then gave him his cue: ships, Roosevelt said in summarising his argument for Lend-Lease reduction, could not be in two places at once; the Second Front was brought nearer by every ton shipped to England; the Soviets could not have their cake and eat it.
What saved the 'Germany First' strategy was the great victory of Midway on June 4th 1942. After Midway, no admiral, no Pacific general, not even the silver-tongued MacArthur, could plausibly represent the Imperial Japanese Navy, reduced overnight to mere parity with the American Pacific Fleet, as a force which retained the initiative.
In December 1941, 61 officers had the right of direct access to General George Marshall. By March 1942 that number had been reduced to 6... Explicitly not a politician, Marshall possessed a vision of a better world which as a postwar Secretary of State he would do as much as any man in this century to realize. And in 1942 he had convinced himself that the shortest step towards it was by way of a Second Front.
By training and service a gunner, General Sir Alan Brooke had made his name in the army by his adaptation during the First World War of French artillery methods to British practice. In particular he had taught fellow British gunners the technique of the 'creeping barrage'. The basis of the technique is in part mathematical, an application of the science of ballistics, but in part also psychological, requiring judgments about how human beings react to extreme but apparently impersonal threat. Mere 'searching forward' does not guarantee the effectiveness of a creeping barrage, since infantry may go to ground while the curtain of fire passes over their heads; 'searching back' is essential also, to catch the unwary as they emerge from cover in the belief that the danger has past. A fine judgment about human self-protectiveness in the aggregate therefore distinguishes a good from an indifferent barrage. Brooke possessed exactly that judgment; but its logic is the opposite of that which animated the blitzkrieg and the break-through.
No Briton, least of all Brooke, could fail to take pride in the courage or the ultimate mastering of their trade by the British army of World War One. But they had learnt it at the side of a strong ally on ground securely barricaded against sudden irruption by the enemy... He was moved to question the good sense of prematurely confronting the Germans inside their own continental fortess by comparison of their known strengths and skills with those of the fledgling American army... The American high command and its methods also perturbed him... British politicians, civil servants and servicemen had been attuned to working within a common organization, the Committee of Imperial Defence, since before the First World War. Britain's power, though limited and indeed already shrinking as the cost of the war eroded its financial and industrial base, was thus deployed as swiftly and effectively as thought and routine could ensure. Brooke found the American system by contrast time-consuming and inefficient.
What aroused Montgomery's doubts was the ingredient of the plan (for the invasion of France) he was best fitted to judge, the size and deployment of the landing force. COSSAC had settled ultimately for a force of 3 divisions, which were to be followed over the beaches in quick succession by 12 more. 'This would lead', he wrote to Churchill, 'to the most appalling confusion on the beaches and the smooth development of the land battle would be made extremely difficult, if not impossible... The initial landings must be made on the widest front possible', 50 not 25 miles, with a British and American army landing side by side... And there should be a descent by an airborne division, rather than a brigade, on the eastern and western flanks, to secure them against early German counterattack. It was the fear of immediate counterattack which alarmed Montgomery most... He rightly looked beyond the technical difficulties of the landing, to the solving of which years of thought and experiment had been given, to the invasion battle itself.
Montgomery never shrank from the ultimate truth about war: that it is won or lost with the lives of human beings. Like Brooke he had drawn from his First World War experience a conviction that the squandering of life is the cardinal military sin; and he had deliberately adopted a style of command which ensured his close supervision of all expenditure of life that he ordered. But he did not seek for ways to avoid battle itself... While the COSSAC team had looked little beyond the difficulties of transporting an invasion force to the coast of France, Montgomery focused sharply on the battle that must follow its arrival. For it was in 'arranging battles' in the old-fashioned sense, by correct disposition and 'balance', that his skills chiefly lay... He planned to fight a large and relentless armoured battle around Caen, in the British eastern sector, so that the Americans to the west might progressively build up their strength to 20 divisons, break out into open country and turn the Germans' flank in a drive to the Seine. But it would not, he warned, be easy at any stage.
Runstedt, German Supreme Commander West, an orthodox tactician who had never experienced the Allied air forces' power to nail mobile forces to the ground, had as early as November 1943 created a central armoured staff, Panzer Group West, to hold the 6 panzer divisions in northern France in deep reserve. His scheme was to commit them in a massive, classical counter-attack against the main enemy landing when its size and axis had been identified. It conflicted absolutely with Rommel's plan, based on the reasoning that success would come early or not at all, to deploy the tanks forward and fight on the beaches. But an appeal to authority, though it gave back Rommel control of three of the panzer divisions, reserved the other three for Hitler's own use, through his operations staff at Wehrmacht Supreme HQ (OKW). This arrangement promised delay at the moment when speed of decisions would be most critical.
By May 1944 Hitler welcomed a return to the throw of the dice after two years of remorseeless grinding down of his armies and people by Russian land and Allied air offensives... Little wonder that a battle against a shipborne enemy, even one who might have learnt the secret of swimming tanks ashore with infantry, appeared to offer Hitler almost his only chance of breaking the run of losses and regaining the initiative... "Once defeated the enemy will never try to invade again," he told his generals.
As the Allied invasion
force left ports and runways behind, Eisenhower scribbled for himself a
note of inculpation against defeat in the battle the men he commanded must
fight: '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 were based on the best information available. The
troops, air and navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do.
If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."
These were the words of a great man and a great soldier: the greatness of Eisenhower as a soldier had indeed yet to be portrayed fully. But, as a soldier, he knew secretly that the outcome of all he had planned now rested now with him bit with the troops who were about to land, with those who would follow them to fight the great battles inshore and with those of the enemy who would oppose them.
Battles are not fought by masses. Armies appear masslike, but their effective parts, the fighting units, are quite small. Of the 11 million men in the US Army Ground, Air and Service Forces, for example, less than 2 million belonged to the 90 combat divisions of land forces, and of those 2 million less than 700,000 represented tanks crews of infantrymen. Yet the whole effort of the army, via selection, training and support, was dedicated to transforming those 700,000 into groups of comrades whose skill and loyalty to each other might overpower the skill and loyalties of similar groups on the other side.
What follows is a study of several such groups: of the parachute infantry battalions of the American airborne divisions in their first bewildering hours of French soil; of the seaborne battalions of Canadian infantry debarking from their landing-craft under the guns of the German beach defences; of the Highland and Lowland infantry who fought to open the first corridor out of the bridgehead; of the English and Scottish armoured cavalry regiments which spearheaded the charge the break the German ring around Caen in July; of the German panzer battalions which Hitler sent to destruction in his final, foredoomed effort to win the Battle of Normandy in August; of the Polish Dragoons and Riflemen who sacrificed themselves to stem the flood of the Germans' flight home; and of the Free French of Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Divisions returning in triumph to liberate Paris. Together their experience makes the story of the Battle of Normandy.
[#2 All-American Screaming Eagles]
Dramatic though the immediate psychological advantages of a mass parachute drop may be, the longer-term difficulties it presented to the side which launches it are immense... An airborne divisions cannot hope to match the enemy in weight of metal (artillery or armour). But neither can it in any other respect - except that of the bravery and skill of its soldiers. It cannot look to its rear for reinforcements or resupply... Hence the necessity for parachutists, like mountaineers making a dash for the summit, to be self-sufficient, to carry with them all and more than the enemy's infantry will have but also token means of defence and attack against his armour and artillery.
Knowledge of how fragile a shield the puny weapons (carried by airborne troops) offered to the advance guard of his great enterprise had decided General Eisenhower to spend the evening hours of D-1 with the Screaming Eagles.
"The planes continued
to circle... until all 45 were airborne and in formation. Our plane served
as the point. The planes flew in Vs of nine planes. The centre plane of
the three lead planes of each nine-plane group served as its immediate
point. Wing lights were on and it was a beautiful spectacle to behold through
the open doorway."
- Eyewitness account of the flight of the airborne armada
It was the last time but two that anyone would see such a thing. Like the dreadnought fleets of 1910-20, the sight of which maneuvering in close formation in the narrow waters of the North Sea left ever after in those who had witnessed it something of the fascinated awe felt by travellers stumbling unawares on an elephants' graveyard, the great airborne armadas were to prove obsolete almost as soon as conceived. The naval pachyderms, nearly invulunerable to each other's attack had been withered out of existence in a few years by the appearance of the fragile but lethal carrier-borne aeroplane. Massed troop-carrying aircraft were to enjoy an even shorter life-span. In the not-yet-planned Market Garden Operation pilots would find themselves flying directly into concentrated anti-aircraft fire and surviving only because their parachutists in many cases fell directly on the gun positions and disabled their crews... Within a few years, when ground- and air-launched missiles would have been added to the troop-carrying aircraft's enemies, no general anywhere would consider sending formations en masse against prepared positions, and the role of the parachutist would dwindle to that of the clandestine interloper. But on this June night of 1944 it was as its apogee, and the great fleets of C-47s could ride the cloudless moonlit sky with all the confidence and something of the appearance of Jellicoe's squadrons breasting their way southward to their rendezvous with the High Seas Fleet.
The readiness of the German defenders of Normandy to observe the normal routines of military life throughout the events of June 6th is one of the stranger features of that extraordinary day. Soldiers are incurably fond of sleep; air raids had become commonplace along the Normandy coast; but the parachuting was a novelty which makes the German’s adherence to domestic convention inexplicable. Nevertheless [after an initial fire-fight] back to bed the garrison of Ste. Mere-Eglise went. . . . Thirty Germans were captured in or next to their beds, eleven were shot on the run, rather more made it into the countryside.
Half-Cherokee 'Chief' Turner Turnball's stand on the high ground of Neuville-au-Plain - so reminiscent in its essentials of one of those little dramas of the Great Plains in which his ancestors had tested their courage against the horse soldiers 70 or 80 years before - on the great panorama of events that day looks neither particularly heroic nor particularly significant. Yet for men outnumbered more than 4 to 1, fighting on unfamiliar ground, at the end of a nerve-wracking journey by air, a parachute descent by night and a stiff cross-country march, to hold up for 8 hours against heavy small arms and mortar fire and to engage and destroy two armoured vehicles into the bargain in heroic by any reckoning. And, while they had held up, Ste Mere-Eglise had been saved from assault from the north... On the safety of Ste Mere-Eglise turned that of the whole airborne bridgehead. So Turnball belongs not only with the brave but also with those who saved the invasion. He did not surive to understand what he had achieved. On the morning of June 7th he was killed by a mortar bomb.
For all its wastefulness, the airborne descent on the margin of the Utah Beach was a success. The very extent of its scatter, for all that it was unintended, had multiplied the effect of confusion in the German high command, preventing it from offering any organized riposte. It was appropriate and characteristic that the effect should have been produced by the Americans. Like pioneers in an unknown land, ignorant of its landmarks and language, uncertain of what danger the next thicket might hold, confident only in themselves and their mastery of the weapons in their hands, the best and bravest among them had stifled their fears, marched forth and planted the roots of settlement in the soil that was there for the taking. Whether or not it might be held would turn on the strength and resolution of those who came later, on D-Day, on the fighting skills of trhe shipborne divisions who debarked in the wake of the airborne landings. It was they who must fight the battle of the beachhead which Montgomery had warned from the start would be the test of the cross-Channel strategy.
[#3 Canada: To the South Shore]
"Historically a Canadian
is an American who rejects the Revolution."
- Maxim quoted in the book
French Canada lived with the memory of Montcalm's defeat by Wolfe at the gates of Quebec in 1759, which, like Victor Emmanuel's defeat of the papal army at the Porta Ria in Rome in 1870 had not merely imposed an alien sovereignty on a Catholic patrimony but had driven its leaders and subjects into a self-imposed internal exile. French Canada, in its heart, never accepted the severance of the link with France. But equally French Canadians shunned association with the French of the Third Republic. They too rejected a revolution and, through their loyalty to a clerical church, semi-feudal society and narrow provincial patriotism, had isolated themselves both from their conquerors and from their historic homeland. The outbreak of war in 1914 therefore presented their leaders with an exquisite dilemma... Memory's stirrings were powerful enough in the circumstances to tempt politicians and churchmen in Quebec to overcome their distaste both for the godless republic and the protestant empire and encourage French Canadians to volunteer. And the men were there... But the Canadian defence establishment denied that French-Canadians should have their chance to serve together in the new numbered battalions. By the time the decision was reversed, enthusiasm for the new adventure had waned...
So grave was the threat to the shaky unity of Canada offered by the conscription crisis that postwar federal government determined never again to impale the country on a military issue. The right to declare or abstain from war independent of Britain was extracted from the home government in 1922.
In retrospect, Dieppe looks so recklessly hare-brained an enterprise that it is difficult to reconstruct the official state of mind which gave it birth and drove it forward... The justification for choosing an objective which the Germans were known to occupy in strength was that the feasibility of capturing a harbour by direct assault had to be tested.
Bravery was to count for nothing on the morning of August 19th, 1942... The battalions of Canadian infantry and the tanks they had brought with them were stopped almost as soon as they left their landing-craft, sometimes before.
It is as illuminating to say of Dieppe, as it was and is often said, that it taught important lessons about amphibious operations as to say of the Titanic disaster that it taught important lessons about passenger liner design... No improvements could compensate the victims... none could rectify an experiment which was so fundamentally misconceived.
The Germans concluded from the experience that the Allies, when they came for the Second Front, would still land near a port but would seek to surround it. The planners decided that they would steer as far clear of ports as possible. Fighter cover and the maximum radius at which it could be provided would impose the only territorial criterion they would accept. Inside that line they would look for a coastline with open beaches, low cliffs or none at all and a positive absence of harbour facilities.
The Landing Craft Assault (Infantry) was the lowliest class of vessel admitted to the books of the Royal Navy. Commanded by a petty officer coxswain, it provided nothing but rough benches for 35 men - a platoon of infantry - and a diesel engine just powerful enough to push them ashore at 10 knots.
Immediately ahead of the assault-wave infantry was a deployed a small fleet of support landing-craft: 8 Landing Craft Gun, a sort of small monitor mounting two 4.7 inch guns; 4 Landing Craft Support, bristling with automatic cannon; 8 Landing Craft Rocket, on each of which were racked the rubes for 1,000 5-inch rockets, to be discharged in a single salvo; and 18 Landing Craft Assault (Hedgerow), which were to fire their laods of 24 60lb bombs into the beach obstacles and so explode as many as possible of the mines attached to them. That did not exhaust the provision of on-board fire support. The fourth group of assault vessels comprised 24 Landing Craft Tank, each carrying four 'Priests', a 105mm field gun on a Sherman chassis. They were to fire at selected targets on the run-in... Two squadrons of the 2nd Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment would join in, firing with the 95mm howitzers of their Centaur tanks from hull-down positions in the water as soon as they reached shore. And, of course, most celebrated ingredients of the landings, they were the Duplex Drive 'swimming' Sherman tanks.
All in all, 3rd Canadian Division could look to a weight of support for its venture to the south shore over 12 times great as that which had covered 2nd Division's assault on Dieppe. Instead of 16 4-inch guns, there were to be 198 pieces firing... All the German defences would, in addition, have been subjected to heavy air bombardment before the landing fleet came within sight of the shore, an ingredient of the offensive the German defenders of Dieppe had been spared for fear of killing large numbers of French civilians.
The German defenders of the Juno Beach they were to assault were considerably fewer than those present at Dieppe... There the Germans had opposed 6 battalions with two and a half. On Juno they were to oppose nine battalions with less than 1... If the Germans were to hope to survive, it would be through the greater degree of protection they enjoyed and the response of their own artillery.
However the odds were counted, the human disparity remained. About 400 Germans were about to be attacked by 2,400 Canadians.
The men in the beach bunkers were all too aware of the purpose of the naval bombardment - the heaviest, though they could not know that, ever fired from ship to shore. It was designed to kill them... While it was still possible to look seaward, a few had seen looming through the dawn 'countless ships, ships big and small, beyond comprehension'... The defenders wherever they sheltered, were stunned by the noise and the shock waves, magnified a hundredfold at the last moment by the gigantic salvoes of the rocket ships, each discharging a broadside equivalent to a hundred Diadem-class cruisers firing simultaneously.
The great slaughter of the dairy herds of Normady was to be one of the smaller horrors of the campaign.
Launching tanks at sea was nerve-wracking to those involved, a mesmeric sight to spectators. The LCTs slackened speed until dead in the water, the bow ramp was then lowered on its chains, the sea flooded in to fill the tank deck and the four DD Shermans, engines already running, launched into the deep, plopping off the ramp into the waves like toads from the lip of an ornamental pond.
Not only had the 3rd Division extricated the Supreme Command from the danger of visiting on Canada a second national tragedy only two years after the first, but it had also won an important victory. At the end of the days its forward elements stood deeper into France than those of any other division... The Allies were ashore.
[#4 Scottish Corridor]
The failure of 21st Panzer Division to push its way to the coast of the evening of June 6th cast the first shadow of doubt on the confidence Hitler had always expressed at the outcome of the Second Front. 'They will get the thrashing of their lives,' he had predicted earlier in the year.
The defeat of the landings would now depend on the action of the ground troops and above all on their ability to keep the Allies' still shallow footholds separate from each other. On the evening of June 6th the British seaborne infantry had joined hands with the parachutists in the 'airborne bridgehead', just as the Americans of Utah Beach had done with their parachutists earlier in the afternoon. The Canadians had made contact with the British on their right (who had almost reached Bayeux before the end of the day), and would on the morning of June 7th close the gap between themselves and the British on their left, into which the 21st Panzer Division had probed and then withdrawn in the dusk of D-Day. But these interlinkings still left two holes in the Allied front, a small one between the British and American landing-places north of Bayeux and another much larger one between the American Omaha and Utah Beaches across the tidal mouth of the Douve. These gaps offered tempting prospects. The difficulty for Rommel was to find the troops to insert into them.
"By noon on the 7th
my men were already calling the main road from Vire to le Beny Bocage 'fighter-bomber
racecourse'. Every vehicle was covered by branches of trees and moved along
the hedgerows and the fringes of woods... but by the end of the day I had
lost 40 petrol wagons and 90 other trucks. Five of my tanks had been knocked
out, as well as 84 half-tracks, prime-movers and self-propelled guns. These
losses were serious for a division not yet in action."
- General Bayerlain, commander Panzer Lehr Division
Panzer Lehr, the strongest armoured division in the German army, was one of several which by the evening of June 6th Hitler had released from reserve to make their way to the battlefront.
Hitler had made a journey to France, his first since October 1940... His purpose was to hearten Rommel and Runstedt, whose nerve he rightly believed to have been shaken by the power of the Allied attack, and to outline counter-measures. "Don't call it a beach-head, but the last piece of French soil held by the enemy," he began. "They requir 7 millions tons of shipping space," he went on - the use of unchallengeable statistics was one of his favourite methods of dealing with doubters - "and cannot last longer than through the summer."
"Hold fire until almost
point-blank range so that the first shots would obtain a kill. Then, before
the British artillery could range in and bombard the position, to choose
a new location and open fire from a new direction. Used by both grenadiers
and panzer men, these tactics would reduce the British superiority in numbers
and cause them to believe that the defenders were more numerous than they
- Tactics of 12th SS Panzer Division in opposing the breakout
Their (12th SS) success was an example of a curious by familiar military paradox: that, where confusion reigns, small numbers often achieve more than great. Two factors had contributed most to the confusion which undoubtedly reigned on the first day of Operation Epsom - the density of the countryside into which the British had driven their corridor and the weight of men and armour they had thrust into it, against unreduced defences and down unreconnoitred routes.
The German defenders, still largely invisible, were so few in number that, could the British high command have counted them, it would have ordered a headlong assault to brush them aside.
The SS panzer divions attacked on June 30th, though late in the day, and returned to the offensive on July 1st. But the opportunities which had offered themselves only three days earlier were spent. Small though its strategic value was, the Scottish Corridor was now too strong to be destroyed by the force the Germans had at last assembled. Epsom had not been a victory. It had certainly not achieved its objectives, which lay not across the Odon but the Orne; five miles to the south. Yet it had achieved, in a roundabout way, an important purpose. Hitler's strategy, conceived long before the invasion and implemented as soon as it began, was to use his armour to drive a wedge between the Allies and drive them both eventually into the sea. The necessity of stopping 15th Scottish Division's march down the 'Corridor' had diverted his armoured reserve from that mission and so damaged its units that days would be needed to restore them to an offensive state. Montgomery would not allow the Germans that time. And so the Scottish division's losses of 2500 men in five days, had purchased an important advantage. The little battle of Gavrus exemplified the nature of the transaction. Unspectacular, muddled, wearisome and intermittently terrifying, it had blunted the assault of one of the most formidable fighting formations in the German army and stood fit to rank with those other small epics of Argyll and Scottish stubborness, the destruction of the 93rd at the battle of New Orleans and the stand of the 'thin red line' at Balaclava.
[#5 The Yeomen of England]
Caen, first-day objective of the British Liberation Army, still lay on July 6th just beyond its grasp. It had been outflanked to the east... and it was now overlooked by the Allies from the high bocage. Its necklace of outlying villages now marked the forward positions of an almost complete encirclement.
Montgomery's intention was to take Caen 'the sooner the better', since he could guess that Hitler's policy of unyielding defence would apply equally there and therefore guarantee the continued presence in and around it of the mass of German armour he had pinned there since June 6th.
Checked at the foot of the Cotentin, and stalemated at Caen, where the Germans still held the little Stalingrad of factory suburbs south of the city, Montgomery now had a strategic crisis on his hands. The apprance of the four fresh German formations from south of the Loire revealed not only a German capacity to pass unwieldy troop columns across unbridged rivers in the teeth of air interdiction; it also presaged the arrival of up to 10 more, if Hitler decided to cut his losses and abandon the Mediterranean coast to a secondary Allied landing. Montgomery urgently needed therefore to sustain his offensive initiative, forcing the Germans to commit whatever reserves they could find to battles already in progress, at places of his choosing, and so deny them the chance to make a considered counter-punch of their own at some weak sector of his line.
The British had no more infantry to send (to France). Very soon their losses would have to be made good by disbanding junior units and using their soldiers as replacements. Montgomery from now on would live with the knowledge that his army was getting smaller with each passing week.
The battle (of Operation Goodwood) had, in strictly theoretical terms, gone well for the Germans. After four years of tactical experimentation their methods of dealing with armoured offensives were well tried. In the Western Desert they had perfected a system of drawing the British armour down on their own anti-tank guns by flirtacious hithering-and-thithering with their own tanks... But between theoretical success and objective achievement, however, there yawned a nerve-stretching gulf... The German defenders had been battered in body and their longer-term strategic prospects gravely compromised. They too had suffered a heavy loss of armour. Between them, 1st SS and 21st Panzer Divisions had lost 109 tanks on July 18th, and about half the anti-tank guns which had crippled the British onslaught had gone too. A whole infnatry divions had been consumed in the cauldron of bombs and shells. The rational disposition of reserves had been disrupted. Two panzer divisions which had been earmarked to stand behind the American half of the front, where an offensive masse de manoeuvre was clearly assembling, had been diverted to the British front where they would have to stay while the menace of Goodwood still threatened. And the confidence of the German high command in the west had been shaken to its foundations.
[#6 The Honour of the German Army]
Taught by the failure of his putsch at Munich in 1923 that the domestic power of the army was absolute, Hitler had scrupulously avoided all further conflict with it in the years before the seizure of power and afterwards carefully exempted it from the policy of nazification. All other institutions of German state and society - civil service, police, local government, trade unions, schools, universities, youth movements, even the national churches - had been 'gleichgeschaltet', which meant their absoption into some parallel party organisation, or the replacement of their leaders by party nominees or, at the very least, the enrolment of those leaders as Nazis. None of those measures had been visited on the army.
Both parties to the uneasy relationship knew that the equilibrium had been altered for good (by the attemped assassination of Hitler in the Stauffenberg plot). The patriotism of the army had never before been questioned because patriotism's central issue in a totalitarian state - for or against the leader - had never been put to the test. In consequence, and despite the arbitrary risks entailed, officers of sufficient stature and boldness - Manstein was one, Guderain another - had always in the last resort been able to question the Fuhrer's military judgment and argue with him for an opposite point of view. That freedom had gone. Henceforth the generals would be bound to the wheel, as tightly as their brace, obedient and uncomplaining soldiers who bore the consequences of the decision taken at noon and midnight in the air-conditioned isolation of the 'Fuhrerhauptquartier'.
The operational verve
of the Germany army would have been denied by no soldier in amy of the
armies which opposed it, in the east or west. Its quality rested in part
on its equipment, some of which, even by the standards of 1944. The Panther
was better than the equivalent medium tank in the Russian and American
armies, the Tiger had no equal... Certain specialized weapons were the
fearful envy of those who faced them, notably the lethal and highly versatile
88mm, which could appear as a tank, anti-tank, assault or anti-aircraft
gun... Though the number of tanks in the panzer divisions was in decline,
numbers of other weapons in the infantry divisions had been increased during
1943-4 to provide great superiority in automatic and mortar firepower over
their American equivalents. Some of this superiority was offset by the
altogether lower mobility of German formations, still dependent on horses
and boot leather for getting about the countryside, but immobility mattered
little in the sort of static defensive battle to which most German divisions
were now consigned by the run of the strategic tide. The same tide tended
also to minimize the disadvantage of operating without air cover to which
the catastrophic decline in the fighter strength of the Luftwaffe condemned
It was not, however, either in quality or quanity of equipment that the excellence of the German army ultimately lay... Though sensitive to technical change and generally ready to incorporate new weapons and equipment into the order of battle (its failure to recognize the significance of the tank in WW1 was an uncharacteristic lapse), it rightly took the view that weapons are no more formidable than those who use them.
And it was therefore upon the training and motivation of the users that it had always concentrated its corporate energies. Much effort had been given to the implantation in the mind of the Germans of the idea of military service as natural and honourable. And with astonishing success... Military service had actually been made popular with those who had to perform it.
For 300 years, all over Europe, the appearance of the recruiting sergeant had been the signal for the district's young men to take to the woods and hills. The army of united Germany, symbol of nationhood and vehicle of its triumphs, was conscripted almost without coercion, its recruits reporting for registration as if for the beginning of the school-year, which in a sense they were.
Even higher in the German army's scale of values than the nurture of the warrior spirit in its conscripts stood the cultivation of the 'operational' talent in their leaders. Operativ is an adjective which does not translate exactly into the English military vocabulary. Lying somewhere between 'strategic' and 'tactical', it describes the process of transforming paper plans into battlefield practice, against the tactical pressures of time which the strategist does not know.
[#7 A Polish Battlefield]
Operation Totalize, in which the Canadians had broken out of the Goodwood Corridoron August 7th, had been a new type of armoured operation. For the first time in the history of warfare, the attacking infantry had been mounted in heavily protected armoured vehicles, which had been formed up close behind the tabk spearheads and had followed them on to their objectives. These armoured vehicles were improvisations, American self-propelled artillery chassis from which the guns had been removed to provide accomodation for 10 soldiers. But they had done what was expected of them, which was to deliver their passengers their passengers unscathed to their objectives.
The most notable, if unperceived, success achieved by the Canadians was to bring to an end the career of Hauptsturm-fuhrer Wittmann, whose Tiger fell to a co-ordinated salvo fired by five Shermans on which he was making a single-handed attack. It was a fitting end for the leading tank ace of WW2.
The story of the 1st Polish Armoured Division was one of the most tragic and romantic of the Second World War.
Devastated in September 1939, the Polish army had fallen to pieces. Its greater part had been taken prisoner by the Germans in the mighty encirclement of the Bzura river, and much of the rest had fallen into the hands of the Russians after their cynical intervention... Fragments none the less had escaped, and with them had gone the leaders who would form the Polish goverment-in-exile.
General Sikorski, commander-in-chief of the Polish army (and Prime Minister) set his heart on forming his contingent in England into an armoured division, fir to fight on equal terms the panzers which had overwhelmed the Polish army in its homeland in 1939. By persuasion he brought the British amy to agree to the principle; by manipulation of the government-in-exile's Lend-Lease facilities he found the money for the equipment from the Americans.
How fiercely the fires of the army-in-exile burnt in August 1944... No Pole doubted the military prowess of his country or that the disaster of 1939 had been an aberration, produced by Russian treachery and temporary German technical superiority. Technically they were now the Germans' match and they had already thrown their tanks against German infantry north of Falaise with all the verve shown by the German panzers in their territory five years before.
The advance point bumped some Panther tanks, but, taken by surprise, the Germans were quickly overcome. A hot afternoon of deadly, small-scale fighting followed, the infantry of the 10th Dragoons dismounting from their half-tracks time and again to engage small pockets of resistance, while the Lancer tanks worked around the flank to take the enemy in the rear. 'From our hill,' recorded a French-Canadian officer of an artillery regiment giving the Poles fire support, 'there was a panoramic view of the combat zone. At our feet the battle raged for the possession of the villages of St Lambert and Chambois. We could see the Shermans advancing, blazing away with their guns and machine-guns. The attacking tanks and infantry exploited the folds in the ground for cover.' At about 4:30 p.m. the leading infantry passed from his sight as they reached the orchards and hedged enclosures on the outskirts of Chambois itself.
of tactics was used: conventional infantry assaults, combined panzer and
grenadier, unsupported Panther attacks, savage bombardments or no barrage
at all. Against each and every assault the Poles held firm."
- Eyewitness account of the Polish defence of the 'Mace' hill
During the next few days the bodies of 325 Polish soldiers killed in the Battle of the Falaise Gap would be found makeshift graves near the positions where they had fallen. On the sumit of the Mace itself sappers of the Royal Canadian Engineers, in tribute to their comrades-in-arms, raised a makeshift signboard. It bore, in English, the simple inscription, 'A Polish Battlefield'.
[#8 Free France]
Hitler's scheme to devastate the Allied armies in their beachhead had not merely failed; it had ended in disaster. During 1943 his direction of the war had lost him Armies. In 1944 it had begun to lose him whole Army Groups. Army Group Centre had gone in the great encirclement battle in White Russia in June. In August Army Group G had been scattered before the Franco-American landing in the south of France. The Battle of the Falaise Gap had completed the destruction of Army Group B, the largest in the order of battle of the German army. 56 infantry divisions had fought under its command during the Battle of Normandy. Of these 15 had been formally dissolved or were beseiged in the coastal fortresses behind Allied line; the remaining 40 were remnants or shadows. Its 11 panzer divisions, the rock of the German defence, had suffered proportionately. Two had lost all their tanks and units of infantry.
But, amid this utter wreck of hopes and effort, the improvisational genius of the German did not desert it... The lower staffs continued to function, as they would do with unshaken resolve to the very last months of the war. Their current task was to convey the remnants of 7th and 5th Panzer Armies across the Seine, without the use of permanent bridges and under the Argus eye of the Allied air forces which had destroyed them. They tackled it with the skill learnt in a hundred retreats across Africa, Italy and Russia.
The French countryside offers little terrain suitable for guerilla activities... It was not until the imposition of forced labour decrees in mid-1942 that the young Frenchmen, presented with the stark choices of resistance or deportation to Germany, began to choose the former in any number. And even so their choice did little to harm the German war effort.
De Gaulle's extraordinary success thus far in sustaining a unique and independent role for himself among the Allied leaders had lain in his skill in manipulating all the organizations of external and internal resistance - those he had founded himself, thsoe the Allies foisted on him, those spontaneously createed.
De Gaulle carried his mistrust of communists - founded less on hostility to their ideology than on the vision of a France liberated from party politics - beyond denying them arms.
General Dietrich von Cholitz, commander of Greater Paris, had taken certain precautions for the demolition of the Paris bridges, should that become necessary, though he had not envisaged having to fight within the city itself and certainly not against the inhabitants. Nor did he wish to do so... But like Hitler's other recently appointed fortress commanders, he had reasons beyond those of automatic military obedience for fulfilling his orders to keep Paris German. he had left his wife and children in Germany, and knew that their welfare depended upon his fiedlity.
At the heart of de Gaulle's anomalous position among exiled leaders lay the fact - to be camouflaged but never successfully hidden - that so few Frenchmen had been willing to declare at the outset for Free France. It did not really matter that he was not a head of state or government... It did not even matter that Petain was the undoubted constitutional successor of President Lebrun: given that he had abolished the Third Republic by fiat, Britain had good grounds for denouncing the legitimacy of the Etat Francais had they so chosen. But numbers - of ships, of soldiers and, distressing though it was to admit it, of hearts - were with the Marshal and, unless and until de Gaulle could begin to match them, Allied interests lay in keeping a back door to Vichy open. Such number he could not match. The great majority of French servicemen marooned in England after the armistice of June opted to go home, and were allowed to do so; at the end of 1940 only 7000 soldiers and sailors had donned the Cross of Lorraine... de Gaulle looked in vain for companions of his own quality. Until the arrival of Leclerc.
It is easy now to pourn scorn on the soldiers who chose to serve Vichy in the Armistice Army, easier still those who continued at duty with the Army of Africa. Unlike those in the metropole, they were beyond the reach of the Germans, and outside the effective authority of Vichy... Legality and the legend of Verdun apart, both of which Marshal Petain embodied, Vichy represented much that was to be valued by the officers of a defeated France. It kept alive a part of the historic French army against the day when the whole might be reconstituted... Vichy honoured institutions, above all the church, and fostered others, like nationalist youth movements... Above all, however, Vichy was a guarantee of French sovereignty in the empire. In the Far East, by agreement with the Japanese, it saved Indo-China from the fate undergone by Malaya, Burma, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. Along the Mediterranean shore, it preserved the French presence in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria... The diminishment of French power at home disproportionately enhanced the importance, both real and symbolic, of French Africa.
The Americans had promised Leclerc the equipment for a full armoured division, the strongest force which Free France had yet fielded.
For General Leclerc it (liberating Paris) was the culmination of a four-year pilgrimage from humiliation to glory.
[Epilogue: From the Atlantic Wall to the Iron Curtain]
Of the 50 infantry and 12 panzer divisions which Supreme Headquarters had had under its command during the Battle of Normandy, only 24 infantry divisions and 11 panzer divisions preserved any semblance of organization. The panzer divisions were down to 10 tanks each. The infantry divisions were at one-quarter strength.
On September 4th, Allied spearheads entered Brussels, at the end of a pell-mell advance of 110 miles in two days, a feat unequalled in war, and to a reception almost without parallel.
Brussel's liberation confirmed beyond cavil the result of the Battle of Normandy. It now ranked to stand beside the three other great disasters which had overtaken the German army in the war thus far: Stalingrad, Tunisia, and the rest battle in White Russia, which was simply known as the Destruction of Army Group Centre. How did it compare?
Stalingrad still struck most chill into German hearts; but terrible though Stalingrad had been in human terms, it had eventually cost Germany about 20 divisions, of which only two were armoured; about one-tenth of the number in Russia and one-fifteenth of the army's whole strength. Enough remained to mount at Kursk during the following summer the largest armoured offensive undertaken by the Germany army in the whole war. And while defeat had lost Germanmy much ground it still left her forward line 500 miles inside Russia.
The Tunisian capitulation had eliminated German presence in a whole theatre of operations and ended Hitler's hopes of sustaining the war outside Europe. It had also destroyed Italy's empire and accelerated that country's withdrawal from the Axis. But, though 125,000 German soldiers had fallen prisoner to the Allies at Tunis, the number of divisions lost had been quite small, only 8. Thus in scale the disaster was not much larger than that suffered by the British in Malaya and Burma in the spring of 1942, with which in strategic significance it stands comparison.
The Destruction of Army Group Centre was altogether different. The result of an offensive opened by the Russians on June 22nd 1944, it had been launched by 140 Soviet rifle and tank divisions against the German 4th and 9th Armies... In three weeks they had driven forward 250 miles to re-cross the Polish border of 1939 and halt within 50 miles of East Prussia itself. And in the process 300,000 German soldiers were killed or taken prisoner and 28 divisions written off the German order of battle, dissolved as if they had never existed... The Destruction of Army Group Centre, little known as a battle though it is in the West, must therefore count among the greatest defeats ever inflicted in warfare. And yet, if strict comparisons are made between its results and those of Normandy, it may yet appear that the Western Allies' vistory was the greater. The Allied committed far fewer divisions to Normandy than did the Russians against Army Group Center, only 34 in all... The number of enemy divisions detsroyed also counts to the Western Allies' balance... 2200 tanks had been destroyed in the Normandy battle... 27 infantry divisions had been ground to dust by the British and Americans. 500,000 German soldiers had disappeared in the process; a quarter of a million of them were dead.
The loss of France and Belgium was much more than symbolic in its importance. France had been the golden goose of German Occupation policy... France had consistently contributed as much food to German tables as the whole of the occupied east during 1941-44... On top of that her industry and natural resources had also been ruthlessly exploited for German benefit, and her state revenues systematically taxed.. The total values of goods and services extracted in the last full year of occupation, 1943, equalled a quarter of Germany's whole national product in the last full year of June 1938... In July 1944 there had only been a single French division on the national territory. By the beginning of 1945 there would be seven... While the German army was shrinking in size the French army was growing... The loss of the French Atlantic ports was virtually to bring to an end his ability to prosecute a U-boat war against Allied shipping.
Late in time though the Second Front had come, its results therefore ranked as the greatest military disaster Hitler had yet suffered in the field.
And yet at the turn of the year, Hitler's Germany was no nearer imminent collapse than it had been in the summer. By frantic measures of rearmament and recruitment, a new strategic reserve had been assembled, which endowed Hitler once again with the power to counter-attack and so, locally at least, impose an initiative. The locality in which he chose to do so was in the Ardennes on the western front.
Logistics, the enemy of bad and over-successful generals alike, had laid its hand on the encircling Allied armies. The means of their advance on all fronts, east and west, was identical, the six-wheeled GMC truck. The Americans supplied the Russians with 375,000 of this model during the war... The truck had become literally the vehicle of militatry maneuver. But, like the ship of the desert, it was both consumer and supplier of its most essential load - fuel. At the end of 1944 the fuel depots for both the Russian and Anglo-American armues were several hundred miles behind their fighting lines... Until these depots could be moved forward, by the re-opening of railways and ports and the laying of pipelines, the armies which depended upon them were haltered where they stood by invisible but almost inflexible bonds. The Germans in contrast, though also by a familiar strategic law, had actually eased their logistic problems by retreating.
But the Allies' failure to capitalize on their great victories could not be laid at the door of logistic difficulties alone. It had also to do with the continuing ability of German industry to produce, despite every sort of damage to railways, factories and fuel sources which the Allied bombers could inflict, and to the extraordinary resilience of the German army.... Alone among those of the First World War, it had retained its morale and cohesion almost to the very end, and in the process brought about the disintegration of the Russian army, inflicted something close to breakdown on the French and Italian armies, and visited a severe moral crisis on the British army.
In 1945 it was to demonstrate an even greater and more remarkable resolution... How the Germans resisted the advance of the Red Army as they did remains a mystery. Fear of falling prisoner to a pitiless enemy played a part... But the fighting spirit of the German army ultimately derived from its own character... Like the warriors of Teutonic tribes of old, they were resolved if necessary to die where they stood, should that be necessary to protect the uprooted population from the eastern invader. There is a limit, of course, to what human will and courage can acheive. And in April that limit was reached by the Germans.
Knowledge that the demarcation line between the Western and Russian zones of occupation ran along the Elbe stimulated a final effort of resistance on the river, even after Hitler's suicide on April 30th, so that refugees from the east might find a way into future western territory before a ceasefire was imposed. But Hitler's successor, Donitz, recognized that the arrangement of a ceasefire was his first and only real duty of state. It came into force everywhere on May 8th.
The ten months which separated Germany's two fatal defeats - the destruction of Army Group B in Normandy and Army Group Centre in White Russia - and her eventual collapse have been taken in retrospect to imply a fundamental fault in Allied in Allied strategy. Two mistakes in particular are identified: Eisenhower's preference for a 'board front' advance to the German border in September and Stalin's abandonment of the drive along the Baltic in February. A 'narrow front' advance, it is held, would have got an Allied force across the Rhine before winter, and so isolated the industrial centre of the Ruhr. Persistence on the Baltic route would have brought the Russians to Berlin at the beginning of March instead of the end of April... Yet there is not certainty that different strategies would have significantly shortened the war. The rate of advance of the two converging armies after their great victories of July imposed strains of their systems of supply and transportation which would have been heightened unbearably by the effort to sustain it. Moreover, both offensives, in Normandy and White Russia, had derived much of their effect from being fought where they were. Both battlefields were at the far edge of the German operational area. Both could be, and were, isolated from adjoining theatres by the systematic cutting of railway systems which led into them.
Another people, under
another leader, might have been shocked into capitulation by the great
defeats of the summer of 1944. The Germans under Hitler displayed a resistance
to catastrophe at the front, round-the-clock bombing at home, and the fearful
psychological and material hurt entailed by both, which flew in the face
of reason and of every Allied expectation. Or did it?
The occupation zones agree by the Eastern and Western allied in 1944 were divided between them by a line following the Elbe and Werra rivers. The final fighting line coincided with this border with a remarkable degree of accuracy.
It was as if the Allies had accepted what lay in Hitler's mind, which, as so often in his touch with that of the German people, also represented their inner will: that every inch of German soil would have to be fought over before they would be brought to accept defeat.
In Berlin, where Hitler had promised that the Russians would suffer their greatest defeat, the garrison came near to exacting from them a price for their victory as heavy as that of Stalingrad. In the 12 days of fighting which the reduction of the city required, it is estimated that 200,000 Russian soldiers became casualties.
Granted roughly equal
strength between attacker and defender, what makes an offensive work is
surprise. Hitler had twice achieved stupendous surprise over his opponents,
but only because of their stubborn self-delusion: in 1940 through the French
and British conviction that he must attack over the Belgian plain, in 1941
through Stalin's refusal to believe that he would attack at all... The
Channel, instead of appearing an obstacle, a zone of uncertain weather
and hiiden obstructions and an enoromous field of direct fire for the defenders'
weapons, should then be seen for what it was; an impermeable barrier to
German intelligence and the smoothest of broad highways to the weak places
in the Atlantic Wall.
'He who defends everything', as Hitler's favourite spiritual mentor, Frederick the Great, had warned, 'defends nothing'. And Army Group B, for want of any but the crudest topographical indication as to where the Allies might make their descent, was on June 6th, 1944, defending everything. The result might have been forseen: the instantaneous concentration of 8 first-class divisions against three weak divisions and the almost immediate reinforcement of the attackers by another four divisions.
Gone are such chances from the battlefield, present or future... No power today could prepare in secret a great seaborne invasion. Its gathering would be spied out from the beginning by satellite reconaissance. Even less can any power hope to muster undetected a concentration of force in central Europe for an attack across an international boundary in the manner of 1914 or 1940. The sea provides the means, if not today the opportunity, for tanks, troops and guns to leap a hundred miles of space in a single night. Not so communication by land.
Happily the governments
of Europe are now agreed that any significant disturbance of the fixed
pattern of military deployment is a legitimate occasion for international
concern, to be announced before it takes place and monitored while in progress.
Perhaps it is still proper, none the less, for the peoples who live in
the shadow of the armies which line the border between east and west to
frighten themselves with the thought of what might happen should they over
against each other. It is certainly proper for their commanders to plan
how they might defend the ground on which they are stationed should crisis
call them to do so. But if they look to Normandy to tell them how to fight
the battle, they will see but the lesser part of what the story of the
Second Front has to tell. The greater part is that of how easily in the
end the Allies won the surprise they scarcely dared grasp at, and how utterly
vanquished are the circumstances which gave it to them. Dare we guess that
D-Day was the last of Europe's great invasions?
The author knows that
war is fought by human beings.
- Drew Middleton, "The New York Times"
No book dealing with
the Normandy campaign can fail to pay honor to the German fighting men.
Mishandled by their Supreme Command, exposed almost daily to the lash of
the Allied tactical air forces, relying on horses and bicycles for most
of their transport, often short of food and water, the Germans fought with
a courage and resilience that amazed their enemies. Some people still wonder
why it took the combined might of the United States, the British Empire
and the Soviet Union to defeat the Germans. John Keegan's book vividly
answers that question.
- Drew Middleton, "The New York Times"
[The excerpts below are from an ABC Australia interview for the 60th anniversary of D-Day]
JK: "I would say that
if you had to draw up a list of the 10 greatest battles, or maybe the 5
greatest battles in the world, D-day would be one of them. It was one of
the largest and certainly the most important amphibious operations ever
launched. It was extraordinarily risky and the further I get away from
it in time the more surprising it seems to me that it came off as well
as it did."
Q: "It couldn’t happen again could it? In the same way?"
JK: "Asolutely not, no chance at all. Well not against an enemy with advanced military forces because the landing fleet would be destroyed by missile attack."
Q: "And the element of surprise would be impossible wouldn’t it?"
JK: "Pretty well impossible too. The Germans were taken by surprise because they were prevented from overflying the Channel or Britain - they didn’t get the opportunity to see the ships assembling."
Q: "It was certainly
one of the great disasters, I think you list four in all, it was one of
them; to befall Hitler and the Third Reich."
JK: "Yes, I mean his great disasters were Stalingrad of course in 1942, Kursk in 1943 then D-Day in 1944 and then well in 1945 he had so many disasters there are too many to list. But it was a terrible disaster for Hitler; but the strange thing is that he did not take the landing as seriously as he should have done at the outset. He believed that his forces in France would be able to contain the Anglo-American force and eventually defeat it and he would then be able to go back to fighting the Russians, his main enemy."
JK: "As far as the British and Americans who took part were concerned, and the other nationalities; the Canadians and Poles and French and so on… they knew they were doing a great thing that it was an extraordinary sort of moment in history and of course nobody or very few people like going to war but I think they were proud of being at D-Day. You know there is an element of St Crispin’s Day, Henry V’s speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V about D-Day, 'men who were not there would count themselves cursed'. Well that’s putting it a bit strong but I think the people who went to D-Day were proud, they certainly are proud now and I think even at the time they were proud to go to D-Day, they felt they were going to be liberators and they were received as liberators which was another thing."
JK: "I’m a great admirer of Eisenhower. I think he’s a wonderful man, a great American, the very best sort of American. He was a boy from a very simple background - his father worked in a dairy, he was one of five brothers, they were brought up in poverty, they had a very strict although loveable bible reading mother and she is owed a great deal of the credit for Eisenhower and his brothers. They almost all became successful men. One was president of a great university and another was a successful lawyer, another was a big banker and they’d been brought up in a little wooden house in a cowtown in Kansas. Eisenhower absolutely epitomises the American Dream."
JK: "I think the battles of 1944 in Europe, D Day and the destruction of Army Group Centre, those were the last great battle between Europeans. I don’t think Europeans will fight each other again, not because of the European Union but because they are no longer militarised, the continent is largely disarmed, they do have mechanisms for settling their differences diplomatically, war has gone out of fashion with Europeans. Maybe 50 to 100 years from now it’ll come back into fashion, but I very, very much doubt it because nobody has yet invented a way of using nuclear weapons for political purposes. I do expect that D Day belongs in the very last year of big battles in Europe between Europeans."
Quotes from other works
by John Keegan:
Warpaths * Intelligence In War * Soldiers * First World War * History of Warfare
This external site hosts a good profile of Keegan.
Return to Quotes index, or Site homepage.