Military History

Blogging about the Battlefield since 2005


Posted by William F. Sauerwein on July 5, 2008

This past June 6th commemorated the sixty-fourth anniversary of D-Day, the invasion that began the liberation of Europe. Unfortunately, most news media outlets ignored this anniversary, or merely gave it cursory coverage, mostly at the end of their broadcasts. None of the television networks, not even the American Movie Classics (AMC) channel, broadcast any “special programming.” Fortunately, the History Channel broadcast several hours of programming which covered almost all aspects of the invasion. Libraries contain massive volumes that describe the blood, sweat and sacrifice required for making this invasion successful. Unfortunately, our “progressive” education system largely ignores this part of our national experience, meaning that this knowledge may soon disappear. Because we ignore the lessons learned from our past wars, we risk losing our current war, and our civilization as well.

The D-Day invasion launched the liberation of continental Europe from Germany during World War II. It required almost two years of the most extensive planning conducted by the Allied command in Europe. The odds of success for this invasion seem impossible by today’s standards: marginal weather conditions, well-defended beaches held by well-trained troops, inadequate intelligence and conducted by largely inexperienced troops. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander even composed a letter acknowledging failure, in case the invasion failed. Against these odds the Allied soldiers landed, suffered heavy casualties and persevered, and for this they deserve our eternal gratitude.

As I watched the morning news on June 6th, I noticed the only mention of D-Day on the Fox News Channel. Maybe I missed the commemorations on the other channels as I “surfed” them for any relevant coverage. Even on the Fox News Channel the coverage mostly consisted of less than five minutes. The commentators that I watched cover it did publicly thank the D-Day veterans, and all veterans as well.

That evening when I watched the local news on the major networks I saw no mention of D-Day. In the past these networks interviewed local veterans who participated in the invasion, but not this time. Again, maybe in my effort at viewing all the channels I missed the coverage, which means any coverage proved brief. Perhaps with the advancing age, and mortality rate, of these veterans the networks found no one capable of relating their experiences.

Hollywood, which broadcasts “special programming” for almost any event, particularly if it reflects their political views, ignored D-Day. Particularly given today’s circumstances, Hollywood avoids any military related films, unless they openly portray our soldiers as the “bad guys.” In the past AMC broadcast movies that portrayed the D-Day invasion, such as: The Longest Day, D-Day, the 6th of June or Saving Private Ryan. Instead, AMC entertained us with a montage of the “Planet of the Apes” movies. It appears that these Hollywood “big shots” conveniently forgot those whose sacrifices secured their “artistic license.”

I watched the commemoration of D-Day on the History Channel, which covered all phases of the invasion. Perhaps I missed the media coverage because of my overwhelming interest in the programming provided by the History Channel. If so, I offer my sincere apology; however, I believe my earlier assessment remains correct regarding the media and Hollywood. I thank the History Channel for their extensive programming, programming that our education system desperately needs.

As I stated above, libraries contain volumes of historical information regarding D-Day, as well as military historical repositories. Coincidentally I am reading Blood and Sacrifice, a book about the history of the 16th Infantry Regiment. The 16th Infantry landed in the first assault on Omaha Beach at Normandy, and suffered heavy casualties. Lieutenant Colonel Steven Clay (USA) produced this book for the Cantigny Military History Series, sponsored by the Cantigny First Infantry Division Foundation. During my Army career I proudly served with that unit, and Omaha Beach holds a special place in that unit’s history. Coincidentally, I read about the sacrifices of the 16th Infantry on D-Day during the period of June 5, 2008. Eagerly I awaited the next day’s commemoration of D-Day, and found little outside the History Channel.

D-Day became necessary for the liberation of continental Europe from German occupation, and the defeat of Nazi Germany. It also soothed the Soviet Union’s dictator, Josef Stalin, in opening his demanded “second front.” Even the German dictator, Adolph Hitler, understood the uneasy alliance between the Western democracies and Soviet communism. At various times Germany tried negotiating a separate peace with both the West and the Soviets.

Most people cover up the alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union when World War II began. An alliance brokered in 1939, which resulted in their joint occupation of Poland and Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries. When Germany launched its blitzkrieg in May, 1940 against Western Europe, the Soviet Union did nothing. Only the unexpected invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany in June, 1941 (another June anniversary) broke this alliance.

The defeat of the Western Allies brought other nations into Axis alliance, believing they joined the winning side. Albania became a de facto member after Italy conquered and annexed it in April, 1939. Japan entered the alliance in September, 1940 for obtaining concessions from Vichy France, and its future plans against the US. Hungary, and Romania joined in November, 1940 and Bulgaria in March, 1941 because they feared Stalin more than Hitler. The German puppet states of Slovakia and Croatia joined in November, 1940 and June, 1941, respectively. Finland, defeated by the Soviets in 1940, fought with Germany against the Soviet Union, but did not join the alliance.

When planning for D-Day began Axis forces occupied all of continental Europe, except for neutral Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Axis armies plunged deep into the Soviet Union, with fighting raging in the suburbs of Moscow. They further held much of North Africa, largely through the collaboration of the Vichy government of France. German and Italian forces steadily advanced on the Suez Canal in Egypt from the Italian colony of Libya. This threatened communications between England and its Commonwealth nations, India, Australia and New Zealand.

German U-boats (submarines) attacked American shipping off the East Coast of the United States, within sight and sound of the beaches. One History Channel program about this part of the war stated that the German submariners called this the “happy time.” The bottom line, the United States entered World War II on the losing side, and continued losing for six months.

The United States possessed the manpower and industrial base for winning the war, however it must harness this power. We began mobilizing this power with the shocking defeat of France in June of 1940 (June again) amidst vocal political opposition. Following its withdrawal at Dunkirk, England seemed on the verge of defeat, leaving nothing between Germany and us.

Unfortunately we found ourselves grossly unprepared for modern war and “isolationism” dominated the American public’s attitude. Historian Charles MacDonald wrote The Mighty Endeavor about the war effort in Europe, and detailed our frantic preparations for war. Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall described the American Army as “that of a third-rate power.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) declared a national emergency, which mobilized the National Guard and Reserve forces. Of importance for us today, once mobilized those guardsmen and reservists served for the duration, at least five years.

The American high command possessed several ambitious military plans, called RAINBOW for their different color codes. Unfortunately we lacked the means for carrying out these plans even if forced into war. For twenty years both the White House and Congress neglected the Armed Forces, leaving them under-strength and with obsolete equipment.

Congress soon appropriated more funds than our military leaders requested for overcoming this neglect. In August of 1940 Congress legislated the nation’s first peacetime draft, however with severe restrictions on using the draftees. Unfortunately, appropriating the funds does not immediately provide the equipment or construct the facilities for the enlarged forces. The 16th Infantry conducted its first amphibious warfare training in December, 1940 using rowboats borrowed from an ocean liner.

In January, 1941 after bitter debate Congress passed the bill that made the US, the “Arsenal of Democracy.” This arsenal provided equipment not only for our military, but also for the British Empire, China, and our South American allies. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union we provided them with “lend-lease” equipment. The mobilization of American industry ranks as one of the major achievements of the war effort. However, this success did not occur immediately, and did not achieve full mobilization until late 1943 or early 1944. While American industrial workers struggled at meeting all of their demands American troops trained with broomstick rifles.

MacDonald states that even after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor our military leaders decided that we must defeat Germany first. Keeping England in the war meant keeping the Commonwealth nations in the war, nations needed for fighting Japan. The British Royal Navy successfully kept the German Kriegsmarine (Navy) from dominating the Atlantic Ocean, and invading the US. Most importantly, England served as a strategic base for striking at the European continent. Defeating Germany and Italy first required an invasion of continental Europe, and the heavily defended beaches.

However, dissension in the Allied high command, and the inadequate resources available, hindered early efforts. Many battle-hardened British senior officers resented the selection of the inexperienced Eisenhower as supreme commander. Stalin clamored for a “second front,” and FDR tried pressuring British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, for an early invasion.

FDR and the American high command pressured the British for one very good reason. The American public demanded action against Japan, the nation that attacked us and killed our troops. Furthermore, Japan began conquering American possessions: the Philippine Islands, Guam, Wake Island and the Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska. In the process the Japanese killed or captured thousands of American troops; and their families demanded revenge. MacDonald further states that the British feared abandonment in Europe by the Americans if they continued balking at an invasion.

Churchill and the British high command also faced problems with the rapid Japanese advance. They suffered the loss of many of their territories: Hong Kong, Malaya and their prominent naval base at Singapore. British and Commonwealth forces lost about 100,000 troops in the fall of Singapore alone. The Japanese advance pushed toward India and Australia, and launched bombing raids on Port Moresby and Darwin in Australia. India, Australia and New Zealand withdrew substantial numbers of their forces from North Africa for defending their homelands. This jeopardized the British defense of the Suez Canal, and threatened Allied fortunes in the Middle East.

The Japanese advance into Burma jeopardized China’s continuance in the war with the closure of the famous Burma Road. China possessed a large military force, although it proved poorly armed, equipped and led. With Japan in control of most of China’s coastline, the Burma Road provided the only line of communication for Chinese forces. If Japan defeated China this subsequently released hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops for other operations.

Ambitiously, the Allies launched a large-scale amphibious raid on the French coast at Dieppe in August, 1942. This raid later became synonymous with disaster, and a source of resentment among the Canadians, who made up the bulk of the forces. Of the 5,000 troops landed the Allied naval forces only rescued about 1,500. Consequently, a successful invasion needed more planning and more resources for any hope of success.

During this time the 16th Infantry and its parent 1st Infantry Division trained in England for the invasion of Europe. With the failure of Dieppe, the Allies must find another place for launching its “second front.” Furthermore, the bulk of American forces remained in the US and must traverse the hostile waters of the Atlantic. At Churchill’s urging FDR decided for an invasion of French North Africa, under the control of the Vichy government.

Although in open collaboration with the Axis Powers, Vichy France remained technically a neutral country. In today’s terms it did not threaten the United States and did not participate in the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the Allies faced desperate times at the end of 1942 and faced the possibility of losing the war. Allied leaders further hoped that French citizens still resented their humiliation by the Germans in 1940.

A Free French organization gradually formed under General Charles De Gaulle, and the Allies hoped he might find converts in North Africa. If the French in North Africa joined the Allies it potentially gave the Allies a reinforcement of 120,000 troops. Once the Allies secured French North Africa they would strike eastward for relieving the pressure on British forces defending the Suez Canal. Besides, North Africa possessed more space for marshalling the American men and materiel for ultimately invading Europe.

While planning for D-Day continued in London, Allied soldiers engaged in almost two years of bloody campaigns. First, the Allied naval forces must win the “Battle of the Atlantic” against the German U-boats. Allied air forces began a costly bombing campaign of Europe for softening German defenses and damaging German industrial power. The Allies launched invasions on the periphery of Europe spreading out Axis defenses and gaining a strategic advantage.

More importantly, the inexperienced American troops gained valuable combat experience, and American commanders learned the lessons of modern warfare. This “baptism of fire” proved costly, particularly in the deserts of French North Africa. They suffered a bloody defeat from the veteran Afrika Korps, which cost 6,000 casualties of the 30,000 committed. Allied commanders painfully learned about conducting coalition warfare, communications security and the importance of logistical operations. Despite heavy casualties, American and British forces liberated French North Africa and captured over 250,000 Axis troops.

The Allies next invaded the island of Sicily, described by Churchill as the “soft underbelly of Europe.” Allied leaders received intelligence describing Italy as the “weak” Axis nation, and resentful of their dominance by Germany. However, the invasion of Sicily proved that intelligence under estimated Italian resistance when defending their homeland. The hard-fought victory cost the Allies 22,000 casualties, considered an “acceptable” number at the time.

Meanwhile, Allied commanders and troops gained more experience in amphibious warfare and coordinating air, ground and naval operations. American officers and men continued maturing into the professional army needed for ultimately defeating the Axis Powers. The Soviet Union began counterattacking the over-extended Axis forces, capturing an entire army at Stalingrad. Although at a tremendous cost, the Allies slowly gained the upper hand over the Axis Powers in 1943.

The conquest of Sicily and invasion of the Italian mainland forced the surrender of Italy. German forces now assumed the entire responsibility for defending Italy, since abandoning it opened the southern flank of Germany. Unfortunately for Allied soldiers in Italy, the mountainous terrain favored the defending German Army. Italy’s surrender and the deteriorating situation against the Soviets forced a weakening of Germany’s defenses along the Western Front.

During this time the dramatic national mobilization of American resources made the invasion of Europe a possibility. The “Arsenal of Democracy” made the US military the most potent force in the world. American factories operated twenty-four hours per day producing the armaments for the Allied nations, and the ships for transporting them. Gradually the Allied navies began winning the “Battle for the Atlantic” against the German U-boats. This allowed for the massive movement of men and materiel into the British Isles, and other theaters of war.

This too came at a high price for the Allies: 2,828 merchant ships, 187 warships, an unknown number of aircraft and about 40,000 personnel. Few know that the US Merchant Marine suffered proportionately the highest casualty rate of all the services. Almost every source describes the “Murmansk Run,” for supplying the Soviets, as the most hazardous duty.

Across the English Channel, the Germans saw the build-up of Allied forces and understood the threat of invasion. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the famed “Desert Fox” of Afrika Korps fame, commanded the troops that manned the beach defenses. He began a program of constructing obstacles, field fortifications and planting minefields for defeating Allied soldiers as they landed. Unfortunately, Rommel and the other German commanders labored under severe restrictions that hindered their efforts.

MacDonald states that the German forces in France largely served as a replacement pool for the Russian front. This policy increased in March, 1944 when Hungary surrendered, taking its forces out of the war against the Soviet Union. Most of the troops in France consisted of those burned out from fighting in the East, training divisions and so-called static divisions.

The quality of the soldiers declined since the conquering days of 1940 as events forced a lowering of recruiting standards. Most of the soldiers in the static divisions suffered from wounds, which rendered them unsuitable for combat divisions. All the units received “ethnic German” soldiers from conquered countries that bordered Germany, and “volunteers” from occupied countries. A significant number came from Soviet prisoners of war, including numbers of anti-communists from non-Russian Soviet states. As the situation further deteriorated for the Germans they fielded old men and young boys from the Hitler Jugend.

Units in France supposedly enjoyed the priority for receiving tanks and other equipment, however this soon changed. The needs of units in combat both in Italy and in the East required a significant number merely for replacing combat losses. Nevertheless, a significant number of panzer units remained in a mobile reserve well behind the beaches.

Most historians cite the Germans for military precision and efficiency; however the command structure in France contradicts that stereotype. First, Hitler thought himself a “military genius,” and interfered with his commanders often with ruthless consequences. Although Rommel commanded the troops manning the beach defenses, he served under Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt. The two men disagreed on the best way of defeating the Allied invasion, and Hitler did little for resolving this issue. Rommel wanted the initial landings defeated, while Rundstedt wanted a mobile counterattack after he determined the main Allied landing’s location. As field marshals, both men possessed open access with Hitler, subverting the normal chain of command.

Hitler tried adopting both plans, however by this time Germany lacked both the men and materiel for strengthening defenses in France. Rommel did not receive the requested amount of concrete for strengthening his emplacements, or the number of land mines. However, he improvised and the number of beach obstacles forced a change in Allied plans.

More significantly, Hitler placed most of the panzer divisions under the direct control of the Army high command (OKW), meaning himself. When the invasion occurred, the OKW operations officer, General Albert Jodl, did not awaken Hitler. This delayed any movement by these divisions until the morning of June 7th, when Allied air forces attacked them.

Intelligence remains the major priority for any military operation; which includes enemy forces, weather and terrain. The Allies received significant assistance in this from the French Maquis (Resistance), often aided by Allied agents. These unsung heroes took enormous risks and paid a heavy price for providing this information. Additionally, they engaged in a critical campaign of sabotage against the German transportation and communications systems before the invasion.

The many deception plans, code-named Operation Bodyguard, proved the most crucial of pre-invasion intelligence. Churchill described this as the “bodyguard of lies” necessary for protecting the truth, and they succeeded tremendously. The most famous of these plans, Operation Fortitude South, entailed the fictitious army group assembled around Lieutenant General George S. Patton. Patton’s ruse kept the German Fifteenth Army concentrated at the Pas de Calais, and away from Normandy. Operation Fortitude North created a fictitious British army assembled in Scotland for invading Norway, tying down about 400,000 German troops.

Two other major deception plans concentrated on deceiving the Germans in the Mediterranean Theater. This prevented the Germans from transferring troops into France once the invasion began. Churchill actually favored launching one of these plans, Operation Zeppelin, for invading the Balkans and relieving pressure in Italy.

These plans relied on false radio transmissions, establishing false headquarters and installations using “dummy” equipment and “leaking” false information. First, Allied counterintelligence neutralized all fifty of the German agents working in England, with several becoming “double agents.” Allied air supremacy minimized German aerial reconnaissance over England, while Allied reconnaissance aircraft flew virtually unmolested.

Weather proved the biggest factor regarding the invasion, and effected the plans of the Germans as well as the Allies. Allied commanders faced either attacking under marginal conditions, or waiting three weeks for favorable conditions. Based on past experience, German commanders believed Eisenhower too cautious, believing he would not invade in such weather.

Rommel too believed the weather prevented any invasion and scheduled a leave for surprising his wife on her birthday, June 6th. The historynet website states that the German Seventh Army, responsible for the Normandy defenses, scheduled a “war game.” This placed all of its senior commanders in the southern Norman town of Rennes, far from the landing. The Kriegsmarine cancelled all patrols in the English Channel because of the danger posed by the high seas.

The weather further cancelled the invasion, set for June the 5th, and Allied leaders feared for the worst. Eisenhower faced a heavy decision, a decision that rested on his shoulders alone, and making the wrong decision risked failure. If this invasion failed, it probably delayed another attempt for at least one year, possibly two. Furthermore, a failure possibly ended Eisenhower’s military career, placing him in the history books as a failure.

Fortunately, the Allies possessed better meteorological technology than the Germans, and the staff weather officer detected a break on June 6th. The enormity of the invasion forces and the diversity of their missions required a prompt decision. Spread across southern England, these units must depart at different times for arriving at Normandy at the same time. Waiting three weeks for good weather required the off-loading of troops and equipment from transport ships. This off-loading and other delays threatened troop morale and potentially dulled their “fighting edge.”

The crowding of the British Isles became an increasing concern as Eisenhower anticipated the doubling of American troops within weeks. British citizens found themselves restricted from movement in southern England and travel between England and Ireland forbidden. Even the most inept intelligence service would deduce the purpose of this, providing ample warning.

When Eisenhower gave the “GO” he set in motion the largest amphibious operation in history, to that date. It further executed an operation that required almost two years of planning and preparation, bloody supporting campaigns and international cooperation. However, nothing guaranteed success, and in an operation of this magnitude much could go wrong.

One axiom of military operations states that no plan survives past the first bullet fired, or words to that effect. Almost everyone in the military knows “Murphy’s Law,” which states, “what can go wrong, will go wrong.” The American soldier’s dark humor created an acronym for this called SNAFU, Situation Normal, All F***ed Up. It seemed that almost everything went wrong on D-Day, however, the Allied soldiers overcame these situations and persevered.

The bad weather and rough seas created havoc among the aircraft and ships transporting the soldiers. Late in the evening of June 5th the airborne troops began landing behind the beaches for disrupting German defenses. In Steven Ambrose’s book, Band of Brothers, he describes the aircraft, first buffeted by the weather and then by German anti-aircraft fire. Subsequently, these disruptions scattered the paratroopers over the Norman landscape, intermixing the units and making organized operations difficult.

MacDonald states that hundreds fell into stretches of lowland, previously flooded by the Germans, and many drowned. Everyone who watched the movie, The Longest Day, remembers the tragic landing in Ste. Mere-Eglise. MacDonald confirms that twenty men did land here, where the Germans either killed or captured them. Glider-borne troops often crashed into hedgerows or suffered from the German-emplaced obstacles known as Rommelsspargel (Rommel’s asparagus).

Despite these problems the airborne soldiers succeeded in their mission beyond all belief. Small groups of men, often led by non-commissioned officers, struck the Germans where they found them. Their broad dispersal created more confusion among the German defenders and prevented organized resistance. The use of dummy paratroopers helped deceive German commanders into believing that this signified a diversionary attack.

Twelve miles off the coast the American assault troops descended into their landing craft using dangerous cargo nets. Unfortunately many of these men subsequently fell into the English Channel and drowned because of the rough seas. The majority who made it down the nets soon became soaked with seawater, with a majority becoming seasick and vomiting.

Of the six American infantry divisions participating in the assault, only two possessed combat experience. The 1st Infantry Division fought through the North African and Sicily campaigns, including the amphibious assaults. The 82nd Airborne Division conducted combat jumps in Sicily and Italy, and some combat in Italy as regular infantry. However, both divisions suffered heavy casualties during these operations, meaning that both possessed a significant number of inexperienced replacements. Fortunately, most of the non-commissioned officers of these units previously faced combat, which later made the difference.

As they approached the beaches landing craft, disoriented by the dark and rough seas, headed for the wrong beaches. Some swamped and sank, taking most of their human cargoes down with them. Special “duplex drive” (DD) tanks fitted with floatation devices sank one-by-one, with 27 of 29 destined for Omaha Beach sinking.

The landings occurred with mixed results, depending on the circumstances they endured, particularly for the Americans. At Utah Beach the 4th and 90th Infantry Divisions found the weak spot in the German defenses. The 4th landed over one mile from its designated beach, however, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., made a fateful decision. Furthermore, the gently sloping terrain presented no obstacle as the troops consolidated their positions and advanced. In less than three hours the 4th Infantry Division controlled the beach and moved inland toward the paratroopers.

The British and Canadians who landed at Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches also fared fairly well. These beaches also gently sloped upward with no towering bluffs presenting a formidable obstacle. They further faced a German static division made up mostly of Eastern European “volunteers,” with one battalion breaking early in the fighting.

Omaha Beach proved the most difficult of the beaches, and the most hotly defended by the Germans. The 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed on this beach against the German 352nd Infantry Division. Although a static division it ranked as one of the best at Normandy, full of veterans from the Russian front. Coincidentally this division engaged in a defensive exercise at the time when the Americans landed. Sources differ whether Allied intelligence detected the presence of this division, but most say it went undetected. Fortunately the division commander disobeyed Rommel’s orders and only posted two infantry battalions and one artillery battalion on the beach.

This proved enough as the Americans landed amidst a heavy volume of fire that destroyed many approaching landing craft. Other craft dropped their ramp and the disembarking men immediately became casualties. Those men not immediately hit must now wade chest-deep water bearing all of their equipment. Men who made it ashore stepped on the bodies of their comrades as they sought cover.

The infantry battalions landed without their traditional artillery support, receiving support only from naval gunfire. German fire wiped out at least one of the naval gunfire support teams, rendering communications ineffective. Other communications gear damaged from the seawater and other causes further hindered any coordination between units and naval support.

One half hour after the initial landing eight tanks of the 741st Tank Battalion came ashore from landing craft. Some stalled out from seawater in their engines and the Germans knocked most of them out. Also in this second wave came engineers of the 5th Engineer Special Brigade for removing beach obstacles. These courageous men suffered fifty per cent casualties as they performed their duty under intense fire.

Continue to Part II


One Response to “D-DAY REMEMBERED?-Part I”

  1. with overwhelming superiority USA invaded Europe.No generalship.More British regiments were used in 1857 in India than in any other war till that date.

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