This Day in History: 6th June 1944 – D-Day

The largest beach landing in history

The 6th June 2014 represented the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Nazi occupied Europe and has widely become recognised by the generic military term known as D-Day or the first day of the attack. Hence D+1 would be the second day et cetera. Due to this conflation, the term D-Day in common parlance is synonymous with the landing on the Normandy Beaches.

As a tribute to the men who fought and died there, on every tenth anniversary of the battle, paratroop veterans would parachute into Normandy. On the 60th anniversary, ten years ago, this practice was abandoned due to the superannuation of the veterans being a minimum of 80 years of age. On this anniversary, ten years later, one brave solitary soul, a Scotsman, Jack Hutton, elected to show that he was made of sterner stuff and represented all those still alive but now too fragile to do so.

 

Sadly this belated act of defiance against the organiser’s wishes will undoubtedly be the last. With the remaining survivors then being in excess of 100 years of age, it will either be a brave or a foolhardy veteran who will attempt to continue the tradition.

A Tribute to the Fallen by British artists Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley, of Sand In Your Eye, produced this incredibly powerful visual display at the D-Day landing ...

A Tribute to the Fallen by British artists Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley, of Sand In Your Eye, produced this incredibly powerful visual display at the D-Day landing …

Originally the date of the invasion was set as the 5th June. In fact it was only after the troops had boarded their transports that the momentous decision was taken to postpone it by one day.

Foul weather had thrown the proverbial spanner in the works. Once the military was set in its course, delay was unfeasible. At best they could slow the process but if the weather remained inclement, the invasion might even have to be postponed altogether much to Stalin’s chagrin.

Stalin had long since proposed a much earlier landing on the disingenuous reasoning that a lengthy sea voyage was no more difficult than a 200 metre river crossing. Clearly this fallacious reasoning was merely a ruse to ensure an earlier time horizon. Having experienced the professionalism and military acumen at first hand in France, the African desert and Italy, the British obstinately opposed a half-baked attack.

Furthermore beach landings required specialised equipment such as landing craft and DD [Duplex Drive] tanks that are capable of floating on their own power to shore.

Rather than the shorter route to France over the Channel to Pas de Calais, the Allies had selected the longer trip to Normandy. This decision was informed on the depth of the defences at the former location as Hitler possessed a clearer understanding of the difficulties of a seaborne invasion and hence firmly prophesied that the shortest route would be the one taken despite all attempts by the Allies at disinformation in this regard.

Even today the Tiger Tank 70 years later, the Tiger Tank looks surprisingly modern

Even today the Tiger Tank 70 years later, the Tiger Tank looks surprisingly modern

A whole plethora of ruses were used in this attempt: the fictitious 10th Army under General Patton supposedly based opposite Calais, the supposed German spy operating in Britain by the name of Garbo and finally the inordinately heavy bombardment of the Pas de Calais area and its surrounding countryside.

In order not to be outwitted by the Allies or his own Generals, Hitler placed strong German Panzer forces in the Normandy area but against the wishes of the Generals he split control of the German forces and ultimately placing himself as the final arbiter for the movement of the tanks. With his experience against the Allies overwhelming aerial superiority, Rommel contended that the Panzer forces had to be positioned as close to the beaches as possible whereas Hitler demanded the opposite.

In reality, D-Day commenced late on the night of the 5th June with dropping of airborne forces both on the American and the British sectors. Each of these forces had a dual mission. The primary one was the destruction of specific military installations such as batteries whilst their secondary role was to create as much confusion behind the German lines as possible thereafter.

One of the initial goals and key objective on D-Day itself, was the capture of Caen which was only 16kms inland from the coast. The fact that its capture was only achieved on D+34 has led to numerous debates about Montgomery’s suitability as the land commander for Operation Overlord. The capture of Caen was crucial for a number of reasons chiefly amongst them was that Paris was in a straight line across fairly flat terrain which would suit the Allies better than the now largely immobile German forces. Caen would serve as the fulcrum to the envisaged coup de main. Not mentioned was the fact that this cavalry charge would be led by the British forces including his very own 7th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats as the British forces would land at Sword, Juno and Gold Beaches opposite Caen itself.

What the Allies had underrated were two aspects: the effect of the bocage country and the fanaticism of the Hitlerjugend, Hitler’s own Praetorian Guard.

 

The training of the Hitler Youth started from age 10

The training of the Hitler Youth started from age 10

By this late stage of the war, there had been a role reversal. The Allies were not only numerically superior but they were totally mobile even on a scale that the Germans in 1940 were not. For instance the famous but overrated Tiger Tank was more suited to defensive warfare in which role it was invincible but of which the Germans only ever manufactured 1347. Compare this to the American Sherman Tank of which 64000 hulls were produced of which 49000 became Tanks.

In the air, the Allies were also overwhelmingly superior. So as to protect their aircraft from annihilation, the Germans had based their aircraft further east out of harm’s way. The few hundred German aircraft were opposed by 13000 Allied aircraft of which 5000 were fighters.

Even of the Tiger had been ten or even a hundred times better than the Sherman which it was not, the taxi rank of Hawker Typhoon aircraft overhead would speedily have destroyed any tank which became visible.

What was a genuine advantage on the German side was the fanaticism of the Waffen SS and in particular the Hitlerjugend and the Panzer Lehr forces based opposite the British in Caen. On the other hand, the American forces faced mainly second-rate German forces in the Cotentin Peninsular.

Bocage country: the impediment to mobile warfare but vital to German defence as they were largely immobile but this stage of the war

Bocage country: the impediment to mobile warfare but vital to German defence as they were largely immobile by this stage of the war

In order to recover the initiative around Caen, Montgomery launched a series of ineffectual offensives Epsom, Goodwood and finally Totalise. Whilst none ever achieved their objective, what they did accomplish was to keep these German forces pinned to this flank while the Americans gradually ground the German forces down in their sector.

The fate of many of the glider born troops: killed before they even saw action

The fate of many of the glider born troops: killed before they even saw action

Ultimately when the proverbial dam broke, the German forces were caught in the open at Falaise. A slaughter of catastrophic proportions occurred with the virtual destruction of the German Forces south of the Seine.

The way was now open to Paris and the Allied forces with their limitless supplies of materiale took advantage. The German had no riposte and they were crushed in its inexorable flow.

At no stage in the two month long battle had the German Forces seriously threatened the Allies. The only scare that the Allies received was from Mother Nature when 10 days after the landings, fierce winds had destroyed one of the artificial harbours code named Mulberries. This slowed the flow of equipment and ammunition but never seriously jeopardised the operation.

A Tiger Tank and a Panzer IV side by side in destruction

A Tiger Tank and a Panzer IV side by side in destruction

It took Hitler 6 weeks to accept that Normandy would be the sole landing area. This then allowed the release of forces around the Pas de Calais area but by then, the Allies in Normandy outnumbered the Germans by 2 to 3 to one and outclassed them in every way.

Fanaticism and sheer determination of the elite German forces could never overcome the part time soldiers of the Allies with their overwhelming firepower.

 

Falaise saw the utter destruction of a whole German Army Group. Note that the Germans relied heavily on horse drawn transport whereas the Allies were totally motorised

Falaise saw the utter destruction of a whole German Army Group. Note that the Germans relied heavily on horse drawn transport whereas the Allies were totally motorised

German defeat was now an ineluctable fact of life.

The only uncertainty was the duration of the war but not its outcome.

At no stage was the defeat of Germany ever in any doubt in spite of stubborn defence and heroism.

I cannot imagine any scenario under which the Germans could have seriously jeopardised the whole Allied venture apart from stationing all their Panzer Forces on the Normandy Beaches which was never a realistic possibility.

 

The final annihilation of the German Forces at Falaise

The final annihilation of the German Forces at Falaise

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