Moving 156,000 men from one country to another in 24 hours is an impressive feat by any military standards.
It's also an historically and militarily significant figure, for this was the number of Allied soldiers who had managed to get ashore in Normandy by the end of 6 June, 1944: D-Day.
What's more, it dwarfed the 78,000 Germans defending the region – (For a comprehensive look at the D-Day mission that kicked off the Battle of Normandy, click here).
On the other hand, this was barely a 2-to-1 advantage, and even less so when the 10,000 Allied casualties sustained on 6 June were taken into account.
The textbook ratio for an attack force was 3:1, and while the Germans had certainly been overwhelmed for the time being, there were potentially huge numbers of reinforcements on the way.
And some of them, James Holland explains in 'Normandy '44', were crack units:
"German reinforcements were reaching the front… Oberleutnant (Senior Lieutenant) Cornelius Tauber had managed to escape the horror of being nearly grilled alive and had run into a group of Waffen-SS men. These had been from the reconnaissance battalion of the 12. SS ‘Hitlerjugend’ and Tauber had been immediately struck by the difference in mentality between these young, aggressive, confident men and those he had led in the bunkers. He had also watched agog as they calmly knocked out two Canadian Shermans with their Panzerschreck– hand-held rocket launchers – then shot all the crew."
The Allies had every reason to fear these men, for the SS, of which there were several divisions' worth in Normandy, were generally the most motivated and strongest units in the German army.
The Germans also had close to a million men spread throughout the 'Westheer' – the Western Front – an area encompassing Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries and Italy, as well as France.
Fortunately, thanks to 'Operation Bodyguard', most of them were in the wrong place and would remain so for some time.
Yet Allied military planners couldn't rely on their spies to go on misleading the Germans (although, they ultimately would) and getting their own reinforcements into Normandy before the enemy was essential.
"The rapid build-up of troops and the establishment of a watertight and connected bridgehead was the absolute priority for the Allied commanders. Achieving this trumped everything. While during the planning there had been lofty talk, from Montgomery especially, of driving beyond Caen on D-Day, deep concern had also been expressed that the entire enterprise might fail. On D plus 1, the mood in the Allied camp was this: huge relief that the invasion had so far gone considerably better than many had dared hope but not quite as well as the best-case scenario. There was, though, no complacency and the urgent need to join the bridgehead together and speed up unloading was, rightly, of paramount importance…
"Once they had ensured that threat had gone, the Allies could go all-out on the attack. It would be madness now, everyone agreed, for some units to press ahead too far without proper support, leaving themselves with vulnerable flanks and open to being cut off. What fighting the Germans so far had taught the Allies was that they always counter-attacked and their instinctive predilection was to be aggressive."
In this, they were repeating the strategy of German 'Eingreif Divisions' in the First World War – units that were held in the rear for the expressed purpose of savagely counterattacking enemy soldiers who'd broken into their trenches. It was a formidable obstacle, though as Holland shows, in this war, it would be the Germans’ undoing.
British military planners, on the other hand, seemed to have absorbed the vital lesson of the last war – that mass slaughter must be avoided:
"(British General) Montgomery's reputation had been founded on the build-up of overwhelming materiel and a steady and methodical drive forward using heavy fire-power to support the infantry and armour, and precisely this approach enabled the number of front-line troops to be kept comparatively small, which in turn saved lots of lives… Cut and dash might, conceivably, result in a decisive breakthrough, but far better, at this stage, to maintain pressure all along the front…"
That said, there were also reasons to move quickly. On the American side of Normandy, come June 9, US paratroopers were still holding onto La Fiere bridge – with surrounding fields flooded with water by the Germans, this was the only way out Utah Beach, and the 82 Airborne troops there knew it.
And 101 Airborne Division had also been having trouble at the village of Vierville. This action involved 'Easy' Company, led in this instance by Lieutenant Dick Winters, who was later immortalised by Damian Lewis in the HBO series 'Band of Brothers'.
Likewise, 'Saving Private Ryan's' Rangers were still struggling to get a comfortable grip on one of their objectives above Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc.
In the east, near Caen, the British and Canadians were coming into contact with two formidable German units, the 12 SS 'Hitlerjugend' and the 21 Panzer Division, both tank formations.
In general, German infantry divisions by this point had shrunk from 8,100 frontline infantry (and 15,000 with support personnel) to 5,400 troops (with 12,000 all told), the war having taken its toll. But crack units – like 12 SS ‘Hitlerjugend’ – were usually maintained at full strength, and sometimes more:
"Armoured divisions… especially Waffen-SS panzer divisions, tended to be swollen and above their authorized establishment. The 'Hitlerjugend' Division was a case in point, with a total strength of 20,540 on 1 June, with substantially inflated battalions in its two panzer-grenadier regiments, all of which were motorized, as well as having just under a hundred Panzer Mk IV tanks and almost fifty Mk V Panthers."
These were formidable, although it was the Mark VI Tigers that were the heaviest and most feared tanks (of which, there were 36 in Normandy.)
"The division also had a self-propelled gun regiment [tracked guns that could move in their own right rather than having to be towed] and a lot of artillery support, with nearly 150 (artillery) guns… including (70) 88mm high-velocity anti-tank guns… This was… almost as many as an artillery-heavy British division."
In terms of personnel, British infantry divisions each had three brigades of 3,500 men, breaking down further into three battalions of 845; these had four 120-man rifle companies and a support company of engineers, mortars and anti-tank guns. Rifle companies contained three platoons of 37, arrayed in three 10-man sections led by an NCO, Non-Commissioned Officer, and a seven-man headquarters with a subaltern, platoon sergeant, runner and mortar team.
Battalions were the primary modular component of the Army, recruited and assembled out of a parent regiment (i.e. the first and second battalions of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.) In battle, battalions "would be given an objective: a village, stream, a wood, or ridge – generally something that was challenging but achievable. Companies would then also be given specific objectives – the church in the village, or the farmhouse on the right-hand side of the village, for example".
"The average rifleman would be told what his specific objective was, but how much of the bigger picture was explained would depend on what the platoon commander told him and how much the platoon commander himself had been briefed in the first place. Most soldiers had very little idea of the wider battle or of what was happening more than a few hundred yards – if that – either side of them. Once the platoons were out in the open, communication with the company headquarters was dependent on runners…
"Generally, companies would move in platoons, which would in turn move in sections, the ten men usually spread 5–10 yards apart, one Bren-gun team per section."
Because machine gun bursts or mortar blasts might result in all or most of a section being taken out, men had to be kept in reserve. Thus:
"…on paper, two brigades sounds quite a lot: six battalions, 5,400 men and three armoured regiments of 50 tanks each. However, a brigade would only ever attack with two of the three battalions – one would always be in reserve – so there were only four battalions attacking, not six. On top of that, 10 per cent would always be 'LOB' – left out of battle – in case the worst happened and the battalion was destroyed. This meant there would still be a cadre from the battalion around which it could be re-formed."
The same logic applied further down the chain:
"(Battalions usually placed) three companies forward and one in reserve, which meant that the lead elements of an attacking infantry division had, in fact, been whittled down to about 2,000 men, not 5,400, which wasn't very many from a division of 15,000. The same principle applied to the armoured regiment so that instead of having 150 tanks in support there would be more like 80."
Conditions on the ground in Normandy soon proved the logic of this arrangement correct. Fighting around Caen got brutal, with both sides killing prisoners – although it seems the SS engaged in the most egregious war crimes, deliberately running over wounded Canadians with their tanks.
As well as crack German enemies, there was also a second antagonist lurking in the background: the bocage consisted of tightly interlaced woodlands and fields rimmed with thick hedgerows. An attackers nightmare and a defenders dream, these acted as natural trench lines, allowing the Germans to lay in wait and fall back almost endlessly behind each subsequent layer. Existing throughout Normandy, it ensured that, even without the presence of elite German troops, this was going to be a long slog for the Allies.
Although before the Allies even got deep into this literal and metaphorical thicket, they had to work on linking up the British and American beach heads that had been established closely, but not completely adjacently, at Juno, Gold, Sword and Omaha and Utah Beaches on 6 June.
Still, they at least had one thing going for them – overwhelming air power. As well as swooping in and shooting up many a vehicle before it even reached battle, ground-attack aircraft could also help to tip a battle once it had started:
"At 3.50pm, right on cue, first one squadron of Typhoons roared in overhead, then a second five minutes later. Thundering in over the town, they shot off their rockets and cannons with impressive accuracy, then disappeared again. 'Our target,' noted Wright (a commando on the ground), 'had been transformed into a miniature volcano'."
And that was their cue:
"With smoke still in the air, Captain David Walton, the troop commander, raised himself up and gave the order to fix bayonets. Wright climbed out of the ditch, clicking his bayonet onto the end of his rifle. 'I must be dreaming,' he thought. 'This isn't really happening – I'll wake up in a minute'."
No doubt, small arms fire was about to make him do that:
"Mortars and a few Bren guns gave them some covering fire, and then they were running and shouting and in moments had reached the foot of the mound, miraculously still alive. Pushing into a concrete entrance, Wright and his fellow Marines, black streaks on their faces (part of the commandos' camouflage) and their blood up, emerged into a bunker to find about twenty Germans, all cowering. 'White faced, hands held high,' noted Wright, 'they were shaking uncontrollably.' Half an hour later, X Troop was marching back towards the town. As it turned out, their objective had been a walkover."
Again, though, the defenders had certain key advantages that helped counterbalance things – things the Allies learnt to be very careful of:
“(Sergeant Bob) Slaughter and his squad followed a squeaking Sherman tank as it trundled forward along a sunken road. High hedges lined the way, and Slaughter and his men took solace from the protection both these and the Sherman gave them, although because of the dust from the tank, he was happy to hang back a bit.”
The falseness of his newfound sense of security was soon brought home to Slaughter:
“Then sporadic mortar and the occasional larger shell began whistling over, until suddenly an almighty explosion up ahead pulsed through the ground. A fireball erupted and rolled in all directions as the Sherman hit a teller mine, blowing all the men inside to smithereens, as well as almost an entire squad of ten men who had been crouching behind the tank. Slaughter felt the blast and heat from some 40 yards back, and when the flame, dust and smoke began to settle, he saw that the 30-ton tank had been flung sideways into the ditch at the edge of the road.”
As well as the direct losses, this kind of thing had psychological effects on those who survived:
“‘One minute they were healthy young men,’ (Slaughter later) wrote, ‘and the next minute they were bloody arms and legs wrapped around bloody torsos.’ They found body parts, including boots with the feet still in them, more than 25 yards away. Slaughter was far from being the only one to vomit.”
He soon learnt to keep his distance from tanks as they crawled along roads like this.
But the Germans, very often, were also afraid:
“Overnight on 7/8 June, Karl Wegner and his comrades, who the day before had been defending Omaha, were ordered to fall back a short distance… Their mission… was to hold the Americans where they were until reinforcements arrived. Every field… was to be made into a fortress. Furiously, they began digging behind the dense hedgerows of the bocage. Wegner was scared and rather overawed by the Rangers he knew were opposing him.”
As his unit was forced into continued retreat, his comrades taking advantage of the bocage to hold up the Americans and buy their comrades time, they were also terrorised by Allied planes:
“All day they were harried by Jabos, fighters and even bombers, while the roads were littered with dead horses and burning vehicles. ‘Even though we fell back,’ he said, ‘other parts of our regiment were still fighting in the hedgerows’… As they trudged on, Wegner and his fellows kept a constant watch on the sky, but time and time again the Jabos dived down on them and they had to jump for cover and hope for the best. ‘But always we asked the same question: where is the Luftwaffe?’ he wrote. The most common answer was, ‘They’re all back home protecting Fat Hermann’s medals’.”
Even without ‘Fat Hermann’, a reference to the obese Air Force commander, the Germans still managed to strike London… with V1 rockets, or ‘doodlebugs’. And fighting on to the launch sites was an additional impetus for increasing the pace of the Allied advance.
On the other hand, by keeping things bogged down in the Normandy bocage, the Germans were allowing the Allies to play one of their strongest hands – the continued use of naval bombardment, which remained an option as long as the Germans were accommodating enough to remain within range.
One German observer’s account speaks to the destruction that far outclassed whatever the doodlebugs were doing to London:
“‘Then began… the heaviest naval bombardment we had known so far.’ He could actually see the warships out at sea firing, great stabs of flame erupting from their guns, followed by the scream of shells. The Jabos followed, swooping down apparently unhindered. ‘A veritable inferno,’ he added, ‘broke over our heads’.”
As the next battle broke out at Villers-Bocage, ‘great stabs of flame’ would flare out of German guns too.
Having bypassed an anti-tank gun (because the gunner was busy relieving himself), one Tiger tank ambushed the British, knocking out several tanks.
This more or less set the tone for the whole battle, with somewhere between 13 and 15 German tanks being lost overall to 23 – 27 British.
This may seem like a German victory, but Holland shows these kinds of comparisons can be deceptive.
While it’s certainly true that the Germans were well disciplined and excelled at battlefield initiative, this masked problems higher up the chain of command:
“…brilliant, highly experienced generals and commanders (weren’t much use) if they were hamstrung in their efforts to bring that flair and experience to bear. Allied generals have been repeatedly criticized over the years for being dull and methodical, and not as tactically ruthless as their German counterparts. At least, though, they were operating under very clear chains of command. The political leaders at the top, while sometimes meddlesome, were not totalitarian despots.”
Hitler may have personified authoritarian military discipline, but he was also a perfect example of why it didn’t work as a wartime leadership style:
“…the Germans were stuck with… a command structure that was ultimately the toy of Hitler, and therefore subject to the capriciousness and whims, as well as many drawbacks, of this one-man. Being so authoritarian and small-minded, Hitler simply didn't possess the worldly background, education, and openness to outside ideas and cultures to have ever arrived at the kind of strategic, political mastery that his opponents gained over him.”
Churchill and Roosevelt, on the other hand, had “quite exceptional geo-political understanding and far-sighted strategic vision, and were supported by government ministers and by the Chiefs of Staff – the most senior commanders in their respective services – who were free to voice their opinions even if contradictory to those of their political chiefs”.
Even difficult personalities like Montgomery, Holland says, worked within clear chains of command, while German military leaders broke into factions, each one trying to please ‘the Fuhrer’.
This must have been evident on the ground too – whereas a mere 50 German soldiers had been shot for desertion during the First World War, that number ballooned to 30,000 during the Second.
It would also become evident in results:
“What mattered was winning campaigns – which the Allies had been doing since the late summer of 1942 – and then ultimately the war. This required clear strategic thinking, superbly efficient supply lines and a mastery of the operational level of war – the level that has been so often relegated in the narrative of the Second World War. However, with good strategy, and superior control and understanding of the operational level, the tactical level of warfare would, to a very large extent, sort itself out as a matter of consequence. Shooting up a few British tanks single-handedly might seem very impressive, but that wasn’t going to win the Germans the battle for Normandy, let alone the war as a whole, especially not if they were unable to manage the bigger picture very well, which they most certainly were not doing at present.”
This shows Allied leaders had absorbed the key lesson of the First World War – that the slaughter of the Western Front should not be repeated. In fact, as Alan Mallinson has argued in ‘Too Important for the Generals’, the First World War very possibly should have been fought like the Second, with an avoidance of large-scale attack right up until the end, when the Allies were finally ready.
By the time the Second World War rolled around, the trend towards increasingly specialisation that had started in the First now meant that only 14 percent of army personnel were infantry. This, combined with the fact that the Allies’ maximally-efficient supply lines ensured they got plenty of kit, led to reduced overall casualties (even if units that did see combat came off as badly damaged as they had in World War 1.)
Even if worse supplies and less-complex logistics resulted in a certain battlefield flexibility that gave the Germans an initial advantage, it was this less-glamorous-but-smarter approach that won the war for the Allies, Holland says:
“Germans always wanted to attack, but for the Tommies the priority was ‘to do harm to their enemies and take care of themselves.’ Despite the slight tone of condescension, destroying the enemy while saving the lives of one’s own side was really quite a sensible approach to war, while Pavlovian counter-attacking and incurring large numbers of losses in the process perhaps was not always the right approach. Ritgen, however, believed – like almost every fighting German – that a swift counter-attack against the British enabled them to quickly regain ground lost. The catch, though, as he admitted, was that this always incurred losses, ‘which we could not adequately replace, while the British received replacements during the night’. The military machine that could both look after its men and equipment better, and effectively make good its losses swiftly, however, was always going to be superior to the one that could not”.
By the end of the campaign, the numbers attested to the great success of the Allied approach:
“Churchill was incredulous over how so many Allied mouths could be kept regularly fed. The logistics were mind-bogglingly complicated and quite superbly executed. By 4 September, for example, the Mulberry B (one of two purpose-built harbours) had delivered 39,743 vehicles, 220,231 personnel and, in total, 517,844 tons of supplies. Then there were the beaches, which on average, collectively, continued to deliver some 16,000 tons of supplies per day. Enough fuel was provided to keep over 100,000 Allied vehicles on the road. On average a tank used 8,000 gallons of fuel a week and an entire armoured division some 60,000 per day. It was an incredible amount and yet it was provided, mostly by four ship-to-shore pipelines that were built in each beach area and which allowed a tanker to discharge 600 tons of fuel per hour. Code-named ‘Tombola’, it was another ingenious innovation.”
And it didn’t end there:
“In mid-August, the PLUTO pipeline was laid under the sea from England and also became operational. That was a further technological breakthrough, as it needed to be strong enough to withstand the pressure of lying on the sea bed while also large and sturdy enough to cope with a constant flow of fuel. The Germans, meanwhile, had focused much of their innovative energy on weapons such as the V-1s, which killed a fair number of civilians but not one combat serviceman at the front.”
The Home Front was an important ingredient in all of this. While the British and Americans had held back a large number of their own men to keep their industries going, the Germans had chosen to bolster their forces with as many of their own as possible, whilst relying on slave labour. Quite apart from being utterly barbarous, this was also much less efficient.
And on the battlefield, the Germans had also been hampered by a romantic notion of their own military greatness…
“Ritgen, like so many of his contemporaries, still believed in their aggressive tactical superiority, but this was largely because they had little else to offer and simply could not compete with the complete war effort of the Allies. It was, of course, why they were losing so badly and failing to gain any significant ground”.
…whereas the usefulness of the Allied approach must have been rapidly becoming apparent to those on the receiving end of it:
“…on 16 June the Americans attacked the high ground to the north and east of Saint-Lô, again behind a heavy artillery barrage. Shells screamed in and exploded, smashing trees, buildings and churning up the ground. Karl Wegner had welcomed the pause of the past few days, but as the shelling began he hurriedly put on his helmet and crouched at the bottom of his foxhole. When eventually the barrage stopped, the Americans pressed forward with infantry and tanks. Still in his foxhole, Wegner could not see much, but not long after Obergefreiter Kalb yelled for them all to get up and pull back. ‘One could feel the panic in the air,’ said Wegner. ‘I must admit that even I felt the Amis were right upon our heels.’ Hordes of men were hurrying towards the last bridge across the River Vire, a mile or so to their west; the road became clogged with troops and vehicles in full retreat, desperate to cross the bridge before it was blown by the engineers.”
As well as Wegner, Sergeant Bob Slaughter was also involved in this battle:
“Their attackers had been 2nd Battalion of the 116th, with the 1st Battalion and Company D on their left, pushing through Couvains. Moving up along high hedgerows, Bob Slaughter and his men crossed hurriedly abandoned German trenches until up ahead they saw the steeple of Couvains’ church. Suddenly, artillery shells and mortar fire started falling around them. Slaughter dived into a ditch for cover and when the shelling stopped he dusted himself down only to see a German arm, still in its sleeve, lying beside him. Trying not to think too hard about it, he got his men moving again and was approaching a gap in the hedgerow when he heard someone moaning.”
It was a wounded German paratrooper:
“‘Kamerad, bitte,’ mumbled the man, who, Slaughter realized, was probably as young as he (19 years old.) Back on Omaha, Slaughter had told himself not to take any prisoners, but the wounded man looked filthy and desperate. ‘That was then, this is now,’ thought Slaughter. ‘I couldn’t just shoot a wounded human being at point-blank range.’ Crouching down, he tied a tourniquet around the German’s thigh, applied sulfa powder, gave him a drink of water and lit a Lucky Strike for him.
“‘Danke,’ said the man, smiling weakly. ‘God bless. Guten luck’.”
In actual fact, the Allies didn’t need ‘guten luck’, not when they had Hitler on their side.
The obvious next move for the Americans coming out of Utah and Omaha Beaches was the storm across the Cotentin Peninsula, cutting off the Germans still holding out at the city of Cherbourg. They were on the verge of the next major battle, and the juxtaposition with the ‘calm before the storm’ was duly noted by one famous observer:
“The war reporter Ernie Pyle was touring through the newly captured part of the central Cotentin and thought the countryside truly lovely. ‘Everything was a vivid green,’ he wrote, ‘there were trees everywhere, and the view across the fields from a rise looked exactly like the rich, gentle land of eastern Pennsylvania. It was too wonderfully beautiful to be the scene of war’.”
After the initial bombing of the city, Pyle was also on the ground with the American troops who went in to mop up:
“Some men had Garand rifles, others had grenades at the ready, while several had the big Browning automatic rifles. One man carried a bazooka. Medics were interspersed among the men. They all seemed hesitant and cautious, more like the hunted than the hunters as far as Pyle could tell. ‘They weren’t warriors,’ he wrote. ‘They were American boys who by mere chance of fate had wound up with guns in their hands, sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in driving rain. They were afraid, but it was beyond their power to quit.’ As usual, Pyle was unerringly observant and spot on.
“Pyle made his own dash for it, safely reaching the street. The troops were hugging the walls on each side and he followed. Most of the house windows were shattered and there were bullets and cannon shell holes all over the place. Telephone wire lay everywhere, twisted and ugly. Some dogs suddenly tore down the street, barking and snarling. The street was winding, but soon they began to hear firing from up ahead– single shots, steady machine guns and the rapid brrupp of the German MGs. Word came back that the street had been cleared and a hospital liberated, which included a number of wounded Americans. Lieutenant Shockley, Pyle, Capa and Wertenbaker went on down the street and reached the hospital. Beyond, there appeared to be more fighting, although it was hard to tell what was happening; there would be some shooting, then an inexplicable lull, then some more.
“In a street beyond the hospital, Pyle came across two Shermans, one 50 yards beyond the other. Pyle scurried towards the lead tank and was only some 50 feet from it when it fired its 75mm gun. ‘The blast was terrific there in the narrow street,’ he recorded. ‘Glass came tinkling down from nearby windows, smoke puffed around the tank, and the empty street was shaking and trembling with the concussion.’ Pyle ducked into a doorway, figuring the enemy would likely fire back. And so they did, just as the lead Sherman was backing down the road. A yellow flame pierced the belly of the tank with an immense crash. A second shot whammed into the pavement next to it. Smoke engulfed it, but it didn’t burst into flames and a moment later the crew bailed out and sprinted manically for Pyle’s doorway. The five men were all safe and began jabbering excitedly, relieved at their lucky escape. This was the third time they had had their tank knocked out and each time it had been swiftly repaired and put back into action. They h ad named it Be Back Soon.”
In general, the Allies were very good at repairing tanks and chucking them right back into circulation – yet another reason they were winning the war of material.
And again, Hitler continued to be an impediment to German progress. It was he who, despite repeated warnings from Rommel, had insisted that his soldiers remain in Cherbourg, using their ‘iron wills’ to resist the enemy. And it was he who - again, despite Rommel’s advice to pull out of Normandy, regroup and attack at a time and place favourable to the Germans – had insisted on checking the advance in Normandy… within range of Allied naval guns.
As bad as this was, relations between Rommel and Hitler were to get even worse. Following the unsuccessful attempt by several of his own officers to kill Hitler on July 25, Rommel would eventually be implicated in the plot and forced to take poison.
But the eventual collapse of German military might doesn’t seem to have been apparent to all the men on the ground. At least, not if the attitudes of some of those at the village of Meautis, near Carentan, on the southern end of the Cotentin peninsula, is anything to go by.
The Germans there began vigorously shelling a tower US forces were using as an observation post, and…
“…(their) best sniper had racked up a growing score of dead Americans. As if to show there were no hard feelings, they prepared a large white card with naked ladies drawn on it inviting the American commander and staff to a variety show called ‘Parisian Women’ on 6 July. During the night, a patrol planted it on a stake just before the American lines. ‘The Americans,’ noted Pöppel, ‘will scarcely be able to believe their eyes when they see our little joke’.”
And at the time, it also doesn’t seem to have even been obvious to Allied leaders that they were onto a winner in the wait-and-supply model of warfare they’d adopted:
“…the bridgehead (near the Normandy beaches) was becoming immensely crowded; almost every field was covered in airfields, rear military area camps, depots and field hospitals. Southern England of May 1944 had been transported to Normandy and packed into an even smaller area. What options there were for bursting through the mass of divisions arrayed around Second Army were limited by the sprawl of Caen, now mostly lying in ruins, and large numbers of rivers that all worked against the Allied axis of advance.”
Holland recounts the tensions rising between Montgomery and his American counterparts over his slow and methodical progress. At one point, ‘Monty’ apparently made a childish comment about General Omar Bradley’s Aide de Camp being a major, because aides were meant to be mere ‘whipping boys’ and he, therefore, shouldn’t have been anything more than a captain.
That, and he insulted the American M1 helmet. Evidently, the pressure was making him a little petty.
The continued rocket attacks on London didn’t help either, since the powerful blasts that shook the city and shattered windows were a continuous reminder of the need to push through and take the launch sites.
This tension between the Allied leaders would assert itself during the most crucial portion of the campaign, and the point at which the Germans made their most costly mistake.
Continuing their practice of always counter-attacking, huge numbers of Germans ended up west of the commune of Falaise, unbeknownst to them with the Americans closing in from the south and the British and Canadians from the north. This pincer movement was, in due course, only going to cut them all off, leaving them encircled and defeated.
When they finally realised this is what was happening, a desperate attempt to escape down the narrowing corridor between the Allies was attempted, before the ‘Falaise pocket’ became a ‘Falaise circle.
One of those who swooped in to harass them while they tried to escape was Flight Sergeant Ken Adam:
“With its thick wings and huge, protruding radiator jutting from underneath the nose, the Typhoon certainly had none of the finesse and elegance of the Spitfire, but it was an extremely effective gun-platform as well as exceptionally quick. It could also carry a 1,000lb bomb, while Adam had discovered he was pretty good at firing its rockets: during training that spring he had regularly fired with an average error of 50–60 yards; with eight 60lb warheads exploding, that still created an enormous amount of damage.”
“The Typhoons took off in pairs and by the time it was Adam’s turn the dust was so thick he could barely see a thing. Such was the power of the Sabre engine that the torque from the propeller caused the aircraft to veer violently to the right unless the pilot heavily corrected the yaw by pressing down hard on the port rudder. He was well used to this foible by now, but even so, taking off, especially with such poor visibility, was a hazardous occupation and had to be done blind, using the gyro – the aircraft compass – to keep him straight.
“They immediately climbed steeply and turned northwards, out to sea. Normally Adam could see the silver barrage balloons shielding the Mulberry harbour glinting in the sun, but not that morning: Normandy was draped in soft, grey cloud. Merrett took them to 8,000 feet, then they turned and flew inland once more. Circling over their patrol area, they soon spotted a cluster of scattered enemy transport – trucks, lorries and smaller vehicles – so Merrett led them down, their engines screaming, plunging at nearly 600 m.p.h.
“As they hurtled over the enemy vehicles, Adam released half his rockets, two at time, and pressed his thumb down on the gun button. Their efforts were clearly striking home. Balls of flame and columns of thick, black smoke erupted into the sky. All eight Typhoons managed to escape the fray and climbed once more before attacking a wood they thought might be hiding more enemy equipment. Firing their remaining rockets, they left it in flames. Looking back, Adam saw smoke rising high into the sky. A little over ten minutes later, all eight aircraft were touching back down again at B-7.”
From the Allied point of view, the tragedy was simply that they couldn’t get more Germans before they got away, and there were disagreements about whether or not the British and Canadians should have moved more quickly.
Interviewed on the Thames Television series ‘The World at War’, Major General David Belchem, who was on General Montgomery’s staff, said of the affair:
“There were very great practical difficulties, in this closing of the Falaise gap quickly and it was difficult for the one side – British, Canadian, Polish – to appreciate the point of view of the other side, the Americans. We were coming down from the north, launched from the congested, bombed and difficult areas of the Caen sector; secondly, the Germans facing us on that north side of the corridor they were trying to keep open for their escape were in areas where they had been fighting against us for two months or more. The Americans were coming up to meet us from the south in more open country, and against much less prepared and organised German resistance.”
The American Major General J Lawton Collins told the same program:
“Had the British and Canadian forces been able to move faster, we might have trapped many more Germans in the Falaise Pocket. Very little of their equipment got out, but quite a number of the Germans were able to escape toward the Seine river and this was too bad. I think perhaps the basic reason was that Britain had been in the war for much longer than we and had taken very heavy casualties and the Americans were fresh, and they had had practically no casualties in comparison. So while we were anxious to drive forward, and were not too concerned about the casualties, as long as we could get our objectives, it was natural, I think, that the British and Canadian forces did it in a more orderly, pacing way – and, perhaps this was part of Monty’s characteristics and one of his drawbacks. In other words, he never did quite drive the way the American commanders did. This was part of his nature I guess – he was a more cautious man, combined with the fact that he couldn’t afford the casualties that we could take if it was necessary to take them.”
What he doesn’t say here is that Montgomery was also shadowed by the ghost of the First World War, in which Britain had lost close to a staggering one million lives, compared to the roughly 117,000 deaths sustained by the Americans.
Furthermore, Holland points out that, in the days before NATO and the US accounting for around 50 percent of the spending that goes into it, the British were mindful of keeping enough troops alive as a bulwark against what they must have feared was the soon-to-be-Russian-dominated Europe. The US could go home after the war; the British would be left with this new threat on their doorstep.
Having said that, American spending and industrial might was certainly behind many of the hammer blows now falling on the Germans, and the British – weary after six years of war – were surely grateful for that:
“The full might of American industry, begun a mere four years earlier after a series of meetings between President Roosevelt and certain leading captains of industry, had in barely comprehensible rapid time transformed itself into a Titan of mighty war-materiel manufacturing. It was unprecedented in world history and utterly remarkable. For the Germans, it must have seemed as though the American forces were like some horrific Hydra’s head; no matter how many Nebelwerfer rounds they fired, or how many 88s or Panthers or machine guns they dragged into the battle, there were yet more Americans coming towards them… (and it was) the incredible Allied logistical system ensured those vital bits of equipment, as well as the engineers and service corps to man and oversee such work, were readily and swiftly available.”
And it was these continued hammer blows, delivered by the Americans, the Brits and the Canadians, that resulted in 300,000 German casualties to only 209,000 Allied losses (roughly 10 percent of the more than 2 million brought across the Channel) during the Battle of Normandy.
They may not have got as many Germans trapped as they wanted, but the might of the industrial Allied war machine soon closed the Falaise gap, and with it the Battle of Normandy.
Next stop, Paris.
For more, read ‘Normandy ’44: D-Day and the Battle for France’ by James Holland. You can pick up a copy from Bantam Press, part of Penguin Books, or search for it (including the audio book) on Amazon.
For illustrated accounts of the battle, read ‘Normandy 1944: Allied Landings and Breakout’ by Stephen Badsey, ‘Cherbourg 1944: The First Allied Victory in Normandy’ by Steven J Zaloga and ‘Caen 1944: Montgomery’s Break-Out Attempt’ by Ken Ford. For more illustrated military history, visit Osprey Publishing.