Part 1, The Buildup

THE DECISION TO GO

“If they attack in the west,” Adolf Hitler had said in December 1943, “that will decide the war.”

 

This was no exaggeration. Over the past three years, the Germany had lost heavily. The Eastern Front had consumed an army, and the Russians, who had taken higher losses, were still advancing: Between the invasion of Russia in June 1941 and June 1944, the Germans lost 2,002,079 men in the east. In addition, between March and May 1944, they lost another 150,000 men in the aftermath of the Allied landings in Italy. The only respite Germany could get was to defeat "Overlord" when it came.

 

Hitler believed that if the invasion was thwarted in 1944, then the Allies would be forced to wait for another year before trying again, giving the Germans enough time finish off the Russians. By then, Hitler argued, secret weapons and the Me262 jet fighters would be coming off the production lines in sufficient numbers, enabling his forces to beat back the western allies, when they returned in 1945.

 

Yet, when Field Marshal Jodl (Hitler’s Chief of Staff) toured the western defenses in January 1944, he found it alarmingly inadequate. The touted Atlantic wall was incomplete. Jodl also found that every division in France had been depleted in the constant diversion of manpower to the Eastern Front. The Germans had a total of 59 divisions in the France and the Low countries by the time of the invasion. Seventeen of those were south of the Seine, in Normandy and Brittany. But of these 17, only eight were in along the Normandy coastline or in position to counter the invasion.

Among these was the 12th SS Hitler Youth division, which had a manpower strength of nearly 20,500 troops and 66 Panther tanks, which made it one of the strongest divisions in Europe – on any side.

What did these men think they were doing, wearing the uniform of a regime which saw them as racial inferiors?

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox" of North African fame inspects some of the troops Germany has deployed on the Atlantic Wall, except these men are from the Free Indian Legion, recruited from British-Indian Army prisoners of war. In a series of pictures captured of the incident, Rommel appears bemused by these men. This photo taken on February 10, 1944. The unit which hardly saw any combat was later responsible for war crimes. Bundesarchiv

Interspersed between the average and elite were approximately 75,000 Russian and Polish “volunteers” press-ganged into German uniform. Von Rundstedt was unimpressed. “The Russians constitute a menace and a nuisance to operations,” he wrote.

 

The Germans attempted to excise these unreliable eastern troops from the battlezone in the days before D-Day and General Gunther Blumentritt noted shortly before D-Day that only four of these Ost Truppen battalions remained with LXXXIV Korps and only two of these were committed in the coast front. “One battalion, which was noted for its trustworthiness, was committed on the left wing of 716th Infantry Division, at the request of this division,” he said. “The other Russian Battalion was committed on the west coast of the Cotentin Peninsular.”

 

The first was the 441st Ost Battalion which was deployed at Meuavanias in what would become the “Gold” sector, with a thousand Russian troops and 270 German officers and NCOs.

 

The 716th Division itself was slovenly and lethargic, having been deployed in Normandy since March 1942. It had no combat experience and was weak with only 7,771 men, including the men from two Ost Battalions: 642 and 439. However, at a long stretch of beach which reminded the Germans of Salerno where the Allied had landed in 1943, Rommel had deployed the 352nd Infantry Division, a hardened formation made up of Russian front veterans under Lt-General Hugo Kraiss. Made up over 12,700 first-rate troops, the division manned, since May 1944, an extensive defensive network comprising anti-tank barriers, bunkers, cannons and heavy weapons, some of which was set on high-bluffs overlooking was to become “Omaha Beach.”

The presence of the division in this position was one of the great intelligence failures of World War II. It was not that the Allies did not know the 352nd was in Normandy, but they thought it was occupying ground near St. Lo, further inland. Instead, its two infantry battalions stretched from the Vire to Arromanches, while its heavy weapons, including 14 Marder 38s and 10 Sturmgeschütz III’s of Panzerjäger-Abteilung 352 waited at Birciquiville and Chateau Colombieres about 15 km south of Pointe du Hoc and the divisional artillery comprising new 105mm and 150mm guns waited behind the coastline.

Lt-General Hugo KraissBundesarchiv

German formations in the west before D-Day

The Germany Army in western Europe on the eve of D-Day. History tells us that many of German units in the west were static formations, made up of second-class troops. It is not altogether an imprecise assessment. Most of the divisions that the Germans deployed to hold its western European conquests were composed of troops which  had never seen combat. But the data also shows several elite units deployed in the west, such as the panzer and SS panzer divisions, some of which had been bled white in Russia. There were also some elite paratrooper divisions, none of which had seen battle but would prove highly motivated in combat. © Author

Germans scatter as an Allied fighter buzzes a part of the Normandy coast where beach obstacles (aka Rommel's asparagus) have been set up to contest the Allied invasion when it came.

The Allies feared that the choice of Normandy was obvious – not without justification. Rommel, for one, suspected that the invasion would materialize in Normandy, as did Hitler, who had a premonition of the landings in Normandy. Rommel had envisioned two defensive belts along the coastline: three lines of narrow-band obstacles on the beaches covered by defensive units (which Eisenhower termed as a “one of the worst problems of the days”) and strongpoints up to five miles inland, but which were largely incomplete in several sectors, including at “Omaha.” However, the Germans had access to reserves. Of the 17 divisions based in southern France, most would be on their way to Normandy within a month, including three panzer divisions and one SS panzergrenadier division.

 

These calculations rendered Churchill and Eisenhower visibly apprehensive in the days before the assault began. This coupled with bad weather strove to create more headaches. D-Day was originally intended to take place on June 5. But on June 1, the summer’s warm and sunny weather broke into a tumult of rain. Visibility was poor and heavy winds began to whip up five-foot swells in the English Channel. Then at 9.30 pm on June 4, Eisenhower called a meeting with his commanders, there RAF Group Captain James Stagg – the head of the RAF’s meteorological department – offered the supreme commander a glimmer of hope. Reports from weather ships indicated that a brief period of clear would begin from the early hours of June 6.

 

Eisenhower faced a hard decision. The fates of thousands of men weighed on his mind.  Wrong decision would not only consign many to their deaths but could even result in the failure of the landings. Of the four primary amphibious assaults carried out in the western hemisphere, two had been problematic, which was worrisome especially as these two were the most recent. The first, the landings in Vichy French Morocco had been within expectations, as had the Sicilian invasion in 1943. The landing at Salerno had been less stellar and the worst had been the Anzio landings, where the landing forces floundered on the beach due to indecisiveness on the part of their commander. Churchill had been prompted to comment that “I hoped we were hurling a wild cat onto the shire but all we got was a stranded whale.”

 

The stakes were high. To fail at Normandy could mean, as Hitler believed, an end to the Allied dreams of a second front in western Europe.

 

To Eisenhower’s dismay, his deputy Air Chief Marshal Tedder was unenthusiastic about launching the invasion on June5/6, arguing that effective air support needed good visibility. However, both navy and army chiefs were willing to go through with the invasion.

 

“I would say go,” was Montgomery’s verdict. A final meeting was called at 4 am on the next day, June 5, and Eisenhower gave his consent, saying: “OK, let’s go.”

 

Almost immediately, from ports all along the southern coast of England, the great armada – nearly 7,000 ships, from battleships to motor torpedo boats, from large troop transports to tanking landing ships – started to pull out towards to the Channel and France. In all, there were 4,126 landing ships and 1,213 naval combat ships, plus cargo and auxiliaries.

Normandy Britain Troops-01.jpg

As they headed out, Montgomery’s voice could be heard over the radio: “On the eve of this great adventure, I send my best wishes to every soldier in the Allied camp…To us is given the honor of striking a blow for freedom, which will live in history. And in the better days that lie ahead, men will speak with pride of our doing. We have a great and a righteous cause, [and] with stout heart and enthusiasm for the contest let us go forward to victory.”

D-Day Men embark on landing craft

War correspondent Ernie Pyle (pictured above (NYT Photo), who was accompanying the naval armada, described the scene:

 

As we came down, the English Channel was crammed with forces going both ways, and as I write it still is. Minesweepers had swept wide channels for us, all the way from England to France. These were marked with buoys. Each channel was miles wide. We surely saw there before us more ships than any human had ever seen before at one glance…As far as you could see in every direction, the ocean was infested with ships. There must have been every type of oceangoing vessel in the world. There were battleships and all other kinds of warships clear down to patrol boats. There were great fleets of Liberty ships. There were fleets of luxury liners turned into troop transports, and fleets of big landing craft and tank carriers and tankers. And in and out through it all were nondescript ships – converted yachts, riverboats, tugs, and barges.

Men of the US 5th Engineer Special Brigade embark on on a Higgins LCVP using the portside ramp of LCI(L)-497 at Weymouth. (US National Archives)

I am reminded of the Red Buttons character in the movie, "The Longest Day," saying to himself over and over: "Bonjour, mademoiselle. Je suis Americain."

Troops of 51st Highland Division entertain themselves over a familiarization brochure on France issued by their unit shortly before the invasion. This photo was taken on 7 June 1944, a day after D-Day. IWM  B 5207

As night fell on June 5, the sea armada was by now across the Channel. It now lay in wait under the cover of darkness, counting off the hours until 6 am – the scheduled time for the naval landings to begin.

 

In England, British and American paratroopers began to file into their C-47 transports and their gliders. At the 101st Airborne Division’s camp at Greenham Common, Eisenhower suddenly appeared.

 

Speaking the airborne as they stood erect, their faces blackened, their bodies festooned with the kit of war, Eisenhower began asking them questions and wondered if there was anyone there from Kansas, his home state. Word later emerged that Eisenhower had been compelled to see the men, whom he believed he was sending to their deaths. He had expected massive casualties among the paratroopers, a fear fed by the Leigh-Mallory who on May 30 had been trying to get Eisenhower to cancel the airborne landings.

 

“Casualties to glider troops would be 90 percent before they ever reached the ground. The killed and wounded among the paratroops would be 75 percent,” Leigh-Mallory had allegedly said, according to Eisenhower’s book Crusade in Europe. It was a statistic which haunted Eisenhower. Val Lauder, a newspaperman who was with the general later told friends that Eisenhower had tears in his eyes.

 

That night, 822 aircraft, carrying paratroopers or towing the gliders, roared over the naval forces and headed to the Normandy landing zones. They were only a fraction of the air armada of 10,000 aircraft that would support D-Day. It was only a matter of hours before Eisenhower learned how successful they would be.    

DECEPTION

The destines of the invaders may not have been certain but the Allies were not content to leave them without an extra measure of protection, in this case, a ruse to prevent the Germans from rushing reinforcements to Normandy.

 

Strange goings-on began in the south of England. At Dover, the shore sprouted elaborate jetties, oil storage tanks, pipelines and anti-aircraft guns – all designed by the eminent architect Basil Spence. But Spence’s creations were fake, designed to fit the criteria of Operation “Fortitude” – an Allied campaign to simulate a build-up of forces across from Pas de Calais while disguising the real troop concentration in the south of England.

 

As part of the operation, the Allies placed General Sir Andrew Thorne in command of a fictitious British Fourth Army in Scotland, with wireless traffic to simulate a British II Corps around Stirling and a VII Corps around Dundee. But the real jewel in the crown was the creation of the US 1st Army Group in southeast England, in the vicinity of the Dover area. This fabricated unit was placed under the command of US Lt-General George S Patton, one of America’s most famous generals, with an order of battle (all fictitious) even greater than that of the Montgomery’s 21st Army Group which was bound for Normandy.

German map of Britain in 1944

A German map purporting to "fix" the location of Allied divisions in Britain before D-Day. The map, which is rife with errors, shows the extent of the collapse of the German intelligence network in Britain and how much the Germans were deceived by Operation "Fortitude."

British troops pump air into an inflatable tank model to deceive German air reconnaissance. IWM

The destines of the invaders may not have been certain but the Allies were not content to leave them without an extra fighting chance. A ruse was engaged to prevent the Germans from rushing reinforcements to Normandy and it involved some strange goings-on in the south of England.

 

At Dover, the shore sprouted elaborate jetties, oil storage tanks, pipelines and anti-aircraft guns – all designed by the eminent architect Basil Spence. But Spence’s creations were fake, designed to fit the criteria of Operation “Fortitude” – an Allied campaign to simulate a build-up of forces across from Pas de Calais while disguising the real troop concentration in the south of England.

 

As part of the operation, the Allies placed General Sir Andrew Thorne in command of a fictitious British Fourth Army in Scotland, with wireless traffic to simulate a British II Corps around Stirling and a VII Corps around Dundee.

 

But the real jewel in the crown was the creation of the US 1st Army Group in southeast England, in the vicinity of the Dover area. This fabricated unit was placed under the command of US Lt-General George S Patton, one of America’s most famous generals, with an order of battle (all fictitious) even greater than that of the Montgomery’s 21st Army Group which was bound for Normandy.

Equipped with a massive array of dummy landing craft, vehicles, camps, tanks shaped balloons, even cardboard airplanes; the group was aided by the American 303rd Signals Battalion, whose wireless traffic gave the Germans an invaluable stream of false information.

 

Although treated with much skepticism by the Americans, threat of this phantom army prompted the Germans to concentrate eight infantry divisions in the Pas de Calais area.

So convinced were several German generals and advisors that the real blow would fall in or near Calais that German a report from Rommel’s headquarters to OB West dated 10 July 1944, more than a month after D-Day, stated that: “The enemy has at present 35 divisions in the landing area. In Great Britain another sixty are standing-to, fifty of which may at any moment be transferred to the continent… We shall have to reckon with large-scale landings of the 1st US Army Group in the north for strategic cooperation with Montgomery’s Army Group in a thrust in Paris.”

And then there was Lt. M E Clifton James.

 

A lowly officer in the British Army Pay Corps and an aspiring actor, the greatest role that James ever played was that of impersonating General Montgomery. A close match for "Monty," James became part of an elaborate web of deception woven to clock D-Day. Recruited by British Intelligence after he was spotted doing a stage impersonation of the General, James was coached on "Monty's mannerisms, his sense of dress and brusque speaking style. 

On May 25, 1944, came James' first real test. He was flown by RAF Northolt in Britain to Gibraltar in Churchill's private airliner, where he met the Governor-General. The talks revolved around Plan 303, a plan to invade southern France. The information made its way to the Germans. Following this, James then flew to Algiers where he met with General Maitland Wilson, the Allied commander of the Mediterranean Theatre of War. After this followed a jaunt to Egypt where he would stay until well after the Normandy invasion was begun. The British logic was clear. If Britain's premier General was in North Africa, the Germans would not suspect that he was in Britain, planning the invasion.

Postwar research found that German generals believed that James was Montgomery, even if they did not believe his reasons for being in North Africa.

Beyond the long-con of “Fortitude,” a series of decoys and tricks engaged into high-gear on the night of June 5 and early towards the dawn. One of these was the brainchild of a team of scientists under Robert Cockburn.

 

To decoy the 100 German radar stations dotting the French and Belgian coast capable of picking up the allied invasion fleet as it headed for Normandy, Allied planes began to dump bundles of chaff (or “Window” as it was known then) at low altitude to form a ship-sized cloud that disappeared into the water after spreading out, only to be replaced by another cloud of Window. Most of the bundles were dropped near the Pas de Calais area.

 

One of the simulated fleets, codenamed “Taxable,” consisted of eight Lancaster bombers moving towards Le Havre, 50 km (31 miles) northeast of Caen, while the second, codename “Glimmer,” consisted of six bombers moving towards Boulogne, 30 km (18.5 miles) southwest of Calais. The bombers simulated a surface fleet by flying a racetrack pattern about 22 km (14 miles) long at a speed of 290 km/h (180 mph). The crews, meantime, dispensed Window on a precisely set time schedule to ensure that Window clouds advanced at a rate consistent with a naval fleet.

 

Aircraft with “Mandrel” Jammers accompanied the two “fleets,” and by purposely operating at low power enabled the Germans to penetrate their jamming. The aircraft were also accompanied by small naval launches, towing floats that were in turn affixed with nine-meter (118 ft) long barrage balloons, known as “Filberts.”

The balloons carried three-meter (39 ft) diameter radar reflectors that produced radar echoes similar to that of large troop ships. British signal operators onboard the naval launches began to pick up German air patrols on their radars about midnight, but these air patrols for ineffective, for the German pilots were restricted in their movements by being relegated to the French coast.

 

At a time when the Luftwaffe could have made all the difference by conducting air reconnaissance flights over the port of southern England, it chose not do so. When the deception fleets approached to about 16 km (10 miles) offshore from their targets, smoke screens were set up and sounds of a large fleet in operation were played over big loudspeakers. Cockburn’s plan had paid off, and the Germans were deceived. Elsewhere, RAF bombers released Window and even dummy parachutists – little dolls attached to parachutes that looked like real paratroopers from a distance, which added to the confusion.

 

The bad weather also played a role in dissuading the Germans that an invasion would materialize. When the BBC warned the French resistance of the impending invasion by broadcasting the lines from the Paul Verlaine poem: Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone (The violins of autumn wound my heart with monotonous languor), the German 15th Army in the Pas de Calais area went on high alert.

 

But Rommel’s headquarters at Army Group B did nothing.

Lt Clifton James in the garb of Montgomery.

THE ROLE OF THE FRENCH RESISTANCE

Even as the Germans struggled to collate accurate intelligence on the situation in Britain, the Allies had an invaluable information gathering service in the form of an army in the shadows, the French resistance, although recent literature raised the interesting point of whether we should call these the French Resistance or resistance in France.

What is indisputable is that the effectiveness of some groups was questionable, and many groups had been infiltrated and smashed by the Germans, as had Allied spy networks run by Britain Special Operations Executive (SOE). Just how effective was the French resistance on D-Day? By D-Day, there were an estimated 100,000 people in the resistance (about 10% were women), waiting for the call to arms. When it came, they went into action, cutting telephone lines, destroying railways tracks, gathering critical information about German movements to the frontline, and in many cases, doing their best to hinder the movement of German forces into Normandy.

The French Resistance Plan for D-Day

  1. Plan Vert: Sabotaging the railway system.

  2. Plan Tortue: Sabotaging the road network.

  3. Plan Violet: Destroying phone lines.

  4. Plan Bleu: Destroying power lines.

  5. Plan Rouge: Attacking German ammunition dumps.

  6. Plan Noir: Attacking enemy fuel depots.

  7. Plan Jaune: Attacking the command posts of the occupying forces

"Plan Vert" was particularly effective. The Resistance destroyed 577 railroads and 1,500 locomotives, three-quarters of the trains available in northern France. As part of "Plan Tortue," they also destroyed 30 roads and, in concert with British bombers, destroyed 18 of the 24 bridges over the northern stretch of the River Seine.

As D-Day approached, resistance fighters began to cooperate closely with British SOE and American Jedburgh teams. After the Allied invasion transpired, some resistance attempted conventional combat operations, which resulted in casualties and triggered hunt and destroy operations by the Germans which routed several cells.

However, the presence of the resistance in Normandy itself was limited and many Allied units which landed on D-Day would later complain that the coastal villages and towns were full of collaborators feeding information to the Germans.

US Generals Dwight D Eisenhower and Omar Bradley speak with a young member of the French resistance in the American sector of lower Normandy in the summer of 1944. US National Archives

French Resistance Groups.jpg

More alarmingly is how the resisters were revised in postwar French history are a bonafide army whose contribution to Normandy campaign and the liberation of France was greater than the Allied armies themselves. This was a result of the machinations of Charles De Gaulle, or ("Joan of Arc" in trousers as Churchill called him), who sought a means to exorcise the trauma of defeat and occupation from the French history of the war years.

This means downsizing the number of collaborators in France, which amounted to a vast majority of the population while reinventing those in the resistance as an army in waiting.

 

As the historian Robert Gildea wrote: "It was a founding myth that allowed the French to reinvent themselves and hold their heads high in the post-war period. There were several elements to this narrative. First, that there was a continuous thread of resistance, beginning on 18 June 1940, when an isolated de Gaulle in London issued his order to resist via the BBC airwaves, and reaching its climax on 26 August 1944, when he marched down the Champs-Élysées, acclaimed by the French people. Second, that while a ‘handful of wretches’ had collaborated with the enemy, a minority of active resisters had been supported in their endeavors by the vast majority of the French people. A third element was that, although the French were indebted to the Allies and some foreign resisters for their military assistance, the French had liberated themselves and restored national honor, confidence and unity."

However, the truth was a bit more complex, but that is another story.

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