The Greatest Endeavour
THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY, 1944
Swirling clouds of yellow Norman dust cling to the roads as the Typhoon squadron thunders its way past the coastline, down a flat river valley. Ahead, on the horizon is Caen, the great city where William the Conqueror had begun his victorious journey across the channel more than 875 years ago. The city is now a smoking ruin after bombs had rained down in the early hours of that day, June 6, 1944.
A pilot spots German tanks on a sprawl of verdant landscape and a phrase which will soon become ubiquitous over Normandy is heard: “Jerry armor. Nine o’clock low. Going down!”
Armed with rockets, the British fighters peel off formation and dive, white streaks of tracers blaze past as German flak open up. One pilot, fixated by sight of the awesome fireworks, is hit. His port wing comes tearing away. The Typhoon goes straight in before he can bail out. At that moment, the first of the Allied rockets zoom down towards the hapless Germans.
On the receiving end, SS Colonel Kurt “Panzer” Meyer, commander of the 25th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment, 33 years old and ramrod-straight, stares. At 4 pm, Meyer had been ordered to detach his mechanized infantry regiment, itself part of the elite 12th SS “Hitler Jugend” (Hitler Youth) Panzer Division, and head for Caen to reinforce the defensive line there. It was while racing towards the front that they had been hit. Rockets and cannon-fire rip into the Meyer’s troops, shredding infantry to pieces and penetrating the metal skins of the light vehicles. Caught in a narrow sunken road surrounded by bocage, evasion is impossible.
A young grenadier lies on the road, blood jetting from his veins.
“Murder! Murder!” cries an old French woman who comes running towards Meyer.
Unable to speak, the panzergrenadier dies in Meyer’s arms. Nearby a Schwimmwagen carrying ammunition explodes, blocking the road. Plumes of smoke and fire rocket up into the sky. The SS gather their wounded, push the rubble aside and move on. To stop is to invite death.
None among the Germans knew with any certainty what was going on. There had been scattered reports of firefights with paratroopers the night before. The engine noises of hundreds of unknown aircraft had punctuated the darkness. With daylight had come reports of thousands of Allied ships gathering in the early dawn gloom of the bay. Then the Allied bombers and fighters had come, gnat-like and ferocious. Bombs and cannon shells had pockmarked what appeared to be the whole of northern France. The worst hit was the capital city of Caen. By dusk, Meyer would be writing that the city was a sea of flames. But that was later.
The Germans did not know that the city was the primary objective of British forces streaming off the beachhead, nine miles to the north. Senior commanders were befuddled by the landings. Some believed they were a feint. Only the Allies knew with certainty and with a sense of retrospection that the landings were the culmination of two years of stuttering and pioneering amphibious operations in Europe and the Mediterranean. They had refined their naval landings to an art, turning it into an orchestral undertaking where land, sea and air forces operated as one.
Two years of combined operations had taught the Allies how to set up a beachhead, but what happened inland was the great gamble. The Allied generals believed that if they pushed enough men ashore with enough armor that the day could be won. But Caen, the primary objective of D-Day, was a heap of rubble. The Germans would later recognize that it had been egregious mistake to the bomb the city. They moved quickly to fortify the wreckage of the urban sprawl where bombed-out streets would hinder the progress of tanks and infantry. Other German forces moved to occupy the fields, the hedgerows and the picturesque Norman country towns and villages as night fell.
The German dictator, Adolf Hitler, was strangely euphoric when told about the landings. “The news couldn’t be better. As long as they were in Britain, we couldn’t get at them. Now we have them where we can destroy them,” he said, and began issuing orders to mobilize his army for battle.
The Allies had arrived in Normandy, but there would no easy victory here. Only something wrapped up in bloodshed, sacrifice and the stuff of mythology.
“The news couldn’t be better. As long as they were in Britain, we couldn’t get at them. Now we have them where we can destroy them.” Adolf Hitler.
Says the lunatic
Beneath the prophetic lettering on the canvas of his tent, Private Clyde N Dunkle of Pennsylvania cleans his Springfield rifle before D-Day. IWM EA 25369.
Much before D-Day, the Allies had been fighting a brutal war of attrition with the Germans for supremacy of the skies over Europe. By D-Day, the Germans had been all but driven from the skies, but the battles still raged on – mainly between the air chiefs and the army about how best air power should be used.
During the planning stage of "Overlord," precedence is assigned to the initial landings and the assault. Little is done to study the problem of fighting in the thick snarl of hedgerows which made up the bocage. It is an oversight which the Allies will come to regret.
Moving off the Beach
A Disaster at Villers-Bocage
The First Big Push: Epsom
Wrapping up the Cotentin
Caen, The Crucible
The failure of several military offensives prompts the British to concentrate on taking the city of Caen directly. Although Caen was earmarked for capture of the first day of the invasion, a panzer division had got in the way and so the bloodbath had begun.
Caen had bled the British-Canadian forces. The momentum passes to US Army on the west flank, who, facing a skein of Germans, smash out of the bocage nightmare of the Cotentin peninsula.
A Cobra in Normandy
Sweeping into Little Switzerland
Luttich Strikes Back
The Biggest Push of them All
Holding a Broken Line
An Army Dies
Bibliography, Credits & Appendices
While all of this is largely a one-man operation, here is a list of all reference works used, plus a shout-out to the sources who helped me complete this project.
A three-year on and off project comes to an end in the following webpages. Over 40 maps made, dozens of books read and nearly 80k words written. Will the final execution reflect the images in my mind?