‘What’s your most valuable possession?’ General Montgomery asked a soldier just before D-Day. ‘My rifle, sir,’ came the reply. ‘No, it isn’t,’ Monty replied; ‘it’s your life, and I’m going to save it for you.’ Although of course any large-scale amphibious landing on the heavily defended coastline of north-western Europe would be a major risk, the Allies did everything they possibly could to minimize military casualties through the employment of overwhelming force. This had the effect of hugely increasing the already high stakes, because a major defeat in Normandy in June 1944 would almost certainly have had the effect of the United States abandoning the Germany First policy, and turning to the Pacific War instead. Amphibious operations had not had a rosy history in the Second World War so far, let alone earlier. The 1940 attempted landing at Dakar and the 1942 attack on Dieppe had been disasters; Salerno and Anzio had been near-disasters; Torch had been extremely lucky with the tides and anyway had not been undertaken against the Germans. Further back, Gallipoli haunted the minds of many, not least its prime author, Churchill.
Yet the Normandy landings were going to be different because the planners – initially under Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Morgan at COSSAC (the London-based organization of the Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander) – would ensure total air and sea supremacy, would interdict German counter-attack through bombing and airborne assault, and would land truly vast numbers of men – twenty-five divisions by the end of June 1944 and a further fourteen on their way – along with a massive preponderance of war matériel. American war production would be displayed to full effect. Even on top of all that, however, luck would be required. ‘We shall require all the help that God can give us,’ the commander of all naval forces for the operation, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, noted in his diary the night before. ‘I cannot believe that this will not be forthcoming.’ In Führer Directive No. 51 of 3 November 1943, Hitler had stated:
The danger in the East remains, but a greater threatens to the West – the Anglo-Saxon landings. In the East, in the worst scenario, the vast size of the territory allows a loss of ground even on the large scale without delivering us a mortal blow. But it is different in the West!… It is there that the enemy has to attack, there – if we are not deceived – that the decisive landing battles will be fought.
These battles, he told his Führer-conferences from the summer of 1943 onwards, would be decisive not only for the invasion itself, but for the outcome of the war. ‘We have to be on guard like a spider in his web,’ he said on 20 May 1943, adding, ‘Thank God, I have a good nose for such things and can usually anticipate these developments beforehand.’ Enormous amounts of work had already been put into the German fortifications in France known as the Atlantic Wall over the previous eighteen months, with an estimated two million slave labourers working for two years, pouring 18 million tons of concrete to create deep bunkers and impressive fortifications, many of which can still be seen today. Mines were laid in the water and on the beaches, anti-glider poles made from tree trunks, known as Rommel’s asparagus, were dug into fields. Rommel had been given command of Army Group B in January 1944, charged with defending France from invasion. This role clashed with that of Rundstedt, Commander-in-Chief West, who moreover took a fundamentally different view from Rommel, who advocated a concentration of defensive forces on the coast.
The one person who never wavered in his conviction that the Allies would land in Normandy was Hitler himself. ‘Watch Normandy,’ he said to Rundstedt many times, injunctions which both Rundstedt and his chief of staff General Günther Blumentritt confirmed to Basil Liddell Hart after the war. From March 1944 onwards, Blumentritt recalled, Rundstedt’s staff ‘received repeated warnings about it, starting with the words “The Führer fears…” ’ Neither man knew what had led Hitler to his conclusion, but, as Liddell Hart acknowledged, ‘It would seem that Hitler’s much derided “intuition” was nearer the mark than the calculations of the ablest professional soldiers.’
To mislead the enemy about one’s intentions, capabilities and operations is a strategy as old as military theory itself: the ancient Chinese strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu himself taught that ‘All warfare is based on deception.’ Even if a great deal of the Allied deception activity relied on flummery as much as it did on genuinely worthwhile activity, nothing can detract from the triumph of Operations Fortitude North and Fortitude South in the months before D-Day, which left Hitler stationing hundreds of thousands of men in Norway, Holland, Belgium and the Pas de Calais, rather than on the Normandy beaches where the blow was always going to come, ever since its first inception as a serious plan in the spring of 1942. The two Fortitude operations constitute the most successful deception plan in the history of warfare. These elaborate operations had been put in place by the Allies years earlier. Twice as many reconnaissance flights, interdiction raids and bombing missions took place over the Pas de Calais as over Normandy. The First US Army Group (FUSAG), commanded by General Patton and visited by King George VI, was simply invented and stationed across the Channel from Calais. It came complete with dummy tanks (made from rubber by Shepperton film studios’ set designers), false headquarters, fabricated landing-craft, camp stoves that smoked and even concealed lighting on the airfields. The Germans could not believe that a commander of Patton’s eminence would have been wasted by the Allies on a ruse (indeed Patton could not believe it himself). Very soon his period of disgrace over the slapping incident would be over, however.
By May 1944, the Abwehr estimated there were seventy-nine divisions stationed in Britain, when the true figure was forty-seven. False wireless traffic was sent out in East Anglia. An armada of dummy landing craft and tanks was assembled in the Thames Estuary. An actor was sent to Gibraltar prior to the Normandy landings to pose as Montgomery – complete with the initials BLM monogrammed on to his khaki handkerchiefs. He made a special study of the general he was impersonating, and noticed what a consummate actor Monty was too. (A very observant Axis agent in Gibraltar might, however, have spotted that Monty’s double was missing a middle finger.) On D-Day itself the chaff codenamed Window was dropped off the Pas de Calais in such a way that it seemed to German radar that a massive armada was approaching. These many, varied, sometimes convoluted yet often brilliant schemes saved tens of thousands of lives.
In trying to predict the place where the Allies would land, the Abwehr assumed that a major port would be required to bring in all the necessary logistical supplies, such as petrol, whereas in fact two vast artificial quays known as Mulberry Harbours were going to be shipped out from Devon and sunk in the sea off two of the Normandy invasion beaches. ‘They required 600,000 tons of concrete (the weight of more than two thousand two storey houses) and 1.5 million yards of steel shuttering,’ records Martin Gilbert. ‘To build them, 20,000 men were employed working in eight dry docks.’ Furthermore a rubber hose codenamed PLUTO (for Pipeline Under The Ocean) would pump petrol from the Isle of Wight 80 miles along the floor of the English Channel to Cherbourg. In all, 172 million gallons were to flow down it.
There were nerve-wracking moments for British intelligence as well as the Abwehr, however. On 1 June an answer to the Daily Telegraph’s crossword puzzle clue ‘Britannia and he hold the same thing’ was ‘Neptune’, because the Roman personification of Britain and the god of the sea Neptune both hold tridents. Yet Neptune was also the codename for the naval part of Overlord. Since 2 May, other answers had included ‘Utah’ and ‘Omaha’ (the codenames of the two beaches the Americans were to land on), as well as ‘Overlord’ and ‘Mulberry’. The crossword setter, Leonard Dawe, a fifty-four-year-old headmaster of Strand School, which had been evacuated to Effingham in Surrey, had a brother-in-law serving in the Admiralty, and it took MI5 some time before they accepted the surprising truth that the choices had been entirely serendipitous. ‘They turned me inside out,’ recalled Dawe in a BBC interview in 1958. Various pupils of his have since claimed to have inspired the clues, using words they had overheard at a nearby Canadian military base.
‘The tide has turned!’ stated Eisenhower’s exclamation-mark-studded Order of the Day on Tuesday, 6 June 1944, distributed to all Allied troops by SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force). ‘The free men of the world are marching together to victory! I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory! Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.’ Along with the surprise they achieved, the sheer size of the Normandy landings was key to their success. Although the first day itself – codenamed D-Day, the D simply standing for Day – involved fewer troops going ashore than Husky had in Sicily, overall they were the largest amphibious landings in world history by far, altogether comprising 6,939 vessels – of which around 1,200 were warships and 4,000 were 10-ton wooden landing craft capable of an upper speed of 8 knots – 11,500 aircraft and two million men. On the first day 5,000 vessels sailed, including five battleships, twenty-three cruisers, seventy-nine destroyers, thirty-eight frigates and other warships, as well as a reserve of 118 destroyers and other warships. Meanwhile over 13,000 sorties were flown, and 154,000 Allied troops (70,500 Americans, 83,115 British and Canadian) alighted on French soil on the first day alone, 24,000 of them by parachute and glider.
The timing of the invasion was one of the greatest challenges faced by the Allied High Command during the war. Because it took no fewer than forty-five troopships, cargo ships and escorts to move a single armoured division across the Atlantic Ocean, because safety from U-boats was not assured until mid-1943, because the English Channel is impassable for amphibious assault from September to February inclusive, earlier opportunities were severely limited. The plans had been undergoing revisions and regular updating ever since the first Joint Planning Staff meetings of September 1941, when one of the earliest American planners to study the problem had been a one-star general in the US War Department’s Operations Division called Dwight D. Eisenhower. In December 1943 Eisenhower was appointed supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in western Europe and soon afterwards went to London to establish his SHAEF headquarters to oversee and direct the invasion, with Montgomery as his overall land commander. Both Marshall and Brooke had been considered for the post of supreme commander, but the former had effectively turned it down by not asking for it and the latter ruled himself out through his lack of enthusiasm for the operation, though he also felt that by 1944 the invasion needed to be commanded by an American.
The planners’ general scheme – for a massive invasion via Normandy – survived the intense personal examination and interrogations of George Marshall, Alan Brooke, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, although Churchill and Brooke never threw off presentiments of disaster for the operation. Churchill often spoke of seeing the Channel full of Allied corpses as a result of the defeat of Overlord and Brooke noted in his diary as late as 5 June 1944, the day it was originally due to take place: ‘I am very uneasy about the whole operation. At the best it will fall so very very short of the expectation of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing of its difficulties. At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war. I wish to God it were safely over.’ That same night Churchill said to his wife Clementine: ‘Do you realize that by the time you wake up in the morning, 20,000 men may have been killed?’
In part because of Churchill’s and Brooke’s deep pessimism about the chances a cross-Channel invasion had of success, the British had prevented an early return to the Continent at a moment they had considered too early by insisting on a North African, Mediterranean and then Italian series of campaigns undertaken to weaken and disperse German forces, while the Wehrmacht was bled white on the Eastern Front. By June 1944, however, the Germans were about to be comprehensively defeated in Russia, and so there was no time to be lost by the Western Allies in attacking the Reich from the west. By then Britain had 57 million square feet of storage area filled with supplies for the operation, including nearly half a million tons of ammunition, much of it brought over from the United States under Operation Bolero, which had been instituted as soon as America had entered the war.
Eisenhower did make some important alterations to the COSSAC plans when he took over in London early in 1944, as did Montgomery. Typically Eisenhower kept quiet about his input, whereas Montgomery boasted insufferably about his, with slight additions of self-pity. In a (hitherto unpublished) letter to Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst of 31 January 1944, Montgomery wrote:
I have been terribly busy ever since I got back here. The whole plan was a complete bullock and had to be changed; very like Husky over again. I am becoming a sort of ‘enfant terrible’ who goes round knocking things down and getting all the mud slung at one!! However so long as we win the war it does not matter to me. I shall retire to my garden – and the evening of life – when the party is all over.
Although the beaches of the Cotentin peninsula were retained as the target, the initial assault force was increased from three divisions to five and the front was widened from 25 miles to 40. Montgomery also pushed back the invasion date from 1 May to the first week of June, to get the Anzio landing craft back from Italy and to allow more time for the bomber forces to destroy the roads, railways, bridges and tunnels down and across and through which the German reserves would counter-attack.
‘In the better days that lie ahead,’ went Montgomery’s Order of the Day for D-Day, ‘men will speak with pride of our doings.’ He divided his 21st Army Group into two armies. Bradley’s US First Army, split between Joseph Collins’ US VII Corps and Leonard Gerow’s US V Corps, would assault the westward beaches codenamed Utah and Omaha. Meanwhile, Miles Dempsey’s Second Army, split between G. C. Bucknall’s British XXX Corps and John Crocker’s Anglo-Canadian I Corps, would assault Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. The British 6th Airborne Division would land on the eastern extremity of the battlefield to try to disrupt the German counter-attack and silence the German batteries on the high ground at the mouth of the River Orne, while two American airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st, would land on the western extremity of it behind Utah beach to secure roads through the marshland behind the dunes that had been deliberately flooded by the Germans. The American parachutists landed in Normandy even more heavily laden than the infantry, each man carrying almost his own weight including jump suit, camouflage helmet, main and reserve parachutes, boots, gloves, combat uniform, life-jacket, Colt .45 pistol, Browning automatic rifle plus ammunition, knives, first-aid kit, blanket, food and change of socks and underwear. Corporal Dan Hartington of C Company, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion in the British 6th Airborne Division recalled:
We were loaded to the hilt with grenades, Gammon bombs, flexible Bangalore torpedoes around our necks, two-inch mortar bombs, ammunition, weapons and water bottles. Our exposed skin was blackened with charcoal, the camouflage netting on our helmets was all tied up with burlap rags, and the space above the harness in our helmets was crammed with cigarettes or with plastic explosive.
As soon as the beach-heads were secure, troops would pour into Normandy, principally Patton’s US Third Army and Lieutenant-General Henry Crerar’s Canadian First Army. The plan was to establish the 21st Army Group from the Loire to the Seine, take Cherbourg and Brest, and then liberate the rest of France and march to Germany. It was bold and imaginative and would be backed up by enormous air power, co-ordinated by Eisenhower’s deputy supreme commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder. One of the keys to victory was command of the air: whereas the Luftwaffe flew only 309 sorties on D-Day, the Allies flew 13,688. ‘The scene in the Channel was quite amazing,’ recalled Lieutenant-Commander Cromwell Lloyd-Davies of HMS Glasgow. ‘It was almost like Piccadilly Circus – there were so many ships there and it was incredible to us that all this could be going on without the Germans knowing anything about it. But we never saw a German aircraft the whole time.’ In fact only a dozen German fighter-bombers ever made it to the beaches, and they could only stay long enough for a single strafing attack each before being chased off. Similarly, the German Navy posed next to no danger to the invasion, as it would have at any period before Dönitz withdrew his U-boats from the Atlantic ports on 24 May 1943. By D-Day, such was the success of the Allies’ naval war in the west that the Kriegsmarine was completely incapable of inflicting significant damage on the invasion armada. What surface ships the Germans had were concentrated on protecting the Pas de Calais area and no U-boats made any attacks against Allied shipping. On 4 July four German destroyers made a sally from Brest, but all were sunk or forced back into port. The Royal Navy’s Home Fleet meanwhile closed off any threat from Scandinavian and Baltic ports, and the Kiel Canal was mined as a precaution in Operation Bravado. Although three E-boats under Lieutenant Heinrich Hoffmann, based at Le Havre, made it through the Allies’ smokescreen to loose off eighteen torpedoes, a Norwegian escort destroyer was their only victim.
One major problem was the shortage of landing craft. So few were available that Operation Anvil, an attack in the south of France originally scheduled for the same day as Overlord, had to be postponed until 15 August, by which time the Germans had largely withdrawn their forces from the region. Quite why the US Maritime Commission was capable of building a 10,500-ton Liberty cargo ship in under a week (and 2,700 of them in total) but not enough basic, wooden, 10-ton landing craft is a continuing mystery of the war. Marshall suspected a Navy plot at the Bureau of Yards and Construction. Overlord did in the end deploy the necessary number of landing craft, but only at the cost of a diversionary operation that might have been strategically useful in early June but was largely obviated by mid-August.
Meteorology was in its infancy in the 1940s and, as the weather in the Channel was never predictable, Eisenhower had to order a postponement of the attack from Monday, 5 June to Tuesday the 6th, on the advice of his chief meteorological officer, a twenty-nine-year-old civilian called James Stagg who had been awarded the rank of group captain in order to give him some weight among the much more senior officers. With too many clouds and too strong winds, the crucial aerial part of the operation could have been compromised, with disastrous results. Yet as Stagg later pointed out, with the Navy wanting onshore winds of not more than Force 3 or 4, as well as good visibility for bombarding coastal defences, and the Air Force also wanting specific cloud cover and heights, ‘When I came to put them together I found that they might have to sit around for 120 or 150 years before they got the operation launched.’
Had Overlord not been launched on 6 June, considerations of fuel, moonlight and tidal flows would have meant that the whole invasion would have had to have been postponed for a fortnight, with concomitant problems regarding the troops’ morale and the security of keeping so vast an operation secret. Fortunately Stagg was able to report at 04.15 on 5 June the approach of a new, favourable weather front. Pausing only to pen a resignation letter for release in the event of defeat – ‘If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone’ – late that day Eisenhower gave the final go-ahead, with the hardly morale-boosting remark to his Staff: ‘I hope to God I know what I’m doing.’