Beyond the Point of No Return



German Intelligence assessment of the location of the “bogus” First United States Army Group (FUSAG), 19 June 1944.


Mulberry Harbor

On June 18 the British and American Mulberry harbors were both in place, off Omaha and Gold Beaches, ready to begin unloading several thousand tons of supplies a day over four miles of piers and ten miles of floating roadways. But on the day after they began operating there was a fierce storm, which continued for three days, and the harbor at Omaha—which had been somewhat hastily assembled—was completely destroyed. The harbor at Arromanches, although battered, was still operational, but the landing of men and supplies was severely affected for some weeks.

The Allied setback at the two Mulberry harbors was more than compensated for by the continuing German conviction, thanks to Garbo and his bogus fellow German agents, that the First United States Army Group was still gathered in Kent and East Anglia and ready to go into action. A German High Command map on June 19 showed British, American, and Canadian troops all in readiness, and located, including the “28th American Motorized Infantry Division,” carrying out assault training at Harwich, on the North Sea coast. No such division and no such training existed. Nor did any other other sixteen military formations identified by German Intelligence.

By June 20 half a million Allied soldiers were ashore. The Germans held Caen, but the sheer weight of Allied airpower, and the daily growing number of men ashore, was beginning to tell against them. Yet still the deception plan was holding. On June 26, twenty days after the Normandy landings, von Rundstedt was still referring to the “First United States Army Group” as a serious and imminent threat. It was, he said, ready to embark, and was—he was convinced—even larger than Montgomery’s 21st Army Group then fighting in Normandy.

With the capture of Cherbourg on June 27, the army that had landed in Normandy acquired its first major port. Two days later, Rommel flew to Berchtesgaden to tell Hitler that all was lost. Hitler promised him a special German bombing offensive over the Normandy beachhead, and German torpedo boat and submarine attacks on the cross-Channel supply lines. Realizing that these measures were beyond Germany’s means, Rommel told him, “The whole world stands arrayed against Germany, and this disproportion of strength—” Before Rommel could finish his sentence, Hitler interrupted him with the words “I think, Field Marshal, you had better leave the room!”

Returning to Normandy, Rommel learned that more than 40,000 German soldiers were now prisoners of war. A million Allied soldiers were ashore, and more than 170,000 vehicles—a veritable armada of tanks, armored vehicles, jeeps, and trucks. In addition, ten British and seven American airstrips were in operation in the beachhead. Although Caen was still under German control, elsewhere on the battlefield the Allied forces were almost twenty miles inland, with the Cotentin Peninsula securely under American control.

Starting on June 13 the flying bomb (the V-1), the first of Hitler’s secret weapons, had been launched against London; and in September the rocket bomb (the V-2) followed. The V-bombs eventually killed more than two thousand Londoners, but they could not halt or set back the Normandy landings. Eisenhower later commented that had the V-bombs been available against the Normandy beaches—especially the V-2, with its one-ton warhead—they would have constituted a “formidable obstacle” to the landings.

In northern Europe the German High Command still expected the “main thrust” of the Allies to come elsewhere, perhaps near the mouth of the Seine, perhaps in Brittany. On July 4 Hitler was still being told by his experts that the real Allied attack might come elsewhere. Churchill told Eisenhower: “The forces in Britain are a dominant preoccupation of the Huns.” But even Hitler admitted that if the Allies broke out of Normandy, Germany did not possess “any comparable tactical mobility.”

That day, British bombers dropped 2,500 tons of bombs on Caen, as the first step in the city’s capture. As many as three thousand French civilians were killed. While Caen fell to the Western Allies, Soviet troops entered Minsk, the capital of Byelorussia, taking 150,000 German soldiers captive. “The enemy is burning and bleeding on every front at once,” Churchill telegraphed to Stalin, “and I agree with you that this must go on to the end.”

On July 9, at his headquarters in la Roche-Guyon, Rommel received a senior member of the German Military Command in Paris, who told him of the plot to assassinate Hitler planned for three days’ time. In the event, the attempt, which had to be postponed for another nine days, failed. Rommel, implicated in it, was given the choice of a public trial and execution, or suicide and a state funeral. He chose suicide.

Hitler remained the arbiter of German war policy. He also remained convinced that the British and Americans were preparing a landing elsewhere in northern Europe. On July 24 the British Joint Intelligence Committee reported that Ultra decrypts showed that the Germans were “still apprehensive” of a second major landing somewhere between the River Seine and the Franco-Belgian frontier. The committee noted that there had been “no considerable transfer” of German forces from the Pas-de-Calais, which remained “strongly garrisoned.”

To maintain the deception, those First United States Army Group officers who visited Normandy did so in strictest secrecy. Patton was one such visitor in July, together with one of his most senior officers, General Lesley McNair. On July 25, McNair was sheltering in a slit trench watching the start of a major American offensive. During the initial air bombardment, in which 2,340 aircraft dropped 4,000 tons of bombs and napalm, some of those bombs fell short: they were known then as “shorts,” today as “friendly fire.”

In all, 111 American soldiers were killed. Among the dead was McNair, whose body was thrown sixty feet in the air and was unrecognizable except for the three general’s stars on his collar. To maintain the essential secrecy of the continuing Pas-de-Calais deception, McNair’s funeral was conducted in strictest secrecy. Patton was one of the pallbearers, noting in his diary: “A sad ending and a useless sacrifice.” McNair was replaced in fortitude by a distinguished older general, John L. DeWitt, and the deception was maintained.

In the first two weeks of August a massive Allied thrust on all the fronts broke out of Normandy. Starting on August 7, Canadian troops drove toward Falaise, supported by a Polish armored division. On their flank, the British also advanced. American troops, from the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, swept westward to St-Malo, south to the River Loire, and east to Le Mans. Off Normandy, the Mulberry harbor at Arromanches had begun to work at full capacity, enabling 7,000 tons of war material to be landed every twenty-four hours. In the ten months during which the harbor was operational, two and a half million men, half a million vehicles, and four million tons of supplies were to reach the battlefield through it. On August 12 PLUTO (Pipe Line Under the Ocean) was laid across the Channel from Britain to Cherbourg, a distance of just over eighty miles. Within three weeks fuel oil was flowing eastward behind the advancing Allied tank and vehicle depots. In all, 172 million gallons flowed through the pipeline.

On August 15 the Allies launched Operation Dragoon, an amphibious landing on the French Riviera—which Churchill witnessed from on board ship—and which rapidly pushed northward. In Normandy, as the Allies drove toward the Seine, the German soldiers in the Falaise pocket were trapped and defeated. Visiting the battlefield, Eisenhower was shocked; it was, he later wrote, “unquestionably one of the greatest ‘killing grounds’ of any of the war areas. Roads, highways, and fields were so choked with destroyed equipment and with dead men that passage through the area was extremely difficult. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.”

On August 25 Paris was freed after four years of German occupation. The liberation of three more capital cities, Brussels, The Hague, and Luxembourg, lay ahead of the troops who had landed in Normandy, as did the crossing of the Rhine and the surrender of the German forces. Those in northern Germany surrendered to Montgomery on Luneberg Heath on 4 May 1945; the rest of the German forces surrendered three days later at Reims, where General Bedell Smith signed for the Allied Expeditionary Forces.

Fighting in Western Europe would continue for eight months after the Normandy landings. The triumphant turning point of 6 June 1944 was also a prelude to much suffering and destruction in towns and villages from Normandy to the Baltic, and heavy loss of life, both of soldiers and civilians.

D-Day was a turning point created by a combination of politicians and planners, by leaders at every level focused intently on the challenging task, and by many millions of others: Ultra decrypters at Bletchley, inventors, organizers of special units, creators of deception, engineers and technicians, shipyard and factory workers, doctors and nurses, members of the French Resistance, and, on the beachhead itself, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of all the Allied forces. Many of those soldiers, sailors and airmen lie today in war cemeteries throughout Normandy, where the graves of the dead of many nationalities—among them Americans, Britons, Canadians, Poles, Frenchmen, Belgians, Czechoslovaks, and Dutch—are to be found. There are also six German war cemeteries, and German graves in many Allied cemeteries.

The Normandy campaign was a victory for the Allies over the Axis, but the dead know no nationality. Those who helped to secure victory in Normandy, and who survived, did not always sleep untroubled by their memories of the pain and suffering of war. But their contribution to securing the turning point did allow them to sleep in their beds—and enabled the readers of these pages to sleep in peace.

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