The greatest sea and airborne invasion ever seen was about to be launched from England onto the coast of France, Operations NEPTUNE and OVERLORD. The invasion would take place on 6 June 1944. What German forces were in position to repel the 83,000 British and Canadian and 73,000 American troops who were to land that day?
The German Plan of Defence
Under the direct control of Adolph Hitler was the Wehrmacht (under General Keitel), the Luftwaffe (under Hermann Göring) and the Navy, the Kriegsmarine (under Admiral Karl Dönitz). In the West, in the actual invasion zone, General von Rundstedt was in charge of the Army; Hugo Sperrle of the Air Fleet, Luftflotte 3; and Theodor Krancke of the Western Sea Fleet. Army Group B, under Erwin Rommel, was the key. Rommel’s HQ was located at La Roche-Guyon, midway between Paris and Rouen.
Superhuman efforts had been devoted to the construction of the Atlantic Wall, a programme largely sabotaged by the Germans themselves when slave construction workers were transferred secretly to work on the V weapon launching sites.
Hitler’s Festung Europa – coastal fortifications portrayed as an impregnable barrier to any Allied invasion attempt.
Map 3. Disposition of oposing forces prior to D-Day June 1944
A German machine gunner manning a LeMG42 in a ‘Tobruk Stand’ in the Atlantic Wall defences. Note the grenades at the ready.
Elaborate bunkers (some designed personally by Hitler), the placing of ‘Rommel’s Asparagus’ (anti-landing devices at potential air-landing zones), minefields and the rest were in readiness. But, the outcome depended essentially on man and fire power and the crucial ingredient of morale.
The German mobile Divisions in France contained the best fighting soldiers in the world, and they knew it. The survivors of innumerable successful encounters with British, American and Russian forces, they maintained their high morale, even if the German forces in general contained many second rate elements. They were very largely unaware of the Allied weight of armour and artillery and even less conscious of the Allied Air Force’s domination of the Luftwaffe. (12,000 aircraft on D-Day compared with the Germans’ 300) or of the Navy’s ten battleships, thirty cruisers and monitors, three aircraft carriers and eighty-seven destroyers against Germany’s three cruisers and a handful of destroyers.
The map shows the distribution of German land forces on the invasion front on D-Day. Army Group B disposed four Panzer Divisions, one of which was Waffen SS, the 12th. 21st Panzer Division was closest to the front while 116 and Panzer Lehr were further back. In addition, seven Infantry Divisions were in position, the closest to the front being 709, 352, 716 and 711. Other units included the 91st Air-Landing Division and the 6th Parachute Regiment, positioned correctly as it turned out, in the area where the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Units were to fly in. The British 6th Airborne was to come in at Ranville, sandwiched between the German 716 and 711 Infantry Divisions. SS Panzer Divisions numbered about 20,000 men and each Infantry Division about 12,500. Approximately 100,000 German troops were located in the immediate invasion area.
The history of this titanic day is to be found in innumerable accounts and the reader has a wide choice of well researched books to choose from. Our interest lies most particularly in the French Resistance in the area, in the work of the SOE F Section agents and their links with London, and in the various subterfuges designed to confuse the enemy.
French Resistance and SOE
One of the major problems for the invasion planners was the inevitibility of French casualties should an American proposal to employ saturation bombing be adopted. Churchill had a horror of the prospect of mass civilian casualties. Likely this was as a result of his experiences in the Great War when he had served as an officer with the 6th Royal Fusiliers on the Western Front in 1915 and early 1916. He maintained that the saturation bombing of French railway junctions and marshalling yards would result in ‘excessive civilian casualties’ which in turn would ‘build up a strong anti-Allied resentment in France’. He argued that the SOE, along with the French Resistance, was in a better position to disrupt the railway system and to delay German reinforcements from reaching the invasion area. (Plan VERT).
The French Resistance area was called Region M4, with A2 just coming into the picture around Le Havre. In Calvados, the epicentre of the invasion, some 1,500 FFI were mainly concerned with the sabotage of bridges, railway lines and lines of telephone communications. It was in the Manche, towards Cherbourg, that Plan Vert, the rail cutting programme, was carried out most spectacularly under Circuit HELMSMAN. Away to the east, in Eure, the maquis Surcouf was effective in harassing German reinforcements.
In one sense however, the Resistance here may be said to have been even more effective before the invasion than after. Their Intelligence Services had mapped out every foot of the German defence system from the North Sea to Bordeaux. Marie-Madelaine Fourcade’s ALLIANCE had key men in place in the area. One outstanding example: her agent, Jean Sainteny (DRAGON), was handed a fifty-foot rolled up map showing every gun, beach obstacle, all military units and their strengths, and every anticipated landing site, along with all road and rail networks from Dives-sur-Mer to the Cotentin Peninsula. On 16 March 1944, it was picked up by Lysander and flown to London. It was one of the proudest moments in Marie-Madelaine Fourcade’s life. The man who had made the map, one Dounin, was caught by the Gestapo, imprisoned in Caen and executed the day after the landings.
The location of every gun was identified by the Resistance. A fisherman named Thomine had noticed that practice shoots by the Germans were always announced in advance to warn fishing vessels and coastal craft to keep out of the way. By his stealing or copying these notices, and sending them to London, the Allied commanders were fully informed on every coastal gun. A complete Order of Battle was obtained which delineated the strength or weakness of every unit.
The main SOE F Section in place was HELMSMAN run by Jack Hayes. This Circuit was committed especially to the task of collecting tactical information for the American flank. With the aid of thirty local Resistants, who crept through enemy lines, he had accomplished his assignment within a month, much to the satisfaction of the US Army. Circuit SCIENTIST, under de Baissac (DAVID) was engaged in a similar activity a little further south. DONKEYMAN, however, to the east, was to fall foul of double-agents and was betrayed.
In point of fact, the activities of SOE in the Normandy beachhead area did not amount to a great deal. However, two types of signal operations were of crucial importance to the success of the invasion and to the activities of the French Resistance throughout France. First, was the deciphering of the top secret German ENIGMA code, described as ‘one of the supreme achievements of the Second World War’, by the boffins of Bletchley Park – the ULTRA project – in Britain.
The Sten guns arrive.
Captain JACK (centre) with Colonel Gaucher (right) alias MARTIAL, Departmental Commander of the FFI.
The second was the BBC messages personnels sent over in seemingly innocent sounding phrases from London.
The most famous of these was Paul Verlaine’s,
Chanson d’Automne: ‘Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne blessent mon coeur d’un langueur monotone...’,
the signal that the invasion was imminent. There were many others, triggering off the various Plans: Vert, for rail cuts: Rouge, for munition dumps; Noir, for fuel dumps; Tortue, for road cuts; Bleu, for electricity lines: Violet, for telephone lines; Jaune, for enemy communication centres. Hundreds of messages were flashed to France, starting on 1 June with warning, stand-by messages. Then, on 4 June: ‘The crocodile is thirsty’ – ‘Baba calls to Coco’ – ‘The raven has a red breast’ – ‘It is hot in Suez’ – ‘The giraffe has a long neck’ . . . The last was for NESTOR, Jacques Poirier of Circuit DIGGER, who received it in company with his radio operator CASIMIR, Ralph Beauclerc, at their Château de la Vitrolle at Limeuil in Dordogne. DIGGER was soon to be engaged in opposing Das Reich as it entered his area between Gourdon and Sarlat.
Innumerable deception plans had been laid to confuse the Germans as to the place and timing of the invasion. Of the over 200 German intelligence reports winging into the German 7th Army HQ, only one mentioned Normandy and that had been filed as of ‘no consequence’. Rommel was away in Germany and was concentrating on his wife’s 50th birthday (Tuesday 6 June).
Much of what the Allies knew of the German reaction to the disinformation provided to them came from ULTRA transcripts. To give just two examples: FORTITUDE NORTH deception plan suggested that six British Divisions were to be landed in Norway; FUSTAG (US 1st Army Group) under the code name FORTITUDE SOUTH suggested that their landings would be in the Pas-de-Calais during July. (ENIGMA picked this up on 9 January 1944). Other diversionary plans included operations such as TITANIC; TAXABLE (deluding the enemy into thinking the invasion would occur north of the Seine); and GLIMMER (a landing near Boulogne).
TITANIC consisted of four separate operations by SAS troops of its 1st and 2nd Regiments allied with French and Belgian units. One example must suffice: TITANIC III. This involved the dropping of fifty dummy (one third scale) paratroopers and ‘window’, the latter a strip of metal which, dropped in quantities of a few hundred, would reflect as much energy as a Wellington bomber and disturb communications in the area south west of Caen. This occurred at the same time as the 6th Airborne was coming in and while SAS parties were participating in TITANIC I and IV in other locations.
The scene is set.
The effect of Plan Vert: Maquisards pose with their handiwork – a derailed locomotive.