My dear friend, this is much the greatest thing we have ever attempted.
Winston Churchill to Franklin Roosevelt, 23 October 19431
‘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.’2 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.’3 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.4
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.’5 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.6 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.’7
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.8 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.9 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.’10 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.’11 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.12 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.13
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.14 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.’15 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?’16
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.17
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.18
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.’19 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 fromScandinavian and Baltic ports, and the Kiel Canal was mined as a precaution in Operation Bravado.20 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.’21
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.’22
The Pas de Calais, as the shortest route across the Channel, would have had the best cover from fighter aircraft from the RAF’s Kentish airfields. The Abwehr also believed the information supplied by its spy network in the United Kingdom, centred on an anti-Fascist Catalan called Juan Pujol García, who lived in a safe house in Hendon and was codenamed Garbo by the Allies (who awarded him the MBE) and Arabel by the Germans (who awarded him the Iron Cross), his twenty-four fictitious sub-agents and other German spies who had been infiltrated into Britain, every single one of whom had been successfully ‘turned’ by MI5. These included the real and imagined agents Gelatine, Hamlet, Meteor, Brutus (Roman Garby-Czerniawski), Cobweb (Ib Riis), Beetle (Petur Thomsen), Bronx (Elvira Chaudoir), Tricycle, Artist, Freak, Tate, Mullet, Puppet and Treasure.23 As they fed the Abwehr with reports about FUSAG’s activities, all co-ordinated by Garbo (so called because he was such as accomplished actor), the spy network became completely trusted by the Germans.24 Meanwhile Ultra built up a picture of the enemy’s order of battle and command structure in France, helped by the French Resistance destroying landline connections, thus forcing the Germans to resort to wireless communications. It took the Germans nearly a week after the Normandy landings had begun to appreciate that they were not a southern feint, but the true invasion itself, and even up to 26 June half a million troops of the German Fifteenth Army stayed stationed around the Pas de Calais, guarding against an invasion that would not come.
At 00.16 hours on D-Day, Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork landed his Horsa glider a mere 50 yards from the road bridge over the Caen Canal, now known as Pegasus Bridge, and only 500 yards from the bridge over the River Orne. These two coastal road bridges were strategically vital, because any German counter-attack from the east would need to cross them, as would any Allied breakout to the plains east of Caen. ‘The Horsa seemed to skim the tall trees at the end of the field,’ recalled one of those on board, ‘and came in to land with an ear-splitting crash that shook us all to our bones.’25 One minute later, at 00.17, a second glider landed and then at 00.18 a third. The pilots had flown 5 miles by moonlight with only a stopwatch and a flashlight attached to a finger to guide them, yet they landed precisely where the French Resistance had pinpointed, through the perimeter-wire defences of the bridge.
Ninety men from D Company of the 2nd Battalion, the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, under the command of Major John Howard, debouched from the gliders and captured Pegasus Bridge without difficulty, so total was the Germans’ surprise. They then held it until relieved by Lord Lovat’s Commandos, who marched from the beach up the canal tow-path at 13.00 hours to the sound of bagpipes played by Lovat’s piper, Bill Millin, ‘blowing away for all he was worth’.26 Less accurate in their landing zones were the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, some units of which landed as far as 35 miles off target. Yet this, and the practice of dropping dummy parachutists, had the added advantage of so confusing German intelligence that it estimated that 100,000 Allied troops had landed by air, more than four times the true number. The majority of parachutists landed in the correct drop-zones, however, and were to play an invaluable part in attacking the beaches from the rear and holding back the inevitable German counter-attack.
The French Resistance had been ordered to ready itself for the invasion by the BBC broadcast on 1 June of the first line of the poem ‘Autumn Song’ by Paul Verlaine, which went: Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne (The long sobs of the autumn violins). The Abwehr had tortured a Maquis leader and learnt that when the second line – Blessent mon coeur d’une langeur monotone (wound my heart with monotonous langour) – was broadcast, it meant that the invasion was imminent. So when it was duly broadcast at 23.15 on 5 June, the commander of the Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais put his troops on alert, but no one warned the Seventh Army in Normandy. At Army Group B’s château headquarters at La Roche-Guyon it was assumed that it must be mere disinformation, as the Allies would hardly have announced the invasion over the BBC.27
When shortly before 05.00 the Seventh Army’s chief of staff warned Army Group B that the attack was indeed taking place, Rommel himself was unavailable as he was in Germany celebrating his wife Lucie’s birthday which fell that day. He only made it back to La Roche-Guyon at 6 o’clock that evening. His chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Hans Speidel, ordered the 12th SS Hitler Youth Panzer Division to counter-attack at Caen at first light, but some of the 4,500 bombers that the Allies fielded that day severely blunted this assault. As Rommel later pointed out:
Even the movement of the most minor formations on the battlefield – artillery going into position, tanks forming up, etc. – is instantly attacked from the air with devastating effect. During the day fighting troops and headquarters alike are forced to seek cover in wooded and close country in order to escape the constant pounding of the air. Up to 640 [naval] guns have been used. The effect is so immense that no operation of any kind is possible in the area commanded by this rapid-fire artillery, either by infantry or tanks.28
Interrogated after the war, Speidel quoted Rommel as having said, very perceptively:
Elements which are not in contact with the enemy at the moment of invasion will never get into action, because of the enormous air superiority of the enemy… If we do not succeed in carrying out our combat mission of warding off the Allies or hurling them from the mainland in the first 48 hours, the invasion has succeeded and the war is lost for lack of strategic reserves and lack of Luftwaffe in the west.29
Although Hitler was not woken at Berchtesgaden with the news of the Normandy landings – he had been up with Goebbels until 3 o’clock the previous night, ‘exchanging reminiscences, taking pleasure in the many fine days and weeks we have had together’, recorded Goebbels; ‘the mood is like the good old times’ – it made very little difference. Even by the lunchtime conference OKW was unsure that this was the true attack rather than a diversion. Rundstedt was not certain either. So by the time two Panzer divisions were sent against the beaches 100 miles away, much valuable time had been lost.30 This was not the fault of the adjutants who failed to wake the Führer, so much as evidence of the success of the Allies’ deception operation in confusing the minds of the OKW and OKH about where the main attack was going to take place, and of the difference of opinion between Rundstedt and Rommel about what should be done. Rundstedt thought the Allies could not be prevented from landing and so needed to be flung back into the sea in a counter-attack; Rommel felt they had to be stopped from getting ashore, telling his Staff that ‘The first twenty-four hours will be decisive.’31 In all there were fifty-nine German divisions in the west at the time of D-Day, of which eight were in Holland and Belgium. More than half that total were mere coastal-defence or training divisions, and of the twenty-seven field divisions only ten were armoured, with three of these in the south and one near Antwerp. Six divisions, four of them coastal defence, were stationed along the 200 miles of Normandy coast west of the Seine where the Allies attacked. ‘These dispositions would more truly be described as “coast-protection” rather than as defence!’ stated Blumentritt later.
At 05.50 a massive naval bombardment opened up on the German beach fortifications and the villages along the Normandy coast. At H-hour, 06.30, the main American landings took place on Utah and Omaha beaches, with the British and Canadians arriving on their three beaches an hour later. The crossings had taken several hours in some cases. It had been feared that the Germans would use gas on the beaches, and the anti-gas chemical with which uniforms were sprinkled smelt so disgusting that, once added to the landing crafts’ tossing about in the waves, it induced vomiting in many troops who had not already been seasick.
At Utah 23,000 men got ashore with only 210 killed and wounded, partly because the current swept the 4th Division’s landing craft some 2,000 yards south of the original area designated for attack, on to a relatively lightly defended part of the coastline, and twenty-eight of the thirty-two amphibious Duplex Drive (DD) Sherman tanks got ashore. The one regiment facing them from the German 709th Division surrendered in large numbers once the 101st Airborne had secured at least four exits from the beaches.
On Omaha beach, however, where two-thirds of the American effort that day was to land, it was a very different state of affairs. The veteran US 1st Division (known as the Big Red One from its shoulder flash) and the 29th Division, which had never seen combat before, were to suffer ten times the losses as did the 4th Division at Utah.32 Despite all the intense preparation, with tourists’ photo albums pored over by Staff officers for years, the ground had been seemingly ill chosen for attack. However, once the decision had been taken to expand the lodgement area (that is, the territory to be secured by Overlord from which further operations could be conducted) as far as Utah beach to the west, Omaha beach was the only feasible landing area between Utah and the British and Canadian beaches. The cliffs and bluffs at Omaha were in some places more than 150 feet above the sea wall at the end of the dunes; the inward curvature of the coast at that stretch helped German fields of fire to overlap; underwater sand bars and ridges snagged landing craft; the powerful and well-placed fortifications (which can still be seen today) were not silenced by naval shelling; the anti-personnel mines, barbed wire and huge steel anti-tank ‘hedgehogs’ proved murderous obstacles; accurate German artillery fire, and above all a regiment of the 716th Infantry Division and units from the crack German 352nd Infantry Division, caused havoc. Ultra had conveyed that there would be eight enemy battalions at Omaha, rather than the four that had been planned for, but it was too late to alter the entire plan because of them. These battalions provided, in the words of Overlord’s historian Max Hastings, ‘by far the greatest concentration of German fire on the entire invasion front’. This nearly led to disaster for the Americans on Omaha.33
‘With unbelieving eyes we could recognize individual landing craft,’ recalled Franz Gockel of the 726th Infantry Regiment of the 716th Division. ‘The hail of shells falling on us grew heavier, sending fountains of sand and debris into the air.’34 The opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan is the best cinematographic representation of those first monstrous minutes of the American landings on Omaha beach, but even that cannot begin to show the extent of the chaos and carnage on the beaches. This would have been even worse had Rommel been right about the Allies arriving at high tide, as every gun had been fixed for that eventuality. As it was they came in at low tide in order for the obstacles to be more visible.35 This had its own disadvantages, however, for as Signal Sergeant James Bellows of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment recalled of the men he had landed with on Sword: ‘A lot of them had been overridden by their landing craft as they came off. The landing craft became lighter as men came off and as it surged up the beach, and many who were in front went straight underneath.’36
The 6,000 yards of Omaha beach along which the Americans landed were soon a scene of confusion and destruction. American soldiers – whose age averaged twenty and a half, far younger than the British twenty-four or Canadian twenty-nine years – had to leap out of their landing craft into a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire loaded down with 68 pounds of equipment, including gas-mask, grenades, TNT blocks, two ammunition bandoliers, rations, water bottle and related kit. Many simply drowned when the water they jumped into proved deeper than expected.
Although the British beaches were in part cleared of German killing apparatus by a series of specialized tank-based gadgets, known as Hobart’s funnies after Major-General Sir Percy Hobart of the 79th Armoured Division, which employed inventions such as giant thrashing metal chains to set off mines, Generals Bradley and Gerow preferred massive frontal assault. Because of heavy seas and being transferred from their transport vessels 11½ miles out, ten landing craft and twenty-six artillery pieces sank on the way to the beaches. ‘I never saw water that bad,’ recalled Sergeant Roy Stevens, ‘the seas were rolling and rolling, and there were whitecaps way out where we were, twelve miles from the coast.’37 Most of the troops had been seasick on the three-hour journey in choppy seas. The British transferred only 6½ miles out, and suffered fewer sinkings as a result in less turbulent weather. The loss of twenty-seven of the twenty-nine DD ‘floating’ tanks, which were launched 6,000 yards from the Omaha shore but then sank when the waves came over their canvas screens, denied the Americans the necessary firepower to get off the beach early. ‘We could see a shambles ahead of us on the beach,’ recalled Leading Aircraftman Norman Phillips of the RAF who landed there, ‘burning tanks, jeeps, abandoned vehicles, a terrific crossfire.’38
The official account of what happened to Able Company of the 116th Infantry, 29th Division, after its landing craft hit Omaha beach at 06.36 gives a sense of the horror of those next few minutes:
Ramps are dropped along the boat line and the men jump off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a man’s head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine gun fire from both ends of the beach… The first men out… are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning, doomed by the water-logging of their overloaded packs… Already the sea runs red… A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upwards, so that their nostrils are out of the water, they creep towards the land at the same rate as the tide. This is how most of the survivors make it… Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless.39
It was not until 13.30, after seven hours being pinned down on the beaches, that Gerow could signal to Omar Bradley, who was on board a ship trying to make out what was going on through binoculars, that ‘Troops formerly pinned down on beaches’ were finally ‘advancing up heights behind beaches’. Although there were 2,000 Americans killed on Omaha beach, by nightfall a total of 34,000 men had made it ashore, including two Ranger battalions that had silenced the German coastal battery at Pointe du Hoc to the west after scaling cliffs with rope ladders.40 At one point the 5th Rangers had to don gas-masks in order to charge through the dense smoke coming from the undergrowth of a hillside that suddenly caught fire.
There were no high cliffs at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, and more time for the naval bombardment to soften up the German defences; however, by late afternoon part of the 21st Panzer Division attacked in the gap between Juno and Sword beaches and almost made it to the Channel before being turned back by naval fire. The British suffered over 3,000 casualties, but by the end the Canadians, who lost 1,074, got the furthest inland on the first day, with their 9th Brigade advancing to within 3 miles of the outskirts of Caen.
At 16.00 hours Hitler, who had dithered about the best way to react to what he still suspected was a diversionary attack, finally agreed to Rundstedt’s request to send two Panzer divisions into the battle in addition to the 12th SS and 21st Panzer Divisions already committed. But as the historian Gerhard Weinberg has pointed out:
The reinforcements dribbled into the invasion front were never enough, and the Allied air forces as well as the sabotage efforts of the French resistance and Allied special teams slowed down whatever was sent. The German armoured divisions, therefore, arrived one at a time and quite slowly, were never able to punch through, and ended up being mired in positional warfare because they continued to be needed at the front in the absence of infantry divisions.41
Allied aerial supremacy over the battlefield made it impossible for the German tanks to be committed better than piecemeal in daylight. Yet five armoured divisions of the reserve in France, and no fewer than nineteen divisions of the Fifteenth Army 120 miles to the north, simply stayed in place waiting for the ‘real’ attack on the Pas de Calais. Meanwhile, Rundstedt and Rommel became increasingly certain that Normandy was indeed the true Schwerpunkt, whereas the Führer continued to doubt it.
D-Day itself saw around 9,000 casualties, of whom – very unusually – more than half were killed. The dead comprised 2,500 Americans, 1,641 Britons, 359 Canadians, thirty-seven Norwegians, nineteen Free French, thirteen Australians, two New Zealanders and one Belgian: 4,572 soldiers in total. Although Air Chief Marshal Tedder had predicted that the airborne troops would lose 80 per cent of their number, the actual figure was 15 per cent; still high, but not catastrophically so.42 The American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer above Omaha beach bears noble witness to the sacrifice.
The Germans were critically under-reinforced at Normandy, partly because of the success of the Allies’ elaborate but never suspiciously uniform deception plans. ‘The 7th Army had thrown into battle every major unit that stood in the Cotentin,’ records a history, ‘and committing units from Brittany and elsewhere would take time.’43 Yet time was a commodity of which the Germans were rapidly running out, because if the invasion was not flung back into the English Channel immediately, such were the reinforcements alighting from the Arromanches Mulberry Harbour – only one, as the one off Omaha was rendered largely inoperable by a storm on 19 June – that by 1 July they would exceed a million men, 150,000 vehicles and 500,000 tons of supplies.44
D-Day once again saw a determined German counter-attack on the ground being staved off by Allied air power. The capacity and willingness of the Wehrmacht to try to push the Allies back into the sea were still there, but were overwhelmed by the ability of the RAF and USAAF to attack the unprotected armour from above, where it was weakest. The bombing campaign against Luftwaffe factories and the attritional war against German fighters once they had been built had paid off spectacularly. (There had been an effort to build German aircraft factories underground before the war, but not enough resources had been devoted to it.)
The news of D-Day gave sudden, soaring hope to Occupied Europe. ‘The invasion has begun!’ wrote the German-Jewish Anne Frank, who was about to celebrate her fifteenth birthday, in a diary that she kept while living in her family’s hidden attic in Amsterdam. ‘Great commotion in the Secret Annexe! Would the long-awaited liberation that has been talked of so much but which still seems too wonderful, too much like a fairy-tale, ever come true? Could we be granted victory this year, 1944? We don’t know yet, but hope is revived within us; it gives us fresh courage, and makes us strong again.’ In her case the hope was misplaced: the Frank family were betrayed to the Gestapo in August 1944 and Anne perished at Bergen-Belsen in early March 1945.
Having got into the countryside behind the beaches, the Americans in particular were dismayed to find themselves among the bocage – high and wide, ancient (sometimes Viking-built) thick hedgerows that provided ideal cover for defence. German resistance around Carentan on 13 June and Caen on 18 June prevented Montgomery from taking either town, although the US VII Corps under Major-General J. Lawton Collins took Cherbourg on 27 June after five days’ heavy fighting and the destruction of the harbour by the Germans, which could not be used until 7 August. The Germans in Caen, which Montgomery called the ‘crucible’ of the battle, held out until 9 July, and the town was little more than rubble when it finally fell. (This hadn’t prevented the London Evening Newsfrom proclaiming its capture on D+1.) Basil Liddell Hart was thus right in his description of Overlord as having gone ‘according to plan, but not according to timetable’.45
From the German perspective, General Blumentritt wrote to a correspondent in 1965, saying that the German soldier had ‘bled to death through wrong politics and dilettante leadership of Hitler’. In particular, Normandy was lost because ‘Hitler ordered a rigid defence of the coasts. That was not possible over 2,000 kilometres,’ especially when considering ‘the Allied mastery of the air, the Allied masses of matériel, and the weakened German potential after 5 years of war.’ Rundstedt, he believed, was ‘a cavalier, gentleman, grand seigneur’ with a wider view than Hitler and Rommel. Rundstedt wanted to give up the whole of France south of the Loire and fight a fast-moving tank battle around Paris instead, but was prevented by Hitler and Rommel who ‘intended to carry out the defence with all forces on the beach and to use all tank-corps right in front, at the coast’.46
Timetables were vital to the Germans too, and in reinforcing Normandy as quickly as possible they were severely hampered by the destruction of road and rail routes by the bombing campaign and by heroic acts of resistance by the French Maquis, who attacked the Germans and destroyed bridges and railways in the path of the Panzers. This led to horrific reprisals, the best known of which were carried out by the 15,000-strong 2nd SS Das Reich Panzer Division, frustrated by losses and delays as it attempted to drive from Montauban in southern France to repel the invader in Normandy. The 450-mile journey lasted three weeks after they had set out on 8 June, as opposed to the few days it would have taken had they been left unharried. In retaliation for the killing of forty German soldiers in one incident, Das Reich exacted widespread reprisals in the town of Tulle in the Corrèze. ‘I came home from shopping on 9 June 1944 to find my husband and my son hanging from the balcony of our house,’ recalled a woman from the town. ‘They were just two of a hundred men seized at random and killed in cold blood by the SS. The children and wives were forced to watch while they strung them up to the lamp-posts and balconies outside their own homes. What is there for me to say?’47
Yet worse was to come the next morning at the small village of Oradour-sur-Glane, where Major Adolf Diekmann’s unit murdered 642 people, including 190 schoolchildren; the men were shot, the women and children were burnt alive in the church, and the village was razed. Max Hastings cannot entirely rule out as ghoulish exaggeration the reports that the SS burnt a baby alive in an oven. The village can be visited today, a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Yet as Hastings has pointed out, ‘It is important to remember that if Oradour was an exceptionally dreadful occurrence during the war in the West, it was a trifling sample of what the German Army had been doing on a national scale in the East, since 1941.’ As one of Diekmann’s officers – anOstkämpfer (Eastern Front veteran) – confidentially told a former officer of the SS Totenkopf Division, ‘in our circles, Herr Muller, it was nothing.’48
‘I am certainly not a brutal man by nature,’ Hitler told his lunch guests on 20 August 1942, ‘and consequently it is cold reason that guides my actions. I have risked my own life a thousand times, and I owe my preservation simply to my good fortune.’49 The black angel hovering over him certainly never performed a better service of protection than on the afternoon of Thursday, 20 July 1944. Hitherto, Hitler had believed that ‘In the two really dangerous attempts to assassinate me I owe my life not to the police, but to pure chance.’ These had been when he had left the Bürgerbräu beerhall ten minutes before a bomb went off there on 9 November 1939, and when a Swiss stalked him for three months at the Berghof.50 Hitler took all the normal precautions against assassination, saying, ‘As far as is possible, whenever I go anywhere by car I go off unexpectedly and without warning the police.’ His chief security officer SS-Standartenführer (Colonel) Hans Rattenhuber and his chauffeur Erich Kempka had ‘the strictest orders to maintain absolute secrecy about my comings and goings’, however high up the official making enquiries about them. Nonetheless, if he felt safe anywhere it would have been at his command headquarters deep in the pine forests of East Prussia (now in Poland) known as the Wolfschanze (Wolf’s Lair), from his long-term Nazi Party codename of Wolf.
‘Here in the Wolfschanze,’ Hitler said on the night of 26 February 1942, ‘I feel like a prisoner in these dug-outs, and my spirit can’t escape.’51 That might be why, when one visits the destroyed buildings today, they resonate with sinister echoes. Jodl called the Wolfschanze ‘somewhere between a monastery and a concentration camp’. The size of twenty-one football pitches and staffed by 2,000 people, it housed Hitler for more than 800 days of his 2,067-day war. The Führerbunker, Hitler’s own quarters where he paced backwards and forwards in the card room – ‘In that way I get my ideas’ – boasted 6-foot-thick concrete walls, a sophisticated ventilation system, electric heating, running hot and cold water and air conditioning. As well as two airfields, a power station, a railway stop, garages and an advanced communications system, the headquarters possessed saunas, cinemas and tea rooms.
‘In consequence of the defeat of the submarine,’ Dönitz stated years after the war, ‘the Anglo-American invasion of Normandy in July [sic] 1944 was now a success and now we knew clearly that we had no more chance to win the war. But what could we do?’52The answer for some in the German High Command – though certainly not the ultra-loyal Dönitz himself – was to try to assassinate Hitler. There had been some latent hostility between Hitler and his generals, except in those periods at the start of the war when victories came as easily as the subsequent mutual admiration. ‘The General Staff is the only Masonic Order that I haven’t yet dissolved,’ Hitler said on one occasion, and on another: ‘Those gentlemen with the purple stripes down their trousers sometimes seem to me even more revolting than the Jews.’53 From the time of the rebuff at Moscow in late 1941, these antipathies resurfaced and, once the war looked as if it was going to be lost, some of the braver generals decided it was time to act. Far from acting out of democratic values, however, the majority of the Plotters were simply trying to remove an incompetent corporal who they realized was the major impediment to a negotiated peace, which objectively speaking was Germany’s only hope of preventing a Soviet occupation.
At 12.42 p.m. on Thursday, 20 July 1944, a 2-pound bomb planted by the Swabian aristocratic war hero Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg ripped through one of the conference huts at the Wolfschanze only 6 feet from where Hitler was studying an air-reconnaissance report through his magnifying glass. Stauffenberg used British fuses because they did not make a tell-tale hissing sound. A series of accidents had meant that the meeting was transferred to a different room outside the bunker, the bomb was moved away from close to Hitler to behind a heavy table leg, and only one rather than two bombs were primed, otherwise the assassination attempt – one of seventeen made against him – would probably have succeeded. ‘The swine are bombing us!’ was Hitler’s first thought after the explosion, which burst his eardrums, hurt his right elbow, scarred his forehead, cut his face, set his hair and clothes alight, shredded his trousers and left more than a hundred splinters in the lower third of both thighs, but nothing more serious than that. ‘Believe me,’ he told his private secretary Christa Schroeder at lunch that day, ‘this is the turning point for Germany. From now on things will look up again. I’m glad the Schweinhunde have unmasked themselves.’54 At 2.30 that afternoon Hitler, Himmler, Keitel, Göring, Ribbentrop and Bormann all arrived at the railway station to greet Mussolini, with Hitler shaking hands with his left hand. By that time, a corporal had recalled a one-armed colonel leaving the hut in a hurry without his yellow briefcase, shreds of which were being found in the wreckage. Hitler’s Army adjutant, General Rudolf Schmundt, was blinded and horribly burnt in the blast, finally dying from his injuries on 1 October. ‘Don’t expect me to console you,’ Hitler told Frau Schmundt, somewhat insensitively in the circumstances. ‘You must console me for my loss.’55 The situation room where the bomb went off itself no longer exists, though there is a memorial stone to Stauffenberg where it once stood. (His remains were dug up by the SS after his execution at 1 a.m. on 21 July, and his final resting place is thus unknown.)
Churchill described the July Plotters as ‘the bravest of the best’, but there were not many of them, and most were extreme German nationalists rather than the idealistic democrats depicted by Hollywood.56 Although 5,764 people were arrested for complicity in the Plot in 1944, and an almost identical number the following year, fewer than a hundred were genuinely involved in it to the extent that they knew what was about to happen, although they did include soldiers as senior as Field Marshal von Witzleben, General Erich Hoepner, General Friedrich Olbricht and Field Marshal Günther von Kluge.57 It was a myth that the Plotters were hanged with piano wire, but true that the film of their execution (by strangulation from meat hooks at the Ploetzensee prison in Berlin) was sent to the Wolfschanze for Hitler’s delectation. What is unclear is whether the Plotters really spoke for many more than themselves. Count Helmuth von Moltke’s ideas for post-war democracy involved elections for local councils only. Claus von Stauffenberg and Carl Goerdeler wanted Germany to return to her 1939 borders, which included the remilitarized Rhineland as well as the Sudetenland. (Stauffenberg was far from the model democrat: he despised ‘the lie that all men are equal’, believed in ‘natural hierarchies’ and therefore resented being made to swear an oath to the ‘petit bourgeois’ Hitler whom he disdained on class grounds. As a Staff officer in a light Panzer division in Poland in 1939, he described Poles as ‘an unbelievable rabble’ of ‘Jews and mongrels’ who were ‘only comfortable under the knout’. He even got married carrying his steel helmet.) 58 Other Plotters, such as Ulrich von Hassell, considered Germany’s 1914 imperial frontiers desirable, yet they included parts of the very country, Poland, for which Britain and France had ostensibly gone to war. The future orientation of Alsace-Lorraine was another point of contention.
The hopes of the Plotters that they could make peace with Britain suffered from the flaw that such decisions were no longer up to Britain alone. Once the war was being fought by an Anglo-Russo-American coalition, and especially after President Roosevelt’s January 1943 insistence on Germany’s unconditional surrender, it was unthinkable that Britain should enter into negotiations with any Germans behind her allies’ backs. As one of the senior officials in the German Department of the Foreign Office, Sir Frank Roberts, put it in his autobiography: ‘If Stalin got the impression we were in contact with the German generals, whose main aim was to protect Germany against Russia, he might well have been tempted to see whether he could not again come to terms with Hitler.’59
The British Government’s stance had been succinctly summed up by Sir D’Arcy Osborne, who when told by Pope Pius xii that the German Resistance groups ‘confirmed their intention, or their desire, to effect a change of government’ answered, ‘Why don’t they get on with it?’ It is anyway also questionable what genuine aid the Allies could actually have given to the Plotters. Logistical support was hardly needed and moral support was of little practical help. Any promises about their attitude towards a post-Hitler Germany would necessarily have been contingent on its nature, and British decision-makers had seen quite enough of the Prussian officer class between 1914 and 1918 not to place too much faith in its commitment to democracy. For them, Prussian militarism was almost as unattractive as full-blown Nazism, and national-conservative Germans were nearly indistinguishable from national-socialist ones. One can understand why Eden should have said that the July Bomb Plotters ‘had their own reasons for acting as they did and were certainly not moved primarily by a desire to help our cause’, however harsh that may seem in retrospect.
Seen in this light, the offhand attitude of Sir Alec Cadogan, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office (‘As usual, the German Army trust us to save them from the Nazi regime’) becomes explicable. After Goerdeler had asked for Danzig, colonial concessions and a £500 million interest-free loan before deposing Hitler in December 1938, Cadogan had been equally scathing, writing in his diary: ‘We are to deliver the goods and Germany gives the IOUs.’60 The Foreign Secretary of the day agreed. On the subject of what Neville Chamberlain termed ‘Hitler’s Jacobites’, Lord Halifax complained, ‘The Germans always want us to make their revolutions for them.’
An assassinated Hitler might also have provided the ideal Dolchstosslegende (stab-in-the-back myth) once Germany was defeated in 1945, or later if the Wehrmacht had directed the war. Like the myth of 1918, which blamed the loss of the Great War not on the German Army in the field but on defeatists, capitalists, Jews, socialists, aristocrats and traitors at home, so a new myth would have developed that argued that just as Hitler was about to launch his war-winning secret weapons to destroy the Allied armies, which he had spent six months purposely luring towards Germany, he was murdered by a clique of aristocrats, liberals, Christians and cosmopolitans whose treachery was evident since they were working in tandem with British intelligence. It would have been a potent recipe for revanchism which might have resonated in Germany for years to come.
The war had to be won by the Allies, of course, but it also needed to be lost, comprehensively and personally, by Hitler himself. His suicide in the bunker after the total collapse of his dreams had to be the last chapter of the tale, the crucial prerequisite for the decent, peace-loving Germany we know today.61 If Hitler had been killed by the generals in 1944 – with or without British help – and a compromise peace had been arranged that way, present-day Germans would always have wondered whether the Führer might have won the war. There would always be the nagging doubt that Hitler was about to pull off his greatest master-stroke in a career that had hitherto been full of them. Furthermore, if a post-Hitler German government had been allowed to escape Allied occupation as part of the peace settlement, it is even uncertain whether the full facts about the Holocaust would ever have been revealed in the dramatic, undeniable way that they were.
It is also doubtful that the death of Hitler in the summer of 1944 would have necessarily shortened the war. The historian Peter Hoffmann has written that ‘Göring would have sought to rally all the state’s forces by an appeal to völkisch and national-socialist ideals, by vowing to fulfil the Führer’s legacy and to redouble the efforts to fight the enemy to a standstill.’ If Göring, or more probably Himmler – who controlled the SS – had taken over and not made the many strategic blunders perpetrated by Hitler in the final months, Germany might even have fought on for longer. Before June 1944, Germany had wreaked far worse damage on the Allies than they had on her. A negotiated peace would have let the German people off the hook, although it would have saved millions of lives in Europe and, by presumably shortening the war against Japan, in the Far East too. Yet to have concluded an armistice on the demonstrable fallacy that the war was begun and carried on by one man’s will, rather than through the wholehearted support and enthusiasm of the German people, would hardly have produced the most durable and profound period of peace Europe has ever known.
On 24 July 1944 Churchill warned the War Cabinet that ‘Rockets may start any minute,’ referring to the Germans’ ‘wonder-weapon’, the supersonic V-2 missile. The V-2’s sister-weapon, the V-1 flying bomb, had been terrorizing southern England for six weeks, even though fifty-eight of the ninety-two V-1 launching sites had been damaged. After Brooke’s encouraging report on the Normandy campaign, Churchill reported on his trip to Cherbourg, Arromanches and Caen over the previous three days, saying that he ‘Saw great many troops – never seen such a happy army – magnificent looking army – only want good weather. Had long talks with M[ontgomery] – has outfit of canaries – two dogs – six tame rabbits – play with dogs – frightful bombing of Caen… remarkable clearing of mines in Cherbourg harbour.’62 Amid all this talk of Monty’s menagerie, Admiral Cunningham diarized that ‘PM full of his visit to France and was more inclined to talk than to listen.’63 But one difference between Churchill and Hitler was that Churchill was capable of listening to – indeed asking for – news and advice he did not like. After the Bomb Plot, Hitler became highly suspicious of the veracity of what he heard from his generals, suspecting that many more of them were involved than in fact had been.
By 24 July the Allies had lost 122,000 men killed, wounded or captured in France, to the Germans’ 114,000 (including 41,000 taken prisoner). The highly competent, robust and aggressive Günther von Kluge – who by the summer of 1944 had recovered from injuries sustained in a bad car-crash in Russia – took over control of the defence, having been given Rundstedt’s job by Hitler, and he also temporarily inherited Rommel’s job on 17 July when the latter’s car was strafed from the air and he fractured his skull. Overlord having now ended, the next phase of the invasion was codenamed Operation Cobra and was intended to break out from the linked beach-heads and strike south and east into central France. The hinge was to be the British Second and Canadian First Armies in the area east of Caen, which kept the main weight of the German Army occupied while bold thrusts were made across country by Omar Bradley’s US First Army and Patton’s US Third Army.
The Allied offensive began with the carpet bombing of Saint-Lô and areas west of it in which 4,200 tons of high explosive were dropped by Spaatz’s heavy bombers. (Shortfall bombs killed around 500 Americans, including Lieutenant-General Lesley J. McNair, chief of US Army ground forces, whose body could be identified only by the three stars on his collar.) Despite Hitler giving Kluge some of the Fifteenth Army’s divisions on 27 July, the Americans poured forward through gaps in the German defences created by the bombing, and by the end of the month Collins’ VII Corps had taken Avranches. This allowed US forces to attack westwards into Brittany and eastwards towards Le Mans, proving the value of Patton’s eve-of-battle observation to his Third Army that ‘flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us’.64 A counter-attack at Mortain that Hitler demanded of Kluge, and insisted on his carrying on for two days after it had been stopped by the RAF on 8 August, petered out and left a large body of troops in danger of being surrounded by the Americans from the south-west and the British and Canadians from the north, in an area 18 miles wide by 10 deep known as the Falaise–Argentan pocket, whose mouth was called the Falaise Gap.
Better communications – and indeed better personal relations – might have led to a greater victory at the Gap even than the one gained by Montgomery, Bradley and Patton between 13 and 19 August. On 16 August Kluge had ordered a general retreat out of the pocket, warning Jodl at OKW, ‘It would be a disastrous mistake to entertain hopes that cannot be fulfilled. No power in the world can realize them, nor will any orders which are issued.’65 Panzer Group West, comprising the Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies, sustained around 50,000 killed, wounded or captured, to the loss of 29,000 Allies at Falaise.66 Eisenhower visited the pocket forty-eight hours after the battle, and later described it as ‘unquestionably one of the greatest “killing grounds” of any of the war areas. Roads, highways and fields were so choked with destroyed equipment and destroyed men that passage through the area was extremely difficult.’ This was due to ‘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.’67 With Allied fighter-bombers flying 3,000 sorties a day, those who did escape were merely the shattered remnants of the hitherto formidable German Fifth and Seventh Panzer Armies and Panzer Group Eberbach.
Yet 20,000 German troops did escape, along with their 88mm guns, although this did not save Kluge from being replaced by Field Marshal Model on 17 August. After the war Bradley blamed Montgomery for over-caution at Falaise, and vice versa, but Kluge’s defeat there allowed the Allies to make for the Seine and to liberate Paris – which had risen on 23 August – by the 25th. Out of the thirty-nine divisions that took part in the Normandy invasion, just one was French, the 2e Division Blindée (2nd Armoured Division) under the command of General Leclerc (the nom de guerre of Vicomte Jacques-Philippe de Hautecloque). It fought very bravely in the battle to close the Falaise Gap, and as part of the US Fifth Army it was given the honour of entering Paris first, although this did not elicit any noticeable gratitude from the Free French leader, General de Gaulle.
In 1956, de Gaulle went on a Pacific cruise with his wife and an entourage that included the Agence France Presse journalist Jean Mauriac, son of the Nobel Prize-winning Catholic novelist François Mauriac. When asked by Mauriac fils whether he knew the most beautiful of Charles Trenet’s songs, ‘Douce France’ (Gentle France), de Gaulle retorted ‘ “Douce France”? There is nothing douce about la France!’68 There had certainly been nothing gentle about de Gaulle’s declamations in defence of France, a country he redeemed virtually alone by his courage and determination. It was perfectly true that les Anglo-Saxons could find him to be a monster of intransigence and ingratitude, but he had his nation’s self-respect to protect, which he did superbly. Although Churchill never said that the heaviest cross that he had to bear during the war was the Cross of Lorraine, it was indeed said by de Gaulle’s liaison officer, General Louis Spears, who knew de Gaulle better than any other Englishman.69 Yet even Spears emerged with great admiration for de Gaulle, albeit tempered with constant irritation.
Examples of de Gaulle’s ingratitude towards his British wartime hosts are legion. ‘You think I am interested in England winning the war,’ he once told Spears. ‘I am not. I am only interested in French victory.’ When Spears made the logical remark: ‘They are the same,’ de Gaulle replied: ‘Not at all; not at all in my view.’ To a Canadian officer who just before D-Day had asked him whether he could join the Free French, but declared himself pro-British, de Gaulle shouted: ‘I detest the English and the Americans, you understand, I detest the English and the Americans. Get out!’70 De Gaulle’s staple diet between 1940 and 1944 was the hand that fed him. He set foot in France for the first time since 1940 on 14 June, more than a week after D-Day, and only then for a one-day visit to Bayeux, after which he left for Algiers and did not return to French soil until 20 August. In the meantime General George Patton’s Third Army had broken out of Avranches at the end of July and had driven through Brittany. The French Resistance, therésistantsand maquisards – a separate organization from de Gaulle’s Free French forces – was doing brave and vital work in support of the Allied forces, especially in hampering German armoured retaliation, but de Gaulle played little part in any of this from his base in North Africa.
Meanwhile in Paris, the German commander General Dietrich von Choltitz took the historic and humane decision not to set fire to the city. ‘Paris must be destroyed from top to bottom,’ the Führer had demanded of him, ‘do not leave a single church or monument standing.’ The German High Command then listed seventy bridges, factories and national landmarks – including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Notre-Dame Cathedral – for particular destruction. Hitler later repeatedly asked his chief of staff: ‘Is Paris burning?’ Yet Choltitz deliberately disobeyed these barbaric instructions, and the Germans did not therefore fight in the French capital the battle of extirpation that they were even then fighting in Warsaw, at the cost of over 200,000 Polish lives and the utter devastation of the city. Choltitz instead surrendered and went into captivity as soon as he decently could once regular Allied forces arrived, telling the Swedish diplomat who negotiated the agreement that he did not wish to be remembered as ‘the man who destroyed Paris’.
In all General Leclerc lost only seventy-six men killed in the liberation of Paris, although 1,600 inhabitants had been killed in the uprising, including 600 non-combatants. Today the places where the individual soldiers and résistants fell are marked all over the city, and none would wish to belittle their great bravery and self-sacrifice, yet the fact remains that the only reason that Leclerc was assigned to liberate the city was that Eisenhower could spare the French 2nd Division from far greater battles that were taking place right across northern and southern France, battles fought against crack German units by British, American and Canadian forces. For political and prestige reasons, de Gaulle had begged Eisenhower to allow French troops to be first into the capital, and the Supreme Commander was as good as his word, giving the order to General Leclerc to advance on the city on 22 August. De Gaulle instructed Leclerc to get there before the Americans arrived, and, because he did not wish to detract from de Gaulle’s limelight, Eisenhower did not visit the capital himself until 27 August.
There is some truth in the suggestion that, as with Rome, the Allies did not see Paris as a prime military objective, as opposed to a political one, and they were right not to. As the historian Ian Ousby wrote in his history of the Occupation: ‘Paris’s concentration of both people and cultural monuments ruled out aerial bombardment and heavy artillery barrages, so taking the city would soak up time and lives in a campaign already behind schedule and high in casualties. Besides, the capture of Paris was not tactically essential.’ For his part, Omar Bradley in his memoirs dismissed Paris as ‘a pen and ink job on the map’.
The first of Leclerc’s (American-donated Sherman) tanks rolled up the rue de Rivoli at 9.30 on the morning of Friday, 25 August. In the surrender document signed that same afternoon by Leclerc and Choltitz, there was no mention of either Britain or the United States; the German forces formally surrendered to the French alone. Similarly, once de Gaulle arrived in Paris soon afterwards to make a speech at the Hôtel de Ville, he proclaimed that Paris had been ‘liberated by her own people, with the help of the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, that is to say of fighting France, that is to say of the true France, the eternal France’. No mention was made of any Allied contribution. The next morning, Saturday, 26 August 1944, de Gaulle led a parade from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysées to a thanksgiving service in Notre-Dame. When the head of the National Council of Resistance, Georges Bidault, came up abreast of him in the parade he hissed, ‘A little to the rear, if you please.’71 The glory was to be de Gaulle’s alone.