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OVERLORD: D-DAY AND THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY (Book Review)

Danjanou

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Day, June 6th 1944,, the Longest Day, the invasion of Normandy is probably the most known battle of the Second World War. Numerous books, othscholarly works and popular ones have been written about it.

More than one has made the presumption that the invasion was almost a sure thing. The Allies achieved total surprise, and quickly overwhelmed the German defenders. Then they quickly built up their forces on the beach head and moved out liberating France in quick campaign and driving the German army back across the Rhine.

British Journalist turned Military Historian Max Hastings points out in his book Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy that this was not the case. The Allied victory in Normandy was never a foregone conclusion. In fact there are times when it was quite possible the Germans would have won the ferocious battle and stalled the Allied buildup on the continent.

Despite their overwhelming superiority in manpower, equipment and the all important control of the skies, Hastings shows that the British and American forces could conceivably have lost. He is quite critical of both the soldiers involved and their battlefield leadership or at times lack of it.

Hastings spends some time discussing the preamble and planning for the Overlord Invasion mainly discussing the opposing British and American views. The Americans wished to invade France as soon as possible in 1943 or even in late 1942. the fact that their were relatively few American troops in England at the time and therefore the initial assaults, with the anticipated high casualties would fall on British and Canadian Divisions I’m sure was not a factor in the US planning.

The British preferred to wait and build up their forces, understandable considering they had been fighting alone for several years. Their forces were also scattered protecting their far flung empire. There was also Churchill’s obsession with the Mediterranean Theatre and the operations in Sicily and later Italy that initially drained resources away from the proposed invasion of France and helped delay it.

Some discussion on where to invade follows, with the normal Pas de Calais versus Normandy debate covered. There is also some coverage of the preparation by the various units tasked as part of the invasion force.

Hasting’s spends surprisingly little time covering the actual invasion on June 6, 1944. The basics, the air drop of three airborne division the night before to secure the flanks and to seize and hold bridges over the Orne River is covered. There are accounts of all five invasion beaches, Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword, including the carnage that happened at Omaha and the decision to consider abandoning it made by Eisenhower and the other commanders.

Most of the book though covers the battles subsequent to the invasion, as the Allied armies built up for their eventual breakout in the bocage country of Normandy

Hastings is extremely critical of the British from Montgomery downwards. He points out that Montgomery was not Eisenhower’s choice for Allied Ground Forces Commander. Realizing politically that a British General had to hold the position, Eisenhower had initially asked for Alexander then in overall command in Italy, and who had demonstrated he had the diplomatic skills needed for the position.

However Britain’s most successful and well known commander was given the position for political reasons. Montgomery was an excellent planner and his methodical approach to warfare is hard to fault. However Hastings implies that this very same technique slowed the initial Allied attempts to breakout and allowed the German defenders time to concentrate their defences. At one point Eisenhower considered firing Montgomery, however he realized such an act may well doom the fragile Anglo-American Alliance he had taken such pains to build.

Hastings does not go as far as to jump on the “Monty bashing” syndrome of some revisionist historians who seem to find fault with everything about the Field Marshall. He is quick to point out that Montgomery’s initial plan of the invasion did work as did his subsequent plans for the breakout form Normandy, although this did take longer than initially planned for and at a subsequent higher cost in men and materials.

Montgomery’s initial assessment of D-Day objectives including the capture of the city of Caen on the first day was way too optimistic. He then over estimated the capabilities of his own forces, British, Canadian and American, including the veteran British and American Divisions brought back from Italy to take part in the Invasion.

He also seriously underestimated the response time and capabilities of the German defenders. While caught completely by surprise by the invasion due to a combination of the deception plans and political decisions about where reserves were to be deployed and when they could be released, the Germans quickly recovered.

German armoured formations had been held far inland by Hitler, contrary to the wishes of the commanders in the field. Rommel and Von Runsdedt. Despite this an initial if uncoordinated German armoured counter attack took place against the British beaches on the evening of June 6th. Over the next couple of days despite Allied air interdiction, most of the German Panzer Divisions in the area were either in Normandy launched ferocious if not completely coordinated counter attacks against the Briotish and Canadian beach heads or enroute.

This concentration of German heavy forces against the British/Canadian flank of the invasion was foreseen by Montgomery and factored into his plans for the breakout. Using his own Divisions to hold the German armour in place around Caen meant they were not in a position to oppose and American breakout further west which was eventually what happened. The plan was well though out and logical and it did work, eventually.

Hastings is also critical of several of the subordinate British and Canadian commanders pointing out that many were inexperienced and therefore suffered badly in their baptism of fire. More than one Brigadier or Colonel was fired for not being aggressive enough during June and July 1944.

The same could be said for the equally inexperienced, although well trained troops under their command. Even the veteran Divisions such as the 7th Armoured Division, the famed “Desert Rats” transferred from the Mediterranean for the Invasion often did not perform as well as expected. Many of the troops expressed a certain reluctance to close with the enemy. Hastings points out that they had good reason to act so. These veterans had been fighting there Germans in many cases since 1941 in North Africa, Sicily and Italy while their comrades had spent that time training in England and enjoying certain comforts denied them. Many felt that they had already done their share and it was time for others to do their part.

Finally their was the realization that much of their equipment especially tanks were inferior to their German opponents, especially the US Made M4 Sherman medium tank which equipped almost all the British and Canadian Armoured Divisions and Brigades. Ironically the decision to standardize such units with this tank had delayed development and issue of some superior British tank designs. Fortunately there was an almost endless supply of new tanks to replace those lost in battle.

Hastings is equally critical of the Americans in Normandy too and for basically the same reasons. Most of the American Divisions that either took part in the assault and/or landed later on were new untested formations experiencing combat for the first time. The same could be said for their commanders. Like the British the Americans transferred a few seasoned units from the Mediterranean theatre, most notably the 82nd Airborne and the 1st Infantry Division for the invasion. Well they performed better than the “new” untested Divisions in general there were not enough of them.

Some of the commanders such as General Bradley and later on General Patton were experienced and capable officers and battlefield commanders and performed well. Many of the Corps Commanders and most of the Division Commanders though were inexperienced and forced to learn their role under fire as were the troops they commanded with the expected results and casualties.

The worst example of how new unbloodied troops fared against well led seasoned veterans took place just prior to Operation Cobra the American plan to break out of the beach head and cut off the Cherbourg Peninsula. The Germans managed to shift a Panzer Division from the British sector to the American and it launched a spoiling attack at the [preparing American forces with devastating results. It was only by shifting elite units such as the US Airborne Divisions to cover the gap made in their line and massive use of airpower that the Americans were able to blunt this attack.

Added to this were the same deficiencies in equipment as the British were experiencing, not surprising as both were suing the same tanks and many other vehicles. Overall the American performance was as dismal as the British.

Hastings is also very critical of the Allied air efforts in the campaign. There is the inexperience in air ground control and coordination especially among the Americans that results in several costly “friendly fire: incidents. Even more damning is the British and American’s inability to totally prevent the Germans from rushing heavy armoured formations of reinforcements into Normandy and then continuing to supply them despite have almost uncontested control of the air.

The only advantage the Allies had was in logistics. The build up of supplies, vehicles and munitions was immense as the full weight of the United States and its industrial capability was behind them. It didn’t matter that their tanks were inferior and being destroyed at times a 10 to 1 ratio. They had plenty more available to replace those lost.

Even here thought there were shortcomings. During June, July and August the Allies still did not possess a major port and all their supplies were still coming over the invasion beaches or through the one remaining portable harbour that they had built ( two were constructed to be floated into position, and one was destroyed in a storm after D-Day.). This slowed down their ability to keep the advancing armies supplied which in turn slowed them down.

The Germans on the other hand come off surprisingly well. Initially taken by surprise mostly for political rather than military reasons, they quickly recover and move to contain the Allied beach head by rushing forward the substantial numbers of Panzer Divisions held in reserve to contain Montgomery’s armies in and around Caen.

Realizing that they are too late to push the Allies back into the sea the Germans now begin an excellent defensive battle to delay the Advancing British and American Armies. Outnumbered almost two to one and with almost total Allied air superiority the Germans take advantage of the terrain in Normandy which is well suited for the defence with its narrow roads and bocage enclosed fields preventing rapid movement of Allied armour. Well lead seasoned troops equipped with in many cases far superior equipment such as the Panther and Tiger Tanks, slowed the Allies down and extract a high cost, higher than was anticipated.

The unasked question is of course what would have happened if the panzer Division had counter attacked earlier. As it is they could openly be released under the direct orders of Adolf Hitler himself. The German leader was sleeping on the morning June 6th when reports of the invasion reached Berlin and his aides were reluctant to wake him with the bad news.

When finally given their orders the first arriving German Panzer Divisions began launching uncoordinated counter attacks against the invasion beaches in evening of June 6th and throughout June 7th. Had they been given their orders earlier it is possible more forces could have delivered coordinated attacks this early and possibly recaptured a couple of the British and Canadian beach heads.

Eventually the Allies do break out of the close terrain of Normandy and onto the wide open country of the Falaise Plain south and west of Caen for the final battled of the campaign. Here Montgomery’s plan often criticized does work after a fashion. The British, Canadians and Poles of the 21st Army Group managed to keep most of the German forces facing them near Caen, including the bulk of the Panzer Divisions of the Fifth Panzer Army occupied albeit at the cost of several failed frontal attacks. Facing less opposition, Omar Bradley’s US12 Army Group with Patton’s 3rd Army in the lead broke out of the beach head to the west.

The Americans swiftly cut off and isolate the Cherbourg Peninsula and then conduct a massive flanking operation sweeping south and east of the German forces and almost totally encircle them. Now begins the climactic battle of the Normandy, the Battled of the Falaise Pocket. The Allies desperately attempt to closer the narrow gap between their forces and contain the Germans, while subjecting them to massive artillery bombardments and air strikes. The Germans desperately attempt o hold them off all the while trying to escape through the ever narrowing gap to the east.

The Advancing British (including Canadian and Polish contingents) and Americans eventually closed the gap on August 21, 1944 after a nine day battle. Over 10,000 German soldiers were killed in the pocket and a further 50,000 were taken prisoner. In addition much of the German equipment including their tanks were destroyed. Costs for the Allies were high too in excess of 18,000 casualties in the British/Canadian forces alone.

Even in this last battle though the Allies were only partially successful. Due to delays in the closing of the gap, over 100,000 German soldiers escaped. They may have left their tanks and heavy equipment but they were free to fight again.

Tanks can be rebuilt, and as German tank production was still quite high they were, in most case with new and better models such as the panther and King Tiger. Soldiers, especially veterans of four or five years of combat cannot be easily replaced. The Armoured Divisions destroyed at Falaise were rebuilt and these veterans with new and better tanks would face the advancing Allies again in Holland and at the Battle of the Bulge.

One the main reasons Hastings accounts of the Normandy campaign differ from those written previously is when it was written. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy was originally published in 1984 forty years after the events. As such Hastings had access to many documents and reports that previously had not been declassified and/or made public earlier. Many of these were obviously not flattering the Allies.

Earlier works on the campaign in contrast often relied on war diaries and official American and British/Canadian histories of the campaign, often written by those who had fought and/or commanded in Normandy. Naturally they tended to omit or gloss over their own short comings and errors.

Hastings was a journalist and his terse writing style shows in this book. As noted he does not pull any punches exposing the Allies shortcomings. This was the first popular history of the campaign to show such a revisionist slant, although since other Historians have also published noting as Hastings did the overall poor performance of the Allies considering their almost overwhelming numbers, air superiority, completer surprise and superior logistics.

The book is fairly well illustrated with some basic maps covering the campaign and major battles so the reader may follow along. My edition also had the requisite selection of black and white photos including ones of the principal leaders as well as stock combat shots. There were also line drawings of several of the tanks, aircraft and other weapons used by the combatants.

If one accepts Hasting ideas on the Normandy campaign as true, and there is little reason not to, then the words of another British General describing a much earlier great battle that also decided the fate of a war are apt. After Waterloo Sir Arthur Wellesley The Duke of Wellington is reported to have said that his victory was “a near run thing.” It seems so was D-Day.


 
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