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D-Day Done Right

Monday, February 1, 2010

Antony Beevor. D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. Viking, 592 pages. $32.95

Certain myths about World War II have persisted, reaching a point where they have hardened into received wisdom, even among people who ought to know better. Thus it is fashionable to claim that the Russians won the war against Nazism pretty much singlehandedly, and that the Normandy invasion was merely a sideshow: that the real fight pitted the Red Army against crack German divisions, while U.S., British, and Canadian forces fought a bunch of sleepy garrison troops and reconvalescents — a version of history of course eagerly pushed by the Russians themselves. Similarly, among some American historians it is standard practice to claim that the Brits left it to the American troops to do the heavy lifting in France; these historians are no doubt influenced by the unabashed anti-Britishness of the memoirs of some senior U.S. generals.

To set these matters straight, British military historian Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy is extremely helpful. The book makes repeated comparisons between the European and Russian fronts, an exercise for which Beevor is eminently qualified, having earlier written acclaimed accounts of the battles of Stalingrad and of Berlin.

According to Beevor, the Allies had underestimated two aspects of the Normandy invasion: the difficulty of the terrain and the tenacity of the enemy. Thus the fighting was much more savage that is generally assumed. “The ferocity of the fighting was never in doubt. Normandy was certainly comparable to the eastern front,” he writes. In the British sector around Caen, the troops confronted   “one of the greatest concentrations of ss panzer divisions since the Battle of Kursk.”

Beevor refers to a conversation between a British officer and a Soviet liaison officer, Colonel Vassilievski, in which the Russian castigates the British for their slow progress. The Brit calmly asks him to produce a map and indicate his own sector on the Russian front. This turns out to be some 600 miles long, with nine German divisions facing the Russian forces. By comparison, in Normandy, the British were facing ten divisions, six of which were panzers, on a front of only 62 miles. No wonder progress was slow.

As for the monthly casualty figures in Normandy, according to Beevor, Allied casualties averaged about 2,000 per division, while the German figure was around 2,300. These numbers overshadow those for both German and Soviet divisions during a comparable period on the eastern front. Here German losses amounted to under 1,000 per division and Soviet losses were well below 1,500.

The testimony of a man in a position to know, the German Chief of Operations of the Armed Forces High Command, General Alfred Jodl, makes it clear how the Normandy invasion and the need to transfer ss division troops from the eastern front crippled the German response to Stalin’s grand offensive, codenamed Bagration. “The effect of the major conflicts in the west and in the east was reciprocal,” he stated. “The two front war came into sight in all its rigor.”

As a military historian, Beevor combines an epic sweep with a keen sense of detail, expertly capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of battle: He compares the “sip-sip sound” of machine-gun fire raking a wet beach to a man sucking his front teeth, while the thud of paratrooper bodies hitting the ground — they had been dropped at a too low an altitude, thus preventing their parachutes from opening —sounds like watermelons falling off the back of a truck. We catch a hellish glimpse of a German officer desperately trying by flashlight to stem an arterial wound with the ribbon of his Knight’s Cross.

In contrast to many other works on D-Day, Beevor does not use later interviews and reminiscences, but only cites contemporary documents, diaries, and letters. This strengthens his credibility, as old warriors’ tales have a tendency to improve with age.

As the book opens in the first days of June, 1944, nerves are frayed at the advanced command post of shaef, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force at Southwick House near Portsmouth naval base. Would the invasion be a go or not? Everything hinged on the divination skills of one man, Dr. James Stagg, the leader of the meteorological team, and his weather forecast. If the operation was called off, it would take another two weeks before the conditions were right.

Elaborate deceptions, known as Plan Fortitude, were in place: For months, George Patton’s fictional 1st U.S. Army Group on the south coast had been busy emitting phony radio traffic to convince the Germans that the real invasion would take place at Pas-de-Calais, the narrowest point in the Channel. Other efforts suggested landings in Brittany, on the west coast, on the Mediterranean coast, and in Norway.

Intercepts by Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking center, indicated that the ruse had been successful: The Germans expected diversionary landings to take place in Normandy or Brittany, but believed that the main effort would occur at Pas-de-Calais. A postponement would increase the chances of discovery. One blabbermouthed Air Force general had already been sent home for letting the date slip over cocktails at Claridge’s.

On the other side of the Channel, for months, the French Resistance had been glued to the radio for the coded messages, vividly described by one intellectual as “the insolent little sphinx emitting baroque messages on which the fate of France depended.” The Germans were listening in just as eagerly. According to Beevor, Field Marshal Edwin Rommel, the man in charge of the building the Atlantic Wall, wanted a forward defense with the German panzers close at hand, ready to stop the Brits and Americans at the water’s edge.

On this point, he had disagreed with General Heinz Guderian, author of the standard German textbook on tank warfare, Achtung Panzer!, who wanted the panzers assembled further back in the wooden areas north of Paris, ready to strike out massively in any direction. In theory, Guderian was correct, but in the present case, Rommel deemed this unworkable due to Allied air supremacy: The tanks would be knocked out before they reached their destination. Hitler decided on a muddled compromise, and Rommel’s forebodings proved correct, Beevor writes.  

Hitler, of course, had ideas of his own. Having variously predicted that the Allies would land in Normandy and in Calais meant that he could claim to have made the correct call, no matter where the landings occurred. Ever since the defeat at Stalingrad, he had banned any notion of retreat. Instead, he had declared some 16 ports along the French coast fortresses to be held at all costs. Though emulating the modest ways of his great idol, Frederick the Great, by pottering about in a mouse-grey tunic, Beevor notes, he had obviously forgotten the wise words of the Prussian monarch that “he who defends everything, defends nothing.” By his insistence on defense in place and on retaining control of the release of the tanks himself, Hitler was denying his commanders flexibility, a key concept in German military thinking.

The first reports of airborne landings came in at 01:00 hours on June 6. Hitler, believing that he was merely facing a diversion, waited until 15:00 hours to release the panzer reserve. This delay and the tangled command structure allowed the Allies to gain a foothold on the coast, through which vast amounts of men and materiel could be channeled.

To isolate the battlefield, Allied bombers hammered away at railway lines, bridges, and key towns on the panzers’ approach routes. Beevor details how the combined pressure from air and ground made it impossible for Rommel to make proper use of his panzers by concentrating them: The need to reinforce collapsing infantry formations left him with no option but to act as a fire brigade commander, splitting up the panzer divisions into battle groups and rushing them about, desperately trying to plug holes in the line.

An indication of the difficulty of Rommel’s position is that it took the Das Reich division, stationed in Montauban, south of the Loire, 17 days to reach the front, a distance that under normal circumstances would require three. The French Resistance played an important part in this delay.

But though the raw industrial might of the Allies forced the Germans on the defensive, they certainly retained the ability to exact a heavy price. The book effectively evokes the Bocage, Normandy’s hedgerow country, which came as an unpleasant surprise to the Allies, negating most of the advantages of mechanized warfare. Tankers like open country where they can maneuver and use speed. The Normandy countryside consisted of fields, walled in by dense hedgerows, and with roads that were often sunken in between, forming natural cathedrals. The British chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, had actually made a note of the unfavorable terrain when as Commander of the II Corps of the British Expeditionary Force he had taken part in the British retreat in France in 1940, but for some reason his warnings had been overlooked.  

Such an environment afforded the defenders excellent ambush opportunities. A Sherman tank, entering a closed-in field in the normal manner through the gate presented an ideal target to the Germans lying in wait with their 88mm antitank gun, their most feared weapon, and their Panzerfausts, their handheld tank killers. The warfare thus came to resemble jungle fighting or what Beevor in an interview has called “a rural version of urban street fighting.” The high proportion of dead to wounded, he points out, is indicative of the close-quarters nature of the fighting.  

The tactical skills of the Waffen ss troops had been honed on the eastern front. Beevor describes their defense as typically consisting of three lines: First, a thinly held front line of machine gun positions, then, a ways back, a more solid second line. The third line would contain the counterattack force. The most vulnerable moment for American soldiers, he notes, was when they had overrun a position and thought they could catch their breath. The German artillery had preregistered their own front lines and would let fly the moment those lines were taken by the Allied soldiers. German practices also included placing antipersonnel mines at the bottom of shell holes meant for Allied soldiers seeking cover, and mining the bodies of dead soldiers.

All this forced the Allies to adapt and improvise. The procedure became one of letting the Shermans shell the intersections, followed by a spraying of the hedges with machine gun fire, allowing the infantry to advance. “Each hedgerow when taken was to be treated as a new line of departure,” writes Beevor. One bright idea was to weld a pair of steel prongs to the Sherman, enabling it to cut through the hedgerows from the side rather than entering the field through the front. It became known as “the Rhino tank.”

Similarly, jeeps were fitted with a rod on the hood to cut the metal wires the Germans had suspended between the trees, designed to slice the heads off the drivers. And to ensure that the Germans would not sneak up on them in the dark, soldiers learned to put twigs and branches in front of their positions.

Apart from the terrain, notes Beevor, what the ss troops had going for them was their fanaticism. Believing in the Goebbels line that Germany faced annihilation, they were often prepared to take suicidal risks; it was unrealistic to expect Allied citizen-soldiers to act in the same manner.

And having graduated in race war in the east, the ss certainly felt no urge to change its approach in the west: On its way to the front, the Das Reich division wiped out the inhabitants of the village of Oradour, and the Hitler Jugend division executed 187 Canadian prisoners. Other dirty tricks consisted in soldiers pretending to surrender, then dropping flat while the machine guns behind them would open up.

On this background, it can hardly come as a surprise that the Allies did not always bother to take prisoners. For instance, Beevor notes, there were only eight Hitler Jugend prisoners in the 1,327 taken by the 11th Canadian corps. Even given the ssrsquo;s fanaticism, he sees this as a telling figure. The Brits likewise often paid short shrift to ss soldiers. “Many of them probably deserve to be shot in any case and know it, ” he quotes a laconic report as stating.

On the contribution of his own countrymen, Beevor is dispassionately analytical and fair-minded. While the American forces caught hell on Omaha Beach, British early casualties on D-day had been relatively light. But things quickly turned nasty, Beevor notes, with casualties steadily climbing to a level 80 percent higher than expected. The critical issue became one of finding replacements, something the British could not admit for fear of losing face. This invariably translated into caution on the battlefield.

Montgomery had promised to capture the city of Caen, which he bragged would fall on the first day. Unfortunately, he had overlooked the need to secure transport for his infantry, as the Brits did not have halftrack personnel carriers like the Americans and Germans. Which meant they had to march, giving the Germans time to regroup. Moreover, Beevor notes, Montgomery’s forces were deficient in infantry-tank operations; owing to the rigidity of the regimental system, they had nothing like the German panzer grenadier system by which tanks and armored infantry worked in an integrated manner. Thus it was a month before Caen was taken.

A common complaint against the Brits held that they had lost some of their fighting edge since Africa. The military historian Captain Basil Liddell Hart wrote afterwards that the British side had suffered from “a national decline in boldness and initiative,” manifesting itself “in a growing reluctance to make sacrifices in attack.” And Beevor does find evidence of a certain hesitancy on the part of British troops to assist other outfits, something he ascribes to either “a trade union mentality” or to the British regimental system; he also cites a lack of confidence among junior officers.  

But while acknowledging some of Liddell Hart’s points, Beevor clearly finds his criticism too harsh and desk-officer-like. The Brits were facing the toughest SS outfits by far. These included six armored Waffen ss divisions, among them the 1st ss Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, the 12 ss Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend, and two ss tiger battalions. Also involved were the Panzer Lehr division and the 2nd Panzer division.

The Germans saw the Brits as being in a position to make a run for Paris and thereby cut off the German forces in western France: hence their main effort fell on the British sector. By comparison, though encountering more infantry divisions, the Americans fought the ill-trained and undermanned 17th ss Panzer grenadier division Goetz von Berlichingen, and the 2nd ss Panzer division Das Reich.

What’s more, the British were severely handicapped by inferior equipment: Their Cromwell tank was a dud with its puny gun and its flat front, making it an easy prey for the German tigers. Beevor quotes an entry in the diary of a British tank officer, written just before his tank was hit. “After four years of preparation for the invasion why are our machines inferior?” Montgomery was well aware of this flaw, and had in fact himself complained about it, but he preferred to suppress the issue for fear that his troops would “develop a tiger complex.” Facing odds like these, an attitude of “leave it to the raf and the artillery” developed among the troops.

But while less sharp on the attack, they were tenacious in defense. Again, General Jodl’s testimony on the British contribution carries weight: “The British attacks were a continual hindrance to quick relief of the panzer divisions by infantry divisions and continually thwarted our plan to move more forces to the west wing. These attacks did contribute substantially to making the American breakthrough easier.”

The Panzer Lehr division, for instance, was deemed the best-equipped and best-trained of all the German forces, notes Beevor, but it had seen two-thirds of its fighting capability whittled away in its encounters with British troops. According to its commanding officer, General Fritz Bayerlein, by the time he faced the Americans, only 400 men and 65 tanks remained of a force of 2,200 men and 183 tanks.

Thus rather than blaming the fighting spirit of the British Tommy, it was his commander who was at fault, and Beevor does not mince words in his censure of Montgomery. A right royal pain, the man’s arrogance and superciliousness were legendary: He routinely passed himself off as a latter day Marlborough or Wellington, famously bragging to King George’s secretary that “my hat is worth three divisions.”

More than anything else, it was Montgomery’s lack of candor and his “delphic cricket metaphors” that drove the Americans up the wall — Patton contemptuously referred to him as “the little monkey.” Under pressure to deliver, he had come up with a plan for a British breakout towards Falaise, and in order to obtain heavy bomber support, he oversold the idea both to Eisenhower and Allan Brooke.

But once he embarked on it, he moved too cautiously and the enterprise petered out, as his tanks were not supported by infantry. This did not prevent him from claiming great success, despite a loss of 200 British tanks. “Operations this morning a complete success. The effect of the bombing was decisive and the spectacle terrific . . . situation very promising and it is difficult to see what the enemy can do just at present.” But the enemy knew exactly what to do: Some 20,000 to 30,000 German soldiers managed to escape.

When it proved impossible to uphold the fiction of success, he changed his tune by declaring that acting as a magnet for the German panzer divisions and thereby freeing up the Americans to make a breakout had been his plan from the very beginning. This is how it actually worked out, but his plan had specifically envisaged a British breakout. By being disingenuous, Beevor writes, he diverted attention away from the sacrifices of the British troops.  

Years later, Eisenhower, looking back on his wartime task of keeping the egos of his commanders in check, was still fuming, labeling Montgomery a madman in an interview with Cornelius Ryan. “First of all he’s a psychopath. Don’t forget that. He is such an egocentric that the man — everything he has done is perfect —has never made a mistake in his life.” The mere recollection seems to call for a stiff drink.

As Beevor sums it up: “Almost singlehandedly, Montgomery had managed in Normandy to make most senior American commanders anti-British at the very moment when Britain’s power was waning dramatically. His behavior thus constituted a diplomatic disaster of the first order.” But at the same time, Beevor dismisses rumors that Churchill intended to fire Monty. It is damned hard to sack a man once his beret has become a symbol of national pluck.