Operation Neptune: Deception, Tragedy . . . and Victory

On this day exactly 75 years ago began Operation Neptune, the Allied landings on the Normandy coast of France. The arrival of troops that began on D-Day, June 6, 1944 would culminate 11 months later in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Operation Neptune (the amphibious phase of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe) was the largest seaborne invasion in history. It was not predestined to succeed. Indeed, it was an extraordinarily risky undertaking. And for an extended period of time on that day the outcome was in doubt.

Planning for Overlord had begun after the Tehran Conference held between the Allied “Big Three”—Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin in late 1943. Stalin had long pressured the United States and Great Britain to open a second front so as to divide the military efforts of the Germans, who had invaded the Soviet Union two years before. Churchill favored a second front that would work its way up toward Central Europe from the Mediterranean but the Americans insisted on a west-to-east approach, beginning in northwest France. The Americans prevailed and May, 1944 was initially chosen for the invasion. General Dwight Eisenhower was given command of Overlord and British General Sir Bernard Montgomery commanded the invasion ground forces.

The Allies also had to determine where the landings should take place. The most obvious location was the Pas de Calais, which would put the Allies close to the Belgian border and Germany. This seaside city due north of Paris was also close to England, which would make logistic support easier. But it was crisscrossed with canals and waterways.

Landing at Normandy, due east of Paris, would put the Allies farther away from Germany. Inland, the region was also characterized by the bocage: hedgerows that provided the Germans with natural defensive positions. For a variety of reasons, the Allies settled on Normandy.

A Complex Strategic Puzzle

But before such an operation was possible, other pieces had to fall into place.

First of all, Germany needed to be weakened on the Eastern Front with Russia. It is generally accepted that Adolf Hitler’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union was a strategic blunder of the highest order, opening Germany to its greatest strategic nightmare: a two-front war. The fact was that the Soviets bled the Nazis white. Although the Germans inflicted massive casualties on the Russians—in 1941 alone, the Ostheer, the German Army of the East, effected two of the largest encirclements in military history, netting 600,000 Soviet prisoners of war and inflicting losses (killed, missing in action, POWs) on the Red Army in excess of three million men—the Russians were able to recover.

Of the 5.5 million men who made up the Red Army at the start of the war, some 80 percent had become casualties by the end of 1941, a loss rate far higher than that sustained by any previous military force. But the vast manpower of the Soviet Union made the Red Army a hydra-headed monster: Despite the massive losses of the summer, the Red Army totaled 6.9 million by September 1941, and by the end of the year it had grown to eight million while the military manpower of the Third Reich declined. After the Battle of Stalingrad (August 1942 to February 1943), the Red Army took the offensive. Holding back the Soviets became Hitler’s strategic priority.

Second, the Allies needed to achieve air supremacy in northwestern France. The Allied strategic bombing campaign substantially weakened the Luftwaffe, the German air force. Of course, it did so by targeting the German industrial base necessary to sustain its air arm. But it also led to the direct attrition of the Luftwaffe as U.S. fighter escorts inflicted heavy casualties on the German interceptors attacking the bomber formations. As a result, the Allies achieved air supremacy for the landings and subsequent operations.

Third, the Allies had to gain control of the Mediterranean. Beginning in North Africa, Allied forces took Sicily and then landed on the western coast of Italy. Successes here freed up naval forces for the Normandy landings.

Fourth, as the British military historian Jeremy Black pointed out in a lecture at the U.S. Naval War College several years ago, the U.S. naval victory over the Japanese at Midway exactly two years before the Normandy landings had a major impact on the latter. Had the Japanese prevailed at Midway, not only would the Pacific War timetable have been set back, but also the Japanese would have been able to shift naval assets into the Indian Ocean, threatening British control of India. The British would have had no alternative but to deploy major elements of the Royal Navy in response, which would have reduced the Allied naval preponderance in the Atlantic based in southeastern England opposite Calais. This dominance was needed to pull off the Normandy landings and begin the eastward march toward Berlin.  

Finally, at the operational level, the Allies needed to convince the Germans that the main landing would occur someplace else. The deception plan, Operation Fortitude, involved the use of double agents, fake radio traffic, and the creation of fictitious units to convince the enemy that the main landings would take place at the Pas de Calais in northernmost France. To this end, more ordnance was dropped on the area around Calais than at Normandy. In addition, the Allies created a fictitious formation, the First U.S. Army Group under the ostensible command of Lieutenant General George Patton. Dummy buildings were constructed in England across from Calais, and dummy equipment; landing craft were positioned near likely embarkation points. These subterfuges proved successful. German intelligence remained convinced that the main invasion would come at Calais, even after the Normandy landings commenced on June 6.

Operational Planning, Friction, and the Fog of Uncertainty

Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian “philosopher of war,” observed that war is characterized by “friction” and the “fog of uncertainty.” He wrote: “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.” Moreover, this “tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.”

The events of D-Day confirm these insights. All military operations are complicated but none more than an amphibious assault against a defended beach. Logistics, combat-loading of ships, fire support, and ship-to-shore movement—each is complex in and of itself. Once ashore, the landing force has to consolidate the beachhead while defending against counterattack. Finally, the force must be able to transition to offensive actions to exploit the landing. And adding to these contingencies: the variability of weather, tides, and currents.

The plan for Operation Neptune was quite detailed, calling for six infantry divisions to land on five beaches on the Normandy coast and three airborne divisions to drop inland. The American 4th Infantry Division was to land at Utah Beach in the west, while the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed to the east on Omaha Beach. The two American beaches were separated by a headland known as Pointe du Hoc, the capture of which was assigned to the U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion.

British and Canadian divisions were assigned to the beaches east of Omaha: Gold to the British 50th Division; Juno to the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division; and Sword to the British 3rd Infantry Divisions. Inland, the British 6th Airborne Division was to drop to the east of the landing beaches to secure the Allied flank and destroy bridges to prevent German reinforcements from arriving. The U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were to drop to the west in order to open routes from the beaches and destroy German artillery.

The Allied plan required a full moon and a spring tide—the former to illuminate navigational landmarks for the crews of aircraft, gliders, and landing craft, and the latter to expose defensive obstacles placed by the German forces in the surf on the seaward approaches to the beaches. Accordingly, dates for the invasion were limited. There would be a full moon on June 5 and 6. Eisenhower first planned to move forward on June 5, but was forced to delay due to poor weather and high seas. Receiving a favorable weather report for June 6, he issued orders to launch the invasion.

Although the poor weather conditions complicated the plan, they actually helped the Allies, leading the Germans to believe that no invasion would occur in early June. As a result, the German Field Marshall Irwin Rommel returned to Germany to attend a birthday party for his wife, and many officers left their units to attend war games at Rennes.

Clausewitz’s friction set in almost at once. Although the British 6th Airborne Division successfully secured the Orne River crossing and the large German artillery complex at Merville, thick clouds obscured the drop zones for the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Only 20 percent of the drop zones were marked, leading to the dispersion of American paratroopers. Nonetheless, they were able to reassemble and achieve many of their objectives.

Just after midnight, Allied bombers pummeled German defensive positions, followed by a massive naval bombardment. Much of the ordnance fell behind the beach defenses; this would prove costly, especially on Omaha Beach.

In the early morning hours, waves of troops began landing on the beaches. To the east, the British and Canadians came ashore on Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches. After overcoming initial resistance, they were able to move inland, although only the Canadians were able to reach their D-Day objectives. Though Montgomery had ambitiously hoped to take the city of Caen on D-Day, it would not fall to British forces for several weeks.

On Utah Beach, the U.S. 4th Infantry Division caught a break when it accidentally landed in the wrong spot due to strong currents. The division suffered only 197 casualties, the lightest of any of the beaches. Quickly moving inland, the members of the 4th Infantry linked up with elements of the 101st Airborne and began moving toward their objectives. To the west, the 2nd Ranger Battalion suffered heavy casualties but succeeded in scaling and capturing Pointe du Hoc.

Pinned Down by Enemy Fire

On Omaha Beach, the situation was very different. Because the pre-invasion bombardment had failed to destroy the German fortifications on Omaha Beach, soldiers of the 1st and 29th Divisions were soon pinned down by heavy fire.

The chaos on Omaha Beach generated by the interplay of Clausewitz’s friction and the fog of uncertainty was captured brilliantly in the opening scenes of the movie, Saving Private Ryan. Many of the landing craft did not reach the beach, taking direct hits as they approached the shore. Those that did reach the beach were subjected to murderous fire as the ramps dropped. Soldiers who went over the sides of the landing craft were dragged down by the weight of their gear. Entire units were wiped out before they were able to fire a shot.

Most of the amphibious tanks that were supposed to provide cover for the Omaha Beach landing sank before reaching shore. Combat engineers in the initial assault wave were supposed to destroy the obstacles that the German defenders had arrayed on the beach and mark the approaches for the landing craft carrying the subsequent assault waves. But strong currents carried the landing craft of the first wave off course by as much as 1,000 yards. Thus most of the obstacles were not destroyed, and as the follow-on waves approached the beach, men began to use the obstacles as cover from the withering German defensive fire. The cumulative ill-effects: landing craft began to stack up, men wading ashore were mowed down, and others, paralyzed by fear, drowned as the tide came in. Nonetheless, after suffering 2,400 casualties, the most of any beach on D-Day, small groups of U.S. soldiers were able to break through the defenses opening the way for successive waves.

The Beginning of the End

By nightfall of 6 June, Allied forces had established themselves in Normandy although their position remained precarious. Allied casualties on D-Day numbered around 10,400 while the Germans incurred approximately 4,000 to 9,000. Over the next several days, Allied troops continued to press inland, while the Germans moved to contain the beachhead. Fortunately for the Allies, the deception plan had worked. Still convinced that Normandy was merely a feint and that the main landing would be at Pas de Calais, Hitler refused to commit his reserve.

Having secured their Normandy beachhead, Allied forces attacked in a northeasterly direction to take the port of Cherbourg, and south toward Caen. As American troops fought their way north, they were hampered by the aforementioned bocage that crisscrossed the landscape. Ideal for defensive warfare, these hedgerows greatly slowed the American advance. Around Caen, British forces were engaged in a battle of attrition with the Germans. The situation would not change decisively until the U.S. First Army broke through the German lines at St. Lo on July 25.

Much fighting remained. On August 8, the Allies conducted a double envelopment of the German Army Group B, trapping some 50,000 German troops in the “Falais Pocket.” With the liberation of Paris at the end of August, Operation Overlord came to an end.

The Meaning of D-Day

The landings at Normandy on that Tuesday morning in the spring of 1944, and the campaign to liberate Europe that followed, are among the great enterprises in human history. For Americans, Operation Neptune, and especially D-Day, ranks among the country’s most epic campaigns and battles, alongside Gettysburg, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, and Iwo Jima. It deserves to be studied—and remembered—by generations. When we look back on great events, there is a tendency to assume that success was somehow preordained. But as the example of D-Day shows, the actors in this great drama had to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The invasion’s failure was a distinct possibility. What would have been the consequences? It would certainly have changed the course of history. To begin with, the war would have been lengthened and the strategic position of the United States and Great Britain in Europe weakened vis a vis the Soviet Union, which might well have ended up dominating not only Eastern and Central Europe at war’s end but also Western Europe. Even a stalemate between Germany and the Soviet Union would have meant a whole Continent condemned to live under totalitarianism. A lengthier war would have given Nazi Germany more time to carry out its policy of destroying European Jewry.

Hence D-Day can be understood on several levels. As noted, at the strategic and policy levels, success on 6 June required successes in other theaters: the Eastern Front, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. Fortunately, despite the fact that the Allies were at odds ideologically—the Soviet Union on the one hand and the United States and Great Britain on the other—they operated in concert, albeit not perfectly. The Axis, although composed of countries with similar ideologies, failed to cooperate or coordinate their efforts. Thus the Allies were free to deal with the three Axis powers separately.

At the operational level, the Allied plan had to adapt to Clausewitz’s friction. The commanders and fighters discovered anew what is always true of war: The only way forward is to adapt to unseen and changing circumstances—or die.

Of course, it is at the visceral human level that D-Day speaks to us 75 years later. What makes men charge into a hail of bullets and explosives as the soldiers of the 1st and 29th U.S. Divisions did on Omaha Beach? In his 1959 book, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, J. Glenn Gray provides part of the answer: “Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.” But it is also the case that these men advanced against fire to ensure the survival of the American Republic in its struggle against an ideology inimical to liberal republicanism.

No matter how good a plan might be, it still must be executed by people. As a 19th century Chief of the Prussian General Staff, Count Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder), observed:  “No plan of operation extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.” To succeed in war requires a fighting force that can operate in the face of mortal peril. Such a force depends on the military virtues of leadership, physical bravery, and commitment to duty. These are some of the human factors that permit men to confront and adapt to the sort of friction and chaos that prevailed on 6 June. As a U.S. Army historian, S.L.A. Marshall, wrote:  “Thousands of Americans were spilled onto Omaha Beach. The high ground was won by a handful of men . . . who on that day burned with a flame bright beyond common understanding.”

Fortunately for the United States, the valor of the soldiers who waded ashore against overwhelming odds on D-Day was not an isolated affair. We have seen it again and again in such places as the Chosin Reservoir, Hue City, Fallujah, and Helmand Province. Americans should thank God that the United States is able to produce such men.