Remembering the Great Crusade

The commemoration of a milestone anniversary of D-Day every five years encourages authors and publishers to add a spate of new books on the topic. The 75th anniversary is no exception.

Previous books on D-Day followed the experience of the Allied soldiers as they assaulted the beaches or parachuted into Normandy. Others examined the decisions of statesmen and generals making grand strategy in the sweep of the war as the Allies turned the tide by opening a second front in Europe. More recently, historians have integrated accounts of the unprecedented logistical effort of preparing and launching 155,000 soldiers, 11,000 aircraft, and 7,000 vessels committed to the largest amphibious invasion in history.

Many excellent books have been written for the 75th anniversary, and these are three of the best: In The First Wave, Alex Kershaw delivers a smooth popular narrative history of several remarkable individuals, as he has done in previous books, who contributed to Allied success on D-Day. In Normandy ’44, James Holland follows the recent books in his War in the West trilogy to give us a combined history of generals, privates, and logistics. Peter Caddick-Adams does the same in the lengthy and highly detailed Sand & Steel to follow on the success of his definitive book on the Battle of the Bulge, Snow & Steel.

These books contribute significantly to a more complete understanding of the complexity of the invasion as well as its great audacity. The authors pay a great deal of attention to contingency, recognizing that any number of insignificant or important factors could have altered the course of events. All three authors deftly narrate a gripping story and clear up myths by taking a fresh look at events and individuals.

Caddick-Adams and Holland open their books by examining the logistical effort that made the invasion possible. Both describe the task of assembling, organizing, and training millions of troops and support staff from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and France. Acquiring adequate shipping required coordinating the competing amphibious needs of far-flung operations in the Mediterranean and Pacific in the global war. The Allies bombed railways, roads, airfields, bridges, and radar sites in an effort called the Transportation Plan to impede the movement of enemy armor, reinforcements, and supplies during D-Day, but had to assault targets all over Normandy to camouflage the intended invasion site. The Allies engaged in a massive deception effort called Operation Fortitude in which they turned German agents to spread disinformation and created a fictitious army group under General Patton deceiving the Germans into thinking he would invade at Pas-de-Calais, forcing the Germans to divert divisions there. Tides, moonlight, and the weather all narrowed the options to a few ideal days and times for bombing, dropping paratroopers, and landing troops on the beaches.

Holland writes, “It is the economics and logistics of war, and while that might sound boring, it most certainly is not, not least because, ultimately, it is also, at its most basic level, about human drama.” The story becomes more human with the stories of hundreds of soldiers died in various training accidents, thousands of French civilians killed by Allied bombing, pilots lost over northwestern Europe, and the leaders who made difficult decisions. Caddick-Adams agrees on the significance of logistics, but his effort falters somewhat in his treatment of the bewildering—and unfortunately, easily-forgotten—array of individuals who were involved in this drama. He devotes over 300 pages to the preparation for the invasion alone.

Caddick-Adams and Holland provide the perspective of the German soldiers and generals who prepared for the expected Allied invasion. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel looms large in both accounts because Hitler ordered him to strengthen the Atlantic Wall guarding entry into Northwestern Europe. Rommel fortified the defenses including concrete bunkers and gun casemates, beach obstacles, and weaponry. Strategically, he knew that they had to stop the invasion on the beach and then use armor to drive the Allies back into the sea.

Rommel’s task was made immeasurably more difficult by several factors. First, the quality of the German troops on the front line was relatively poor, especially compared to the Allies. Caddick-Adams and Holland argue that the defenders were a mixed lot at best. The Germans fielded recruits too young or old alongside unreliable foreign troops, all of whom fought behind incomplete defenses. They found themselves outfitted with an odd assortment of weaponry and ammunition. Their mobility was usually limited to bicycles and borrowed trucks. The authoritarian Nazi leadership also had severe shortcomings that altered the course of D-Day. Adolf Hitler interfered with his generals, ordered them not to retreat an inch, and retained personal control of the critically important armor in Normandy. He did not wake up until late that morning and did not release the armor until it was too late. The German leadership on the ground in Normandy was also absent on that day because they believed weather impeded an attack and went to visit wives and mistresses. For example, Rommel received conflicting messages about an invasion and only arrived in Normandy about 9:00 p.m. that night.

The deficiencies of the German leadership contrasts sharply with the quality of the Allied leadership. As the final preparations for the invasion were made, Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated remarkable leadership and humility. Unlike his fascist counterparts, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces welcomed criticism of the invasion from the generals and statesmen at a meeting at St. Paul’s School for Boys. He signaled this in his remarks:

I consider it to be the duty of anyone who sees a flaw in the plan not to hesitate to say so. I have no sympathy with anyone, whatever his station, who will not brook criticism. We are here to get the best possible results and you must make a really cooperative effort.

He was the leader of the armed forces of free-world democracies. He welcomed free and open debate to improve the invasion plan to save lives. He wanted the men on the ground to show those same virtues when the time came.

Eisenhower nervously chain-smoked while waiting for weather reports in early June. He faced the gravity of sending thousands of young men to their deaths and the consequences of a possible failure to the entire war effort. Allied morale would collapse, another landing could not be attempted for years, and the Russian ally would face the Nazis virtually alone. Nevertheless, on June 5, after making the decision to go, Eisenhower was a model of humility when he wrote out a message that accepted full responsibility for a failed invasion.

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops . . . .The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

Instead of retreating to solitude, Ike visited that night with the men of the 101st Airborne. He looked his men in the eye as he shook their hands and chatted with them. After wishing them luck, he saluted each of their planes as they took off for France.

Eisenhower later described the selfless purpose of the invasion to Walter Cronkite. The general discussed the moral burden of command and the responsibility for his men that weighed down on him:

You knew many hundreds of boys were going to give their lives or be maimed forever. These men came here . . . to storm these beaches for one purpose only. Not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom.

Telling the story of those men is the main purpose of these volumes. The often unheralded Allied pilots flew critical missions that established almost total air superiority over the skies of northwestern Europe. This paid great dividends when the Allies instituted the Transportation Plan campaign, dropped the airborne units, bombed the beach defenses, and relentlessly struck German armor and infantry columns trying to reach the beaches after the landing.

Holland believes that the pilots have been unfairly criticized for allowing low cloudbanks and German flak to scatter the airborne and impair their effectiveness. “Historians have repeatedly painted a picture of paratroopers being spread to the four winds in a hopelessly disastrous air drop.” But the facts tell a different story. At least 50 percent of the airborne troops landed within a mile or two of their drop zone and 75 percent landed within five miles.

The paratroopers who landed by parachute or flew in by glider were elite troops whose rigorous training encouraged them to seize the initiative and improvise. Many had lost their weapons and were alone in pre-dawn darkness. But they used their crickets to find each other and assemble into small groups and then growing units. They killed Germans, acquired weapons, and moved toward their objectives.

Matthew Ridgeway’s 82nd Airborne seized key bridges and roads around Sainte-Mère-Église. Maxwell Taylor’s 101st controlled the roads around Utah Beach and prevented German reinforcements from arriving and linked up with troops from Omaha Beach. The British 6th Airborne converged on Pegasus Bridge and Horsa Bridge as well as the Merville Battery. The Allied paratroopers overcame, adapted, and largely achieved their objectives.

The authors help the reader feel the concussive force of the 14-inch shells fired from battleships and the bombs of the B-17s and B-24s against the landing beaches. The Germans in their bunkers suffered the psychological impact across Normandy, but the bombardment was notably less effective at Omaha. The readers also feel the fear and seasickness of the demolition teams and soldiers in their various landing crafts before frequently being dumped out into the water hundreds of yards from the beach.

The German troops may not have been crack units but were competent enough to blanket the beaches with machine-gun fire, mortars, and artillery. The story was different at each of the five beaches designated at landing sites. The Rangers at Pointe du Hoc braved machine-gun fire and grenades hurled down on them while they scaled ropes and ladders to ascend two-hundred-foot cliffs to find and knock out a gun battery that had been moved. The pre-invasion bombardment and landing of tanks helped immeasurably at Utah Beach as did unexpectedly landing at the wrong spot which was a blind area in the German defenses.

The story at Omaha was much different because the beach created a particularly bad killing zone. The outcome was uncertain for several hours as it took successive waves of men to take advantage of the fog of war and finally overcome the defenses. At Gold, the British invasion worked like clockwork as the infantry, tanks, and naval ships worked perfectly in a textbook combined operation. The strong presence of armor also allowed the Canadians to take down the defenses on Juno and disable the large guns. British infantry and commandos were hard-pressed by strongpoints at Sword beach and up until a mile inland, but quickly neutralized them and linked up with the Sixth Airborne. The successes along each of the beaches meant that the Allies established a beachhead during the mid-morning of June 6. The next stage of the battle was to secure the area and land men and material for the expected German counter-attack.

But there is a unifying theme to success along all the beaches during D-Day. Caddick-Adams quotes a postwar study by the 116th Infantry Regiment that neatly summed up the reasons for the successful invasion. It was due “largely to the initiative and aggressiveness of small unit leaders who made the best of a bad situation. Landing in most cases far off their assigned objectives, with large losses of men and equipment in the water, they had to improvise in order to cope with the strange fortifications to their front.” They were citizen-soldiers of a free society who were allowed to take the initiative and debate the best course of action as they fought together in small groups in pursuit of a common purpose.

In other words, whatever the massive logistical build-up, extensive preparations, and impressive firepower of the Allies, the success of the invasion depended upon the individual soldiers. They had to overcome their fear and disorientation. They had to leave the apparent safety hiding behind a beach obstacle and run across the beach. They had to improvise with the weapons that were available to assault the seemingly impregnable concrete bunkers with small arms and hand grenades. Initiative and aggressiveness were the common denominators and key ingredients of the success of the citizen-soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6.

One objective that was not taken was Caen by the British. General Bernard Montgomery has taken quite a bit of criticism over the years as a result. The failure is generally attributed to a mix of arrogance in promising an unrealistic goal and from dithering in the approach to take the strategically located village. Holland defends Monty and argues that his slow, methodical advance was reflective of the British way of war to use firepower to grind down the enemy and preserve lives. Still, it slowed the Allied breakout from the beachhead. The Battle of Normandy and the drive to Berlin was just beginning.

Caddick-Adams, Holland, and Kershaw have written excellent books on D-Day. Each account offers a way to help us understand how not just the strength of Allied mechanized firepower and superior logistics but also the idea that the soldiers of the democratic free world defeated the forces of totalitarianism with their heroic and courageous actions on D-Day. As Eisenhower told the troops that day:

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.