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A Strategic Look at Operation OVERLORD

June 6, 1944. Dawn. Elements of six Allied infantry divisions assaulted Adolf Hitler’s Fortress Europe on a five-division front. The target was Normandy, on France’s northwestern coast. The Normandy invasion was the most strategically important operation mounted by the Western Allies in the Second World War. It was the culmination of years of planning and effort. Every experience, every decision, every operation since mid-1942 was pointed toward what would become Operation OVERLORD. So gigantic was the endeavor, that it even affected operations in Asia and the Pacific.

Normandy’s importance simply cannot be overstated. It is difficult to see how victory in the West could have been achieved in its absence. Germany would have fallen either way, but postwar Europe would have had a decidedly Soviet flavor had the Western Allies failed on June 6th, and the Cold War would have been very different.

Today is Operation OVERLORD’s 80th anniversary. Let’s look at the strategic picture as it stood in the late spring of 1944 and talk about Normandy’s place in that picture.

D-Day is a moment in history we should always remember. (Photo credit: WWII Museum)

Strategic Snapshot

World War II was a truly global affair. Everything literally affected everything else. Entire books have been written about this phenomenon. But let’s focus on a broad picture of where the war in Europe stood in May and June of 1944. We’ll start in the east.

The Eastern Front

The titanic struggle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was the most brutal and destructive land war in human history. There are no other contenders for the title. The Eastern Front was also the European War’s decisive theater, something we in the West have often ignored. That said, Normandy’s success allowed the Western Allies to hurl large land forces against Germany’s western flank, effectively ending Hitler’s slim hope of stopping the Soviet juggernaut.

Early spring of 1944 saw the Red Army finally kick the Germans out of the Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. Romania and Hungary lay wide open, forcing Hitler to send troops to block the southern route into Western Europe. Germany’s Army Group Center (as opposed to Army Groups North, South, and North Ukraine) occupied a huge bulge stretching into Belorussia, offering the Soviets a tempting target since they held the bulge’s flanks and shoulders. The Germans saw that, too, but Hitler felt he could not afford to give ground without a fight due to German dependence on raw materials from the occupied territories. By the end of May, the Soviets had well-developed plans to destroy Army Group Center. The assault was called operation BAGRATION and was aimed partially at holding German troops in the East so they couldn’t be thrown against the Normandy beachhead.

The Germans knew the Soviets were the biggest threat. But they couldn’t afford to ignore the West. Hitler and his commanders knew the Western Allies would invade the French coast in the spring or summer of 1944. Hitler’s plan was to strengthen his western forces, defeat the invasion, then redeploy those units to the east. He was aware that the United States and Great Britain could not mount a second invasion that year if the first one failed.

German paratrooper with the MG-42. The ammo belt can be seen here. Photo: Bundesarchiv.

But Hitler was unable, or unwilling, to send the necessary units and equipment on the scale they were needed. Doing so would mean losing territory and resources in the east. He was unwilling to make that sacrifice. So, the western defenses were beefed up, but not to the levels necessary to counter the multi-faceted Allied plan.

The Mediterranean

The Mediterranean Campaign was the US and British testing ground for the amphibious concepts applied at Normandy. The US Navy and Marine Corps pioneered and developed those concepts in the 1920s and 1930s, but the US Army, along with the British, had to adapt them to continental operations, which they did with varying levels of success. The carnage on Normandy’s Omaha Beach represents where they got it wrong. But they did well enough to successfully land in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and Southern France, thus forcing Germany to defend the Italian Peninsula and all of Western Europe.

Strong American, British, and French pressure held the German 10th and 14th Armies in Italy as OVERLORD loomed. In fact, the US Fifth Army pierced the German Gustav Line and took Rome the day before the Normandy landings. Though questionable American command decisions allowed the Germans to retreat northward, they could not be redeployed to France.

Western Europe

Germany had 58 combat divisions of various quality deployed to France on June 6, 1944. They were controlled by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the Commander-in-Chief West. The Channel coast, including Normandy, fell under Army Group B, commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Army Group B consisted of the 7th Army in the Normandy area and the 15th Army around the Pas de Calais. Army Group G defended the French Atlantic coast from the Bay of Biscay to the Spanish border.

The Pas de Calais was the French side of the English Channel’s narrowest part, a mere 22 miles. The Germans were convinced the invasion would strike there and with good reason. First, that’s what they would have done. That was a powerful reason indeed, especially considering that the Germans were unusually susceptible to a superiority complex. It seems they could not fathom that their enemies could do anything as well as they could. They held to this trend throughout the war despite consistently being proven wrong.

European strategic situation on June 6, 1944, map
Europe on June 6, 1944. (Gordon Harrison, “Cross-Channel Attack.” US Army Historical Division, via ibiblio.org/hyperwar)

Second, the Allies knew what the Germans thought. So, they gave their adversaries what they already believed they saw. The Germans vastly overestimated the number of American and British divisions present in the British Isles. The Allies knew this because they had long ago broken the German Enigma code and were literally reading the Germans’ mail. This was made possible by the Polish intelligence service, which gave the British a working copy of the German Enigma code machine in July of 1939. It took time and effort, but the British and Americans routinely listened in on German communications by 1943. The Germans never caught on. That capability was such a secret that it was not declassified until the 1970s.

Access to German communications helped the Allies win the Battle of the Atlantic, effectively clearing German naval units, especially the U-Boats, from the ocean by the end of 1943. That would prove vital to OVERLORD’s execution.

The Germans believed that the Allies would execute at least two landings on the French coast. The first of those landings would be a diversion. Normandy was considered a strong possibility for that diversion. But they always believed the main landing would be at Calais, after the diversions drew off German forces. So, the 15th Army was concentrated where the Germans thought they knew where the main thrust would come.

The vaunted German panzers were initially concentrated in Panzer Group West, commanded by General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg. Rommel and Schweppenburg, however, disagreed on how the panzers should be employed. Rommel wanted them close to the beach to hit the invasion forces at the water’s edge. Schweppenburg wanted them to be held back to respond wherever they were needed. Rundstedt struck a middle ground by assigning three panzer divisions to each army group, with four more divisions held as a mobile reserve. The effect was to split the powerful panzer force into packets, making them less effective.

But the worst part of the panzer arrangement, from the German point of view, was that Hitler reserved personal control over the resereve panzer divisions for himself. Not even Rundstedt could order them into action without Hitler’s approval. That proved critical on D-Day.

Concentration and Dispersion

The OVERLORD plan sought to maximize Allied advantages while forcing the Germans to defend the entire French coastline. The Allies planned one concentrated landing at Normandy, but they sought to reinforce the German belief that at least two, possibly more, landings were imminent. The goal was to prevent German concentration before the landing and to delay it for as long as possible afterward. This dispersion was critical since amphibious warfare doctrine calls for a 3-to-1 edge in local force superiority to have a chance for success.

German dispositions on June 6, 1944, map
The Germans were dispersed all along the French coast. (Gordon Harrison, “Cross-Channel Attack,” US Army Historical Division, via ibiblio.org/hyperwar)

This was accomplished in three ways. First, as we’ve seen, the Germans were forced to fight on multiple fronts, namely against the Soviets and in Italy. They were also obliged to send troops to the Balkans to guard against a potential Allied landing there and to replace Italian units after the Italians had proven themselves unreliable even in defense of their home country.

Second, strategic air assets were diverted to target French transportation nodes like major road and railway junctions and marshaling yards. Such targets were hit all over France and Belgium. For every target hit in Normandy, the air forces hit four more elsewhere to not tip the Germans to the landing’s location. The idea was that even if the Germans quickly identified Normandy as the main attack, they would still have trouble moving combat elements to the area. This proved to be the case, as German units took days or even weeks to travel what should have taken no more than a day or two.

Finally, the Allies mounted and pulled off one of the greatest deceptions in modern warfare. Breaking the German Enigma code made this deception possible since Allied planners could judge their success by monitoring German communications. It was also aided by former German spies. Every single German agent in Britain had been caught by 1944, and many of them were turned to work for the Allies. Again, the Germans had no clue this had happened and believed the deliberate disinformation these agents fed them.

Allied planners created a fictional army, the First United States Army Group (FUSAG), commanded by General George S. Patton, Jr. This fictional army had its own headquarters and communications, slowly built up as a real army group would be. Fake barracks, administration buildings, tanks, trucks, jeeps, and aircraft were placed for German reconnaissance planes to see. They were moved around at various times to maintain the masquerade. Radio traffic created an electronic signature to fool German listeners.

Choosing Patton to command FUSAG was no accident either. The planners knew the Germans respected Patton more than any other American or British field commander and they assumed he would command the main landing. Information was fed through the compromised German spies that FUSAG would land at the Pas de Calais. They showed the Germans exactly what they expected to see.

Finally, equally fictitious the British 4th Army was supposedly slated to invade Norway as part of the overall plan. The Germans didn’t buy this as readily as Patton’s fake army group, but they didn’t remove any combat divisions from Norway, and dispatched a special submarine screening force that could have been used elsewhere.

So, despite believing the main force would land at Calais, the German command was forced to disperse its forces to prevent a diversionary landing from becoming the main effort through initial success. The Germans themselves had a history of reinforcing success, even if it meant shifting the main effort. Allied planners leveraged that doctrine through their deception operations.

German Panther Tank in Normandy
A German Panther medium tank in Normandy. The Allied deception effort was aimed at preventing the Germans from concentrating their forces, especially their panzer divisions. (National World War II Museum)

The Germans in Normandy were also dispersed at the tactical and operational levels, thanks to the decision to split the panzer force. Rommel’s failure to grasp the power of naval gunfire support made this worse. Rommel instinctively wanted to meet the landing force as it hit the beach to deny its initial momentum. Those tactics would be sound were it not for the Allied navies’ big guns. Rommel placed his three panzer divisions as close to the beach as possible, hoping to launch immediate counterattacks. But three divisions cannot cover such a wide front. They were too dispersed to concentrate effectively.

But that hardly mattered. Any determined panzer assault on the beaches, whether by one, two, or three divisions, would have been destroyed by naval gunfire. The Germans tried that at Salerno, in Italy. The battleships, cruisers, and destroyers had annihilated that armored force, and they would have done the same at Normandy.

Nor could the Germans seriously threaten the Allied naval forces, thanks to the Battle of the Atlantic and the previous months’ campaign to destroy the Luftwaffe. The single most effective way to defeat an amphibious landing force is to destroy or disperse its supporting fleet. But Rommel had little to no concept of amphibious doctrine. The German Army had never needed it.

Rommel wasn’t at Salerno, but Rundstedt reminded him of it, urging Rommel to construct a defense in depth to contain the Allies’ build-up phase, instead of throwing everything at the beach. The panzers could only operate effectively if they were concentrated. Proper concentration would have required being beyond the navy’s gunnery range. The Germans were trained for just such a mobile campaign based on the operational-level counterattack. But Rommel had Hitler’s ear and, more importantly, his support. We’ve seen that Hitler couldn’t bear to cede territory without a fight, and Normandy was the same. Rommel got his way, but the panzers never attacked the beaches either way.

Surprise, Surprise

Any amphibious landing is most vulnerable during its initial stages. Unlike a conventional land attack, reinforcing the first wave requires complex ship-to-shore movement to maintain momentum across the beach. Rommel’s instinct that the attackers should be stopped at the water’s edge was correct in one regard. If the first wave fails to gain momentum, the follow-on waves have nowhere to land. It’s more complex than that, of course, but you get the idea. That’s just what happened during the early hours on Omaha Beach. Only the Navy’s ability to attain local fire superiority through direct and supporting fire from its ships saved the day at Omaha.

A successful amphibious landing depends heavily on surprise to seize early momentum and gain fire superiority. Surprise itself can be achieved on the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. The Germans knew an attack was coming, and soon, so strategic surprise was not technically possible, though the deception operations got the Allies close by dispersing German combat units.

Operational and tactical surprise, however, were as complete as the Allies could have hoped. Surprise on those levels can be achieved by keeping one’s enemy from knowing the time and/or place of the attack. The Allies scored on both those counts. However, the time element was also influenced by strategic factors.

We’ve noted that World War II’s global nature meant that everything influenced everything else. In this case, the Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic directly influenced the surprise factor at Normandy. The German Navy had been mostly wiped from the Atlantic by early 1944. The German command, therefore, had no ability to forecast weather patterns as they crossed the ocean toward the European continent. They only experienced the weather as it landed.

Operation OVERLORD invasion routes map
OVERLORD was so complex that Eisenhower had to give the launch order by 10 PM on June 4th. (Thomas E. Griess, ed., “West Point Atlas for The Second World War, Europe and the Mediterranean,” via westpoint.edu)

The Allies, on the other hand, had accurate forecasting capability thanks to owning the Atlantic. OVERLORD was originally scheduled for June 5th. But the weather over the English Channel was so bad that General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, postponed it for 24 hours.

The landings had to take place on June 6th, or else wait at least until June 19th for the correct tides to reoccur. But Eisenhower’s meteorologists told him that a small break in the weather was coming the next day. It wouldn’t be perfect weather, but it would be good enough to attempt the landing. OVERLORD’s sheer complexity required Eisenhower to give the order by 10 PM of June 4th, so all the shipping could assemble on time. He consulted his subordinate commanders, who all favored launching the operation. But Ike held the final decision. After thinking for a moment, Eisenhower gave the order. The weather still hadn’t broken by 4 AM on June 5th, and Eisenhower considered calling the ships back. But he decided to trust his meteorologist, Royal Air Force Group Captain, J.M. Stagg, and famously said, “Okay, we’ll go.”

That decision was possible because Allied meteorologists benefited from reports by weather ships in the Atlantic. The Germans had no such ships. The weather was so bad on June 5th that they believed a landing was impossible, and they had no warning of the coming break. They also knew the tide schedule and concluded that they had those extra couple of weeks. Rommel famously left Normandy on June 5th to go visit his wife for her birthday. He was in Germany when the first assault waves hit the beaches. Likewise, many other German commanders were at conferences or otherwise away from their posts.

Command Decisions

Another factor that helped achieve surprise on D-Day was the command structure. This same factor, on the other side, crippled the German response. Eisenhower commanded all Allied troops in Western Europe. But he answered to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But the decision to launch OVERLORD rested with Eisenhower alone. He had already received to final “go” from his superiors. He chose the time. When he got the weather report, Eisenhower had the authority to act quickly without approval from higher up. That meant he could make the decision and unleash his forces immediately. He may have missed the weather window otherwise.

Eisenhower and soldiers
General Dwight D. Eisenhower seen speaking with 1st Lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel and men of Company E, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment on June 5, 1944. (Library of Congress)

The Germans, however, were hamstrung by a dysfunctional command structure and Hitler’s micromanagement. The dictator had reserved control of the Panzer divisions for himself. He stayed up late on June 5th, as he normally did. When he went to bed, he took a sedative, leaving orders that he was not to be disturbed. When Rundstedt called in the early hours asking for permission to deploy the Panzers, Hitler’s aide, General Alfred Jodl, refused to wake him. So, Hitler slept while Allied troops gained momentum across the beaches, and the panzers stayed where they were. The Allied command structure proved superior and decisive.

Strategic Outcomes

Despite the Omaha bloodbath, OVERLORD was a resounding success. The assault divisions got ashore and were rapidly reinforced, thanks in no small part to the two artificial harbors called “Mulberries,” the Allies set up off the beaches. The deception operations continued, holding the German 15th Army in place for over a month. Even after Patton was sent to Normandy to command the Third Army, the FUSAG charade continued with a new commander. By the time the Germans fully grasped that Normandy was the main effort, the beachhead was all but impregnable, and the Allies were preparing to break out.

German units who did try to redeploy were harassed by Allied air power and French resistance fighters supported by American and British Special Operations units. The Germans never achieved the concentration needed to throw the Allies back into the Channel. Rommel himself never made it back to Normandy. He was badly wounded by a strafing Allied fighter-bomber on his way back. He was in the hospital for weeks.

General Eisenhower's Pre-D-Day message to the troops
General Eisenhower’s Pre-D-Day message was distributed to every Allied soldier, sailor, and airman of the invading forces.

The Soviets launched Operation BAGRATION on June 22nd, annihilating Army Group Center and driving deep into Poland. The only thing holding back the Red Army at that point was its logistical train. Germany was doomed, no matter how Normandy turned out.

But it turned out very well indeed. OVERLORD’s success not only shortened the war by making Hitler fight on two major fronts, but it also ensured that Western Europe stayed free after the war. Had OVERLORD failed, the most likely scenario would have the Soviets taking all of Germany and Austria, and probably Denmark and the Netherlands. Belgium would certainly be threatened, and France itself would have hung in the balance, though the Allies may have been able to hold the Soviets at bay politically. A second landing may have been possible, probably in Southern France, but it would not have been as strong or well-timed.

Eisenhower would have been fired, meaning a command shake-up. Churchill and Roosevelt may have also been in trouble. 1944 was, after all, a presidential election year in the United States. The Cold War would have been very different had Western Europe fallen into Josef Stalin’s sphere of influence.

Calling the Normandy invasion the most strategically significant Allied operation of World War II isn’t a mere superlative. It’s a fact. We still feel its impact 80 years later. Take a moment to ponder that today as we honor the men who made it happen and the 4,413 men who gave the ultimate sacrifice that day. Never forget.

The post A Strategic Look at Operation OVERLORD appeared first on The Mag Life.

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