A Formidable Proposition

R.W. Johnson

  • D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor
    Viking, 591 pp, £25.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 670 88703 3

In his account of D-Day Antony Beevor comes to many surprising conclusions: that the Germans were by far the better soldiers, more experienced, disciplined and confident; that their weapons were generally better, not just the Tiger and Panther tanks and the 88mm anti-tank gun but even their MG42 light machinegun, which was far superior to its British and American equivalents; that the Allies shot many prisoners and committed all manner of atrocities; that French civilians caught in the middle often suffered more from the Allied onslaught. On the other hand, very little of this would come as a surprise to anyone teaching at Sandhurst or West Point.

Even the relentless sand-bagging Montgomery receives for his arrogance, dishonesty and peacockry is no more than the conventional wisdom today. As Beevor says, he was always more popular among civilians than soldiers, and it was only the great gale of civilian adoration that shielded his reputation in the postwar years. By far the greatest military figure wartime Britain produced was Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the victor of Taranto and Cape Matapan, whose remit it was, as commander in chief of the Mediterranean theatre, to protect the British army in North Africa. Yet there is no mention of Montgomery in Cunningham’s autobiography, A Sailor’s Odyssey: his views, I assume, were unprintable. Eisenhower saw Montgomery as a psychopath while Beevor believes that his huge conceit derived from an inferiority complex: both are quite mild in their criticism by comparison with almost anyone who had to work with him.

Mercifully, Beevor is keen to allow more modest spirits their moment of glory. Front of stage is initially given to such little-known figures as Dr James Stagg, the chief weatherman on whose forecasts everything rested. Faced with a mass of conflicting data (and many doubting colleagues), Stagg finally called it right, scrubbing 5 June for 6 June, thereby avoiding the worst ever Channel storm. Rommel, in charge of the Atlantic sea wall, thought it safe to leave his post on 6 June. Stagg, crucially, had access to data from weather ships further out in the western Atlantic.[*] Another unknown, or hardly known, is Captain Scott-Bowden, who reconnoitred Omaha Beach by midget submarine under the nose of German sentries, and on his return to London warned his superiors that there were bound to be tremendous casualties: the beach, he said, was ‘a very formidable proposition’. That wasn’t an exaggeration, but Omaha was the only plausible invasion beach once Utah and Gold had been selected.

Given the superiority of their weapons and the quality of their soldiers (almost none exhibited the symptoms of battle shock common among the Allies), why did the Germans lose? First because the Allies caught them off guard and weeks after D-Day they were still holding troops back in expectation of a landing in the Pas-de-Calais. And second, because Hitler’s ‘sea wall’ strategy was fundamentally flawed: 200,000 troops were wasted garrisoning huge coastal fortresses like those in Lorient and St Nazaire, which the Allies simply bypassed, receiving their surrender only at the war’s end. Rommel warned that the decisive battles would take place on the beaches themselves, but Hitler again refused to listen. Instead key German units waited for a major counterattack and then, exactly as Rommel had predicted, found that Allied air superiority had not only cut bridges in their rear, making it hard to bring up reserves and supplies, but also taken a tremendous toll of the panzer units as they attempted to advance towards the coast – the tormentor in chief was the rocket-firing Typhoon fighter-bomber. Thanks to the almost complete absence of the Luftwaffe throughout the battle for Normandy, Allied commanders could call in Typhoons and Thunderbolts in close tactical support without any risk of a German counter. The widespread deployment of Allied artillery reconnaissance (Piper Cubs were able to land on ordinary roads or fields) allowed offshore naval batteries to be targeted by the vast armada still sitting in the Channel, whose huge guns could reach far inland, with no German riposte possible. Finally, once the beach-heads were established, the Allies poured in enormous numbers of men and huge quantities of matériel. Sherman and Churchill tanks may have been no match for the Tiger but there were far, far more of them and that was the telling factor.

On 30 July the Allies took Avranches but the battle went on into August as frantic German counterattacks were first held and then crushed. Avranches was the key, however, for with this crossroads town in their hands the Allies could unleash Wood’s Fourth Armoured Division and Patton’s Third Army to break out towards Brittany and the whole of central France including Paris. In fact, the situation had been plain long before then. Just ten days after D-Day, Hitler summoned Rommel and his superior, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, to Margival, near Soissons, the specially constructed base from which the Führer had planned to direct the invasion of Britain. It was to be the last time he left Germany. Rommel told him the situation was already hopeless, given Allied air and naval superiority and the number of new Allied divisions landing every week. The only solution was to pull back to the Loire and the Seine and defend new lines there. Rundstedt concurred. Hitler was furious. They were not to surrender an inch, he commanded, confident that the V-weapons were about to turn the war in Germany’s favour. Not long afterwards, Rundstedt, perhaps the finest military commander of the war, was sacked. Hitler would have liked to sack Rommel too but was constrained by Rommel’s huge domestic popularity in exactly the same way that Churchill, facing multiple pressures both from his other service chiefs and the Americans to sack Montgomery, worried about the domestic reaction were the victor of El Alamein to be dismissed.

In the days before D-Day, Allied commanders seemed to compete among themselves in terrifying their troops with horrific casualty estimates. Nothing was too scary: average life expectancy was just three weeks; of every three soldiers, two were likely to be killed, etc. British troops were even told not to worry if they fell on the beaches because others would immediately be sent in on top of them. Quite what such talk was thought likely to gain is obscure, though there is no doubt that the high command was expecting the worst. Haunted by the disastrous Dieppe raid two years earlier, and aware that failure might well mean that the invasion of Europe would be postponed indefinitely, the Allied high command was determined that the operation succeed even if all the beaches were as ‘formidable’ as Omaha, and planned accordingly. In the event, and despite heavy casualties in the first 48 hours, the actual figures fell far short of what had been predicted.

Thereafter, however, the fighting was appallingly bloody: indeed, losses on both sides exceeded those for any comparable period on the Eastern Front. Hitler’s policy of fighting for every inch of ground was only part of the reason: the Allies faced a number of crack divisions of the Waffen SS who were far superior as a fighting force to any they had previously encountered, and many former Desert Rats got a dreadful shock when they realised they were up against battle-hardened, ideological Nazis, often with long and horrifying records of atrocities against Jews, partisans and enemy POWs. These included Sepp Dietrich’s Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler panzer regiment, the Hitler Jugend panzer division, the Deutschland, Führer and Götz von Berlichingen panzergrenadier divisions and the Das Reich panzer division. Das Reich was particularly monstrous; its commander, Heinz Lammerding, had played a leading part in the massacres of Jews round Minsk. Transferred to France, they saw no reason to change their ways and carried out a series of major atrocities against French civilians as they advanced north towards the beach-heads, the worst being at Oradour-sur-Glane, where they shot and burned alive 642 men, women and children, including refugee children they simply grabbed off a train and consigned to the flames.

A great deal of the drama of the Normandy campaign, well brought out by Beevor, derived from the clash between these hardened fanatics and the Allies’ collection of butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers, men longing to be back in civvy street, often desperately hoping for a convenient flesh wound that would get them invalided out. Such men had little real appetite for battle, and the British, in particular, amazed their allies by stopping to brew up a mug of tea on every possible occasion and by refusing point-blank to do tasks that might possibly be designated as someone else’s duty: the postwar world of I’m All Right Jack was already clear in embryo.

The collision between these very different subcultures was brutal. The Canadians quickly discovered that 187 of their colleagues, taken prisoner, had been executed by the Hitler Jugend division – 30 mutilated Canadian bodies were found by a French civilian. Reports such as these – there were more – travelled like wildfire through the armies and many Allied soldiers, not only Canadians, had as little compunction about killing SS men as they would have had putting down rabid dogs. Beevor tells stories of wounded German prisoners refusing transfusions of Jewish blood, of others tearing off their bandages and demanding only to be allowed to die for the Führer, and others taunting GIs with stories that New York had already been destroyed by V-weapons.

To most Allied soldiers the Germans’ behaviour was mad, even subhuman, and reports of Nazi atrocities merely confirmed them in their view. Some Jewish soldiers in particular had a reputation such that one couldn’t safely leave an SS man alone in their custody, but they were far from being the only ones. A British army report acknowledged that its troops were in the habit of shooting SS men out of hand, adding baldly: ‘Many of them probably deserve to be shot in any case and know it.’ These practices often extended to the ordinary Wehrmacht soldiery as well, especially since many Allied commanders had told their troops at D-Day that German prisoners would be an embarrassment they could do without, for they would only slow up the essential breakout from the beach-head. Orders might still be given not to kill prisoners, but once it happened there was no fuss and no further questions were asked. Given the general ferocity, Allied ‘terror bombers’ and Typhoon pilots especially, knowing how hated they were, often wore brown army uniforms, reckoning that, if shot down, their chances of survival were higher than they would have been had they been wearing RAF gear. It was often with a sense of genuine wonderment that Allied soldiers finally came to see that the Germans were ‘people just like us’.

In popular myth much credit in this final phase goes to the French Resistance. Certainly, many Maquisards rose with almost suicidal bravery at London’s call and paid a terrible price for having done so. Many locals, on the other hand, were distinctly cool and there were reports (not always true) of French women snipers fighting in aid of their German boyfriends. The real problem was that the Normans couldn’t be sure that the landings would succeed: if they failed, German reprisals against anyone who had sided with the invader would be appalling. As the Allies finally burst out of Normandy and it became increasingly clear that they were going to win, their reception got warmer and warmer. At the same time, direct Resistance assistance to the Allies was limited: ‘better than expected and less than advertised’, as Patton cuttingly put it. In fact the help that counted was indirect: the widespread sabotage on the railways, much of it carried out by railwaymen themselves, significantly hindered German attempts to move men and matériel up to the front, for example. But once it was decided that the Panzer divisions would fight until they were ground to pieces – the eventual result – there wasn’t a large role for partisans to play. The ensuing battles saw the second largest deployment of tanks after the battle of Kursk and although many individual tank-hunters wrought great damage with bazookas and panzerfausts, the struggle was essentially between armour, artillery and fighter-bombers.

The great prize, as everyone was aware, none more keenly than Patton and De Gaulle, was to break out westwards to the Seine and Paris. The goal was as much political and symbolic as anything else. The Communist-led Resistance was anxious to see the Red Flag fly over the capital while De Gaulle, fearing a repeat of the Paris Commune, was equally desperate to establish a countervailing Free French presence in the capital as soon as possible. Neither side could do anything unless Eisenhower could be persuaded to take the city. The triumphant scenes at the liberation of Paris form the conclusion to Beevor’s book, though really they belong to a different story. His narrative is essentially about the battles that raged for three months in Normandy and thus settled the outcome of the war. At the end of those three months the German armies were broken remnants, with 240,000 casualties and 200,000 prisoners in Allied hands. The British, Canadians and Poles had suffered 83,045 casualties, the Americans 125,847 and the Allied air forces another 16,714. In purely military terms it was a remarkable result. Everyone expected that the attackers, having to invade across fields and beaches that were virtual shooting-ranges organised by well-entrenched defenders, would suffer by far the greater casualties. In fact the Allied high command were greatly relieved that their casualties were so much lighter than they’d feared.

In a sense we have all been affected by that feeling of relief, and by the ease of the Western Allies’ advance that followed, allowing us to see the war in the West as a low-casualty war. In overall comparison with the Eastern Front that remains true, of course. It has been standard military doctrine since 1945 that the Wehrmacht was the strongest force in the war and that no amount of naval or air warfare could bring Hitler down. For that to happen someone, somewhere had to destroy the Wehrmacht and this task was essentially performed by the Red Army on the great plains of Russia. But that shouldn’t overshadow what was achieved in Normandy. The toughest task of all was to take on and defeat the crack Waffen SS regiments, many of which had ended up in Normandy having carved careers of such horror in the East as to justify in full their death’s head insignia.

[*] Even less celebrated – not mentioned by Antony Beevor – is Lawrence Hogben, a naval instructor, who also played a part in persuading Eisenhower to postpone the invasion from the 5th to the 6th and wrote about it in an LRB Diary (26 May 1994). He has a walk-on part in Giles Foden’s novel, reviewed on the previous page.