Normandy 44: The Battle Beyond D-Day

Many programmes about D-Day, or Operation Overlord, have been broadcast recently because of the 70th anniversary. One that took a slightly different approach was a BBC documentary introduced by James Holland called Normandy ’44: The Battle Beyond D-Day, which told the story of the entire Normandy campaign rather than just the events of 6 June 1944. Holland argued that ‘the Americans were not so dominant, the Germans so skilful or the British so hapless’ as is commonly believed.

Holland argued that the story is usually told from ”a predominantly American perspective, with the British effort often relegated to little more than an amateurish sideshow.’ He noted that there are three levels to warfare: strategy, the overall goals of the leaders; tactics, the actual fighting; and operational, the nuts and bolts, the logistical link between the first two. The third is often ignored.

His programme featured interviews with British veteran tank commander David Render of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, German veteran Johannes Werner, several historians, including Stephen Prince of the British Naval Historical Branch, Professor John Buckley of Wolverhampton University and Peter Caddick-Adams of Cranfield University and weapons experts. There were also readings from the diary of Stanley Christopherson, another Sherwood Rangers tank commander, and two German generals, Fritz Bayerlein, commander of the Panzer Lehr Division, and Sepp Dietrich, commander of the X SS Panzer Korps. Christopherson’s son David also took part.

Sea control stretching across the world was required to bring all the necessary supplies to France, as well as 2 million men from North America, 1.5 million from the USA and 0.5  million from Canada.

The Germans had 58 divisions in France on 6 June, but only six were Panzer or Panzer Grenadiers. The others were largely static infantry divisions, dependent on horse power. They had to be overcome on 6 June before the armour and mechanised infantry could reach the beaches.

The beaches were defended by MG34 or MG42 dual purpose machine guns in concrete bunkers. These had a much higher rate of fire than a British Bren light machine gun. This gave them a very distinctive sound. However, an MG34 took 115 man hours to manufacture and an MG42 75 hours, compared with 50 for a Bren.

The German machine gun’s high rate of fire meant that their barrels had to be changed frequently. The bunkers were sited on forward slopes, meaning that the Germans could not evacuate wounded or bring reinforcements or more ammunition forward once the fighting had begun. Very heavy casualties were inflicted by the German machine guns on the early waves of US troops landing on Omaha Beach, but the Germans fire died down as they suffered casualties, ran short of ammo and their guns over heated.

Panzer divisions moving to the invasion beaches were attacked continually from the air. Bayerlein reported that his division took two days and a nights to reach Caen. On 7 June it lost 85 or 86 armoured vehicles, 123 trucks, 5 tanks and 23 half tracks through air attacks.

Holland argued that, despite personality clashes,  the Allied command structure under General Dwight Eisenhower ‘was more efficiently structured’ than the German one. He also contended that the abilities of General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at this stage in command of all Allied land forces in Normandy, have been obscured by his tendency to annoy people.

The plan for Overlord was largely devised by Montgomery. He stressed the need to quickly form a continuous bridgehead and to capture Cherbourg and the high ground to the south and south east of Caen. It was a major junction of roads, railways and a river. He intended that the bulk of the German panzers should be drawn into the British and Canadians on the eastern flank, allowing the Americans in the west freedom to manoeuvre south.

Caen is the major query over Montgomery’s plan. It was supposed to be taken on 6 June, with the Allies reaching Paris within 90 days. This required a single British division to move 10 miles inland from Sword Beach on D-Day itself. Intelligence showed that German forces in the area had been reinforced in May, but a lack of landing craft meant that it was not possible to increase the British force heading for Caen.

Something that Montgomery did get right was the need to build up forces as fast as possible. The Allies did not control a port in Normandy, so they took their their own, the Mulberry Harbours. At their peak, they landed 7,000 tons a day. However, everything had to be ferried ashore by landing craft on D-Day, meaning that the men heading for Caen were lightly equipped. They were held up for a day a bunker complex, named Hillman by the Allies, which covered the Caen road and could not be by passed.

The German Tiger tank was feared by the Allies. It was a formidable opponent, but it used 5 litres of fuel per kilometre, compared with 2 for the American built Sherman, the most common Allied tank in Normandy. The Germans were short of fuel, the Allies were not. Additionally, the Tiger’s complex transmission system was vulnerable to breakdowns.

The German 88mm gun, fitted to the Tiger, fired its shells at a fearsome velocity, but so did the British 17 pounder, fitted to some Shermans, termed Fireflies. This made the normally undergunned Sherman a threat to the Tiger. However, Tigers could wreak havoc, as at Villars Bocage on 12 June, where the SS tank ace Michael Wittmann massacred a British column.

David Render, a British tank officer in Normandy, said that the Allies had a more team based approach. Troops of tanks would work together, with the destruction of an enemy tank being attributed to the troop rather than to an individual commander as was the case with the Germans.

Villars Bocage was of little strategic significance in itself, and it cost the Germans several Tigers, fighting in an urban area without infantry support. However, it signalled the start of a lengthy battle of attrition for Caen. Wittman and his crew were killed by a Sherman Firefly later in the Normandy campaign.

At the same time the Americans were being held up by difficult terrain of the bocage, small fields surrounded by high hedgerow. Shermans could not get through the hedges to support the infantry. If they tried to go over them, they would expose their poorly armoured undersides.

The problem was solved by the ingenuity of Curtis Culin, a US National Guardsman who had worked in a garage before the war. He came up with a hedge cutter that could be fitted to a Sherman. It was made from German beach obstacles and did not require great skill on the part of the welders, meaning that it could be manufactured quickly in the field. Culin’s prototype was ready to be demonstrated in a week, and 60% of US Shermans were fitted with his hedge cutters a fortnight later. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and survived the war, but lost a leg in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest.

Culin’s invention and its quick adoption showed the combination of ingenuity and fast moving flexibility that gave the Americans an advantage at the operational level.

The Germans concentrated large numbers of tanks near Caen. The British had advanced less than 10 miles from their beaches.  This looked unimpressive on the map, but gave them a major logistical advantage. The battles around Caen are usually portrayed as the British battering their heads against a brick wall, but Holland argued that it was the other way round. The Germans had a reputation for tactical excellence, but they could always be relied upon to counter attack. The Allies had only to probe forward, wait for the German counter attack and destroy it with their superior firepower.

Allied units, unlike German ones, could be resupplied and kept up to strength. The Sherwood Rangers were part of a brigade of three regiments each with 50 tanks. It received 1,073 new tanks during the campaign in order to keep 150 in the field. The Germans built only 1,500 Tigers during the war. David Render came out of three tanks in the campaign. Stanley Christopherson used five in a day in the desert campaign.

Stephen Prince argued that the Allied system built up and sustained larger numbers throughout the campaign. They had complete air superiority. The millionth Allied soldier arrived in Normandy on 12 July. The Germans started strong, but had to solve crises by taking troops from support functions. This worked for a while, keeping the Allies closer to the beach than they had intended. However, by late July the Allies had built up their forces and were able to break through the Germans, who could no longer stop them.

A major British offensive, Operation Goodwood, was launched on 18 July with huge air, naval and artillery support. It was to be followed by an American attack at St Lo. However, it advanced only seven miles, one for every 1,000 tons of bombs dropped. Montgomery had claimed that it would be a massive killer blow in order to get the air power that he wanted. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Eisenhower’s deputy, tried to get Montgomery sacked.

Holland argued that Montgomery was good at speaking to troops and the press, but bad at dealing with his peers and superiors. Goodwood would not have been so controversial had he explained his plan properly. 400 British tanks  were knocked out in Goodwood, but 300 of them were repaired and back in action in days. Montgomery was focussed only on Normandy, but Eisenhower had to look at a bigger picture, including the need to capture V1 launch sites and the greater progress being made by the Red Army on the Eastern Front.

The Americans launched Operation Cobra, the follow up to Goodwood, on 25 July. The Germans, over-stretched at Caen, were unable to resist the US offensive and were forced to retreat. A counter attack with all remaining German reserves was launched on 7 August. It failed and the Germans were forced back to Falaise. There were so many corpses that Werner had to walk on them. On 12 June he was part of a company of 120 men. Nine of them survived the campaign.

Allied casualties averaged 6,500 killed, wounded and captured on each of the 77 days of the Normandy campaign. Peter Caddick-Adams argued that in that time the Allied armies underwent a learning process the equivalent of which had taken four years in the First World War.

The campaign did not go to the initial plan, because the Germans tried to hold the Allies closer to the beaches than they had expected. However, the Allies moved very quickly once they had broken out of Normandy. They had planned to take Paris after 90 days, but were actually in Brussels 90 days after D-Day.

 

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