The spring of 1944 was a unique time in European history, unique because virtually every European was anticipating a momentous event. That event was the Allied invasion, and everyone knew that it would decide whether the continent lived under Nazi domination.
By May of that year the war had reached its decisive phase, a phase in which invasion was inevitable. The British had been planning to return to Europe since they were kicked off in 1940. The Russians had been demanding the opening of a second front since the June of 1941, insisting that the Germans could never be beaten without one. And the Americans had been in agreement with the Russians since their entry into the war. Generals George Marshall and Dwight D. Elsenhower had argued forcefully for a second front in 1942 and 1943.
Despite the commitment by the three great allies, and despite intense public pressure, another strategy was followed. In November, 1942, the Allies landed in French North Africa, a long way from any major German forces (not to mention from any German cities). In July of the following year they landed in Sicily, and two months later in southern Italy. These operations ran into heavy German opposition, but they did not put a significant strain on enemy manpower. Nor did they seriously weaken Germany's capacity to make war: indeed, German factories were producing tanks and guns at record rates by the spring of 1944. And their guns and tanks were the best in the world - as well they might be, given the Nazis' ability to draw on the expertise and resources of all Europe. In short, the Allied operations in the Mediterranean during 1942 and 1943 were more important for their political than their military results. They left Hitler with few problems either of production or of manpower.
But Hitler did have one major worry in the Spring of 1944, and that was a single point at which his fighting forces were vulnerable. He was well protected on the north, where his troops occupied Norway and Denmark. To the south, the immense barrier of the Alps stood between Germany and the Allied forces, who in any case were still south of Rome. Hitler was not even excessively worried about his eastern flank: his armies were 600 miles east of Warsaw, and within 300 miles of Moscow. He had lost the Ukraine in 1943, much his biggest loss to date, but for compensation he had held on in the Balkans and was still besieging Leningrad. On all fronts except one he had a deep buffer between himself and his enemies. That one exception was to the west.
The Allied forces building up in the United Kingdom, now 2,500,000 strong, were the greatest threat to Cologne and Germany's industrial heartland. Not only were they much closer than the Red Army, they were operating from a virtually impregnable base and had far greater mobility than either the German or Russian armies. But of course there was the English Channel between Hitler's Europe and the armies gathering in the United Kingdom. Hitler knew, from intensive study of the plans for operation Sea Lion, a German invasion of Britain in 1940, just how difficult a cross-Channel attack would be.
Hitler did what he could to make it even more difficult. Just as the British started thinking about returning to the Continent even as they were leaving Dunkirk, so did Hitler begin thinking then of how to repulse an invasion. First the ports were fortified, protected by big guns on the cliffs, by machine-gun emplacements, by trenches, by mine fields and barbed wire, by underwater obstacles, by every device known to German engineers. The Canadians learned how effective these were at Dieppe in August, 1942, when they were met by a veritable wall of steel hurtling down on them from every direction. In 1943, the Germans began extending the fortifications up and down the coast; in January, 1944, with Rommel's arrival to take command of Army Group B, construction reached an almost frenzied pace. The Germans knew that the second front had to come that spring, and that throwing the invaders back was their single best chance to win the war.
Hitler had therefore turned a staggering amount of labour and material, taken from all over Europe, to the construction of the Atlantic Wall. All along the French and Belgian coasts, but especially between Ostend and Cherbourg, the Germans had built or were building machine-gun pillboxes, trenches, observation posts, artillery emplacements, fortresses, mine fields, flooded fields, underwater obstacles of every conceivable type, a communications network. This was a regular Maginot Line, only much longer - truly a gigantic undertaking unprecedented in Western history, and comparable only to the Great Wall of China.
If Elsenhower's forces could break through that Wall, victory was not assured, but it was at least possible and even probable. If they could not get ashore, their chances were doubtful. Eisenhower said it well in his first report to the Combined Chiefs of Staff: 'Every obstacle must be overcome, every inconvenience suffered and every risk run to ensure that our blow is decisive. We cannot afford to fail.'
To meet the challenge, the United States, Great Britain, and Canada all turned the greater part of their energies to the task of launching an assault and establishing a beach-head. Their venture was code-named Operation Overlord; nearly every citizen of the three nations involved made a direct personal contribution to launching it.
As a consequence, Elsenhower's problems did not include a shortage of material. He had an abundant supply of tanks, guns, trucks. His problem was how to get them across the Channel and into battle. The tanks and heavy artillery could only be brought ashore gradually, especially on D-Day itself and for a few days after that. Thus, the Allied forces would be at their most vulnerable after the first wave had landed and before the follow-up waves got ashore with their tanks and guns. The troops themselves would be heavily outnumbered (by as much as ten to one) in the first days of the invasion, and as late as D-Day plus one month the ratio would be five to one. But many of the German divisions, fifty-five in all, were scattered all across France; many were immobile, and many were of low quality. Furthermore, Elsenhower could count on the Allied air forces to keep German movement to a minimum, at least in daylight. And he had chosen as the invasion site the area west of the Orne River: this avoided the bulk of German strength in France, which was north and east of the mouth of the Seine. In that area, and most of all around the Pas de Calais, German defences were strongest. In addition, the Germans had most of their panzer strength in the Pas de Calais.
Because the panzers were to the east, the most dangerous flank of the invasion for the Allies was the left flank. It was closest to the major German counter -attack formations and therefore the place where Eisenhower expected the most determined - and most dangerous - counter-attacks.
For immediate counter-attack purposes, Rommel had two armoured divisions, the 12th SS Panzer and the 21st Panzer, stationed in and to the east ofCaen. Elsenhower's greatest fear was that Rommel would send those divisions, operating as a coordinated unit, on a counter-attack against his left flank, code-named Sword Beach, just west of the mouth of the Orne River. It was possible that those two panzer divisions would drive the British 3rd Infantry Division on Sword back into the sea. It was also possible that, on D-Day plus one or two, additional panzer divisions would come into Normandy to participate in flank attacks along the beaches. They would strike first against Juno, then Gold, and finally the American beaches at Omaha and Utah. With fighting going on along the beaches, all Elsenhower's loading schedules would be disrupted.
To prevent such a catastrophe, Eisenhower expected to delay and harass the German tanks moving into Normandy by using the Allied air force, which had complete command of the air. The trouble was that the air forces could not operate either at night or in bad weather. By themselves, they would not be able to isolate the battlefield. Eisenhower needed some additional way to protect Sword Beach and his critical left flank.
To solve his problem, Eisenhower turned to another of the assets that Allied control of the air made available to him -airborne forces, extraordinarily mobile and elite units. German success with paratroopers and gliderborne troops in the first years of World War II had convinced the British and American armies of the need to create their own airborne divisions. Now Eisenhower had four such divisions available to him, the US 82nd and 101st Airborne and the British 1st and 6th Airborne. He decided to use them on his flanks: offensively to provide immediate tactical assistance by seizing bridges, road junctions, and the like; defensively to keep the Germans occupied and confused. The British 6th Airborne, dropping east of Sword Beach, had another critical task: setting up a blocking force to keep the German panzers away from the left flank.
Critical though those tasks were, they did not seem critical enough to George C. Marshall, the US Army Chief of Staff. Marshall was so strongly opposed to Elsenhower's plan that he sent Eisenhower what amounted to a reprimand - and was certainly the most critical letter he ever wrote to his protege. Marshall's criticism, and Elsenhower's response, bring out very clearly the advantages and disadvantages of airborne troops.
Marshall pointed out that the role assigned to the airborne forces was basically defensive, and stated flatly that he did not like the concept at all. No attempt was being made to engage or disrupt the enemy's strategic forces or counter -attack capability. Marshall told Eisenhower that when he was creating the 82nd and 101st, he had had great hopes for paratroopers as a new element in warfare, but he confessed that his hopes had not been realised, and now Elsenhower's plans made him despair. Marshall saw in the plan a wasteful dispersion of three elite divisions, with two American on the right protecting Utah's flank and one British on the left protecting Sword's flank. He charged that there had been a 'lack in conception' caused by a piecemeal approach, with General Omar Bradley insisting that he had to have paratrooper help at Utah and General Bernard Law Montgomery insisting that Sword Beach also had to have paratrooper aid.
This business of splitting up the paratroopers was all a mistake, Marshall told Eisenhower. If he were in command of Overlord, he would insist on one large paratrooper operation, 'even to the extent that should the British be in opposition I would carry it out exclusively with American troops'. He would make the drop south ofEvreux, nearly seventy-five miles inland from Caen. There were four good airfields near Evreux which could be quickly taken, making re-supply possible. 'This plan appeals to me', Marshall declared, 'because I feel that it is a true vertical envelopment and would create such a strategic threat to the Germans that it would call for a major revision of their defensive plans.' Bradley's and Montgomery's flanks could take care of themselves, in short, because the German tanks would be busy attacking the airborne troops around Evreux. Such a massive drop would be a complete surprise, would directly threaten both the crossings of the Seine and Paris, and would serve as a rallying point for the French Resistance.
The only drawback Marshall could see to his plan was 'that we have never done anything like this before, and frankly, that reaction makes me tired'. The Chief of Staff concluded by saying that he did not want to put undue pressure on Eisenhower, but did want to make sure that Eisenhower at least considered the possibility of making a bolder, more effective strategic use of his airborne troops.
Elsenhower's reply was long and defensive. He said that for more than a year one of his favourite subjects for contemplation had been getting ahead of the enemy in some important method of operation, and the strategic use of paratroopers was an obvious possibility. Marshall's idea, however, was impossible. First, Eisenhower insisted that Bradley and Montgomery were right: the flanks of the invasion had to be protected from German armoured counter-attacks. Second, and even more important, a paratrooper force three divisions strong landing seventy -five miles inland would not be self-contained, would lack mobility and heavy fire-power, and would therefore be destroyed. The Germans had shown time and again that they did not fear a 'strategic threat of envelopment'. Using the road net of France, Rommel could concentrate immense firepower against an isolated force and defeat it in detail.
Eisenhower cited the Allied experience at Anzio early in 1944 as an example. They had landed there in an attempt to slip around the German line in Italy, thereby threatening both the rear of the German line and Rome itself. Eisenhower told Marshall that 'any military man required to analyse' the situation in Italy right after the Anzio landing 'would have said that the only hope of the German was to begin the instant and rapid withdrawal of his troops'. Instead the Germans attacked, and because the Anzio force did not have enough tanks and trucks to provide mobile striking power, the Allies barely held out. And they held out, Eisenhower emphasised, only because the Allies had command of the sea and could provide support in both material and gunfire directly onto the beachhead. An inland airborne force would be cut off from all but air supply, which could not provide enough tanks, trucks, heavy artillery, or bulldozers and other equipment to withstand German armoured attacks. It would be annihilated.
Eisenhower was unwilling to take the risk Marshall proposed. He believed that paratroopers dropped near Evreux would not be a strategic threat to the Germans, that indeed they would just be paratroopers wasted, and might even be made a hostage, just as the Anzio force had become. 'I instinctively dislike ever to uphold the conservative as opposed to the bold', Eisenhower concluded, but he would not change his plans. Marshall did not raise the subject again.
Nothing like Marshall's plan was ever tried. At Arnhem, in September, 1944, three airborne divisions were used, but they were dropped many miles apart with separate objectives. Therefore we cannot know who was correct, Eisenhower or Marshall. But Eisenhower was in command, so it was his plan -admittedly conservative rather than bold - that was used.
Thus did the British 6th Airborne Division get its D-Day assignment. The task of carrying out that assignment fell to General Richard Gale, commander of the 6th Airborne. Gale decided to drop his division east of the Orne River, about five to seven miles inland, in the low ground between the Orne and the River Dives. The main body would gather in and around the village of Ranville, and would guard the bridges over the Orne Canal and River. Specially-trained companies would capture and destroy the four bridges over the River Dives, then fall back on Ranville; others would destroy the German battery at Merville.
Central to Gale's plan was taking and holding the bridges over the Orne waterways, without which the 6th Airborne would be unable to receive tanks, trucks, and other equipment from the beaches. They were critical to the success of the whole invasion, and the operation to take and hold them would require meticulous planning, rigorous training, and bold execution.
That operation is the subject of this book.