Thursday, May 29, 2014

It's the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings.


The word made Allied commanders in 1942 shudder in horror.

In April 1915, during the First World War, British and French troops decided to capture the Turkish capital of Constantinople. Seizure of the city would allow Czarist Russia free access to the Mediterranean Sea, and shorten the war considerably. The idea was to land a massive force on the Gallipoli Peninsula and take out the Turkish artillery on the highlands. Then minesweepers could clear the Dardanelles (the channel leading from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara) and allow the navy to sail up to Constantinople's front door. The city would fall, and the way would be open for the Russians.

It didn't work out that way.

When the British, Australian, New Zealand and French troops came ashore on April 25, they were easy targets for the Turkish machine-guns and artillery. British and French ships at sea couldn't provide fire support without fear of hitting their own troops on the narrow beaches. Thousands of soldiers died. During the night, Turkish reinforcements arrived. The Allied troops tried to break out on April 27, but were beaten back. A second breakout failed on May 2. The beaches were now jammed with more than 17,000 Allied troops, all of them huddled under broken machinery and shattered armor. Allied soldiers were terrified, exhausted, hungry, wet, and demoralized. A Turkish counter-attack on May 19 failed miserably, but Turkish torpedo boats managed to sink two British battleships. The British and French navies withdrew, leaving the Turks with superior artillery power. The Allies tried another breakout on June 4, but it too failed. More Allied troops were landed. Attacks were made on June 28 and July 12, but had very limited success in the extremely hilly terrain.

On August 6, the Allies landed troops at six miles behind the Turkish lines. Despite almost no resistance, the Allied commander failed to take advantage of his success and push inland past the beaches. The Turks moved artillery onto the hills the next night, and pinned down these troops as well. An eight-day battle to unite the various beachheads on August 29 ended in failure as well.

The British High Command dithered over the decision to evacuate. As November came, deep snow caused thousands of deaths as troops died of exposure. Heavy rains often drowned troops in their trenches, and washed corpses out of their shallow graves and down onto the horrified men below. Drawdown began on December 7, 1915, and evacuation was completed on January 6, 1916.

There were nearly half a million casualties during the Gallipoli campaign. The Allies suffered a 59 percent casualty rate: 44,092 of their 220,000 troops died, while another 96,937 were wounded. The British government, appalled at the disaster, heavily censored all news coming out about Gallipoli. But news was smuggled out in time. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost the confidence of Parliament, and was forced to form a coalition government with Winston Churchill's small Conservative Party. In December 1916 David Lloyd George successfully convinced a majority of the Liberal Party to support him for Prime Minister. Asquith was out, Lloyd George was in.

There could be no more Gallipolis. Ever. Never, ever, ever again.

* * * * * * * *

It had been more than two years since the Fall of France. Although Great Britain had weathered the Blitz, the British Isles were close to starving and British war industries were barely functioning due to a lack of raw materials.

Clearly, the Allies had to invade continental Europe. But how? Where? When?

Immediately after Dunkirk, the British military began to realize how essential amphibious landings would be to any future prosecution of the war. But there could be no more Gallipolis. Never, ever, ever, ever, again. So extensive planning began on whether it was possible to conduct large-scale amphibious raids in France. Several plans of varying size and scope were considered. In the end, the decision was made to try to attack, seize, and hold (for a short period of time) a mid-size French port city. The goal was not only to prove it was possible but also to test theories of amphibious landing, test equipment, gather intelligence, and assess German responses.

A combined British-Canadian force attempted its first amphibious landing in May 1942. But a German bomber attack on the massed fleet of 700 ships made Allied commanders realize that any full-scale invasion of Europe would need to be much better hidden.

On August 19, 1942, a combined British-Canadian amphibious force attacked the port of Dieppe on the northern coast of France. The assault began at 5:00 a.m. Trouble began almost immediately. German torpedo boats accidentally intercepted the Allied far left flank at Yellow Beach (3.5 miles to the northeast, near Berneval-sur-Mer), destroying several ships -- including the anti-aircraft ship battery and the artillery boat. Only a handful of commandos were able to scale the cliffs. They pinned down the defenders manning the German artillery, but were not able to destroy the artillery emplacement as ordered. In the center, a combination of events led to lengthy delays in the landing. The 522 Canadians went ashore on Blue Beach near the suburb of Puys in broad daylight, and 60 lightly-armed German defenders were able to kill 225 of them. Another 264 were forced to surrender. At Green Beach, near the suburb of Pourville-sur-Mer, British and Canadian forces got pinned down on the beaches. In the center of town, withering gunfire also held the British forces on the beach. When the tanks tried to come ashore, some "drowned" in the water. Others couldn't make it up the gravel beach. And none could make it past the anti-tank walls built to defend the city proper. The infantry were supposed to have taken out the anti-tank walls, but the gunfire was too heavy and they were pinned down. The tanks themselves simply couldn't provide enough fire to suppress the German defense fire. The British destroyers providing fire support offshore didn't have heavy enough ammunition to destroy the German artillery, and their range was so limited that if they came closer to shore they themselves came under attack.

At 10:50 a.m., the Allied commanders called a retreat. Of 6,090 men, 1,027 were killed and 2,340 captured. German losses amounted to 311 killed, wounded, and missing.

The Dieppe Raid was a catastrophe.

But Allied commanders learned a number of lessons:
  • Absolute secrecy was essential. Any future Allied amphibious landing attempt had to occur without German foreknowledge. Suppression of German radar was critical.

  • German ships had to be cleared out of the English Channel.

  • Any attack must be absolutely coordinated. Delays proved deadly.

  • Specialized equipment was critical. Tanks had to be made lighter and submersible, as well as all-terrain. Special tools for overcoming anti-tank ditches and breaking anti-tank walls were needed. Landing craft, too, had to be created and improved, so that infantry could come ashore much faster.

  • Suppressing fire for infantry on shore was absolutely necessary. Infantry could not be expected to breach anti-tank barriers without it.

  • Large reserves must be ready to reinforce troops on the beach.

  • Air superiority must be achieved. And it must be maintained, even if the enemy air force did not engage.
These lessons would come in handy in just two years.

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