Friday, May 30, 2014

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

The D-Day landings have been called a "very near thing" by a lot of the media.

Is that true?

No, not really.

Allied troops often had a 10-to-1 advantage in men and material over the German defenders. German defenses were static and non-replaceable, while Allied aggressors were mobile and had plenty of reserves (at sea and in England). German defenses also relied heavily on the French rail system for resupply, but this system had been heavily disrupted by Allied bombing in the month before the invasion.

The one advantage the Germans had was that they were able to build reinforced concrete strongpoints on which to place artillery. These strongpoints were able to cover the beaches very well, and hold the Allied troops on the beach.

That is -- they would have, had more of them been built. The fact of the matter is that most of the Normandy beaches had been only lightly defended by such strongpoints. Only Omaha Beach had any real defenses, and the Germans clearly did significant damage to the Allied landing there. Only at Omaha, with the combination of current, smoke, obstacles, mines, cliffs, and strongpoints, did the Allies seriously consider evacuating the beach. Had they done so, Gen. Omar Bradley simply would have put his troops ashore at nearby Gold Beach. And that would not have dented the invasion much.

Nazi Germany had no real way to hold France, in the end. Had it defended Normandy, the invasion would have come at Calais. It defended Calais, and so the invasion came at Normandy. Had Germany tried to hold both areas (Rommel and Von Rundstedt both agreed that resources should be divided equally between the two, but Hitler insisted on heavily fortifying Calais instead), the Allied invasion might have been a much nearer thing. Nonetheless, it seems the invasion would still have succeeded in establishing beachheads (but not much more than that) on D-Day. Breakouts into the interior would have been delayed a day or two, but not much more than that.

It is a myth that Adolf Hitler insisted on "keeping the tanks at Calais." First of all, the tanks were in Paris, not Calais. Second, the German High Command refused to wake Hitler when the invasion began, losing critical hours of response-time. Far more important was Hitler's insistence on defending all beaches, all the time. Rommel, for example, wanted to cannibalize his forces inland and at Cherbourg in order to attack the Utah and Omaha beaches with tanks and troops. Hitler refused him permission. True, Hitler did keep most of his tank forces in the rear, convinced that the Normandy invasion was a feint. In Italy, the Allies had landed Montgomery's Third Army in Calabria as a feint-in-force, while Lt. General Mark Clark's U.S. Fifth Army landed at Salerno. In hindsight it is easy to criticize Hitler's decision to keep the tanks at Paris. But at the time, there were many reasons to believe the decision was correct. Rommel's impetuousness had lost North Africa. And Hitler had listened to Rommel in Italy, and lost the chance to throw the Americans off the beach. Now Italy was lost. Why listen to him again?

One can criticize Hitler for not moving more quickly once intelligence reports from the Normandy beaches indicated that the action there was no feint. But then, one has to ignore all the intelligence coming in from Dover which indicated that General George S. Patton had a "First U.S. Army Group" there. This was a massive deception, of course, and it worked. Rommel and Von Rundstedt were ignoring the intelligence from Dover, and Hitler refused to do so.

So, in the end, it is a myth that Hitler "kept the tanks at Calais." Hitler had been deceived by some very good Allied counter-intelligence, while Rommel and Von Rundstedt seemed to be ignoring their own military intelligence. Rommel had lost Africa and Italy, and Hitler no longer trusted him. Recent Allied actions had shown the tendency to use feints, and Hitler relied on that. His decision provided disastrous, but it was not wrong.

Hitler did not release the tanks for three days. By that time, however, the Allies had broken out of the beachheads, and the tanks no longer mattered.

Had Hitler ignored his own intelligence services and released the tanks immediately, there is a possibility that they might have delayed the liberation of France by months. On June 7, a small group of German tanks actually counter-attacked and not only pushed the Canadians and British back to their beachheads at Sword and Juno, but even reached the beaches! The Panzers, however, pulled back out of a fear of being cut off and surrounded on the beach. Many armchair historians and fan-boys love to think that had the German tanks been released on June 6, the tanks could have made the trip down to Normandy and counter-attacked successfully. They are wrong. The trip would have taken three days, and by then the Allied troops were off the beaches. At that point, the tanks could only have played a delaying-game. Even if they had thrown the British and Canadians away from Caen (Montgomery bogged down there in mid-June), that would have left the Americans free to take Cherbourg and Brittany. Had the tanks gone around the British and Canadians and attacked the Americans, they would have saved Cherbourg and Brittany but left the British and Canadians in their rear to attack their supply lines, take Caen, and break out.

Moving the tanks in no way would have made a difference. The tanks had to be at the site of the invasion on the day the invasion started. Had they, for some impossibly psychic reason, been moved on June 3 to arrive on June 6, there is a possibility the Allied could have been thrown off the beaches. But that possibility beggars reason.

As it was, the Allied invasion of Normandy was terrible. According to a post-war analysis by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, throughout the European Theater the casualty rate for Allied troops was 0.9 percent. In the Pacific Theater, it was 7.25 percent. On D-Day, it was 6.25 percent. While the Normandy invasion incurred exceptionally high casualty rates, it was nowhere near as deadly as the everyday fighting in the Pacific. Compared to the rest of the fighting in Europe, D-Day was a horror. But compared to the fighting in the Pacific, D-Day was not as bad. Interestingly, most of the D-Day casualties came from airborne troops, glider troops, and Omaha Beach. Casualty rates for airborne and glider troops approached 50 percent, and most of their mission objectives were not met. The casualty rate at Omaha was 41 percent, and most of their mission objectives were not met. But the casualty rate at Sword and Juno beaches was just 4 percent, and at Utah it was just 1.3 percent.

Even so, Allied war planners expected casualty rates to be 12 percent or higher. At Tarawa, it was 17 percent; at Guadalcanal, 20 percent; at Iwo Jima, 35 percent; and at Okinawa, 18 percent. In these battles, many Marine and Army units came close to hors de combat -- unable to function due to losses. In comparison, D-Day was a cakewalk.

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