The View From the Bunker Normandy? I suppose it couldve been worse!22 Apr 2015 0
Since we’re already on the topic of World War II, let’s move on to the second installment of our semi-regular “a fresh perspective gained through wargaming” series (see A View From The Bunker – Operation Husky? Another Allied mistake! for an earlier installment). This time, we’ll tackle one of my all-time favorite subjects – the Allied invasion of Normandy – which I fervently believe was a strategic and operational blunder.
Though you do have to give Eisenhower and his cohorts credit for the planning, subterfuge, and immense effort that went in to this cross channel venture. But the fact that D-Day actually worked rests firmly in the grasp of certain inevitability and an amazing string of luck that came to a screeching halt at the first hedgerow.
But let’s go into a little background before we continue.
When we weren’t commandeering his basement with Napoleonic miniatures, my high school friend Tony and I would immerse ourselves in a rousing round of Avalon Hill’s D-Day board game. We loved that classic title specifically because of the what-if contingencies involved. You could send your LSTs ashore at Pa De Calais, Le Havre, Normandy, Brittany, Bay of Biscay, or Southern France.
And we thoroughly enjoyed that title until we discovered, despite the draconian supply rules, a Marseilles – Toulon invasion meant an automatic Allied win.
It’s not that this early game was the final word on D-Day simulations, but I have to say that every single grand strategic World War II offering supports my supposition. To wit, I never invade France through Normandy.
Now let’s get back to our everything had to go right for D-Day to work hypothesis.
And it started with that horrible June 6, 1944 weather which, while miserable, it wasn’t miserable enough to forestall that channel crossing. In an ironic “impassable” Ardennes-like blunder, the Germans believed the storms were bad enough to forestall any movement by sea. Thus, they didn’t bother sending out their regular maritime reconnaissance teams.
Worse yet! Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, having come to the same conclusion, was at home celebrating his wife’s birthday. And had to be driven back to the front because he didn’t dare fly in the face of the supreme allied air superiority.
Then there’s the infamous no one had the nerve to rouse Hitler at Berchtesgaden story. While Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt had correctly surmised the massive Allied airborne operation presaged a seaborne invasion, he could not persuade OKW to release the crack 12 SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr divisions without Hitler’s express permission. And Der Fuhrer was asleep.
Had those units been sent north in a timely fashion, the same storm that provided complete Allied surprise would’ve provided complete cover from the kind of aerial assaults that would eventually devastate Lehr. Instead, those divisions had to conceal themselves in roadside forests during the day and creep towards the coast at night.
Don’t get me wrong, the Allied preparation for this operation was outstanding and luck almost always favors careful planning.
The portable Mulberry ports and logistical support were superb. Air superiority was complete. Operation Fortitude had convinced the Germans that Patton would lead the invasion through Pa De Calais. Constant Axis reverses had incited Hitler into devastating his command corps such that no one made a move without his express approval. French partisans quickly crippled the German’s communication network and Hitler insisted that the new V2s be aimed at London and not the Normandy beaches.
I could go on, but as previously noted, the Allied string of luck ran out when they hit that first hedgerow! For some strange reason, those SHAEF generals, who’d done so well up to that point, suddenly seemed to have no plan for phase two. It’s almost as if they collectively thought, “Holy crap! We didn’t think it would go this well and now we’re not sure what to do next!”
Fortunately for the Allies, the mere fact that they’d established much more than a beachhead meant that the German fat lady had already sung.
But that wasn’t before they had to endure seven long weeks of battling in bocage country which quickly became reminiscent of those despised World War I trenches. If it wasn’t for Sergeant Curtis G. Cullen’s Rhino tank attachment, those hedgerow battles might still be raging.
So when Operation Cobra launched on July 25th, it ended any Nazi hope of driving the invaders back into the sea. But that doesn’t mean that a Southern France invasion would’ve been a much better choice as Operation Dragoon clearly proved that August.
First, the French Riviera was defended by German Army Group G which had long since been stripped of its frontline troops and equipment. Those divisions had virtually no mobile capability and they consisted mostly of conscripts from German occupied territories. To absolutely no one’s surprise, shortly after General Lucian Truscott came ashore, more than 100,000 of them surrendered.
Second, while the Germans completely destroyed Cherbourg, Marseilles and Toulon provided two major ports which were up and running one short month after Operation Dragoon started.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, potential German reinforcements would have been pinned to the channel coast, unable to shift southward, because General George S. Patton was still firmly in command of the fictitious First U.S. Army Group ostensibly aimed the French coast.
Fewer casualties, better supply (that once in a lifetime channel storm that came two weeks later destroyed the Mulberries), far more room to maneuver, and an enemy that couldn’t abandon their coastal positions would’ve been a far better choice than a Normandy invasion.
I know some of you might say that the channel coast was a far more direct route to the German heartland, but I’d respond with a two months stuck in hedgerows argument.
So while I’m eternally impressed with General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s capacity to keep a somewhat fragile coalition together in the face of rampant egos, to somewhat paraphrase Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, he really did have no imagination.
Ironically, Monty was a bit too imaginative at Arnhem and it was a string of bad luck that did him in there. But we’ll save that for another column!
Jeff Ward is a free-lance writer, radio show host, and former opinion columnist for the Sun-Times Media Group. He got hooked on wargames immediately after he picked up a copy of Avalon Hill’s Midway from Hobbymodels in Evanston, Illinois in 1972. You can reach Jeff at email@example.com.