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Was D-Day a sure thing or a near disaster?

Blog | Jun 05, 2019

A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) wading onto the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach (Calvados, Basse-Normandie, France) on the morning of June 6, 1944. American soldiers encountered the newly formed German 352nd Division when landing. During the initial landing two-thirds of Company E became casualties.

We’ve been remembering D-Day for so long now that it is easy to forget what a risk it was. One reason for that is that seventy-five years is a lifetime ago, and very few people do actually ‘remember’ the greatest amphibious invasion in history. Most of us commemorate instead, a more formal, sometimes more rose-tinted way of recalling events not quite out of touching distance. D-Day certainly resonates with that combination of near and far. In my office, a colleague who sits next to me mentioned that his father had been aboard ship in the Channel as a Royal Navy seaman. When I recently commissioned a review about D-Day from the novelist William Boyd, I discovered that his uncle had too. If someone in your family actually took part in such a momentous event, it may seem easier to believe that they were part of a sure thing, not an almighty gamble.

That is not to argue that the Allies did not do everything they could to load the dice in their favour. D-Day was planned for years, and launched with overwhelming numbers by political leaders who trusted their military commanders completely. The latter point is worth making because the German armies, by contrast, suffered greatly from the interference and caprice of their own political commander-in-chief. It is true that Churchill was more reluctant to commit to Operation Overlord, as the invasion of western Europe was codenamed, than President Roosevelt. That probably had something to do with his memories of the failure of the Dardanelles campaign in the First World War. He could hardly have failed to fear Normandy as another Gallipoli.

Churchill would also have known of the doubts of his Chief of Staff Field Marshal Alan Brooke, who often criticized what he perceived as slipshod American preparation (and deeply resented being passed over as commander of the invasion). What’s more, the Allies had already invaded Europe of course, in an Italian campaign that was proceeding surprisingly successfully (and would continue to do so until the Germans replaced the Italians as the main foe on the peninsula). But whatever doubts Churchill had, they were long swallowed by the time June 6, 1944 arrived. Typically, he really did propose to view the assault himself from HMS Belfast (and George VI wanted to join him).

He was persuaded of the folly of that, but if he had gone, might the Prime Minister have witnessed a catastrophe instead of a triumph? After all, the ‘dry run’ for D-Day, an assault on the Norman port of Dieppe two years before, had been a disaster. The mostly Canadian force suffered casualties of 55 per cent. And the British could hardly blame North American command mistakes: the raid was overseen by Louis Mountbatten as Combined Operations chief. In Sand & Steel, a ‘new history of D-Day’ Peter Caddick-Adams describes Mountbatten’s attempt to argue that lessons learned at Dieppe saved lives at D-Day as ‘akin to alleging that the Titanic disaster was an important milestone in passenger ship design’. A bad plan going wrong doesn’t tend to teach many lessons that weren’t self-evident already.

Nonetheless, Overlord was not Dieppe, being far better planned and resourced, and on a vast, unprecedented scale. Partly as a result of an ambitious intelligence and deception effort, it also carried an element of surprise, which may seem unlikely for such a large operation carried out over a relatively great distance (Normandy was far from the shortest distance from England across the Channel, which was one reason why the Germans expected the main assault in the Pas de Calais). But cleverly rerouted radio traffic, for example, had convinced the enemy that an army under General Patton was massing in Kent and Sussex, which confirmed their mistaken view that Calais was the target.

Most importantly, Overlord was a numbers game. At around 156,000, the Allies had more than three times the troops available to the Germans in Normandy. These defenders were not well equipped, and were on average significantly older than their opponents. Added to that, many were wounded transferees from the Eastern Front. Although the German army had gained a reputation for energy, efficiency and courage in the early part of the war, and they would throw everything they had at the Allied invasion, this was not the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht of four years before.

All this is to say that the invasion had a good chance of success, not that it was bound to succeed. Famously, the weather had an important part to play, as a pleasant early summer suddenly turned gloomy and stormy at the beginning of June. The launch had to be postponed because of the turn, and D-Day itself came in a brief ‘intermezzo’ between bad days. If the meteorologists had got that wrong, then the Channel itself would have been the invasion’s greatest enemy, and the Allies’ entirely dominant air power position swaddled up uselessly in a blanket of cloud. Less than two weeks after D-Day, a huge storm battered the Normandy coast. If the invasion had been caught up in that, there is no way that it could have got through.

So preparation, overwhelming forces and a bit of luck helped D-Day and the subsequent operation to succeed. But we shouldn’t underestimate either the human motives that inspired victory. On the German side, commanders were increasingly coming to the realisation that Hitler’s fantasies could no longer be sustained. His ‘Atlantic Wall’, the long series of defences that were meant to hold back any invasion, was described by Rommel as ‘cloud cuckoo land’. On the Allied side, the supreme military commander was the supremely pragmatic Dwight D. Eisenhower, but his message to the troops as they embarked struck a poetic note: ‘The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you’. You don’t have to be religious to be thankful that those prayers were answered. And this June 6, liberty-loving people will rightfully voice their gratitude once again for the qualities Ike knew his troops possessed: ‘courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle’.