That fatal shore

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 3

That fatal shore

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 3

Allied commanders feared that the biggest invasion in history, the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944, might end in disaster. There was, writes Max Hastings, no guarantee that Operation Overlord would vanquish the German army

It is tempting to look back upon D-Day and imagine that the invaders' triumph was inevitable. The Allies had overwhelming superiority in air and sea power; the German army was devastated by three years of war in Russia, where it had lost three million dead; the British and Americans hugely outgunned the defenders.

But for all this, Allied warlords were consumed with misgivings about their cross-Channel leap to confront the Wehrmacht. "Why are we trying to do this?" cried Winston Churchill, in a bitter moment of depression about Operation Overlord, as D-Day was codenamed. "I am very uneasy about the whole operation," wrote the great General Sir Alan Brooke, head of the British Army, as late as 5 June. "At the best, it will come very far short of the expectations of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing about its difficulties. At its worst, it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war."

By 1944, nobody doubted that the Allies were eventually going to win the war. But British commanders were acutely conscious of their country's shrinking power, and haunted by fears of a bloody campaign of attrition on the continent. The British wished to see Nazi power further depleted by blockade and strategic bombing, not to mention the Red Army, before they assaulted the Channel coast. Save for American determination, I doubt there would have been any D-Day before 1945.

As it was, however, in the spring of 1944, the Western Allies assembled in England: 17 British and Canadian, and 20 American, divisions. The initial US landing force of 130,000 men was to be followed by a further 1.2 million troops by D + 90 days, supported by 137,000 wheeled and semi-tracked vehicles, 4,217 tracked vehicles, and 3,500 artillery pieces.

These were formidable forces, but the Allies were haunted by memories of their 1943 assaults on Sicily and Italy, where small but skilful enemy forces had mauled them, and slowed their advances to a crawl. Today, we have long since abandoned the stereotypes of 1950s war movies, which portrayed the German soldier as a square-headed plodder. Hitler's army was perhaps the finest fighting force the world has ever seen, however loathsome the cause for which it fought.

To impede Nazi reinforcement of Normandy after D-Day, the Allies relied partly on deception – aided by the brilliant codebreakers of Bletchley Park, and double-agents controlled by MI5 – to keep Berlin guessing about a possible second invasion in the Pas De Calais. They also threw their massive air forces into a bombing campaign to wreck France's communications system.

Despite opposition from Allied air chiefs, who wished to continue to pound Germany's cities, Supreme Commander General Dwight Eisenhower committed scores of squadrons to batter rail and road links in the weeks before D-Day. They did an impressive job, but at the cost of some 60,000 French, Dutch and Belgian civilian dead, an extreme manifestation of collateral damage.

There was a heroic quality about the achievement of the planners and logisticians who made D-Day possible. [The Mulberry Plans described overleaf, on offer in Bonhams D-Day sale in New York, are an example of that ingenuity.] Theirs were the least glamorous jobs, and yet among the most vital. Scarcely any of them were professional soldiers; they were civilians in uniform. Bill Williams, for instance, General Montgomery's brilliant chief of intelligence, was a 31-year-old Oxford don, thinly disguised by the red tabs of a brigadier.

In the last weeks before D-Day, logic argued that the Allied armies should succeed. A very strong, highly-trained and marvelously equipped initial landing force was to be put ashore. Security about its destination and timing was miraculously sustained.

Yet still Allied commanders nursed their fears. The weather represented a great unknown. The initial landing could be rescheduled by a day in the face of a bad forecast, as indeed it was, from 5 to 6 June. But thereafter, the men ashore would be at the mercy of the unpredictable, and especially of low cloud that could shut off air support.

The consequences of a D-Day repulse would be appalling. The Anglo-Americans' shame and embarrassment would be paraded before the Russians. Who could say what havoc might be wrought by Hitler's new secret weapons, which were known to be almost ready? There would be bitter political recriminations, especially among the weary British people. Eisenhower, Montgomery and indeed Churchill would face excoriation. The Germans could shift large forces from France to the Eastern front, confident that the Allies could not attempt another invasion that year. Without a successful D-Day, the geo-political shape of Europe after Germany's defeat might have been very different: it did not seem impossible that the Red Army could end up in Paris.

Thus the stakes for both invaders and defenders were enormous. D-Day was the last big event of the war that was dominated by British commanders – Montgomery on land, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay at sea, Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory in the air. Many Americans resented this; they believed that they were patronized by their allies. They were suspicious that the British were not prepared to pay the blood price for the authority and influence they sought, and questioned British sluggishness, prevarication and perceived inefficiency. The Americans might have a touch of admiration in their hearts for our creaky old stately home of a nation, but would have respected it more with modern plumbing and heating.

Yet, when all this has been admitted, when the bitter rows have been acknowledged, we should still marvel at the working partnership the British and Americans achieved on the battlefield. Consider the contrast with their enemies' bungling, especially of intelligence. The German response to D-Day was grossly impeded by Hitler's insistence on maintaining personal control over key army formations, and by command rivalries more bitter than any in the Allied campSo who were the million men who in early June waited in camps across southern and central England to spearhead the liberation of France? It is important to remember that very few were professional warriors. They were a ragbag of civilians from every corner of American, British, Canadian, French, Polish society, turned into fighting men solely for the duration of the war. Most were unwilling heroes, who yearned simply to finish the job alive. After months and years of training, some were impatient for D-Day, because it would start them on the long march that led ultimately to their own homes. But few cherished heroic ambitions.

The colonel who commanded the Green Howards infantry battalion on D-Day told me the story of one of his sergeant-majors, a Yorkshireman named Stan Hollis, who won a Victoria Cross for three times attacking – alone – German strongpoints that held up the battalion's advance. The colonel said: "I think Hollis was the only man I met in the entire war who felt that winning it was his personal responsibility. Most men, when they saw something difficult and dangerous to be done, simply hoped to God some other poor sod would do it."

Hollis was a precious rarity: an authentic hero, one of those men who never wanted to go to war, but nonetheless conjured up determination and courage to do amazing things. By contrast, most of the participants in that great adventure of June 1944 were too young and too callow to grasp much beyond their own squad, landing craft,
or slit trench.

One of them was an 18-year-old American who landed on Utah beach. Forty years on, he recalled his struggle to get his mind around the magnitude of the moment: "Me, Lindley Higgins, from Riverdale in the Bronx, was about to invade France. It was a problem that my mind in its then state of maturity couldn't possibly cope with." Yet Lindley Higgins from Riverdale indeed waded ashore among that great host of British, American and Canadian soldiers in Normandy on D-Day, then did his part as many others did theirs, in a fashion which enabled the Allied armies to gain a historic victory.

The world today remains awed by that unsurpassed drama on the Norman beaches, where the German defenders awoke to behold the armada of 6,483 ships arrayed offshore, landing the men of five divisions from the sea, while three more divisions dropped from the air.

Dwight Eisenhower justly entitled his memoirs of the campaign Crusade in Europe. D-Day was an extraordinary achievement. There is not much about war that can be considered romantic. But the nobility of the cause for which the Allies fought, and the manner which the invasion of Europe was carried out, imbued 6 June 1944 with a grandeur which defies cynicism, and deserves to be celebrated long after the last men who achieved those remarkable things are dead.

Sir Max Hastings has written many books about military campaigns, including Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy.

The Mulberry harbours

A Spring board for success

These secret plans are the prototypes for a key component of the D-Day invasion: the Mulberry Harbors, designed by engineer Hugh Iorys Hughes. The Allies had to find a way to handle supplies to support invasion forces without capturing a port, which would have been impossible. Winston Churchill had come up with the idea of a mobile port during the First World War, but this had been shelved; Hughes (1902-1977), who had worked on Wembley Stadium and was also an accomplished sailor, made a similar proposal to the War Office in 1941. His brother, a commander in the Royal Navy, brought it to the attention of senior officers, and it was swiftly adopted.

In May 1942, Churchill sent a famous directive to Admiral Mountbatten, head of Combined Operations: "Let me have the best solution worked out. Don't argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves." Hughes was chosen to spearhead the project, and drew up the plans (those offered at Bonhams are his own copies), which were tested and went into service off the Normandy beaches. The German perspective on their value is revealing. Albert Speer, Nazi minister of armaments, admitted that the Germans' costly effort to construct Atlantic defenses had been "brought to nothing because of an idea of simple genius". These plans represent the genesis of that idea.

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