Most people know about the gruelling D-Day landings. But what happened next?
Success seemed guaranteed only after the event. With hindsight, the preponderance of Allied manpower and materiel was so massive that failure in Normandy now appears inconceivable. Yet that was not the view at the time. And rightly so. Large-scale amphibious landings are exceptionally complex operations contingent on a range of variables. Over many of the variables, the planners have no control at all. The weather is only the most obvious.
The logistics are prodigious, the coordination of air, sea, and land complex, and the management of operations involving infantry, armour, artillery, paratroopers, commandos, special forces, and resistance units creates a mesh of fragile linkages.
And despite the gargantuan scale of the build-up, somehow surprise needs to be achieved, lest the enemy concentrate such firepower on the landing beaches that the initial assault waves be destroyed.
Not least among the jaw-dropping features of the Normandy campaign – still, 75 years on – was that the Germans did not know where the Allies planned to land. An elaborate deception operation, tight military security, the careful camouflaging of camps, strict restrictions on troop movements: these and other measures, combined with the virtual impenetrability of British society to Nazi agents, prevented the secret getting out.
So potentially hazardous was the whole operation that most planning at the time – and most discussion since – has tended to focus on D-Day itself. But, with the obvious exception of Omaha, the beach landings were relatively easy successes – thanks, precisely, to the weight of the attack and the thoroughness of the preparation.
But this had its downside. Little thought had been given to what would follow. The Allied high command had not anticipated that Caen, just a few miles inland, would become the epicentre of a two-month-long ‘crucible’ battle – a battle of attrition – that would suck in German reserves and create a slow mincing-machine.
Nor had Allied commanders prepared themselves for the bocage – a countryside of holloways sunk between hedgerows that had swollen into earth ramparts over two millennia, forming a maze of tracks, small fields, and tiny hamlets that stretched for miles and miles in all directions.
Here, some of history’s doughtiest defensive fighters – the German Wehrmacht – equipped with some of the world’s finest weapons – the Panzerfaust, the Spandau, the Granatwerfer infantry mortar, the PAK anti-tank gun, the Nebelwerfer multi-barrelled mortar, the Panther tank, the 88mm multi-purpose gun – dug in deep and turned the Normandy campaign into a gruesome mutual bloodletting.
With the capture of Saint-Lô by Lieutenant General Omar N Bradley’s V and XIX Corps, the front was quickly consolidated for the next phase of operations. Bradley’s plan for the operation code-named ‘Cobra’ was for a specific location on the German front to be carpet-bombed, then stormed by infantry, and finally penetrated by an armoured spearhead.
The key concept here was extreme concentration – of firepower, assault troops, and armour – to open a narrow gap through which the tanks could pass into the open country beyond.
First we must pick a soft point in the enemy’s line, next concentrate our forces against it. Then, after smashing through with a blow that would crush his front-line defences, we spill our mechanised columns through that gap before the enemy could recover his senses.
This is an extract from a 15-page special feature on the Normandy breakout, 1944 in the April 2019 issue of Military History Matters.
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