World War II/Normandy

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Overview

The landings at Normandy, France, on June 6th 1944, and the events which occurred thereafter constitute the most well known battle of World War II.

Combined British, French, American, and Canadian forces landed at several points along the Normandy coastline. The beaches were codenamed. The British and Canadian beaches were to the east, and, from east to west were: Sword Beach, which extended from Ouistreham at the mouth of the river Orne to Saint Aubin sur Mer, Juno Beach from Saint Aubin sur Mer to La Riviere, and Gold Beach, from La Riviere to a few kilometres west of Longues sur Mer. The American beaches were Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.

This area had been extensively fortified by the Germans, and comprised a part of the Atlantic Wall. It was manned with a haphazard collection of troops of German and other nationalities, mainly Russians, who had elected to fight for the Germans. The area immediately behind the coastline had been flooded by the Germans as a precaution against parachutist assault.

Prior to the battle, the Allies had carefully mapped and tested the landing area, paying particular attention to weather conditions in the English Channel. The weather conditions at the only time when the landings were practicable were particularly adverse. The German forces were not expecting the landings to occur because of this.

In addition to the main beachhead assaults, troops were parachute dropped behind enemy lines and these were further supported by troops arriving in gliders at key points. Coordinated activities with the French resistance forces, the Maquis, helped disrupt Axis lines of communications.

Additionally, the Allies conducted an effective feint using dummy weaponry and forces to simulate a landing further east in the Pas de Calais, Operation Fortitude. This drew the German's tanks and best armies away from Normandy. Also in the Allies favor, much of the German command had been called back to (Paris?) for wargames and thus were not present on the critical first day, when the allies could have been thrown off the beaches. Unlike the Allied forces, the German army was not conditioned to take individual initiative, and thus many groups waited for orders, while being overrun by the allies.

Once the beachhead was established, two artificial Mulberry Harbours were towed across the English Channel in segments. One was constructed at Arromanches, the other at Omaha Beach. This facilitated the landing of heavy weaponry and materials where previously this was impractical.

Chronology

June 5th/6th US 82nd and 101st Airborne are parachuted into the area surrounding Ste Mere Eglise.
June 6th - D-Day Landings
June 25th - 29th Operation Epsom, an offensive to the west of Caen, repulsed by the German defenders.
July 7th - Caen finally captured.
July 17th - Erwin Rommel severely injured when his car was strafed by an Allied aircraft.
July 18th - 20th - Operation Goodwood initiated.
August 3rd - 9th - Operation Totalize, a trap to capture retreating German armour starts.
August 16th Operation Dragoon, a joint American/French landing on the French Riviera, begins.


Political Considerations

The Normandy landings were long foreshadowed by a considerable amount of political manouevring amongst the allies. There was a considerable amount of disagreement about timing, appointments of command, and where exactly the landings were to take place. The opening of a second front had been long postponed (it had been initially mooted in 1942), and had been a particular source of strain between the allies. Churchill in particular was concerned to land and advance in Europe before the Soviet forces rolled up and gained control over swathes of territory.

The appointment of Montgomery was questioned by the Americans, who would have preferred General Alexander to have commanded the British forces. Montgomery himself had doubts about the appointment of Eisenhower above his head, since he considered that Eisenhower had little practical field experience.

Normandy presented serious logistical problems, not the least of which being that the only viable port, Cherbourg, was heavily defended and many among the higher echelons of command argued that the Pas de Calais would make a more suitable landing area on these grounds alone.

Historical Significance

Strategic Appraisal

Although ultimately successful, the Normandy landings were extremely costly in terms of men and material. The failure of the 3rd Division to take Caen, an overly ambitious target, on the first day was to have serious repercussions on the conduct of the war for well over a month, seriously delaying any forward progress. The fortuitous capture of Villers-Bocage followed by the failure to reinforce it, and its subsequent recapture by the Germans, was again to hamper any attempt to extend the Caen bridgehead and push on. By D+11, June 17th, the Allies worst fears had materialised: the assault had stagnated.

A lot of the problem came down to the nature of the terrain in which much of the post-landing fighting took place, the bocages. These were essentially small fields separated by high earth banks covered in dense shrubbery, which were eminently defensible. (to be continued)

Aftermath

The toehold that the allies established at Normandy was vital for Britain and the U.S. to bring the war to Germany's front door. It could be debated that the Soviets alone were sufficient to crush Germany by this point, and that this battle was unnecessary for the purpose of defeating the German Reich. Yet given the Soviet's claim over Eastern Europe, one could ask if the result would have been a complete occupation of Europe by communist forces. American and British presence help define the extent that communism would spread, and ensure that democracy would be safe in western europe. Thus the battle of Normandy needs to be understood both within the context of WWII and in that of the Cold War that would follow.

Bibliography Decision in Normandy, Carlo D'Este, London, 1983.

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