D Day; communication, cooperation and unity

The second World War was the largest conflagration ever to be visited on the earth. Never before, and hopefully never again will such a conflict curse the land we live in. The first modern war is defined as the American Civil War, this is because in his push to the Atlantic, General Sherman ordered that the plantations near to his troops be razed to the ground. This was known as the first modern war, since it had been aimed directly at the civil population. In the 2nd World War the death toll was over 60 million, 3% of the world population.

If you visit the Normandy coast there are many museums that tell the story of the D Day landings. All the landing beaches have museums, there are ones for the Airborne at St Marie Eglise and Pegasus bridge. They show very interesting reconstructions of the defences and the battles that took place. But perhaps the most interesting museums are the Memorial de Caen and Memorial des Civils dans La Guerre. They tell the story of the war, but include the history that is left out at the museums on the beaches. The cost to the civilian population was accurately calculated at 20,000. The devastation of many, many Norman towns by the RAF. The exodus of refugees walking south and east to escape their liberation. The moral dilemma of staying alive under German occupation. If you resist you die, but how do you feed your children and stay alive without cooperating with your invader?

But I will not be churlish. The Nazis were an evil breed and France did had to be liberated, but by who? Shortly after Churchill took over at Westminster the British evacuated Dunkirk and had to stand alone. Churchill said, “We will be back”, he was a man of his word. For the UK to hold on, they needed to be supplied by sea, resist U boats and the Luftwaffe and wait. One year later Hitler made the questionable decision to invade the USSR. This took the pressure of the UK, but it was not until 7th December 1941 that Pearl harbour signalled the American entry into the War.

Perversely, Churchill was relieved, he knew without the USA we would lose, and with them we could win. His first act after returning to Government at the outset of the War was to cable Roosevelt and build a relationship with him. They had met before, Churchill a Cavalry officer and military historian enjoyed Roosevelts company. He had been the secretary for the Navy and had claimed to have read 10,000 naval books. They met in secret, before American entry into the War, to agree the Atlantic Charter where self-determination and free trade were paramount. Churchill knew that the success of the War could depend on his ability to communicate with the American President and other vital people.

Later the two world leaders would meet Stalin, the Russian President and they would form an alliance to defeat the Nazi’s. Hitler’s invasion of the USSR had become enormous. The outcome of the war would be decided on the Russian plain extending from the Baltic sea in the north to the inland Black sea in the south. The vast majority of German soldiers were spread out across this front. A western front would take the pressure off the Russians. Stalin was eager to throw men at the Nazi’s. The Americans were keen to drive straight from the Normandy beaches to Paris and win. Churchill and the British were more circumspect, indiscriminate bombing would kill many innocent Frenchman and careful husbandry of their own men was sacrosanct for them.

The tripartite meeting focussed on how to support the Russians by hurting the Nazi’s elsewhere. The invasion of north Africa had been an eventual success. The strategic bombing of Germany greatly reduced the power of the Luftwaffe from 1944 onwards. But Stalin cried out for another front. “Roundup” was the operation to land in France in 1943. But there was also the desire to continue the North African invasion into Italy. The French invasion was put back to 1944. One of the determining factors was the lack of landing craft, another was a slow build-up of American troops in England. But the three great powers had resolved to invade Normandy and work together to take the pressure off the Russians in the East.

May 1944 was agreed upon, and the British General Frederick Morgan was selected to plan operation Overlord. His reaction was that it could not be done, but he planned it anyway. The fact that his attitude was negative, could well have had a positive effect, in that he could see all the many dangers that lay ahead. The British had always been fighting on the periphery in Europe, relying on the Royal Navy for protection. But the Americans were the new kids on the block. Despite great courage and a West Point training they had little experience of applying their theories in actual war. Also, they had not experienced defeat after defeat like the British.

Morgan’s plan was to land in Normandy and not at the Pas de Calais. There were many reasons, it had more protection from the weather, there was the large port of Cherbourg nearby and the Germans were less likely to expect it there.  He would land five divisions. Two American in the West and two British and one Canadian in the East. The bridgehead was to be protected by around 23,000 British and American airborne on the flanks.

Face to face contact had been vital to Churchill. He recognised the cultural differences that spanned the Atlantic, let alone that with the Russians. But the many tripartite meetings helped the leaders find common ground. As for the men on the ground there were more low-tech means of communication. American airborne troops were given little toys that made a double click sound, these were used to recognise their comrades in the dark and flooded drop zones. The British 6th Airborne division officers were given hunting horns. The Para’s spread over a similarly dark and flooded drop zone would head for the distinctive sound of horns. Coded radio traffic would alert London of the success of capturing the vital eastern bridges. The phonetic alphabet was adjusted for radio traffic. This was so all nationalities would have a common code. That is where alpha, bravo, charlie originated from.

Clearly to supply the bridgehead there would need to be a vast amount of traffic from England. To capture Cherbourg or Le Havre, which were heavily fortified would be vital. But instead of relying on that feat, the man-made Mulberry harbours were made in the UK and bolted together on the beaches. They were gigantic structures, weighing 1.5 million tons in total, and carried all the supplies for months to come. There was a pipeline laid under the English Channel to deliver fuel oil. A 75mm pipe was flexible enough to be wound around a drum and strong enough to withstand the sea. Both were successes.

There were always cultural differences. The Americans did not understand the British stiff upper lip and the British did not appreciate the dramatic gung-ho attitude of the Americans. Fortunately, the Canadians were somewhere in between and may have acted as peace-makers and translators, buy this is just speculation. The French were the objective and had vital work to do. We can have not idea of the extent of the French Resistance, survival under such a brutal Nazi regime was perilous. Action against the Nazi’s could result in vicious reprisals murdering many innocent civilians. This rule of horror was what kept the Resistance in check until D Day. The coded radio messages from London unleashed the French. They had been relaying messages to London about the Atlantic Wall defence and now they could finally go on the offensive. Telegraph polls were blown up or even sawn down. Bridges destroyed and lost airborne pointed in the right direction. This work remains relatively secret due to the necessity to hide evidence from the Nazis. But June the 6th was the day to attack.

But there was still a reserve force of Panzer tank divisions waiting to be released by Hitler. He had been convinced that the attack would come at the Pas de Calais. A vast intelligence trick convinced Hitler of this. There was a fake army created under Patton. Fake tanks and barges were created to mislead Nazi spy planes. All Nazi spies had been rounded up and the Bletchley Park decoders had penetrated all Nazi codes, so knew their dispositions.

When D day came, it was delayed by one day due to the weather, it was a gigantic undertaking with 12,000 aircraft and 1,200 naval vessels. Churchill was only convinced of the rightness of the operation in May. He was haunted by the image of the Allied dead piled up on the beaches. This fear was often what drove a man who had to put lives at risk every day of the war. Hitler was not convinced this was the real invasion, just a diversion. It was not until 6 weeks later that he finally realised that the Allies were not coming to Calais and released the reserve. This deception proved vital as the invasion could easily have been forced back into the sea.

The organisation was phenomenal. The whole of the channel was covered in imaginary “roads” in which all the ships had to operate. It was the single greatest logistical operation ever imagined.

The Americans faced resistance, but there was less for the British and Canadians. The French were amazed at the French Canadians. They were all volunteers, toughened up their outdoor environment, but they spoke French and in a Norman style. Valuable bottles were recovered for a celebration. But the euphoria did not last. That night the air-force came again. The plan had been to flatten Norman towns to disrupt German communications, especially the train stations and yards. The Americans believed in strategic bombing and were concerned about accuracy and preserving human life. There were some British who were less concerned about human life but favoured more accurate fighter bombers instead. There had already been mass bombings in Northern France that cost 10,000 French lives, that had not halted the Nazi railways due to their efficient repair teams.

This was a crucial argument and was ended when squadrons of fighter bombers interdicted railway bridges and tunnels. In a few short days the railways were stopped with 4,400 tons of explosives. Strategic bombings used up 72,000 tons and were less effective. A crucial lesson for the allies, they should have listened to each other, and could have saved many lives. But in the mean-time, many, Norman towns were reduced to nothing. Caen was 80% flattened and Flier was bombed when mistaken for Alencon. The innocent die in war, but it should be vital to protect the ones you have come to save.

One of the most stirring moments was when the Royal Marines marched to Pegasus Bridge to take-over from the 6th Parachute Regiment. They had been ordered to hold until relieved, and they did just that. The Marines with Lord Lovat and his personal bagpiper, were announced to the surrounding countryside with the skirl of the Scottish tune “Blue Bonnet”. If that did not scare the Nazi’s nothing would.  This was a fine low-tech communication method. Imagine in the dark waiting on a superior Nazi force coming to attack in the dark. Then you hear the pipes in the distance. Enough to make a Sassenach dance a highland jig. Another officer recited Henry V, “..once more unto the breach dear friends”. Ironically coming to liberate France this time, not conqueror it.

The Bridgehead was established but the Nazi’s formed a defensive line. In the West the Bocage with its deep lanes and hedgerows were a trap for the slowly advancing Americans. In the East Rommel dug in and blocked the direct route to Paris.

Eisenhower was enraged at the lack of progress and berated Montgomery. Unfortunately, Montgomery was not very helpful. He was older, an army man for 30 years and understood strategy. Ike was more an organiser and diplomat who had only been near a war zone 2 years earlier in Tunisia. There was a breakdown in communication, but Bradley and Montgomery knew the strategy. There was only one armoured division in front of the Americans and 7 at Caen. The British would hold the Nazi’s in the east and Bradley would break out and head south and east to encircle them.

What Eisenhower did not appreciate was that Rommel had five levels of defence stretching back 5 miles in front of Montgomery. Light infantry, then tanks, anti-tank weapons in buildings, artillery on a ridge and armour and the reserve behind. It was beginning to look like the attritional first world war. Ike wanted to advance, but Montgomery husbanded his forces.

As the Allies were reinforced the Nazi’s were not. Air power was the key. There was virtually no Luftwaffe, the air war over Germany had cut aircraft production by 30% and the German air force was forced to protect the Fatherland. With air superiority the USAAF and RAF bombed with impunity. When the Nazi’s were weakened, air power obliterated the elite panzer Lehr division. Hitler told them not to retreat. Their General replied that they never could retreat as they were all dead. Bradley broke out and headed east and Montgomery forced his way south. The steel jaws were closing around Falaise and the Germans were broken and were fleeing down that road. There was a corridor of death for the Germans. The results of which no person should have to see. There is horror in war and sometimes it should not be recorded.

So, the Battle was won, and the Germans regrouped behind the Rhine and waited for that crossing 6 months later. It was a close-run thing and was won by two major factors; air power and deception. Both these were started long before the battle.

For the allies there was common purpose that started with Churchill and Roosevelt. But the methods and attitudes were not uniform. There is a common language, but a long-held rivalry that crosses the Atlantic. Appreciating the point of view of your ally and your enemy is vital if we are to work together and win. Dividing responsibility so that those who have greater skills in a particular area can be utilised. Agreeing on the common goals and understanding your motivation is important when working in unity. But the invasion was for the French and the rest of Western Europe.

Although they were initially euphoric, that same night many French people and towns were obliterated. The Allies claimed that cutting communications was vital, but if you are going to risk the people you are trying to help, you better make sure that there are no alternatives. You also must ensure that return to a normal existence, for Normans and the rest of the French, is not coloured by the cultural invasion of those that they are liberated by.

The Normans have invaded places themselves. The fascinating Bayeux tapestry chronicles the invasion of England the by the Norman William the Bastard in 1066. Its pictorial story differs from the one told in English schools. But history is written by the victors and as much as historians try and show off by getting to the truth, there is no truth in War, only death.

Post-War Europe rebuilt and became united in the Common Market. To have a free-trade zone that held us together to prevent war. The liberation of Western Europe, led to liberal democracies, even in West Germany. Without the D Day invasion, we may well have become Communist or even stayed Fascist.

Europe is changing as I speak from the middle of the Brexit muddle. We cannot change our geography or our history, we will always have to coexist. But we should remember the lessons of D Day and look to the future. Communicate well and understand the others point of view, friend or foe. Defend self-determination and free trade. Live in peace by being prepared to fight wars well. As Sun Tzu said, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Make sure you know yourself and your motivations.

But D Day was for France. To maintain their glorious culture. La cuisine, du vin, les arts and even l’amour. They all fought for France and they all died for France so that we could be proud in who we are.

Liberty, equality and fraternity.

Balance, agape and truth.

Health, wealth and the pursuit of happiness.

Vive la France, Vive la difference!

Conway-Laird (2017)


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