Invasion of Normandy
Allies begin to liberate France
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
The invasion of Normandy, or the Normandy Campaign, was a battle fought between Germany and the Allies during World War 2. The Allied forces launched an amphibious and airborne assault on the French province of Normandy and were able to establish a beachhead in France and advance inland. The invasion was code named Operation Overlord. It is considered to be the largest amphibious operation in history. The campaign ended when French and American troops liberated Paris.
The invasion of Normandy, or the Normandy Campaign, was a battle fought between Germany and the Allies during World War 2. The Allied forces launched an amphibious and airborne assault on the French province of Normandy. After a successful D-Day, the first day of the invasion, the Allies were able to establish a beachhead in France and advance inland. The invasion was code named Operation Overlord. The Normandy campaign enabled the Allies to surround 50.000 Germans at the Falaise pocket. The campaign ended when French and American troops liberated Paris. Operation Overlord is considered to be the largest amphibious operation in history.

The Western Allies had decided to utilize the Italian campaign to help prepare for the invasion in the West. They would keep the German forces occupied in Italy and thus keep them away from both the Eastern Front and the invasion area. Also, the liberation of central Italy would provide them with air bases from which their bombers could reach the rest of German-occupied Europe. Finally, experienced divisions from the Italian theater would provide the needed push for the landing on the south coast of France, supporting the invasion of northern France.

The full backing of the US and British governments for ‘Overlord’ was dramatically illustrated by the enormous commitment of troops—over a million men—along with thousands of ships and planes to the enterprise. Along with the element of surprise, the sheer size of the Normandy landings was key to their success. Although the first day itself involved fewer troops going ashore than Operation Husky had in Sicily, overall they were the largest amphibious landings in world history by far.

Although it was clear that any large-scale amphibious landing on the heavily defended coastline of north-western Europe would be a major risk, the Allies did everything they possibly could to minimize military casualties through the employment of overwhelming force. This had the effect of hugely increasing the already high stakes. A major defeat in Normandy would almost certainly have caused the United States to abandon the Germany First policy, and turn to the Pacific War instead.

Amphibious operations had not enjoyed success in the Second World War up until that point. The attack on Dieppe had been a disaster. Salerno and Anzio had been near-disasters. Torch had been extremely lucky with the tides, but it was not undertaken against the Germans. Further back, Gallipoli (during World War 1) haunted the minds of many, not least its prime author, Churchill.

Even on top of all the Allied planning, however, luck would be required. ‘We shall require all the help that God can give us,’ Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, commander of all naval forces for the operation, noted in his diary the night before. ‘I cannot believe that this will not be forthcoming.’

As soon as the beachheads were secure, troops would pour into Normandy, principally Patton’s US Third Army and Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar’s Canadian First Army. The plan was for the 21st Army Group to establish positions stretching from the Loire to the Seine, take Cherbourg and Brest, and then liberate the rest of France and march to Germany. The Allied plan would be backed up by enormous air power, co-ordinated by Eisenhower’s deputy supreme commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder.

Operation Overlord, the cross-Channel landing on the shores of Normandy, represented four long years of preparation. The scale of its success placed the democratic powers back in Central Europe, a political position of critical importance in the second half of the century.

At the Trident Conference, the Americans, after a long and heated debate, finally obtained Britain's agreement for a target date for the cross-Channel invasion. However, the British were still reluctant regarding the potential success of the campaign as they feared that even if successful the troops would become bogged down in France and suffer heavy casualties. The Allies planned to storm the coast of Normandy near Caen, and then advance towards the important port of Cherbourg.

Churchill constantly went back and forth between a firm endorsement in principle of the cross-Channel operation and a concern that the opportunities in the Mediterranean theater must be exploited. Time and time again, a foreboding sense came to him that a renewed battle in north-western Europe would involve staggering casualties if the landing failed or if the troops, once ashore, became involved in a lengthy campaign reminiscent of World War I.

Field Marshal Brooke, who on other occasions restrained the Prime Minister's impulsive advocacy of all sorts of expeditions and projects, was most reluctant to delay Mediterranean operations in favor of a future project which he was scheduled to command but for which he evidently did not consider the prerequisites to be in place.

The USA believed that unless the energies of the Western Powers were tied to a firm date, with the operational, shipping, production, and training schedules geared to that date, the Allied invasion plans would end up being postponed indefinitely. Then the United States would either have to carry it out by itself or shift to a Pacific First strategy.

President Roosevelt's growing confidence in the advice of General Marshall and the growing strength of the United States helped make him absolutely determined to get a firm and final commitment for Operation ‘Overlord’, now with an American rather than a British commander.

General Frederick Morgan and his staff had been at work preparing an invasion plan. This plan was ready at the Quadrant Conference. It designated the beaches near Caen as the assault site, and called for major supply drops over the beaches. It stipulated an early effort to seize the port of Cherbourg, set forth the need to have separate sectors both during the assault and afterwards for the British and the US units, with the latter on the right flank to facilitate reinforcements. The plan stressed that it was essential to crush the German fighter planes in the West.

At the conference in Quebec, the American and British political and military leaders argued heatedly about their views of the future of the war, but ended up in general agreement. The overriding priority which the Americans wanted for ‘Overlord’ was not attained, but the final language made the success of ‘Overlord’ the main goal for 1944. Thus the Allies’ main focus shifted from the Mediterranean and Balkan fronts to the future western front.

The British reluctantly agreed to the American plan of transferring seven divisions from the Mediterranean to the UK for ‘Overlord’. This was a key issue, since with the reduction of forces caused by this transfer, the Mediterranean theater commander could no longer be expected to engage in any amount of new operations, however promising in the eyes of the British and however peripheral and diversionary in the eyes of the Americans.

It was agreed that there would be no offensive operations in the Balkans. Guerilla movements in that area would be supplied by air and sea, there might be minor commando raids, and the strategic bombing offensive would attack objectives in south-eastern Europe, but there was to be no commitment of ground troops.

The British tried to seize the Italian islands in the Aegean Sea. They then urged the United States to support operations against Rhodes to assist their own units landed on Cos, Leros and Samos, but the Americans categorically refused. The British met with disaster in the Aegean in October 1943, suffering heavy losses of ships and planes as well as troops. This caused considerable hard feelings between the Western Allies. However, the Americans were determined not to be rushed into major allocations of resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, where they were in the process of trying to reduce American forces and supply commitments.

The imminent surrender of Italy opened up the possibility of seizing airfields from which British and US airplanes could reach important targets in east Germany and in portions of German-controlled Europe hitherto out of range, thus forcing a diversion of German air defenses.

The British and Americans had originally committed to making one landing on the Channel coast, to be followed shortly afterwards by another on the Mediterranean coast of France. A number of major issues had to be solved in order to convert these hopes and plans into reality. Dwight Eisenhower had been made the overall commander, with Bernard Montgomery leading the ground forces in the assault. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay headed the naval contingents and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory the aviation. The British Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder was appointed as Eisenhower's deputy. Though they worked together, these powerful personalities often clashed.

The staff under General Frederick Morgan had been gathering detailed information and developing plans for months. Even though changes were made later, these plans provided the basis for all subsequent work.

Eisenhower did make some important alterations to the plans when he took over in London, as did Montgomery. Typically, Eisenhower kept quiet about his input, whereas Montgomery boasted about his, while at the same time feeling sorry for himself. In a letter to Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst, Montgomery wrote: ‘I have been terribly busy ever since I got back here. The whole plan was a complete bullock and had to be changed; very like Husky over again. I am becoming a sort of “enfant terrible” who goes around knocking things down and getting all the mud slung at one!! However so long as we win the war it does not matter to me. I shall retire to my garden – and the evening of life – when the party is all over.’

Montgomery and Leigh-Mallory were evidently very difficult men who had trouble cooperating effectively with high ranking officers of any service or nationality. Fortunately, Montgomery's Chief of Staff, General Francis ‘Freddie’ de Guingand, was superb at working with everybody. Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, managed to control Leigh-Mallory. He also helped solve one of the most contentious issues, that of the role of the strategic air forces in relation to the invasion.

Hoping to win the war on their own and skeptical of the likely success of the invasion, the British Bomber Command and the American 8th and 15th Air Forces preferred to operate independently against targets they considered of strategic importance—industrial cities for Bomber Command and the aircraft industry, followed by the synthetic oil industry, for the Americans. After endless bickering, the strategic air forces were temporarily subordinated to Eisenhower, especially for the bombing of transportation targets.

The basic commitment to the operation, with Roosevelt and eventually Churchill behind him, was very carefully orchestrated by Eisenhower himself. He had been in charge of the landings in Northwest Africa, and his theater command had directed the invasions of Sicily and the mainland of Italy. Now it was his job to repeat the performance.

There were certainly no doubts or hesitations in Montgomery's thinking once the plan for the invasion had been altered in the way he and Eisenhower wanted. Montgomery had put his heart and soul into the enterprise, had exhorted, inspired and cajoled the troops, had insisted on more training and more supplies and had supported the use of the new kinds of floating tanks. ‘Monty’ took certain personal satisfaction from once again facing his old enemy Rommel, now commanding the German Army Group B. He had beaten Rommel once, and he was confident of doing so again.

Eisenhower was appointed supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in western Europe and soon afterwards went to London to establish his SHAEF headquarters (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) to oversee and direct the invasion. Both George Marshall and Alan Brooke had been considered for the post of supreme commander. The former had effectively turned it down by not asking for it and the latter ruled himself out through his lack of enthusiasm for the operation, though he also felt that by 1944 the invasion needed to be commanded by an American.

There was considerable friction with Charles de Gaulle who, unlike Montgomery, was not blessed with a Chief of Staff capable of working with a variety of British and American leaders. The enormous risk they were running made the British and Americans especially reluctant to defer to his wishes or to endanger the secrecy of their intentions. Even as de Gaulle successfully consolidated his hold on French North Africa, his relationship with London and Washington remained strained.

The Americans were coming around to a tacit recognition of de Gaulle's effective control of the French resistance which could assist the invasion. In practice, Eisenhower was empowered by Roosevelt to deal with de Gaulle's newly established French Committee of National Liberation as the de facto regime. While this in no way smoothed dealings with it or him, it did facilitate some practical cooperation and also greatly helped de Gaulle take over control of the country as it was liberated from the Germans.

The Allies planned to storm the coast of Normandy in five sectors, codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The Americans would land at Utah and Omaha, the Canadians at Juno, and the British at Gold and Sword beaches. A sixth debarkation point was Pointe du Hoc. This was a prominent headland situated between Utah and Omaha. Here the American 2nd Ranger Battalion had to scale the cliffs in order to find and destroy the coastal battery gun located at the top. During the night, before the landings, an airborne assault would be launched on the French coast. The paratroopers had the mission of seizing bridges, crossroads and other critical objectives.

The issue of transportation was closely linked to the basic needs of a successful invasion. The Allied landing force had to be large enough and strong enough to seize a substantial beachhead against what was certain to be forceful resistance. This led to the expansion of the anticipated assault force, from three divisions supported by one or two airborne divisions, to five divisions supported by three airborne divisions. The greater shipping needs for such an assault and the patent difficulties of the Anzio landing led to a postponement of the planned invasion from May to June. Dates at the beginning and the middle of the month were considered feasible in view of tides and other technical considerations.

Any hopes of success rested on preventing the Germans from receiving significant reinforcements and supplies at the landing points. Systematic attacks on the transportation system of France were an obvious way to assist this objective. The transportation bombing plan was approved and implemented. It proved more effective than its opponents had expected and caused fewer French civilian casualties than an anxious British government had feared. Even while the bombing operation was under way, the American air force began a systematic effort to disrupt Germany's petroleum supplies.

Instead of assaulting a heavily defended port, the Allies would land on beaches, bring their own harbors with them, and seize a port after consolidating their beachhead. Enormous segments of breakwaters were built from cement in English ports to be towed across the Channel and sunk in place, together with a large number of old ships, to build two artificial harbors, called ‘Mulberries’ on the French coast, one for the British and Canadian forces, one for the Americans. Floating causeways inside these harbors would facilitate unloading.

Once a major position had been secured, the Allied forces would strike out to obtain ports: first Cherbourg and then the Brittany harbors. For a long time, the Mulberries would provide adequate facilities. By the time the Germans began to get an inkling of this extraordinary development, it would be far too late to alter their defense arrangements even if they did fully understand the impact of the new device.

The air force leaders were still doubtful about the whole enterprise, but their broader reservations had been silenced. On one aspect however, opposition remained strong. Fearing enormous casualties to the American airborne landing on the right flank of the invasion, Leigh-Mallory urged that this project be dropped. Since it was held essential to the westernmost of the landings, Eisenhower overruled him and kept to the original plan. It is not a coincidence that the famous picture of the Supreme Allied Commander on the night before D-Day shows him with some of the paratroopers about to embark on their flight across the Channel.

‘ ‘In the better days that lie ahead,’ went Montgomery’s Order of the Day for D-Day, ‘men will speak with pride of our doings.’ He divided his 21st Army Group into two armies. Bradley’s US First Army, split between Joseph Collins’ US VII Corps and Leonard Gerow’s US V Corps, would assault the westward beaches codenamed Utah and Omaha. Meanwhile, Miles Dempsey’s Second Army, split between G. C. Bucknall’s British XXX Corps and John Crocker’s Anglo-Canadian I Corps, would assault Gold, Juno and Sword beaches.

The British 6th Airborne Division would land on the eastern extremity of the battlefield to try to disrupt the German counter-attack and silence the German batteries positioned on the high ground at the mouth of the River Orne. Two American airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st, would land on the western extremity of Orne behind Utah beach to secure roads through the marshland behind the dunes, which had been deliberately flooded by the Germans.

Allied weaknesses were especially glaring in the areas of weaponry, tactics, and training. Despite the bountiful production of Anglo-American industry, many of the mass-produced weapons—machine guns and tanks, among others—proved distinctly inferior to their German counterparts. A more serious weakness in the Allies’ preparations for the invasion lay at the tactical level. Allied troops had had four years to prepare themselves for Normandy; not all units did a good job.

The Sherman tank was a wonderful armored fighting vehicle in some respects, more reliable than anything in the German inventory. But with the exception of an upgunned British version (called the Firefly), it possessed a low-velocity 75mm gun that could not penetrate the armor of the German Panther and Tiger tanks, or even Panzer Mark IVs at close range.

At lower levels, British troops possessed no common doctrine. As a result, training rarely reached a high level of consistency or effectiveness. Even basic infantry tactics displayed considerable problems. The British relied on little more than a straightforward rush and the hope that their artillery had already smashed the Germans to bits.

Part of the problem lay in the unwillingness of the British Army to base officer promotion on effectiveness rather than social class. Too many senior officers found employment after failure in the field. The higher military leadership was also weak, except Montgomery. In many ways, the battle Montgomery fought at Normandy was his most skilled, given the limitations of the forces at his disposal and his own predisposition to caution.

Coming into the war last, the Americans experienced their own weaknesses. In 1939 the U.S. Army had ranked seventeenth in the world. As compared with the Germans, who by 1939 had been preparing themselves for war for six years, the Americans had barely three years before their troops were committed to combat. Consequently, many units that fought in Normandy displayed a depressing lack of tactical sophistication.

Most U.S. formations exhibited greater adaptability than their British counterparts, and their learning curve was steady and steep. Such improvements owed much to the flexibility of a citizen army, as well as to the ruthlessness with which Eisenhower sacked senior officers who failed.

The planners’ general scheme – for a massive invasion via Normandy – survived the intense personal examination and interrogations of George Marshall, Alan Brooke, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, although Churchill and Brooke never threw off presentiments of disaster for the operation. Churchill often spoke of seeing the Channel full of Allied corpses as a result of the failure of Overlord.

Brooke noted in his diary as late as 5 June 1944, the day it was originally due to take place: ‘I am very uneasy about the whole operation. At the best it will fall so very very short of the expectation of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing of its difficulties. At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war. I wish to God it were safely over.’

In the night of the invasion, Churchill said to his wife Clementine: ‘Do you realize that by the time you wake up in the morning, 20,000 men may have been killed?’

In part because of Churchill’s and Brooke’s deep pessimism about the chances of success for a cross-Channel invasion, the British delayed an attack on the Continent, since they deemed it to be too early. They first insisted on a North African, Mediterranean and then Italian series of campaigns undertaken to weaken and disperse German forces, while the Wehrmacht was bled white on the Eastern Front. By June 1944, however, the Germans were about to be comprehensively defeated in Russia, so there was no time to be lost by the Western Allies in attacking the Reich from the west.

Churchill continued to oppose the planned landing in southern France, as did Brooke and Montgomery, and the project was postponed to assure adequate landing ships for Overlord. But the Americans could not abandon the project. They understood the need for port facilities to supply the assault into Germany itself, as well as the necessity of feeding the French divisions being formed in Italy and North Africa back into France.

An essential factor in preventing the Germans from concentrating overwhelming forces against the invaders was to deceive them into believing that more than one landing on the Channel coast was planned. The Allies encouraged the Germans to believe that this landing was only the first of two, with the main one yet to come in the Pas de Calais area, the narrowest part of the Channel and the closest to Germany, or perhaps even in Norway. The deception operation (‘Bodyguard’) was conducted on a very large scale. The project was carefully worked out, continually monitored, and almost unbelievably successful.

The Allies had decided very early on that Normandy was the correct place to land. It was more difficult for the Germans to concentrate their troops there, it was within land-based fighter range, it could be reached by overnight shipping runs, and it offered a way of coping with the harbor issue that would also fool the Germans. To mislead the enemy about one’s intentions, capabilities and operations is a strategy as old as military theory itself. The ancient Chinese strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu himself taught that ‘All warfare is based on deception.’

The effectiveness of the deception was reinforced by the fact that every German spy in the United Kingdom had been captured by the British. If not executed, they had been turned around so that a stream of erroneous information was fed to the Germans both before and after the day of the invasion, with special emphasis on the concept that the Normandy landing was a diversion before the main invasion yet to come in the Calais area. Therefore the Germans kept units of the German 15th Army there, instead of sending them to reinforce the 7th Army fighting for its life in Normandy.

Any landing at Calais would not only run into the strongest German defenses but could not possibly be portrayed as a feint to shield the major landing elsewhere. What the Allies therefore had to do and did was to create over time a whole series of notional divisions, corps, armies and one Army Group, with one army, the British 4th, being ostensibly slated to invade Norway, while the fake 1st United States Army Group would invade France near Calais.

The Allies were able to monitor the effectiveness of the deception and to time the messages from the agents who worked for them but were believed by the Germans to be their own, due to the earlier break into the enigma code systems. Allied decryption ability had more than kept up with the German refinements in encrypting. Thus, at critical times during the ‘Overlord’ operation, the Allies could determine whether or not the deception was working.

Operation Bodyguard involved the slow buildup of a complex of imaginary headquarters with both radio traffic for the Germans to locate and attempt to analyze and commanders who really existed. The First US Army Group (FUSAG), commanded by General Patton, was simply invented and stationed across the Channel from Calais. It came complete with dummy tanks, false headquarters, fabricated landing-craft, camp stoves that smoked and even concealed lighting on the airfields. The Germans could not believe that a commander of Patton’s eminence would have been wasted by the Allies on a ruse. Indeed Patton could not believe it himself.

While the pretended project to invade Norway did not look entirely convincing, the deception worked well because the Germans were prepared to believe it. They readily accepted the existence and location of the extra units in southeast England. There were simply too many divisions in England and on the way from the United States to be accounted for. Furthermore, the Germans had an excessively high estimate of the Allies’ naval military capability, so that the five-division assault in Normandy did not look like the main invasion to them.

By the time the Germans realized that the Normandy landing was the only one and that there would be no other Channel crossing, it was too late for reinforcements from the 15th Army to be transferred to the danger points or to relieve the divisions facing the Canadians and British, so that these divisions in turn could move west.

The Germans decided that their key task was to defend the ports, which the Allies would obviously need in order to supply their invasion forces. The emphasis in the massive program of fortifying the coast of France and Belgium was therefore on the ports. This is where the mass of artillery and fortifications was located. The hope was that an Allied effort to seize a major port could be foiled, and that without a port to bring in supplies and reinforcements, any beachhead could be destroyed. The Germans build fortifications all along the Atlantic ocean, from Norway to southern France. This system of fortifications was known as the Atlantic Wall.

The Germans expected one or more diversionary attacks, most likely including one in Normandy, followed by the main assault in the Calais area. Even after the Normandy landing, this continued to be the German belief. By the time it began to dawn on them that no landing in the Pas de Calais area was planned at all, it was too late to move reinforcements from there to the invasion front, which was about to be ruptured by the American breakout at its western end.

The German commanders were either on leave or at conferences away from their posts. They thought there was plenty of time when in fact thousands of Allied ships were heading for the French coast. Although the Wehrmacht had sustained crippling losses on the Eastern Front for three years, its soldiers remained formidable opponents.

German intelligence knew the Allied codes used to alert the French underground and intercepted these messages, but the skeptics could not believe that the Allies were coming when the weather was so obviously unsuitable. The commitment which empowered Eisenhower to grasp the weather window of opportunity enabled the Allies to gain the enormous advantage of surprise.

In Führer Directive No. 51 Hitler stated: ‘The danger in the East remains, but a greater threatens to the West – the Anglo-Saxon landings. In the East, in the worst scenario, the vast size of the territory allows a loss of ground even on the large scale without delivering us a mortal blow. But it is different in the West!… It is there that the enemy has to attack, there – if we are not deceived – that the decisive landing battles will be fought.’ These battles, he said in the Führer-conferences, would be decisive for the outcome of the war. ‘We have to be on guard like a spider in his web,’ he said, adding, ‘Thank God, I have a good nose for such things and can usually anticipate these developments beforehand.’

Over the previous eighteen months, enormous amounts of work had been put into the German fortifications in France known as the Atlantic Wall. There were an estimated two million slave labourers working for two years, pouring 18 million tons of concrete to create deep bunkers and impressive fortifications, many of which can still be seen today. Mines were laid in the water and on the beaches, while anti-glider poles made from tree trunks, known as Rommel’s asparagus, were dug into fields.

The one person who never wavered in his conviction that the Allies would land in Normandy was Hitler himself. ‘Watch Normandy,’ he said to Rundstedt many times, injunctions which both Rundstedt and his chief of staff General Günther Blumentritt confirmed after the war. Blumentritt recalled that Rundstedt’s staff ‘received repeated warnings about it, starting with the words “The Führer fears…” ’

The Abwehr estimated there were seventy-nine divisions stationed in Britain, when the true figure was forty-seven. False wireless traffic was sent out in East Anglia. An armada of dummy landing craft and tanks was assembled in the Thames Estuary. An actor was sent to Gibraltar prior to the Normandy landings to pose as Montgomery. He made a special study of the general he was impersonating.

The Germans suffered from an excess of commanders who neither agreed on what to do nor had the authority to do what they wanted with the speed required by circumstances. Army Group B, which was nominally under the Commander-in-Chief West, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, was led by Field Marshal Rommel, and commanded the 7th and 15th Armies on the Channel coast. Army Group G of General Johannes Blaskowitz with the 1st and 8th Armies was to defend the Biscay and Mediterranean coasts. Directly under the Commander-in-Chief West was a Panzer Group West under General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg.

Rommel and Geyr did not agree on the best way to deal with an invasion. Rommel believed that the landing troops must be crushed quickly, and wanted the armored divisions stationed close to the coast. Geyr believed they ought to be held back in a substantial block, in order to be employed against the beachhead once it was clear where the main landing had occurred.

Rundstedt tried to work out a compromise, but the real effect of the squabbling was that the armored divisions were split up. Three were assigned to each Army Group but were susceptible of being switched to the other, while four were held back as a mobile reserve to be sent to the critical point.

The Germans had been working for years on their defenses and were very confident of their ability to crush an invasion attempt. If they could come close to foiling the Allies at Salerno and Anzio, they could certainly succeed where they already had in place large forces, extensive fortifications and the ability to gather very substantial reinforcements. However, they also had significant problems. At this point their navy was small and could not defend the French coast effectively. Also, the years of fighting in Russia had significantly drained them of resources and manpower. They had also diverted a portion of defences to the Calais area.

The German navy was small and could only send submarines and E-Boats against any invading armada. During the invasion, these proved even less effective than the Germans expected.

The coastal artillery was large in number, and often large in caliber, but much of it was in the Pas de Calais area and around the ports. The large guns could not, of course, be moved out of their enormous emplacements.

The air force had just lost many of its bombers in the ‘Baby Blitz’ and many of its fighters in ‘Big Week’. As a result, during the invasion the Luftwaffe was unable to do even the little expected of it. ‘Baby Blitz’ refers to Operation Steinbock, a strategic bombing campaign in southern England that took place between January and May of that year. It was the last offensive by German bombers during the war. In ‘Big Week’ the American air force launched Operation Argument, a series of missions against the Reich.

Even the army, always Germany's strongest arm, had its difficulties. The long war in the East had drained the military of many of its best officers and men. The forces in the West included a number of fine armored and infantry divisions, but a large proportion of the 58 divisions were second-rate. Furthermore, the Germans had transferred the bulk of the units recruited from Soviet prisoners of war and the occupied U.S.S.R. to the West, in fear that, with the turning tide in the East, they might not be reliable there. But these soldiers’ enthusiasm for fighting the Western Allies was not likely to be high.

During the night, the three airborne divisions were flown overhead to their drop zones. Dummy parachutists were dropped at several locations to confuse the Germans as the British 6th Airborne Division landed on the eastern flank to secure bridgeheads over the Orne canal and river. The American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions came down on the western flank to make sure the troops landing at ‘Utah’ beach, the westernmost of the five, could break into the open rather than being contained on the coast. The airborne landings were on the whole successful. In spite of substantial casualties, the main objectives were reached on both flanks.

The British seized a bridgehead east of the Orne river and took key bridges by landing gliders right at them. Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork landed his Horsa glider near the road bridge over the Caen Canal, now known as Pegasus Bridge, and the bridge over the River Orne. These two coastal road bridges were strategically vital, because any German counter-attack from the east would need to cross them, as would any Allied breakout to the plains east of Caen. A second glider landed and then a third. The pilots had flown 8 km by moonlight with only a stopwatch and a flashlight attached to a finger to guide them.

Ninety British men from D Company of the 2nd Battalion, the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, under the command of Major John Howard, disembarked from the gliders and captured Pegasus Bridge without difficulty, so complete was the Germans’ surprise. They then held it until relieved by Lord Lovat’s Commandos, who marched from the beach up the canal tow-path at 13.00 hours.

The American paratroopers were somewhat scattered, but even this contributed to the confusion among the Germans. The American soldiers who survived the descent and first hours quickly created control points inland for the troops which had in the meantime landed on Utah beach.

The American paratroopers landed in Normandy even more heavily laden than the infantry, each man carrying almost his own weight including jump suit, camouflage helmet, main and reserve parachutes, boots, gloves, combat uniform, life-jacket, Colt .45 pistol, Browning automatic rifle plus ammunition, knives, first-aid kit, blanket, food and change of socks and underwear.

The American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were less accurate than the British. Some units landed as far as 55 km off target. Yet this, and the practice of dropping dummy paratroopers, had the added advantage of so confusing German intelligence that it estimated that 100,000 Allied troops had landed by air, more than four times the true number. The majority of paratroopers landed in the correct drop-zones, however, and went on to play an invaluable part in attacking the beaches from the rear and holding back the inevitable German counter-attack.

On the beaches, the Allies could not advance inland on the first day as far as they had hoped, but substantial gains were made, with fewer losses than anticipated. The surprised Germans were overwhelmed by the combination of preliminary bombardment from air and sea and the force of the assault. The Allies succeeded in establishing a beachhead and begun pushing the Germans inland.

‘The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory! I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory! Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.’ These were Eisenhower’s words stated in the Order of the Day on Tuesday, 6 June 1944, distributed to all Allied troops by SHAEF.

As at Salerno, the Allied soldiers pushed on tenaciously. By the end of the day, the Allies were ashore and beginning a rapid buildup of troops, equipment and supplies. Although the Allies fell short of their D-Day objectives and did not succeed in joining their five beachheads into an effective continuous front until D-Day+6, they were slowly but steadily pushing the Germans back.

On the first day, 5,000 vessels sailed, including five battleships, twenty-three cruisers, seventy-nine destroyers, thirty-eight frigates and other warships, as well as a reserve of 118 destroyers and other warships. Meanwhile over 13,000 sorties were flown, and 154,000 Allied troops (70,500 Americans, 83,115 British and Canadian) alighted on French soil on the first day alone, 24,000 of them by parachute and glider.

It had been feared that the Germans would use gas on the beaches. The anti-gas chemical with which uniforms were sprinkled smelt so disgusting that, added to the landing crafts’ tossing about in the waves, it induced vomiting in many troops who had not already been seasick.

D-Day itself saw around 9,000 casualties, of whom – very unusually – more than half were killed. The dead comprised 2,500 Americans, 1,641 Britons, 359 Canadians, thirty-seven Norwegians, nineteen Free French, thirteen Australians, two New Zealanders and one Belgian: 4,572 soldiers in total. Although Air Chief Marshal Tedder had predicted that the airborne troops would lose 80 percent of their number, the actual figure was 15 percent.

By the time of the great storm of D-Day+13, which destroyed one of the two Mulberry harbors, the Germans had lost their chance of driving the Allies back into the sea. They were instead obliged to try to contain them, ironically at the very moment that the Americans had already begun their own offensive to cut off the Cherbourg peninsula.

At Utah, 23,000 men got ashore with only 210 killed and wounded, partly because the current swept the 4th Division’s landing craft some 2 km south of the original area designated for attack, onto a relatively lightly defended part of the coastline. Twenty-eight of the thirty-two amphibious Sherman tanks got ashore.

The one regiment facing the American soldiers, part of the German 709th Division, surrendered in large numbers once the 101st Airborne had secured at least four exits from the beaches.

The American landings at Utah were also helped considerably by the fact that the paratroopers from the 101st took out a number of the German artillery positions looking directly toward the beaches. But the 4th Infantry Division was also well-trained and took care of its own share of Germans.

At Omaha beach, the Germans had moved in an additional first-rate division at the last moment. This caused serious trouble for the Americans. The situation looked bad for several hours, with casualties mounting, units at sea unable to land, and the soldiers which had reached the shore having difficulties pushing off the beaches. By noon, however, brave men with strong naval gunfire support were pushing off the beach, while at the same time the Germans decided not to bring in more reinforcements, erroneously believing they had won.

The veteran US 1st Division (known as the Big Red One from its shoulder flash) and the 29th Division, which had never seen combat before, were to suffer ten times the losses of the 4th Division at Utah. Despite all the intense preparation, with tourists’ photo albums pored over by Staff officers for years, the ground seemed to have been ill chosen for attack. However, once the decision had been made to expand the beachhead area as far as Utah beach to the west, Omaha beach was the only feasible landing area between Utah and the British and Canadian beaches.

The cliffs and bluffs at Omaha were in some places more than 45 m above the sea wall at the end of the dunes. The inward curvature of the coast at that stretch helped German fields of fire to overlap. Underwater sand bars and ridges snagged landing craft. The powerful and well-placed fortifications (which can still be seen today) were not silenced by naval shelling. The antipersonnel mines, barbed wire and huge steel antitank ‘hedgehogs’ proved murderous obstacles. Accurate German artillery fire, and above all a regiment of the 716th Infantry Division and units from the crack German 352nd Infantry Division, caused havoc.

American soldiers had to leap out of their landing craft into a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire loaded down with 30 kg of equipment, including gas-mask, grenades, TNT blocks, two ammunition bandoliers, rations, water bottle and related kit. Many simply drowned when the water they jumped into proved deeper than expected.

The Omaha Beach landing was almost a failure, largely due to Bradley’s unwillingness to address essential tactical problems caused by an amphibious assault on prepared defenses. In the spring, Marshall had sent Major General Charles Corlett from the Pacific, where he had led the successful assaults on Attu and Kwajalein, to advise Bradley and the other senior U.S. generals in charge of the landing, concerning the obstacles the army and marines had run into while conducting opposed landings in the Pacific. None of the senior U.S. commanders, including Eisenhower and Bradley, displayed the slightest interest in learning anything about his experiences in the Pacific.

The navy botched its job by dropping the amphibious tanks for the 1st Infantry Division well beyond the drop-off point. Only 5 out of 34 reached the beaches. More of the 29th Infantry Division’s tanks reached the beach, only to be destroyed by German anti-tank guns. The artillery fared no better: few howitzers survived the movement through the rolling surf, their DUKWs (amphibious vehicles) capsizing at sea.

After being pinned down on the beaches for seven hours, the Americans were finally ‘advancing up heights behind beaches’. Although there were 2,000 Americans killed on Omaha beach, by nightfall a total of 34,000 men had made it ashore, including two Ranger battalions that had silenced the German coastal battery at Pointe du Hoc to the west after scaling cliffs with rope ladders.

There were no high cliffs at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, and the naval bombardment had more time to soften up the German defences. However, by late afternoon part of the 21st Panzer Division attacked in the gap between Juno and Sword beaches and almost made it to the Channel before being turned back by naval fire. The Canadians got the furthest inland on the first day, with their 9th Brigade advancing to within 5 km of the outskirts of Caen.

Signal Sergeant James Bellows of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment recalled of the men he landed with on Sword Beach: ‘A lot of them had been overridden by their landing craft as they came off. The landing craft became lighter as men came off and as it surged up the beach, and many who were in front went straight underneath.’

The British beaches were partly cleared of German killing apparatus by a series of specialized tank-based gadgets which employed inventions such as giant thrashing metal chains to set off mines. They were known as Hobart’s funnies after Major-General Sir Percy Hobart of the 79th Armoured Division. Generals Bradley and Gerow preferred a massive frontal assault. Because of heavy seas, ten landing craft and twenty-six artillery pieces sank on the way to the beaches.

Despite some local impediments, the British had firm control of Gold and Sword beaches by mid-day, while the Canadians were equally successful on Juno Beach. Units of the British 50th Infantry Division advanced to within 5 km of the ancient Norman city of Bayeux. Still, the clutter and confusion of the beachhead, the complexities of moving off the beaches and through the cleared exits, as well as German resistance, made it impossible for the British or Canadians to capture Caen.

Although Hitler was not woken at Berchtesgaden with the news of the Normandy landings, it made very little difference. Even by the lunchtime conference, the OKW was unsure that this was the true attack rather than a diversion. Rundstedt was not certain either. So by the time two Panzer divisions were sent to the beaches 100 km away, much valuable time had been lost. This was not the fault of the adjutants who failed to wake the Führer, as much as it was evidence of the success of the Allies’ deception operation in confusing the minds of the Germans about where the main attack was going to take place.

Rundstedt thought the Allies could not be prevented from landing and so needed to be flung back into the sea in a counter-attack. Rommel felt they had to be stopped from getting ashore, telling his Staff that ‘The first twenty-four hours will be decisive.’

Allied aerial supremacy over the battlefield made it impossible for the German tanks to engage in battle in large numbers during daylight. Yet five armored divisions of the reserve in France, and no fewer than nineteen divisions of the Fifteenth Army 200 km to the north, simply stayed in place waiting for the ‘real’ attack on the Pas de Calais. Meanwhile, Rundstedt and Rommel became increasingly certain that Normandy was indeed the true debarkation point, whereas the Führer continued to doubt it.

Timetables were vital to the Germans. In reinforcing Normandy as quickly as possible, they were severely hampered by the destruction of road and rail routes by the bombing campaign and by acts of resistance by the French Maquis, who attacked the Germans and destroyed bridges and railways in the path of the Panzers.

The Allied success in establishing themselves and holding off the German counter-attacks at a time when the Germans had overwhelming superiority in troops, guns, and tanks in the West was due to the combination of several factors. German reaction to the initial landing was slow and hesitant, the Allied forces had overwhelming air superiority, and the French resistance also made life difficult for the Germans.

Unwilling to believe that the decisive moment was really at hand in spite of the bad weather, the Germans dithered for hours with the higher military leaders absent from their posts or unwilling to take chances. Hitler was literally asleep and not to be woken up. General Alfred Jodl determined that the OKW would not allow Rundstedt and Rommel to take over the armored reserve. All this changed by the afternoon of D-Day, but by then it was too late.

The Allied pressure was such as to keep the Germans constantly stretched—especially because the latter continued to believe that the main Allied landing was still to come in the Pas de Calais area. This successful deception kept the bulk of the 15th Army, the largest German army in the West, poised to ward off a landing which never came, while the 7th Army was trying to cope with the concentrated might of the Allies.

The German reinforcements which dribbled into the invasion front were never enough, and the Allied air forces together with the sabotage efforts of the French resistance and Allied commandos managed to slow down whatever was sent. The German armored divisions, therefore, arrived one at a time and quite slowly, and were never able to punch through. They ended up becoming mired in positional warfare because they continued to be needed at the front in the absence of infantry divisions to replace them on the spot.

When shortly before 05.00 the Seventh Army’s chief of staff warned Army Group B that the attack was indeed taking place, Rommel himself was unavailable as he was in Germany celebrating his wife Lucie’s birthday which fell on that day. He only made it back to Normandy at 6 o’clock that evening. His chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Hans Speidel, ordered the 12th SS Hitler Youth Panzer Division to counter-attack at Caen at first light, but some of the 4,500 bombers Allies fielded that day by the Allies severely blunted this assault.

The German reaction to the establishment of a coherent and sustainable Allied bridgehead was a combination of fierce defensive fighting with no effective strategic concept. The fighting slowed the Allies down but could not drive them back.

The French Resistance had been ordered to ready itself for the invasion by the BBC broadcast of the first line of the poem ‘Autumn Song’ by Paul Verlaine, which went: Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne (The long sobs of the autumn violins). The Abwehr had tortured a Maquis leader and learnt that when the second line – Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone (wound my heart with monotonous languor) – was broadcast, it meant that the invasion was imminent. At Army Group B’s château headquarters at La Roche-Guyon it was assumed that it must be mere disinformation, as the Allies would hardly have announced the invasion over the BBC.

Rommel later pointed out: ‘Even the movement of the most minor formations on the battlefield – artillery going into position, tanks forming up, etc. – is instantly attacked from the air with devastating effect. During the day fighting troops and headquarters alike are forced to seek cover in wooded and close country in order to escape the constant pounding of the air. Up to 640 [naval] guns have been used. The effect is so immense that no operation of any kind is possible in the area commanded by this rapid-fire artillery, either by infantry or tanks.’

One of the keys to victory was command of the air: whereas the Luftwaffe flew only 309 sorties on D-Day, the Allies flew 13,688. Only a dozen German fighter-bombers ever made it to the beaches, and they could only stay long enough for a single strafing attack each before being chased off.

‘The scene in the Channel was quite amazing,’ recalled Lieutenant-Commander Cromwell Lloyd-Davies of HMS Glasgow. ‘It was almost like Piccadilly Circus – there were so many ships there and it was incredible to us that all this could be going on without the Germans knowing anything about it. But we never saw a German aircraft the whole time.’

D-Day once again saw a determined German counter-attack on the ground being staved off by Allied air power. The capacity and willingness of the Wehrmacht to try to push the Allies back into the sea were still there, but they were overwhelmed by the ability of the RAF and USAAF to attack the unprotected armour from above, where it was weakest.

The entire panoply of strategic bombers, tactical bombers, photo-reconnaissance aircraft, fighters, fighter-bombers, and transports that made up the Allied air forces were at Eisenhower’s disposal. The total number of military aircraft supporting the invasion was 11,590.

The German Navy posed hardly any danger to the invasion, as it would have done at any period before Dönitz withdrew his U-boats from the Atlantic ports. By D-Day, such was the success of the Allies’ naval war in the west that the Kriegsmarine was completely incapable of inflicting significant damage on the invasion armada.

What surface ships the Germans had were concentrated on protecting the Pas de Calais area and no U-boats made any attacks against Allied shipping. Four German destroyers made a sally from Brest, but all were sunk or forced back into port. The Royal Navy’s Home Fleet meanwhile closed off any threat from Scandinavian and Baltic ports, and the Kiel Canal was mined as a precaution in Operation Bravado. Although three E-boats under Lieutenant Heinrich Hoffmann, based at Le Havre, made it through the Allies’ smokescreen to loose off eighteen torpedoes, a Norwegian escort destroyer was their only victim.

Once successfully ashore, the Allies had planned to strike across the Cotentin peninsula to isolate and then capture Cherbourg. The attack westward by the American VII Corps gathered speed on D-Day+14, and had reached the coast on D-Day+18, thus cutting off the peninsula and Cherbourg from possible reinforcement. At the end of the battle, the Germans surrendered the important port of Cherbourg, much sooner than they had anticipated. The Allies now had a big port from which they could land an impressive number of reinforcements. The destruction of its facilities by German demolition experts had been massive. The port had to be repaired.

The first days of the fighting were slow and bitter as the Germans held desperately to each hedgerow surrounding each little field. As the Americans pushed on, the Germans not only suffered heavier losses but were forced to continue without replacements. Having got into the countryside behind the beaches, the Americans in particular were dismayed to find themselves among the bocage – high and wide, ancient (sometimes Viking-built) thick hedgerows that provided ideal cover for defence.

Confused orders, some from Hitler personally, as to whether the defending forces were to retreat north toward Cherbourg or south to retain contact with the rest of the German front, made it easier for the VII Corps, which immediately headed north, feeding newly arrived divisions into the push toward Cherbourg.

The Germans had counted on holding onto the port city for a long time, but the Americans drove north to its defense perimeter in three days, immediately beginning an assault on the fortress. Supported by air attacks and naval as well as ground artillery, the American troops drove into the city during the third week of June. The German commander, General Schlieben, surrendered. Some German soldiers held out in bitter fighting for another 4 days.

It took almost three weeks to open the port at all and months before it could handle substantial volumes of cargo. Eventually Cherbourg would take more than half of all the cargo landed in France for the American forces, but the delay imposed by the demolitions contributed substantially to the eventual halt in the Allied offensive.

The seizure of Cherbourg meant that the Allies could not be driven into the sea again even if the weather should destroy the remaining Mulberry and make it impossible to land troops and supplies over the beaches. The destruction of one Mulberry right after the capture of Cherbourg in the great Channel storm enormously complicated the supply problem of the Allies. They were bringing in considerable amounts over the beaches and could look forward to the restoration of Cherbourg's facilities.

While the Americans were cutting off the Cotentin peninsula and taking Cherbourg, the British 2nd Army was battering its way toward Caen. Held up by German armored units, repeated German counterattacks, and the reluctance of Montgomery and his subordinate army commanders to accept heavy casualties, the advance came to an early halt. Montgomery hoped to drive beyond Caen to Falaise, but German resistance stalled his drive. After a series of failed attacks he decided to build up his forces. The Germans in Caen, which Montgomery called the ‘crucible’ of the battle, held out for a month after the landings took place.

After more than a week of unsuccessful fighting, on D-Day+12 Montgomery ordered new drives for Caen by Lt. General Sir Miles Dempsey's British 2nd Army and for Cherbourg by Bradley's United States 1st Army. The latter succeeded, but the Caen offensive again made minimal progress.

Montgomery’s big attack, called Operation ‘Goodwood’, was halted with very heavy losses in spite of an immense prior air bombardment and a massive armored assault. This halt suffered by the British almost cost Montgomery his position, since most of the higher officers at Eisenhower's headquarters, especially the latter's British deputy Tedder, wanted Montgomery relieved. Eisenhower had had enough of Montgomery's difficult behavior. Montgomery was saved by the backing of Churchill and the American breakthrough on the other flank, which opened up new prospects for the Allies.

The British switched the 7th Armored Division’s axis of advance to the west of Caen. That division’s spearhead brigade soon broke through German lines, and its lead elements reached Villers-Bocage on the way to outflanking Caen from the west. But the advance units moved as if on peacetime maneuvers: there was no reconnaissance to the front, and the British forces bunched up on the main road stretching through the village.

Unfortunately for the 7th Armored Division, the Waffen SS 501st Heavy Tank Battalion (Tigers) had arrived as the advance guard of the I SS Panzer Corps. Its commander was the great tank ace Michael Wittmann. With a handful of Tigers, he shredded 7th Armored’s advance brigade by knocking out 25 British tanks and 28 other armored vehicles. Wittman plugged the dike long enough for the 2nd SS Panzer Division to arrive.

Montgomery and Dempsey launched a major attack west of Caen. This attack, codenamed Epsom, failed, although at battle’s end the British did draw in and maul the last of the fresh armored units the Germans possessed—a result that was largely fortuitous. Just as at Villers-Bocage—and with less reason—the British senior generals abandoned crucial terrain advantages, largely because they were unwilling to take risks.

Montgomery followed Epsom with two additional attacks inland. The first, codenamed Charnwood, used Bomber Command to blast the way into Caen, but that blow largely missed the German positions. At considerable cost, the British infantry then fought their way into the northern half of Caen, but the failure to make any significant advance suggested that a stalemate had settled over the front.

Montgomery decided to build up his forces on the British sector for a big push. As he wrote to Gen. Alan Brooke, he had decided on a real ‘show down on the eastern flanks, and to loose a Corps of three armored divisions in the open country about the Caen—Falaise road.’ As he put it to his most important backer in the Allied high command: ‘The possibilities are immense; with seven hundred tanks loosed to the South East of Caen, and armored cars operating far ahead, anything can happen.’

In the middle of the Allied front, progress had been very slow. The Americans were pushing toward St. Lô in order to secure a good basis for a drive into the open country at the western end of the Normandy front. But they were held up by the bocage, the hedgerow terrain which confined the tanks to narrow roads and the infantry to laborious field by-field advances under fire from well-concealed German defenders. The city was taken after heavy fighting. After the Allied bombardment, the city became known as ‘The Capital of Ruins’, with 95% of its buildings destroyed.

The shortage of shipping and the need to bring troops and supplies directly from the United States after the initial landing led to the decision for the British to take the left and the Americans the right flank in the landing and the subsequent campaign. The result therefore was that the Americans had to slug their way forward in the bocage. This process only became easier as they welded steel ‘tusks’ onto the front of the tanks so that these ‘rhinoceroses’ could drive right through the hedgerows.

Taking advantage of the terrain, German forces, mostly infantry but some armored, fought for every field. By this time they were trying to hold the Americans to the slowest possible advance while launching their heaviest armored attacks against the British. The Americans did not, however, have to assist their ally directly because air attacks kept the Germans from moving their armored divisions quickly enough to the British front to mount a serious threat there at any one time.

The U.S. VII Corps launched a drive on St. Lô. Initially, the American offensive fared no better than the British attacks had, because Bradley once again spread his effort across too wide a front. Nevertheless, although suffering heavy casualties, the Americans pushed the Germans back on St. Lô, an attritional process that weakened German defenses.

The Allied offensive began with the carpet bombing of Saint-Lô and areas west of it in which 4,200 tons of high explosive were dropped by the Allied heavy bombers. Shortfall bombs killed around 500 Americans, including Lieutenant-General Lesley J. McNair, chief of US Army ground forces, whose body could be identified only by the three stars on his collar.

The steady series of defeats, added to the knowledge of enormous crimes and the fact of German responsibility for the outbreak and extension of the war, contributed to opening the eyes of opponents of the Hitler regime. There was an absolute need for an overthrow of the Nazi government, an overthrow that could come only if Hitler were removed from the scene. The internal opposition had made several attempts to kill Hitler and seize power. The bomb attempt of July 20, 1944 had, however, failed narrowly. Hitler survived the explosion.

Faced with contradictory orders coming on the one hand from Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia, and on the other hand from the leaders of the military opposition in Berlin, the overwhelming majority of the military sided with Hitler.

In Paris, the military commander sided with Hitler's opponents. Because the Nazi regime remained firmly in control, however, he and many others were arrested and executed. The upheaval made Hitler even more suspicious of his military leaders. As he developed a new strategy for the West over the following days, he would not allow the front commanders to have a clear view of his intentions. These he explained to his chief operational advisor, General Jodl, in a conference.

‘In consequence of the defeat of the submarine,’ Admiral Karl Dönitz stated after the war, ‘the Anglo-American invasion of Normandy in July [sic] 1944 was now a success and now we knew clearly that we had no more chance to win the war. But what could we do?’ The answer for some in the German High Command – though certainly not the ultra-loyal Dönitz himself – was to try to assassinate Hitler. There had been some latent hostility between Hitler and his generals, except in those periods at the start of the war when victories came as easily as the subsequent mutual admiration.

‘The General Staff is the only Masonic Order that I haven’t yet dissolved,’ Hitler said on one occasion, and on another: ‘Those gentlemen with the purple stripes down their trousers sometimes seem to me even more revolting than the Jews.’ From the time of the rebuff at Moscow in late 1941, these antipathies resurfaced. Once the war looked as if it was going to be lost, some of the braver generals decided it was time to act. Far from acting out of democratic values, however, the majority of the Plotters were simply trying to remove an incompetent corporal who they realized was the major impediment to a negotiated peace.

A bomb planted by the Swabian aristocrat Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg ripped through one of the conference huts at the Wolfschanze only 2 m from where Hitler was studying an air reconnaissance report through his magnifying glass. Stauffenberg used British fuses because they did not make a tell-tale hissing sound. A series of accidents meant that the meeting was transferred to a different room outside the bunker, the bomb was moved from a position close to Hitler to a spot behind a heavy table leg, and only one rather than two bombs were primed. Otherwise the assassination attempt – one of seventeen made against him – would probably have succeeded.

‘The swine are bombing us!’ was Hitler’s first thought after the explosion, which burst his eardrums, hurt his right elbow, scarred his forehead, cut his face, set his hair and clothes alight, shredded his trousers and left more than a hundred splinters in the lower third of both thighs, but nothing more serious than that. ‘Believe me,’ he told his private secretary Christa Schroeder at lunch that day, ‘this is the turning point for Germany. From now on things will look up again. I’m glad the Schweinhunde have unmasked themselves.’

5,764 people were arrested for complicity in the Plot in 1944, and an almost identical number the following year. However, fewer than a hundred were genuinely involved in it to the extent that they knew what was about to happen. This number included soldiers as senior as Field Marshal von Witzleben, General Erich Hoepner, General Friedrich Olbricht and Field Marshal Günther von Kluge.

The hopes of the Plotters that they could make peace with Britain suffered from the flaw that such decisions were no longer up to Britain alone. The British Government’s position was succinctly summed up by Sir D’Arcy Osborne, who when told by Pope Pius XII that the German Resistance groups ‘confirmed their intention, or their desire, to effect a change of government’ answered, ‘Why don’t they get on with it?’ It is also questionable what genuine aid the Allies could actually have given to the Plotters. Logistical support was hardly needed and moral support was of little practical help.

Taking into account the fact that the war was now being fought by an Anglo-Russo-American coalition, and also President Roosevelt’s insistence on Germany’s unconditional surrender, it was unthinkable that Britain should enter into negotiations with any Germans behind her allies’ backs. As one of the senior officials in the German Department of the Foreign Office, Sir Frank Roberts, put it in his autobiography: ‘If Stalin got the impression we were in contact with the German generals, whose main aim was to protect Germany against Russia, he might well have been tempted to see whether he could not again come to terms with Hitler.’

British decision-makers had seen quite enough of the Prussian officer class between 1914 and 1918 not to place too much faith in its commitment to democracy. For them, Prussian militarism was almost as unattractive as full-blown Nazism, and national-conservative Germans were nearly indistinguishable from national-socialist ones.

It is doubtful that the death of Hitler would necessarily have shortened the war. The historian Peter Hoffmann has written that ‘Göring would have sought to rally all the state’s forces by an appeal to national-socialist ideals, by vowing to fulfil the Führer’s legacy and to redouble the efforts to fight the enemy to a standstill.’ If Göring, or more probably Himmler – who controlled the SS – had taken over and not made the many strategic blunders perpetrated by Hitler in the final months, Germany might even have fought on for longer.

The introduction of a new weapon by the Germans was not able to disrupt plans for the big American push. Originally scheduled to be launched far earlier, the first salvo of pilotless jet planes, the V-1s, was fired at London on D-Day+6, with the major bombardment beginning three days later. Hitler was most enthusiastic about this project and seriously expected the attacks to lead to an evacuation of London and thus a disruption of the whole Allied effort. The V-1 was supposed to be followed quickly by the V-2, a ballistic missile, but the first of these was not fired until after the Normandy campaign ended. In the end, this was not enough to stop the Allies.

Certainly the V-1 caused destruction and casualties, and the renewal of heavy bombing in the fifth year of war had a serious effect on British morale, but many of the pilotless planes were shot down, while others crashed or failed on their own. Although the new weapons gave the Allies an added incentive to try to break out of Normandy as quickly as possible in order to overrun the launching sites, they could not seriously interfere with the Allied forces fighting to liberate France.

The introduction of the new weapon which was obviously aimed simply to target a big city led Churchill to argue seriously and repeatedly in favor of using poison gas in retaliation. He was restrained by the objections of his military advisors and a veto by the Americans, but the British leader held to his preference even if he could not implement it.

Churchill warned the War Cabinet that ‘Rockets may start any minute,’ referring to the Germans’ ‘wonder-weapon’, the supersonic V-2 missile. The V-2’s sister weapon, the V-1 flying bomb, had been terrorizing southern England for six weeks, even though fifty-eight of the ninety-two V-1 launching sites had been damaged.

Both in repeated speeches to his generals and to industrial leaders, Hitler tried hard to enthuse those apprehensive about the situation. He looked to new weapons and to fanatical resistance to show the enemy that victory over Germany was impossible. In other words, he was coming to believe that a defensive victory was now Germany's great hope. He also stubbornly refused to allow his generals to conduct a mobile defense, insisting that the Wehrmacht should not give up ground. This strategy only delayed the inevitable.

Hitler had rejected the suggestion that the first major counter-attack be made against the Americans, preferring to launch an attack against the British. He also rejected all advice calling for mobile defense, in favor of simply holding all ground.

For a short time, Hitler’s approach succeeded in containing British and American advances, but since it wore out the defending troops, including the armored divisions which had to continuously remain in the front line, it also sped up the rate of German collapse at the front once a major gap had been torn in their lines.

General Blumentritt wrote to a correspondent in 1965, saying that the German soldier had ‘bled to death through wrong politics and dilettante leadership of Hitler’. In particular, Normandy was lost because ‘Hitler ordered a rigid defence of the coasts. That was not possible over 2,000 kilometres,’ especially when considering ‘the Allied mastery of the air, the Allied masses of matériel, and the weakened German potential after 5 years of war.’

Shocked by the quick fall of Cherbourg to the Allies, Hitler ordered special arrangements for assigning specific units to hold each of the major ports until they were quite literally down to the last round of ammunition and the last man. He assumed that these garrisons would not be relieved. Their function was to hold the ports and deny them to the Allies as long as possible, thereby keeping the Americans and British from employing, developing, and supplying their human and material resources on the continent. Only the constriction applied by such a procedure could afford the Germans an opportunity to build up new defense lines.

Twelve ports and the Channel Islands continued to be held after they had been cut off. Significant German strength came to be tied up in these holding operations, but while some were crushed in the autumn, several held out until the general surrender of the following year. Although they could not serve the initial purpose of allowing the German army an opportunity to rebuild a firm front in France, they contributed substantially to the halting of Allied offensive operations in the autumn and the continuation of the war into 1945.

The great offensive in the American sector code-named ‘Cobra’ had to be repeatedly postponed because bad weather prevented the air forces from providing the needed support. The American intention was to take advantage of the fact that the Germans’ attention was focused towards Caen, where British and Canadian forces were battling them. The attack succeeded and the Americans isolated the Cotentin peninsula. After stopping the German counterattacks, the Americans captured Le Mans, the headquarters of the German 7th Army.

Because the American air forces, when they could fly, had not yet fully mastered the techniques of effective cooperation with ground forces, large numbers of bombs were dropped on the American units, causing numerous casualties. But the weight of the heavy bombing fell on the Germans when the operation finally started.

The German flank collapsed as the Americans were clearly poised to drive into the open terrain to the south. Their ability to do so had been assisted by the transfer of most German armored vehicles to the British front. They were held there by a combination of repeated attacks on the part of British and Canadian divisions. Also, Hitler was fixated on concentrating the newly arriving reserves in that sector.

Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, who had replaced von Rundstedt, did not get permission to transfer substantial forces until the end of the month—just as the Americans broke through.

Since about two-thirds of the German front was still holding coherently, Hitler decided on a major counterattack at Mortain, an operation already being planned by von Kluge who had replaced Rommel when the latter was wounded. This operation was to strike west and to the sea and cut off the American forces which had pushed through the Avranches gap. When the Germans massed for and launched this counter-attack, they suffered a major defeat, due in great measure to the tactical air support of the Allied ground forces.

The American troops pushed through the staunch defenders and, in the days immediately following, the German divisions facing the western end of the front began to disintegrate as more American divisions joined those already advancing south. The Americans poured forward through gaps in the German defences created by the bombing, and by the end of the month Collins’ VII Corps had taken Avranches. This allowed US forces to attack westwards into Brittany and eastwards towards Le Mans, proving the value of Patton’s eve-of battle observation to his Third Army that ‘flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us’.

Allied control of the air slowed down all German movements, and the earlier attack on the transportation system had reduced its efficiency and its recuperative power. The Germans could not sustain the positional warfare which had characterized the first eight weeks of fighting in the West.

The capture of Coutances, followed shortly by Cérences and La Haye-Pesnel, signaled the collapse of German positions in western Normandy. U.S. attacks were now forcing German defenders away from the coast. Their flank hung in the air. U.S. troops captured Avranches, which sits on great bluffs overlooking the Bay of Mont St. Michel. The next morning, they seized bridges just south of the town. The roads of France beckoned.

The Americans, now reorganized as planned into the 3rd Army under George Patton on the right and the 1st Army under General Courtney Hodges on the left, with Omar Bradley advanced to 12th Army Group commander, pushed division after division through the gaping hole at the western end of the German front. The British and Canadians, after their capture of Caen, broke through the Wehrmacht's eastern flank. Thus, approx. 50.000 troops of the German Army Group B were trapped in a pocket. Many of them managed to escape. But they suffered heavy losses of both manpower and equipment.

The 3rd Army's divisions had originally been scheduled to head southwest into Brittany. This was necessary in order to open up the port of Brest and other harbors to receive additional American units and supplies straight from the U.S., as in World War I. Since German resistance in the interior of Brittany was minimal—many of the units originally stationed there having been drawn into the Normandy battle and chewed up in the prior fighting—it was clearly not necessary to commit the whole 3rd Army there.

With Bradley's and Montgomery's approval, Patton sent only one of his four corps into Brittany. That was more than enough to clear most of the province but not enough for quick seizure of the ports which the German garrisons held stubbornly. Brest fell after a month of fighting. Two corps were sent racing southeast and south with a fourth held in reserve. With the right flank of American 1st Army also on the move, it looked as if the whole German army in Normandy might be surrounded.

With the Canadian and British forces attacking southward toward Falaise now that some of the German armored divisions previously facing them had been shifted westwards for the Mortain attack, it looked as if the whole 7th German Army and the Panzer Group West (renamed 5th Panzer Army) might be trapped.

The advance units of the American 3rd Army reached north to Argentan as the Canadians pushed toward them, while portions of the American 1st Army had also reached positions south of the German front. Ten days after the Mortain attack had been halted, it looked as if the two German armies were about to be trapped in what came to be known as the Falaise pocket.

The Allies had the possibility of completely destroying most of Army Group B, with the American troops in the south pushing northward to Argentan even as they headed east toward Paris. Meanwhile the Canadian 1st Army was to close the pincer from the north. The German front was battered, pushed in from the south, pulled back from the west, but not penetrated in the north.

To close the gap, Montgomery sent untried Canadian divisions and the Polish armored division instead of more experienced units. As a result, the Germans, though suffering heavy losses of equipment and men, were still able to extricate a substantial proportion of their soldiers and most of the higher staff members. All of these could be reformed into effective military units which the Allies would have to face later.

The Allies had indeed won a major land victory in the West, in which their air power had played a highly significant role. They had inflicted well over a quarter of a million casualties on the Germans, and they had wrecked the vast majority of the German divisions in the West. But although they could now race eastward and northward, the Germans, now under the leadership of Field Marshal Model, brought from the East to replace von Kluge, had extricated some 50,000 men, including many experienced officers, from the wreckage of Army Group B.

Further south, the landing on the French Mediterranean coast, Operation ‘Dragoon’, had gone ashore successfully. This landing was preceded by an exceedingly bitter dispute as the British, with Churchill personally leading the charge, tried up until the last moment to call it off in order to maintain the strength of Allied forces in Italy. Once ashore, the United States 7th Army, consisting of one American and one French corps, quickly took the key ports of Marseilles and Toulon and pushed northwards. As a result, the Germans evacuated south-western France.

In the final days of the debate, Churchill even proposed rerouting the operation at the last minute into Brittany. The very absurdity of this proposal probably hardened the resolve of the American government, especially Roosevelt and Marshall, to uphold Eisenhower's insistence on going forward as planned.

Dragoon cleaned up southern France and provided the Allies with an unbroken front that ran from the Channel to Switzerland. More importantly, the capture of the great port of Marseilles in southern France proved a logistic godsend for the supply of U.S. forces fighting on the German frontier in fall and winter 1944–45. Dragoon captured Marseilles’ facilities in undamaged condition.

Though harassed by the French resistance, Allied air power and the advancing American armies, the majority of the German soldiers escaped. They went on to help build up a new front in the German-French border area and along the Alpine passes into Italy.

The threat of the advancing units of United States 7th and 3rd Armies meeting in central France led to the German decision, reluctantly approved by Hitler, to evacuate most of Army Group G from south-western France. Special blocking units were left to hold as many of the ports as long as possible, but the bulk of the German 1st and 19th Army headed north-east.

American troops approached Paris, which the Germans intended to defend and even destroy but could not hold in the face of onrushing Allied troops and the beginnings of insurrection in the city. The original plan to bypass the city was abandoned by Eisenhower, who allowed a French armored division the honor of liberating the capital of France. He followed that up by marching two American divisions through the city to make sure everyone understood that the Germans were finished in the area. On 24 August 1944, De Gaulle entered the city to the cheers of the inhabitants.

The immediate situation in France looked spectacularly good for the Allies. The Canadian and British armies raced north, quickly crossing the lower Seine to attack the Channel ports from the rear. They also headed into Belgium, in the process seizing many of the launching sites for the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

Examples of de Gaulle’s ingratitude towards his British wartime hosts are legion. ‘You think I am interested in England winning the war,’ he once told Spears. ‘I am not. I am only interested in French victory.’ When Spears made the logical remark: ‘They are the same,’ de Gaulle replied: ‘Not at all; not at all in my view.’ To a Canadian officer who just before D-Day had asked him whether he could join the Free French, but declared himself pro-British, de Gaulle shouted: ‘I detest the English and the Americans, you understand, I detest the English and the Americans. Get out!’

Out of the thirty-nine divisions that took part in the Normandy invasion, just one was French: the 2nd Armoured Division under the command of General Leclerc, the nom de guerre of Vicomte Jacques-Philippe de Hautecloque. It fought very bravely in the battle to close the Falaise Gap, and as part of the US Fifth Army it was given the honour of entering Paris first. This did not elicit any noticeable gratitude from the Free French leader, General de Gaulle.

The German commander, General Dietrich von Choltitz, took the historic and humane decision not to set fire to the city. ‘Paris must be destroyed from top to bottom,’ the Führer had demanded of him, ‘do not leave a single church or monument standing.’ The German High Command then listed seventy bridges, factories and national landmarks – including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Notre-Dame Cathedral – for particular destruction. Hitler later repeatedly asked his chief of staff: ‘Is Paris burning?’ Choltitz deliberately disobeyed these instructions.

De Gaulle had very much wanted to get to Paris quickly, in order to establish himself against any possible challenge from the Communists and also to assert his role against Britain and the United States.

Choltitz surrendered and went into captivity as soon as he decently could once regular Allied forces arrived, telling the Swedish diplomat who negotiated the agreement that he did not wish to be remembered as ‘the man who destroyed Paris’.

In all, General Leclerc lost only seventy-six men killed in the liberation of Paris, although 1,600 inhabitants were killed in the uprising, including 600 non-combatants. Today the places where the individual soldiers and résistants fell are marked all over the city, and none would wish to belittle their great bravery and self-sacrifice, yet the fact remains that the only reason Leclerc was assigned to liberate the city was so that Eisenhower could spare the French 2nd Division from far greater battles that were taking place right across northern and southern France, battles fought against crack German units by British, American and Canadian forces.

For political and prestige reasons, de Gaulle had asked Eisenhower to allow French troops to be first into the capital. The Supreme Commander was as good as his word, giving the order to General Leclerc to advance on the city. De Gaulle instructed Leclerc to get there before the Americans arrived. Because he did not wish to detract from de Gaulle’s limelight, Eisenhower did not visit the capital himself until 27 August.

There is some truth in the suggestion that, as with Rome, the Allies did not see Paris as a prime military objective, as opposed to a political one, and they were right not to. As the historian Ian Ousby wrote in his history of the Occupation: ‘Paris’s concentration of both people and cultural monuments ruled out aerial bombardment and heavy artillery barrages, so taking the city would soak up time and lives in a campaign already behind schedule and high in casualties. Besides, the capture of Paris was not tactically essential.’ For his part, Omar Bradley in his memoirs dismissed Paris as ‘a pen and ink job on the map’.

The first of Leclerc’s Sherman tanks - which had been donated by the Americans - rolled up the Rue de Rivoli. In the surrender document signed that same afternoon by Leclerc and Choltitz, there was no mention of either Britain or the United States. The German forces formally surrendered to the French alone.

De Gaulle arrived in Paris soon afterwards to make a speech at the Hôtel de Ville, where he proclaimed that Paris had been ‘liberated by her own people, with the help of the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, that is to say of fighting France, that is to say of the true France, the eternal France’. No mention was made of any Allied contribution.

De Gaulle led a parade from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysees to a thanksgiving service in Notre-Dame. When the head of the National Council of Resistance, Georges Bidault, came up abreast of him in the parade he hissed, ‘A little to the rear, if you please.’ The glory was to be de Gaulle’s alone.

Most of France had been liberated by the Allies, and Marshal Philippe Pétain, Pierre Laval, and assorted French collaborators now found it expedient or necessary to move back with the retreating Germans. Eventually they established a ‘government-in-exile’ in south-western Germany.

At first, with memories of French defeat at the hands of the Germans still fresh in their minds, many of them seriously expected the German armies to return to the offensive and drive the Allies out of France. Laval wanted the Germans to make peace with the Soviet Union so that they could fight the Western Allies more easily, but the Germans had other worries and different plans.

The sweep of the Allied armies through France liberated most of the country and thereby had two immediate and significant implications for the subsequent course of hostilities. First, the German navy lost the most convenient of the bases on the Atlantic. Secondly, the land connection to Spain and across Spain to Portugal was now severed. This meant that, regardless of German efforts, critical raw materials, especially wolfram and chrome, could no longer be imported or smuggled out of the area. The German defeat was now only a matter of time, manpower and resources.

The isolated garrisons could deny ports to the Allies but they could not support a continued U-Boat war from French Atlantic ports. If the new submarines, with which the Germans still hoped to turn the Battle of the Atlantic in their favor, became operational in substantial numbers in time, they would, therefore, have to go out into the Atlantic and return the long way from German or Norwegian ports.

Kluge had ordered a general retreat out of the Falaise pocket, warning Jodl at OKW, ‘It would be a disastrous mistake to entertain hopes that cannot be fulfilled. No power in the world can realize them, nor will any orders which are issued.’ Panzer Group West, comprising the Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies, sustained around 50,000 killed, wounded or captured, to the loss of 29,000 Allies at Falaise.

While talk of secret super-weapons sometimes enthused the ordinary soldier, the officer corps generally knew better than to believe in them. It seems that, in the German armed forces, the more senior the officer, the less he believed in the Führer and ultimate victory. This rule did not apply to a very few fanatical Nazi generals such as Walther Model, Ferdinand Schörner and Lothar Rendulic.

The Nazis’ argument that they had to fight on to prevent Soviet barbarity being unleashed on their wives and daughters was true as far as it went, but it only went as far as the east. In attempting to explain why the High Command nonetheless kept on fighting so hard on both fronts after Overlord, Max Hastings argues that whether they were SS officers, Prussian aristocrats, career soldiers or mere functionaries, the German generals ‘abandoned coherent thought about the future and merely performed the immediate military functions that were so familiar to them’.

The general supervisory role of Montgomery over all land forces would end as Eisenhower took command of the land battle himself. This was clearly necessary for two reasons: political and personal. The political reason was simple. The American forces were growing while the British were shrinking. The personal factor only reinforced it. Montgomery had experienced great difficulties in working with American military leaders in Sicily and Italy. He had gone out of his way to antagonize Eisenhower in the weeks before the formal change of command.

A third American army, the 9th, under General William Simpson, was about to be formed at the Army Group border between 21st and 12th Army Group at a time when the American and French forces in the south, organized into 6th Army Group, were being integrated into Eisenhower's command.

The popular Montgomery could be and was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal by the British government, thus recognizing his services in the invasion, but he would have done better to make some effort to cooperate with the American commanders. Since he had not been able to do so with his Canadian and Polish subordinates, that was perhaps asking too much.

With the massive American buildup, the British army was, of necessity, shrinking. Montgomery had written to Brooke for permission to break up the 59th Division so that other divisions could be kept effective. There were simply not enough replacements available to make up for the casualties being incurred. The request was granted, and even before the liberation of Paris, the 59th became the first British division to disappear from the Allied order of battle.

Better communications – and indeed better personal relations – might have led to a greater victory at the Gap even than the one gained by Montgomery, Bradley and Patton. After the war, Bradley blamed Montgomery for over-caution at Falaise, and vice versa.

Instead of participating in regular meetings with Eisenhower and Bradley, ‘Monty’ had kept to himself and at times rudely insisted that others should come to him. It is theoretically barely conceivable that Field Marshal Alexander might have been acceptable to the Americans, but there was no prospect that Montgomery would be. If there had ever been a possibility, he himself removed it by his own behavior.

The Supreme Commander adopted the less risky ‘broad front’ approach to the invasion of the Reich, which he believed would ‘bring all our strength against the enemy, all of it mobile, and all of it contributing directly to the complete annihilation of his field forces’. Partly because of the efficacy of the V-weapon flying-bomb and rocket campaign against Britain – which could be ended only by occupying the launching sites – the main part was still to be the 21st Army Group’s advance through Belgium north of the Ardennes forest and into the Ruhr.

For the moment, future operations would be problematic because of the Allies’ long supply lines. Montgomery wanted to cross the Rhine quickly, reach Berlin and end the war. The plan was however impractical. Eisenhower turned the project down but, influenced by the need to seize the great harbor at Antwerp, did give considerable support to Montgomery's drive. Although the American drive south of the Ardennes moved forward rapidly, eventually it literally ran out of gas.

Because the Germans had demolished the harbor of Cherbourg, held onto many of the other ports for a long time, and wrecked the facilities at Brest so effectively that they were never used after the capture of the city, the problem of supplying any further operations was exceedingly difficult. The further the Allies advanced, the longer the supply route inland; and the later the season, the greater the risks of continuing to bring in supplies over the Normandy beaches.

Monty’s project was impractical for a number of reasons, not the least of them being that it called for crossing the largest river—the Rhine—at its widest and where it had the most branches. Furthermore, it required halting all other offensive operations at a time when Patton was much closer to the Rhine than Montgomery. Montgomery’s plan assumed that it was safe to send a single spearhead far in advance of the Allied front against a German army which was reforming its units.

Some supplies were brought forward by air drops, and the Americans organized a special one-way truck delivery procedure called the ‘Red Ball Express’, but these expedients were not a substitute for an effective supply system. Montgomery's opinion was that if his Army Group were greatly increased by the effective subordination of the American 12th Army Group to it, and if provided with the full allocation of available logistic support, he could drive northwards across the Rhine into the north German plain, occupy Berlin, and end the war.

The 3rd Army captured some German stocks of gasoline, but not enough to keep moving in the face of stiffening resistance. There was, in fact, not enough to go around. The German strategy of holding the ports was making itself felt. Even though Patton had crossed the Marne and was soon able to threaten Metz and the Siegfried Line, lack of petrol held him back, to his intense frustration. Patton’s personality was immense, but his battlefield achievements matched it. ‘I want you men to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country,’ he told his troops. ‘He won it by making the other dumb bastard die for his country… Thank God that, at least, thirty years from now, when you are sitting around the fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you won’t have to say, “I shovelled shit in Louisiana.”’

On the same day that Montgomery put forward his plan, Patton produced one in which his Third Army led the way instead, with characteristic lack of modesty calling it ‘the best strategic call [sic] idea I’ve ever had’. Writing twenty years after the war, General Günther Blumentritt, who was commander of the Fifteenth Army from December 1944 onwards, admitted, ‘We had the highest respect for General Patton! He was the American Guderian, an excellent and bold tank corps leader.’

Some supplies were brought forward by air drops, and the Americans organized a special one-way truck delivery procedure called the ‘Red Ball Express’, but these expedients were not a substitute for an effective supply system. Montgomery's opinion was that if his Army Group were greatly increased by the effective subordination of the American 12th Army Group to it, and if provided with the full allocation of available logistic support, he could drive northwards across the Rhine into the north German plain, occupy Berlin, and end the war.

Omar Bradley felt that his drive on Frankfurt ought to be the centre of operations. It is sadly impossible to believe that the best demands of grand strategy, rather than their own egos, motivated these soldiers, and Eisenhower had the difficult task of holding the ring between them and imposing his own view. His greatness stems partly from his success in achieving that.

Brussels fell to the Canadians of the 21st Army Group followed by Antwerp the next day. British forces racing to liberate Belgium seized Antwerp not only without any serious fighting but before the Germans could blow up the extensive harbor facilities. But the port would have to be swept for mines before it could be used. Any large-scale attack into Germany depended on opening this port. It took 2 months for the port to be ready to use. This delay enabled the Germans to regroup, and even counterattack. The fate of the war would be decided during the following year.

The destruction of facilities at Cherbourg and Brest, the latter still in German hands when Antwerp was freed, only accentuated the significance of opening the port. The liberation, primarily by the Canadians, of several smaller Channel ports, could ease the immediate supply problems of the 21st Army Group. But any large-scale drive into Germany would be feasible only once Antwerp had been opened.

The British drive reached its culmination. The Guards Armored Division pressed through Brussels; two days later, the 11th Armored Division reached Antwerp and to its astonishment captured the port undamaged. Moreover, by capturing Antwerp, the British had almost entirely isolated the German Fifteenth Army, which was desperately trying to escape up the Channel coast.

Here Montgomery made a significant error. Antwerp was next to useless to the Allies until the River Scheldt was free of Germans, but clearing its banks was to cost the Allies – mainly Crerar’s Canadian First Army – as many as 13,000 casualties, because it was not carried out immediately. Allied ships did not reach Antwerp until 28 November 1944. Until that time, supplies still had to reach the 21st Army Group via Normandy, an absurdly long route.