War Chronicles

Welcome to the personal blog of Matthew S Calfe, freelance Military Historian.

The aim of this blog is as an outlet for the musings and historical whims of me, the author, and will cover a number of subjects: mainly those within my research interests.

I am a graduate of Aberystwyth University, where I earned a Masters degree in International History and a Bachelors Degree in International Politics and Strategic Studies. I am a published historian on the Second World War, Tudor social class and Genealogy, and until very recently, FindmyPast’s ‘International Man of History’.

6thbritairborneranville

I also have a number of media credits, most recently as a Roman Military History Expert in an hour long documentary on the Roman invasion of Britain and subsequent Icenii rebellion. I will be working with the National Memorium Arboretum in July, delivering a lecture on the Home Guard.

 

If you have any questions about this blog or want to hire my services as a lecturer, speaker or presenter, send me an email via the contact us form or post a comment below.

Thanks

Matt (McAber)

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The Home Guard: A Miracle of Improvisation

I will be delivering a lecture to the National Memorial Arboretum on 30th July 2016 at 2pm. You should come along if you are able.

Time: 2-2.45pm for Spotlight Talk, 2.45-3pm Q&A

Place: National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire.

Abstract:
If you were to ask a member of the public to explain what the Home Guard were, the overriding impression you would get is that of the TV series ‘Dad’s Army’: a bumbling force of geriatric veterans and naive teenagers that wouldn’t have been much use in the event of an actual German invasion. This assessment is not only unfair but wrong.

This Spotlight Talk seeks to redress the balance of opinion on the Home Guard, and highlight that far from being ‘Dad’s Army’, the Home Guard was a well-trained, well-disciplined and relatively young fighting force, ready to defend their homes in the event of an invasion. It shall examine the founding of the Home Guard, their struggle to acquire arms and equipment, the growth of the organisation and the common duties of a member of the Home Guard – It will also highlight and debunk some of the key myths about the Home Guard that have cropped up in the 70 years since their activities.

Read more about the Home Guard in a previous article of mine here.

I look forward to seeing some of you on the 30th July.

Tea and Terriers: The British Infantry Section in Normandy

In the last of our blogs on doctrine and tactics of the major contributors to the Normandy campaign, we’re going to be focusing on the British infantry section, and how it fights.

The British infantrymen sent to Normandy, unlike their American allies, were on the whole experienced veterans of a long 4 years of conflict. Often having returned from other theatres, the British were skilled, trained and possessed a fantastic esprit de corps. The formations also were raring to go into battle – The 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment had only just returned from Italy when they were grouped with 50th Division for the Normandy landings, and were very keen to get to grips with the enemy! Despite this, they were mostly all civilian solders, men who saw themselves as civilians in uniform rather than soldiers having enlisted only for the duration of hostilities. This is where the term ‘Terrier’ comes from – Terrier was the nickname for the Territorial Army, the reserve component of the British Army.

Universal carriers and infantry of 10th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment advance ‘under fire’ during training near Sudbury in Suffolk

Universal carriers and infantry of 10th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment advance ‘under fire’ during training near Sudbury in Suffolk – 10 June 1942

The British infantry section in Normandy, as a general rule, consisted of 10 men. The whole, lead by a Corporal armed with a Sten machine carbine, consisted of a rifle group and a Bren group. The Corporal would lead the rifle group of 6 whilst his 2iC, a Lance Corporal would supervise the actions of the Bren group, consisting of 2 men. The effectiveness of a British section depended on the effectiveness of their Bren group, with the Bren group supporting the riflemen in the attack and acting as the centre of fire for the section in the defence. Trained Bren gunners were someone to be held on to for many platoon commanders, with their skill and experience sometimes being the difference between a desperate defence and a definite rout. In order to keep the Bren in action, every member of the rifle group carried 2 Bren magazines, with the Bren team carrying an additional 18 on their person for a total of 32 28 round magazines in a section.

A Bren gunner from 50th Division opens up during the battle for Caen, June 1944

A Bren gunner from 50th Division opens up during the battle for Caen, June 1944. The Bren Gun was the chief means of fire support for the British infantry section.

Beyond the bog standard section you had the HQ section. Consisting of the Platoon leader and his personal assistant or ‘Batman’ who carried the 38 set radio, it also included the Platoon Serjeant and the platoon’s support assets. Additionally, the HQ section was the focal point for the PIAT, 2 Inch Mortar and any marksmen on attachment to the platoon. As the possibility of encountering German armour in the British sector was consistently high, every platoon would carry at least 1 Projector Infantry Anti-Tank, or PIAT, for anti-tank defence. The PIAT is effectively a giant spring, capable of lobbing a shaped charge warhead up to 140 yards. It was at the same time universally despised and universally loved – despised for it’s short range, loved for it’s ability to knock out armour reliably if you could somehow close the range.

PIAt

A PIAT team take aim at an armoured target during training, May 1944

Additionally, every platoon carried a 2 inch mortar for the provision of organic fire support. Although mortar is a kind term for what is effectively a length of lead pipe with a trigger, the 2 Inch was designed to lob smoke, illumination and occasionally HE at targets of opportunity. With no means of aiming the mortar other than with eye and a white line painted on the side, it was relatively inaccurate at firing HE and for this reason the HE rounds tended not to be used.

Led by their piper, men of 7th Seaforth Highlanders, 15th (Scottish) Division advance - 26 June 1944

Led by their piper, men of 7th Seaforth Highlanders, 15th (Scottish) Division advance – 26 June 1944

The British in Normandy arguably had the hardest of the fighting. As we examined in our analysis of the Americans in Normandy, the Germans saw 21st Army Group and the British as their main concern, pitting mainly second line units against the Americans and throwing SS Panzer units at the British and Canadians around Caen. Casualties in British and Canadian units tended to be higher than that of their American counterparts for less gain in ground.

Men of the 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry resting somewhere behind the lines - 26th October 1944

Men of the 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry resting somewhere behind the lines – 26th October 1944

The experience of British infantry sections in Normandy was a war of short-range engagements, bayonet fighting, false surrenders from the enemy and a hard fight. This was compounded for the British by American commanders, particularly Patton, taking American credit for British successes. There is a reason that American and British personnel had to be kept apart when on leave in Britain – there were a lot of inter-allied bar fights!

Doughboys: The American Infantry Section in France, 1944

The American infantry section in Normandy is a very different beast to it’s German counterpart covered in our last Devblog. For one, the American section tends to be bigger at 12 men rather than the German 10, and the doctrine of it’s employment very different. From a US field manual first issued in 1944, “The rifle squad consists of a sergeant (squad leader), a corporal (assistant squad leader and antitank rifle grenadier), an automatic rifle team (automatic rifleman, assistant automatic rifleman, and ammunition bearer), and seven riflemen, two of whom are designated as scouts.”

The Section

The American Infantry Section, from an American training manual published in May of 1944

Nominally, on paper, this section has no submachine guns, although in practice section leaders and their assistants would often carry the M4A1 Thompson into combat to augment the offensive fire-power of their section. Nominally, the section support weapon is the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, a steady fire-rate long rifle fed by 20 round clips. In the assault, the Americans suffered from a lack of offensive fire capability despite their semi-automatic M1 Garand rifles, which lead to some sections substituting the BAR for the M1911a1 Light Machine Gun.

American Infantry

American infantry training ‘somewhere in England’ prior to D-Day.

In theory, the section broke into three sections for the attack. The grenadiers and BAR team covered the assistant squad leader or squad leader and manoeuvre section (riflemen) in the advance. This rarely worked, as the above mentioned shortage of offensive fire-power seriously hampered the ability of sections to lay down effective fire to cover the assaulting section. As such, American sections learned quickly that a setup using 2 BARS, spilt into two teams with the Section Leader and his Assistant mutually supporting each other worked far better, with the teams covering each other in the advance.

 

Troops of US VII Corps move over the seawall as part of the assault up Utah beach, June 1944

Troops of US VII Corps move over the seawall on UTAH beach, 1944

American sections in Normandy tended to be inexperienced, as for many (although not all) formations Normandy was the first real action of the war. As such, casualties were relatively high in comparison to their British allies, whose Normandy contingent consisted mainly of battle hardened troops from North Africa and Italy. As such, American infantry were used to shooting at paper targets at known ranges, and their training rarely employed any live fire field exercises to test the initiative of the section leaders. Therefore US riflemen were often unwilling to put fire on all known and more importantly, suspected enemy locations during combat on the off chance their ranging was off. This was overcome to a certain degree, but was never entirely obviated with experience.

Captain Robert C. Crisson briefing his company on their role in the invasion of Europe - May 1944

Captain Robert C. Crisson briefing his company on their role in the invasion of Europe – May 1944

It is also worth noting that the American experience of Normandy was an experience of facing German second-line troops. In Normandy, the Germans considered the British army group the chief danger to their occupation and position, as it was a veteran formation with experience and will to win over that of it’s American counterpart. The US forces were seen as ‘the secondary flank’ and, as such, had secondary troops committed to it.

The first line troops the Germans possessed, such as the SS Panzer Grenadiers and more experienced formations, almost always tended to be employed against British or Canadian formations, and not against the American sector. As such, the American lightning advance so often lauded by Academics as showing American prowess is nothing of the sort, only the sweeping aside of second-line units whilst the real fighting was taking place to the north among the Canadian and British units.

Next time: Terriers and Tea: The British Section in Normandy

Kampfgruppen, Panzers and Heer: German Infantry and their Doctrine in Normandy

Going to change things up a little for this Historical post, as today I’ll be starting a 3 blog series talking about the doctrine and tactics of each planned nation. We’ll be covering the American infantry, German line and panzer grenadier infantry, and British armoured and line infantry. This week, the German Army.

The German Infantry Platoon

german-infantry-plt

The German infantry platoon tends to operate the same way as an infantry platoon in any other army of the 1930s & 1940s – The platoon has 3 (sometimes 4) sections, as above, and a light mortar which in practice is attached to the platoon headquarters. The platoon leader tends to be an officer, usually a Leutnant, although it is not uncommon especially in the German army of the period for warrant officers to be platoon leaders. It has its own transport: for line infantry horse and cart, for Panzer Grenadiers a light truck, nominally an Opel Blitz.

The German Infantry Section

german-infantry-squad

The infantry section in the German army, whether it is Panzer Grenadier or Schutzen, is 9 men strong. It consists of 5 riflemen supporting a 3 man machine-gun team with a section leader managing the movements of the whole.  German strategists realised after analysing the performance of the infantry in the First World War that a well-trained machine-gun team were arguably a more valuable resource than 10 riflemen due to the fact that crews were less likely to fall prey to covering instead of firing. The establishment of buddy teams manning the machine-gun also added to the effectiveness, as the men would know and like each other, not wanting to let each other down.

German infantrymen scan the skies for Allied aircraft in Normandy, (after the invasion) June 1944.

German infantrymen scan the skies for Allied aircraft in Normandy, (after the invasion) June 1944.

As such, the axis of offensive action for German infantry revolves around the machine-gun within the squad, and the role of the riflemen within a squad is to support the machine gun, not vice versa. The role of the machine-gun is to fix the enemy, and eliminate them through superior fire if possible. If this cannot be achieved, the enemy is suppressed until the rifleman supporting the machine gun can close to grenade and bayonet range, and eliminate the enemy that way.

German Soldiers of the 709 Infantry Division, abandon their refuge and rush to their positions in Montebourg, Normandy in June 1944.

German Soldiers of the 709 Infantry Division, abandon their refuge and rush to their positions in Montebourg, Normandy in June 1944.

The Wehrmacht in Normandy in this regard is not too different to the Wehrmacht of the early war exploits, trained to be taking the fight forever to the enemy, meeting attack with counter-attack, advance with counter-charge and the like. Panzer Grenadiers, the infantry trained specifically for close operation with German armoured formations, tended not to operate any differently to their regular Schutzen counterparts, other than moving close to the enemy by trucks or halftrack as part of a wider offensive before dismounting and fighting.

The OSS produced a film to educate their agents on the way German infantry fought. It’s a fantastic period source to show how the Americans in particular understood the doctrinal requirements of the German Army.

Co-operation with other arms

German infantry tended to grasp inter-arm co-operation a lot better than the British or American infantry did, especially earlier in the war. German infantry and armour commonly worked together in both training and combat, meaning that commanders of both branches often knew enough of their counterpart role to complement each other in the attack. These ‘Kampfgruppen’ were generally thrown together from units the same general area to complete a specified task, i.e. the defence of a strategic locality or for an offensive action.

A Panther Ausf.A transports troops as part of a Kampfgruppen 1944, Alsace-Lorraine, France

A Panther Ausf.A transports troops as part of a Kampfgruppen 1944, Alsace-Lorraine, France

The Kampfgruppe was essentially a mish-mash of different branches (armour, artillery, infantry etc) organized quickly in accordance with tactical and strategic situation at hand. Kampfgruppen were usually named for the superior officer, and they are exceedingly common in in Normandy as infantry fought pitched battles with the resources they had to hand. Although very little official doctrinal texts survive concerning them, they occasionally pop up in unit war diaries and in the regimental and official histories of the units concerned.

Next Week: American infantry doctrine in Normandy

4 Engineers lift up an inflatable Sherman as part of Operation Fortitude.

Fortitude & Bodyguard – Deceiving the Germans over D-Day

We’ve examined the Normandy Landings themselves from the perspective of the Americans, British and Germans. Now, we’re going to consider how the Allied deception plan Fortitude contributed to their success. We touched briefly on the Ruperts dropped during Operation Bulbasket in our last post, but now we’re going to focus on the UK based deceptions. These were pretty weird, consisting of inflatable airfields, phantom armies, and a bloke called Garbo and his 27 fictional friends.

Inflatable Tanks – The Pas de Calais

An Inflatable Sherman in a field

A Bouncy Sherman, like a bouncy castle but sneakier

In order to ensure Panzer units were kept elsewhere than the landing beaches, the Allies devised an elaborate deception plan in order to fool the Germans into committing their forces to the defence of a location that was not going to be attacked. In the case of Normandy, it as the Pas de Calais. The shortest point between Britain and the continent, the Germans were convinced even up to the 8th of June that the ‘real’ invasion was to come here.

In order to ensure the Germans believed this, the Allies invested a significant amount of effort in allowing the Germans to continue to do so. Allied engineers built fake airfields, erected inflatable tanks in the fields of Norfolk and the South East, and busied themselves making these bases look used. When the Germans did seen reconnaissance flights over, as far as they were concerned a large military build-up was taking place in the East of England – it just wasn’t one designed to fight anyone.

A Dummy A-20 Havoc aircraft on a fake airfield in Britain, Oct. 1943

A Dummy A-20 Havoc aircraft on a fake airfield in Britain, Oct. 1943

The Phantom Armies

Backing up these phantom airfields was an entire phantom army, it’s rosters empty bar a specialist unit made up of British Royal Signals radio engineers and operators, working out of specialist vans known as ‘gin palaces’. They would drive around inside the areas that the Pas de Calais army was due to be assembling, and broadcast the standard transmissions that this army was due to make. All of this was intercepted by the Abwehr, German intelligence, and confirmed everything that they already suspected – the Allies were massing to use the Pas de Calais as their crossing point.

A Bedford QLR, or Gin Palace, set up and broadcasting.

A Bedford QLR, or Gin Palace, set up and broadcasting.

Backing up this deception was the decision to place Patton at the head of this phantom army. Despite his temper and the fact that he was not trusted by anyone in the Allied command beyond Eisenhower, the Germans perceived him as one of, if not the, best general the allies possessed. They were convinced that any cross channel effort would be spearheaded by the best the Allies possessed.

Patton, the chrome helmeted nutter the Germans expected to be leading the ground forces during D-Day.

Patton, the chrome helmeted nutcase the Germans expected to be leading the ground forces during D-Day.

In a funny quirk of irony, they were correct, but about the wrong man. General Montgomery would in fact be the man in charge of the ground forces in Normandy, but the Germans were utterly convinced that Patton would lead the main attack. The attack by Monty in Normandy must be a feint. As such, they kept their panzer units in the Pas de Calais, awaiting an attack that would never come for far longer than necessary.

Garbo & Double Agents

Garbo/Arabel, the German agent who actually worked for the British

Garbo/Arabel, the German agent who actually worked for the British

Of course, the Germans were not going to trust just Allied communications and reconnaissance flights. They could be a ruse! To confirm the information, they called upon their man in Britain, Agent Arabel: a man who had managed not only to infiltrate British society but also establish a network of 27 sub agents, all of whom reported that the military build-up near the Pas de Calais was indicative of the Allied plans to invade via that strait. Arabel had provided timely and important information before, why not trust him on this one? They provided him with funds and equipment, and even awarded him the Iron Cross for his services to German intelligence.

The network, of whom every person other than Garbo was completely ficticious.

The network, of whom every person other than Garbo was completely fictitious.

The German’s man in Britain was, in fact, Britain’s man in Britain. Codenamed Garbo by the British and Arabel by the Germans, he was actually Joan Pujol Garcia, a Spaniard who hated the fascist regime in Spain almost as much as he hated the communist resistance to it, and who decided to become a spy ‘for the good of mankind.’ He became a British agent after the British released that Garbo had been passing false information to the Germans for a while causing them to spend considerable resources hunting down a fictional convoy several hundred miles south of the actual routes convoys were taking.

At the time of D-Day, Garbo had convinced his Abwehr handlers that he had established a full network of informers and agents within Britain, numbering 27 fictional people. It was the information of these fictional 27, as well as the other information gleaned from reconnaissance flights and signals intercepts, that convinced the Germans to hold 19 Divisions in the Pas de Calais for 2 months after D-day. For this, the British awarded him an MBE, making Garbo the only man in WW2 to be given decorations by both sides!

Ham and Jam – British Airborne jump into Europe

The British contribution to the Normandy campaign is often overlooked, and rarely spoken of. However, the actions of 6th Airborne Division, and British paratroopers at large, contributed largely to the successful landings of allied troops on D-Day, having seized all their objectives. This post is going to examine the actions of the British and Canadian paratroopers and glider infantry in their first 24 hours on French soil, and assess how successful they were.

The Ox and Bucks at Pegasus Bridge.

Around the same time that the Americans were scattering themselves all and sundry over the Normandy countryside (see last week’s post for an analysis), a reinforced company of men from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were descending silently onto a drop zone between two river bridges in 8 Horsa gliders. It was essential these bridges were captured intact, and then denied to the Germans until the land forces due to hit the beaches 5 hours later could reach these men.

Airspeed_Horsa_interior

Lead by the courageous Major Howard, these troops were to become the first men of the Allied Expeditionary Force to engage the enemy in the Normandy Campaign with a Bren gunner being the first conventional infantryman out of his glider and on French soil 4 long years after the Dunkirk evacuation. This was also the first engagement resulting in a fatalities, with one unfortunate soul drowning in a pond and another, a Lieutenant leading the assault across the bridge itself, shot and killed by a German sentry.

Major John Howard

It is a testament to the skill of the Glider Pilot Regiment that all but one of the gliders involved in the assault on Pegasus bridge landed within half a mile of the target despite the need for manual navigation and level-headed flying through flak, one setting down a mere 47 Yards from the main objective itself! The landings were bumpier than expected – the first glider to touch down did so hard, so hard in fact that the pilot and navigator were thrown through the windscreen of the glider and onto the main road, still strapped into their flight seats.

British_glider_pilots

Once on the ground, the British quickly set about their task of taking the bridges, accomplishing this within 20 minutes by eliminating the sentries and proceeding to beat off attacks from German armour, gun boats and even a bomber attempted to destroy the bridge. With the bridges taken, Howard signalled two words: ‘Ham and Jam.’ This signified to his headquarters that he had succeeded in his task of taking the bridges assigned to him, and was now digging in awaiting the arrival of the land forces.

Parachute Operations

As Howard was winging his way into history for the capture of Pegasus Bridge (so called because of the emblem of 6th Airborne, a winged horse), other airborne forces were landing by parachute and glider in other parts of France. Both 3rd and 5th Parachute brigades suffered from partial miss-drops, partly due to Pathfinder error and partly due to an off target RAF raid that eliminated a Pathfinding team on the ground by bombing the landing site (more on this later).

Four stick leaders of 22nd Independent Parachute Coy syncronise watches before loading into their bombers, 11pm 5th June 1944. H39070

However, despite this, the paratroopers who did manage to make their drop sites managed to get underway with their objectives and successfully secure them within timeframes. 5th Brigade, despite only being at 40% strength because of the aforementioned accidents in the jumps, successfully managed to take both Bas de Ranville and Ranville itself, before digging in to resist 2 ferocious counter attacks by a unit of Panzer Grenadiers who happened to be in the area. 5th Brigade was eventually relieved late on D-Day itself.

6thbritairborneranville

The other brigade (3rd) was assigned the Merville Battery, the assault of which was delayed when the RAF air raid designed to occupy the defenders actually caught 3rd Brigade’s pathfinders in the open while they were setting up their drop beacons. By the time the Pathfinders had taken stock of the fact they were victims of a massive cock-up, 3rd Brigade’s Dakotas were over the drop site, and the pilots had to make several passes over the area to firstly confirm that the site was correct and then to ensure their troops were delivered successfully.


This footage is from a Bridge Too Far, but gives you an idea how intensive organising an airborne operation can be! For Normandy, this was done in the dark.

To compound this, one battalion had 4 major objectives assigned to it, including the assault of the Battery itself. Despite fierce resistance from the German gun crews, the battery was mopped up by its planned time, but the British did not remain on the position as they had not been able to recover a radio to signal to the cruiser who had been assigned the battery as a secondary objective. By the time they were relieved, they had taken a horrendously large 50% casualty rate.

Ruperts & Bulbaskets

Rupert-02-800

Hand in hand with the airborne landings, a small section of troops were also dropped in to the north of the Americans. These were men of the Special Air Service, whose role was to disrupt the German response to the parachute landings. Jumping out of their aircraft with gramophones and 200 4ft dummies nicknamed Rupert, their job was to distract as many German units as possible from the actual invasion by making as much noise as they could. Coupled with lots and lots of 4ft dummies attached to parachutes descending through the moonlight, the idea was to convince the Germans that the sites chosen for landing were a long way from the actual sites.

Once on the ground, these men used their special gramophones to play the sounds of battle out into the German countryside, enticing the Germans to come and investigate. The plan worked – the Germans detached almost a company and a half of troops from their engagement with the Americans to round up this ragtag bunch, which they did only after 3 weeks of searching. Had the American paratroopers dropped successfully or pushed quicker, they would have been relieved sooner.

Next Week – Fooling the Germans: Fortitude and it’s impact

American paratrooper James Flanagan (2nd Platoon, C Co, 1-502nd PIR), among the first to make successful landings on the continent, holds a Nazi flag captured in a village assault. France. 6 June 1944

Into the Cotentin – American Paratroopers jump into Normandy

As part of Operation Overlord, there was a sizeable airborne landing. This was to tie up German re-enforcements to the beaches, distracting them away from the seaborne landing force and onto the paratroopers dropped throughout the Normandy countryside behind the lines. The United States used two divisions of Paratroopers in jumps on the morning of D-Day itself, around 13,000 men of the U.S. 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions jumping at night followed by just under 4000 glider troops during D-Day itself. This article will focus on these units and their operations in Normandy durign the first 24 hours.

The Planned drop zones of the Americans in Normandy for D-Day.

The Planned drop zones of the Americans in Normandy for D-Day.

The plan itself was simple: The 101st Airborne (part of Mission Albany) were to drop in around Carentan on 3 drop zones, securing the approaches to the town and then the town itself, destroying the garrison and opening it as an escape route from the beaches. Mission Boston, which was the name given to the 82nd Airborne jump, had the same basic objectives but were dropped in around the town of Sainte-Mère-Église.

Gen. Eisenhower speaking with 1st Lt. Wallace C. Strobel and men of Company E 502nd PIR on June 5. The placard around Strobel's neck indicates he is the jumpmaster for chalk 23.

Gen. Eisenhower speaking with 1st Lt. Wallace C. Strobel and men of Company E 502nd PIR on June 5. The placard around Strobel’s neck indicates he is the jumpmaster for chalk 23.

The American parachute operations did not get off to the best of starts – On Albany, the first wave, an incredibly large number of paratroopers of the 101st didn’t make their drop zones, either due to pilot error and jumping into the wrong drop zones or flak disrupting the jump pattern. The artillery failed to arrive at all, with all but one parachute howitzer being lost.  Some of the Paratroopers from Albany had jumped so far to the east they linked up with the 82nd Airborne rather than their own men! Boston wasn’t much better, with the 82nd scattering their troops all over the place, including depositing one on the spire of the church! A parachute with dummy paratrooper still hangs there to this day in tribute to this.

Paratrooper om Sainte-Mere-Eglise

A dummy Paratrooper on Sainte-Mere-Eglise church spire, in memory of the American paratrooper who got stuck there for real in 1944.

The glider borne operations were a little more successful, with missions ‘Chicago’ and ‘Detroit’ landing their troops almost without loss on their designated drop zones. Only 8 passengers of these gliders were confirmed killed; one of them being the assistant divisional commander. Carrying heavier weapons, these gliders were instrumental to making up the loss of the parachute artillery lost in the parachute landings.

Allied glider that crash-landed during the early stages of the invasion of France, near Hiesville. 6 June 1944

Allied glider that crash-landed during the early stages of the invasion of France, near Hiesville. 6 June 1944

Despite these shortcomings, the landings did succeed in disrupting the Germans behind the beaches, with the scattered nature of the American drops and the bocage terrain conspiring to confound and confuse German efforts to effective respond to the landings.  The casualties for the airborne divisions were surprisingly light considering the fragmented drops, and stand at 1,240 for the 101st Airborne Division and 1,259 for the 82nd Airborne.

Next Week: Operation Tonga

The German Reaction to D-Day.

The observer in the bunker at Pont du Hoc could not believe his eyes. What seemed to be thousands and thousands of ships were anchored in the channel, some firing over his head at targets unseen, others launching thousands of small craft which appeared to be making for the shore. The predicted allied invasion had begun, and he penned a message to this extent, to be sent to higher headquarters.

Despite some advance warning, and the strength of some German units in the West, the Germans failed to contain the invasion of Normandy, and failed to commit 4 SS divisions that could have turned the tide. Why?

Defence of the Western provinces of the new German Reich fell to Field Marshal von Rundstedt, as Commander-in-Chief West. Under him he had two main army groups, B and G. B contained Erwin Rommel, favourite of Hitler and master armoured strategist. Of the 300 Divisions the German Army had to call on, around 58 or so were stationed in this area. Despite this seemingly large reserve of manpower to combat the Allied invasion, it must be remembered the composition of these troops left a lot to be desired.

Osttruppen were recruits from Russia and the East. Some, like the above solider being registered with an American POW handler, came from as far away as Korea.

Osttruppen were recruits from Russia and the East. Some, like the above solider being registered with an American POW handler, came from as far away as Korea.

The vast bulk were seasoned fighting men from the Eastern front, with experience of combat, good training and committed NCOs and Officers. However, these were not the troops defending the beaches, but were instead held in the interior of France. The beaches themselves were defended largely by what the Germans termed Osttruppen, or Eastern Troops; conscripts from Russia, Turkestan and other eastern European nations with no desire or will to fight for the Germans. Equipped with obsolete or captured equipment, these troops were badly motivated, badly lead and all too willing to surrender to the Allies. The only beach that was not was Omaha, with disastrous consequences for the Americans due to land there.

Additionally, Von Runstedt on paper had nine panzer divisions and one panzergrenadier division in theatre, with a total of over 1,400 tanks and self-propelled guns. Part of Panzer Group West, they were counted as part of von Rundstedt’s on paper strength despite the fact he possessed no direct control over them. With Rommel trying, and failing, to change the Führer’s mind about changing this administrative complication, the situation was in fact made worse. When the invasion of Normandy occurred, 4 of the Divisions armed with the heaviest, deadliest armour and best trained mobile troops the Germans possessed – 1st SS, 12th SS, 17th SS Panzergrenadier and Panzer Lehr – were held in reserve to be commanded by Hitler himself.

Panzergrenadiers, trained to work alongside armour, were some of the forces held in reserve.

Panzergrenadiers, trained to work alongside armour, were some of the forces held in reserve. These elite troops could very well have turned the tide for the Germans on the decisive first day.

Finally, even the weather was against the Germans. The weather was horrendous at the beginning of May, and as June commenced heavy winds caused high seas, and fog obscured the coast, making a landing unlikely to be successful. With these conditions seemingly favouring the defenders, Rommel felt happy to take a few days leave, and returned to Berlin to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Other senior officers also were withdrawn, to a conference war-gaming the potential of an Allied invasion and how to counter it.

Erwin Rommel was a particular favorite of Hitler. His reputation as an unflappable commander was well earnt in the deserts of North Africa. At the time of D-Day, he was in Berlin, celebrating his wife's Birthday.

Erwin Rommel was a particular favorite of Hitler. His reputation as an unflappable commander was well earnt in the deserts of North Africa. At the time of D-Day, he was in Berlin, celebrating his wife’s Birthday.

When the invasion did happen in June, the troops initially defending the beaches were not up to the standard, and the bulk of the tank force paralysed waiting for orders (Hitler was asleep when the invasion occurred, and would not be woken for several hours, meaning 4 SS divisions took no part in the initial fighting.) The only tank force the Germans possessed not paralysed by a napping Führer, 21st Panzer Division, was immediately thrown against the British, around Caen, and although they succeeded in breaking through to the coast and stalling the British advance were forced to withdraw when Fireflies were bought up to engage them. Of the 120 tanks taken into the action, 70 were lost.

Panther, knocked out by a Firefly of 7th Dragoon Guards. Although this photograph was taken slightly after 21st Panzer's push, it demonstrates the losses they suffered quite well. B5780

Panther, knocked out by a Firefly of 7th Dragoon Guards. Although this photograph was taken slightly after 21st Panzer’s push, it demonstrates the losses they suffered quite well. B5780

Failure of the Germans to respond to D-Day rest on the factors above, but also on the brilliant success of Operation Fortitude, the allied deception plan to convince the Germans that a land invasion of France would take place at the Pas-de-Calais. Fake armies, consisting of inflatable tanks, wooden airfields and other deception plans were instituted to keep the Germans guessing as to the true site of the invasion. The fact that the tank troops were not moved until Hitler could be certain Normandy was not a feint shows the ingenuity of this plan worked.

Next Week: Into the Cotentin

Operations Neptune, Overlord & D-Day

When the BEF left France in a hurry in May 1940, they had always intended to return. In 1943, the conditions were right to begin planning. An increasingly confident and well-armed Soviet Union was fighting well in the east, and this coupled with Allied victories and successful landings in North Africa and Italy signalled serious efforts to begin planning the Second Front.

General Eisenhower was selected to lead the operation and take the role of Supreme Commander, not because of his supreme command ability but because he was a ‘Political General’, able to keep all the different personalities of the Allied staff happy. All the other senior positions were taken by British staff officers. Air Chief Marshall Tedder would take the role as Deputy Supreme Commander. General Bernard Montgomery was to lead the British, Commonwealth and later Polish 21st Army Group, whilst Air Chief Marshal Leigh Mallory oversaw efforts in the air. Admiral Ramsey would be Naval commander in chief whilst General Omar Bradley would oversee the US 1st Army.

Meeting of SHAEF, 1944. Pictured are the 7 leaders of the Expeditionary Force.

Meeting of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), 1 February 1944. Front row: Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder; General Dwight D. Eisenhower; General Bernard Montgomery. Back row: Lieutenant General Omar Bradley; Admiral Bertram Ramsay; Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory; Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith

All in all, some 39 Divisions would be committed with British, Canadian, French, Polish and American troops landing across 5 beaches on the Normandy coast, chosen as it was the most promising of the 4 potential landing sites. The Americans, landing at Omaha and Utah beaches, would swing west into the Cotentin Peninsular, seizing the port facilities at Cherborg. The British and Canadians, landing on Gold, Juno and Sword, would protect the eastern flank and absorb any German counter-offensive action, and establish forward airfields. Parachute and Glider troops of Britain and the US would be landed behind the beaches to capture bridges required for German counter-action.

Originally scheduled for May, the invasion was pushed back to June to allow more landing craft to be manufactured, and then delayed by two more days whilst the weather in the channel cleared sufficiently to allow the landing craft to approach the beaches. With the weather favourable for an early June landing, a date was set. The 4th June. This however was delayed for 2 days, a weather front lingering for longer than expected. The invasion would now go ahead on the 6th. On 3 of the 5 beaches on the 6th of June, things went according to plan.

Landing Craft assembled at the docks in Southampton, waiting for D-Day. A23731 IWM-RN Official Photographer.

Landing Craft assembled at the docks in Southampton, waiting for D-Day. A23731 IWM-RN Official Photographer.

Unfortunately for the Americans, both of the beaches were plans failed were theirs. The 4th Infantry Division, landing on Utah, did not meet the resistance they were expecting, and landed with relatively light casualties. Despite this, they only advanced 4 miles inland, as linking up with the 101st Airborne was more difficult than expected with only 1 in 10 paratroopers landing where planned.  This meant that their first day objectives of capturing bridges to the Cotentin were not achieved, or their expected breakout into the peninsular after Carantan and St Lô. In addition, the Rangers tasked with taking Pont-du-Hoc achieved their objective, but were rendered combat ineffective doing so, with only 75 of the 200 men tasked with climbing the cliffs still able to fight after the action.

American troops on board a landing craft approaching Omaha beach

American troops on board a landing craft approaching Omaha beach

On Omaha, things were not much better. The 1st Infantry Division, assigned to take the beach and establish a foothold on the clifftop above, encountered an entire division of troops defending their landing site, and not the regiment they were expecting. Having stalled entirely on the beaches, and with the troops on Utah apparently unaware of the plight on their sister beach, no fresh troops were landed after 8:30 to allow destroyers to move in and provide close gunfire support. Although the Americans eventually forced an opening in the defences around Omaha, these issues stalled the American advance significantly, and when coupled with the issues with the American paratroopers and 4th Infantry Division at Utah, further delayed the push into the Cotentin peninsular.

Omaha Beach Casualty

Casualties for the Americans on Omaha beach were horrendous. Here, one of the unlucky lies dead in the sand.

For the British and Commonwealth troops things got off to a better start. Although high winds off Gold Beach washed elements of the 50th Infantry Division further east than their planned landing sites, sometimes up to a mile away, the British achieved the majority of their first day objectives. The Hampshire Regiment captured Arromanches (the site of a future Mulberry harbour) and the Devonshire Regiment succeeded in knocking out the Longes-sur-Mere battery that had been harassing the support ships.

The Canadians landed at Juno, and despite some delays and stiff resistance, and quickly linked up with British units on their right flank and created a joint Gold-Juno beach-head a good 12 miles across, and 7 miles in diameter. They advanced the furthest of all the allied armies on D-Day, eager to get into action against a German foe they had not been able to engage 4 years previously, when they were landed and then withdrawn in May 1940.

Infantry waiting to move off 'Queen White' Beach, Sword.

British Infantry waiting to move off ‘Queen White’ sector of Sword Beach.

On Sword, almost all the Duplex Drive Shermans (tanks fitted with wading screens) landed without issue, and quickly forced two exits from the beach. Lord Lovat’s 3 Commando Brigade came ashore to the sound of blaring bagpipes from Regimental Piper Bill Millin, who walked up and down the beach under fire playing Hielan’ Laddie. Millin, when talking to captured German snipers after the battle, was amused to hear he wasn’t shot because the Germans thought he’d gone mad. Having beaten off a counter attack by German Armour, 3rd Infantry division set about their main objective: Caen. However, with delays in bringing up sufficient armoured support, Caen remained untaken at the end of D-Day.

British glider and parachute landings, undertaken by 6th Airborne Division, were as successful as the seaborne operations. Elements of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry successfully captured Pegasus Bridge and its sister bridge over the Orne intact in a lightning quick raid, landing their gliders only 20 yards or so from their objective.  Paratroopers from 3rd Airborne Brigade quickly knocked out the battery at Merville, and the Canadians successfully blew up the bridges over the Dives to deny any German counter offensive.

Bill Millin, the D-Day Piper.

Bill Millin, the D-Day Piper.

Overall, D-Day was a success for the Allies. Although it fell slightly short of the planned objectives (Caen, Bayeux, Carentan, & St. Lô were to be captured, and a continuous beach-head establishment were not met until a few days after the initial landings) the invasion did manage to establish a permanent presence for the Allies in France for the first time since the fall of France in 1940.

This was the first of our Historical Blogs series. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read, let us know.

Next Week: The German Reaction to D-Day.