Posts Tagged ‘Normandy’

Intelligence, whether or not you’re Martha Stewart, is a good thing.  It’s always helpful to know stuff.  I know that here in America, we drive on the right side of the road.  And since I’m old enough to drive, that turns out to be a pretty useful fact that I can put into action every day.  And gravity.  Years ago when I visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the whole gravity thing was a nice little chestnut to have locked away in my brain.  Without that knowledge, three more steps north would have left the bus 165 pounds lighter on the return trip.

But some things I know are pretty much worthless.  Take the speed of light in a vacuum as an example.  Without even looking it up, I know it’s 186,282.397 miles per second…and I’ve known that since junior high.  But big whoop!!  What possible good does that do me?  It’s never helped me in a job interview.  I don’t think it’s ever been an answer on Jeopardy.  It’s not even a good conversation starter at parties.

However, let’s say we were the Allied High Command in 1944…June of 1944.  And on the 6th of that month, we had launched a massive invasion of Western Europe called, I don’t know, Operation Overlord or something.  And then four days later, ULTRA (the name we gave our codebreaking methods) revealed the location of the headquarters of Panzer Gruppe West, the primary reinforcements to be used by Germany to attack the men we were sending ashore at Normandy.

That knowledge might prove to be most useful.

And it was.  General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg (commander of Panzer Gruppe West) had set up his headquarters in the Chateau at La Caine (about 20 miles south of the Normandy coast).  Allied intelligence got wind of it and passed the information on to the commanders.  And they, knowing the importance of Schweppenburg’s forces, wasted no time in dealing with it.

Immediately (which in this case meant June 10, 1944), air assets were dispatched.  Forty Hawker Typhoons and sixty-one B-25 Mitchells attacked the chateau, wounding von Schweppenburg and killing 17 of his staff.  Panzer Gruppe West HQ was out of commission.  But, more importantly, communications between the HQ and the actual fighting men (and tanks) had been lost.  And as Allied tank forces were beginning their inital breakouts from Normandy on that very day, it offered them some additional freedom of movement.

Recommended Reading:  Overlord:  D-Day and the Battle for Normandy

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At 0016 hours on June 6, 1944, the Horsa glider carrying Lieutenant Den Brotheridge and his men landed right near the Orne River Bridge.  That bridge, as we saw a year ago, was a crucial target for Allied capture.  Brotheridge led his platoon across the bridge, in the process killing a German sentry…the first German to die in Operation Overlord.

Continuing forward, Brotheridge caught sight of a machine gun pit and, while running, threw a grenade toward it.  At that same moment, Den fell to the ground with a bullet in his neck.  Dying a short time later, the well-loved Lieutenant became the first Allied soldier to die in Overlord.

“Our landings…have failed and I have withdrawn our troops.  My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available.  The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do.  If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Those were the words penned by General Eisenhower, shortly after giving the order to go on the 5th.  You know, much has been said of massive invasion, which was unleashed on the French coast 65 years ago.  Hundreds and hundreds of books have been written about Overlord (at least a dozen of which are on my shelves), from nearly every conceivable angle and covering nearly every aspect of the operation.

The fact that Dwight Eisenhower didn’t ever have to publish the “defeat” statement is a testament to the bravery, ingenuity, and tenacity of thousands of soldiers who made good on the years of planning and preparation that went into what was, to that point, the largest sea and air operation of all time.

It’s a credit to the leadership of hundreds of officers who, when the enemy bullets began to fly, saw their carefully laid and rehearsed plans go up in smoke.  Yet still they instructed their men, improvised their plans, and inspired the troops to keep going.

It’s a credit to French resistance, which did much to help disrupt German communications.  They risked immediate execution if caught in the act, or grievous torture to reveal their accomplices.

And what about those in charge of the deception campaign against the Germans?  It effectively acted as a “second front”, tying down a dozen of Germany’s best divisions 200 miles north in the Pas de Calais area that could have reinforced Normandy.

Denny Brotheridge’s death was first of June 6th.  By 0016 of June 7th, his was just one among thousands more.  But their sacrifice meant the dawn of June 7th would break with a very different situation in western France.  While the Allied foothold was still tenuous in places along the coast, the liberation of Europe, which began with a fiery speech given by Winston Churchill more than four years before, was now fully underway.

Recommended Reading: D-Day – Another must-have from Stephen Ambrose.

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There had been months and months of planning.   Hundreds of thousands of men had been gathered, as had million of tons of supplies and ammunition.  A vast deception operation had been in play, making every attempt to convince German leadership that the French coasts of Normandy were not the destination of the long-awaited cross-Channel attack.  Thousands of ships had been gathered and, like a coiled spring, all of this was waiting for the word to launch.

But it was raining.  And it had been raining.  And for all the soldiers in the ships knew, it would keep right on raining.  It was June 5, 1944, and Operation Overlord, originally set for the 5th, had already been postponed for a day.  Poor weather over the Channel would mean seasick troops landing on the beaches.  Poor weather meant they’d be landing without adequate fighter cover.  And the bombers and ships would have a tougher time finding their “softening-up” targets.

As dawn gave way to a soggy morning, Allied leaders met to discuss just one thing…”go” or “no go”.  Weather reports, while pretty gloomy, had taken a slightly better turn.  They promised a window of passable weather conditions…enough of a window to get the troops on the ground and establish a beachhead.

If they didn’t land on the 6th, the weather was forecast to deteriorate again and, by the time it improved, the favorable tides would have vanished and the next window of opportunity wouldn’t be for weeks.  Weeks for the Germans to reinforce.  Weeks for a security leak that would allow the enemy to move its Panzer Divisions with confidence and make already difficult landings even tougher.

As the smoke curled through the meeting room, General Dwight Eisenhower took in all the input from his subordinates, including the weathermen.  He felt the consequences of yet another delay were to risky to face.  And so, he gave the order to go, knowing fully that, if the weather reports were wrong or if the Germans figured things out too quickly, a disaster would be his main course for breakfast.

And so, as evening arrived, aircraft lifted off into the night, carrying Pathfinders that would light the dropzones for thousands of airborne troops assigned to specific (and strategic) objectives.  Ships began leaving port.  Coded messages began to be sent to resistance groups waiting in France.

The coiled spring was about to be sprung…

Recommended Reading:  Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy – Another of Max Hastings’ gems.

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Today marks the anniversary of Operation Jubilee, the Allied raid against Dieppe, France.  The operation was designed not as an occupation of territory, but as a “blast and dash” where troops would assault the German forces in a surprise attack, complete some key objectives and depart…all in the space of a few hours.

So in the early morning hours of August 19, 1942, six thousand Canadian and British forces (with some U.S. Rangers sprinkled in) entered their landing craft and embarked on what would be one of the most botched operations in all of World War II.  First off, the element of surprise was completely lost when armed German trawlers in the area opened fire on the landing craft, alerting German forces to the Allied approach.

Next, landing craft got mixed up and headed for the wrong beaches, which meant the soldiers faced an almost impossible mission of untangling themselves and relocating their objectives.  Gunfire from the Allied ships and aircraft wasn’t adequate to knock out the enemy artillery positions, which proceeded to decimate the troops as they landed.  Also, poor ship-to-shore communications meant that the commanders didn’t have a good picture of what was happening on the beaches.  As a result, the reserve forces were committed to the action and, again, ripped up before the extent of the situation could be learned.

At 9:40am, the decision to withdraw was given and the few troops that actually made it inland had to retrace their steps through brutal German gunfire to reach the extraction points.  All in all, it was a terrible day for the Allies.  Overall losses were limited only by the fact that just 6,000 men took part.  But casualties among those few were staggering, as nearly 4,000 men were killed, wounded, or captured.  Even worse was the knowledge that German opposition, while strong in the air, amounted to only about 1,500 soldiers on the ground.

If there was good news from the debacle, it’s that the Allied commanders studied the Dieppe Raid intensely, and learned much about better intelligence, better communications, and improved “softening up” procedures.  These lessons would be used to good result in the upcoming landings in North Africa and, later on, just down the coast at Normandy.

Recommended Reading:  Dieppe 1942: A Prelude to D-Day

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