Thursday, June 06, 2019
D-Day 75th anniversary: historian Antony Beevor on its legacy
By Antony Beevor
1 June 2019
U.S. soldiers landing on Utah Beach
On Wednesday, heads of state will assemble in Portsmouth to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the launch of the most ambitious military operation the world has ever seen. Before the invasion, Joseph Stalin had been bitterly scornful of the time it had taken the allies to prepare their cross-Channel attack. But now, as recent objections to President Trump’s state visit reveal, rather different interallied tensions have created a fault line down the Atlantic.
The heroic myths of D-Day have been powerful, fostered first by the popular press and entrenched later in films. The best-known movie, Saving Private Ryan, is a uniquely American version of D-Day, depicting the terrifying reality of Omaha beach. It does illustrate the clash between collective need and the instinct of the
A British account would be completely different. After the humiliating defeats earlier in the war, culminating in the Dunkirk evacuation, the British suffered from “D-Day jitters” and “a much greater fear of failure” than the Americans, as one of their staff officers observed. I think it is revealing that more renowned British-made films, most recently Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, have focused on the epic 1940 evacuation of allied forces from the beaches of France rather than D-Day. In stark contrast to the American love of success, the British have revealed a far greater fascination for their own military disasters, whether in poetry, novels or on screen.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, the victory of D-Day appears inevitable because of allied air and naval superiority. Yet nothing in history is preordained. At the time, the dividing line between triumph and utter disaster was too close to call. Late in the evening of Sunday June 4, General Eisenhower and the most senior allied commanders gathered in his temporary headquarters at Southwick House above Portsmouth. The crucial decision facing them was whether to accept the meteorologists’ prediction that June 6 would offer the break they needed in the stormy weather or to delay. Eisenhower gave the decision to go. If he had chosen the only other option, of a two-week postponement, the vast invasion fleet would have encountered the worst storm in the Channel in 40 years. I strongly dislike speculative “what ifs”, but one must at least acknowledge the possibility that the postwar map of Europe might have looked rather different if the allied invasion fleet had been scattered by that storm. All preparations would have had to start again from scratch.
Winston Churchill was in a nervous frenzy for other reasons too. He had never favoured the plan to invade Germany across northwest Europe. This had been forced upon him by Stalin and President Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference the previous November. Now he had to conceal his reluctance and support the cross-channel invasion. Ever since the 18th century, Britain, as a small island nation, had always preferred a “peripheral strategy”. This meant using the Royal Navy to wear down a numerically superior opponent, especially in the Mediterranean, before tackling its armies on the European mainland with coalition warfare. The Americans, on the other hand, believed in a “continental strategy” — a massive clash of land forces to destroy the enemy head-on.
Churchill’s dream was to advance into central Europe from northeast Italy to pre-empt a Soviet occupation, yet the mountainous terrain around the Ljubljana Gap would have made that impossible. The allies’ exceptionally slow and bitter advance up the spine of Italy should have warned him how effectively the Germans could fight in retreat. Roosevelt had compromised over the Mediterranean in 1943, allowing Churchill the invasions of Sicily and the Italian mainland, but the Americans were now in charge. The time had come to engage the Wehrmacht in northwest Europe.
All those who took part in D-Day, whether soldier, sailor or airman, would never forget the sight. It was by far the largest invasion fleet ever known, with 7,700 ships and 12,000 aircraft. The view from the air was breathtaking. Many pilots said later that the sea was packed so full of ships that it almost looked as if you could walk to France.
The landings in Normandy represented a moment of great emotion. For the British, after the long years of defeat and struggle, they were finally returning in strength to the Continent. The whole idea of liberating Europe from Nazi oppression naturally produced strong feelings everywhere — among those who took part, among those at home, and of course among the people of the occupied countries longing for freedom.
Consciously or subconsciously, this aspect underlines the coincidence that the 75th anniversary is taking place just as Britain is poised to leave the European Union. Both Brexiteers and remainers search for evidence in the Second World War to justify their own instincts — whether Britain standing alone after Dunkirk for Europhobes, or a need for alliances to defend freedom and democracy in the case of Europhiles. A similar split is of course sharply apparent in America between Trump supporters, who deride the institutions of international co-operation, and his opponents, who are appalled by such an attitude.
We still tend to see D-Day and the fighting in Normandy as a desperate struggle between the Americans and British on one side and the Germans on the other. It was, however, the most multinational clash of the war. A whole Canadian division landed on Juno beach, soon to grow to a corps. French commandos attacked Ouistreham and French paratroopers dropped into Brittany. There were warships and transports from nine nations, while squadrons of aircraft overhead were manned by Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, Rhodesians, Poles, French, Belgians, Dutch and Norwegians. The crews of one Coastal Command squadron, guarding against U-Boat attempts to attack the invasion fleet from the Bay of Biscay, contained no fewer than nine nationalities, including a Swiss and two South Americans. A little later in the battle the ground forces in Normandy were joined by two armoured divisions, one French and one Polish. Both would take part in the fighting to close the Falaise pocket in August. Dutch, Belgian and Czech formations would also join what Eisenhower called “the Great Crusade”.
Allied Chiefs Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, General Dwight D Eisenhower, and Field Marshall Bernard L. Montgomery, watch tank maneuvers on February 25, 1944 in preparation for the D-Day landings.(Getty Images)
The presence of Donald Trump at the commemorations of what Churchill termed “the Grand Alliance” thus represents a striking paradox. Trump appears oblivious to any such contradiction, which perplexes many, especially the French, for whose main television channel I am doing the commentary of events in Normandy this week. Nobody has done more than Trump to undermine international co-operation and transnational institutions, whether the United Nations, Nato or the European Union. He sees them as a conspiracy of “globalism” — and this at a time when the weakness of western democracies has encouraged the aggressiveness of China and Putin’s Russia.
For Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, while for China the humiliations of the Opium Wars and the “unequal treaties” played to their own sense of national resurrection: both have exploited the politics of resentment.
The French themselves had a sense of resentment at the time of the liberation in 1944, partly because few countries love their liberators. But we have failed to acknowledge the real suffering of French civilians during the invasion of Normandy. Eisenhower and the planners of the invasion knew that the greatest vulnerability for the allied armies would come just after they had come ashore, because the Germans would reinforce their troops with panzer divisions as rapidly as possible. They had therefore produced Operation Transportation, a plan to seal off the invasion area by bombing the bridges along the Loire to the south and the Seine to the east, but also by smashing French towns and villages leading to the beaches. The Americans had a sardonic name for this tactic to block key routes with the rubble of houses: they called it “putting the city in the street”.
Churchill was appalled at the likely casualties. He tried to set a limit of 10,000 dead, but this was overruled by Roosevelt at Eisenhower’s insistence. In the end some 15,000 died and up to 100,000 were badly injured and maimed in the preparatory bombing alone. Another 20,000 died during the fighting in Normandy from June 6 to mid-August.
The city of Caen was smashed by heavy bombers first on June 6 and again on July 7. British soldiers watching the spectacle in July, felt the ground beneath their feet “tremble like jelly”. They assumed that the great Norman town had been evacuated, but they were wrong. The squadrons of Lancaster bombers were supposed to have hit the German positions on the northern edge of the city, but by delaying an extra few seconds to be sure of avoiding their own forces, they crushed the historic centre. When asked afterwards what the bombing had felt like, a civilian survivor thought for a moment and said: “Imagine a rat sewn up inside a football during an international match.”
In some places, especially Caen, the bombing of the city was not just avoidable, it was even counterproductive, because it slowed the allied advance without harming the Germans. In others the destruction caused when “sealing off the invasion area” certainly slowed German reinforcements and supplies. But the whole question brings out an important paradox. The armies of democracies often end up killing more civilians simply because their commanders are under such pressure from the press and parliament at home to reduce their own soldiers’ casualties that they resort to an excessive use of bombing and shelling. The French Communist Party made great capital out of this in the difficult postwar years, but now most French historians recognise that the suffering of Normandy constituted an involuntary sacrifice that saved the rest of the country.
Rommel first used the phrase “the longest day” to emphasise the fact that the Germans’ only chance of defeating the invasion existed in the first 24 hours. He realised that once the allies were properly established ashore, then the Germans were bound to lose in the end. The enormous air support and naval artillery from the ships anchored offshore would smash any large counterattack. But Rommel’s plan to deploy panzer divisions close to the coast was opposed by Field Marshal von Rundstedt, General Guderian and General Geyr von Schweppenburg. They wanted to hold them back in the forests north of Paris ready to charge north to the Pas de Calais or northwest to Normandy’s beaches. In the event, it was Hitler who insisted on controlling them from the Berghof above Berchtesgaden, Germany, and his staff feared to wake him on the crucial morning of the invasion.
The German infantry divisions in the 7th Army defending Normandy were all understrength, underarmed, undertrained and lacking in transport. They were simply not strong enough to withstand the allied bombardments and attacks. As a result, the panzer divisions, to the horror of their commanders, could not be used in a great counterattack. They had to be split up to act as “corset-stiffeners” among weak infantry divisions. This rapidly turned the invasion into a battle of attrition.
Montgomery’s plan to seize Caen and the land beyond to provide airfields for the RAF never stood a chance. He had refused to listen to the warning of Lieutenant-General Frederick Morgan, the original planner of Operation Overlord, that the Germans were bound to concentrate their panzer forces against the British on the eastern flank near Caen. This was because if the allies managed to break through towards Falaise and Paris, then the bulk of Rommel’s forces to the west and on the Atlantic coast would be cut off. By June 10, just four days after D-Day, the allies and the Germans both found themselves stymied.
Instead of the real carnage occurring on D-Day, as had been expected, it came later, and further inland, with British infantry casualties running at 80% higher than estimated. This was a huge concern for the War Office and Montgomery. Churchill began to wonder whether there would be a British Army left by the time they reached Berlin, and how that would weaken their position at the peace conference. During the Battle for Normandy, the fighting could be just as bloody as in Russia. German casualties per division per month were running at more than twice the rate of the overall average on the eastern front.
Soviet propagandists, particularly Ilya Ehrenburg, claimed that the allies in Normandy faced only the dross of the German army. In fact, the British and the Canadians were up against the greatest concentration of SS panzer divisions since the Battle of Kursk.
Winston Churchill with General Eisenhower while strolling along the platform during a halt of the special train in which the party travelled before D-Day on May 15, 1944.(Birmingham Post and Mail Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
Fighting in Normandy proved far harder than the allies had imagined. They expected the German troops to be demoralised and shaken by the bombing, shelling and air attacks, but bad visibility during that abnormally rainy June greatly reduced the advantage of allied air supremacy. They had also underestimated how the terrain would favour the defender. In the rolling cornfields around Caen, the Germans were able to fortify the solid stone Norman farmhouses and outbuildings. Although soldiers in armoured units talked in hushed tones of the enemy’s Tiger and Panther tanks, the Germans’ most effective defence lay in their 88mm guns used as anti-tank weapons. And in the bocage, the claustrophobic Norman landscape of small fields and thick hedgerows, the Germans were able to inflict heavy casualties on vastly superior forces by digging themselves in well and by their clever use of camouflage.
Another form of casualty came with the very high number of those who suffered from battle shock, aka combat fatigue. The number of psychological casualties on the allied side was very high indeed — some 30,000 cases in the US 1st Army alone. Significantly, both American and British army psychiatrists were struck by the fact that comparatively few German prisoners appeared to be suffering from combat fatigue, in spite of the intense shelling and bombing. This, they concluded, was probably due to Nazi indoctrination over the previous 11 years. A captured German army doctor called Dammann also considered that “German propaganda urging the men to save their Fatherland has helped to keep down the number of cases of neuropsychiatric casualties”.
The German army simply did not recognise combat fatigue as a condition. Their officers would have shaken their heads in amazement at the softness of allied discipline. Their new soldiers arrived at the point of a boot. And if they shot themselves through the hand or foot, they were executed. An obergefreiter with the 91st Luftlande Division wrote home on July 15 to say that “Krammer, a capable and brave lad, stupidly shot himself through the hand. Now he is to be shot.”
German units had a rather different problem. A visceral hatred provoked by the deaths of friends in battle, or relatives or girlfriends killed by the allied bombing campaign, produced the phenomenon of so-called verruckte Helmuts or “crazy Helmuts”. Almost every company seemed to have had at least one of these characters who felt they had lost any reason for living, but just wanted to kill in order to gain revenge.
Not all German soldiers were fanatics or members of the Waffen SS. Within ordinary infantry divisions, attitudes could be very different. Eberhard Beck in the 277th Infantry Division wrote that “for us the war had been lost for some time. What counted was to survive.” This was certainly the opinion of many of the older soldiers. “They were more mature,” he explained, “concerned, fatherly and humane. They did not want any heroics.” Beck and his comrades often discussed the right sort of Heimatschuss (literally “home shot”) that would be just serious enough to have them sent back to a hospital in Germany. “My thoughts,” Beck wrote, “were wound, casualty clearing station, hospital, home, the end of the war. I wanted only to get out of this misery.”
The whole question of bravery in battle is a subject of immense importance. There are very few men who are fearless, and some of them may well have had a sort of death wish. The bravest people, of course, are those who overcome their fear. Research carried out in the British Army in Italy shortly before the Normandy invasion indicated that in a platoon of some 30 men, a small handful did most of the fighting, another small group did everything they could to avoid fighting, or even disappear, while the majority in the middle would either follow the fighters if things went well, or in moments of panic would follow the shirkers and run for it.
Montgomery was so appalled by this report that he had it suppressed and the career of Major Lionel Wigram, who conducted it, suffered badly as a result. The basic truth of his conclusions was reconfirmed in other studies in other armies, especially the work of Brigadier General SLA Marshall in the US army. Most soldiers even avoided firing their weapons in battle. Intriguingly, I found in the Russian archives that Red Army officers believed the same was true of their forces. In fact, one highly decorated Soviet officer told the writer Vasily Grossman that weapons should be inspected immediately after a clash with the enemy and any soldier found not to have fired his gun should be executed on the spot as a deserter.
The Germans recognised quickly that the British were very brave in defence but overcautious in attack, which often led to even greater casualties in the long run. There were numerous reasons for this. British military myths had always focused on heroic defence — the squares at Waterloo, the sieges of Lucknow and Delhi, or Rorke’s Drift. Great attacks were seldom celebrated, unless they were disastrous, like the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. But we must also remember that in 1944 the country had been at war for nearly five years, so there was a considerable weariness. And as the end came in sight, men increasingly wanted to survive. They became reluctant to take risks.
Soldiers and NCOs had also become far more politicised than their father’s generation in the First World War. As a result, a trade union mentality influenced attitudes as to what could be expected of them. It produced a demarcation mentality — of not doing anything beyond your own job. British sappers, a Canadian observed, did not believe it was their task to fire at the enemy and infantry refused to help “fill a crater or get a vehicle out of difficulties”. There was little of that attitude in either the German or US armies.
American and Canadian observers were also amazed by the British soldier’s expectation of regular tea and smoke breaks. On D-Day itself, an astonishing number, who felt tired after wading ashore, believed that they had earned a rest simply for having survived the landing. An American liaison officer reported: “There was a feeling among many of the men that having landed, they had achieved their object, and there was time for a cigarette — and even a brew up — instead of getting on with the task of knocking out the enemy defences and pushing inland.”
British tea breaks were not just an American bugbear. “The British Army couldn’t fight for three and half minutes without tea,” a Canadian Glengarry Highlander remarked with cheerful exaggeration. A week later, when part of the 7th Armoured Division attacked Villers-Bocage, troops stopped for a break in the town before throwing out reconnaissance patrols or taking up fire positions. The consequences were disastrous when the SS panzer ace Michael Wittmann charged into the town with his Tiger tank, blasting unoccupied tanks right and left.
On June 6, Trump will be at the impressive American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha beach to celebrate American exceptionalism and the triumph of its might over evil in Normandy. Even though he will be accompanied by President Emmanuel Macron, it is hard to imagine him emphasising international co-operation.
The British commemorations in Normandy during this coming week, on the other hand, will be mercifully free of Saving Private Ryan’s manufactured sentimentality, whether during the service in Bayeux Cathedral or the ceremonies in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. The beautiful simplicity of British cemeteries, especially the one at Bayeux, with 4,648 graves, is the best form of tribute to those who gave their lives in this vital step to the liberation of western Europe.
The very first ceremony on this June 6, however, is to inaugurate the site at Ver-sur-Mer for the British Normandy Memorial. This will commemorate the 22,254 men and women who died under British command during D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. The ground chosen, overlooking both Gold beach and the remains of the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches, is the perfect position. All the names of the fallen will be engraved on the elegant stone columns to remind future generations of visitors of their combined sacrifice in the liberation of Europe.
The 75th anniversary edition of Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy is out now (Penguin £9.99)
To contribute to the Normandy Memorial Trust, visit normandymemorialtrust.org