D-Day: A battle ground suited to American speed and flair: Christopher Bellamy looks at the decisive role played by mobile and adaptable US troops

For all the battle experience of Montgomery's veterans from the fighting in North Africa, and the flying start the successful landings had given them, it was the Americans who were to play the more prominent and decisive role in the break-out battle, and after initial setbacks, they adapted with extraordinary speed - as Churchill later commented.

The British got locked in a slugging match for Caen while the more mobile American forces pushed south and then swung east towards Paris. Veterans of the desert war found the close, broken country, riddled with ditches and thick hedgerows claustrophic and intimidating, while the Americans were able to develop a natural flair for a war of manoeuvre. Historians still disagree whether that was the original plan or just the way the battle developed.

The British commander of the invasion ground forces, General Bernard Montgomery (he was not promoted to Field Marshal until 1 September), was severely criticised for not taking a more aggressive role. Montgomery could justly claim to have drawn in strong forces which facilitated the American break-out, but that may not have been his original aim.

It is possible he hoped to fight the mobile battle east of Caen with the British armour from Lt-Gen Miles Dempsey's Second Army, while the American First Army under Lt-Gen Omar Bradley got on with the mundane business of securing the ports of Cherbourg and Brest. It may have been lucky for the Allies that a different plan was forced on him.

By 10 June, the separate D-Day beachheads had been linked and the Americans were attacking inland towards Cherbourg, while the British were preparing to take Caen. Initially the US forces in the west encountered terrain which was more difficult than that facing the British to the east.

But despite heavy bombardment of Caen and of the German positions to the south, the British attempt to outflank the city at Villers-Bocage, to the west on 10-12 June failed, as did another attempt to the west by 15th Scottish Division from 24 June to 1 July.

A third British and Canadian attempt to capture Caen from 18-20 June, Operation Goodwood, which tried to cut behind it to the east using a strong armoured force, also failed. The US forces, meanwhile, occupied the Cotentin peninsula and forced Cherbourg to surrender on 27 June.

The argument about Montgomery's original plan has raged since the end of the war. Brigadier Kenneth McLean, a senior planner, said that 'for Montgomery to say he was holding the Germans so Bradley could break out was absolute rubbish and a complete fabrication that only developed after he was stopped outside Caen'.

Montgomery later said his forces were short of ammunition and troops. He said: 'At best it would have been touch and go whether we could take it or not . . . the British Army was a wasting asset. The War Office told me before D-Day that it could guarantee reinforcements only for the first month. It would have been very easy for me to yield to public criticism and American pressure and to have made greater efforts to gain ground on this flank.'

Manpower was a constant concern. By early July the British were seriously short of trained infantry, as their casualties had been heavier and those among other units lighter than expected.

It seems that Montgomery was sensible to proceed as he did, maintaining constant pressure on Caen to draw the Germans in while Bradley prepared to attack in the west. But at the end of June the Americans, too, were stuck in the difficult terrain.

But the Americans solved the problem with a device improvised from the obstacles the Germans had scattered on the beaches. The steel stakes were sharpened and fitted to the front of hundreds of US tanks, enabling them to gouge their way through the hedgerows. It was an example of the flexibility that characterised the well- equipped US forces.

Little by little the Germans were forced back until on 17 July Bradley's Army was formed up on the line Lessay-Periers-St Lo. On 25 July, the Americans launched Operation Cobra, breaking through west of St Lo.

It was unexpectedly successful because most of the German forces had been drawn east to Caen. Only one Panzer division, the Lehr, was in the area to attempt to block the attack. The heavy air bombardment also helped, but not until after one of the worst 'friendly fire' incidents of the war in which planes from the Eighth Air Force dropped bombs short, killing 111 Americans including a general.

Finding resistance weaker than expected, the US forces advanced rapidly. The American Third Army, under Lt-Gen George Patton, the most flamboyant US commander of the war, turned west towards Brest, to fulfil the plan to capture the port.

But on 4 August, Montgomery issued the first change to the original plan. Patton was to swing eastwards in a wide-reaching attack across the rear of the German armies. It may not have been the original scheme but Montgomery deserves some credit for exploiting success and the particular qualities of Patton and the American forces. The British and the Canadians were to continue attacking southwards towards Caen.

The Germans tried to cut off the advancing Americans by attacking west from Mortain but the Allies intercepted their coded transmissions and defeated them on 6 August. This had drawn German armour from Caen, which in turn allowed the British and Canadians to push south.

The mobile US forces then swept round the Germans to trap 50,000 of them in the so-called 'Falaise pocket'. The Canadians reached Falaise on 15 August and the US XV Corps had reached Argentan two days earlier.

But despite efforts to seal the pocket, by now only 15 miles wide, the majority of the German forces escaped across the Seine by ferry and temporary bridges. The pocket was finally closed on 20 August, the Allies inflicting fearful destruction with artillery and aircraft, including rocket-armed Typhoon fighter bombers.

Modern US military analysts have criticised the Allies for not attempting a bigger encirclement all the way to the Seine. But Patton stopped his encircling spearheads at Argentan to wait for the slower British and Canadians.

The British official history describes the British left flank as 'the pivot on which the main stroke would hinge. It must always remain secure or the whole movement might lose its balance'.

That was not the original plan, nor is it correct to view the British and Canadians as locked in a static battle while the Americans did all the manoeuvre. When the Americans drew in German forces, the British and Canadians advanced.

Fighting together in north-west Europe for the first time in the era of mechanised warfare, the British and US forces were each finding their feet. As Churchill noticed, the Americans displayed a remarkable ability to adapt.

Patton, audacious to the core, converted the local breakthrough by the First Army into a theatre- wide break-out that only ground to a halt in September because of fuel shortages.

(Photograph and map omitted)

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Field of broken dreams: Andy Bell visits Passchendaele
news5 News's Andy Bell visited the killing fields of the Great War, and his ancestor - known only from his compelling war diary - came to life
Travel
travel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In my grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel