D-Day: General wrote his apologies in advance: The mission's success was no certainty for the soldiers involved. Will Bennett reports
Friday 03 June 1994
In it he accepted responsibility for the invasion's failure. He wrote: 'Our landings in the Cherbourg-Le Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.'
The final decision to invade on 6 June was a lonely one that could only be made by the Supreme Allied Commander. On Omaha beach the next day it seemed for a time as though Eisenhower might need to issue the press release.
Almost everything that could go wrong in an amphibious landing did so. The defences escaped Allied bombing almost unscathed, heavy seas swamped landing craft and sank amphibious tanks and the attack timetable was soon in chaos. Assault troops were landed in the wrong place, casualties were high and, receiving gloomy reports aboard a cruiser offshore, Lt-Gen Omar Bradley, commander of the US First Army, thought 'our forces had suffered an irreversible catastrophe'.
Yet in the end it was Omaha that illustrated most clearly that Eisenhower's fears were groundless. The Germans caused havoc among the invaders but were not able to concentrate enough forces for a decisive victory on the beach.
Warships moved in to shell the defenders from a range of 800 yards and this and the bravery of the attacking troops secured the beachhead by nightfall. The weather might have defeated the invasion if forecasts had proved badly wrong but the Germans could not.
To repel Operation Overlord the Germans needed to have an air force and navy capable of attacking the Allies on the beaches and disrupting the reinforcement and supply operation across the Channel. They also required either coastal defences capable of stopping the Allies on the beaches or powerful forces available quickly to inflict a knockout blow before the invaders established themselves. The Germans had none of these.
The Allies' command of the air was awesome. On D-Day they had 11,590 aircraft available, including 4,190 fighters, 3,440 heavy bombers and 930 medium and light bombers and in the first 24 hours flew 14,674 sorties over the area.
The Luftwaffe had 445 aircraft in northern France including 130 bombers, 75 fighter bombers and less than 100 serviceable fighters. During the first 24 hours they flew 319 sorties and only two fighters appeared over the beaches.
Allied headquarters had thought the Germans might throw 300 fighters and 200 bombers into the counter-attack but the Luftwaffe had been almost destroyed over Germany.
The German navy was no more capable of attacking. The Allies had 1,213 warships, including seven battleships, 23 cruisers, 80 destroyers and 4,126 landing ships and craft.
In the Boulogne to Cherbourg area the Germans had 118 craft, mostly torpedo boats and small minesweepers. All they could do was harass the flanks of the invasion force and they rarely got close enough even to open fire.
Both Hitler and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the German armies in the likely invasion areas, believed that the battle would be decided around the beaches and Rommel was instructed to strengthen the Atlantic Wall coastal defences.
He built fortifications and laid mines and other obstacles. But the Atlantic Wall was not the impregnable fortress of Hitler's dreams, partly because of shortages of materials and labour.
Only 5 million of the 50 million mines needed had been laid, strongpoints in parts of the Normandy coast were 1,800 metres apart and only 15 per cent of the positions overlooking the Utah invasion beach had been bombproofed. If the Germans could not stop the Allies on the beaches their only hope was a rapid counter-attack before the invaders could build up their strength. The poor quality of many defending troops, wrong decisions by the German high command and Allied airpower made this impossible. Most of the area was defended by the German Seventh Army, which included many former citizens of the Soviet Union and men from territories incorporated into the Third Reich who were reluctant to die for Hitler. The dictator refused to allow tank divisions to be used.
Elite units were available further back but getting them to the battlefield quickly and in sufficient numbers to cripple the invasion was difficult. The problems experienced on 7 June when the Germans tried to send three tank divisions against the Allies were typical.
The Panzer Lehr Division had to cover 80 miles and did not reach the battlefield, the 21st Panzer Division was engaged in a defensive action and the 12th SS Panzer Division could not group. Instead of three divisions only three battalions attacked.
Reinforcements had to get to Normandy amid continual air attacks along roads and railways devastated by Allied planes. German mobilisation plans were for 17 divisions to go to the invasion area within days but by 18 June only five had arrived.
The lack of a concerted German response was also due to the chance absence of key German commanders on the day of the invasion and to the belief of Hitler and many of his generals that the Normandy assault was a diversion.
They thought the main invasion would come in the Pas-de- Calais and Hitler refused to allow troops to be transferred to Normandy from the Fifteenth Army stationed there. Eighteen divisions did nothing while the Allies poured ashore.
To the soldiers who went ashore on D-Day and subsequently fought their way through the Norman countryside, which was ideal terrain for defenders, the invasion never seemed a foregone conclusion. But the truth is that the Allies were never going to lose.
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