THE BATTLE OF NORMANDY

During the following morning, 7 June, British troops captured Bayeux with relative ease; the first French city to be liberated.

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British soldier inspecting identity cards of French civilians, Normandy.

In the days following D-Day, both the Allies and the Germans fought for control of Normandy and the Cotentin Peninsula. The Allies’ first objective was to connect the gains they had made on 6 June on and around the five beaches. On 12 June, this was achieved when, after an intense house-to-house battle, the 101st Airborne Division captured the village of Carentan. The Allies now controlled an area, a bridgehead, forty-two miles wide and, at its deepest, fifteen miles deep. From this base, the US troops laid siege to Cherbourg and the British and Canadians to Caen.

As planned, the defunct merchant ships were tugged or, in some instances, sailed across the Channel and then sunk in rows, forming the sheltered conditions for the two Mulberry Harbours. The harbours, which themselves were towed across by 150 tugs, were pieced together and ready for use within two days – the British one at Arromanches, off Gold beach, and the US harbour off Omaha beach. Within the first two weeks, almost 500,000 men had poured in via the harbours or the beaches, together with almost 100,000 vehicles. But on 19 June, severe gales destroyed the American harbour and rendered the British one almost unserviceable for several days. Later, on 12 August, the first PLUTO pipeline, running from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg, became operational. Over the coming weeks, another seventeen lines were laid. By March 1945, the PLUTO lines were pumping up to a million gallons of fuel each day into France.

Meanwhile, in June, having secured their bridgehead, the Allies now had to break out of the Cotentin Peninsula but in this they were, for the time being, frustrated. The Germans rushed in reinforcements – although Allied bombing and resistance sabotage delayed them – and encircled the Allies within their bridgehead. The battle now became a war of attrition as opposing forces fought field for field, town for town. The terrain of Normandy, dense hedgerows and sunken lanes, known by the locals as bocage, favoured the defence and proved difficult for the Allied tanks. In mid-July, the Americans nullified the German advantage, to an extent, by inventing what they called a ‘hedgebuster’, akin to a large garden fork, which they attached to the front of their tanks, making them capable of quickly cutting through the hedges.

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US troops during the Battle of Cherbourg.

The Battle for Cherbourg raged on. Although well entrenched, the German defenders soon began to run out of food and supplies and after three weeks of constant battle and aerial bombardment were on the point of exhaustion. Closing in, US troops took the town on 27 June. The German general commanding Cherbourg, Friedrich Dollmann, having been informed that he was to be court-martialled for losing the town, died of a supposed heart attack the following day. The town’s harbour facilities had been so severely damaged that it took until mid-August for the port to be rendered even partially accessible.

Germany

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Flats in London’s East End damaged by a V-2 rocket attack.

While his armies tried to contain the enemy within the Cotentin Peninsula, and in retaliation for the bombing of German cities, on 13 June Hitler unleashed on London the first of his long-awaited new, super weapons – the flying bomb, the V-1 (or ‘Doodlebug’). Three months later came the even more frightening V-2, first used against London on 8 September. The V-2, flying faster than the speed of sound, caused much devastation and fear in south-east England. In response, Allied bombers, in an operation codenamed Crossbow, targeted manufacturing sites. Nonetheless, at the peak of the bombing up to eight V-2s were landing on British soil per day. Nothing in Britain’s armoury could cope: radar, anti-aircraft guns, fighter planes were all rendered obsolete against these new weapons of terror but, despite the damage they inflicted, they arrived too late in the war to make an impact on its outcome.

On 2 July, Hitler replaced Rundstedt, who, lacking the necessary gumption, had become too pessimistic for the Führer’s liking. In his place, full of optimism, arrived Field Marshal Günther von Kluge. Within days, Kluge, realizing the precariousness of the situation and that Rundstedt’s pessimism was perhaps well founded, also succumbed to melancholy. Kluge’s responsibilities were enhanced to that of the Supreme Field Commander West when, on 17 July, Rommel was wounded while travelling in his car by a British fighter plane and had to be invalided back to Germany.

Even six weeks on, Hitler was still under the illusion that a second, much bigger invasion would come at any time and hence remained determined not to commit the full force of his resources into Normandy. Continued reports from top (double) agent Arabel helped sustain the illusion. The fictional First US Army Group, commanded by George Patton, was still perceived as a threat, ready to spring into action at any moment.

The Germans had several other disadvantages to contend with – having to fight the Allies on one side and deal with the resistance on the other; their supplies of war material were running low and, unbeknownst to the German command, much of their communication was still being intercepted by Bletchley Park’s codebreakers, giving the Allies crucial information as to German plans and manoeuvres. Further afield, on the Eastern Front, on 22 June, Stalin had launched Operation Bagration, the Soviet Union’s great counteroffensive against the Nazis.

On 20 July, Hitler survived an assassination attempt in his Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia, the ‘July Bomb Plot’, perpetuated by Nazi officers who hoped to shorten the war with his removal. Hitler, although shaken, suffered only superficial injury and those responsible were soon rounded up and executed. The finger of suspicion fell on Kluge. It was known that the field marshal had previously met with anti-Hitler conspirators. On 17 August, while in France, news came through that he was to be replaced by Walter Model. On being ordered back to Berlin, Kluge, fearing what lay in store, committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill.

Rommel was to become another victim. Although not directly involved, Rommel had previously voiced sympathy for the plan. Once his endorsement had come to light, he was given the option of honourable suicide or subjecting himself to humiliation and the kangaroo court of Nazi justice, and his family deported to a concentration camp. He chose the former and, on 14 October, accompanied by two generals sent by Hitler, Rommel poisoned himself. He was, as promised, buried with full military honours, his family pensioned off.

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