Sealing off the Invasion Area

The French resistance movement, which had grown up from isolated beginnings in the darkest days of the war, was bound to prove fragmented and unregimented. Bringing so many groups of widely differing political views together had proved a difficult and dangerous task. Many brave men, of whom the most famous was Jean Moulin, had died or risked death in their attempts to coordinate the Resistance. In February 1944, some form of unity was achieved under the Conseil National de la Résistance, and Georges Bidault was elected its leader. Bidault, who later became de Gaulle’s minister of foreign affairs, proved acceptable to both Communists and non-Communists.

In the most general terms, French politics in 1944 split three ways, with people identified by their opponents as Pétainist, Communist or Gaullist. This is not, of course, how they would necessarily have seen themselves. Large parts of the Resistance worked with de Gaulle, without necessarily being Gaullist. The ORA, the Organisation de Résistance de l’Armée, took de Gaulle’s orders, but its leaders never quite shed their suspicions of him. Led by General Revers and other officers, the ORA emerged from the ruins of Vichy’s Armistice army, which had been disbanded by the Germans after they marched into the unoccupied zone in November 1942. The Communists regarded them as no better than turncoat Pétainists infiltrating the Resistance. Yet the Communists, working behind the scenes, were the most proficient infiltrators of all, using their classic tactics of ‘entryism’. Many tricks were used to get their representatives, often in a disguised role, on to the key Resistance committees. They would then take them over from the inside, while leaving an appearance of political unity on the surface.

The French Communist Party had found itself in an indefensible position during the Nazi-Soviet pact. But since Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, radical and determined young Frenchmen and women became enthusiastic recruits. The immense sacrifices of the Red Army and partisans had proved a powerful inspiration which owed little to the Stalinism of the pre-war period. Some in the armed wing of the French Communist Party, the FTP (Francs-tireurs et Partisans), believed that the fight against Vichy and the German occupation should become a political insurrection as well as a battle of national liberation. Untrained in Stalinist discipline and lacking instruction from Moscow, they had no idea that the last thing the Kremlin wanted was a revolution in France breaking out behind the Allied front lines. Until Germany was finally defeated, Stalin needed all the American assistance he could get in the form of Lend-Lease trucks, food and steel. In addition, his worst fear was that the western Allies might be tempted to make a separate peace with Germany. He certainly did not want any trouble from local Communists which might give them an excuse.

French Communists in the Resistance knew nothing of this, and not just because of communication difficulties. In Moscow, the International Section of the Central Committee, which had replaced the Comintern, received little guidance from above. Stalin had washed his hands of France. It appears that he could not forgive her collapse in 1940, which, contrary to all his calculations, had left the Soviet Union suddenly vulnerable to the Wehrmacht.

The Special Operations Executive in London, which was in radio contact with 137 active stations, estimated that by the spring of 1944 the strength of the Resistance approached a total of 350,000 members. Around 100,000 may have had serviceable weapons, yet only 10,000 had ammunition for more than a single day of combat. The main contribution which the Resistance offered to the success of Overlord lay not in guerrilla action, but in intelligence and sabotage, contributing to the isolation of Normandy from the rest of France.

Résistance Fer, the organization of railwaymen, played a considerable part in both these fields. The strength of divisions could be estimated by the number of trains used to move them. For example, the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend was known to be close to maximum strength because the railwaymen, known as ‘cheminots’, had reported that eighty-four trains were needed. A ‘Plan Vert’, or Plan Green, covered sabotage. Working with other Resistance groups, the French cheminots helped derail trains in tunnels, from where it was difficult to extract them. Heavy lifting cranes became a priority target for both sabotage and air attack. Engines were wrecked in marshalling yards and railway tracks constantly blown up.

In Burgundy and eastern France up to the German border, rail traffic came to a halt. Altogether thirty-seven railway lines were cut around Dijon just before the invasion. French railwaymen suffered heavy German reprisals. Several hundred were executed and another 3,000 deported to German camps. Engine drivers also faced the perpetual danger of attacks by Allied fighter-bombers. Typhoon pilots delighted in targeting trains with rockets and cannon to see the engines explode in a cloud of steam. On a less dramatic level, the cheminots became expert in delaying German troop trains, often by sending them down the wrong line. The Germans had been forced to bring in 2,500 of their own railwaymen, but the sabotage continued.

Apart from the obvious reasons for preventing the movement of German troops and supplies by rail, there was an added advantage in forcing movement on to the roads. Tank tracks had only a limited mileage, and as a result of the American Eighth Air Force bombing oil plants and refineries, the Wehrmacht was desperately short of fuel. Their lack of rubber for tyres also provided another very easy target for Resistance groups. Tacks and glass scattered on roads used by supply vehicles proved very effective in hampering road traffic, which was the point of ‘Plan Tortue’, or Plan Tortoise.

‘Plan Violet’ was assigned to members of the French telephone and telecommunications organization, the PTT. This concentrated on cutting the underground cables which the Germans used. Although they did not know it, this had the added advantage of forcing the Germans to use radio communications, which could then be decoded through Ultra. ‘Plan Bleu’, meanwhile, focused on sabotaging electric power lines.

In the Norman départements of Calvados and La Manche, the Resistance was not a major force. The most militarily active of the small networks was the Surcouf group at Pont-Audemer. There were some 200 members in and around Bayeux, as well as some fishermen in the little ports along the coast. Further inland, where the conditions were more favourable, weapons were hidden ready for the moment. In the Orne, which offered the concealment of forests, the Resistance could call on 1,800 men and women, of whom a third possessed weapons.

The small number of action groups in Calvados did not mean a lack of assistance to the Allies. A stream of information had been passed back to London. German divisions in the region were identified in laundries by the numbers inscribed on the collars of their tunics. Many of the details which enabled the British to seize the bridge over the Orne at Bénouville in a highly successful glider operation came from members of the Resistance. And two men who worked in the Organisation Todt offices, which supervised the construction of coastal defences, had copied plans and maps. One of them, Monsieur Brunet, was caught and condemned todeath. Minefields, both real andfake, were identified, and attempts were made to estimate the calibre of the guns covering the beaches. This was difficult, since workers were evacuated before the coastal artillery was installed, but the depth of the zone forbidden to fishing craft during firing practice gave a useful indication.

While General Koenig and his staff coordinated Resistance activities from London, SHAEF planned the operations of the special forces groups to be parachuted in to work with the Resistance. SHAEF envisaged that the SOE groups already in place would attack rail targets principally in the interior. The 2,420 Special Air Service troops, on the other hand, would be dropped closer to the coast. In Bradley’s First US Army headquarters, the conventional ‘straight-legs’ of the regular army were sceptical of the SAS, whom they regarded as ‘nothing more than highly trained parasaboteurs’. ‘The purpose,’ ran the report on the subject, ‘is to drop SAS people very close to the area and have them do little bits of killing here and there in addition to such things as putting water in gas tanks, letting air out of tires and generally playing around.’ The US Army would become rather more appreciative of their efforts later on, especially in Brittany.

The unit tasked for Brittany, the 2ème Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes of the SAS Brigade, was to be the first French unit in action on the soil of France since 1940. Wearing the maroon beret of the British Parachute Regiment with the Cross of Lorraine as a badge, its advance detachments took off in Halifaxes from Fairford on the night of 5 June. By the end of July, the French SAS had a force of over 30,000 Breton maquisards in action.

Since March 1943, other groups had been training to parachute into France to assist and train the Resistance in key areas. The most important were the three-man ‘Jedburgh’ teams, usually consisting of a British or an American officer, a French officer and a radio operator. Altogether, eighty-three teams briefed by Koenig’s staff would be dropped in uniform, but many of them arrived too late to be useful.

Rommel was well aware of the threat to his lines of communication, not just from the Resistance, but above all from the Allied air forces. ‘We will undergo the same experience with supplies in the invasion battle as we had in North Africa,’ he had told General Bayerlein on 15 May. ‘The supply lines will be destroyed and we will get nothing across the Rhine as we got nothing across the Mediterranean.’

The Allied plan, however, was not to seal off the battlefield at the Rhine. SHAEF aimed to cut off Normandy and Brittany by smashing rail communications and destroying all the bridges along the River Seine to the east and the Loire to the south. But ‘Transportation’, as the operation became known, proved very hard to launch, because of British anxieties and personal rivalries.

Eisenhower’s deputy, Air Chief Marshal Tedder, was the main proponent of the plan. In February, Air Marshal Harris of Bomber Command and General Spaatz of the Eighth Air Force received warning that preparations for Overlord would require their heavy squadrons to be diverted from the strategic bombing offensive against Germany. Harris, who believed obsessively that his bomber force was on the point of bringing Germany to its knees, objected strenuously. He wanted his aircraft to continue smashing German cities to rubble. There should be only ‘minimum diversions’ from the task of ‘reducing the enemy’s material power to resist invasion’, he wrote to Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the chief of the air staff.

Above all, Harris fiercely resisted the idea that he should be told what to bomb. Because of weather variations, he must have ‘full discretion’. As for targets in France, he was prepared to offer only Halifax and Stirling squadrons, as they did not have the range of the Lancaster for deep penetrations into Germany. Spaatz also showed great reluctance to change targets. He wanted to continue attacking oil refineries and German fighter production. Their objections were overruled by Eisenhower at a major meeting on 25 March, but they still tried to get their own way.

Spaatz also pointed out the dangers of killing large numbers of French civilians. This was a matter of immense concern to Churchill. He wrote to Roosevelt, arguing that the Luftwaffe ‘should be the main target’. He feared ‘the bad effect which will be produced upon the French civilian population by these slaughters, all taking place so soon before Overlord D-Day. They may easily bring about a great revulsion in French feeling towards their approaching United States and British liberators. They may leave a legacy of hate behind them.’ Roosevelt firmly rejected his plea on 11 May. ‘However regrettable the attendant loss of civilian lives is, I am not prepared to impose from this distance any restrictions on military action by the responsible commanders that in their opinion might militate against the success of Overlord or cause additional loss of life to our Allied forces of invasion.’4

Tedder, however, still faced considerable opposition from the antagonistic Harris. Bomber Harris was at odds with the Air Ministry, he loathed Leigh-Mallory and he had become increasingly difficult with Portal, his direct superior as chief of the air staff. ‘The RAF was a house divided,’ observed a senior American staff officer afterwards. ‘The air side stank beyond belief.’ Facing opposition from both Harris and Churchill, Tedder went to Eisenhower. ‘You must get control of the bombers,’ he told him, ‘or I must resign.’ The supreme commander did not waste time. He threatened to take the matter to the President and both Churchill and Harris were forced to give way. According to Portal, Churchill simply could not believe that the bombing campaign might succeed in isolating the battlefield.

This rebuff did not stop Churchill’s anxieties about the French. He had tried to set a limit of 10,000 civilian casualties, at which point he wanted the bombing to cease. He kept asking Tedder whether the figure had been reached. He also suggested that SHAEF should consult the French on targets. ‘God, no!’ came the appalled reply.

Civilian casualties were indeed heavy, and so too were those of the bomber crews. The bombing programme also had to hit targets further afield in such a way as to prevent the Germans from deducing the site of the invasion. But Harris’s claim that his heavy bombers would not be effective against tactical targets, such as railways and bridges, proved very mistaken. Rommel’s fears were realized even before the invasion began in earnest.

The first warning to the Resistance to prepare had been transmitted by the French service of the BBC on 1 June. The announcer read these ‘personal messages’ in an emphatic tone. Defying the usual security measures for codes, the message could not have been clearer: ‘L’heure du combat viendra’ - ‘The moment of battle is approaching.’ The signal to be sent in the event of cancellation was slightly more veiled: ‘Les enfants s’ennuient au jardin’ - ‘The children are getting bored in the garden.’ During the first days of June, members of the Resistance all over France leaned closer to their wireless sets to be certain of what they heard. So too did the German Abwehr and Sicherheitsdienst. Others not in on the secret also listened in fascination. An intellectual living near Lisieux described his wireless as this ‘insolent little sphinx emitting baroque messages on which the fate of France depended’.

Finally, in the early evening of 5 June, personal messages sent the Resistance all over France into action. The Allies deemed this necessary because they could not risk identifying the main landing areas. That evening, the Resistance in Normandy heard the announcer say, ‘Les dés sont sur le tapis’ - ‘The dice are down.’ This was their order to start cutting cables and telegraph wires immediately. It was followed by ‘Il fait chaud à Suez’, the signal to attack all lines of communication.

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