Military history



General Omar Bradley, Commander designate of the American First Army in north-west Europe, landed in Britain to take up his appointment on a bleak autumn morning in September 1943. Like most Americans, he did not find his spirits exalted by the renewed encounter at a northern airfield with weary, seedy, rationed, wartime Britain: ‘The waitress, a stocky Scottish girl with a heavy brogue, offered me a choice of two entrées – neither of which I understood. “Let me have the second,” I replied nonchalantly. She returned with stewed tomatoes. The first choice had been boiled fish. Prestwick taught me to confine my breakfast thereafter to the US army mess.’1 A steady, careful, thoughtful Missourian, like most American professional soldiers Bradley came from modest origins. His father died when he was 14, leaving his mother, a seamstress, to bring him up. He himself worked in a railway workshop until he was able to gain a place at West Point. He served as a soldier for 32 years before seeing action for the first time as a corps commander in Tunisia. Now, just eight months later, he was to bear direct responsibility for the American army’s greatest operation of the war thus far. He was 50 years old. If he lacked Patton’s driving force and flamboyance, he had proved himself a commander of exceptional stability and discretion, whom men liked and immediately trusted. Bradley could ‘read’ a battle.

He had been plucked from Sicily to Washington for a briefing about his new appointment, seeing Mrs Bradley for the last time before VE Day in her modest temporary home at the Thayer Hotel in West Point. He waited a week for an appointment with General Marshall, at last finding himself squeezed in during the Chief of Staff’s journey to Omaha, Nebraska, for an American Legion convention. The President met him, and talked of his fear that the Germans might develop their atomic bomb in time to influence the invasion. Then Bradley flew to Britain, and travelled to London to meet the COSSAC staff and to be briefed about the progress of planning. One morning he walked through Hyde Park and stood amongst the crowd at Speaker’s Corner to listen to a soapbox orator bellowing his enthusiasm for the ‘Second Front Now’, a catchphrase of wartime Britain so familiar that it had become a music-hall joke. ‘I thought of how little comprehension he had of what the “Second Front” entailed,’ wrote Bradley, ‘of the labors that would be required to mount it,’2 Then he drove to his new headquarters at Bristol to meet the staff with whom he must prepare the American invasion force.

Montgomery arrived in England on 2 January, and immediately began to whip up a whirlwind. He had learned of his own appointment only 10 days earlier, following a protracted period of apprehension that he might be passed over in favour of Alexander, Churchill’s favourite general. Having spent the night at Claridge’s, at 9.00 a.m. the following morning he attended a briefing at his new headquarters, St Paul’s School in Hammersmith, where he had once been a pupil. He heard the COSSAC staff outline their plan. Forearmed by a discussion with Eisenhower in Algiers and a glimpse of Churchill’s copy in Tunisia a few days earlier, Montgomery found little difficulty in taking the floor when the briefers had finished and demolishing their points one by one in a 20-minute ‘Monty special’. Like Eisenhower and Bedell Smith, he had been immediately convinced that the front was too narrow, the assault lacking in power and depth. He sent the COSSAC staff back to their offices to consider the implications of a far wider assault, perhaps reaching from Dieppe to Brittany. At the second day’s session, he accepted the naval arguments against landing west of the Cotentin, but continued to insist upon a line reaching at least as far north as what became Utah beach. On the third day, he crushed formal protests from senior British and American COSSAC officers who insisted that what he wanted could not be done with the resources. The resources must be found, he declared flatly, or another commander appointed to carry out the invasion.

It was a masterly performance – Montgomery at his very best in clarity of purpose and ruthless simplicity. After months of havering among staff officers fatally hampered by lack of authority, he had sketched the design for a feasible operation of war, and begun to exercise his own immense strength of will to ensure that the resources would be found to land five divisions and secure a beachhead large enough to provide fighting room for the Allied armies. He ignored the sensibilities of the existing staff of 21st Army Group, his command for the invasion, by replacing them wholesale with his own tried and tested officers from Eighth Army – De Guingand, Williams, Belchem, Richardson and others. One of their first horrified discoveries was that the RAF had begun intensive reconnaisance of the Normandy area. The airmen were hastily persuaded to widen their operations, giving special emphasis to the Pas de Calais.

It was characteristic of Montgomery that, having achieved so much so quickly, having made a forceful and vital initial contribution to OVERLORD, he should also seek to write into history his claim that the new plan was entirely his vision and his conception. In reality, most of the staff in England had been conscious for months of the need to strengthen the attack, but lacked the authority to insist upon it. Eisenhower himself immediately grasped the problem, and had some discussion of it with Montgomery. But throughout his military career, a worm of self-destruction in the austere, awkward little man in the beret caused him to disparage the contribution of his peers, shamelessly to seize the credit for the achievements of others, and rewrite the history of his own battlefield planning to conform with the reality of what took place. These were weaknesses which would come close to destroying him, for they gained him few friends. His staff and subordinates admired and were fascinated by him; few found it possible to like him. ‘We never lost confidence in him,’ said one, talking of the Normandy period, ‘but we would very often say: “Oh Christ, what’s the little bugger doing now?” ’3 The support of one man, the CIGS, Sir Alan Brooke, had carried Montgomery first to the army command in which he gained fame in the desert, and then to the principal British role in OVERLORD. Without Brooke, it is unlikely that Montgomery would ever have gained the chance to display his qualities in the highest commands.

Montgomery’s self-esteem, at its most conspicuous in his dealings with Americans, rested upon his faith in himself as a supreme professional, a monkish student of war who understood the conduct of military operations in a way that escaped less dedicated commanders, such as Alexander and Eisenhower, who did not aspire to his summits of military intellectualism. He would never have found himself in the headmaster’s chair at St Paul’s in January 1944 had there not been much substance in his claims. In France in 1940, in England until 1942, in the Mediterranean in the 17 months that followed, he had proved himself a consummate trainer and motivator of troops, superb in his choice of subordinate staff and his organization of battles. He commanded immense respect from those who served under him for his willingness to listen to them, his directness and loyalty. Many senior officers in his armies went through the war quite unaware of the dark side of Montgomery’s character, the conceit and moments of pettiness, the indifference to truth where it reflected upon himself, the capacity for malice. And perhaps these very vices contributed to Montgomery a quality lacking in many brave and famous British generals – the iron will to prevail. Wavell was an example of an officer much beloved in the British army, of whom it has been said by his best biographer4 that he possessed the qualities for greatness in almost every sphere of human endeavour save that of high command in war. Alexander was a commander in the tradition of great Anglo-Irish military gentlemen – he lacked the intellect, the ruthless driving force that enables a general to dominate the battlefield. The very qualities that made so many German commanders in the Second World War such unpleasant personalities were also of immense value to them in battle: relentless clarity of purpose, the absolute will to win. For all Montgomery’s caution in battle, the passion for ‘tidiness’ that more than once denied him all-embracing victories, this essentially cold, insensitive man was devoted to winning. The outstanding recent American historian of the campaign in north-west Europe has written: ‘There is every reason to believe in retrospect, as Brooke believed then, that Montgomery not only surpassed Alexander as an operational commander, but was altogether Britain’s ablest general of the war.’5

Eisenhower reached England on 15 January, and on the 21st presided over the first meeting of his staff and commanders at Norfolk House. It was overwhelmingly Montgomery’s occasion. He could claim the credit for having immensely refined the simple broad assault discussed earlier with the Supreme Commander, and was able to outline the new plan which in the weeks that followed would be transformed into the operational orders of the Allied armies. The Americans, on the right, would go for Cherbourg, Brest and the Loire ports. It was logical to land them on the western flank, because they would thus be conveniently placed to receive men and supplies arriving direct by sea from the United States. The British and Canadians on the left ‘would deal with the enemy main body approaching from the east and south-east’. Montgomery declared: ‘In the initial stages, we should concentrate on gaining control quickly of the main centres of road communications. We should then push our armoured formations between and beyond these centres and deploy them on suitable ground. In this way it would be difficult for the enemy to bring up his reserves and get them past three armoured formations.’6 On 23 January, after a final effort by the COSSAC staff to impose some of their own thinking upon Eisenhower, and perhaps also to salvage a little of their deeply bruised self-respect, the Supreme Commander formally accepted Montgomery’s proposals. The immense labour began of translating these into operational reality – convincing Washington of the vital need for more landing craft, devising fire plans, air support schemes, loading programmes, engineer inventories, naval escort arrangements.

Two mobile brigade groups were placed on standby in Kent and Sussex lest German commandos seek to land and dislocate the build-up. Work began on printing millions of maps in conditions of absolute secrecy, copying air photographs in their thousands, stockpiling artillery ammunition in hundreds of thousands of rounds. The vast business of marshalling American formations arriving almost weekly from across the Atlantic would continue until ports in France became available. Each armoured division required the equivalent of 40 ships, 386,000 ship tons as against 270,000 tons for an infantry division. Every formation required camps in Britain, trains to move them there, training grounds, rest areas, supplies. Tank crews must test fire their weapons, infantrymen zero their rifles. A proposed scale of one ounce of sweets, two ounces of biscuits and one packet of chewing gum for every man of the assault forces necessitated the distribution of 6,250 pounds of sweets, 12,500 pounds of biscuits and 100,000 packets of gum. Armoured units were reminded that their tanks’ mileage before the invasion was to be restricted to 600 (Churchills), 800 (Cromwells and Shermans). The Air Ministry was pressed to get some of its prototype helicopters into service, although the airmen warned that none were likely to be available. Amid serious fears that the Germans might use gas against the invaders, 60 days’ supply of gas shells was prepared for retaliatory use, and aircrew were specially trained for gas bombing. Training maps showing real terrain with fictitious names were issued to commanding officers. A staggering weight of orders and schedules was drawn up and sealed, a necessary security risk being taken to brief the naval units some days before the armies knew where they were to sail.

All this was completed in a mere 17 weeks before the newly-revised date for D-Day, 5 June. Its accomplishment remains the greatest organizational achievement of the Second World War, a feat of staff-work that has dazzled history, a monument to the imagination and brilliance of thousands of British and American planners and logisticians which may never be surpassed in war. At Norfolk House, a succession of 12-day courses were held for Allied supply officers, 70 at a time, to study the huge problems of the Q branch. 25 square miles of west Devon between Appledore and Woolacombe were evacuated of their entire civilian population to enable the American assault forces to rehearse with live ammunition. All over Britain exercises were held, christened with characteristic inappropriateness – DUCK I, II, III, BEAVER, FABIUS, TIGER – first for groups of specialists, then for increasingly large bodies of men, until at last entire divisions were engaged. In the assembly areas great tented encampments were created, equipped with water points, field bakeries, bath facilities, post offices, each one camouflaged with the intent of making it indistinguishable from 10,000 feet. The British devised a vehicle waterproofing compound from grease, lime and asbestos fibres. The American initial landing force comprised 130,000 men, with another 1,200,000 to follow by D+90. With them would go 137,000 wheeled and semi-tracked vehicles, 4,217 full-tracked vehicles, 3,500 artillery pieces. Week by week, the transatlantic convoys docked in British ports, unloading new cargoes of artillery shells from Illinois, blood plasma from Tennessee, jeeps from Detroit, K ration cheese from Wisconsin.

The British protested somewhat about the vast allocation of shipping that was proving necessary to provide American troops with their accustomed level of supply. Even the US War Department admitted that its huge support organization was ‘a factor which produced problems not foreseen . . . the matériel needed to provide American soldiers with something corresponding to the American standard of living [caused] a prodigious growth of service and administration units.’7 The British official historian wrote more portentously: ‘The Americans’ belief in their technical supremacy had a significant effect both on strategic thought and on its execution, while their widespread enjoyment of a high standard of living was partly responsible for a quantity of equipment which others might find extravagant, but which, in their case, may have been at the least a stimulant and at the most a necessity.’8 Each American soldier in Normandy received six and a quarter pounds of rations a day, against three and a third pounds for his German enemy. Since only four pounds per man of the American ration was consumed, it was clear that a huge and characteristic waste of shipping was involved. Meanwhile the German small-arms ammunition scale for a rifle company was more than double that of its American equivalent, 56,000 rounds to 21,000.

Throughout this period, 21st Army Group’s headquarters was pre-occupied with operational planning. The specialist branches of the American and British forces were responsible for solving the technical and logistical problems of invasion. The huge, bloated staff at SHAEF circulated enormous quantities of paper between their departments – reports, minutes, studies of German reinforcement capability, French railway capacity, German coastal gun range, Allied naval bombardment power. Some of this was extremely valuable, much of it not. But it was Montgomery’s staff which bore the overwhelming burden of planning the battle, using very little paper and very long hours of debate and thought. Eisenhower summarized his own preoccupations before OVERLORD as: the French political complications; the allocation of resources; air organization and planning. At 21st Army Group, the staff shared the Supreme Commander’s concern about the air problem, but were chiefly haunted during those spring weeks by fear that some breach of security might compromise the landing. If it did so, there was every prospect that the Allies would learn of the enemy’s knowledge through Ultra. But until the very morning of D-Day, the possibility that the Germans might secretly be waiting for the Allies in Normandy remained the overriding nightmare of the planners. Only with forewarning did the Germans possess a real prospect of turning back the invaders on the beaches.

It was agreed that gaining a foothold on D-Day was a huge organizational task, but presented no intolerable tactical risks given the weight of Allied resources. All the imponderables, the great dangers, lay in the battle of the build-up. Immense labour was devoted to comparisons of the likely Allied and German strengths. An uncommonly gloomy SHAEF estimate of April 1944 predicted that by D+14 the Germans would have 28 divisions in Normandy against 191/3 Allied; by D+20: 30 to 242/3; by D+30: 33 to 282/3.9 The differences of opinion between German commanders about the best methods of defending Normandy were known at 21st Army Group through Ultra. But as Montgomery’s brilliant intelligence officer, the 31-year-old Brigadier Bill Williams, declared: ‘All the time we were asking ourselves: To what extent would these chaps make a good showing despite Hitler?’10 The behaviour of the Führer himself, together with the success or failure of the Allies’ FORTITUDE deception plan based upon the fictitious threat to the Pas de Calais posed by General Patton and the ‘First US Army Group’, would determine whether the German build-up attained its immensely dangerous theoretical maximum. The Allies’ appreciation in April spotlighted ‘the grave risk of stabilization’ – a euphemism for stalemate – ‘around D+14 . . . The greatest energy and initiative will be required at this period to ensure that the enemy is not allowed to stabilize his defence.’11

Afterwards, there would be much discussion about how far the Allied command had anticipated the difficulties of fighting in the close country of the Norman bocage. The SHAEF appreciation declared: ‘Generally speaking the area will not be an easy one for forces to advance through rapidly in the face of determined resistance, but it will likewise be most difficult for the enemy to prevent a slow and steady advance by infiltration . . . Tanks can penetrate most of the hedgerows. It is difficult to judge whether such terrain favours defending or attacking infantry . . . The tactics to be employed in fighting through bocage country should be given considerable study by formations to be employed therein.’12 But they were not. The British 7th Armoured Division was preparing for D-Day amidst the flatlands of East Anglia. Most British infantry battalions knew little of the infiltration tactics in which the Germans were so skilled, and relied overwhelmingly upon the straightforward open order advance, two companies forward. Many American formations were training on Dartmoor and Exmoor. As a senior staff officer said afterwards: ‘We simply did not expect to remain in the bocage long enough to justify studying it as a major tactical problem.’13

There were, however, no delusions among 21st Army Group about the likely quality of resistance: ‘The Germans will probably base many of their main and rearguard positions on river obstacles . . . Our formations will be well-trained, but most of them will have little battle experience . . . The enemy . . . will fight fiercely in all encounters, whether major battles or battles simply to gain time for withdrawal . . . An all-out pursuit is considered unlikely until the German army is emphatically beaten in battle, and likely to come only once in the campaign. It will herald the end of the German war.’14

The landing plan developed at St Paul’s called for four corps to feed their men in columns through the five Allied beaches during the period following D-Day. On the right, at Utah beach, the US VII Corps would be led ashore on D-Day by 4th Division; at Omaha, V Corps would be led by 1st and 29th Divisions; at Gold, the British XXX Corps would be led by 50th Division; British I Corps on Juno would be led by 3rd Canadian Division, on Sword by 3rd British Division. Various Ranger and Commando units would land alongside these major formations, but at no phase of the war was the high command’s enthusiasm for Special Forces lower than in 1944. There was a strong feeling that these ‘private armies’ had creamed off precious high-quality manpower, and could contribute little to the massive clash on the battlefield that was now to begin. The raiding days were over. With the sole exceptions of the American Ranger assault on the Pointe du Hoc west of Omaha, and some SAS drops deep inland to work with the Resistance on German lines of communication, the Commandos and other Special Forces were employed for normal infantry tasks on D-Day and for most of the war thereafter.15

Montgomery’s subsequent attempts to pretend that the Normandy battle developed entirely in accordance with his own plans have distorted what was essentially a clear and simple issue. The evidence of all the planning documents before D-Day about Allied intentions is incontrovertible. The British Second Army and Canadian First Army were to ‘assault to the west of the R.ORNE and to develop operations to the south and south-east, in order to secure airfield sites and to protect the eastern flank of US First Army while the latter is capturing CHERBOURG. In its subsequent operations the SECOND ARMY will pivot on its left (CAEN) and offer a strong front against enemy movement towards the lodgement area from the east.’16 The US First Army was to capture Cherbourg, and thereafter:

to develop operations southwards towards ST LO in conformity with the advance of Second British Army. After the area CHERBOURG-CAUMONT-VIRE-AVRANCHES has been captured, the Army will be directed southwards with the object of capturing RENNES and then establishing our flank on the R.LOIRE and capturing QUIBERON BAY.17

Patton’s Third Army was to advance through First Army’s front, clearing Brittany, seizing St Nazaire and Nantes, then covering the south flank, ‘while the First US Army is directed NE with a view to operations towards PARIS.’ From all this, it is obvious that the eventual American movements in Normandy followed the plan created in the spring of 1944 by 21st Army Group. Where Montgomery distorted his intentions after the event, and made possible the bitter controversy that has persisted for so many years, was by pretending that the British and Canadians fulfilled their purpose by holding a line north of Caen. Indeed, they did offer a ‘strong front’ to the great weight of German armour. But as Montgomery made abundantly clear before D-Day, he wished that ‘strong front’ to be somewhere in the area of Falaise, which would provide adequate room for build-up and airfield construction between the perimeter and the coast. In the event, the Allies suffered severely from the lack of space within their beachhead as well as the shortage of airfield sites to increase the range of their tactical aircraft. From 6 June until the final Canadian push towards Argentan in August, Montgomery made it plain that he hoped that his troops could surpass his minimum hopes, gain more ground and break through the German front. This they were never able to do, and Montgomery’s credibility with his peers and superiors diminished with each letter of intent that he dispatched before Second Army’s operations, expressing ambitious hopes which were not fulfilled.

The Commander-in-Chief of 21st Army Group was justified in claiming that nothing which happened in Normandy changed the broad shape of his plan or the intended pattern of the American advance. But all those who knew him and knew the plan – not least the Americans – had a clear idea of what he wanted the British element to accomplish, and were not for a moment deluded by his evasions when these hopes were not fulfilled. Had he himself been more honest and less arrogant about his difficulties on the eastern flank as they took place – above all with Eisenhower and Tedder – he might have avoided much of the acrimony that descended upon him.

The issue was further confused by the so-called ‘phase line controversy’, the argument surrounding the map, drawn up by the 21st Army Group HQ at St Paul’s, showing the perimeters which the Allied armies might expect to hold by given dates following the landings, concluding at the line of the Seine on D+90. Bradley was furious to see this map, and demanded the deletion of the phase lines for the American sector, to which he refused to be committed. In reality, it is difficult to attach much importance to them, or to believe that Montgomery did so either. 21st Army Group expected to fight a measured, stage by stage battle in which the Germans retreated to newly-chosen defensive positions as their front was driven in by successive Allied attacks. Some notion of where the Allies might hope to get to in the weeks after D-Day was desirable. But no general as skilled in the art of war as Montgomery could have intended that a battle lasting many weeks should be conducted operationally in accordance with lines on a map. Approximate phase lines were essential logistically, for the guidance of the supply planners, because the balance in the armies’ relative requirements of ammunition and fuel would vary by many thousands of tons in accordance with their distance from the nearest offloading point, and the speed at which they were advancing. The ‘phase line controversy’ only assumed its subsequent importance because of the tensions within the Alliance, and the willingness of mischief-makers to find a stick with which to belabour Montgomery during the weeks of wrangling that reached a pitch in high summer.

Between 15 January and 5 June – the new target date for invasion after delay became inevitable to provide sufficient landing craft – Montgomery’s original concept for the assault was refined, but not altered. Enormous problems of organization and supply were overcome, difficult issues such as the role of de Gaulle and his Free French were painfully resolved.18 It was not, however, the future of the ground battle for Normandy, nor even the political future of France, which lay at the heart of the most bitter struggle within Eisenhower’s command in the spring of 1944. This concerned the role and direction of the Allied air forces.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!