Military history


By the spring of 1944, all of southern England and much of the rest of the country had become a vast military encampment. Under the trees beside the roads, protected by corrugated iron, stood dump after dump of artillery ammunition, mines, engineering stores, pierced plank and wire. The soldiers themselves were awed by the tank and vehicle parks in the fields, where Shermans and jeeps, Dodge trucks and artillery pieces stood in ranks reaching to the horizon. Above all, there were the men – 20 American divisions, 14 British, three Canadian, one French, one Polish, and hundreds of thousands of special forces, corps troops, headquarters units, lines of communication personnel. They were packed into Nissen and Quonset huts, tents and requisitioned country houses from Cornwall to Kent and far northwards up the length of the country. Some were homesick, some excited, a few eager to find any means of escape from the terrifying venture in front of them. Most were impatient to end the months or years of training and to begin this thing upon which all their thoughts had been focused for so long.

One of Montgomery’s outstanding contributions before D-Day was his careful meshing of experienced veterans from Eighth Army with the keen, green formations that had been training and languishing for so long in England. Major-General G. P. B. ‘Pip’ Roberts found his new headquarters at 11th Armoured Division still operating the routines and mess life of the peacetime British army. Roberts, an old desert hand, rapidly relieved them of such formalities, sacking his senior staff officer – a meticulous guardsman who affected a red light over his office door to indicate that he did not wish to be disturbed.

Lieutenant Andrew Wilson of The Buffs, a flamethrowing Crocodile tank unit of 79th Armoured Division, had watched the Battle of Britain from his home in Kent as a schoolboy, and eagerly hastened to Sandhurst and into the armoured corps at the first opportunity. Thereafter, he and the other young officers of his unit found themselves condemned to months of routine soldiering on the South Downs under the command of ageing senior officers who knew nothing of war, but were expert in the disciplines of mess life. When Wilson, in a flush of enthusiasm for Russian achievements of the kind that was so common at the time, christened his tank ‘Stalingrad’, he was summarily ordered to unchristen it. But at the beginning of 1944, all the senior officers were abruptly removed and replaced by others from a quite different mould, who began training and exercising the regiment to the very limits of its endurance: ‘We suddenly knew that we were going to be put through the full Monty treatment.’1 For hours and days at a stretch, they shivered in their tanks on the hills through endless mock attacks and deployments. They did not resent this because they felt that they were learning, at last preparing in earnest for what they had to do. The dangers of taking into battle a tank towing a thinly-armoured trailer loaded with flamethrowing fuel did not greatly trouble them: ‘Any fears were overcome by our excitement at feeling that we were an elite.’2

Most of the men of that English ‘battle school army’ shared Wilson’s enthusiasm. Major Dick Gosling, ex-Eton and Cambridge, commanding a battery of self-propelled 25-pounders of the Essex Yeomanry, had been waiting to see action since 1939: ‘We were at the very peak of enthusiasm, fitness, training.’3 Major Charles Richardson of the 6th King’s Own Scottish Borderers had so far spent the war commanding a tactical school in Edinburgh, attending the Staff College and training troops amid a sense of lingering embarrassment that he had not seen a shot fired in anger, although as he later concluded: ‘You fight a bloody sight better when you don’t know what’s coming.’4

Many of Lieutenant David Priest’s men of 5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry spent the weeks before D-Day attempting to master the art of wheeled warfare. They were a bicycle unit, and it was not easy for a soldier to pedal under the weight of full equipment: ‘the thing would rear up on you’.5 Typically, within hours of their arrival in Normandy, they were ordered to park their transport and never saw the bicycles again. Corporal Chris Portway of the 4th Dorsets claimed to find his experiences in Normandy infinitely less painful than ‘all those ghastly exercises’6 which preceded them. During one in which he took part, bitter British animosity towards the French-Canadians, who were acting as the enemy, boiled over into bloodshed near Reading, with men on both sides being killed. Trooper Steve Dyson became so miserably bored with infantry soldiering in England after 1940 that in desperation he volunteered for anything that offered a chance of escape – demolition, paratroops, military police. At last he was accepted for armour, and found himself perfectly happy, for he loved his tank. Private Mick Anniwell, a 30-year-old former shoe-factory worker and scoutmaster, now posted to 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles, quite simply loved the army and everything that happened to him in it. For many working-class civilians, the 1930s had not been a happy time. In the wartime army, not a few found a fulfilment, a comradeship and sense of purpose that they would spend the rest of their post-war lives seeking to recapture.

Other men, not surprisingly, felt more resigned to their part in the invasion than exhilarated by it. Lieutenant Arthur Heal was a bespectacled 28-year-old sapper, who found that throughout his service career, ‘I never felt like a soldier’. Heal was simply ‘eager to see the end of it all and be able to go home’.7 Private Charles Argent of 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers was one of those unfortunate men who spent the war being shunted abruptly from posting to posting, each more dismal than the last, after failing to be accepted for the navy or the Parachute Regiment. In the spring of 1944, he was one morning issued with tropical kit, which was promptly withdrawn. The next day he was sent on a mortar course. At last, on the very eve of invasion, he was posted to the Lowland Division where he knew no one, and was conscious of his very un-Scottish origins. Nor, of course, was he detailed as a mortarman.

7th Armoured, 50th Northumbrian and 51st Highland Divisions had been brought home from the Mediterranean, where they had gained great reputations, specifically to provide the stiffening of experience for the British invasion force. From an early stage there were rumours among the men of 50th Division that they were expendable, that they would be used on the battlefield for tasks in which the rate of attrition would be high. Curiously enough, this did not seem greatly to dismay them, and 50th Division’s record in Normandy was very good. Among the other veteran formations, however, there was cause for real concern. Lieutenant Edwin Bramall, posted with a draft of eager and untested young officers to the 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps of 4th Armoured Brigade, found that ‘as a battalion, they were worn out. They had shot their bolt. Everybody who was any good had been promoted or become a casualty.’8 Many of the men from the Mediterranean, above all the old regular soldiers, were bitter that, after fighting so hard for so long, they were now to be called upon once again to bear the brunt of the battle. A staff officer described the difficulties with one unit recalled from the Mediterranean for the invasion: ‘The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment were virtually mutinous just before D-Day. They painted the walls of their barracks in Aldershot with such slogans as “No Second Front”, and had it not been for their new commanding officer, David Silvertop – the best CO of an armoured regiment that I met during the war – I really think they might have mutinied in fact.’ Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Carver of 7th Armoured’s 1st Royal Tank Regiment found some of his senior NCOs appearing before him to protest about their role, and echoing complaints from their wives, who demanded to know why those who had sat in England for four years and had not ‘done their bit’ could not now take over the burden. It was a sentiment shared by the Prime Minister:

It is a painful reflection [he wrote to the War Office early in 1944], that probably not one in four or five men who wear the King’s uniform even hear a bullet whistle, or are likely to hear one. The vast majority run no more risk than the civil population in southern England. It is my unpleasant duty to dwell upon these facts. One set of men are sent back again and again to the front, while the great majority are kept out of all fighting, to their regret.9

If the Prime Minister’s closing clause can be regarded with scepticism, his earlier remarks were the subject of repeated altercations with his CIGS, who patiently reminded him of the realities of modern war, of the essential need for the vast ‘tail’ behind OVERLORD, and also of the utter exhaustion of Britain’s manpower reserves. The British army that landed in Normandy would be the greatest force that Montgomery ever commanded in north-west Europe. Thereafter, as casualties mounted, its numbers must remorselessly decline. This reality was at the forefront of every British commander’s mind from the first clash of arms before Caen until the last shots before Luneberg. So too was the knowledge that the early weeks in Europe would be the last of British parity with the Americans in ground-force strength. In July, the American armies would begin to outnumber the British, and thereafter their strength would rise month by month until they dwarfed those of their ally. Already many British servicemen were irked by the extraordinary social dominance the Americans had achieved within Britain, with their staff sergeants receiving the pay of British captains, their vast reservoirs of equipment for themselves, and candy for British children.

From the moment that they boarded their trains at the docks and cursed the narrowness of British carriage doors for a man in full equipment, the fresh Americans found the encounter with the tired British a strange and bewildering experience. ‘And where do you make your home, Colonel?’ Lieutenant Julian Bach heard a newly-arrived Mississipian captain ask a somewhat frigid British officer at their first uneasy meeting over dinner. ‘Which home do you mean?’ inquired the Colonel unhelpfully. ‘I have three.’ The Mississipian enjoyed his revenge the next morning when he watched the Englishman’s expression as he poured marmalade on his porridge.10

Impeccably tailored American officers – and other ranks – crammed the London hotels and restaurants. Corporal Bill Preston of the 743rd Tank Battalion spent his working days practising submarine escapes from the amphibious DD tank in which he would land in Normandy – he and his crew learned that they had 20 seconds in which to get out if the Sherman foundered. But like so many young non-commissioned Americans, he confused the British by the breadth of his social connections, and found it much easier to book a table at the Mirabelle by using the name of his uncle at the US Embassy than by quoting his own. General ‘Pete’ Quesada of IXth Tactical Air Command brought a few of his pilots along whenever business took him to London, and they found no difficulty in making friends. He wrote to his mother in New York asking her to send him a monthly parcel of a box of Montecristos, six boxes of stockings and six lipsticks. Deadpan, for the rest of the war she dispatched regular consignments of men’s long socks and vaseline sticks for chapped lips.

Yet if it is easy to focus upon points of friction between the Americans and their hosts, it remains far more remarkable how effectively Allied co-operation worked at every level. Beneath the tensions between governments and army headquarters on matters of high policy, officers of the two nations worked side by side with extraordinary amity in the preparations for OVERLORD. Just as there were boorish Englishmen such as the Colonel who met Julian Bach, so there were Americans of poor quality, such as General ‘Pinky’ Bull, Eisenhower’s G-3 at SHAEF, who inspired the disrespect of almost all who worked with him. But most Englishmen were deeply impressed by the energy, the willingness to learn, and the determination to finish the job of their transatlantic allies. The Americans, in their turn, respected the British forces which had been fighting for so long. Much will be said below about differences and jealousies that developed between British and Americans. Reports of these should never mask the co-operation between them, a unity between allies at working level that has seldom, if ever, been matched in war.

If several British formations that went to Normandy were already battle-weary, some of their American counterparts were alarmingly under-prepared and inadequately led for the task that they were to perform. Even though the British divisions were drawn from a citizen army, the British class system and military tradition meant that their men were far more deeply imbued with the manners and habits of regular soldiers than their American comrades. From the first day of the war to the last, the US Army could never be mistaken for anything other than what it was – a nation of civilians in uniform. Perhaps the greatest of all America’s organizational achievements in the Second World War was the expansion of a tiny regular army of 190,000 men into an eight-and-a-half-million-strong host between 1939 and 1945. Even the peacetime cadre had scarcely been an impressive war machine. One cavalry division in the 1940 Louisiana manoeuvres was obliged to rent its horses, and when these poor nags proved useless, to withdraw them by truck to rest areas after the second day.

Even at war, American’s ground forces – above all, her corps of infantry – remained something of a Cinderella. A 1942 plan to create an army of 334 divisions, 60 of them armoured, shrivelled to a reality of 89 combat divisions by May 1944, 16 of them armoured. These might be compared with Japan’s total of 100 divisions, and the Red Army’s 300 – albeit smaller – formations. Huge reserves of manpower were drawn off to feed their air corps, service units, and base troops. Where officers made up only 2.86 per cent of the German army, they represented 7 per cent of the US Army, many of whom never approached a front line. By 1944, it was evident to American’s commanders that serious errors of judgement had been made in the mobilization of the nation. The most critical, which would markedly influence the campaign in north-west Europe, was that too little emphasis had been placed upon manning the infantry regiments at the very tip of the American spear. The air corps, the specialist branches, and the service staff had been allowed to cream off too high a proportion of the best-educated, fittest recruits. Infantry rifle companies would be called upon to fight Hitler’s Wehrmacht, ‘the most professionally skilful army of modern times,’11 with men who were, in all too many cases, the least impressive material America had summoned to the colours.

To some extent, this reflected the natural urge of the United States to make the utmost use of technology in fighting the war. But there was also a contrast between the social attitudes of America’s ‘best and brightest’ young men towards military service and that of their counterparts in Europe. In America, a military career has never been honourable in the European manner, outside a few thousand ‘army families’. It has traditionally been the route by which impoverished young men – not least Eisenhower and Bradley – can carve out a career for themselves without advantages of birth. George S. Patton was a rare exception. He himself wrote: ‘It is an unfortunate and, to me, tragic fact that in our attempts to prevent war, we have taught our people to belittle the heroic qualities of the soldier.’12 It is striking to observe that in the Second World War, privileged young Englishmen still gravitated naturally towards rifle and armoured regiments. Their American counterparts by preference sought out exotic postings in the air corps or OSS, or managerial roles on army or diplomatic staffs. It never became fashionable for young Ivy League Americans to serve as front-line officers. This is not to deny that many did so, and fought with gallantry. But it does suggest that the American army’s ‘teeth’ elements were severely blunted because they lacked their proper share of the ablest and fittest officers and men. On a tour with General Eisenhower on 4 April, Commander Butcher recorded in his diary: ‘I am concerned over the absence of toughness and alertness of young American officers whom I saw on this trip. They are as green as growing corn. How will they act in battle and how will they look in three months time?’13

In those weeks, hundreds of thousands of young men of Bradley’s assault divisions were asking themselves the same question. Private Lindley Higgins was ‘dumb enough not to feel the slightest trepidation. We really thought that at any moment the whole Reich was going to collapse. We saw what we had, heard what they didn’t have. We really thought that we only had to step off that beach and all the krauts would put up their hands.’14 This was a delusion much more common among formations such as the 4th Division, in which Higgins was a rifleman, than among those which had fought in North Africa and Sicily. A shipping clerk from the Bronx – an uncommonly perceptive one – he went to work on 8 December 1941, listened to President Roosevelt’s broadcast to the nation, and walked immediately to the army recruiting office in Whitehall Street. His father was delighted: ‘He thought the army would straighten me out’. Higgins himself expected to be home within a few months. Instead, he spent two years practising assault landings on the American east coast, ‘spending a lot of time fighting the North African campaign – we kept being told that this or that would happen in the desert.’ The war seemed very remote from them. They felt unable to relate anything in their own experience to what was taking place in Europe and the Pacific. Even in their final pre-invasion exercises in Devon, they concentrated chiefly on the fun of firing the hayricks with tracer bullets: ‘We were a singularly callous and unfeeling group of young men.’ But now they burnt their personal papers according to orders, and speculated about where they were going. They were told that it was to be an inundated area, so Higgins said confidently: ‘I know geography – it’s got to be Holland.’ Their regimental and battalion commanding officers were relieved a few weeks before the landing. At the final briefing their new CO told them that under no circumstances would they turn back after they left the landing craft. It would be a court martial offence to stop or retreat on the beach. At the assembly area outside Plymouth, as they queued for food, Higgins’s friend John Schultz peered at his plate and groaned: ‘Boy, this is the big one. If they’re starting to serve steak, we’re in trouble.’ Higgins tried to grasp the reality of what they were about to do: ‘Me, Lindley Higgins, from Riverdale in the Bronx, was about to invade France. It was a problem that my mind in its then state of maturity couldn’t possibly cope with.’

Major Harry Herman, executive officer of the 9th Division’s 2nd/39th Infantry, had a far shrewder notion of what they faced than most of the invaders. A graduate of Michigan University, his father had been killed in the First World War, his great-grandfather wounded at Gettysburg. As a student, he had read Mein Kampf and been a member of an anti-war group. He was earning $18,000 a year with the prosperous family business in January 1940 when, despite his pleas for a deferment, he became the 21st American to be drafted. Like hundreds of thousands of others, he endured the confusion and hardship which marked the first year of the American army’s vast expansion, passed out of officer school top in weapons and tactics, bottom in personal appearance, and was shipped to Ireland with his division in October 1942. In January 1943, Herman shared the American army’s bitter humiliation in the Kasserine Pass, running for his life amidst men throwing away their arms and equipment, deployed by commanders ‘who had no idea how to make dispositions for battle. It was awful – there were no supplies, no water, no officer leadership. But then we refitted, we went back, we did better. In a way, the North African campaign was a blessing to American troops.’15 By the time they went into Sicily, they had learned a great deal – about the need to move along the ridge lines, instead of the valleys that they had been taught to use in training,16 about leading from the front, about controlling venereal disease among the men.

Yet when the 1st and 9th Divisions were brought back from Sicily to prepare for OVERLORD, there was bitter resentment among many officers and men that they should be asked to do it all again. They felt that they had done their share, that it was time to go home and reap the glory, leaving the next battlefield to the millions of other men who had thus far endured nothing. Some officers successfully arranged transfers. ‘Morale was not high,’ said Herman. Major Frank Colacicco of the 1st Division’s 3rd/18th found the same feelings among his own men: ‘We felt that we’d done our war, we should go home. We kept reading in the papers about the huge increase in US strength.’17

Bradley wrote: ‘Much as I disliked subjecting the 1st to still another landing, I felt that as a commander I had no other choice . . . I felt compelled to employ the best troops I had, to minimize the risks and hoist the odds in our favour in any way that I could.’18 Bradley and other American commanders were acutely conscious of the shortcomings of some American formations, above all of their commanders. Marshall wrote in March about the embarrassment of having been compelled to relieve a succession of generals, including two corps commanders: ‘. . . we couldn’t relieve any more without a serious loss of prestige. What seemed to be lacking in each case was aggressive qualities . . .’19 As the men of the 9th and 1st – now under the command of the forceful Clarence Huebner – began to train in south-west England, as they absorbed the green replacements to fill up their ranks, ‘we recovered pretty quickly,’ in the words of one of their officers.20 That their participation should have been thought essential to the invasion of Europe engendered a sense of pride: ‘We thought the outcome of the war depended on the 1st and 9th Divisions,’ said Harry Herman. ‘We felt it was inevitable that we had to do this thing. There was no way out.’ Herman himself had become a successful soldier who no longer looked beyond the next battlefield: ‘I didn’t think the war was ever going to end. I thought that for the rest of our lives, we should be fighting one way or another.’21

Like most Americans, Technical Sergeant Bill Walsh felt no great animosity towards the Germans – he merely regarded the war as a job to be got over before they could all go home. His principal concern was that the waterproofing on his tank should prove secure enough to get him ashore. A dentist’s son from New Jersey, he had joined the Essex Troop of the local National Guard in 1938. They were a mounted unit and in those days of the Depression, Walsh was among thousands of young men for whom the Guard provided a social life to which they could not otherwise have aspired. He took part in the US Army’s last review of mounted cavalry, and as they trotted past to the tune of Old Grey Mare, most of the men were choking back tears. They were among the first units to ship to Europe, where they converted to tanks and began the long two-year wait before the 102nd Cavalry went into action. Walsh and his crew admitted no great apprehension to each other about D-Day: ‘The movies always show people talking to each other about their problems and fears before action. We never did.’22

Corporal Dick Raymond of 3rd Canadian Division was in reality an 18-year-old American, the son of an upstate New York chicken farmer who ran away across the border to join the Canadian army – which had a reputation for not asking many questions – in January 1942, when he was 16, ‘an underachieving high school drop-out’.23 He was thrown out after a month, but was soon back at Niagara, greeting the recruiting sergeant, a familiar landmark of the place and the period, at the border. To Raymond, who had grown up listening to CBC Radio from Toronto, Canada sounded exciting. The Canadian army seemed full of Americans. When he was sworn in with a detail of other new recruits, they were told that Americans could keep their hands by their sides when the moment came for the oath to the King. Most of the men in the room did so. There were deserters and rejects from the American army, one or two curious fragments of human flotsam from the Spanish Civil War, and the first American negro Raymond had known, a huge, clever man, rumoured to be a lawyer from West Virginia. The young New Yorker found the army tough. When he was foolish enough to reveal that he had some money, it was quickly beaten out of him. He learned to drink and to cheat with some thoroughness. He became cynical about the manner in which the volunteer Canadian forces cleared the military prisons and hospitals in their desperate struggle to fill the ranks before the invasion. He retained a low opinion of most of the officers corps. But he loved their regimental traditions, the pipes and kilts of the Canadian Scottish units. And for all their lack of discipline, he came to admire immensely their behaviour on the battlefield.

In 1927, a 22-year-old Czech named Frank Svboda won a scholarship to a college in Iowa, where he took a master’s degree in theology, was ordained, and subsequently became a presbyterian minister among the Czech community in New York. In 1943, he volunteered to become an army chaplain – he had already done infantry training with the Czech army – and was sent for three months to the chaplain’s school at Harvard. He found himself with a Jewish rabbi in the next bunk and a Catholic priest in the one below: the latter remarked cheerfully that he had never expected to find himself bedding down with heretics. Then he was posted to the 79th Division in Arizona and, in March 1944, came with them to England. They were awed by the blitzed streets of Liverpool as they marched through, and touched by the kindness of the local Cheshire families who invited so many men to tea each Sunday afternoon, despite their own desperate shortage of rations. Svboda’s invasion equipment comprised a bible and a portable communion set. As a European he understood, in a way that his unblooded division did not, that the Germans would be very difficult to defeat. In the big tent that he used as a chapel before they sailed for France, he listened to men’s problems – ‘mostly about their wives’ – and held services for soldiers who filed in carrying their rifles and helmets: ‘They were going into battle as people go to church, with a sense of reverence. There was no rowdiness or drunkenness.’24

It was not remarkable that the lofty sentiments about D-Day were chiefly expressed by the senior commanders. ‘I don’t have to tell you what a big show this is, or how important,’ the commander of the American Western Naval Task Force, Rear-Admiral Alan Kirk, wrote to a friend in Washington on 10 March: ‘If this is successful the war is won, if this fails it may go on for years. Perhaps too it will settle whether we or Russia dominate the world for a while.’25 Colonel Paddy Flint, the colourful old commander of the 9th Division’s 39th Infantry, wrote in a much more homespun spirit to the wife or mother of every officer under his command before D-Day. ‘We are sort of putting our affairs in order,’ he said. ‘Maybe it is just the spring housecleaning that we used to do under Mother’s direction when I was a little boy at home. Anyway, I know you will understand. I just wanted to tell you how much we think of your son Harry in the Regiment . . .’26

At St Paul’s School on 15 May, Montgomery presented the OVERLORD plan for the last time before the senior officers of the Allied armies, crowded on wooden benches behind the single row of chairs at the front for the King, Churchill, Smuts and Brooke. One of the greatest throngs of commanders in history was gathered in the hall for the briefing: Bradley, whom the British respected and would come to respect more as one of the Americans ‘who really understood the battle’; General J. Lawton Collins of VII Corps – the nervous, explosive, ambitious ‘Lightning Joe’ who had made his reputation commanding a division on Guadalcanal; Gerow of V Corps, less impressive and untried in action; Corlett of XIX Corps; Middleton of VIII Corps. The British showed consistent concern in north-west Europe about the quality of American command and staffwork at corps and division level. Some senior Americans agreed later that this criticism had some force. There were simply not enough thoroughly trained staff officers to go round their vastly expanded army. But there were also, at St Paul’s, some outstanding American divisional commanders – Huebner of 1st Division, Barton of the 4th, Eddy of the 9th.

Sir Miles Dempsey, commanding the British Second Army, was a retiring figure almost unknown to the British public, and said later to have been treated more like a corps than an army commander by Montgomery. But Dempsey was a great professional, a brilliant judge of ground, an utterly reliable agent for the execution of his Commander-in-Chief’s wishes. Crocker of 1 Corps was a tough, dependable commander who never caused Montgomery unease in Normandy – unlike Bucknall of XXX Corps, about whom Brooke always had doubts, and who was destined for dismissal. Crerar, who would command the Canadian army when it followed the assault formations into the line, was considered an unimaginative, stolid administrator; Montgomery had tried hard to dispense with him, but political imperatives were too strong. Crerar’s senior corps commander, Guy Simonds, was to prove one of the outstanding leaders of the campaign – a dour, direct, clever gunner upon whom Montgomery increasingly relied. For the rest, there were two veterans of the desert, O’Connor of VIII Corps and Ritchie of XII. At divisional level, with brilliant exceptions such as Roberts of 11th Armoured, the British team could better be described as solid than inspired. There were already doubts about 7th Armoured’s commander, Major-General W. R. J. ‘Bobby’ Erskine, who had been quite unexpectedly plucked from a staff job to take over the division, and was widely considered to have been promoted above his ceiling. Erskine loved and admired the men of his formation deeply, and here lay the root of much trouble in Normandy: he was too ready to accept the word of his subordinates that they had done all that could be expected of them. He was not a man to drive his command. But in war, as in all human endeavours, there are never sufficient men of a calibre perfectly suited to the demands of the hour. The shortcomings of the Allied command team from OVERLORD were mirrored by those of the Germans on the far shore.

Montgomery’s presentation on 15 May, like his earlier briefing on 7 April, was acknowledged even by his critics as a brilliant performance: a display of grip, confidence, absolute mastery of the plan. He had already conducted a long session – Exercise THUNDERCLAP – with his ground force officers before the huge relief model of the battlefield, at which he threw out situations and possible setbacks to test their responses. It was Montgomery’s misfortune that his very mastery of advance planning became a source of scepticism to his enemies, following the inevitable imperfections of reality on the battlefield. Throughout the Normandy campaign, Churchill never erased from his memory a paper of Montgomery’s of which he received a copy, stressing the need for rapid armoured penetrations after the landings: ‘. . . I am prepared to accept almost any risk in order to carry out these tactics. I would risk even the total loss of the armoured brigade groups . . . the delay they would cause to the enemy before they could be destroyed would be quite enough to give us time to get our main bodies well ashore and re-organized for strong offensive action.’27 Likewise, Bradley did not forget Montgomery’s remarks to him at St Paul’s about the prospect of tanks reaching Falaise on D-Day ‘to knock about a bit down there’.28 Montgomery would have been entirely justified in saying privately to Bradley and Dempsey – above all to Churchill – that whatever exhortations he gave the troops, he did not expect deep penetrations on D-Day from inexperienced troops recovering their land legs. But he did not do so. And thus he paid a price after the event, when the hopes that he had expressed both publicly and privately, to officers both high and low, were disappointed.

In the last weeks before D-Day, the principal dissension within the Allied high command concerned not OVERLORD, but the projected invasion of southern France, ANVIL, to which the Americans were firmly committed and the British bitterly opposed, because this would certainly cripple operations in Italy. Shipping difficulties forced the postponement of ANVIL from a landing simultaneous with OVERLORD to a secondary operation ten weeks later, and the arguments between London and Washington continued until the last days before its launching. This became the first major decision of the war over which the Americans adamantly refused to bow to British pressure, and went their own way. It was an augury of other painful blows to British confidence and pride which lay ahead.

Discussion of the airborne landings in support of OVERLORD was complicated by the arrival of a delegation of staff officers direct from Marshall, to project the American Chief of Staff’s strong view that, having created large and expensive airborne forces, the Allies should employ them for an ambitious envelopment plan. Marshall proposed that they should be dropped near Evreux in the ‘Orleans Gap’ to hold a perimeter and create a major strategic threat in the German rear.29 Eisenhower was obliged to point out painstakingly to Washington the inability of paratroops to resist armoured forces, their absolute immobility once on the ground, and the difficulties of supplying them with ammunition and heavy weapons.

More disturbingly, German reinforcement of the western Cotentin compelled Bradley to reconsider his existing plan for the American airborne drop on his flank. The two divisions were now to land on the eastern side of the peninsula only. Then it was Leigh-Mallory’s turn to create difficulties. In the last days before 6 June, the airman became passionately imbued with the conviction that the American drop was doomed to disaster, with huge casualties in men and aircraft; he impressed this view upon Eisenhower. The Supreme Commander at last overruled him. But the Englishman had added to Eisenhower’s huge anxieties and responsibilities at a critical moment, and further diminished confidence in his own nerve and judgement.

It was a remarkable tribute to the power of the image-builders that even among the Americans, in those last weeks before D-Day, nothing did more to boost the confidence of the men of the invasion armies than Montgomery’s personal visits. From mid-May until June, he devoted his energies almost entirely to inspecting the troops under his command, whom he would never again have the opportunity to see in such numbers. The measured walk down the ranks; the piercing stare into men’s eyes; the order to break ranks and gather around the general on the bonnet of the jeep; the sharp, brittle address – all were studiedly theatrical, yet defy the cynicism of history. ‘Even Eisenhower with all his engaging ease could never stir American troops to the rapture with which Monty was welcomed by his,’ wrote Bradley. ‘Among those men, the legend of Montgomery had become an imperishable fact.’30 Montgomery told them that the enemy had many divisions, but most of these were weak and understrength: ‘Everything is in the shopwindow. There is nothing “in the kitty”.’31 He told Americans that ‘as a British general, I regard it as an honour to serve under American command; General Eisenhower is captain of the team and I am proud to serve under him.’ Lieutenant Philip Riesler and 12,000 other men of the US 2nd Armored Division gathered to hear Montgomery on the football field at Tidworth camp in Hampshire. ‘Take off your helmets!’ he ordered, and off came every helmet except that of Maurice Rose, beside the jeep. ‘You, too, general,’ said Montgomery. He paused and gazed slowly, in silence, round the great mass of men. At last he said: ‘All right, put them back on. Now next time I see you, I shall know you.’ It was brilliant stage-management.

There was less enthusiasm from the British government for Montgomery’s speeches to factory-workers and railwaymen, which were also a feature of his activities at this time. These smacked too much of the national warlord, arousing the deepest instinctive fears in politicians’ hearts. When he drew up a two-page outline, complete with hymns and prayers, for a proposed national service of dedication at Westminster Abbey before the invasion, the plan was speedily squashed. Montgomery would sail for France leaving behind many men who admired his skill and application in bringing the invasion to reality. Not one of his British or American critics could afterwards deny the importance of his contribution to the creation of OVERLORD; no other Allied general could have accomplished so much. But he also left behind a deep reservoir of animosity and bitterness. Morgan, who had laboured so hard and long as COSSAC, would never forgive Montgomery for ruthlessly consigning him to the backwaters of the war after his own arrival in England. Scores of other senior officers who had not belonged to Montgomery’s ‘desert family’ were also discarded – some for good reasons, others suffering merely for the misfortune of being unknown to the new Commander-in-Chief. Apart from these, there was an abundance of staff officers at Eisenhower’s headquarters ready to poison the ear of the Supreme Commander towards Montgomery. As long as the Englishman remained victorious, he was invulnerable. But should the group campaign falter under his direction, he had provided many powerful hostages to fortune.

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