ROME FELL ON JUNE 4; two days later Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, and the great invasion, so long awaited, so long deferred, was on at last. Preceded by years of planning and preparation, it was the dramatic high point of the war.
With their usual tenaciousness, the British had been working toward the return of the Continent ever since they had been chased off it. Even with German bombers in the air over London, with their last seventy tanks sent off to North Africa, they had calmly set about the business of organizing the invasion. They knew they must go back, and with the quiet determination so much a part of the national character, they never doubted that at some point they would do so.
When the Americans appeared on the scene, they were as determined as the British to invade France, but less patient. Only as the military might of Germany and the excellence of her armed forces became manifest to them did they accede to the British view, that the war was going to take longer than they initially hoped. From the east, of course, there was constant pressure from Stalin for the “Second Front”; by that he meant the invasion of France, as he refused to take British efforts in the Mediterranean too seriously. It is a tribute to Churchill’s patience, hardly his strongest quality, that he never reminded Stalin that there had been a “second front” in 1940, but that at that time Stalin was busy befriending Hitler.
The invasion had been long delayed, from 1942, a target date that never meant anything except to the most optimistic Americans, to 1943, which might conceivably have been a reasonable proposition, and finally to 1944. The postponements arose partly from the material and manpower buildup, but by the first part of 1944 southeastern England was packed with thousands of aircraft, tanks, trucks, jeeps, and hundreds of thousands of men, so the troops joked that if the invasion did not come soon, England would tilt and sink beneath the weight of the preparations for it.
As troublesome as the problem of providing the material were the questions of what actually should be done with it. An amphibious operation is an immensely complicated affair, when conflicting requirements have to be juggled to a successful resolution. Most difficult of all is the fact that several items of the equation are outside human control: the state of wind and tide, the phase of the moon, visibility, weather. Sailors want a moonless night for their approach to a hostile shore, airmen want moonlight so they can see to drop their paratroops. If a landing is made at low water the enemy’s underwater obstacles can be seen and avoided, but the ships are constrained to beach farther out, and the troops must move over greater exposed distances.
The biggest question, though, was whether or not the Allies needed a port, and how soon. Contradictory though it may seem, getting ashore in an amphibious landing is not as hard as staying there. The real supply-and-support problem comes not with the initial landing, but with the follow-up material, the men and supplies necessary to turn a landing into an invasion. The planners did not doubt their ability to put five divisions ashore in Normandy—they had already put more than that on the beaches of Sicily—but their problem was how to build up and supply the hundred divisions they wanted to get ashore all told.
The shortest crossing of the Channel would take the Allies over to the Pas de Calais, around Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk, where the British had been driven off four years ago. While doing everything possible to make the Germans think this was where the assault was coming, the Allies actually decided to land farther down the coast, on the Normandy peninsula. The beaches were not bad, though they could have been better; they could hope to take Cherbourg, a major seaport, and supply through that. To solve their immediate problem, however, they decided to take their ports with them. Several great floating caissons, as well as many old ships, were to be floated across and then anchored in position and sunk off the beaches, creating artificial harbors—the “Mulberries” as they were code-named. The remains of these can still be seen off the Normandy coast, and though they were eventually badly damaged by storms, they served their purpose admirably, and relieved the Allies of the immediate problem of getting a port. In giving the invaders more options for landing, they compounded the problems of the defenders.
For the Germans faced the same kinds of questions as did the Allies; they too knew the invasion had to come, and for them also it was a problem of where, when, and how to meet it. The Germans had officially sixty divisions in France and the Low Countries, but more than half of them were second-line formations, either training divisions or coastal defense formations with reduced establishments and mobility. One of their major problems, especially concerning mobility, was that they had now definitively lost command of the air, and this aggravated their disagreements over how to react to the expected invasion.
In the air the bomber offensive was still gaining momentum, but the attacks, moving ever farther into Germany, were forcing the Germans to concentrate, albeit unwillingly, on home defense. As the Allies waxed stronger in the air over Germany, they gained increasing tactical mastery of the air over France. By the spring of 1944 the air forces were able to promise a massive interdiction campaign that they hoped would seal off Normandy and prevent the arrival of German reserves. Anything that moved by day, and much that moved by night, would do so at its own peril. And to the efforts of the tactical air forces could be added the disruptive campaign of the French underground as well.
Some of the German commanders were aware of this, others were not. The Commander-in-Chief West was Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, one of Hitler’s old standbys. Several times he had been retired by Hitler for disagreements of one type or another, but he was always recalled; Hitler could not get along without his professional expertise. Under von Rundstedt, in command of Army Group B, consisting of three armies spread from Brittany north to the Zuider Zee, was Erwin Rommel, transferred out of the northern Italian imbroglio to take command of the invasion front. Rommel and von Rundstedt had different views on how to meet the invasion, and this divergence in turn was compounded by Hitler’s own ideas on the matter.
Rommel, drawing on his experience in the desert, wanted to concentrate forward on the invasion beaches and defeat the British and Americans as they came ashore. He believed that it would be impossible to move reserves long distances under Allied air supremacy, and therefore, that if the Allies once did get firmly ashore, they were there to stay. It was Rommel who made the now famous remark that the first day of the invasion would be “the longest day,” and he believed that if the battle were not fought and won in the first day, it would not be won at all.
The flaw in this reasoning, and it was one readily apparent to the more conventional von Rundstedt, was that you could not concentrate on the invasion beaches unless you knew which beaches were going to be invaded. Once again the Germans were up against the mobility of Allied sea power, and if they followed Rommel’s reasoning about the way to meet the invasion, but met it at the wrong place, disaster would result. To further von Rundstedt in his ideas, he had never fought a campaign against an enemy possessing unchallenged air superiority, so he had little idea of what that would mean. He believed that reserves could be moved forward, and that the logical, conventional thing to do was to keep them well back and well in hand until the landing was thoroughly underway. Then when the Allies had passed their point of no return, the reserves could be committed for a climactic battle that would destroy the invaders.
This difference of opinion, fundamental as it was, was further complicated by Hitler. He insisted on final control over the release of reserves, so it was conceivable that not only would they not be located forward as Rommel wanted, but they would not even be available when von Rundstedt wanted. In fact, Hitler’s intuition, cleverly aided by the Allied deception plan, told him that the landing would come in the Pas de Calais; until it did, everything else could be disregarded as a plot to lure the reserves away from that vital stretch of coastline. As the invasion neared, it was obvious to the Germans only that they were not ready for it. That, of course, was not obvious to the Allies.
To run the invasion, the Allies brought Eisenhower back from North Africa as Supreme Commander. Montgomery left 8th Army in Italy and came home as Ground Force Commander, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was the naval commander, and Air Vice-Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory led the air forces. A great deal of politics was involved in the appointment of the commanders, especially in the choice of Eisenhower as the overall leader. The American Chief of Staff, General Marshall, had hoped to lead this climactic campaign of the war; so equally had the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke. Both were too involved in worldwide matters to be spared, however, so the burden—and the opportunity—fell on Eisenhower, who had already demonstrated in the Mediterranean his ability as a military manager.
When Eisenhower and Montgomery arrived in Britain they were shown plans to land three divisions over the beaches, and two by air behind the enemy defenses. Both immediately said they wanted three by air, and five over the beach. The result of this upgrading, to which the Combined Chiefs of Staff agreed, was an increase of shipping and resources, and that in turn pushed the date for the southern France invasion on into the summer. Initially, southern France had been scheduled for before the Normandy landing, then pushed back to be roughly concurrent with it. Now it went back to August. The invasion of Normandy, code-named “Overlord,” was to have priority over everything else.
The original “hard” date for the landing was May 1, 1944. However, Eisenhower’s demand for additional forces put that also back to the first part of June, and finally the best combination of tide, moon, and light led to scheduling the landing for June 5. After the invasion armada was actually underway, the weather turned chancy, and the whole operation had to be set back one day, so that D Day became the 6th of June, 1944. It was a remarkable display of planning expertise and security that the invasion actually could be set back a day without the entire affair collapsing.
For it was a huge undertaking; all told, the Allies mustered 2,876,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen. They had 11,000 aircraft and several thousand vessels, from great battleships to tiny landing craft that would hold a few men, from fast patrol boats to protect the flanks of the armada to the lumbering caissons of the Mulberry harbors. Most of the troops were already embarked and at sea when the news came in of the fall of Rome, a happy augury for this greatest of all undertakings in the war. The massive fleet, with unending streams of aircraft droning overhead, made its way to offshore rendezvous, formed up into task groups, and headed across the stormy Channel for the distant French shore. The ships carried soldiers of the United States, Britain, Canada, and France. In the air overhead were men from all of those nations plus Poles, Czechs, and airmen of the whole Empire-Commonwealth. General Eisenhower, who alone made the life-and-death decision to risk a break in the weather front, later called his task a “crusade in Europe,” and though it might not have been immediately apparent to many of the seasick soldiers in the lurching small craft, there was much of that about it. For a few short days, this was the only place in the war to be. For a great many young men, these few short days were to be the last they would ever see.
The Allies had designated five landing beaches, plus several drop zones for their paratroops and airborne infantry. The left, east flank of their landing was the Orne River. British airborne troops would drop on the bridges over the Orne and hold them as a secure flank; their symbol was the winged horse, Pegasus, and the bridge over the Orne on the coast road is still named “Pegasus Bridge,” a counterweight lift bridge with the pockmarks of small arms and field piece shells on it more than thirty years after the event. British troops would land on the east flank beach, named “Sword.” Five miles west was the second beach, “Juno,” at the resort town of Courcelles; this was slated for the Canadians. To the west again where the little town of Arromanches huddles between moderately high bluffs, was “Gold,” the second British beach. There was then a gap of several miles, until the first American beach was reached; this was “Omaha,” in front of the villages of Vierville and St. Laurent. Then, past the Carentan Estuary, was the second American beach, “Utah.” Inland from it was the small town of Ste.-Mère-Église, scheduled to receive the American paratroops.
Most of the landing went right, but much went wrong. The British airborne took and held the Orne River crossings, as they were supposed to. The American 82nd Airborne Division dropped in Ste.-Mère-Église and had a hard fight to secure bridgeheads across the Merderet River on the road to Cherbourg. The 101st Airborne, dropped to secure the exits from Utah Beach, had heavy losses when its men came down in the swamps of the Douve River. Held down and dragged under by their chutes, many paratroops died alone in the dark waters of the marshes.
The British and Canadians came ashore on their three beaches against heavy opposition and many obstacles but they had prepared well. They had excellent fire support from the fleet, including veteran battleships; though they took their losses—many of their swimming tanks, equipped with flotation gear, foundered in the heavy seas—they got ashore and secured their beaches. Down the line, the Americans at Utah hit the beach with relatively little opposition, as the Germans in the area were fully occupied fighting it out with the widely scattered paratroopers of the two airborne divisions.
At Omaha it was different. The U. S. 1st Division landed here, and ran not into poorly organized coastal formations, but the German 352nd Division, a veteran formation recently moved into the area. Omaha is a beautiful beach, a long, broad stretch of clean fine sand. Above the tide line the beach comes up fairly steeply to a shingle, and behind that rise high bluffs which give a commanding view of the whole sweep of beach. Only small, easily dominated roads and tracks break through the bluffs, up and away from the beach. Just to the west of the beach was a major protrusion known as Pointe du Hoc, fitted as a battery position for heavy guns that could control the whole beach.
The Americans plastered the Pointe du Hoc with every gun they had, then sent a Ranger battalion straight up the cliffs to take it. After fierce fighting and heavy losses the Rangers secured the point, only to find the heavy guns had been moved out anyway. But the Germans above Omaha did well enough without them. The first American assault waves were deluged with fire, and many boats and amphibious vehicles were hit in the water. Those that got ashore could not climb the crumbly shingle. Soldiers huddled, disorganized and demoralized, seeking whatever shelter they could find from the all-seeing enemy. By late morning the Germans thought they had the situation under control.
Slowly, a momentum built up; here and there little groups, squads of men, individuals, scampered across the open spaces and painfully began inching up the bluff. Many were hit and killed but some got through. The American infantry began to filter through and into and behind the German positions. The engineers never gave up trying to clear lanes through the mines and wire. Ever so slowly, the tide began to turn, and by a supper hour when few could stop to eat, the Americans were on and off their beach. Omaha was far from secure, but the Germans were being pushed back; a flood of new troops and a trickle of supplies were coming in; it cost the Americans 2,000 casualties in the one day, but they held the beach.
They might not have done so had the German reaction been stronger. Omaha was not counterattacked because the higher command believed it was being wiped out anyway. That was a local matter, however, and the general German reaction was hesitant and confused. When news came in of the landings, which, given the state of the weather, caught the Germans badly off balance, Rommel sent orders for the movement forward of two good divisions from reserve. Hitler himself held these up, for he still believed Normandy was but a feint, and the real attack was coming in the Pas de Calais. Therefore the troops immediately in the area were left to deal with the landing. Under constant air attack, and with terribly confused and confusing information confronting them, they were able to mount only one counterattack during the first crucial period of the landings. This was sent against the British. Five miles past the British beaches lay the major town of Caen, communication hub and key to the area. The British hoped to get this by nightfall of the first day. As it was, both the local German troops and the first few units to arrive from reserve came in around Caen; it was not until July 8, more than a month later, that the battered city fell, at a heavy cost to the Canadians and British who took it.
Eisenhower’s headquarters, SHAEF—Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force—had a definite timetable for their operations, based on what they thought they could get ashore in the way of supplies and men, and the kind of German reaction they expected. By June 23, or D+17, they hoped to clear the Normandy Peninsula; by D+35, July 10, they expected to be at the mouth of the Seine to the eastward and to have cut off the Brittany Peninsula to the south and west. From that base they planned to drive more or less straight east.
In its initial phases this schedule went well awry. The German reaction to the invasion, once they finally decided this was actually it, was stronger than expected. In spite of the air interdiction and the efforts of the French Forces of the Interior, heavy reinforcements reached Normandy, and it soon became obvious that the Germans proposed to give battle, if not on the beaches, at least well forward, in front of Caen and along the approaches to Cherbourg. As Ground Force Commander in the immediate post-landing stage, Montgomery directed the British and Canadians to take Caen, and the Americans to take Cherbourg. The former he regarded as the communications key to the latter, and the latter was necessary because the Allies badly needed a port. The supply capacity of the Mulberry harbors was limited and was lessened even more by a series of storms that damaged them soon after they were created.
Toward both objectives the Allies made heavy going. The Germans committed most of their armored reserves around Caen, and their heavy Tiger tanks took an impressive toll of the British and Canadian Shermans. The battle for Caen degenerated into a regular slugging match. Farther to the west the Americans made relatively slow progress in the bad country of the bocage. Over the centuries the frugal Norman farmers had hedged their little fields diligently. Now each field, of a few hundred square yards, was surrounded with living banks of hedges bordering sunken dirt lanes. Each hedgerow became a minor fortress. Tanks trying to climb the banks would expose their bellies to German anti-tank weapons; soldiers attempting to worm their way through the hedges would be picked off by machine-gun nests. The Americans were forced to fight their way forward yard by yard in platoon-and company-sized catch-as-catch-can operations.
Nonetheless, they persevered and on June 18 they reached the south coast of the Normandy Peninsula at Barneville. Cherbourg was cut off, and the Germans could not reopen a way to it. Von Rundstedt massed his armor at Caen, hoping to drive toward Cherbourg, but the pressure exerted by the British kept him tied down, and by the 20th the Americans were in the outer suburbs of Cherbourg. The Germans resisted calls to surrender, and a bitter fight for the city lasted until the 27th. So thoroughly had the Germans done their demolition work that it was well into August before the port facilities were reopened at all.
But by the end of June, with Cherbourg secured, the Allies were ready to turn eastward. The Americans began to shift their forces around, away from Cherbourg toward the south, preparatory for a huge left wheel. Both Rommel and von Rundstedt could see it coming, and they pleaded with Hitler for more reserves. He still held major forces north of the Seine, waiting for the landing that never came in the Pas de Calais. Meanwhile, the usual stream of do-or-die orders issued forth from Fuehrer headquarters. These seem to have impressed the ordinary soldiers, who fought with their customary skill and tenacity, more than the generals. By the end of June both Rommel and von Rundstedt were convinced the battle was already lost and wanted to fall back toward the Seine; Hitler responded with a dose of his usual medicine; he relieved von Rundstedt and replaced him with Field Marshal Kluge, who, if he had less skill than von Rundstedt, had more faith in Hitler.
In early June the U. S. 1st Army, under General Omar Bradley, launched its main drive south from Carentan toward St.-Lô. Still trapped in the hedgerows, the infantry and armor made slow progress, leading to disparaging comments from the newspapers on the way the fighting was proceeding. St.-Lô did not fall until the 8th, after it had cost the Americans 11,000 casualties, and instead of achieving his major breakthrough, Bradley was forced to pause and pull his tired forces together. The British and Canadians, meanwhile, had finally forced their way past Caen, in a massive attack preceded by several hundred bombers laying a “carpet” of heavy bombs over which the troops were supposed to be able to advance with ease. Unfortunately, the idea looked better than it worked, and though the British and Canadians at last had achieved what the original planners had set as a D-Day objective, they too were fought to a halt by the 20th.
Nonetheless, things were not going too badly. In terms of territory occupied, the Allies were nearly a month and a half behind schedule, but in terms of troops and supplies ashore, they were doing about as planned. So far they had thirty-four divisions ashore, and they and the Germans had both suffered about the same number of casualties, around 120,000. That in itself was a tribute to the Allies’ matériel superiority and their ability to wage mechanized warfare, as the attackers normally expect to suffer significantly heavier casualties than the defenders, until some major break is achieved, at which point the defenders’ casualties then mount disproportionately. In spite of the disappointing advances, all was going well.
On July 20, Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg attended a briefing in the war room of the Fuehrer’s headquarters in East Prussia. Excusing himself for a phone call during the briefing, he left his briefcase behind him under the table, right next to Hitler. One of the German officers, leaning over to look at a map, found the briefcase in the way of his foot and idly leaned down and moved it inside the solid piece of wood that formed the end legs of the table. Shortly thereafter, as von Stauffenberg was on his hurried way back to Berlin, the briefcase exploded. Several people were killed, but Hitler, protected by the solid table, escaped with minor cuts, bruises, and shock.
In Berlin, von Stauffenberg and his fellow plotters, mostly army officers with a sprinkling of distinguished civilians, made a half-hearted and hesitant attempt to seize the reins of power. As good gentlemen they made poor plotters, and the news that Hitler had survived the bomb plot quickly swept the rug out from under them. There was a welter of sudden shootings as the rebels tried to eliminate the officials still loyal to Hitler, and then more shootings as those loyal—or who had not yet tipped their hand—tried as rapidly as possible both to demonstrate their loyalty to their master, and to get rid of any surviving plotters who might implicate them in the affair. Hitler immediately ordered the unexecuted plotters saved so they could be tortured for information. All sorts of high-ranking Germans were caught up in the subsequent roundup, some who were genuinely anti-Nazi, some who just had the misfortune to have their names on lists as possible supporters of a coup d’état. Rommel’s name was on one list; he was at home recuperating from a wound inflicted by a strafing Allied plane. As Germany’s greatest war hero he could not be admitted a traitor, and he was allowed to commit suicide to save his family. Rommel was relatively lucky. Many of the plotters ended up hanging from meathooks by wire nooses, strangling while movie cameras recorded their death agonies for the delectation of Hitler and his chosen circle.
So ended the only real attempt ever to overthrow the Nazi regime from within Germany. After that there was nothing left but to go down with the ship.
The July Plot may have brought comfort to the Allied troops in their battles against the Wehrmacht, but it brought little tangible profit. Suspected dissidents were ruthlessly pruned and quickly replaced, and there was no break in the tempo of the war. In Normandy, General Bradley was planning an operation named “Cobra” designed finally to carry the Americans clear of the hedgerows, and to set them up for the long-awaited wheel to the eastward. The Americans heavily outnumbered the Germans in front of them, for Kluge like his predecessors was still preoccupied with the Caen area. On the morning of the 25th, Allied planes laid another bombing carpet west of St.-Lô, which practically wiped out the German Panzer division holding the sector—as well as 500 Americans hit by bombs dropped short—and in its wake 1st Army dashed forward.
The German reaction was still strong, but the Americans gambled that they were nearly through and pushed on boldly. Within five days the front had cracked; Allied armor, supported by rocket-firing tactical aircraft, began to shake loose. The Germans pulled out successfully along the coast to the west, then mistakenly turned east. Their troops ran into rampaging Allied forces and lost hundreds of vehicles, tanks, trucks, weapon carriers; virtually an entire corps was ruined.
On the British front the Canadians had put in a vicious spoiling attack past Caen that drew German reserves and cost heavy casualties. While the Canadians fought it out Montgomery slipped his British troops west to shore up his link with the now moving Americans. By the end of July, within a short week, the whole situation had changed. The Normandy invasion was over, the breakout was on, and the campaign of France about to begin.
The great Allied breakout was accompanied by a command shuffle. There were now too many troops ashore for Montgomery to command all of them effectively; he therefore became commander of 21st Army Group, with Crerar’s 1st Canadian and Dempsey’s 2nd British armies under him. General Bradley took over 12th Army Group with General Courtney Hodges’ 1st and George Patton’s 3rd U. S. armies under his direction. Patton had just come over from Britain, having spent the last two months ostentatiously parading about London and Dover as part of the plan to keep Hitler’s mind on the Pas de Calais.
The big break came as Patton pushed his two corps, the westernmost of the entire Allied armies, down the bottom of the Normandy Peninsula. The Cobra operation had already cracked the front here, at Avranches, and in the first three days of August, Patton’s tanks raced seventy-five miles. One corps split off to overrun the weakly held Brittany Peninsula. The whole area quickly fell, but the Germans holed up in the major ports, Brest, Lorient, and St. Nazaire, and had to be regularly besieged to get them out.
Patton’s other corps began the long-awaited left wheel, and within a week it was at Le Mans. Hodges’ people were extending the break eastward against much heavier resistance, and the British and Canadians were pushing due south, making much slower progress and still receiving the brunt of the German attention. Meanwhile, all along the Loire and the Seine, and the roads between Paris and the front, the Allied tactical air forces ranged at will, shooting up targets of opportunity. Medium bombers and fighter-bombers flew low-level strikes against roads, bridges, rail lines, crossroads, in an attempt to seal off the whole lodgment area.
By August 13 two American corps, one of Hodges’ and one of Patton’s, were pushing northward toward Argentan. The Canadians were driving south toward Falaise. West of them, inside a large pocket, were the largest part of three German armies. On the 7th they had launched a major tank attack at Mortain, designed to break through to the coast and isolate Patton’s advance. For three hectic days some of the American divisions were subjected to very heavy pounding, but Bradley diverted reserves that stabilized the situation, and by the time the Germans gave it up they suddenly realized they were in danger of being cut off themselves. There then began a confused scramble to get out of the shrinking pocket through the “Falaise gap.”
Hitler, still fiddling with maps in East Prussia, was days out of date and still ordering attacks here and there when Kluge finally convinced him that immediate retreat was the Germans’ only salvation. In fact, the retreat had already begun, and salvation, for the moment, came more from the Allies than from the Germans’ own efforts. Bradley, fearing mutual casualties if his troops from the south started shelling Canadians from the north, and thinking the trap was beginning to empty anyway, decided not to close it. As the Germans streamed eastward past Falaise, losing a great deal of equipment in the process, both jaws of the trap swung east with them. Fifty thousand German troops were caught in the pocket, and another 10,000 killed in the attacks on it. The majority of the German forces from Normandy, with the Allies flanking them on either side, now began a race for the crossings of the Seine. Hitler replaced Kluge with Field Marshal Walter Model.
The great race lasted a little more than a week. Patton’s 3rd Army reached the river at Mantes-la-jolie, “pretty Mantes,” thirty miles below Paris, on the 19th. That put the Germans in another pocket, and as the Americans spread both up and down stream, the British and Canadians drove steadily for the lower reaches of the river. Here the German resistance was strongest, as they sought to keep from being cut off again. Several thousand were trapped south of Evreux, several thousand more around Rouen. Most managed to get across the river, but their organization was a shambles, and their losses in men and equipment heavy.
Paris rose on the 19th. Hitler had ordered it destroyed; if he could not have it no one would. Eisenhower had planned to bypass it, not wanting to add to his supply problems the necessity of feeding several million additional civilians. He had reckoned without the French in the city, as well as the absolute determination of Charles de Gaulle that Frenchmen would liberate their own capital, and that he himself would profit by it. As long as they could, the Allies had stalled off de Gaulle’s return to France, but when he finally got over the Channel, he immediately announced the establishment of a legal government, and began acting as if he were running the country. Part of Patton’s army was the French 2nd Armored Division, and de Gaulle completely bypassed the chain of command and told its commander, General Leclerc, to go for Paris. Leclerc did, carrying neighboring American divisions along with him, and the race to get to Paris became a repetition of the race to get to Rome three months earlier. The Germans delayed their demolition plans, the whole matter being slightly less dramatic than it has subsequently been portrayed. There was some sporadic fighting in the city, and the next thing anyone knew, there was Charles de Gaulle, marching solemnly and triumphantly through the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Élysées, past the statue of Georges Clemenceau, and eventually in to hear mass in Notre Dame. While students, FFI, Communists, Leclerc’s troops and the Americans took on the rapidly retreating Germans, Paris celebrated the Liberation. As a country, France has been perhaps more dominated by its capital than any other, and the arrival of the Allies in Paris was the emotional peak of the war for a nation that had already plumbed war’s depths.
Meanwhile, the Allies had also landed in southern France. After a great deal of proposal and counterproposal, and requests by the British that the agreed-to southern France operation be abandoned in favor of exploitation of the success in Italy, Operation “Anvil” took place on August 15. General Truscott’s VIth Corps went ashore that morning, to be followed shortly thereafter by two French corps under General de Lattre de Tassigny. The whole force made up U. S. 7th Army, led by General Alexander Patch. Resistance was occasionally heavy, but nowhere as fierce as in the north, and Patch pushed his troops forward boldly. The French took the great port of Marseilles by the 28th, and the Americans moved up the Rhone Valley and across the mountains on the Route Napoleon, the path the ex-emperor had taken on his return from Elba.
The German defense consisted mainly of second-line troops, with a stiffening of good formations. Thousands were captured but more thousands escaped northward. By the end of August the Allies had already reached Grenoble, with more French and Americans pouring ashore behind them.
The usefulness of the campaign remained arguable. Eisenhower had insisted on it as a means of relieving supply congestion and logistical strain, and also as a potential lower jaw to trap the German forces in southwestern France. But these pulled out anyway, squeezed by what was happening to the north of them, and leaving only last-ditch garrisons to hang on to the Biscay coast ports as long as possible. All of these were eventually rounded up and overrun by the French Forces of the Interior. The Mediterranean ports did prove useful, but only to the troops who landed there; they did little for the northern invaders. In fact, so fast was the northern campaign developing that the Allies decided they did not even need to supply through the Brittany harbors, but instead tried to set up their supply bases farther east along the coast, thus reducing the distance goods had to be moved up to the front. In early September the forces in southern France, now 6th Army Group under General Jacob Devers, linked up with patrols from Patton’s troops and thus became the right flank of the drive to the German border. Whether they might have achieved more had they been used in Italy remains one of the great tantalizing strategic questions of the war.
By the beginning of the last week of August, the Allies were along the Seine from Troyes, a hundred miles above Paris, all the way to the sea. Four armies—Crerar, Dempsey, Hodges, and Patton—were champing at the bit. The Germans had lost more than half a million men in Normandy and they had gotten few more than a hundred tanks back over the Seine. The Allied problem was now more one of supply than of the enemy. In the great leap out of Normandy they had outrun their supply capacity. Now, all the field generals wanted to drive on into the Low Countries and even Germany, but there was not sufficient support for all of them to do it. They had originally agreed to a steady advance all along the front, the “broad front” strategy, with everyone going forward in step, and supplies keeping pace. Now, all of the generals clamored instead for a single deep drive, but Bradley wanted it done on his front by Hodges or Patton, and Montgomery wanted it done on his front by Dempsey. Crerar and the Canadians on the coast were out of the running; they were handed the unhappy task of clearing the Channel ports as the Allies pushed north, a job that cost them such high casualties as to cause a crisis at home in Canada over the issue of conscription for overseas service.
Eisenhower eventually compromised and allowed Montgomery to push Dempsey forward, with Hodges supporting on his right. Patton was told he could move as far as possible on whatever supplies were left over. The disgusted but ebullient Patton scrounged what he could, and leaped forward a hundred miles to the Meuse, where he ran out of fuel temporarily, and where the Germans, scared by the threat his advance represented, shored up their defenses to slow him down.
Dempsey and Hodges went straight up the road to Brussels, their tanks grinding over the old World War I battlefields of the Marne and the Somme, where thousands had been slaughtered taking yards in the days before tanks and aircraft came of age. Within a week the Americans were in Mons and the British in Brussels—another capital where they were joyously welcomed back—and then by a stroke of luck Dempsey got the great port of Antwerp before the Germans could destroy the docking facilities. The Germans still held on the lower reaches of the Scheldt, the river that was Antwerp’s heart, but it looked as if the whole defense were breaking down. Hitler responded by recalling von Rundstedt yet again and putting him back in command of the Western Front, with orders to stop the Allied advance, no matter how he did it.
The terrain and the lack of supplies were more successful than the Germans. The British bogged in the watery maze of the lowlands; the Americans, as they came into Luxembourg and the Ardennes and up against the outer reaches of the German “West Wall,” simply lacked the material to sustain their momentum.
In the face of the growing logistical difficulties and the advent of autumn, Eisenhower gave in to Montgomery’s arguments. If he were given supply priority, Montgomery said, he could mount a massive operation that would carry the British 2nd Army across the Rhine. Thus was born Operation Market-Garden, the most famous airborne assault of the war. In Market, three airborne divisions—two American and one British—would drop behind enemy lines and secure a series of river crossings all the way to the Rhine, sixty miles from the Allied front lines. Farthest out on the limb would be the British 1st Airborne Division, landing at Arnhem and taking and holding the great Rhine bridge there. In the Garden half of the operation, 2nd Army, led by the Guards Armored Division, would dash up the corridor created by the airborne troops, and the Allies would have a long narrow path that would compromise the entire German position in the Low Countries and carry them into Germany.
The daring attack opened on September 17 with the airborne divisions droning over from England and landing all over their targets. The U. S. 101st Airborne got several bridges; farther up the corridor the U. S. 82nd Airborne had a hard fight for the major crossing of the Maas at Nijmegen, and did not secure it until the 20th. The British, meanwhile, landed seven miles from Arnhem and had to fight their way into the town. By chance several good German outfits were in the area, and the enemy reaction was fierce. Nonetheless, the paratroops pushed into Arnhem, got a hold on the northern end of the bridge, and then could get no farther.
Meanwhile, the ground troops, from sixty miles away, set off on their dash to the rescue. Tanks, self-propelled guns, reconnaissance cars, all roared up the roads to Eindhoven and the 101st, Nijmegen and the 82nd, and on toward Arnhem. The farther they got, the more trouble they met. The corridor was so narrow the Germans could reach it with artillery from both sides; the roads often led straight as a die across the lowlands, and the tanks, moving single file, could be held up by one well-sited gun. The weather turned poor, air support and supply broke down, and though the British got close enough to Arnhem to allow some of their exhausted paratroops to break out of the German ring, they could not quite make it all the way.
The whole operation was a daring innovation for Montgomery, who generally preferred to have all his battles planned to a nicety, and was hardly known for the unconventional nature of his strategies. He himself later insisted that had he had all the material he wanted, he could have made it work. As it was, though, Market-Garden virtually exhausted Allied resources for the moment, and forced them to squander pilots, planes, and soldiers who were either insufficiently trained, or already nearly worn out by fighting since D Day. Montgomery thought of Market-Garden as the operation that might have led to the winning of the war in 1944. What it really showed was that the Allies were not strong enough to end it in 1944.
The campaign in France, even though it ended on the sour note of Arnhem, was one of the great campaigns of military history, certainly one of the great ones of the Second World War. The Germans had lost enormous numbers of men and even greater amounts of material. Under Eisenhower’s direction the campaign had gone generally smoothly and harmoniously. France and Belgium were liberated, ports were opened, supply problems mastered. All over Europe, the Germans were in disarray; in Italy they barely hung on to the last slopes of the Apennines; in the east the Russians were banging at the frontiers of the Reich. By day and by night the bombers still dropped their deadly loads on the Fatherland. It could only be a matter of time now. Within months, at most, the Master Race would be mastered.