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The D-Day Assault .. Part 3

Apart from the factor of tactical surprise, the comparatively light casualties which we sustained on all the beaches except Omaha were in large measure due to the success of the novel mechanical contrivances which we employed and to the staggering moral and material effect of the mass of armor landed in the leading waves of the assault. The use of large numbers of amphibious tanks to afford fire support in the initial stages of the operation had been an essential feature of our plans, and, despite the losses they suffered on account of the heavy seas, on the beaches where they were used they proved conspicuously effective. It is doubtful if the assault forces could have firmly established themselves without the assistance of these weapons. Other valuable novelties included the British AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) and the "flail" tank which did excellent work in clearing paths through tile mine fields at the beach exits.

The enemy's confusion in the face of our assault was very clearly shown in the telephone journal of the German Seventh Army Headquarters which subsequently fell into our hands. Although Field Marshal von Rundstedt claimed on 20 June that the Germans were not taken by surprise, the evidence of this document told a very different story. Convinced that the main Allied assault would be delivered in the Pas-de-Calais, the Army HQ was at first of the opinion that the Normandy operations were of a diversionary nature and unlikely to include seaborne landings, even after the airborne operations had been followed by the opening of the naval bombardment. When, on 8 June, an operation order of the U.S. VII Corps fell into the Germans' hands, they concluded that while this unit was in charge of all the Cotentin operations, the V Corps mentioned in the order must embrace all the Anglo American forces assaulting the Calvados area from the Vire to the Seine. The enemy assumed, in view of the anticipated further landings in the Pas-de-Calais, that the Allies could not afford to employ more than two corps elsewhere.

On D-day, because of the chaos in communications produced by our bombing, the Seventh Army HQ did not hear of the Calvados landings until 0900 hours, and then the information was both meager and inaccurate. It was not until 1640 hours that Army learned of the Utah seaborne assault, having previously received reassuring reports as to the progress being made against the airborne forces dropped in that area. Meanwhile at noon, the German LXXXIV Corps had optimistically, but prematurely, announced that the attempted landings by the V Corps troops at St-Laurent had been completely smashed. Thanks to such misinformation and to a faulty estimate of the situation, Seventh Army decided by the evening of D-day that the landings near the Orne constituted the chief danger in the area so far invaded, and took steps to commit its strongest and most readily available reserves in that sector. Little was known of the strength or objectives of the American landings, and the operations in the Cotentin continued to be regarded simply as a diversionary effort which could easily be dealt with. This estimate of the situation dominated the enemy's policy, with fatal results, during the ensuing days.

On 7 June I toured the assault area by destroyer, in company with Admiral Ramsay, and talked with Field Marshal Montgomery, General Bradley, and the Naval Force Commanders. All were disappointed in the unfavorable landing conditions and longed for an improvement in the weather that would enable our troops to exploit to the full their initial successes. After noon on this day the weather did show some signs of moderating, and a chance was offered for us to catch up in part with our delayed unloading schedule. On Omaha beach, which continued to cause us most anxiety, General Bradley reported some improvement, but in view of the check received here I decided to alter the immediate tactical plan to the extent of having both V and VII Corps concentrate upon effecting a link-up through Carentan, after which the original plan of operations would be pursued. Of the morale of the men whom I saw on every sector during the day I cannot speak too highly. Their enthusiasm, energy, and fitness for battle were an inspiration to behold.

During the next five days our forces worked to join up the beachheads into one uninterrupted lodgement area and to introduce into this area the supplies of men and materials necessary to consolidate and expand our foothold.

In the British-Canadian sector, chief interest centered in the thrust by the British 3 and Canadian 3 Divisions toward Caen. Exploiting the success achieved on D-day, they pushed southward, and, despite heavy casualties, succeeded on 7 June in reaching points some 2 or 3 miles north and north west of the city. However, the enemy fully appreciated the danger in this sector and, employing the tanks of 21st Panzer and 12th SS Panzer Divisions, counterattacked successfully in ideal tank country. This counterattack penetrated nearly to the coast, and drove a wedge between the two Allied divisions, preventing a combined attack upon Caen for the time being. Subsequent events showed that the retention of the city was the key to the main enemy strategy, and during the struggles of the following weeks the Germans fought furiously to deny us possession and to prevent our breaking out across the Orne toward the Seine. Farther west Bayeux was taken on 8 June and the beachhead expanded inland.

Meanwhile the Allies had their first experience of the enemy's skill and determination in holding out in fortified strongpoints behind our lines. Although German claims of the effect of these strongpoints in delaying the development of our operations were greatIy exaggerated, it was undeniably difficult to eliminate the suicide squads by whom they were held. The biggest of these points was at Douvres in the Canadian sector, where the underground installations extended to 300 feet below the surface. It was not until 17 June that the garrison here was compelled to surrender.

In the American sector the V Corps assault forces, having overcome their initial difficulties, reached the line of the Bayeux-Carentan road by midday on 7 June, and on the next day established contact with the British 50 Division on their left Rank. On 9 June, reinforced by the 2d Infantry Division, V Corps advanced rapidly to the south and west, reaching the line Caumont-Cerisy Foret-Isigny by 11 June. Reinforcements then stiffened the German defenses, particularly in the hills protecting St-Lo. At the other end of the American zone, the enemy rushed forces to bar the Cherbourg road at Montebourg. In the center there was a stern struggle to link the two beachheads across the marshlands of the Vire Estuary. The prevention of this junction was regarded by the enemy as second in importance only to the defense of Caen, but on 10 June patrols of the two American corps made contact, and on the 12th Carentan fell. The Germans made desperate but fruitless efforts to recover the town and reestablish the wedge between our forces. Our initial lodgement area was now consolidated, and we held an unbroken stretch of the French coast from Quineville to the east bank of the Orne.

Meanwhile, on and off the beaches, the naval, merchant marine, and land force supply services personnel were performing prodigies of achievement under conditions which could hardly have been worse. Enormous as was the burden imposed upon these services even under the best of conditions, the actual circumstances of our landings increased the difficulties of their task very considerably. The problems of unloading vast numbers of men and vehicles and thousands of tons of stores over bare beaches, strewn with mines and obstacles, were complicated by the heavy seas which would not permit the full use of the special landing devices, such as the "Rhino" ferries, which had been designed to facilitate unloading at this stage of operations. The beaches and their exits had to be cleared and the beach organizations set up while the fighting was still in progress close by, and on either Rank the unloading had to be carried on under fire from German heavy artillery. Off shore, enemy aircraft, although absent by day, laid mines each night, requiring unceasing activity by our mine sweepers. By 11 June, despite these complications, the machinery of supply over the beaches was functioning satisfactorily. Initial discharges of stores and vehicles were about 50 percent behind the planned schedule, but against this we could set the fact that consumption had been less than anticipated. Reserves were being accumulated and the supply position as a whole gave us no cause for concern. The artificial harbor units were arriving and the inner anchorages were already in location. During the first 6 days of the operation, 326,547 men, 54,186 vehicles, and 104,428 tons of stores were brought ashore over the beaches. These figures gave the measure of the way in which all concerned, by their untiring energy and courage, triumphed over the difficulties which confronted them.

On 11 June, with the linking up of the beachheads, the stage was set for the battles of the ensuing 2 months during which the fate of France was to be decided. The enemy never succeeded fully in recovering from the confusion into which he was plunged by the surprise of our attack and the effects of our air and naval bombardment. During the first 5 days of the campaign all. the symptoms developed which were to characterize the Germans' resistance in the subsequent battles. Desperate attempts to repair the shattered communications system met with little success while the Allied air forces continued their onslaught against the enemy lines and far to the rear. At some critical moments Army lost touch with corps, corps with divisions, and divisions were ignorant of the fate of their regiments. Already the panzer divisions were reporting that they were halted through lack of fuel, reinforcements were unable to reach the battle area for the same reason, and by 13 June the Seventh Army had no fuel dump nearer than Nantes from which issues could be made. Ammunition was also scarce, and the fall of Carentan was explained as due to the fact that the defending forces lacked shells. These things were lacking, not because the Germans did not possess the means to wage war, but because the movement of supplies to the fighting zone was practically impossible when the Allied domination of the skies was so complete. All this explains the enemy's failure to regain the initiative following his loss of it when our forces broke through the Atlantic Wall defenses upon which Rommel had, with such fatal misjudgment, pinned his faith.

From 11 June onward the enemy strove desperately but vainly to contain the beachheads which he had been unable to prevent us from securing. The orders of 7 June that the Allies were to be driven back into the sea were already obsolete; the aim now was to save Cherbourg, to attempt to reestablish the wedge between the Cotentin and Calvados at Carentan, and to hold fast on the eastern flank by denying us possession of the city of Caen. The next 6 weeks were to see the failure of all three of these aims before the moral and material superiority of the Allied armies.


Arrow  Normandy Lodgement



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