Guest Post: The Greatest Ever Armada

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75 years ago, on the morning of 6 June 1944, the greatest armada the world has ever seen crossed the English Channel to begin the long awaited invasion of Nazi occupied Europe. Films like Saving Private Ryan give the false impression that it was an entirely American “show”; in fact there were more British  and Canadian troops (83,000) than American (73,000) attempting to land that day. The invasion on 6 June – already postponed twice due to weather – was the last available “window” where tides and phases of the moon were favourable in the first half of June. If the invasion could not proceed then it would have  had to be postponed for at least two weeks – two more weeks during  which in one way or another, the invasion plans could leak or be discovered.
 
The operation was preceded by arguably the greatest – and certainly the largest – military deception operation ever mounted. The Germans knew that the invasion was coming, and there were only two possible sites: in the Pas de Calais – the point on the French coast closest to England – or Normandy, 200 miles to the west.  Hitler was convinced the invasion would be in the Pas de Calais, and remained convinced for many vital weeks afterwards that  Normandy  was a mere diversion, and the real invasion in the Pas de Calais would follow.
 
Because he was so convinced, he resisted all advice to the contrary, chiefly from Field Marshal Rommel, who he had placed in charge of the so called “Alantic Wall” stretching from Norway to the Franco-Spanish border.  Rommel had correctly predicted the Normandy invasion, and when it occurred, urged Hitler to quickly move the 15th Army stationed in the Pas de Calais – including two crack tank divisions –  to Normandy. When Hitler finally acquiesced, it was too late.
 
Operation Fortitude involved the creation of an entirely fictional American Army group, the First US Army Group (FUSAG) supposedly commanded by colourful American general George Patton, who Hitler was known to admire. Most readers will have seen footage of  the inflatable dummy tanks trucks and planes which were collected in FUSAG “bases” in various locations in south eastern England. But  Operation Fortitude consisted of much more than that: dummy wooden invasion barges collected in ports close to the Pas de Calais; thousands of dummy radio  signals between Patton’s headquarters and his entirely imaginary commanders; non-existent trains transporting non-existent troops to the  genuinely heavily guarded non-existent bases.
Fortitude was successful in large part because in the entire war, no German spy  parachuted into or landed in Britain by sea  remained undetected for more than a few days; most were arrested within hours of their arrival. Captured spies were given a stark choice – be “turned” and become double agents, or face execution after a brief perfunctory trial. Most chose the first option; a brave dozen or so chose death instead of betrayal. But back to Normandy.
 
There were five invasion beaches: Utah and Omaha were targeted by the Americans, while Gold Juno and Sword were the destination of the British and Canadians. The invasion – which began at 0600 hours on 6 June – was preceded by the dropping of 24,000 US, British and Canadian troops behind the heavily defended coast. It was their task to take  vital bridges and road junctions, and in concert with the activated French Resistance, to blow up others in order to impede German reinforcement.
 
One lesser known parachute  “force” dropped in the night and morning of 5/6 of June was 500 dummy parachutists known as “Ruperts” –  figures made of a canvas “uniform” filled with sand and straw.  The Ruperts were dropped well away from the landing grounds to be used by the real paratroops, and were supposed to explode on landing to disguise their fraudulent nature, and mislead the Germans about the number and locations of paratroops  dropping  when the real invasion began  some hours later.
 
While the British and Canadians at Gold Juno and Sword suffered only relatively light casualties, as Private Ryan  and the much earlier movie The Longest Day show, it was a rather different story at Utah and Omaha beaches, particularly Omaha, where winds and currents blew the landing craft to the west where the invaders had to deal with unexpected high cliffs (Saving Private Ryan depicts in extremely realistic detail the landing at Omaha Beach. Most of the rest of the movie is fanciful bullshit).  For that reason, American casualties were far greater than the British – although the total of about 10,000 casualties, 4,414 of them confirmed dead, was much less than the Allied planners had anticipated.
 
In addition to the “Ruperts” – the exploding dummy parachutists – there were some other imaginative innovations, including most notably the “Mulberry” harbours made of concrete,  towed from Britain and then sunk at Omaha and Gold beaches to provide  instant ports until actual ports could be recaptured. Although the Mulberry at Omaha beach was largely destroyed in a savage storm on 19 June, and thereafter abandoned, the Mulberry at Gold Beach was used for ten months, and during that time 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies  were successfully disembarked across it before it was finally decommissioned.
 
Another rather  less successful innovation was PLUTO, or Pipeline Under The Ocean, a flexible pipeline  laid from British channel ports to the invasion beaches, through which petrol and diesel was to be pumped to fuel the voracious appetite of the tanks and  trucks  forming part of the invasion force.  Originally conceived by an Anglo-Iranian (later BP) oil company engineer, the Battle for Normandy was won without a single drop of fuel being delivered by  PLUTO, and by VE day almost a year later, only 8% of the fuel sent to fuel the invasion and subsequent battle  was delivered through PLUTO.
 
While Germans failed to throw the Allies back into the sea, by the end of the first day only Gold and Sword beaches had linked up, and none of the Allied objectives for D-Day  were achieved. All of the five beaches were not linked until 12 June, and the town of Caen – a first day objective – was not finally  taken until 21 July 1944. In the end, as Rommel had predicted, if the Germans could not throw the invaders back into the sea within 24 hours, the Battle for Normandy would be lost, as would the war itself, although that result would not be achieved for almost another year of bloody fighting.
 
The average age of troops landing on that day 75 years ago was 20 – so the survivors are all very old men; sadly none of them will still be alive 25 years hence, when the centenary of the battle will hopefully be celebrated as one of the greatest days in modern history, and another of the many achievements of what the Americans call the “golden generation”.
 
 What is the significance of D Day today? It is proper to recognise that the British and Americans didn’t win the war themselves; had Normandy not happened, the Russian juggernaut then slowly advancing on Germany from the East would eventually have controlled all of Western Europe, certainly to the Spanish border and perhaps beyond. Thus in a very real sense, D Day can be said to have shaped the post-war borders of Europe, many of which continue to exist today. D Day and the battle of Normandy which followed are certainly military triumphs on a par with the defeat by the British of the Spanish Armada, and of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
 
Dedication:  This piece is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend the late Herbert Perry who, at the age of 23,  was the Chief Engineer of an LST (Landing Ship Tank) on D-Day, and whose name my son proudly bears.
 

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