Battle That Won the War
Montgomery planned more than victory in Normandy ... He plotted the most daring campaign of his dashing career . . . Here is his plan and how it worked
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
Maclean's War Correspondent.
SOMEWHERE in France. (By Cable)—This war has produced four’battles which will take their place among the very great battles of recorded
history. These are the 1940 conquest of France, El Alamein, Stalingrad and Normandy—the four military climacterics of the war. Hitler’s Blitzkrieg brought Britain to the very brinkofdefeat; El Alamein definitely signalled the beginning of our victory; Stalingrad broke the heart of the proud Nazi Army, and the Battle of Normandy administered the coup de grace to the tottering German colossus.
As a rule it is difficult, and even dangerous, to assess history while the thunder of its incident still
echoes in the valleys of decision.
I am writing this in a roadside shelter between the Seine and the Somme; the ground rumbles with the weight of our tanks and the pavement sings to the tread of armored cars racing north.
The Canadian Army is in full pursuit of the beaten enemy. Spilling across my vision is the epilogue to the Battle of Normandy—and though the final curtain has yet to fall, one does not require prescience to know that this battle will attain a historic significance far beyond that of Stalingrad and El Alamein. It may very well rank as the most decisive clash of the last hundred years and from purely military point of view it bids fair to replace Cannae as the classic example of a battle of annihilation.
Though the hot prongs of the battle darted out of Normandy into Brittany and Champagne, there is good and sufficient cause for persisting in clinging to
the title, “Battle of Normandy.” For it was mostly fought and certainly won along a few miles of churned earth, gutted villages and blood-running ditches between Falaise and Saint Lo. Here is where the Germans made their supreme effort; from this area the Americans spilled like a burst dam over all of northeastern France; in this stretch of soft earth the storied British soldier rose to his greatest glory; and here too, between Bernieres sur Mer and Falaise, the Canadians fought their first action as a full Army; and created, almost overnight, a tradition brimming with valor and victory.
The imagination almost refuses to encompass the events of the last four months. The dune thought of a sea-borne force grasping desperately for a few yards of the sandy Normandy beaches cannot be reconciled with the September picture of 35 utterly
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smashed German divisions lying in the dust behind our legions speeding almost unopposed toward the German border. Hitler’s victory in 1940 was only a pale shadow compared to this; he had prepared for six years, had moved overland against an ill-equipped and outmoded opposition, had hammered out a victory replete with strategic, tactical and technical surprise.
Last June, on the other hand, the Allies moved into the thick of Hitler’s four year preparation for just such a move; into the teeth of his boastful invitation to come and try it.
We accepted the invitation. And in 74 magnificent days the Allied force which landed on D-Day with a prayer and a hope had torn the guts out of the German Armies in western Europe. In the ensuing days we mopped up the remains.
Let us not concern ourselves here with the landing operation, the supply miracle and the seizure of our first narrow lodgement area between the Orne River and the Carentan peninsula. Most of us are thoroughly familiar with the phenomenal technique of landing and supplying our Armies over beaches, and with the singular heroism by which the few assault divisions smashed through from six to ten miles inland.
We must trace, instead, the processes by which the Allied force, hemmed between the sea and the powerful German Armies, so outfought and outmanoeuvred the enemy that we eventually surrounded and annihilated the German Colossus of the West.
Montgomery planned the battle almost exactly the way it turned out. Let there be no doubt about that. He set forth the tactical scheme with the approval and support of his supreme commander, General Eisenhower, shortly after they returned from the Mediterranean in January of this year. At that time the point of assault had long since been selected, the forces and equipment had been gathered and prepared. Montgomery accepted these, made a few changes essential to his battle conception, and proceeded to draw up the details.
A salient point to remember is this: the plan presented to Montgomery and Eisenhower on their arrival from the Mediterranean went only as far as the establishment of an Allied front in France. What Montgomery did was to revise and extend this plan to encompass the destruction of the German Armies as part of the one grand manoeuvre.
In order to accomplish this ambitious purpose he assigned the British and Canadian divisions to apply vicious pressure on the left—between Caen and Bayeux—and to maintain that pressure with frantic resolution. He knew this was the most sensitive German position in all of France; it was the short route to Paris, which was a political plum, and it also cut directly across all the supply routes of the German Armies south of the Seine, which is a military consideration of absolutely vital importance. He calculated the Germans would be forced to defend this position with all the strength at their command.
He figured that if he could deceive the enemy into believing our main thrust was directed along the short route to Paris, he could attract enough German strength to allow the Americans to take Cherbourg quickly and to break around through Brittany, thus surrounding the bulk of German forces. In short, he assigned the British and Canadians to pinion the Germans’ fists while the Americans threw a rope around the enemy’s body.
To this end he made certain changes in the Allied order of battle as presented to him last January. He added another British division—the famous Fiftieth— to his British-Canadian assault forces, thus strengthening the basic foundation of his whole battle conception. Then he met with Generals Bradley and Patton and outlined the requirements for a flying column which could maintain itself far ahead of its supply lines. The Americans, particularly Patton, responded with rare appetite and talent for so thrilling and spectacular an assignment. Montgomery made one more change in the battle order—a change which has virtually escaped public notice, but which proved to be of cardinal importance. He increased manyfold the number of pioneer and road building battalions assigned to the earliest stages of the Normandy assault. He did this because his plan required lateral movement of unprecedented speed and capacity behind our frontline. The wisdom of this action was unfolded as the battle progressed.
Having calculated with all the mathematical certainty a battle allows that his plan was feasible, Montgomery was left with only one fear. It was that the plan might be seriously upset, or even destroyed, by a strong German counterattack mounted against the Caen-Bayeux position during the first two weeks while the buildup of essential forces was still in
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There were only two methods of preventing this, and the Supreme Command used both. One was constant air bombing of enemy communications before and during the battle, and the second was to keep alive the constant threat that more landings were contemplated on the Channel coast between the Orne and Dunkirk. This lutter idea was cleverly cultivated by carefully chosen remarks made for the record both in London und Washington.
Thus Montgomery completed the most daring plan of his career and he calmly awaited the Zero Hour. A month before D-Day he summoned the assault correspondents and paced a platform for an hour while he expounded his philosophy of generalship. He told us that a knowledge of tactics was no more important to a general than psychology. Every position on a battle field, every phase of a battle required different fighting characteristics. And, he added, every body of men from national armies down to divisions—had distinctive battle characteristics. The duty of a successful general was to study his battle, know the bodies of men under his command, and to blend each job with its proper formation.
At that meeting Montgomery sounded to us like a schoolmaster wandering in the fields of ephemeral philosophy. We did not know how coldly practical were his theories. We did not know until later.
We found out when the battle was blazing that he had assigned the Americans to the function of rapid movement for which they have such superb urge and talent; that he had placed the British in the keystone position of the whole plan—where no break could be tolerated—where men must move forward slowly and bleed desperately for a few yards of precious ground which was both the pivot of the Allied line and the main artery of the enemy’s; that he had envisaged eventually sending the First Canadian Army to sever that artery in an action that required both enthusiasm for the open attack and caution against a counterthrust.
We have examined the broad outlines of Montgomery’s plan.
Let us see now how it worked out in practice.
The beach assault and seizure of a lodgment area went almost according to plan—-almost but not quite. The British formations to which was attached the Third Canadian Division failed to capture Caen during the first 48 hours. The Americans encountered beach opposition at Carentan of a nature which took our Intelligence staff by surprise. But a lodgment area was seized and though it was slightly narrower than we hoped, it was big enough to bivouac our buildup forces swarming constantly off the beaches.
Failure to take Caen immediately by storm was a serious drawback to the plan which called for pressure along the Caen-Lisieux-Parls axis in order to attract the bulk of German strength.
The high ground on the outskirts of Caen commanded the terrain of operations in a terrifying way. It overlooked the close country stretching seven miles to our beaches and it guarded the wideopen stretches sweeping south of Caen toward Paris. The Germans rushed up the 21st Panzers and 12th S.S. in bits and patches to hold the gateway to Caen; these crack units entrenched themselves strongly, and literally looked down upon us.
But Montgomery’s main plan did not allow fundamental changes. The pressure against the short route to Paris was required to be maintained, even though this task was cruelly enlarged by our initial failure to capture Caen. British and Canadian units had to thrust themselves forward, to capture villages and to remain in them despite a hail of German mortar and shell fire. It was aslow, bloody and heartbreaking process, and often our unit commanders complained to Montgomery that they could not go on. But they were ordered to continue. A great plan was in process of development and unit commanders could not be allowed to judge the situation from the viewpoint of their narrow sectors.
And so the British and Canadians in the Caen sector and the British alone in the Tilly-Bocage sector fought on blindly and lost men—but they fought on in the faith that Monty knew what he was doing. Thaon, Cairon, Tilly, Fontenay—they fought in and out of these farm hamlets whose names meant
nothing. For a full month they gained a few blood-soaked yards, all the w'hile attracting the bulk of Von Kluge’s Seventh Army.
It was so heartbreaking and yet so necessary — not only to attract more and more of the German divisions to the British-Canadian sector but also to ensure that Montgomery kept the initiative. It was vital that he keep the initiative because our bridgehead was so narrow and so lacking in deployment space. Had we relaxed our pressure on the enemy for two or three days he would certainly have mounted a proper counterattack and that might easily have cost us the initiative and the battle; Montgomery might have been forced to conform to Von Kluge’s will instead of going ahead with our own plan.
And so we kept attacking—now in the Caen sector, next in the Bocage country, then east of the Orne—often against hopeless odds and for no net gains. Sometimes British and Canadian troops were called upon to remain in an absolutely untenable position for 24 hours, under mortar fire so thick that many of them were killed while lying deep in their slit trenches. But they made that show of strength and offensive spirit which kept the Germans pinned across their precious lifeline.
While this unapplauded sacrifice was being offered up in behalf of total Allied success, two immensely important events were taking place elsewhere—events which were essential parts of the grand plan.
The first was the magnificently spirited American capture of Cherbourg and the consolidation of the American line before Saint Lo.
The second was the construction of a great number of lateral tank tracks running behind the British-Canadian front line between the Tilly and Caen sectors. These were built at top speed by the pioneer and road building companies Montgomery had flooded into the bridgehead. They built them through forest and wheat field, day and night. The purpose of these tracks was clearly seen by those of us at the front. Over them Montgomery could move his immense armored strength anywhere between the Tilly and Caen sectors on the spur of the moment. His main weapon was to be movement—the sort of movement denied to the Germans by their lack of lateral roads and by our overwhelming daylight air power.
By July 7 Montgomery had achieved the conditions requisite to the fulfillment of the second phase of his grand plan. Cherbourg was in our hands and the Peninsula was cleared down to Lessay. His British-Canadian and American troops were firmly deployed on a line from the Orne to North of
Saint Lo. His buildup of troops was complete. His armor was strong and thoroughly mobile along the lateral tank tracks. Even Von Kluge was co-operating; he was bringing his crack divisions from all over France into the Caen-Villers-Bocage sector, just as Montgomery hoped he would. The trap was set. The critical moment had arrived.
The second phase began just before dusk on July 7 when about 500 Lancasters blasted German positions in front of Caen. On next morning’s dawn the Canadian Third and British 53rd Divisions began a push to capture the city. They were opposed by the 12th S.S. Division, who fought like demons for every position through the outlying towns of Authie, Buron, Gruchy and Chateau Lalonde. For 36 hours battle raged and on July 9 our troops entered Caen.
That was only the beginning of the plan to convince Von Kluge that the big Allied punch was coming across his Caen-Paris lifeline. Within 48 hours British armor and infantry opened an offensive in the Tilly-Hottot sector 15 miles west of Caen. Von Kluge rushed west to meet this attack.
Four days later, on July 15, British formations attacked strongly from Cheux, just halfway between Caen and Tilly. Von Kluge reacted frantically; he removed his armor from the American front to strengthen his resistance all along the British-Canadian front.
At the height of the battle below Cheux, Montgomery suddenly disengaged. Overnight he swung the bulk of his. armor across the tank tracks and the next morning, July 18, he smashed south from Caen almost as far as Simont. This operation was preceded by an immense bomber attack.
The Canadians followed quickly with a full-scale attack through Vaucelles, smashing five miles to May-sur-Orne in one of the bloodiest actions of the campaign. Montgomery was now wielding the initiative like a lash. He was largely dictating the movement of Von Kluge’s forces, inflicting his will upon the Germans, making them move in direct reaction to our multitudinous and bewildering attacks. And his immediate purpose was to draw the enemy away from the Saint Lo sector.
Finally the pressure of Montgomery’s initiative cracked Von Kluge’s determination to be strong everywhere. The direct result was that when General Bradley’s American forces broke into Saint Lo they found little German opposition beyond. General Patton’s flying columns were poised for just this eventuality. They took to the broad highway, rolled into Avranches and south toward Rennes.
This was more than a breakthrough. It was a breakout. The German line was turned like a flapjack and Montgomery pounced on his opportunity. Along the well-churned tank tracks came British armor, and within 24 hours a huge attack had been mounted and dispatched through Caumont.
Meanwhile the First Canadian Army had come into full operation and was exerting extreme pressure halfway between Caen and P’alaise. With the Canadians, the Second British Army and the First American Army all attacking violently, the Germans could not look over their shoulders to see Patton’s superb columns swinging around through Rennes, Le Mans, Alençon and up toward Argentan.
At this point Von Kluge made one of the classic errors in modern military history. He failed utterly to appreciate the situation that was closing in around him. Perhaps he could not believe that Montgomery would attempt so daring a manoeuvre of encirclement and
annihilation. Instead of attempting to disengage and pull out toward Paris, or across the Seine, he drew into the pocket all the men and armor he could bring from north of the Seine. Our high command watched this move by Von Kluge—first with amazement, then with puzzlement, and finally with appetite. It was almost too good to be true. Von Kluge was not only drawing new divisions into the pocket, he was : actually driving them deep inside in a hopeless and puerile attempt to split the American line at its narrowest point against the sea—the MortainAvranches axis.
By Aug. 8 the Americans were in the vicinity of Argentan, about 15 miles due south of Falaise. Now was the time for the new Canadian Army to show its worth. General Crerar ordered young, brilliant Guy Simonds to send his Canadians into Falaise and then beyond to bolt the German escape gap.
This was the most difficult action of the battle. The Germans had fortified three strong lines before Falaise, each brimming with troops and studded with 88’s. It would have been suicide j to attempt a frontal attack in daylight —and yet there was no way of outflanking the position without losing a substantial portion of the German hag.
Simonds decided on a novel plan. He removed the cannon from 70-odd self1 propelled guns and refitted them to | carry infantry with comparative safety from mortar and machine gun fire. He intermingled these carriers with his tanks and sent this odd caboodle into the German lines in the darkness of midnight on Aug. 8. The tracked vehicles took their direction from tracer shells fired horizontally from antiaircraft guns and they moved through the screen of blinded 88’s almost without casualties. At first light our men spilled out of their carriers into the middle of the first defense line.
The Germans realized at last the full extent of Montgomery’s master plan to annihilate the bulk of their Armies in France. They fought furiously to prevent the Canadians from closing the trap—so furiously that the Canadians were forced to pause for reinforcement and regrouping before continuing on to Falaise. By Aug. 17 Falaise was captured and a day later the Polish Division under Canadian command pushed through to bolt the trap at the little crossroads town of Chambois.
Inside the trap the German Colossus of the West died slowly under the concentrated fire of British, Canadian and American Armies and Air Forces. It was a slaughter unprecedented in this war’s fighting in the West.
A few miles east our troops were spilling over the Seine in pursuit of the fleeing remnants. The battle was over. It cost the Germans 400,000 men and 1,500 tanks. It also cost Hitler the war. Between the Seine and the German border he could establish no line. His pitiful remnants could only stand as ineffective road blocks before the Fatherland.
Those of us on the scene were dazed by this Gargantuan success. From the perspective of our narrow sectors we could not always see the whole plan. Only Montgomery could see that as he sat in his field headquarters and moved his finger over a map of France. Andas I watch the headlong flight of German survivors over the Somme, I am reminded of that day early in May when Montgomery paced before us, and revealed his philosophy of generalship and dismissed us with these words: “I am absolutely confident of success.” We didn’t quite believe him. But then nobody ever believes Montgomery until he produces the fait accompli. Which he invariably does,