The Biggest Baggage Story Of All Time
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
Maclean’s War Correspondent
A gigantic job faced Army units supplying the Second Front. But they are delivering the goods—everything from socks to Sherman tanks
SOMEWHERE in France (By cable): Did you
ever try to unload a sack of potatoes from a rowboat after running it up on the shore? If not, try it sometime this summer. Pick a windy morning on your favorite lake or ocean front.
Drop the sack into your boat froih some sandy dock, then row in choppy water against a bare shore and haul the sack up on the beach to your summer cabin a couple of hundred yards inland.
Having done this pick up the telephone, call the village grocer and have him whistle up a similar sack of potatoes on his truck.
Once you have carried out this little experiment, compare the two methods and you will understand more about the Second Front operation than you would learn from a study of all the expert appreciations of Liddell Hart, Hanson Baldwin and George Fielding Elliot. You will know more about the strategy and tactics of the Normandy beachhead than you might gain from a meticulous perusal of all the eyewitness reports from the war correspondents. You will indeed have put your finger on the greatest single problem in the Second Front operation—the problem of supply—the Allied solution of which completely confounded the Germans and made our success possible.
1 he salient facts are these: Against a properly
fortified and defended coast, not all our Allied courage, manpower, air power, sea power, and fire power could have carved out an operational bridgehead. The German High Command was convinced that an Allied invasion Army could not operate for more than a few days without the use of a major port, so the enemy properly fortified and defended all the major port areas. The Allies confounded the enemy by striking across the Channel at the one strip of French beach which was a considerable distance from a major port—the only strip of French beach which was not fully fortified and defended.
1 hat is why we managed to stab deeply and successfully into France; that is how we contrived to outflank the terrifying defenses that faced the sea at Calais, Le Havre, Cherbourg and Brest—coast defenses which the Germans lavishly advertised in their own and neutral rotogravures by picturing sea walls that looked like the sides of a small skyscraper, with Gargantuan guns covering every square foot of approach from the sea. We did this merely by sidestepping these heavy fortifications.
It sounds simple, doesn t it? Indeed, too simple. You might wonder why the Germans were so fatuously hairbrained as to spill men, sweat and treasure into most of the coast of b rance and leave a gaping hole along the Seine Bay between the Orne River and the Carentan estuary. Didn’t they know we had air photographs of the entire coast? Surely they realized we knew as well as they that the Seine Bay beaches were only modestly fortified and defended by second-
class coastal troops. Why didn’t they expect us to attack in that area?
For the proper explanation we must return to our experimental sack of potatoes. The Germans were convinced that a force which had to haul its supplies from the séa over bare beaches would soon be at the mercy of an opposing force which could whistle up its supplies over interior lines composed of Europe’s best road and rail networks. In their view it was patently
impossible for more than a diversionary raid to be directed against this stretch of coast. Between Le Havre and Cherbourg there was no suitable port. The Albes would not be so foolhardy as to attempt a major invasion there. The project was plainly ridiculous because no Army could be supplied over the bare beaches speedily enough to engage in full-scale operations immediately.
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Yet the Allies did it. We landed not only tens of thousands of men and hundreds of tanks and guns on D-Day but also kept their mounting numbers amply supplied for the immediate, full-scale attack which followed. The world was presented with a fait accompli, and the German Army with a tactical thunderbolt.
It was done through the genius of the British, Canadian and American services of supply working in close cooperation with their respective Navies. It is not my wish to belittle the assault troops who stormed the beaches; their heroism will inspire mankind so long as histories are read. Nor do I underestimate our superior fire power and air power, developed painfully through trial and error in four years of war. These factors, wielded by Gen. Montgomery with consummate skill, played an immense role in the world-shattering victory of the Normandy beaches.
But as an eyewitness of the preparations for the operation itself from H-Hour onward, I am convinced that suppy was the greatest single factor in the success of the Second Front— indeed, so much the greatest that all other factors flow from it like tributaries from the Mississippi River.
Before considering in detail the manner in which supply made possible the Second Front, let us examine some figures to illustrate the extent of the problem of supply in a modern Army.
In order to operate a single division, 400 tons of food and light ammunition are required daily. Its maintenance, its engineer and signal equipment, weigh another 400 tons. And it needs daily supplies of about 200 tons. In addition, this single division must have medium and heavy artillery, tank and close air support in order to fight successfully. These items are supplied by independent units attached to the division and, for purposes of supply, they are counted as part of the division’s increment. These units have a landing weight of well over 2,000 tons and require more than 1,500 tons of maintenance material and replacements daily when the battle is hard.
Every Allied division has a complement of more than 1,500 vehicles, ranging from jeeps to three-ton trucks. This does not include bulldozers, steamrollers and other road-building equipment which are detached from a
Corps or Army formation for employment within a divisional boundary.
In short, a single division, landing from che sea, is required to put ashore approximately 15,000 troops and an original 5,000 tons of equipment. From then on its daily maintenance, including all arms of its immediate support, amounts to 3,000 tons. Almost the moment a division goes into action a base supply dump must be established close behind the line in order to supply, on request, any one of 200,000 expendable items—from a pair of socks to a Sherman tank.
The figures are truly fabulous and if I were to list all of the items they would fill the A-to-K passages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Now let us visualize the hauling ashore of such immense impediments —not, mind you, of a single division but of many divisions simultaneously; not in a sheltered harbor with its adequate docking facilities, but on a shore, treacherous with shifting sand bars and dangerous tides, and against an enemy stoutly resisting from prepared positions.
Even with the wisdom of hindsight, you may well murmur, “Hardly possible!” It is no wonder then that the German High Command considered such a project definitely impossible and declined to devote more than a minimum of men and materials to the defense of the Seine Bay beaches. The enemy admitted that a penetration in this area was feasible, but only on a short-term basis. Supply on a grand scale, the Germans thought, would be an insuperable problem.
The story of how the Allies accomplished this miracle is the story of supply and it constitutes a history of the Second Front operation.
It was in February, 1942, that planning for the invasion of western Europe was formally begun. No definite scheme had yet been adopted nor was the area of assault decided, but preliminary planning was based on two considerations. One was that the entry of the United States into the war had opened to the Allies vast manufacturing resources which made feasible, eventually, an amphibious operation against the coast of western Europe. The second consideration was that whatever the final plan the services of supply would have to prepare a system of unprecedented scope far tae haulage of materials ashore, without adequate docking facilit' ÍS
The quartermaster chiefs of the British, Canadian and American forces were, therefore, the first of all branches of our combined arms to begin active preparation for the Second Front. They laid tentative plans for stowage, unloading and beach groups, and revised sharply upward the estimates of manpower they would need.
In April, 1942, an event occurred which has since proved to be of historic importance. London's War Office received word that the Americans had perfected an amphibious truck capable of moving through water at five knots and overland at 40 miles per hour. It could also haul three tons of supplies. It was dubbed the “Duck”—official spelling DUKW. “This,” a British supply chief told me, “revolutionized the possibilities of supply over beaches.”
During the summer of 1942 the experimental raids on Dieppe and St. Nazaire took place. Reports on these battles produced the basic principles on which training for all subsequent amphibious operations were conducted. They produced one other important conclusion: that the in-
vasion of western Europe could not be launched against heavily defended port areas.
By December, 1942, the decision was taken which made the Second Front primarily a quartermaster’s operation. In that month the Seine Bay beach between the Orne River and the Carentan estuary was definitely selected as the point of eventual assault. The services of supply were given a year and a half in which to prepare the miracle which was to confound the German High Command; to accomplish a feat of organization never before believed possible by military tacticians. The whole area of invasion contained not a single suitable port and the forces to be supplied over the bare beaches were the biggest in the history of amphibious warfare.
During the whole of 1943 some very odd manoeuvres were rehearsed in secret training establishments in Great Britain and the United States. On empty and uninhabited beaches busy cities, built of packing cases and tarpaulins and inhabited by thousands of muscular men, sprang up in a matter of minutes. Strange mechanical monsters moved out of the deep sea and rolled up on land like prehistoric specimens. Curiously constructed ships were run aground and dozens of vehicles rolled out of their naked holds. Bargelike craft called “Rhinos” came in under their own steam. Within two hours the deserted beach had become a perfectly functioning dockyard area worthy of a major city.
A portion of this curious organization was sent to the Mediterranean for service and experience in the Sicily and Salerno landings. They returned with suggestions for improvements and stories of vast success. But the quartermasters knew that the Mediterranean rehearsals were not a true test. There were no tides to contend with and very few storms. The forces supplied were comparatively small and the enemy opposition unimpressive.
By the time Gen. Eisenhower and Gen. Montgomery arrived in Britain to supervise the final details of the great assault, the quartermasters were ready to fit their arrangements in with the minute-by-minute operational details. Ina heavily guarded room somewhere in Britain, British, Canadian and American quartermasters convened over a sand table model of the Seine Bay and marked out their beach maintenance areas with infinite care. A full five months before D-Day they knew
the exact location of every pound of material to be put ashore. They marked every road which would be used by Ducks and traced where they would build new supply routes. They scheduled the loading of every ship and every truck on board. Not an inch of space would be wasted. For instance, dump trucks to be used for road construction were packed tight with hospital equipment.
The operation which was to carry an unprecedented bulk across the water was poised and regulated like a masterpiece of fine watchmaking. Two and a. half years of work had gone into this single operation. Now the quartermasters were ready.
On the sullen morning of June 6, this Gargantuan hut strangely delicate mechanism was put to the test.
Zero hour for the assault was at 07.30 hours. Forty minutes later, while the battle still raged wildly from the water’s edge to the first pillboxes, the beach maintenance troops landed and began organizing the area for the landing of supplies. They turned their backs on the fighting and worked on plans which had been designed months before on a sand table. They suffered casualties—very heavy casualties—but they could not strike back at the enemy. Their job of organizing the beach was as vital to the operation as that of the troops who were fighting.
Five minutes later the first supply conveyances were ashore. These were armored recovery vehicles, tough waterproofed jobs designed for the purpose of hauling out tanks and carriers stuck in the surf. Within an hour after the assault began, thousands of maintenance groups were ashore, laying out beach exits and setting up supply dumps exactly as scheduled in advance. Before nightfall on D-Day there were 14,000 maintenance and supply troops operating on the beach captured by the British Third and the Canadian Third Divisions. In the same area there were hundreds of Ducks and scores of Rhinos operating on D-Day.
They stopped on no account. German shelling and bombing, darkness, snipers —none of these caused a moment’s hestitation. The battle was going to be won or lost on supply and they could not pause in the face of danger or for any respite. By June 8, 17,000 men were working in this two-divisional area—almost as many men as were fighting up at the front. This bare and broken beach, all along the line from St. Aubin to Grandchamps, had suddenly become the busiest port in the world.
Along the whole beach front, including the American sector, there were more than 60,000 men working on supply. About 1,000 Ducks and hundreds of Rhinos were commuting incessantly between ship and shore, all within 48 hours of the original landing.
Through storm and rain and hellish danger the men worked like automatons. And when the gale of June 9 nearly closed the beaches there was enough material ashore to keep our forces fighting. By the time the great gale of June 20 to June 22 came, the supply crisis had long been past. The dumps were brimming with every one of the 200,000-odd items needed to keep an Army in the field.
This then is the story of supply. It is truly a fabulous story. Supply—the most pedestrian of all military duties— has become the most dramatic fact in the Second Front chronicle. There “back room boys” of the Army not only made the Second Front possible. They made it stick.