COVER

OPERATION OVERLORD

Ross Laver June 11 1984
COVER

OPERATION OVERLORD

Ross Laver June 11 1984

OPERATION OVERLORD

COVER

Ross Laver

The Normandy beaches are tranquil and barren now, a vast, ageless memorial to the death and the glory of June 6, 1944. Along the ragged cliffs the remains of German pillboxes, their rusted cannon still aimed menacingly out to sea, are the only evidence of that grey, bleak morning when 155,000 Allied soldiers waded ashore through machine-gun and artillery fire to begin the liberation of Europe from Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. But for the thousands of U.S., British and Canadian veterans who are returning to Normandy this week to mark the 40th anniversary of D-Day, the memories of war remain permanently etched: the fear and exhilaration that they felt when they first hit that windswept beach; the terrorizing fury of the battle that engulfed them; the sickening horror of seeing a friend blown apart by a shellburst.

Mistakes: Along with the private remembrances, there will be an unprecedented burst of public tributes to the men who took part in the Allied invasion. To mark the anniversary,

French President François Mitterrand has invited dignitaries from each of the former Allied countries to Normandy to attend an elaborate series of ceremonies and re-enactments of the beachhead battles—all televised live in Canada by the major networks. Among the guests: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau,

President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Min_

ister Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who will cross the English Channel in the royal yacht, Britannia. Closer to home, veterans will take part in dozens of smaller ceremonies at war memorials and regimental halls across the country, reliving their experiences as young men in such historic regiments as Toronto’s Queen’s Own Rifles, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and Le Régiment de la Chaudière of Lévis, Que. At the same time, there will be renewed interest in the mistakes and failures of the invasion, many of which are reviewed and documented in a series of new books on the Normandy campaign published to coincide with the anniversary (page 54).

Along with the dignitaries, there are thousands of other

visitors in France this week. They are veterans and ordinary tourists paying their respects to the 210,000 Allied soldiers who died or suffered injuries in the three-month Battle of Normandy. For some Canadian veterans the experience will be a rare opportunity to retrace their steps during Operation Overlord, the greatest amphibious and airborne military operation in history. For the rest, the anniversary will be a time to reflect on the epic deeds of the invaders, whose courage and determination in defence of democracy reversed the tide of the Second World War and ensured the destruction of the empire that Hitler had vowed would last a thousand years.

Still, from its inception the Allied invasion was a gamble of the highest order. Four years earlier, Britain had suffered a humiliating defeat at German hands, forcing it to evacuate 335,000 British, French and Belgian troops from the beaches at Dunkirk just before the collapse of France. Then, on Aug. 19,1942, an attacking force of Canadians from the 2nd Infantry Division landed on the beaches of Dieppe only to be cut down by entrenched German gunners. Of the 4,963 Canadians who took part in that tragic raid, 907 died and 1,946 were taken prisoner.

The lessons of Dunkirk and Dieppe were not lost on the Allied high command. Although an invasion of Hitler’s Eu-

rope from Britain was inevitable, it was equally clear that an immense amount of military planning and training would be needed if Operation Overlord was to succeed. By early 1944 the southern half of England resembled a massive military encampment, with roughly three million U.S., British and Canadian troops assembled for the attack. Meanwhile, Allied planners constructed special landing craft that could carry men, supplies and heavy artillery from ship to shore. There were also frequent reconnaissance flights— and, in the final days before the invasion, bombing attacks—over Pas de Calais, 200 km northeast of the Normandy beaches, designed to convince the Germans that the invasion forces would strike there.

Storm: At the same time, there were disagreements among the Allies about the size and scope of the projected assault. The British officer who directed the early planning, Lt.-Gen. Frederick Morgan, had called for an assault by three divisions—perhaps 30,000 fighting men—along a narrow beachfront. But the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, was convinced that a stronger invasion force was necessary in order to overcome the 210,000 German troops who had spent the war years fortifying the beaches into what they called the Atlantic Wall. As a result, Eisenhower’s second-incommand, British Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, took over responsibility for the project.

Montgomery’s final plan was awesome in its scale and daring in its vision. In all, eight infantry divisions and 14 armored regiments

would storm ashore along an 80-km front. To the east, 75,000 troops, mostly British but also including soldiers from the Canadian First Army under Lt.-Gen. Henry Crerar, would invade three beaches code-named Gold, Juno and Sword. To the west, 58,000 men from the U.S. First Army commanded by Gen. Omar Bradley would attack Utah and Omaha beaches. As well, one British and two U.S. paratroop divisions would drop on the flanks of the landing beaches in the predawn hours. Their objective: to capture key bridges and causeways on the invasion beachhead in order to clear the way for the invading troops.

After several postponements, the Allies fixed June 5 as the

GEN. DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER,

announcing the D-Day invasion:

‘This landing is part of the concerted United Nations plan for the liberation of Europe, made in conjunction with our great Russian allies.

I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us now. Together we shall achieve victory.’

best date for the attack. The timing was fortuitous: preoccupied by the devastating losses suffered by German forces on the Eastern Front, Hitler had deployed only 41 divisions in northern France, compared to the 165 assigned to fend off the advancing troops of the Soviet Union. As well, those troops who were in Normandy were often not Germany’s best. Many of them were battle-weary survivors of the Eastern Front or East European conscripts who held their German commanders in contempt.

Bad weather, however, was playing havoc with the Allies’ plans. Despite torrential rains and heavy seas, Montgomery was convinced that the invasion should go ahead on June 5 as planned; Eisenhower reluctantly overrode him and postponed the operation to the following day, when the storm was expected to subside.

It was a sound decision.

Even in the much less severe weather on June 6, the Allied crossing was a difficult exercise. The D-Day armada was made up of 7,016 vessels, and by the time they reached the Normandy coast some or all of the passengers aboard every ship were afflicted by seasickness. “The water was so rough, it was bloody horrible,” recalled Grant Suche, now 62, who crossed the Channel as a member of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. “I remember the smell of cooking grease and the way everything bobbed around. I was sicker than a dog.” Worse still, the five-foot waves made a co-ordinated landing impossible. Instead of moving to shore under their own power, as they were designed to do, hundreds of the Allies’ amphibious tanks were swamped by waves and many infantry landing craft also foundered or struck underwater mines, wounding or killing many of those on board.

Death: The troops who did make it onto the Juno beaches encountered a withering cross fire from enemy fortifications. “I never realized what war was like until that morning,” said John Balcom, of Sheet Harbor, N.S., who was 22 at the time and who served as a field ambulance private with the Third Canadian Division. “There were thousands of wounded and all we could do was to stop and give them a shot of morphine,” he said. “One poor soul had his arm just hanging by the flesh. We gave him a pad so he would not bleed to death, but there just was not time for anything else.”

Against all the odds, many of the units that

stormed the beaches that morning survived relatively unscathed. Caught off guard and pummelled by heavy naval and air bombardment, many of the German defenders were knocked out before they could fire a single shot. To make matters worse for the enemy, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, assigned by Hitler to guard the Normandy coast, had returned to his home in Ulm, Germany, that day to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Several of the senior officers of the German Seventh Army were also absent, some

attending war games in the French town of Rennes, 150 km to the southwest, while others visited girlfriends in the mistaken belief that bad weather would prevent any Allied attack. The officers who did remain proved indecisive and hesitant in their response to the invasion. Neither the Luftwaffe nor the German navy mustered a significant counterattack. In any event, Canadian casualties on D-Day totalled 340 men killed and 574 wounded—only about half the number that invasion planners had feared.

On Gold and Sword beaches, the British 50th and 3rd Divisions gained a beachhead with relatively few problems, although shell and mortar fire continued to rain down on landing craft ferrying troops to the beach throughout the day. Fortunately, many of the inland guns had been set to fire on predetermined targets that Rommel had chosen under the assumption that any invasion would come at high tide. Instead, the Allies were attacking at low water and many of the shells fell short of their targets.

Some U.S. units encountered far greater resistance. At Utah beach the strong Channel current swept the U.S. landing craft off course toward the most lightly defended stretch of the entire Normandy front, a stroke of good fortune that enabled 23,000 soldiers of the U.S. 4th Division to land with only 197 casualties. But at Omaha beach, where 35,000 Americans were concentrated, the soldiers had to dash across rough terrain while enemy gunners rained a murderous fire upon them from the fortified heights above. By nightfall many men had

struggled no farther than the seawall at the head of the beach. Around them, 2,000 of their comrades lay dead or wounded.

Still, although few of the Allied forces succeeded in reaching their D-Day objectives, the invasion went surprisingly well. In addition to the men, the Allies had landed almost 6,000 vehicles, including 900 tanks and armored vehicles, and 600 guns. But it was a costly victory. Total Allied casualties were about 10,000, compared to estimated German losses of between

4,000 and 9,000. “It was something a person never forgets,” said William Burton of Regina, now 65, who was in the second wave to land. Added Burton: “When I got ashore there were already a lot of dead or wounded on the beach. You instantly developed a hatred for the Germans and everything sort of firmed up in your mind about what had to be done.”

Capture: But it was the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler and for most Allied soldiers that was all that mattered. From then on the Allies were free to bring fresh troops, supplies and ammunition into Normandy to replenish the ground forces for the struggle that lay ahead. By the end of June there were 860,000 Allied troops in France, supported by 157,000 vehicles. The Americans’ task was to push inland from Utah and Omaha through rural Normandy. Part of the U.S. invasion force headed northwest to capture the strategic port of Cherbourg. After a costly two-month stalemate at StLô, the Americans then moved southwest toward Brittany.

Meanwhile, the British and Canadians found themselves stalled at Caen, a commercial centre only 12 km inland from the beaches. The original plan had been to overrun Caen on D-Day itself, and from there move on to the open plains leading to Paris.

But against the Germans’

12th SS Panzer division, the combined British and Canadian forces, under the overall command of Montgomery, came off second best—a fact that soon drew harsh criticism of the commander from his U.S. allies, who complained that the arrogant, aloof general was overly cautious. For almost a month the British and Canadians waged a bloody, slow-moving battle at Cambes wood, Carpiquet and other villáges on the outskirts of Caen. Finally, on the night of July 7, 467 aircraft from the Allies’ Bomber Command pounded Caen with 2,561 tons of ex-

ADOLPH HITLER

en June t, 1944:

‘Supreme Command desires to have the enemy in the bridgehead annihilated by the evening of June 6 since there exists the danger of additional sea and airborne landings. The beachhead must be cleaned up no later than tonight.’

FIELD MARSHAL

BERNARD

MONTGOMERY

oa Lt.-Cen. Henry Crerar, Commander ef the first Canadian Army:

‘I fear he thinks he is a good soldier, and he was determined to show it the moment he took command at 1200 hours. He made his first mistake at 1205 hours and his second after lunch.’

plosives and delayed-action bombs. Four hundred French civilians were killed, thousands were wounded and the old city was reduced to a pile of rubble. Subsequently, Allied commanders learned that most of the 12th SS had already retreated to safety.

By early August, Hitler’s top generals were preparing a massive counterattack designed to break through the U.S. lines and isolate Lt.Gen. George S. Patton’s troops in Brittany. Both Bradley and Montgomery were quick to seize the initiative: instead of trying to repel the attacking force, they would encircle them and trap the Germans in a long, narrow pocket.

Patton’s troops were fastest off the mark, racing across the countryside in a huge crescent in time to reach Argentan, south of the German force, by Aug. 14. At the same time, a Canadian armored division under Gen. Guy Simonds edged southward in a gruelling and time-consuming attempt to link up with Patton’s tanks and close the gap south of Falaise. As the days wore on, the Germans awoke to the plan and roughly 20,000 of them managed to escape back to the Seine through the unclosed pincer.

Liberated: Finally, on Aug. 21 a combined force of Canadian and Polish tank regiments and infantry battalions drove a wedge through the German wall and closed the gap. Trapped in the snare were the remains of 40 German divisions—50,000 men,

10,000 of whom the Allies slaughtered. The Battle of Normandy was over. By Aug. 25 the Allies had liberated Paris, and by March, 1945, they had crossed the Rhine. There were still nine months left until the Germans would surrender, but there was little doubt after Normandy that an Allied victory was assured.

Still, for many veterans the controversies of the Normandy campaign remain. Among the major issues that still preoccupy historians are whether the Canadians, both officers and soldiers, were as poorly trained and ineffectual as some of their critics have maintained, and whether the Allies could have triumphed at all over their German adversaries if they had not had vastly superior stores of firepower as well as total command of the air.

British journalist Max Hastings, for one, believes that, man for man, the Allied troops were no match for the Germans. In a new book, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Hastings argues forcefully that while the Allied plans for the invasion were brilliantly conceived, their execution was both

sluggish and clumsy. And he suggests that the outcome of the campaign might have been radically different if the Soviets had not already destroyed the best of the German army, killing some two million men during three years of fighting on the Eastern Front.

Incompetent: Hastings contends that the German men who defended Normandy belonged to one of the finest fighting armies in history—a fact, he argues, that many veterans and historians are loath to acknowledge for reasons of nationalistic pride. By contrast, the

Allies—particularly the Canadians—were inexperienced and displayed little grasp of the basic tactics of ground warfare. Said Maj.-Gen. Charles Foulkes of the 2nd Canadian Division: “When we went into battle at Falaise and Caen we found that when we bumped into battleexperienced German troops we were no match for them. We would not have been successful had it not been for our air and artillery support.”

In addition, Hastings says, many of the Canadian army’s commanding officers were virtually incompetent. At one point, following a

disastrous attempt to attack Caen that resulted in 450 Canadians killed and twice as many wounded or taken prisoner, Crerar sacked the colonels of two infantry brigades, the North Novas and the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders. More commanders were removed after the battle to close the Falaise gap, including Maj.-Gen. George Kitching, commander of the 4th Armoured Division. As for Montgomery, his low opinion of Crerar is illustrated in a letter written to a subordinate shortly after the Canadian general assumed

control of the newly created Canadian First Army: “I fear he thinks he is a good soldier, and he was determined to show it the moment he

took over command at 1200 hrs____He made his

first mistake at 1205 hrs; and his second after lunch.”

Still, most Canadian historians of the war insist that Canada’s troops were at least as skilful in battle as their British and U.S. allies. “One of the joys of fighting with allies is that each country blames the other every time there is a problem,” said Desmond Morton, professor of history at the University of Toronto and co-

author with J.L. Granatstein of another new book on the Normandy campaign, Bloody Victory. According to Morton, foreign historians typically end up minimizing the Canadian contribution to the invasion because of their unwillingness to consult Canadian military sources, including regimental histories, on the war. A case in point is the alleged slowness with which Canadian forces closed the Falaise gap. Said Morton: “There were as many U.S. divisions sitting on their duff on the other side [of the Falaise gap] as there were Canadian

divisions trying to work their way through very tough German resistance. Sure, there were some bad officers, but they were cleaned out and new ones found.”

Another complicating factor was that the vast majority of Canada’s soldiers had never seen action before Normandy. “It was a baptism by fire—we were totally green when we landed,” recalled Lockhart Fulton, 66, a farmer in Birtle, Man., who landed on Juno beach with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. “Perhaps if we had not been so conservative we could have captured more of the German 7th Army [in the Falaise gap] than we did,” he added.

Honor: Col. Charles Stacey, the official Canadian historian of the war, said that Crerar’s army had an inadequate grasp of strategy but he argued that the same was true of the British and U.S. forces as well. “And as the campaign wore on, we became increasingly professional,” said Stacey, now 77 and retired. “A lot of people who had been casual in their approach to training were either weeded out or they learned on the battlefield how to do it.” For his part, Fulton is extremely proud of his regiment’s increasing proficiency: “If we had had to mount an invasion like Normandy all over again six months or a year later, it would have been totally different. We would have done a whale of a job. We knew how to fight a battle by the time the war ended.”

While the debate over military tactics and battlefield prowess will continue, veterans from each of the old Allied powers are pausing this week to mourn the dead and honor their achievements. For some, the sense of pride they feel on the 40th anniversary of D-Day will be tinged with sadness. Still, this week’s anniversary is an event that few of them would want to miss. “D-Day is not something I would want my sons to be in,” said Ernest Anderson, who commanded D company of the North Shore (N.B.) Regiment at St. Aubin-sur-Mer. “But it is quite another thing to say that you were there.”

LT.-GEN. HENRY CRERAR on the British attitude:

‘No Canadian, American or other “national” commander, unless possessing quite phenomenal qualities, is ever rated quite as high as an equivalent Britisher. To a British Army commander the Canadian cohesiveness, created by the existence of a Canadian higher formation such as a corps, is a distinctly troublesome factor.’