25 August 2014

From Five Beaches to Paris: Operation Overlord, 70 years on

Paris, 26 August 1944. Is it just me or were signs at these sort of things better painted back then?

In this post, to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris, I will take a brief-ish look at some of the key events that happened after D-Day; the two and a half months of what at times was a pretty hard slog against determined, battle-hardened German forces.

For all the triumph of D-Day, it failed to meet its planned objectives. The allies wanted four of the five beaches linked, to be 10 to 16 kilometres in land and to have three towns - Saint-Lô, Caen, and Bayeux - in their possession at the end of D-Day; they achieved none of these. It would take until 12 June for the beachheads to be linked up.


Caen was a key target for the Allies - it straddled two major canals, was a road hub and the open environs of the city meant that would be useful for building airstrips.

The Germans knew this too and decided to put most of their reserve forces, a total of 15 divisions (including seven of their ten Panzer divisions), into holding the city.

It would take nearly a month to actually take the city. One notable mishap saw an element of the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars) basically take part in a modern version of the Charge of the Light Brigade when intercepted communications and failure to hear a recall order meant that 51 of the 53 Sherman tanks were knocked out by heavy German anti-tank fire.

In the end, the British basically got their way into the north of Caen via heavy bombing raids against the defenders on 9 July, a move that worked at the cost of mostly destroying the medieval city, including its Cathedral and University. It has been rebuilt since and now hosts an excellent museum/memorial to the war.

Mulberry harvest

The Allies knew that they could not rely on any of the local ports for the huge logistic needs of the invasion and operations afterwards; they wouldn't take Cherbourg for three weeks and when they had, the Germans had already wrecked the port in a hugely thorough job that got the Rear Admiral the Knight's Cross (a day after he'd surrendered) and took months to fully clear up. While they captured the smaller ports intact, these would not be enough.

Therefore, they developed two artificial ports; these were floated across the channel and assembled in place, one at Omaha Beach, run by the Americans and a British one at Gold Beach off the town of Arromanches. These were codenamed Mulberry. In addition, the 'Ghost Army' (an American deception unit) created a fake one with lights at Brest and made the Germans think there were more attackers surrounding them than in reality. These were deployed on D+3 and would be the arrival point for two and a half million men, half a million vehicles and four million tons of supplies.

On 19 June, a major storm hit the Channel, putting the Omaha Mulberry permanently out of action (it wasn't properly secured to the sea bed) and British one, now dubbed 'Port Winston' damaged but still serviceable.

Port Winston was soon put back into service and would spend a total of eight months operating after further caissons were installed to protect it - it was only meant to last three! The remains of the port can still be very easily seen at Arromanches, which has a museum dedicated to it.

In addition, the Allies also towed (or had sail across) a load of old ships to outside the beaches, where they were deliberately sunk to create blockships that sheltered the beaches.

Breakout and bocage

It's worth noting that the troops in Normandy were of relatively poor quality - many young Germans had already been lost on the Eastern front and large quantities of the experienced forces were tied up there as well. A number of battalions were Ostlegionen - "Eastern legions", conscripts and volunteers from the occupied territories of Eastern Europe. While the volunteers may well have wanted to be there, I doubt the conscripts were. However, they would be fighting on a battlefield that favoured them.

The countryside of Normandy (at least on the Allied right i.e. to the west) was largely 'bocage'; large open fields bordered by hedges and sunken lanes. The advantages for the defenders were obvious and the Allies would have a lot of problems, especially as German tanks were generally better armoured and gunned than their opponents.

[The most effective tank the Germans possessed was the Tiger, but when reading combat reports, be aware of the tendency by Allied soldiers to report a Panzer as a Tiger; in the heat of the battle, you don't have time to read your tank recognition guide. There weren't that many of them in Normandy]

A major advantage of the Allies of course in dealing with these problems was their huge air superiority; not only did they have on the whole better aircraft, the Germans were increasingly building air defence fighters to deal with Allied bombing raids instead of ground-attack or bomber aircraft.

However, on call air support was limited and heavily in demand, so the Allies would face a hard and high casualty slog through the bocage. Blowing up the hedges merely let the Germans know where the Americans were.

Breakout and the Falaise Pocket

Commanded by the renowned (and humane - his Afrika Korps were never accused of war crimes) Erwin Rommel, the Germans put up a strong fight, but even they couldn't stop the Allied advance; by mid-July their resistance was beginning to crumble. Soon Rommel would be eliminated from the equation.

On 17 July, a Canadian Spitfire strafed his car as he was travelling; the driver crashed after being hit in his left arm and the Field Marshal was thrown from the car receiving major head injuries. By the time he recovered, his role in the Valkyrie plot had become clear to Hitler - who offered him a choice between suicide and a public trial with repercussions of the fatal kind for his staff and family. The 'Desert Fox' chose cyanide - it was announced at the time he had died from injuries sustained in the attack.

The battle over Caen was drawing the best of the German forces to that sector and with them being tied down fighting the British and Canadian forces, a plan was drawn up for a breakout in the west by the Americans. Secretly fitting armoured 'tusks' to most of their tanks (an idea attributed to a sergeant called Curtis D. Cullin, who in fact gave credit to a Tennessee hillbilly named Roberts) to allow them to punch through the hedges, the US could get through them much easily, an offensive called Operation Cobra was planned.

The attack was delayed by a few days due to bad weather and then had to be scrubbed again after the initial aircraft launches on 24 July, but not before 25 Americans were killed by friendly fire in poor visibility. The following day, the attack went down properly, with a 5.5km x 2 km area Saint-Lô–Periers road carpet-bombed by bombers... which also managed to kill 111 Americans and wound 490. The first day's progress was disappointing; artillery fire was heavier than expected and the Germans put up a fierce fight... but it was clear their positions could be easily bypassed or outflanked.

Over the next couple of days, the local German resistance crumbled under the weight of attack, the Panzer Lehr Division was destroyed. By the end of the month, the Americans were clear of the bocage.

The following day, George S. Patton (who had been kept in the UK for slapping a soldier with 'shell-shock' and also to 'head' the fake forces created to make the Germans think the real target of the invasion was Pas-de-Calais)  now had his Third Army activated and got into Brittany by 4 August.

With the Germans now unable to avoid defeat as Army Group Centre was now under attack on the Eastern front by the Red Army, Marshal Günther von Kluge was still ordered to launch a counter-attack by a man who had never commanded an army... but probably had two testicles. He agreed as well... over the objections of his lower level commanders

The plan was to have eight of the nine Panzer divisions in Normandy launch an attack between Mortain and Avranches; only four could be made ready in time... and the offensive got launched anyway on 7 August.

The attack was meant to be a surprise (there was no preparatory artillery bombardment), but ULTRA decrypts meant that the Allies knew it was coming. The attack rapidly stalled and the offensive was over in a week (it was over as a threat to the campaign in 24 hours), with 150 of the 300 tanks committed lost.

The Allies now saw an opportunity to trap and destroy Army Group B. Montgomery's UK and Canadian forces would pivot from Falaise to the Seine, while the Americans would swing around to the south and then block the escape route between that river and the Loire.

Commencing on the 12th, progress was slower than expected and many of the Germans began to escape to the east through the gap. On the 19th, Polish forces reached Mont Ormel ridge or Hill 262 (as it was 262m high) which gave them a commanding view over the escape route. Their 1,500 infantry and 80 tanks soon became trapped on the hill by a determined German counter-attack; the Germans knew they needed this place in their hands to escaped. Over the next three days, they managed to repel, at heavy cost (over 300 killed) several German attacks and had to watch as a number of German units managed to escape. Eventually they were relieved by Canadian forces and the pocket was deemed closed on the 21st. The Canadians placed a sign on the summit saying simply 'A Polish Battle' and the site now has a memorial to one of many great Polish actions during the war.

The following day, every German still in the pocket was dead or a POW; the c.10,000 of the former presented a considerable local health hazard as their bodies rotted in the hot weather.

With most of the German forces west of the Seine now eliminated (one estimate is 450,000 Germans killed, wounded or captured during the campaign), the way was open for the Allies to advance all the way to the German border. However, the escape of between 25,000 to 45,000 Germans out of the pocket before its closure (it has been argued that it could have been closed sooner) would cause problems later on; while they had left their heavy equipment behind, they would be rearmed and ready to delay the Allies when they reached the Netherlands and Germany.

As for von Kluge, he had been involved in a small way in the Valkyrie plot and when recalled to Berlin on 17 August, he took cyanide as he feared Hitler would punish him.


Eisenhower didn't consider Paris a priority in his operations; he was aware of Hitler's plans to destroy the city to prevent it falling into enemy hands and wanted to avoid a costly battle of attrition followed by the need to supply the local population. There was a big enough of a refugee problems as was and it would become even bigger.

The Free French on the other hand, especially de Gaulle (in a power struggle), wanted to take the city as a priority - it was a key transportation hub after all.

Jews were still being arrested in Paris until 11 August and the last lot of political prisoners headed for Buchenwald on the 15th. That day, what would become a general strike started in Paris, with a full-scale uprising starting on the 18th, instigated by the Free French, with "all men from 18 to 50 able to carry a weapon" called to eject the invaders. 800 to a thousand resistance fighters died in the skirmishes (the German losses were estimated at 3,200 killed and 12,800 POW) and on 22 August, Hitler ordered the destruction of the city...

But Paris would survive pretty much intact. Local military governor von Choltitz instead ignored the order (although he was still killing French people up to the 23rd). The French 2nd Armoured Division disobeyed orders and swept through the west of the city, with the 4th US Infantry Division handling the east. German resistance collapsed and on 25 August, the city surrendered. That same day all four Allied armies (1st Canadian, 1st US, 3rd US and 2nd British) were on the river Seine.

There were victory parades, a large amount of partying and thanks to a group of brave (not to mention enterprising) French film-makers who had been filming since the 19th, the locals could even see a documentary, La Libération de Paris, in cinemas from the first day of the following month.

The aftermath

The French provisional government, headed by Charles de Gaulle, moved to Paris after the liberation and started in the process of setting up a new constitution, repealing Vichy laws and so on.

Having been occupied for just over four years, the locals were not exactly happy with those who had collaborated with the Germans. The first wave of going after these people was pretty unofficial; with summary executions and head shaving of women (or worse) who slept with Germans... or were thought to have done so, regardless of whether they had. The new authorities managed to restore order and then followed the legal trials, with 120,000 people sentenced by them. 6,763 death sentences (over half in abstentia) were issued, but only 791 people were executed - Philippe Pétain, who had headed Vichy France, got his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment in view of his age and contributions in the First World War; he died in 1951 on an offshore island. It was more common to lose your political and legal rights.

This lasted for a few years at any rate; the French then collectively developed a sort of amnesia on just how much of this stuff went on - only recently has it been acknowledged in more depth and next year, a whole batch of files on collaborators will be released by the government after the 75-year secrecy limit expires. That will be interesting.

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