BOOKS: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
D-DAY, by Martin Gilbert
, December 18, 2004
By Martin Gilbert
John Wiley & Sons
Hardback RRP: $32.95This year commemorated the 60th anniversary of the historic Allied D-Day landings in northern France in World War II.
D-Day involved 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft, and saw 155,000 troops - mainly American, British and Canadian - land on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, in what was, until then, the biggest and most daring amphibious military assault ever undertaken.
On the eve of this hazardous enterprise, Britain's wartime leader, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, confided his deepest fears to his wife, Clementine. "Do you realise," he told her, "that by the time you wake up in the morning, 20,000 men may have been killed?"
The ultimate success of D-Day owed much to the Allies' almost two years of meticulous preparation; their elaborate deceptive measures to divert the bulk of German forces away from the planned landing areas; and a miraculous break in the weather.
This book is a fitting commemoration of these great events, written as it is by Sir Martin Gilbert, the distinguished historian and author of the official biography of Churchill.
Gilbert speculates what would have happened if D-Day had failed. Hitler's regime, given a little more time, could have gained a decisive military advantage over the Allies.
Gilbert says: "New, terrifying flying bombs and the even more powerful rocket bombs - with their one-ton warheads - were almost ready to be launched. Long-distance submarines were in the final stage of development, and these would enable Hitler's naval power to reach the eastern seaboard of the United States without having to refuel at sea."
Hitler's scientists were well on the way to developing jet-propelled aircraft. In early 1944, he said that if he could get a few hundred of them, it would "exorcise the spectre of invasion for all time."
Relieved of the need to fight an Allied invasion of Western Europe, he would have been free to concentrate most of his forces to defeat the Soviet Red Army offensive in the East and thereby gain complete mastery of Europe.
With the construction of an elaborate coastal defence from the Atlantic coast of Norway to the French border with neutral Spain in the Bay of Biscay, Hitler - even without new weapons - was well on the way to securing Western Europe from any risk of invasion. This coastal defence, known as the Atlantic Wall, was to consist of 15,000 fortified concrete bunkers and gun batteries, at intervals of 50 to 100 metres, to be manned by 300,000 troops.
Commanding these defences was Field Marshal Rommel, who ordered the laying of an incredibly dense minefield strip along the Channel coast - 1,000 mines deep, with 10 mines per square metre. Fortunately for the Allies, only three million of the planned 20 million mines had been laid by D-Day.
Gilbert disposes of a surprisingly durable myth - spread by Soviet propaganda during and after the war - that Britain and America deliberately delayed opening a Second Front in the West because they secretly wanted the Communist USSR to bleed to death. As Gilbert points out, the West greatly feared the possibility of a Soviet defeat. It would have enabled Hitler to transfer millions of his troops from the Russian front to launch a successful amphibious invasion on Britain. This would have deprived the Allies of the only bridgehead with which they could liberate Europe.
This was why America gave priority to defeating Hitler in Europe, before taking on Japan in the Pacific - a strategy about which Australians at the time understandably had very mixed feelings.
US General Eisenhower had originally wanted to deal with the Far East threat, but was won round to the need to defeat Hitler first.
"We've got to go to Europe to fight," he said, "and we've got to quit wasting our resources all over the world - and still worse - wasting time."
The Western Allies had to delay opening the Second Front, chiefly because of the German submarine threat to trans-Atlantic shipping.
Fortunately, in early summer 1943, the cryptographers at Bletchley Park, near London, finally cracked the modified form of the Enigma codes used by German U-boats in the Atlantic. This enabled the Allies to re-gain control of the seas.Preparation
As a sort of early dress-rehearsal for D-Day, Vice-Admiral Lord Mountbatten on August 19, 1942, led more than 6,000 mainly Canadian troops on a small-scale cross-Channel raid against the French port of Dieppe.
It was a disaster. More than 1,000 of the raiding force were killed, and a further 2,000 were taken prisoner.
But the Allies learned a number of priceless lessons which would greatly help them in planning the future Normandy landings. One of them was not to attempt a frontal assault on a fortified harbour. The Allies overcame this on D-Day by constructing floating piers and artificial harbours (Mulberries) for their vessels to dock and unload troops and supplies near the landing areas. Protecting these makeshift harbours from the stormy seas would be special breakwaters (Gooseberries) made up of 70 disused naval and merchant vessels to be towed across the Channel, filled with concrete and sunk in prearranged positions.
The Allies, in order to deceive the Germans about the time and place of the D-Day landings, created a vast fictitious army, supposedly based in East Anglia, under the command of US General Patton. To make it appear authentic, the phantom army was equipped with bases, orders of battle and a communications network which carried bogus radio traffic.
Two double agents were used to leak misleading information to the Germans about Allied military plans.
The British manipulated the Swedish stock exchange so that Norwegian stocks rose by almost 20 per cent. This was to give the Germans the impression that the liberation of Norway was at hand, and that the Allies might attempt a surprise attack. As D-Day drew near, the Germans kept back 372,000 of their troops in Norway in preparation for an expected Anglo-Soviet amphibious landing there.
Meanwhile, Allied code-breakers closely studied German military radio communications to check that the deceptions were working.
In the four months leading up to D-Day, Allied aircraft flew over occupied Belgium and France, bombing enemy military installations and radars, and particularly railways to disrupt German troop and supply movements. Tragically, thousands of innocent civilians died in these raids.
On May 15, 1944, at Montgomery's London headquarters, General Eisenhower - who had been appointed Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord, the Allied codename for the invasion of Normandy - addressed a high-level war council attended by Churchill and the military chiefs responsible for planning D-Day.
US Admiral Deyo described the impact of Eisenhower's opening 10-minute address on the hushed and tense gathering: " ... before the warmth of his quiet confidence the mists of doubt dissolved."
On June 2, however, the weather over the Channel began to deteriorate and Eisenhower reluctantly postponed the landing, which had originally been planned for June 5.
On the evening of June 4, Eisenhower and the military chiefs had to decide whether to proceed on June 6, when the weather was forecast to improve, or postpone D-Day yet again - perhaps for several weeks - until the tides would be favourable again.
Eisenhower settled on June 6. As darkness fell on June 5, minesweepers moved into the Channel to create ten safe shipping-lanes for the Allied landing craft.
The northern ends of the approach channels were marked out by hundreds of buoys, primed to transmit radio signals for the first few days of the invasion.
During the night a vast armada of more than 3,000 of Allied ships headed for five Normandy beaches, code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
Meanwhile, the Allied command put into action deceptions to divert German attention away from the landing areas. Over the Straits of Dover - the narrowest part of the English Channel, 150 miles north-east of Normandy - Allied aircraft dropped thousands of radar-jamming metal-foil strips so as to produce an illusion on German radar screens of a vast, slow-moving armada approaching the French coast around Calais.
On the sea below, Royal Navy gunboats carried special electronic equipment that reflected, amplified and duplicated German radar pulses, so that a single gunboat would deceptively appear on German radar screens as several sizeable ships.
Parachutists landed behind enemy lines in Normandy to draw off German troops from the landing areas.
The first sea-borne troops to land in Normandy were sappers who used explosives to clear the landing beaches of mine-laden obstacles. Three-quarters of them were killed by German machine-gun fire as they worked.
As dawn came up, the assault-troops came - seasick and exhausted from the previous night's rough Channel crossing. Many were shot before they could even land. Some of the landing craft were swamped by waves and capsized, promptly drowning the men weighed down with heavy equipment.
As viewers of the Steven Spielberg's movie, Saving Private Ryan
, will recall, American troops faced particularly fierce German resistance at Omaha beach and suffered heavy losses.
The Canadian troops at Juno beach were luckier. They swiftly captured the beach and succeeded in penetrating seven miles inland, further than any American and British invading forces that day.
By night, 155,000 Allied troops were ashore on the Normandy beaches.
Ten days after the landing, the Allies learned from decrypted German intelligence that Hitler and his generals remained convinced that the D-Day landings were part of an Allied deception plan, and that the real landings - probably near Calais or in the Low Countries - were yet to come.
As Sir Martin Gilbert observes, "The art of strategic deception had found its finest hour."