D-Day: The story behind the story

*Originally published on Hubpages, June 6 2014.*

Men of the BEF arriving back in England on June 6 1940.

Dunkirk and the fall of France

Following the lightning German advance across northern France in May 1940, the most powerful forces of the French Army and British Expeditionary Force (BEF) found themselves completely cut off in Belgium. Retreat having been ordered too late, the BEF together with accompanying French and surviving Belgian troops made for Dunkirk on the coast of France.

Encircled, under constant artillery fire and ceaseless attack by the Luftwaffe, the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk‘ was nevertheless pulled off whereby most of the troops were evacuated, though they had to leave behind all of their tanks, artillery, transport and most of the wounded.

One of the reasons for the success of the evacuation was Adolf Hitler’s orders to halt the German advance on the promise of Luftwaffe Chief Herman Goering that his planes could destroy the Allied pocket and eliminate all the troops in it. The Luftwaffe failed; it was Hitler’s first mistake of the war.

With 330,000 troops shifted to southern England, the first step toward D-Day had already been taken. Dunkirk’s success deterred Hitler from attempting an immediate invasion of Britain which undoubtedly would have succeeded. The subsequent Battle of Britain being won by the Royal Air Force, the base from which to launch what became Operation Overlord was secure.

Standing alone, Britain had no hope of mounting the kind of cross-channel invasion required to liberate Europe. Britain had the most powerful navy in the world in 1940. But, British ground troops were spread around the vast British Empire.

The best Britain could do was an aerial bombing campaign, harassing the coasts of German occupied Europe with commando raids, naval bombardments and clandestine operations to foment rebellion.

Planning for a theoretical invasion went ahead anyway with estimates of troops needed in numbers Britain couldn’t possibly hope to field. It was clear that aside from entry of Russia or the United States into the war, nothing substantial could be done. Hitler had effectively won the war in Europe.

Alone no more

Operation Barbarossa 1941

June 22, 1941 Operation Barbarossa, the largest invasion in modern military history was launched. Three million German troops marched into the Soviet Union. Britain was no longer alone. But, in a sense still had no ally either.

Stalin’s signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and stabbing Poland in the back in 1939, engendered such mistrust that while the Soviets were an ‘ally’ against Hitler, they were never one of the Allies.

However, Hitler’s attack on Russia did mean Britain was safe from invasion, as the bulk of German forces would be tied up fighting Russia for at least the six months it was assessed that Russia could hold out.

Day of Infamy

Pearl Harbor
USS Arizona, December 7 1941.

Though Germany played no role in the Japanese attack on the Unites States, German U-boats had already battled with the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic, sinking the destroyer USS Reuben James in October 1941. Germany & Italy both declared war on the United States on 11 December 1941. The stage was now set for the eventual liberation of Europe.

Serious planning begins

Serious planning began almost immediately for Operation Overlord even before the codename was created. There was however, debate between Washington and London on just where Allied forces should land in Europe.

The most obvious location was a cross-channel invasion of France. However, Churchill had concerns that much of post-war Europe would fall under Moscow’s yoke; well-founded concerns as it turned out.

Churchill strenuously pushed for Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia or Norway to be the landing site for Overlord in order to establish an Allied presence as far east in Europe as possible. All were rejected by Washington. There was no way at the time to provide the air cover for an invasion in those locations, which could be provided over northern France from airbases in Britain. America’s powerful aircraft carrier task forces, were committed to the Pacific Theatre.

A proposal for the invasion of Fascist Spain was rejected because it meant violating Spanish neutrality. The goal would have been a quick advance into Vichy France in conjunction with overthrowing the government of Marshall Henri Petain and installing one friendly to the Allies.

A proposal for simultaneous invasions of northern Holland and Denmark to execute a pincer movement enveloping the North Sea coast of Germany, then striking straight towards Berlin, was also rejected. The Denmark task force would have been hopelessly squeezed between German air and naval attacks from Norway, Denmark, and northern Germany.

That left one choice; northern France, with the initial proposal by both American and British military planners that the Allied invasion come ashore around the Pas-de-Calais coast.

The choice of Normandy and FUSAG

A landing in Calais had one fatal flaw; it was exactly what Hitler expected the Allies to do and German forces were arrayed to thwart just such an attempt.

It was obvious that another site in France had to be selected. Normandy won the day because it had the best beaches for landing craft and amphibious tanks. It was also close to the sea port of Cherbourg. Once captured, the port could be used to feed and supply Allied forces advancing across France.

Allied planners however, realized the advantage to be exploited in Hitler’s obsessive belief Calais was the real target. So, all measures were taken to keep Hitler and his intelligence services convinced that it was.

For every air raid conducted on the Normandy area, two were flown against targets in the Calais region. Reconnaissance flights over Normandy were also matched by the same number or more over Calais.

What convinced Hitler more than anything else however, was the fictitious Allied army group under the command of the one American general that Germany’s general staff feared; Gen. George S. Patton.

The First U.S. Army Group or “FUSAG” as it came to be known was part of a larger deception project. Operation Fortitude featured inflatable aircraft, landing craft, tanks, jeeps, trucks, artillery, troop barracks and even uniform clad mannequins in troop formations organized into several ‘ghost armies’ from Iceland to North Africa.

German spies and intelligence analysts fell for the ruse, as did German signals intelligence analysts, fed a daily stream of radio traffic between FUSAG units and other Allied commands down to mundane details. Even fake traffic about courts-martial of non-existent soldiers was scripted into the effort.

FUSAG was such a successful ruse that even after D-Day, Hitler continued to believe that Normandy was merely a diversion and maintained focus on Calais. Hitler held this belief until the breakout of Patton’s real Third Army from Normandy in Operation Cobra.

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