“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” General Robert E. Lee, Confederate States of America
On the second day of our Seine cruise, we stop in Rouen. Rouen is the capital of Normandy, and a minor port on the Atlantic Ocean. We will spend two days there, but the first is the piece de resistance, a major reason for our selection of this trip. On our first day in Rouen, we are going to take buses to the U S Military Cemetery in Coleville-sur-Mer on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach. Our subject will be the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 during World War II, code named “Operation Overlord”.
No modern American battle had been as romanticized as this crucial Overlord invasion. Perhaps you have seen the very realistic depiction of the initial assault at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, a 1994 masterpiece created by Steven Spielberg from the popular historical accounts written by Stephen Ambrose on the occasion of the invasion’s 50th anniversary. In this, Spielberg treats warfare with the same close eye for detail as Flaubert did French 19th century country life, loving and criticizing it at the same time. The shocking hand-held camera work of the initial invasion sequence stands in great contrast to the lionization of warfare in most Hollywood depictions. In an earlier movie, The Longest Day, the story line, adapted from Cornelius Ryan’s account of the first 24 hours of battle, is well conceived, but the combat is less realistically portrayed. We have seen the movies and read the books and we will be treading familiar ground. We, like General Lee, will look down from the commanding heights of the Norman coast and marvel at the grandeur and terror that organized human conflict represents. For Lee was in a very similar position to the Germans, with his men in a naturally fortified position as his enemies struggled up hill to take Marye’s Heights in the battle of Fredericksburg, in December of 1862, which is when he uttered those famous words. He would shortly prevail in the most lopsided major battle ever fought on American soil. When we win, the temptation to romance is enormous, for General Lee, and for all of us.
|Confederate artillerymen defending Marye's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg. With a commanding view of the battle, Lee see it all unfold before him and realize the Union's assault on his positions was hopeless.|
|Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) reconnoiters a machine gun nest in an effort to get off Omaha Beach in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.|
The D-Day invasion is sometimes described as the turning point of World War II and sometimes as the most crucial battle in World War II. It is neither, and these claims in part reflect similar romanticism. But, when it was planned and launched, it was considered to be an incredible gamble, and that fear had everything to do with why it was a success. And even if Operation Overlord was far more likely to succeed than was generally perceived at the time, it took tremendous courage and fully dedicated genius to ensure that success. Had Operation Overlord failed, the world would surely look different from the world we know today. Had it failed, the Soviets might well have overrun much of Europe, increasing their power in subsequent years. Germany would probably not be free, democratic and unified today. The American sacrifice on Omaha Beach was indeed critical to the struggle to preserve democratic values in Europe throughout the Cold War and sanctifies this part of Normandy. So we will be treading hallowed ground; as at Gettysburg, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
What made the invasion of Normandy so critical? There are a number of answers. But the dramatic story of the Fall of France deserves a better telling than the superficial one we encountered in the Musèe d’Armèe back in Paris, so we will explore that in detail before turning to some of the other important answers that shaped Allied grand strategy in World War II to be covered in the next post.
Actually, the Battle of France was also critical in the struggle to preserve democratic values in Europe, but France was singularly unsuccessful in defending herself when threatened with invasion in 1940. This shocking failure made a cross-channel invasion in 1944 essential to the Allies' war plans. Love democracy as we might, there is little to love in the story of the Fall of France. But if there are powerful lessons about French and American experience to be drawn from the Norman coast, there are also important things to learn in France’s collapse. For in those dark days of the late spring and early summer of 1940, it seemed that the foundation ideals of freedom and democracy were failing altogether.
You may recall from my post on Churchill’s bunker that France succumbed very rapidly to the German invasion in 1940. Despite 22 years to prepare for the rematch necessitated by the Treaty of Versailles, France was woefully under-prepared for the military realities of World War II. So understanding the Fall of France in 1940 requires some understanding of how the Germans succeeded and the French failed to take advantage of this inter-war period. The roots of this lesson lie in how the great stalemate on the Western Front in World War I was overcome.
When the combatants in World War I all charged off enthusiastically to battle in 1914, neither the citizens nor their leadership realized how completely the bloody stalemate and war of attrition that resulted would end the Europe they knew. Almost everyone anticipated a quick and glorious decisive battle to demonstrate the superiority of their own arms. But no such battle would happen in World War I due to the unanticipated consequences of two key technological innovations and a problem of doctrine which everyone shared. After a 2 month fluid period in 1914 as the Allied and German military machines first came to grips with each other, World War I’s showcase front was a costly stalemate because the military theories of the time, which essentially held that whichever side had the greater élan or will to win would prevail, had been outstripped by technology.
|French Heavy Cavalry parading through Paris on the way to the front, August, 1914. No better exemplars of elan, and its uselessness, could be found than cavalry, which proved obsolete the moment they charged into battle on the Western Front.|
In retrospect, the doctrine of élan itself seems extravagantly romantic; that our manly soldiers are so much more resolute in their love of country that they will prevail over our enemies on the battlefield in a pure test of moral superiority. These ideas have been around for a long time, and are far from stamped out today. But they were very prevalent in 1914, and would face the severest trial by fire when confronted with the unanticipated consequences of technological change.
|A British Vickers machine gun. This one is not very well dug in, easy pickings for a heavy artillery bombardment!|
The first key technology was the machine gun, and it rendered battlefield élan obsolete. Machine guns were bulky, heavy, and needed to be mounted stably on the ground to fire efficiently; most required two men to operate, one to load belts of ammo and the other to aim and fire. But if a two man crew could keep a properly sited machine gun operational and if they were fully equipped with ammunition, they could kill an essentially unlimited number of adversaries. When pitted against such a machine gun, the higher morale of the advancing enemies, the longer the machine gun could keep mowing them down. Machine guns could fire faster than men could advance. Stories of a single machine gun killing 600-800 adversaries in a few minutes were not uncommon on the Western Front in World War I.
Because assaults on enemy strong points occupied by machine guns were so arduous and costly, military doctrine dictated vigorous shelling of enemy strong points with artillery before assaulting them. The goal was to destroy all the enemy machine guns so your troops could come to grips with the enemy infantry in their trenches where the mass of your assault could overwhelm their defense. Instead, massive bombardments blasted the earth into mud pockmarked with giant craters, and motivated the enemy to dig ever deeper to avoid destruction from the rain of artillery shells. The result was trench warfare. Both the Germans and the Allies built a continuous line of trenches, often fortifying a zone several miles back from the front lines, from the Swiss border to the English channel starting in October of 1914. As the war dragged on, these fortifications became ever deeper and more elaborate.
|An aerial photograph of a small portion of the German Trenches on the Western Front. Trench living was miserable, boring, terrifying and squalid in turns|
The second technology was the railroad, and railroads had been used in war for over 50 years when World War I broke out. But their implications for creating a costly stalemate were not fully realized until trench warfare became widespread. Because railroads behind these trench limes made it easy for the enemy to shift troops, there was almost no chance that a determined force could advance through the morass of mud, craters, barbed wire and obstacles, and unreduced enemy strong points before their adversaries were reinforced with fresh troops rushed to the threatened sector of the front by rail. For these reasons, the Western front scarcely moved twenty square miles on a 400 mile front that stretched from Switzerland to the lowlands of Belgium for three full years. A terrible war of attrition ensued. During offensives, it was not unheard of for 60,000 men to become casualties in a single day. The Battle of Verdun described below would kill 140,000 Germans and 160,000 Frenchmen, and wound half a million over ten months of 1916 and that is just a single battle! A horrible caricature of élan developed in which entire countries became locked in struggle, fighting until their national wills and economies broke under fire. No one, victor or vanquished in World War I said anything like General Lee’s Fredericksburg quote. Armies mutinied, economies collapsed, citizens lost faith in their leadership, and dynasties fell.
To break this bloody stalemate, two key innovations were developed. The first was a new technology: the “tank”, a motorized vehicle machine gun strong point that was armored so that it could not be harmed by opponent's machine gun fire. (“Tanks” were so named by the British, who referred to them as water carriers in the development process to disguise their true purposes from German intelligence!) The Allies invented tanks first, and found it hard to control groups of them or keep them from breaking down on the battlefield. They were complicated, balky and newfangled. But eventually, tanks would be used to break though the deep and complex series of obstacles that comprised trench warfare.
This two minute silent video shows British and French tanks in action in 1918. Note that early tanks had no suspension systems, so tankers were rattled around like they were being shaken in a tin can. Armor was thin, and 'spalling' -- splinters of the tanks' armor, often flew around inside the tanks when they were hit, injuring the crew. Engine exhaust vented inside the tank, often sickening them.
If tanks represented the technological solution, the Germans were the first to hit upon a change in doctrine. They asked: ‘What if, instead of assaulting the strongest points in the enemy’s line, one bypassed them?’ Rather than allowing the entire force to be stopped by the toughest enemy position on the line, just move out of range and go around it. Wouldn’t the enemy eventually become afraid, stop firing and fall back, thus allowing friendly forces to advance? And if not, perhaps they could be assaulted from the rear! As the war progressed the Germans trained whole divisions of Stosstrupen schooled in these infiltration tactics.
|Stosstruppen advancing on the Western Front in 1918. Note that their machine gun takes three men just to carry.|
The Germans field tested this solution on their Eastern Front against the Russians, and fanned the embers of the Russian Revolution into open flames with defeats they handed the Russian Army. In 1917, the Russians dropped out of the war. Also in 1917, they used these tactics in the Caporetto Offensive against the Italians; infiltration almost knocked the Italians out of the war. In the spring of 1918, they employed them on the largest scale yet, and briefly broke open the Western Front for the first time in three years. While this admirably validated the theory, the Germans ran out of momentum and troops short of capturing Paris and ending the war. Five months later, exhausted, and facing fresh American manpower to augment the depleted French and British, the Germans appealed for the armistice that ended World War I.
In the interwar years, an elite set of military theorists, led by B H Liddel Hart and J F C Fuller, suggested that infiltration tactics and armored fighting vehicles could be combined. The massed firepower of tanks could punch a whole in enemy lines, and then their mobility might allow them to penetrate deep into his undefended rear areas where they could overrun headquarters, seize enemy transportation centers, cities and production facilities, and surround and isolate frontline units on a scale much larger than anything accomplished during the Great War. Convinced by experience of the value of infiltration tactics, Germany designed and organized an army that might be able to test this theory. France built the Maginot Line, the most complex and sophisticated trench system the world had yet seen. They would defend against infiltration by trying to become impossible to penetrate or bypass.
France had drawn a very different conclusion from her experience in World War I. For the French, the defining moment of World War I occurred during the Battle of Verdun. There, waves of conventional German attackers assaulted the forts surrounding the city of Verdun. French national prestige hung in the balance as waves of German attackers assaulted these forts using conventional tactics. Robert Nivelle, the local commander, decreed “Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes comerades!” (“You will not let them pass, my comrades!) which has come down to popular history as “They shall not pass!” and he threw reinforcements into the meat grinder until he made good on this declaration. Verdun remained in French hands. Eventually the French recovered part of French territory taken by the Germans in their initial assault. After the war, the French took the lesson of this defining moment in a war of attrition to mean that they needed a more thorough-going defense in depth. So in the interwar years they built a fort that extended every meter of the border between France and Germany, and Luxembourg, for good measure! It was the biggest and longest military fortification since the Great Wall of China! Only boggy ground and the need to repay World War I loans to the United States prevented France from extending this super fortification all the way to the English Channel. The expense of the Maginot Line inevitably left France with less to spend on its conventional forces. When the Second World War came finally came, the Germans simply went around it, attacking just north of it through eastern Belgium.
|An artist's rendering of some of the extensive underground system of Maginot fortifications.|
|Preserved portions of the Maginot Line today.|
In the interwar years, the Germans combined their lessons in infiltration tactics that almost won World War I for them with the power and mobility of tanks. They designed their air force for ground attack and for sweeping enemy aircraft from the skies over the front lines. When it was time for the armor to attempt a breakthrough, they would have the support of dive bombers. In the blog post on the Battle of Britain, we saw that the Luftwaffe performed poorly as a strategic bombing force when the Germans needed to penetrate deep into enemy air space and bomb English industry and population centers. But it was extremely effective in supporting the “blitzkrieg,” (lightening warfare) which is what this new method of warfare came to be called when the Germans overcame the Polish Army in less than one month in the Autumn of 1939. In this opening battle of the war it became evident that, whatever World War II was going to be like, this first battle for Poland wasn’t anything like the Western Front in World War I had been.
|A Panzer 2D from the Poland invasion. German tanks were a huge improvement over the World War I designs, but not better designed than those of France or Britain. They were, however, employed much more effectively.|
On May 10, 1940, The Germans initiated Fall Gelb (Plan Yellow), their operational plan for a preliminary invasion of Belgium and Holland, both of which had scrupulously remained neutral in hopes avoiding any involvement in the expected battle between the Allies and Germans. The Germans never had any intention of making their primary assault on France through the Maginot fortifications. The German plan was limited, a preliminary for coming to grips with the Allies in the ‘real’ battle to follow in northern France where the fortifications were lightest. It made no provision for armored spearheads penetrating deep behind Allied lines. The German High command never had any intention of making unsupported armored thrusts. In many ways, Fall Gelb was a flawed operation; the Germans projected much of their armored force through the rough and heavily forested Ardennes. This aided them in concealing their intentions, but resulted in a two-week long traffic jam as this was the one place in Western Europe the roads could not support the huge mechanized forces involved. The plan could have turned out very badly had the Germans failed to achieve a breakthrough right at the point they emerged from the Ardennes. If they had needed to redeploy up or down the Meuse River that constituted the region’s southwestern boundary, the terrain and roads would have poorly supported such a move. But in operation, Fall Gelb worked far better than it had been drawn up in development.
The lead German units came out of the Ardennes May 13 in France near the town of Sedan, which was heavily fortified, but a pale shadow of the Maginot fortifications. On paper, it was not a propitious place to attempt to force a major river crossing. It was well garrisoned, albeit with second rate troops. In two days, the Germans overcame French reserve units that did not put up a very spirited fight despite being fortified in good defensive positions. The Luftwaffe performed well in its close support role, and did an excellent job of controlling the air space over the battlefield, breaking up air attacks on the Meuse bridges hastily organized when the Allies recognized their danger. Some French units started to melt away, imagining that the Germans had already broken through and were behind them when nothing of the sort had yet happened. The local French mobile forces were slow to counterattack, and in some cases they were destroyed in their camps, unprepared for the speed of the German breakthrough. Command indecision paralyzed the French response at just the wrong moment. For the French, everything that could go wrong did, and they made all the wrong choices.
Much of the credit for exploiting the breakthrough must go to local German commanders who exceeded their orders and in some cases were flatly insubordinate in advancing beyond the Fall Gelb’s guidelines. Erwin Rommel, who would later distinguish himself in the African desert, was among the most successful and aggressive. Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein would also distinguish themselves in this battle and later become famous commanders on the Easter Front when Hitler went on to invade Russia in 1941. But having imagined the possibilities of armored spearheads in the French rear, these generals refused to be denied. After two days of heavy fighting at Sedan, the German armored forces broke through the dissolving French lines completely, and raced behind the main French and British forces that were rushing to meet them in western Belgium. On May 19th, despite many fears, breakdowns and misgivings, German armored units had advanced from Sedan to the English Channel, isolating the entire British Expeditionary Force and a dozen French divisions from the main force in France itself. Churchill, having just been elected Prime Minister and after receiving a defeatist call from the French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud on May 15th, flew to Paris on the 17th to confer with his French counterparts and heard them talking about already having lost the war despite the fact that the campaign was scarcely a week old! He was dumbfounded to learn that the French had no strategic reserve: the best French mobile units were all advancing north into Belgium with the British forces.
The Germans, frightened by their own success, now lost their focus. Their tanks were out of fuel and strung out across Northern France, and in many ways the German High Command was confused at having lost control of the battle. Hitler now signed an order that slackened operations to catch their breath. The British quickly realized that, with their forces oriented to the north and still advancing in Belgium, they had little chance of attacking through the German lines in the south to rejoin the main French army. Instead, they retreated to the coast. A heroic evacuation, Operation Dynamo, centered on the French town of Dunkirk, was jury-rigged, pressing every available civilian water craft to help pull the troops back to England. While the Germans resupplied, reorganized and dithered, the British withdrew almost 250,000 British soldiers and 100,000 French, albeit with the complete loss of their heavy equipment. The evacuation was concluded June 5, and when the Germans were ready to resume their attacks on the Dunkirk perimeter, the British were gone and an immense opportunity had been lost.
Also on June 5th, the Germans resumed serious offensive operations aimed at capturing Paris, but the French, having already lost 25% of their forces and succumbed to defeatism, capitulated June 25th, 1940. Many French units fought well. The Germans launched a limited attack on the Maginot line, which had to be depleted of some of its defenders due to the French and British units withdrawn from France (the French no longer had enough troops to cover the front. Although the French evacuees from Dunkirk were mostly repatriated, there was no time to re-equip and reorganize them into effective military formations). The German attack proved that the fortifications were not invincible, and managed a small breach. But the campaign was decided in the fields of northern France. Hitler came to Paris and enjoyed the sights while passing out medals and parading the troops down Avenue Foch. The French were forced to sign the instruments of this surrender in the same railroad car where the Germans had endured the humiliation of signing the armistice ending hostilities in World War I. A rump French government, later termed ‘Vichy France’ would rule southern France while Germany occupied Paris, all of northern France and the Atlantic coast. When the Allies invaded North Africa in November of 1942, the Germans shut down their French puppet and occupied all of France until of the summer of 1944 when the Allies started to liberate it. Most of France’s extensive overseas colonial empire became neutral territory under the control of Vichy. A few of the Dunkirk evacuees and a few minor colonies fought on as the Free French.
BBC Animation of the Battle of France
BBC Animation of the Battle of France
The Fall of France shocked the world in its rapidity. The Germans had accomplished in 7 weeks what had eluded them for 4 years in World War I. The campaign had immediate and far-ranging effects, even beyond the Battle of Britain already discussed. The capture of major ports in southwestern France would greatly expand the effectiveness to the German submarine warfare by extending the range of their fleet. They would have locations to rearm and resupply that were much closer to vital British shipping lanes, so the submarines would have more time to hunt and could sink more ships. With France vanquished, Hitler would turn his attention east to the Soviet Union, and soon Italy, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria and would join the Axis Powers. The neutralization of France’s North Africa territories would emboldened Benito Mussolini to widen the war there, and soon German forces would be needed to shore up Italian weakness in Africa and the Balkans. The fall of France gave American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt the political leverage he needed to greatly expand American rearmament, and soon after, he pushed the Lend-Lease program through Congress, providing the US with the authorization to supply arms to the United Kingdom and later, the Soviet Union. French weakness would also prompt Japan to seize French Indochina as a source of further leverage in their on-going war with China. When the Japanese occupied Indochina, America imposed further economic sanctions on Japan intended make Japan withdraw from China, furthering the diplomatic escalation that the Japanese finally attempted to break with the attack on Pearl Harbor. In this way, the fall of France led indirectly to American entry into World War II.
The blitzkrieg that destroyed France in 1940 was not a careful script designed by the German General Staff and executed flawlessly according to plan. The plan to invade France never had any doctrine that corresponded to the blitzkrieg we understand today. Rather, they built mechanized and air forces that could execute such tactics, and put leaders in charge who knew and understood the unproven theories, and who seized the initiative to make it happen. Both sides made mistakes, but the French mistakes were fatal. The Germans beat a dispirited and demoralized French Republic that was equipped with the men and material to fight, but lacked the will to do so. The French had the wrong plan. But the Germans also caught a lucky break when the second rate troops at Sedan failed to fight well. There might easily have been no breakthrough there to exploit. But there was. Now it would be up to others to liberate France. The question now was: “How to do that?”
But the rapid conquest of France had another effect. With quick victories against Poland and France, Germany had shown that decisive battle was possible, and restored the romantic ideal that warfare, properly conducted, could easily and efficiently solve problems in international relations. This notion would intoxicate Hitler’s ambitions and eventually doom Germany to a defeat far worse than it suffered in World War I. But we are going to view the Normandy battlefield sharing a little of that belief, that this is the place where one of those decisive moments occurred when a battle really did change the world. This may be a romantic idea, and a dangerous idea, but is nonetheless sometimes true.