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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Overlord II: Allied Strategy in World War II

So the obvious answer to the question, “Why invade France?” is that France fell and could not free herself unaided.  But, in addition to that, a host of other geopolitical and military considerations made the invasion of France inevitable.  This essay will explore some of these other reasons and attempt to put the invasion in context.

The military considerations that, at first, delayed plans to liberate France, began to change.  In the first 12 months of 1940-41 immediately following the Fall of France, it was all Britain could do to stay in the war.  After thwarting invasion of the British Isles in the autumn of 1940 by prevailing in the Battle of Britain, the United Kingdom would be locked in her central struggle of World War II:   the Battle of the Atlantic – Britain’s struggle to keep shipping lanes open and import the supplies and war material it needed to keep fighting against Germany’s submarine campaign to isolate them.  The British would lose 2400 merchant ships during the war and 30,000 sailors, most in 1940-43. Prior to December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended American neutrality, the British government had no serious plan for the liberation of France.  

U-Boat pens in St. Loirent, France.  It was stated in a previous post that capturing the French coastline allowed the Germans to extend the range of their fleet.  This is one of the places U-boats were armed, fueled and repaired.  The Allies attempted to destroy these by strategic bombing, with little success.

In June of 1941, Germany launched a surprise attack on their former ally, the Soviet Union.  This time, they would use deliberate and formal blitzkrieg tactics on the Russians in their massive invasion plan, Fall Barbarossa.  (That’s right, the plan was named after the same Fredrick Barbarossa who we talked about in a previous blog post – the Holy Roman Emperor who joined with Richard I and Philip II for the Third Crusade and drowned in Anatolia on the way, causing his huge army to lose heart and go home).  By December, 1941, the Germans were able to  destroy hundreds of Russian divisions en route to the gates of Moscow.  But, the exigencies of war were changing.  Even as the Japanese aircraft carriers that had raided America’s naval base at Pearl Harbor returned to spearhead a wave of Japanese conquests in the Pacific, winter descended on Russia.  Joseph Stalin, certain now that the Japanese would not attack Russia, pulled his reserves from the Far East and unleashed them on the ill-prepared Germans during the worst winter in 100 years.  The German attack stalled just short of Moscow, and the German Army, sent into a battle that was expected to conclude by September, faced -40°F temperatures without winter coats.  Diesel fuel turned to sludge at 40° below, immobilizing German vehicles.  By spring, the Germans had been forced back from the gates of Moscow, and had been handed their first serious check on land.  With the Germans deeply committed in Russia, and the US in the war, the Allies needed to devise a strategy for winning it.

A German Panzer IIIC set to advance on Moscow in October of 1941.  As in The Battle of France in 1940, in 1941 German tanks were not superior to Russian equipment, but were more effectively employed.  Russian preparedness in 1941 was adversely affected by Stalin having sacked many military commanders in a 1939-40 purge under the mistaken impression that they were a greater danger to his rule than the Germans.

Even before these events were well underway, Winston Churchill sailed to Newfoundland in August of 1941, and later to Washington for meetings with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  By January 14, 1942, the basic blueprint of Anglo-American cooperation had been hammered out at the ARCADIA conference.  Chief among these plans was agreement between the two leaders and their general staffs that the European Theater would be given top priority to the Allied resources.  While the United States (and Britain) was precipitously involved in wars on two fronts after December 7, it agreed with Winston Churchill that the events in the European Theater were the most dangerous and required the most immediate response.   They could agree that Germany -- and Italy, which had formally joined the Axis Powers as France collapsed -- would be fought first.  But there was less agreement on how this was to be accomplished. 

The Americans favored a direct approach; invading France at the earliest possible moment.  The British, who had had far more experience fighting the German Army and had to consider the protection of their colonial assets, advocated a series of more limited attacks on the periphery.  Before a serious direct challenge to Germany could be mounted, America needed to raise a much larger army, train and equip it, build and deploy its air forces, and use its navy to clear the Atlantic Ocean of German submarines so  it could safely supply and transport troops in Europe.  Despite America’s enormous industrial potential and a steady gearing up to supply Britain and Russia, on December 7, 1941, its army ranked 19th in the world, immediately below that of Bulgaria!  It would be two years before the weight of US troops and materiel gave them the leverage to persuade the British to invade France.  In the interim, limited operations were undertaken in North Africa, then Sicily, and finally against mainland Italy, knocking Italy out of the war.  This slow entry into the European war gave the Americans valuable battle experience and improved both the British and American capacity in undertaking amphibious operations.   On the other hand, these campaigns and direct attacks on Germany by American and British heavy bombers had still done little to blunt Germany’s military power or will to fight.  By mid 1943, Germany continued to hold the majority of its territorial gains in Russia, and had lost only North Africa and the southern boot of Italy to the Western Allies.  Stalin was militating for a more forceful military response from Britain and the US, complaining that he was bearing almost all of the weight of the war.  And, in this he was largely correct.

An American War Poster Propagandizing US Production.  America out-produced the entire Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan, and their minor allies) in every category of arms that mattered.  The US also supplied the Allies with 90% of their oil!

In the West, the untold story of World War II is that the Soviets did most of the fighting and most of the dying in the European Theater.  As crucial as the upcoming Overlord Operation would be, it was far from the decisive battle against Germany, a picture accounts of the Western Allies sometimes like to suggest. 

What was truly the decisive battle occurred in the late autumn of 1942 at the city of Stalingrad.  For after Germany had stalled just west of Moscow in the winter of 1942, the Germans lacked the military power for an all-out offensive against Russia across the 1000-mile front when the weather improved for the summer campaigning season.  Hitler, realizing that Germany lacked the oil reserves for a protracted war, decided instead to focus his forces on an offensive in Southern Russia aimed at capturing the Russian oil fields in the Caucasus. (Hitler has been severely criticized for mistaken interference in German military strategy.  This is an egregious example; Germany never had the slightest hope of capturing Russian oil fields intact and bringing significant petroleum back to Germany for refining, even had they been captured.  The trackless steppe between the Caucasus oil fields and Berlin lacked the infrastructure to move significant amounts of oil back to Western Europe.)  

German Vehicles roll across the steppes in the summer of 1942 in the execution of Fall Blau

Fall Blau (Case Blue) opened promisingly for the Germans with initial defeats for the Soviets in Southern Russia.  German armored spearheads plunged deep into the Caucuses, bypassing the un-garrisoned city of Stalingrad in early July.  Later it was decided Stalingrad needed to be taken to protect the flank of this main attack to the southeast.  Had Hitler made this decision earlier, he could have seized Stalingrad when it was scarcely defended.  But by August of 1942, the Russians had reinforced it, and the Germans would need to clear this city block by block.  The German attempt to do just that would become the dramatic symbol of the entire struggle between fascism and Bolshevism.  This was World War II’s battle equivalent to Verdun.  By November, the Germans had been bled white, but had indeed occupied 90% of the city and suburbs by concentrating their best troops there.  Then the Russians launched a blitzkrieg of their own, attacking on the steppes north and south of the city now defended by weak Romanian, Hungarian and Italian troops.  They quickly punched through these and surrounded and isolated almost a quarter of the entire German Army on the Eastern Front in the city of Stalingrad.  When a hastily organized relief attempt failed to reach the city, Hitler ordered the surrounded army not to attempt a simultaneous break out but, instead, to hold at all costs.  An ill-conceived effort was made by the Luftwaffe to supply the defenders entirely from the air.  The isolated defenders clung tenaciously to the ruins of the city as further Soviet offensives threatened to cut off an even larger German army now retreating all the way from the Caucasus.  Eventually, the retreating Caucasus army was saved, but when the last surviving German troops surrendered in February of 1943 at Stalingrad, the Russians had destroyed an army of a quarter of a million men.  This was the decisive battle of World War II.  Russia had destroyed enough experienced German troops that the Germans could no longer assume the strategic offensive and could no longer hope to overcome the Soviet Union by conquest.  And it demonstrated that the Red Army had mastered the basic skills of offensive warfare, and could effectively use the tactics of armored warfare to recover their country. It was an entirely Soviet operation -- and a nearly miraculous recovery -- given that Germany had overrun about 40% of the population and industrial centers of the Soviet Union in the immediate previous 16 months.  

Stalingrad on the Volga River can be seen in the background encircled by Soviet troops in early 1943.

All through 1943, and the first half of 1944, the Soviets would be clawing back their territory from the Germans. In July of 1943, the Germans had reorganized their tank forces and launched their last major offensive on the Eastern Front with the limited objective of reducing a salient in the front.  The Russians were able to inflict a decisive defeat on the Germans, in part, because they were able to learn precisely where the Germans would attack and extensively fortified their lines.  The Battle of Kursk would include the largest tank battle in history and permanently secure the strategic initiative for the Soviets. By 1944 on D-Day, they had taken back most of Russia and the Ukraine through a series of offensives in which the Soviets assembled a predominance of force, pulverized a limited portion of the front with artillery, and then sent their tank formations through the lines, penetrating 60-70 miles, and hanging on for the inevitable German counter attacks.  While these actions were invariably more costly to the Russians than the Germans, they paid off in by allowing the Russians to recover their lost territory.  

Soviet Troops and heavy tanks advance in a 1943 propaganda photograph.  Note the strategically placed collective farm in the background.  It would be unlike the Germans to have left it intact!

In some ways, the campaign on the Eastern Front was like a different war, fought with a desperate ferocity – on both sides -- that made the operations in the West seem pale by comparison.  Early in campaign, the Russians, for example, transported all the industrial machinery they had to the Urals and left only the shells of factories for the Nazis to loot.  In addition, they practiced “scorched earth”  as they retreated in the face of German attacks, laying waste to their own countryside to prevent the Germans from using their resources against them.  Showing similar viciousness, the Germans entered Russian cities, they shot anyone thought to be a Communist Party official and deported millions of able-bodied civilians for forced labor in factories in Germany and Poland.  They also organized specialist military units for the purposes of exterminating parts of the civilian population.  The Germans did not just invade Russia, they laid waste to it and depopulated it.  When the tide turned in the East and the Soviets started to retake their lost territory, the Germans in their turn laid waste to the land again.  Similarly, rape and wholesale attacks on civilian refugees would characterize the Red Army’s advance into German territory.  The Russians fought not just to win, but to punish the Germans so severely they would fear to ever attack Russia again.

In Russia, World War II came to be known as the Great Patriotic War.  It was understood as a struggle for the very existence of Russia as a country, not just for the current communist government, and that is what it was.  At no time did Hitler have less that 66% of his divisions arrayed against the Russians and in 1942 and parts of 1943, that figure was closer to 75%.  In the final weeks of the war, German military units would dissolve and attempt to flee to the west so as to surrender to the Western Allies and thereby  escape Soviet retribution.  Russian casualties in World War II would be staggering; literally creating a lost generation.  Estimates of Soviet military casualties range between 6.8 and 11 million dead, with the Russians themselves claiming 8,668,000.  Forty per cent of their territory was overrun, and western estimates of Soviet civilian deaths range from 14 to 28 millions.  Russian official figures are 13,684,000, but the totals are controversial and the actual numbers may never be certain.  All of these from a population in 1941 of just short of 200 million; the Soviets experienced about 22 million deaths -- about 11%.  Compare this to 600,000 French deaths throughout the entire war, and 65,000 deaths and about a million prisoners forced into slave labor in Germany for the duration of the war stemming from the 1940 defeat.  (The other losses were Free French, Resistance, and Vichy losses in subsequent campaigns.)  American deaths on both fronts of World War II are about 400,000.  The British Commonwealth (including India, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) lost about 650,000.  Germany would lose 3.2 million combatants and about 3.8 million civilians out of a prewar population of 80 million.

So the second major reason why the invasion of France made sense was there was a military opportunity (with Hitler changing his focus from West to East) and because our ally, Russia, needed a way to draw some of Hitler’s resources back to the West.  Stalin  demanded the help, and our relations with our Soviet allies required it.  By the time Overlord entered the planning stage, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt had already agreed that no separate peace would be negotiated, but the Western Allies needed to shoulder a bigger share of the fighting to ensure that promise was kept.  The Allies, primarily the United States, provided billions of dollars in aid, including planes, vehicles, and strategic materials.  But the Soviets built the large majority of their own equipment, and organized their own forces, and conducted their own operations with little coordination with Allied forces.

A third reason why the invasion of France was necessary involved the Free French Army and its leader Charles De Gaulle.  While this army fought in North Africa and Italy, the Free French ardently wanted to fight to liberate their homeland.  The French never stopped pressing their demands for liberation and a key role in the fighting for their country.

Charles De Gaulle was a daring French armor commander during the Battle of France.  He became head of the Free French Forces and went on to become President of France after World War II.  The Free French were sensitive about their role in their country's liberation, and the Allies were often perceived as high-handed.  France would become difficult ally in the Cold War that followed hard on the heels of World War II.  Here he strikes a characteristically cooperative pose!

One more reason was a result of German tenacity and the efficiency of German arms.  They left atrocities behind them in their governance of their occupied territories, and the insistence of the Allies on “Unconditional Surrender” meant that the war was going to need to be brought to the German homeland.  Finally, an invasion of France was made necessary because all the other imaginable routes for destroying the German’s ability to wage war had been tried and proved insufficient to conclude it.  No serious peace feelers had been received by the Allies by mid-1944, so for the war to be taken to the German heartland, France was the only practicable remaining route.

A German fortified naval gun, part of the Atlantic Wall the Allies would need to assault to liberate France.
By 1944, the peripheral operations had been tried, the German submarines had been largely dealt with, and the forces were being assembled in Britain for the largest amphibious invasion of all time.   The Allies were coming, the Germans knew it, and they were in the process of fortifying the entire Atlantic coast.  Next, we will look at the preparations and tactical decisions about Operation Overlord itself that set up that great gamble for success.
American-made M-4 Sherman tanks assembled in Britain as a tiny part of the huge build up of men and material that would be required for Operation Overlord.