Saturday, June 6, 2009

This Day in Military History (“Longest Day” of the Greatest Generation)

June 6, 1944—In a massive amphibious assault across the English Channel, the United States and its allies—the United Kingdom, Canada, other lands in the British Empire, and assorted countries—landed in Normandy, France. D-Day would help decontaminate Europe of the most murderously racist doctrine the world had ever known.

Months in the planning, D-Day—part of the larger Operation Overload to seize northwestern Europe before rolling back the Germans—relieved the Russians of the pressure of facing the main forces of Nazi Germany, thus honoring promises made by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to their Soviet ally, Joseph Stalin, at the Teheran Conference to open up a second front in Europe.

While justly cementing the reputation of its chief planner and advocate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Overlord spawned 156,000 heroes that day—the full size of the contingent that braved what President Obama called today the “unimaginable hell” of fire from massively entrenched German fortifications.

How bad was it there at dawn that morning? To find out, CNN correspondent Susan Lisovicz interviewed her uncle, 91-year-old Lenny Lisovicz, who put it in far earthier, if less eloquent, terms than the President:

"They had you pinpointed. It was just like shootin' ducks on a pond. Your comrades would get artillery busted. A hand flying here, a leg there, guts laying out on the ground, asking for help and you couldn't help them. You had to move. You just had to push them aside."

In a June 16 Scripps-Howard dispatch, Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle dwelled at length on the logistical challenges facing the young men on the beaches at Normandy. In the piece, “theirs” referred to Germany and “ours” the Allies: “The advantages were all theirs, the disadvantages all ours.” Nevertheless, if the tone sounds like rooting for the home team, the vast array of weaponry spelled out by Pyle, which I’ve summarized below, is indeed as staggering as he maintained:

* Gun emplacements well established on the cliffs overlooking the beaches
* Machine-gun nests created by networks of trenches
* A V-shaped ditch 15-ft. deep a few hundred yards behind shoreline that had to be filled in order to be crossed
* Buried mines
* Barbed-wire entanglements
* Hidden ditches
* Underwater mines
* More mines attached to logs buried in the sand
* Four Germans for every three of the Allies—never a good ratio when attacking a fortified enemy

Under those circumstances, it required unimaginable bravery to defeat that “unimaginable hell.” (If you want additional details to get a good visceral sense of what it was like at the time, you’re well advised to read the dispatches of Overlord by Pyle, A.J. Liebling, and Martha Gellhorn in the Library of America’s excellent anthology, Reporting World War II.)

But, as the assault of Irish-American troops against Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg shows, far more than simple valor is needed to carry the day. I will argue here, two other factors were crucial in Allied success on D-Day: surprise and transportation.

Adolf Hitler correctly suspected that an invasion of France was imminent, but he did not know precisely when or at what spot. The Allies sought to convince him that the Normandy invasion was only a feint, and that the real action would come elsewhere: the Pas de Calais, a far more obvious choice for a landing, since it could be reached more quickly, was close to Europe’s best port, Antwerp, and provided fewer obstacles for invaders.

To make this even easier to swallow, the Allies even had a decoy army set up, one that would be headed by the general that the Nazi high command believed (probably correctly) was the most gifted American commander, George S. Patton Jr. Nobody in an authoritarian structure such as the Nazis could believe that a general would be pulled out of the biggest fight of the war simply because he’d slapped a shell-shocked soldier, yet that in fact was what was happening to Patton.

General Eisenhower then orchestrated a whole sequence of moves designed to convince Hitler that this scheme would take place. As described by Stephen A. Ambrose’s essay “The Secrets of Overlord” in Experience of War, edited by Robert Cowley, the following elaborate ruses were created and pulled off to perfection as part of Operation Fortitude:

* The British “Double-Cross” operation caught and “turned” all two dozen German spies in the U.K. Before Normandy, these spies fed the German high command information that was either of no value or that was inaccurate—in the latter case, telling them that Eisenhower had enough landing craft for a second, principal front. (As it happened, Ike had just enough for one.)
* Radio traffic
* Camouflaged dummy landing craft
* Using the cracked German Ultra code to monitor how readily the Germans were buying the ruse
* Spoonfeeding the spy the Germans trusted the most, code-named Garbo—in actuality, a double-agent—the news that D-Day was coming, but doing so too late to make a difference, but enough to enhance the spy’s credibility when they launched their bogus story—that Calais was the real objective.

The Germans were caught flat-footed—and a good thing, too, as the Allied casualties for the Normandy landings were high enough as it was (at least 10,000, with more recent estimates putting the figures even higher).

And now, for the second factor in the day’s success: transportation. First, the soldiers were able to get off the beaches because of an enormous air strike launched at the same time—so many planes, noted Lenny Lisovicz, that at points you couldn’t see the sky.

Just as crucial were the LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel) used in the operation—better known as the “Higgins Boats.” The mastermind of this craft was Andrew Jackson Higgins, an Irish-American with factories in New Orleans who, at the start of the war, had correctly guessed that steel would be in short supply and that, if he could get his hands on enough wood, he could supply American armed forces with the craft they would need for major operations in the war.

The Higgins Boat were 36 ft., 3 in. in length, with a ramp that fell down when it hit the shore. They were big enough to hold 36 combat-equipped infantrymen or 8,000 pounds of cargo.

Here’s one of the things I like best about these vehicles, though: they were manufactured in integrated factories where women and African-American males were employed as well as white men.

American armed forces would not be integrated until after the war, but at a moment when it was needed most, one of America’s major “arsenals of democracy” was building small boats that would help bring down a regime that reduced those judged racially inferior to slave labor and that judged women as little more than breeding factories for the Fatherland.

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