D-Day: the successes and failures in focus

Antony Beevor talks to Rob Attar about the successes and failures of one of the greatest ever military operations.

Operation Overlord

This article was first published in the June 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Q: Was 6 June 1944 a good choice for the Normandy landings?

A: In a way it was a miraculous choice. Eisenhower [the supreme commander] had a very difficult decision to make but in fact it worked very well.

When he took the decision the weather was appalling, with wind and rain battering on the windows. However, the Allies had weather stations in the western and northern Atlantic, and so were able to see a gap in the weather which the Germans couldn’t see. This is why Rommel [commander of the German defences] was away from his headquarters on 6 June, thinking that the Allies wouldn’t invade on that day, and why many of the German divisional commanders were at Rennes actually looking at a possibility of doing a command exercise against a landing in Normandy.

The Kriegsmarine [German navy] didn’t send out any patrols that night because they thought the weather was too bad. In fact the weather wasn’t too bad for the landings, but it was bad enough for the Germans to have their eyes slightly off the ball.

If the Allies hadn’t crossed on 6 June they would have needed to postpone for another two weeks, and that would have taken them into the worst storm the channel has seen in over 40 years. One assumes the meteorologists would have been able to pick that up but if not it could have been the most appalling disaster in military history.

So the decision to go on 6 June was definitely the right one. It was a brave decision and thank God they said, “Right, let’s go!”

Q: Were the Germans ready to meet the Allied invasion?

A: They had certainly seen it coming. The whole question for them was whether the landings were going to be in Normandy or in the Pas de Calais region. Plan Fortitude, the Allied deception operation, was perhaps the most brilliant that has ever been devised.

It succeeded far beyond what the Allies dared hope in persuading the Germans that Normandy was just the first phase and that the real attack was going to come with a First Army Group led by General Patton in the Pas de Calais. This meant the Germans held back the bulk of their 15th army in the Pas de Calais. Had they not done so the Allies would have faced a very difficult time indeed because reinforcement would have been much more rapid.

In the event the Germans brought divisions up from central and southern France to meet the invasion, rather than across from the Pas de Calais.

Q: In your book you explain that the Allied casualties on D-Day itself were significantly lower than anticipated. Why do you think this was?

A: It was partly because they took the Germans by surprise and also because the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine were less effective than they had thought. The RAF and the USAF did an extraordinary job in keeping the Luftwaffe on the ground, with deep patrols right into France.

As for Kriegsmarine, it only managed a few attacks by E-boats [torpedo boats]. The Allies had been expecting massive losses of minesweepers because if they had been ambushed by German destroyers they would have been intensely vulnerable. Yet not a single minesweeper was sunk.

The casualties for drowning were not in fact that high and most of the casualties on landing came from landing craft which were turned over or tanks being swamped by the waves. Even on Omaha beach, despite the great American myth, casualties were lower than expected and on the Gold, Juno and Sword beaches the Allies got away very lightly.

Q: Was the relative lack of casualties on D-Day due more to German shortcomings than Allied success?

A: Yes, I think that is true. There were in fact failures in the Allied plans, which had depended on knocking out the German defences with shelling and bombing. The Allied shelling from naval artillery went on for too short a period to take out many of the defences.

It would also have been much better to have destroyers going in close to bombard rather than having battleships shelling for a couple of hours offshore. The American air commanders said their bombing could be so accurate that it would knock everything out, but the bombing on D-Day was in most places completely wasted.

At Omaha for example, the Americans didn’t want their bombers to fly along the coast because they would be exposed to flak. Instead they came in over the invasion fleet and of course they were afraid of dropping their bombs on the landing craft so they held on a few seconds more, meaning their bombs fell on open countryside rather than hitting the beaches.

Considering how few of the defences had actually been knocked out by the bombers’ assault, it was a miracle that the casualties were so light. It was a nasty shock for many of the invading troops to arrive and find the gun emplacements were still in action.

Q: Were the Allies well-prepared for the battle for Normandy that followed the D-Day landings?

A: The preparations for the crossing of the Channel were the most intense and meticulous that have ever been made for any operation. However, there wasn’t much forethought about the second phase, and this is where things started to go wrong. The Allies had had a lot of time to prepare, but there was this feeling of ‘let’s get ashore’ without a clarity of thinking about the immediate follow-up.

On the British side, General Montgomery’s plan was to seize Caen on the first day but the troops needed for such an operation were simply not organised enough in advance. If you are going to get your troops 10 miles inland and capture a whole city in a day, which is a very ambitious task to say the least, you have to make sure that your infantry are mounted in armoured personnel carriers or something like that to keep up with the tanks.

The trouble was that the tasks allotted were far more than could be realistically achieved. Then the Germans pushed in their panzer [tank] divisions as quickly as they could and the two sides found themselves in a battle of attrition. The British were supposed to seize enough land to start building airfields but this became impossible as they didn’t have the room. They hadn’t advanced far enough.

Q: Therefore would you say that the British thrust into Normandy did not go as well as planned?

A: Montgomery would have insisted that his master-plan had never changed but then Montgomery, often out of quite puerile vanity, could never admit he had been wrong about anything. He had wanted to seize Caen, advance to Falaise and then break through to Paris. That was always the stated objective and either he didn’t really plan to do that or he got it badly wrong.

I think he probably got it wrong and couldn’t admit that when the British were blocked in by German panzer reinforcements.

At this point Montgomery realised that by anchoring the panzer divisions on his front it would give the Americans the chance to break through in the west. It had always been considered a possibility that the Americans would achieve this breakthrough but it was also thought that the British would break through around Falaise. There is however evidence that Montgomery was not prepared to risk such an attempt, knowing the casualties it would cause.

The Americans became very angry about this, feeling that the British weren’t making the effort or taking the risks and there is an element of truth in that. There was a bitter anti-British feeling among the American commanders over Montgomery’s behaviour that contributed to the worst crisis in Anglo-American relations during the whole of the Second World War.

Q: Do you think there was any way that the British could have got to Paris first?

A: In the circumstances I think it was unlikely simply because of the concentration of panzer divisions against them. They did nearly break through on a couple of occasions but these attempts were often badly handled.

Operation Goodwood [18–20 July], for example, was very poorly planned and when the tanks charged through it was described as the death ride of the English armoured divisions. There was a catastrophic loss of tanks on the first day. However Goodwood did tie down panzers before the big American launch of Operation Cobra on 25 July and so the American possibility of success there was greatly increased.

Q: Despite the setbacks, Cobra succeeded and the Allies managed to seize Paris before their stated objective of 90 days after D-Day. What were the key reasons for their victory?

A: Once they were ashore, Allied victory became inevitable. They had a clear superiority of forces. By the end of August they had landed two million men, while at the same time the German army was being ground down in a battle of attrition.

The Allies also had massive artillery, and I don’t just mean artillery on the ground, but also naval artillery which was able to smash so many counterattacks. They had overwhelming air power. Allied air forces were able to destroy the German resupply system so they were constantly short of rations, fuel and ammunition. This had a huge effect on the German fighting capacity.

Q: We’ve discussed Montgomery’s failings already, but how well did the other Allied commanders perform in the battle for Normandy?

A: American general Omar Bradley, who has often been accused of being uninspired, was actually a lot better than, certainly some British, historians have given him credit for. Where one could criticise Bradley perhaps was his obsession with a broad front strategy, ie not attacking in individual concentrations but assaulting right the way across the whole of the base of the Cotentin peninsular.

This strategy contributed to the large number of American casualties. However, Bradley did recognise the necessity for a concentrated attack just west of St Lô for Operation Cobra.

Eisenhower wisely put George Patton in command of the Third Army to make the breakthrough. Patton was the ideal general for this as his leadership, energy and push was just what was needed for one of the most devastating campaigns in history. This didn’t make him a nice man but a good ruthless general is not going to be a very nice man and Patton was a pretty demanding commander to put it mildly.

Q: What about Eisenhower as supreme commander?

A: He was heavily criticised by Montgomery both at the time and afterwards. “Nice chap, no soldier,” was Montgomery’s view. But Eisenhower actually showed extremely good judgement on all the major issues.

One has to acknowledge a huge achievement in keeping such a very disparate alliance together with such conflicting characters. Whether Eisenhower should have taken a more detailed control of events is a question of what you regard as the role of a supreme commander. I think he was quite right to let the commanders make their own decisions, having established an overall strategy.

Q: How well did the British and American troops fight in the battle?

A: This is a big area of debate, particularly among historians. There has recently been a swing back to the view that the British and Canadian troops performed better than people in the past have given them credit for, and I believe there is some truth in that.

Yet one has to accept the fact that the armies of democracies could not possibly fight in the same way as those of totalitarian regimes where the degree of indoctrination was simply overwhelming. They were not going to be as fanatical or as self-sacrificing. Both British and American psychiatrists were struck by how few German prisoners were suffering from combat fatigue in comparison to their own side. The Americans for example suffered 30,000 combat fatigue casualties in Normandy.

There were I think flaws in the Allies’ training, and I believe the Americans learned more on the job than the British did. The British suffered from the regimental system which resulted in a failure to integrate infantry and armour in a way that was necessary for that kind of fighting in northern France. You cannot suddenly put together an infantry battalion and an armoured regiment and expect them to work together. It takes a lot of training and preparation and the British hadn’t done that.

Q: How do you rate the German defence of Normandy?

A: It was quite simply brilliant in making use of what they had available. Their infantry divisions on the whole were pretty weak so these were bolstered by little pockets of tanks, panzer grenadiers and anti-tank guns taken from the panzer divisions.

Panzer commanders were appalled about this because their whole military ethos was based on the idea of keeping a division together, but these parcels were extremely effective in the defence of the bocage [an area of dense hedgerow]. They were able to inflict considerable casualties on the British and the Americans here by using camouflage and mines and also some very nasty fighting.

And this brings me to a point that I believe has been hugely overlooked in the past: the fighting in Normandy was comparable to that on the Eastern Front. The German casualty rates in the battle for Normandy were 2,300 men per division per month and it was actually lower in the east.

The savagery in Normandy was intense and the killing of prisoners on both sides was much greater than has been considered up until now. One has only got to read a lot of accounts of American paratroopers; they weren’t taking prisoners in many cases. Then there was the British attitude towards SS prisoners which was one of, “I don’t think he’s going to make it back to the prisoner of war camp…”

Q: The fighting on the Eastern Front was notorious for civilian casualties. Did this also happen during the battle for Normandy?

A: There was not deliberate killing of civilians on the Western Front, unlike the east, but civilian casualties were still appalling. One has to face up to the fact that more French were killed in the war by Allied bombing and shelling than British civilians killed by the Luftwaffe and V-bombs.

In the bombing beforehand over 15,000 civilians were killed and during the fighting in Normandy there were at least 20,000 French deaths, which is a huge number.

Q: Could the Allies have reasonably reduced the high number of civilian deaths?

A: Yes I’m afraid I think they could. The British bombing of Caen [beginning on D-Day] in particular was stupid, counterproductive and above all very close to a war crime.

There was an assumption I think that Caen must have been evacuated beforehand. Well that was wishful thinking on the part of the British. There were over 2,000 casualties there on the first two days and in a way it was miraculous that more people weren’t killed in Caen when you think of the bombing, and the shelling which carried on for days afterwards.

Here again there was a lack of thinking things through. If you are intending to capture Caen on the first day then you need to be able to penetrate its streets with your troops. Why then smash them to pieces? In fact, exactly as happened at Stalingrad, the bombing created terrain for the defender as well as being morally wrong.

There have also been heavy accusations against the Americans in Normandy for their indiscriminate use of artillery. The Americans have always believed that you save lives by using massive artillery bombardments beforehand, and I’m certainly not saying they should have done the whole thing without artillery because Allied casualties would have been horrific.

Yet there were occasions, as for example at Mortain [on 12 August], where the Americans destroyed the town in a fit of pique even as the Germans were retreating, simply because they had had such a bloody time there. That I think was deeply shocking.

Operation Overlord
An older couple is watching a Canadian soldier with a bulldozer working in the ruins of a house in the rue de Bayeux.10th July 1944. The church towers in the background have survived the Allied bombing intact. Caen, Normandy, France. (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

Q: As a whole, how successful would you say the Allies were in the battle for Normandy?

A: If you look at it overall it was a triumph in that they secured their stated objective of being on the Seine by D plus 90. From that point of view it was a success but whether they could have avoided many of the mistakes along the way is certainly a matter for debate.

Q: Was it more the future of postwar Europe than the defeat of the Nazis that was at stake at D-Day?

A: Yes I believe so. Germany was certainly going to lose the war by that stage and in fact one could have said that a German loss was irreversible from much earlier on.

It was very much a question of the postwar world. If, for example, the invasion fleet had sailed into the great storm and been smashed, that might have delayed the invasion until the following spring by which point the Russians could well have been west of the Rhine.

This, though, is counterfactual history, which is not something I’m keen on.

Q: Decades later, the Normandy landings continue to fascinate people. Why do you think this is?

A: I think it can easily be explained by the sheer scale and the sheer ambition of the invasion itself. Even though Stalin was bitter about the Allied failure to launch a second front earlier, he had to acknowledge that it was one of the greatest operations the world has ever seen.

The landing of so many thousands of troops on an enemy-occupied country, all in one day, having crossed a very large channel to get there, is unprecedented in history and that is why people remain so interested in it.

When you go to Normandy today there are cemeteries and memorials everywhere and of course museums. I think it must have more museums per square mile than almost any other area of any country in the world. And it’s not just British and Americans who visit. You can see from the different registration plates in the car parks the fascination that the battle for Normandy continues to hold for people from all over the world.

Antony Beevor is the world’s bestselling military historian and the winner of numerous awards. His previous works include Stalingrad, Berlin, Crete and The Battle for Spain. He is also a visiting professor at Birkbeck College.

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