Eighty Years Of D-Day: Why The Allied Mission Was Also A Dry Run For The Cold War

Sudharshan Garg

Jun 15, 2024, 09:45 AM | Updated 09:44 AM IST

D-Day landings in Normandy (Photo: tonynetone/Flickr)
D-Day landings in Normandy (Photo: tonynetone/Flickr)
  • The Allies needed to grab as much territory as they could, lest the Soviet Union be master of all Europe.
  • It constructed the largest and complex military machine that has ever existed. It has been hammered and damaged to such an extent that it is questionable if it can ever be repaired. The supply, maintenance and administration of her retreating armies may already be beyond her capacity to control. We believe therefore, that a situation may arise, and for which we must be prepared, in which she will be unable to stabilize and hold a line in Russia for any length of time at all. If that should occur, organized resistance in Russia might collapse.

    This was not the typical hubristic assessment of the Fremde Heere Ost (the German military intelligence outfit dealing with the Soviet front) in 1941, but a cold, sobering Anglo-American assessment made in February 1943 after the German surrender at Stalingrad.

    The need for a “second front” became more urgent as the allies feared that the Soviets would capture vast swathes of territory across Europe. The Normandy landings were an eventuality, but not just for military reasons. The Cold War was playing out years before it was actually triggered.

    The Wehrmacht’s (German military’s), and indeed Germany’s, life-or-death mortal struggle was always in the East once the die of Operation Barbarossa was cast. Fully 70 per cent of its mighty armies were fighting in the East in June 1944! It was as high as 80 per cent in June 1941 (at the dawn of Operation Barbarossa).

    Its casualties suffered are more telling. According to David M Glantz, 80 per cent of all German casualties took place in the Russian campaign.

    By June 1944, the War for Germany was going unfavourably. Its armies had surrendered a very promising start under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in the North African desert in Tunis 1943.

    In the East, the last turn of the die was lost badly in Kursk, where the largest armoured engagement was fought in all of human history. Germany attacked into six lines of defences, into artillery, dense minefields, and lastly Soviet armour (very similar to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya offensive), and lost all operational initiative.

    From August 1943, the once-mighty but shattered Wehrmacht was endlessly on the retreat across the front.

    Starting with the first formal memorandum on 13 August 1942, Joseph Stalin constantly pressured the Allies to open a second front and ease the pressure for his then-badly mauled country.

    August 1942 was the German military at its peak in the Soviet Union. Except a big check and a setback outside of Moscow, the country from the Baltic to the Black Sea was occupied by Germany, its food basket in Ukraine occupied for a year, its oil-producing south under threat (Maikop would be occupied shortly), and the lend lease programme had not started delivering the tonnage it would start in 1943.

    In August 1942, it appeared as though the Soviet Union would fall. However, unbeknownst to Stalin, Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had agreed broadly on the stroke of events:

    • Booting the Germans out of North Africa

    • Landing in Italy, knocking Italy out of the war

    • Landing in France

    Only the first part of this three-phase operation was in progress. However, the Allies had already coincidentally planned a small raid on German-occupied French soil as a test case, and to show the Soviets that they were with them.

    Operation Jubilee (the Raid on Dieppe) was planned as a quick, short raid on a fortified German port city to gather intel on German response stratagems, show solidarity to the Soviets, and act as a guide book for the larger-scale landings that were to follow eventually.

    Except it was an unmitigated disaster. Within 10 hours, 55 per cent of the 6,000 allied troops landed were killed, captured, or wounded, and had to retreat hastily. This shored up allied resolve to not rush into a hasty invasion and to stick to the above three-pronged attack plan.

    The first phase proceeded positively for the Allies. The undermanned, under-equipped Afrika Korps ran ahead of their logistics lines and were slowly pushed back to Tunis, bottled up, and captured en masse (because every tank and reinforcement was pushed to the Eastern Front).

    In the second phase, the landings in Sicily progressed well, but slowly; however, the landings in Italy ran into a combination of terrain (high mountains of the Italian Alps) that stripped the armour and air power advantages of the allies, and the extremely proficient Field Marshal Kesselring, who led the defence of Italy very ably.

    Every step was defended, and the Allied advance slowed to a crawl. Just as an example of how bloody and slow the Allied campaign in Italy was, it took four major offensives between January and May 1944 to break through one of the German lines, the Gustav Line.

    The battle for one monastery lasted four months and cost the allies 55,000 casualties (and the Germans only 20,000). By 1943, Stalin was accusing the Allies of delaying the invasion of France just so they could bleed both Germany and France!

    As of June 1944, the campaign in Italy had slowed to a crippling halt, but the situation in the East had turned fully. The Stavka (Soviet High Command) was on 22 June 1944 about to launch its largest operation yet, Operation Bagration.

    Over two and a half months, the Soviet army would apply every lesson it had learnt and absolutely crush the main Wehrmacht unit responsible for the defence of Germany, the Army Group Centre. By the time Bagration wound down, 28 of 34 German divisions in the Army Group Centre were utterly destroyed and Germany was handed its largest defeat in German military history.

    At this point, the outcome of the war was never in doubt, the Atlantic cleared of U-Boats and the lend lease programme in full flow delivering aid to the United Kingdom (UK) and Soviet Union in vast tonnage. However, the German army had plenty of fight left in it. Allied joint intel surveys also predicted a fanatical fight to the last man (or boy, as underaged boys were now pressed into the fight) across Germany. The Soviets on their own would have prevailed, but at a much greater cost of man and material.

    The Allies also needed to grab as much territory as they could, lest the Soviet Union be master of all Europe. So, there was also a timeline defined to this invasion. The German high command was now aware that an invasion was imminent, and Adolf Hitler deputed Rommel to personally inspect the Atlantic Wall and improve its defences.

    The Atlantic wall was to be a heavily fortified, mined chain of defences running from Norway to the tip of France, but, as with most things in the Reich, existed mostly in Goebbelsian propaganda.

    From November 1943 to April 1944, as the Chief Inspector of the Atlantic defences, Rommel tirelessly toured the length of the wall, strengthening it with the paltry resources available to the Western Army.

    The Allies used intelligence gathered on “What not to do” from Operation Jubilee and fixed every aspect of it:

    1. There would be a massive intel gathering operation partnered with large-scale deception operations (see Operation Fortitude)

    2. A large-scale naval bombardment prior to the actual invasion

    3. Overwhelming air cover to paralyse any German movement behind the line

    The Germans were, like in all stages of the war, confused on the way forward, with Hitler playing politics among various subordinate commands. The two broad schools of thought were:

    1. Field Marshal Rommel: Place all armour on the beaches, maximum manpower on possible landing sites, and throw back an allied invasion before it establishes beach heads. He had seen the destruction Allied superiority could cause in North Afrika and (as was proven later) rightly feared the total destruction of German reinforcements and reserves if they were not available from the get go.

    2. Field Marshal Rundstedt (one of Germany’s finest military minds): He believed that the place of landing could never be exactly determined, and it was wise to hold all reserves away from the beaches and then direct them once the landing sites were fixed.

    Hitler prevaricated as usual till the last moment, as a result of which there was confusion about placements, planning, operations, and what duty which unit was to do if indeed the invasion came.

    D-Day happened to coincide with the birthday of Rommel’s (the commander of the armies facing the landing sites) wife Lucy. So, he decided that with the weather being rough, no invasion was forthcoming, and departed for a small holiday back home! The rest, as they say, is history.

    Sudharshan Garg is an SCM professional with a deep interest in military history. He tweets at @SudsG5.

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