Tagged: WWII

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

July and August 1939 were months of furious negotiation between Germany, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Poland, and the United States in order to secure alliances which it was hoped would deter war. The first sign that all was not going to be well for the Poland and the Western Allies was when Stalin fired his Jewish foreign minister in April and replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov. Russian archival documents confirm that this was day that Stalin decided to ally with his “brother Socialist” Adolf Hitler in order to defer the inevitable conflict with Germany to a later date.

On 23 August 1939, Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union and Hitler’s National Socialist Germany signed a non-aggression treaty, named after their respective foreign ministers: Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ostensibly an economic and political treaty of non-aggression and prevention of either country allying with third parties e.g. Poland, Britain, France etc, the pact had secret provisions to divide up Eastern Europe between them. Germany would be free to seize most of Poland and have a secure eastern frontier for the inevitable fight with France and Great Britain. The Soviet Union was given assurances that they could conquer Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Eastern Poland, Finland, and Bessarabia (Eastern Romania, Romania was one of Germany’s allies) without German interference.

Germany invaded Poland a week later, and started the largest and bloodiest conflict in human history: The Second World War. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact turned the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and National Socialist Germany into de facto Allies when the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east two weeks later on 17 September 1939. The Soviet invasion rendered a rapidly stabilizing Polish defense against Germany untenable. At the end of the month, both countries affirmed their alliance in the German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Demarcation.

The 23 August anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is remembered in Europe to “reconcile its totalitarian legacy” (EU’s words). In most of the EU 23 August is known as the “Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism” or in some countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, as “Day of Remembrance of Victims of All Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes”. In the United States, 23 August is known as “Black Ribbon Day” to

“recognize the victims of Soviet Communist and Nazi regimes and remember and never forget the terror millions of citizens in Central and Eastern Europe experienced for more than 40 years by ruthless military, economic, and political repression of the people through arbitrary executions, mass arrests, deportations, the suppression of free speech, confiscation of private property, and the destruction of cultural and moral identity and civil society, all of which deprived the vast majority of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe of their basic human rights and dignity, separating them from the democratic world by means of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. The extreme forms of totalitarian rule practiced by the Soviet Communist and Nazi regimes led to premeditated and vast crimes committed against millions of human beings and their basic and inalienable rights on a scale unseen before in history.”

The Breakout From Normandy

In the last week of July 1944, the Allies were still stuck in Norman hedgerow country, and they needed to break out because they were far behind schedule. Also, the Soviets were nearing Warsaw, and Churchill feared the post war ramifications of the Soviets invading Germany while the Allies were still stuck in France. The Allies fell back on good old American firepower and devised Operation Cobra.

On 25 July, the entire Eighth Air Force and British Bomber Command carpet bombed a narrow 6km portion of the front near St. Lo. After which the US VII Corps, including the US 1st Infantry Division, charged through. Unfortunately, of the 2000 bombers, 80 dropped their bombs short and caused serious friendly casualties including a US 3 star general (McNair), and disrupted the follow on attack. The bombers pulverized German defenses but the attacking troops soon encountered a situation that would have been very familiar to their fathers in World War One: the devastation was so great that the attackers couldn’t move or bring up supplies over the terrain fast enough before German reserves were brought in to defend the shell holed moonscape left behind by the bombing. Fortunately, most German reserves were tied down by companion British offensives. By August, the Germans were pushed out of the hedgerow country and the Americans were poised to breakout of Normandy.

On 1 August, Operation Fortitude, the deception to convince the Germans the Allies would land at Pas de Calais concluded when LTG George Patton’s 3rd Army was activated on the continent (The Germans were convinced Patton would lead the landings at Pas de Calais). By 4 August Patton had broken out of Normandy and was tearing ass across France…in the wrong direction. Patton broke out, but he did so by going west into Brittany and toward the Atlantic coast, not east towards Paris and Germany. It took another week or so for Patton to turn around and attack in the right direction.

Hitler, ignorant of the true situation, saw an “opportunity” to destroy Patton and ordered an offensive of 13 panzer divisions to seize Avaranches and cut off the 3rd Army from Normandy. Only four were able to participate and they didn’t get very far. On 9 August Montgomery launched Operation Bluecoat and then Operation Tractable to cut off this German attack that threatened to cut off Patton’s attack. Eventually, Gen Von Kluge called off the western offensive when it was obvious (to everyone except Hitler) his troops were driving further into a trap as Polish and Canadian tankers closed in from the north and Patton closed in from the south.

On 13 August, Von Kluge ordered the retreat expressly against Hitler’s wishes in order to save as many panzer troops before they were encircled in what would later be known as the Falaise Pocket. The Allies had broken out of Normandy, permanently. The race was on.

Panzers, Monty, Mother Nature, and the Vikings

The landings on 6 June at Normandy were a complete operational surprise, and the deception plan was so effective that the Germans continued to believe the main invasion would come at Pas De Calais, even well into July. But the ruse wouldn’t last much longer, and most of the German’s reserves were already committed to containing the Allied lodgement.

In the east, Montgomery failed to take Caen on the first day for a variety of reasons, most of which weren’t his fault. The British troops faced the only panzer counterattack on D-Day, and that by their desert nemesis, the 21st Panzer Division. The terrain around Caen is all open fields and river valleys, and this made the counterattack particularly difficult, and Montgomery stopped the 21st Panzer from reaching the beachheads. Unfortunately, the reverse was also true, and Montgomery would launch no less than 6 separate army level offensives to try and take Caen over the next 6 weeks. To counter this, Field Marshal Von Rundstedt committed the bulk of the panzer reserves in the West to face them, including three of the best panzer divisions in the German military: the Panzer-Lehr, the veteran 2nd Panzer Division, and the fanatical 12th SS “Hitlerjugend” Panzer Division made up of Hitler Youth. The British Sherman, Churchill, and Cromwell tanks did not fare well against the Tiger, Panther, and Pzkfw IVs of the panzer divisions. Only British stubbornness and overwhelming material and airpower superiority allowed Monty to capture Caen on 10 July 1944, over a month later than planned.

Monty’s material superiority came at a cost to the other areas of the front because Mother Nature had a say-so. Just after D-Day, the great storm that Group Captain Stagg feared had finally arrived. On 9 June, “The Great Gale of 1944” did damage to the invasion force that the Luftwaffe could only dream of. Several ships were sunk, dozens were beached, all were damaged, and one of the two vital “Mulberry” artificial harbors was destroyed. This created a massive supply shortage for weeks in Normandy, and what supplies were on hand went to either Monty trying to take Caen, or to the Americans trying to capture Cherbourg: a deep water port on the Cotentin peninsula which could do much to alleviate the Allies supply problems. The US VII Corps captured Cherbourg on 26 June, but the Germans did “masterful” work wrecking the harbor. They did such a good job emplacing mines and boobie traps, destroying facilities, sinking ships in the channel, and ruining the docks that it would take three weeks for small ships to get through and eight weeks before it was safe enough for larger ships to unload. There would be no influx of supplies from Cherbourg and what supplies that did come through the one working Mulberry would go to Monty. This was unfortunate because the Americans in the center of the landing zone were facing something unexpected and ancient, and used to deadly effect by the Germans: the bocage, or Norman hedgerows.

Bocage was the French term for the hedge/tree walls that surrounded Norman fields. In the 9th century, Danish and Norwegian Vikings raided the area, and with the collapse of Charlemagne’s Empire, settled it. The better off Vikings established themselves at the mouths of the rivers, such as the Orne and the Seine, primarily in the east. They intermarried with the local population and the Franks named the area “Normandy”, or “Land of the Northmen”. West Normandy was settled by Viking farmers. However, this did not stop future generations of Danish and Norwegian Vikings from continuing to raid just because their forebears settled the area. The Vikings could no longer sail up the rivers to raid the French because of the Norman fortress towns such as Caen, Carentan, and Harfleur. So they beached on the coast and traveled overland to get around the Normans at the mouths of the rivers, frequently by raiding isolated farmsteads in the west and stealing horses and food. The Norman farmers, former Vikings themselves, knew this and combatted it by planting trees around their fields with thick thorny bushes at their bases. This forced the raiding Vikings onto predictable paths where they could be watched and ambushed. Over the centuries, the Norman farmers continued the practice. By the twentieth century, erosion, sunken roads, and a dropping water table exposed the roots of these hedgerows. This formed a four or five foot high impenetrable wall of packed earth and gnarled roots, covered with thorny bushes and topped with a line of thick trees. They couldn’t be climbed over, much less pushed through or seen through.

The bocage itself wasn’t deadly but the Germans used the hedgerows to great effect. They would ambush the Americans on the roads, just as the Normans did to the Vikings, and force them to breach the hedgerows to get around. Once the Americans went through the lengthy and difficult process of breaching the hedgerow walls, they would be met by another German ambush on the other side, usually machine guns and anti tank guns dug into the hedgerow in an opposite corner of the field. They easily covered the beautiful fields of fire that were the enclosed Norman farms. It would take Gen Omar Bradley and US First Army until 25 July, seven weeks after D-Day, to break out of the Norman Hedgerow country.

Operation Bagration: The Death of Army Group Center

The Red Army on the Eastern Front was not obliging the Wehrmacht in 1944. The Red Army usually did limited operations during the winter snows and spring mud, and this gave the Germans time to dig in and reorganize. But the winter and spring of 1944 were different, very different, particularly for Army Groups North and South.

In the previous six months, Army Group North was forced to lift the two year long siege of Leningrad and was driven back to the Baltic States. And Von Manstein’s Army Group South was chased almost all the way out of the Ukraine in a series of surprisingly effective and overwhelming Soviet offensives. Only the intervention of panzer formations from Army Group Center stabilized the front. The Abwehr, or German Intelligence, thought that the Soviets would continue in the south, so the panzers stayed there. The Abwehr and German High Command were distracted by Soviet deception operations, and the Allied landings in France which were just 1000 miles from Berlin. The nearest Soviets were 1200 miles away and they were opposite Army Group Center, in the very defensible terrain of the trackless forests and swamps of Byelorussia.

But this was only defensible against the Red Army of 1941, 1942, or even 1943. The Red Army of 1944 was a new animal. It finally had the equipment, staff proficiency, specialized training, and mobile logistics to put their “Deep Operations” doctrine into practice. Of which, Von Manstein in the Ukraine was the full dress rehearsal.

Deep Operations was the standard Soviet Doctrine since the mid-30s, but Stalin’s purge of 90% of the officer corps in 1937, the calamitous losses in Finland in 1940 and the German invasion in 1941/42 meant that they had to resort to massed tank and human wave attacks to make up for the lack of leadership and trained manpower. It took three years for the talented survivors, such as Zhukov, Konev, Rokossovsky, Vasilevsky and others to rebuild. By 1944, that situation was rectified.

Deep Operations was the logical end state of JFC Fuller’s influential “Breakthrough” theory during the interwar period. DO relies on specialized troops, with massed rifle and artillery breaking through a defensive line, followed by local heavy tank formations to confirm the penetration. Then this penetration was exploited by huge tank, mechanized, cavalry, or elite Guards armies (mounted in American Lend Lease trucks) who attacked deep operational objectives to cut off and encircle German forces. German pockets of resistance were bypassed. Deep Operations has been likened to a Russian matryoshka doll where a small encirclement is then encircled by a larger one, and then a larger one, and so on, until the offensive culminated. (Glantz, “When Titans Clashed”) The Soviet summer offensive in Byelorussia was the ultimate expression of Deep Operations.

Marshall Zhukov launched Operation Bagration on 22 June 1944, and fell upon an unsuspecting Army Group Center. The penetrations were immediate. Although some panzer formations from the South attempted counterattacks that resulted in apocalyptic tank battles, the Germans never recovered. Hitler declared every city in the area a fortress to be defended to the last man, so the retreating German commanders just avoided them in their quest to escape the overlapping layers of encirclement.

It didn’t help. By August the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw and German East Prussia, Army Group North was cut off in Courland, Army Group South was cut off in the Ukraine, and Army Group Center ceased to exist. The German army lost 500,000 men and 4000 tanks and assault guns that could not be replaced. 57,000 German prisoners were marched through Red Square, and then the Soviets made a point to wash the streets afterwards.

The Soviets were now much closer to Berlin than the Allies were.

The Great Mariannas Turkey Shoot

The Imperial Japanese High Command was desperate for a decisive victory over the Allies. After their retreat to the inner circle in late 1943, they looked for an opportunity for the “Kantai Kessen”, or the decisive victory that would end the war. Historically, the Japanese won their wars through a single titanic decisive battle that irrevocably smashed their enemies ability to fight. There was a Kantai Kessen that defeated the Mongols in the 13th Century, one that brought the Tokugawa Shogunate to power in the 17th, and one that defeated the Russians in the early 20th. Admiral Spruance’s 5th Fleet off of Saipan would provide the opportunity to similarly defeat the Americans. The Japanese hoped that destroying the US Navy in the Philippines Sea would be the Pacific War’s Kantai Kessen.

If the Japanese wanted a final showdown with the Allies’ strongest force, they couldn’t have chosen a better target. Their objective was the innocuously named Task Force 58, the carrier task force of the 5th Fleet, led by Vice Admiral Marc Mitsher. TF 58 was the largest and most powerful independent naval strike force in the history of mankind. Mitsher commanded seven big fleet aircraft carriers, eight light carriers, seven fast battleships, 900 aircraft, and dozens of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. Against this, Vice Admiral Ozama had only five fleet carriers, four light carriers, 400 carrier based aircraft, and five battleships, but two of those were the Yamato and Musashi, the largest battle ships in existence, and he also had 300 land based planes on Guam.

But it wasn’t the numbers that defeated the Japanese, it was the Japanese that defeated the Japanese. By 1944, they were being out produced and out innovated by a wide margin. All but one of Ozawa’s capital ships were commissioned before Pearl Harbor, while virtually none of Mitcher’s were. Ozawa’s ships were 1930’s designs, while Mitcher’s ships reflected the hard lessons learned over the past two years, and his planes even more so. The Japanese A6M Zero was the terror of the skies in 1941 and 42, but by 1944 it was obsolete. The US Navy F6F Hellcat and the US Marines’ distinctive gull winged F4F Corsair had more power, more armor, and more guns. The Zero was still more maneuverable but to take advantage of that, you needed experienced pilots.

Bushido, or at least the perverted version of Bushido pushed by Imperial Japan in the Second World War, destroyed the once vaunted Japanese naval air arm well before the Battle of the Philippines Sea. Specifically the “No Retreat” rule. Fear of being shamed, Japanese aircrews would not come off the line to train the next generation of airmen. The victors of Pearl Harbor fought until they died. The Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Solomon’s saw thousands of irreplaceable aircrews shot down, and there was no one to train the replacements. Furthermore, Allied submarines created an oil shortage, so very little fuel was allocated for training. What fuel there was available was wasted by bad instructors, whom were usually the worst flyer of the previous class who was left behind to train the next class. There was no honor in training new flyers, only in engaging the enemy and dying for the emperor. Most Japanese airmen in 1944 had fewer than 60 hours in the air, were poorly trained, and had no combat experience.

When the Japanese attacked TF 58 on 19 June 1944, the outcome of the largest carrier air battle in history was already a foregone conclusion. The Americans did lose over one hundred aircraft but the majority of them were due to empty fuel tanks, not Japanese bullets. It would have been more, but Mitcher ordered his whole task force to turn on their lights during the night of the 19th, defying every, risk management worksheet, safety officer, and OPSEC notice on his wardroom bulletin boards, in order to bring his flyers back home in the dark. Ozawa lost two carriers, but more importantly, he lost 700 pilots, never to be replaced. An American anti air gunner on a destroyer said, “It was like shooting fish in a barrel”, but it was a Hellcat pilot’s quote that would stick; he said,

“It was like going to a turkey shoot back home.”

The Invasion of Saipan

Admiral Nimitz’ Central Pacific Fleet was like a spear driving straight into gut of the Japanese Empire. While MacArthur aimed at the Philippines for his return, Nimitz was cutting across the axis. His next targets were the critical Marianna’s Islands, which included Guam, Tinian and Saipan. These were the first islands in the Japanese “Inner Defense Ring” and the Japanese planned to make a fight of it. The Americans had to be stopped.

On 15 June, 1944 Lieutenant General Howland “Howling Mad” Smith’s 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions and US Army 27th Infantry Dvision, stormed ashore on Saipan, through lanes cleared of obstacles by the first use of UDTs or Underwater Demolitions Teams (forerunners of the SEALS), and met three times as many Japanese as Naval Intelligence predicted. And they also met everything left in the Japanese navy that could float or fly.

The Americans knew the Marianna’s were important, but only the Japanese truly knew how critical they were. First, they both knew Allied planes flying from the Marianna’s would effectively cut off all Japanese possessions to the west and south: Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Java, Borneo, Malaysia, and New Guinea. Supplies would not get south, and raw materials would not go north. Allied wolfpacks were already wreaking havoc with Japanese shipping, if they were directed by reconnaissance planes from Saipan, they would be devastating. Also, they both knew American bombers from the Marianna’s would be in range to bomb the Japanese home islands. This would be even more alarming once the Japanese discovered a new Allied weapon, first used on Saipan, which would be catastrophic to Japan’s wooden cities: napalm. Finally, most importantly and unbeknownst to the Americans, the Imperial Japanese High Command had been lying to the people for years regarding the conduct of the war. The people and most of the government of Japan thought the war was being won. Their propaganda machine would not be able to hide the loss of Saipan, a prewar Japanese territory, nor the clouds of B-29s that were sure follow. They would have to admit they were losing the war.

The Marianna’s Islands were extensively reinforced, particularly Saipan. The Japanese planned on fighting for the whole island from the surf to the last dug in bunker, effectively combining the old and new defensive techniques. Also, two of the Japanese’ best commanders were in charge of the island, through under different circumstances. Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito was one of the army’s best and was hand-picked to lead the defense of the first prewar Japanese territory to see invasion. His navy counterpart, Vice Admiral Nagumo, the victor of Pearl Harbor and easily the Japanese’ best carrier admiral, was there in disgrace, commanding the island’s cruiser and destroyer defense flotilla for losing the battle of Midway. (He influenced the battle on land but had no effect on the wider naval battle in the Marianna’s, although he was sorely needed.) Finally, the cream of what was left of the Japanese Navy was committed to the defense of the islands.

For the next three weeks, the fighting on Saipan was fierce but the issue was never in doubt. The inter-service political battles between the US Army and the US Marines that erupted because of the fighting would eventually garner more attention. The Japanese finally got their Kantai Kessen, decisive battle, with the US Navy in the Philippine Sea, but were soundly annihilated by Allied quality, quantity and professionalism. By the beginning of July, Japanese naval airpower was destroyed, never to return. The first recon planes were spotting for the submarines before the fighting was completed, and the first B-29s arrived soon after. In a glimpse of what was to come, most of the Japanese civilians on the island committed suicide by jumping off the southern cliffs, to the horror of the watching US soldiers and marines.

With the loss of Saipan, the Japanese government began preparing the Japanese people for the worst: the invasion of the Home Islands. To the Americans the turning point of the War in the Pacific was Midway and Guadalcanal. To the Japanese, it was Saipan.

The Diary of Anne Frank

On 12 June 1942, a young Dutch girl received a red and white plaid covered diary from her father for her 13th birthday.

She would start recording her thoughts in it a week or so later. Her father picked the diary out based on her pointing it out on one of their walks along the streets of Amsterdam. That walk would be one of their last.

Otto Frank and his daughter, Anne, were Jews. In July 1942, the Netherlands’ German National Socialist conquerers and their Dutch collaborators would place great restrictions on them in preparation for the implementation of the Final Solution of the Jewish population in the country.

The plight of the Dutch Jews was a difficult one. Unlike other countries, the huge population density of the Netherlands meant there were few places to escape to. There were no vast forests for refuge as there were in Eastern Europe. Also, the advanced Dutch civil bureaucracy had records on the entire Jewish population of the country and the Germans quickly identified and located them all. Moreover, although the Dutch people were sympathetic to the Jewish plight under Nazi domination, the Dutch government was unwilling to publicly intervene on their behalf, even passively. Unlike in other countries, the Dutch administration did the bidding of their National Socialist overseers with cold efficiency. In exchange for continued employment, pay, and benefits, the supposedly apolitical Dutch civil service ushered the Jewish population to its death. Few Dutch Jews were detained by Germans: they were identified by Dutch census data, rounded up by Dutch police who went directly to their homes based on Dutch tax files, held in Dutch camps run by the Dutch civil servants and held there by Dutch guards, and sent East to the death camps on Dutch trains run by Dutch engineers and Dutch rail crews.

Anne Frank and her family went into hiding to escape the Nazis and their own countrymen. They hid in a small three story room concealed behind a bookshelf in her father’s workplace. They were taken care of by several of her father’s sympathetic coworkers who visited once a day to deliver food and stay for a visit.

Anne chronicled each day in the cramped space in her diary. Her diary was her escape. She wrote of the dreams of a teenage girl, the boredom and difficulties of their existence, her love for and exasperation with her family, the terror of the listening to German soldiers and Dutch police searching the premises, her budding romance with the son of another family in hiding, and most importantly the hopes of survival in one of the darkest periods in human history.

The Frank family survived in hiding for more than two years, almost each day chronicled by Anne. They were arrested by the Gestapo after being betrayed in August 1944, by whom is unknown and subject to much debate. Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz where she was separated from her father, but was not sent to the gas chamber with the rest of the children because she just turned 15 two months before. Nevertheless, Anne and her sister were transferred to Bergen Belsen Concentration camp to be worked to death. They both died of typhus in March 1945.

Anne Frank’s diary was saved by one of her family’s helpers after their arrest and recovered by her father who survived after being separated from his family. Anne Frank’s unedited record of her family’s existence behind the bookcase was published in 1947 as “The Diary of a Young Girl”.

The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most poignant documents of the Holocaust, and Required Reading for Humanity.

The Disasters of D-Day

The successful invasion of Normandy may seem predestined today, but it certainly wasn’t on the morning of June 6th, 1944. The Germans and the weather weren’t the only problems for the Allies. In many cases, the Allies were their own worst enemies. For every Ponte Du Hoc, there was a Vierville Draw; for every Pegasus Bridge there was a Merville Battery, if not more, many more. The question isn’t really how they won, but how did they not lose despite themselves? Laziness, greed, incompetence, ignorance, poor staff work, etc, these were obstacles that were far different than German machine gun nests, but had to be overcome nonetheless.

These are the D-Day stories we don’t like to talk about, because they are the stories we fear to repeat, those that we inflicted upon ourselves.

The disasters of D-Days started even before the final go ahead by Eisenhower. The airborne landings, though absolutely necessary, were catastrophic. The SOE Jedburgh Teams dropped in on the night of the 4th found that many of their supplies parachuted in with them were stolen before they could be recovered, undoubtedly by the French Resistance who were the only ones who knew they were coming. Most Jedburgh teams were reduced to the role of poorly equipped cut off infantry, not unlike the paratroopers that followed them.

Almost none of the pathfinders of the airborne divisions marked their drop zones, and if they did, it was usually in the wrong spot. Only the chaos of the actual jump masked it. History has recorded that chaos as a positive for spreading the German defenses out, but it wasn’t so for the paratroopers that night. Fra fewer made it into the fight than myth and legend tells us. The fire in Sainte-Mère-Église caused the destruction of an entire airborne company after a pilot mistook it for the lights of the drop zone. And Sainte-Mère-Église, celebrated as the first town liberated in France, was only secured after the Germans pulled out to more defensible terrain: terrain that 82nd Airborne was originally supposed to secure in the first place, but couldn’t because it lacked the men to do so. Almost another entire airborne company drowned when its jumpmasters pushed them out over the flooded area. Another group of twelve paratroopers, lost, broke into a wine cellar and were found drunk two days later. Another pilot flew so low that the parachutes of his charges couldn’t open and one soldier on the ground, cursing the pilot, noted that they sounded like “pumpkins splatting on the ground”.

The most celebrated unit in the airborne invasion was E/1/506 who fought D-Day with just 14 men, out of 140. More joined later, but that doesn’t change the fact that Captain Dick Winters had to seize the Breucourt Manor guns, a company if not a battalion objective, with just 11 men.

Even those paratroopers that didn’t hide or wander and took the initiative, weren’t immune to human fallibility. One enterprising German unit captured over 50 paratroopers by using their cricket against them. When the challenge of “one click” got a response of “two clicks”, the American was quietly taken prisoner. Another group of 19 Americans was taken prisoner behind Utah Beach and subsequently killed in the invasion bombardment. One can only imagine the stories that haven’t been recorded.

The invasion itself was an unmitigated disaster for the French population of that stretch of the Norman coast. De Gaulle’s refusal to address his people over semantics in Eisenhower’s draft undoubtedly caused thousands of casualties among French civilians who ignored Eisenhower’s pleas to evacuate the coast. For every French civilian who proudly waved the tricolor during the bombardment, dozens, if not hundreds were killed or wounded. In Caen, the Gestapo executed every French civilian in the prison. The Hotel D’Normandie in Ouisterham collapsed upon its inhabitants and those who survived were nearly all killed ten minutes later when their cover was struck by the bombardment.

As the bombardment continued, the movement at sea from the transfer points to the beaches was beyond chaotic, much of it self-inflicted. In their arrogance, the Americans refused British help with navigational aids marking the beaches, such as prepositioned midget subs that successfully guided British troops to the correct destinations. They relied on patrol cutters to guide the landing craft in, almost all of whom got lost. A coxswain bringing in the rangers to scale Pont Du Hoc got lost and the rangers arrived 30 minutes late, well after the first waves hit Omaha. The rising tide was almost lapping the base of the cliff by the time the rangers scaled the heights. That there were no guns at the top was all that prevented a greater disaster on the Omaha and Utah beaches below.

Of the first three waves to hit the beaches at Omaha and Utah, only a single company, A/1/116th of the 29th Division landed at the beach they were assigned, and they were massacred for it. Tens of thousands of pages of orders and timetables and millions of man hours: useless and wasted. 8 of the 16 landing craft that carried Omaha Beach’s duplex drive tanks refused to land the tanks directly on the beach, even though the swells would obviously swamp the tanks further out. That the DD tanks would never make the 5000 yard swim to shore was obvious to all. Thirty tanks and their crews were forced out of the landing craft because the sailors refused to deviate from the plan. Not a single tank made it more than hundred yards out to sea, most just drove off the ramp and sank.

The 4th Infantry Division’s entire assault wave landed a mile and quarter south of where they should have been due to their coxswains following a lost patrol cutter.

The landings on the beaches, at Omaha in particular, were horrific, and the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan is tame in comparison. The entire bombardment over shot the beach defenses, despite spotter planes continually calling in “on target”. One British observer watched as an entire formation of B-17’s and B-26s drop their loads into the fields behind the beaches. “That’s a fat lot of use, all it’ll do is just wake them up.”

American and British intelligence missed the movement of the entire German 352nd Infantry Division into the beach defenses opposite Omaha until the 4th of June, and then decided not to tell the assault troops. Until the moment the ramps dropped, the men of the 1st and 29th Divisions expected to face the green conscripts of the 716th Division, not the tough and experienced 352nd battle hardened on the Eastern Front. One amazed German sergeant looking down on Omaha commented, “They must be crazy. Are they going to swim ashore right in front of our muzzles?”

One German private estimated he fired his rifle 400 times that morning, and hit someone more than half the time.

An entire LCI was destroyed when a single errant bullet struck a flamethrower tank and exploded. Men carrying a hundred pounds of equipment quickly found out that the weight doubled when it was soaked with sea water: something those who mandated the combat load would never have to experience. Many men drowned because they couldn’t get out of the water fast enough or were crushed when a swell pushed a landing craft violently forward. Most craft were stuck on a sand bar initially but as the tide rose they became increasingly stuck on the beach obstacles. The assault waves landed at low tide, but the rising tide became a problem: the landing craft and debris were inadvertently pushed into the mines.

Men who were too wounded to move forward quickly drowned. The flotsam and jetsam, and bodies, along the beach began to accumulate as the tide pushed it forward: crushing some, but forcing all into German fields of fire. An LCI was destroyed by mine, and became a plow as the tide pushed it forward onto the beach. The arrogant American refusal of the British offer of specialty engineer vehicles was paid in blood. Engineers got into fights with soldiers seeking scant cover behind beach obstacles they were supposed to blow, and in several instances detonated them anyway. Entire groups refused to move until the tide forced them to and there was at least one mutiny on the beach. Men spent hours digging in only to have the tide swallow them whole. Unwounded men got high on their own morphine, and waited for the water to end their existence before the Germans did.

On the relatively calm Utah, several men found a small remote controlled Goliath. They played around with the controller, amused by the little tank. Unbeknownst to them, it was packed full of explosives and they accidentally set it off, killing everyone watching.

On the British beaches, many troops landed, neutralized the beach defenses… and then dug in, awaited orders, and brewed tea. One unit even reveled in the fact that they were first British unit to brew tea in France. Lt James Doohan, the future Montgomery Scott of Star Trek, had to pull his pistol on his coxswain to get him to move toward the beach. Barrage balloons were set up on the beaches, which only acted as markers for German artillery. It would hours and dozens of casualties later before someone had the moral courage to cut them loose. Just off of Sword Beach, the Merville Battery was taken at great cost, then abandoned for fears of friendly naval gunfire, and subsequently reoccupied by the Germans. It wouldn’t be recaptured for another seven weeks. Allied bombers destroyed Caen, killing a thousand French civilians, and inadvertently turned it into a fortress for the Germans.
By noon, General Omar Bradley seriously considered sending troops from Utah to Omaha, or even pulling off of Omaha altogether.

Along the shingle on Omaha, one soldier wrote in his diary, “I prayed for the fourth time today, asking God, “Why do these things have to be visited upon men?”

Thankfully, some of those men persisted.

Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “Out of every one hundred men in battle, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they the battle make. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others home.”

When teaching history, we tend to celebrate Heraclitus’ fighters and warriors. They make a good tale, but since they’re the only tales told, we also tend to ascribe their uniqueness to the mass. For every junior NCO or officer who led a few stalwarts up the hill on Omaha and cracked the German defense, there were a hundred down below just trying to survive. The stories of the others make us uncomfortable at best and embarrassed at worst. However, very little is ever learned in victory. And even worse, to ignore those stories does a disservice to the fighters and warriors that had to endure beside them. It also does a disservice to the system that produced them both as internal factors are almost always more important than external factors. The difference between a good unit and a great unit, between victory and defeat is sometimes as small as one or two more willing to fight. The fighters and warriors rose to the occasion despite themselves, their comrades, even those supposedly their betters.

As the memory of D-Day passes into history, to tell only 10% of the story is a travesty, and dishonest. One cannot fully appreciate their resilience unless you have something familiar to compare it to, that those stories are difficult to talk about should be immaterial. Those that didn’t live up to the almost impossible standards of conduct we set for June 6th 1944 nonetheless still showed up that day.

The disasters of D-Day are reminders that soldiers, sailors, and airmen are human and are subject to the same human fallibility as any other. Leaders, and historians, tend to fall into the assumptions that subordinates always followed orders, the plans were always perfect, and that luck was always in their favor. This is rarely, if ever, the case. Errors happen. Humans break, sometimes easily.

Egos have killed more people than bullets and shells.

But the fighters and warriors succeeded despite those working against them, even their own.

The Invasion of Normandy: Prologue

On 1 June 1944, the BBC broadcast the first lines from Paul Verlaine’s 1866 poem “Chanson d’automne” (“Autumn Song”)

“Les sanglots longs / des violons / de l’automne” (“Long sobs of autumn violins”).

The lines were a message to the French Resistance that the Allied invasion of France would begin in less than two weeks.

Two days later on 3 June, in the pouring rain, 150,000 men of the six assault divisions, the US 1st, 4th and 29th, the British 3rd and 50th, and the Canadian 3rd, and three airborne divisions, the US 82nd and 101st, and the British 6th finished moving into their staging areas all along the southern coast of England. The next day, they would load the LSTs and troop transports, and in the case of the airborne divisions, wait in huts on airfields next to the gliders and planes that would take them across the channel to Normandy. 800,000 more soldiers would take their place and wait their turn to cross in the coming days. On the afternoon of the 4th, Gen Eisenhower postponed the invasion at least one day due to weather. Many of the soldiers would not disembark and had to stay on their ships in the choppy seas and six foot swells.

That night, in the poor weather, the first Allied troops to invade Normandy parachuted in. Three teams from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and three teams from the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) landed in order to mark the drop zones for the pathfinders and airborne forces that were scheduled to arrive the next night.

100 miles and world away in Normandy, the German commanders took a look at the poor weather and the low tide, and were convinced that the Allies would not invade. And if they did, it would be farther up the coast at Pas De Calais. Rommel, the Army Group commander on the Atlantic Wall, departed on a drive back to Germany to spend some leave with his wife for her birthday on June 5th. His corps and division commanders prepared to depart for a map exercise at the chateau at Rouen, and they planned to be away from their HQs for the next few days.

In the early morning of 5 June, 1944, Gen Eisenhower met with his 14 most senior staff members and commanders to make the final decision whether or not to go ahead with the invasion of France in June. Group Captain James Stagg, the senior meteorologist on the staff, briefed that 6 June’s weather would briefly clear but the conditions would be still be well below what was thought to be the minimum necessary for safe and successful operations. Eisenhower looked around the room and asked for everyone’s opinion. It was most definitely not a vote. Seven wanted to go, and seven wanted to postpone until later in the month when the moon and tides were synced again.

After a long moment (Everyone in the room would describe it later as the longest moment of their lives), Eisenhower simply said, “Ok, let’s do it”, and stood up and walked out of the room. One of his last official acts was authorizing the 6 June 1944 Order of the Day for release. Known today as the “Great Crusade” speech, one copy was issued to over 175,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the assault force that night.

Within 20 minutes of “Ok, let’s do it”, 5000 ships, 12,000 aircraft, and 200,000 men began their journey across the English Channel. The ships first rendezvoused at “Area Z”, known colloquially as “Piccadilly Circus”, before heading south to Normandy. Operation Neptune, the invasion of Normandy, and a component part of Operation Overlord the invasion of France, was the largest amphibious invasion of Europe since the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 B.C.

Eisenhower went on to say that the next 24 hours were the most difficult of his life because now that decision was made he could no longer affect anything, and could do nothing except wait. To pass the time for those 24 hour he received reports, drank coffee, smoked five packs of cigarettes, played draughts with his aide, briefed reporters (!) on the next day’s events so they could start their stories, and wrote a short speech accepting responsibility if the invasion failed. That evening, he met with member of the 101st Airborne at their staging areas. A few chatted with Eisenhower, the far bigger crowd was around Kate Sommersby, Eisenhower’s driver and former model.

At 7:30 pm, the BBC broadcast the next lines to Verlaine’s poem:

“Blessent mon coeur / d’une langueur / monotone” (“wound my heart with a monotonous languor”). They were a code to the French Resistance that the invasion would begin in 48 hours, and that that they should begin sabotage operations, particularly the rail network.

At 8:30 pm, Churchill sent a coded telegram to Stalin simply stating, “Tonight, we go”.

About an hour later he wished his wife a good night, who told him not to worry. He shot back, “Do you know that when you wake up tomorrow morning, 20,000 men may be dead?”

At exactly 11:00 pm, Eisenhower, with his aide, and driver, watched the first C-47 transports carrying the 101st take to the sky.

“Well, it’s on. Nothing can stop it now.”

Patton’s Speech to the 3rd US Army

After being removed from command of the 7th US Army after the invasion of Sicily for slapping two American soldiers, FDR gave Patton a second chance. In February 1944, he was given command of the 3rd US Army, which was part of the follow on troops for Operation Overlord after the beachheads were secured. Although Patton gave speeches to his troops all of the time, his most iconic speech was given in preparation for the upcoming invasion of France. He gave this speech many times, but the canonical and iconic version was given to the 6th Armored Division on 31 May 1944. This is the speech that George C Scott immortalized in the 1969 film “Patton”. Scott’s version was significantly shorter and less profane.

“Be seated.

Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

Men, this stuff that some sources sling around about America wanting out of this war, not wanting to fight, is a crock of bullshit. Americans love to fight, traditionally. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle. You are here today for three reasons. First, because you are here to defend your homes and your loved ones. Second, you are here for your own self-respect, because you would not want to be anywhere else. Third, you are here because you are real men and all real men like to fight. When you, here, every one of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players. Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.

You are not all going to die. Only two percent of you right here today would die in a major battle. Death must not be feared. Death, in time, comes to all men. Yes, every man is scared in his first battle. If he says he’s not, he’s a liar. Some men are cowards but they fight the same as the brave men or they get the hell slammed out of them watching men fight who are just as scared as they are. The real hero is the man who fights even though he is scared. Some men get over their fright in a minute under fire. For some, it takes an hour. For some, it takes days. But a real man will never let his fear of death overpower his honor, his sense of duty to his country, and his innate manhood. Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base. Americans pride themselves on being He Men and they ARE He Men. Remember that the enemy is just as frightened as you are, and probably more so. They are not supermen.

All through your Army careers, you men have bitched about what you call ‘chicken shit drilling’. That, like everything else in this Army, has a definite purpose. That purpose is alertness. Alertness must be bred into every soldier. I don’t give a fuck for a man who’s not always on his toes. You men are veterans or you wouldn’t be here. You are ready for what’s to come. A man must be alert at all times if he expects to stay alive. If you’re not alert, sometime, a German son-of-an-asshole-bitch is going to sneak up behind you and beat you to death with a sockfull of shit!

There are four hundred neatly marked graves somewhere in Sicily. All because one man went to sleep on the job. But they are German graves, because we caught the bastard asleep before they did. An Army is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is pure horse shit. The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real fighting under fire than they know about fucking!

We have the finest food, the finest equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world. Why, by God, I actually pity those poor sons-of-bitches we’re going up against. By God, I do.

My men don’t surrender. I don’t want to hear of any soldier under my command being captured unless he has been hit. Even if you are hit, you can still fight back. That’s not just bull shit either. The kind of man that I want in my command is just like the lieutenant in Libya, who, with a Luger against his chest, jerked off his helmet, swept the gun aside with one hand, and busted the hell out of the Kraut with his helmet. Then he jumped on the gun and went out and killed another German before they knew what the hell was coming off. And, all of that time, this man had a bullet through a lung. There was a real man!

All of the real heroes are not storybook combat fighters, either. Every single man in this Army plays a vital role. Don’t ever let up. Don’t ever think that your job is unimportant. Every man has a job to do and he must do it. Every man is a vital link in the great chain. What if every truck driver suddenly decided that he didn’t like the whine of those shells overhead, turned yellow, and jumped headlong into a ditch? The cowardly bastard could say, ‘Hell, they won’t miss me, just one man in thousands’. But, what if every man thought that way? Where in the hell would we be now? What would our country, our loved ones, our homes, even the world, be like? No, gawdamnit, Americans don’t think like that. Every man does his job. Every man serves the whole. Every department, every unit, is important in the vast scheme of this war. The ordnance men are needed to supply the guns and machinery of war to keep us rolling. The Quartermaster is needed to bring up food and clothes because where we are going there isn’t a hell of a lot to steal. Every last man on K.P. has a job to do, even the one who heats our water to keep us from getting the ‘G.I. Shits’.

Each man must not think only of himself, but also of his buddy fighting beside him. We don’t want yellow cowards in this Army. They should be killed off like rats. If not, they will go home after this war and breed more cowards. The brave men will breed more brave men. Kill off the gawdamned cowards and we will have a nation of brave men. One of the bravest men that I ever saw was a fellow on top of a telegraph pole in the midst of a furious fire fight in Tunisia. I stopped and asked what the hell he was doing up there at a time like that. He answered, ‘Fixing the wire, Sir’. I asked, ‘Isn’t that a little unhealthy right about now?’ He answered, ‘Yes Sir, but the gawdamned wire has to be fixed’. I asked, ‘Don’t those planes strafing the road bother you?’ And he answered, ‘No, Sir, but you sure as hell do!’ Now, there was a real man. A real soldier. There was a man who devoted all he had to his duty, no matter how seemingly insignificant his duty might appear at the time, no matter how great the odds. And you should have seen those trucks on the road to Tunisia. Those drivers were magnificent. All day and all night they rolled over those son-of-a-bitching roads, never stopping, never faltering from their course, with shells bursting all around them all of the time. We got through on good old American guts. Many of those men drove for over forty consecutive hours. These men weren’t combat men, but they were soldiers with a job to do. They did it, and in one hell of a way they did it. They were part of a team. Without team effort, without them, the fight would have been lost. All of the links in the chain pulled together and the chain became unbreakable.

Don’t forget, you men don’t know that I’m here. No mention of that fact is to be made in any letters. The world is not supposed to know what the hell happened to me. I’m not supposed to be commanding this Army. I’m not even supposed to be here in England. Let the first bastards to find out be the Goddamned Germans. Someday I want to see them raise up on their piss-soaked hind legs and howl, ‘Jesus Christ, it’s the Goddamned Third Army again and that son-of-a-fucking-bitch Patton’.

We want to get the hell over there. The quicker we clean up this gawdamned mess, the quicker we can take a little jaunt against the purple pissing Japs and clean out their nest, too. Before the gawdamned Marines get all of the credit.

Sure, we want to go home. We want this war over with. The quickest way to get it over with is to go get the bastards who started it. The quicker they are whipped, the quicker we can go home. The shortest way home is through Berlin and Tokyo. And when we get to Berlin, I am personally going to shoot that paper hanging son-of-a-bitch Hitler. Just like I’d shoot a snake!

When a man is lying in a shell hole, if he just stays there all day, a German will get to him eventually. The hell with that idea. The hell with taking it. My men don’t dig foxholes. I don’t want them to. Foxholes only slow up an offensive. Keep moving. And don’t give the enemy time to dig one either. We’ll win this war, but we’ll win it only by fighting and by showing the Germans that we’ve got more guts than they have; or ever will have. We’re not going to just shoot the sons-of-bitches, we’re going to rip out their living gawdamned guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun cocksuckers by the bushel-fucking-basket. War is a bloody, killing business. You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!

I don’t want to get any messages saying, ‘I am holding my position.’ We are not holding a gawdamned thing. Let the Germans do that. We are advancing constantly and we are not interested in holding onto anything, except the enemy’s balls. We are going to twist his balls and kick the living shit out of him all of the time. Our basic plan of operation is to advance and to keep on advancing regardless of whether we have to go over, under, or through the enemy. We are going to go through him like crap through a goose; like shit through a tin horn!

From time to time there will be some complaints that we are pushing our people too hard. I don’t give a good Goddamn about such complaints. I believe in the old and sound rule that an ounce of sweat will save a gallon of blood. The harder WE push, the more Germans we will kill. The more Germans we kill, the fewer of our men will be killed. Pushing means fewer casualties. I want you all to remember that.

There is one great thing that you men will all be able to say after this war is over and you are home once again. You may be thankful that twenty years from now when you are sitting by the fireplace with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you WON’T have to cough, shift him to the other knee and say, ‘Well, your Granddaddy shoveled shit in Louisiana.’ No, sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say, ‘Son, your Granddaddy rode with the Great Third Army and a Son-of-a-Goddamned-Bitch named Georgie Patton!’