Combined operations. An exercise in landing a medium tank M4 General Sherman on the shore from a landing craft.



Very often one may happen over the statement that Overlord was the name for the Allied seaborne landing on the beaches of Normandy on 6 June 1944. This statement is not precise. Overlord was in fact the codename for a strategic plan, a directive even, of the initial stage of the great battle for Western Europe. That plan outlined in general terms tasks of all three branches of service - Army, Navy and Air Force - during the first 90 days of operations in Normandy and Brittany. It foresaw that within that period the Allied forces would reach the Seine in the north-east, Loire in the south, and the Atlantic coast in the west.

The seaborne operation itself had the codename of its own - Neptune. It was the logical first element of the Overlord, which was thought as a series of consecutive operations, conducted by individual branches of service, army groups and armies.

That historic day - 6 June 1944 - was almost exactly the fourth anniversary of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk, as well as the capitulation of France

Between June 1940 and June 1941 Great Britain was virtually the only opponent of the Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Virtually, because between October 1940 and May 1940 Greece contained in fights substantial Italian forces, and in April 1941 the Germans had to transfer the bulk of their air forces to Greece and Yugoslavia.

Such a situation persisted till 22 June 1941, namely till the hitlerite aggression against the Soviet Union, which since then on became the main link of the anti-fascist alliance. In December the same year the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the United States to join the alliance, although that country was not prepared for war yet.

Within those twelve months of lone fight, the British won the air battle for Britain, which frustrated German plans to invade the British Isles. In July 1940 began the African campaign, which lasted till May 1943.

Emergence of the anti-fascist coalition had not yet stall he wave of the lightning victories won by Germany, Japan and Italy. That wave reached its peak in 1942, when Italo-German forces stood at the gates of Alexandria in Egypt, and in the Soviet Union the Germans reached Stalingrad on the Volga, seized Crimea, and incurred into the Caucasus. In the Far East the Japanese controlled Manchuria, Singapore, Burma, Philippines, Malaya and Indonesia, fought successfully in China, and menaced India and Australia.

Yet simultaneously that was the time of turning tides, and decisive battles that defeated the "Axis" on all the fronts. Two battles that changed the course of the Second World War and the whole history were won at Stalingrad and Kursk. They had driven hitlerite armies back by hundreds of kilometres, eliminated hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers and piles of equipment, and wrestled the strategic initiative from the "Axis".

Simultaneously, and not accidentally, the battle on the Volga was synchronized with the battle on the Nile, where German forces were beaten in he battle of el-Alamein, and American landing in Morocco and Algeria. And at the same time, when German armoured divisions were slaughtered in the battle of Kursk, Anglo-American forces landed on the southern shores of the European continent - in Sicily and southern Italy.

As to the Pacific theatre of the war, where military operations were conducted on numerous archipelagoes, scattered in vast oceanic areas, it is difficult to draw any specific frontline, but one may say that there too Anglo-American forces had overcome the two initial periods of the campaign. Those were: the period of strategic surprise and loss of vast territories, and the period of defensive operations, in which the Japanese aggression was contained, and consolidation of the forces for the counter-offensive. By the spring of 1944 the Allies had firmly grasped the strategic initiative and forced the Japanese to retreat.

In Europe at the same time the strategic situations was as follows: the Red Army had driven the enemy out of the Soviet Union almost completely, and stood on its western frontier along the line from the Baltic Sea, across Byelorussia to Kovel and Brody, and farther to the Dniester and to the Black Sea. The Eastern front had absorbed more than 60% of the German armed forces.

Since September 1943 fights were waged in Italy, where the Italian armed forces capitulated during the Allied landing on the Apennine peninsula, and were replaced by the German occupation forces. On the day before the commencement of the operation Overlord, the 15th Army Group (Field Marshal Harold Alexander) liberated Rome and continued pursuit after the enemy retreating northward. Yet, the Italian front had only secondary importance, and absorbed only 20 to 25 German divisions with comparable size of the Allied troops.

Also the Balkan peninsula could be regarded as a theatre of war, since active partisan operations in Albania, Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria contained in fights as many troops as Alexander's army group did in Italy.

Since 1940 in the seas surrounding Europe, and in the air, was waged a naval and air war, which the Germans started while having substantial superiority. Gradually, they lost that superiority so completely that by the summer of 1944 it turned into a systematic wiping Germany off the map. In 1942 the Allies had dropped close to 54,000t of bombs on Germany; in 1943 it was already 226,513t, and in 1944 the tonnage of the bombs dropped on Germany exceeded one million. One could expect that such a massive air offensive would shatter the German war machine to smithereens. Meanwhile, it turned out that it did not stall the German military production. In the beginning of 1944 Germany produced 3 times more aircraft and 5 times more tanks than in 1942. The only result of the strategic air offensive against Germany was the total devastation of the German cities and huge casualties inflicted on their civilian population.

Simultaneously with the air war continued intensive war at sea. It engulfed vast areas around the world, but with respect of the plan Overlord operations in the Atlantic Ocean, North Sea and Pas de Calais were decisive. Amphibious operations in West Europe were not possible without securing communications in those waters first. Cardinal importance of that factor came out of two facts of life:
  1. Even during the peacetime Great Britain largely depended on overseas imports.
  2. Both Anglo-Saxon powers conducted overseas expeditionary operations, in the outlying territories, thousands of miles from their metropolies; every soldier, every element of equipment had to be transported over those distances, and that transport was a permanent operation, which had to last until the end of the hostilities.
The political and military leadership of Nazi Germany had perfect understanding of those facts, and therefore, the battle for the Atlantic had a high priority in the German military plans in general, and the highest one in the plans of their navy command. Those plans were executed by surface ships, which conducted corsair operations at sea, and air forces, deployed in the whole area from the North Cape to the Spanish border, but most of all by the most lethal weapon of the German navy - so-called "wolf-packs" of submarines.

The combined effort of those operations was very efficient, and very painful to the Allies. In 1942 it seemed that the Germans are reaching for their victory in the battle for the Atlantic. During that year only, they sank 1027 transport ships of 5,700,000BRT of total displacement. Their top success came in March 1943, when they sank 90 ships with half a million of tons of cargo.

At the same time the Allies were not able to concentrate all their naval forces in the North Atlantic, since they needed to detach substantial fleets for the Mediterranean theatre of the war (northern Africa, and later Sicily and Italy), as well as Indian and Pacific Oceans, where they fought with the Japanese aggression. The United States in particular had engaged in the Pacific theatre large naval forces and substantial number of transports.

Nevertheless, at the end of June 1943, the supreme commanders of the United States and Great Britain were able to report to their governments that they had won the battle for the Atlantic. In that month they lost only 6 transports, and one could reasonably expect that this fraction of lost ships - low and acceptable - would not be exceeded again. That success came from the rigorous execution of the commitments made during the conference in Casablanca in January 1943 (codenamed Symbol), where the Allies had discussed a huge complex of issues - military, scientific and industrial - crucial to wipe the U-boats from the Atlantic.