Omaha Beach. American troops are landing in Normandy on the, opening the second front in West Europe.



On 6 June 1944 in the morning on the beaches of the Normandy peninsula, between the mouths of rivers Vire and Orne, landed Allied invasion forces, which opened the so-called Second Front in Europe.

The plans of landing in France had been developed since 1942, chiefly by the Combined Chiefs of Staff - representatives of the United States Army, Navy and Air Force. As the closer co-operation was established with the Imperial Staff, a joint Anglo-American body was created, named the Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee. Its task was strategic planning of the Allied operations, and preparation of the Allied landing in West Europe.

However, the planned invasion of the European continent delayed. First it was difficult, and even impossible, due to lack of appropriately big and trained troops, as well as various necessary equipment. Later the political reasons had been coming more and more forward. The clearer it had become that the Russians had been standing, containing and finally defeating the German onslaught, the lesser the British prime-minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, had been eager to hurry. It annoyed many Americans, for example Gen. Omar Bradley, who did not spare critical words to the British in his memoirs:

While taking on this diversion to the Mediterranean, the Allies had branched off on a siding in their strategic offensive. Not until the Combined Staffs met at Casablanca in January, 1943, was General Marshall able to switch them back to the cross-channel invasion. And even then he was forced to accede to the Sicilian landing. For having once entered the Mediterranean, the British were reluctant to leave. What that sea lacked in military advantage it offered in political opportunity. [Bradley O. (1999).]

Churchill, indeed, contemplated the Balkan option; his was the idea of landing Anglo-American forces there before the Russians would come, and from there to reach Czechoslovakia and Poland, and so to keep East Europe in the sphere of British influence. But the Americans strongly opposed going as far as to the Balkans, and eventually both Allies had to accept a compromise - landing in Italy. Churchill dubbed it the Third Front, and originally wanted to limit the Italian campaign to the southern part of the Apennine Peninsula. He still hoped that one day he would use it as a springboard for his coveted landing in the Balkans.

But those were the Americans, who were playing more and more preponderant role in the inter-Allied relations. Although they faced Japan - a closer, and to the American interests more sinister, enemy - the American chiefs of staffs had enforced, not without personal influence of the president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the principle "Beat Germany first". They had recognized in Germany, occupying almost entire Europe, an enemy more dangerous in global scale. So, the United States diverted more and more land troops and air forces from the Pacific to Europe. Also their economic potential surpassed that of the British Empire not only in industrial output, but also in flexibility in adjusting to the changing demands of the world war. Moreover, the United States possessed huge human resources, and their industry was not exposed to the attacks of the enemy air forces. No wonder that in the Anglo-Saxon duo America quickly started singing a solo adequate to its role.

In the invasion of France practical Americans saw the shortest way to end the war. In this matter Roosevelt enjoyed support of the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. The Soviet diplomacy since the very outbreak of the Germano-Soviet war vigorously demanded that the Anglo-Saxons open the Second Front in West Europe as soon as possible to bring a relief, at least partial, to the Soviet armies fighting desperately on the Eastern Front. Soviet staffs apparently did not realise how weak in fact were Anglo-American forces at that time. Although Churchill and Roosevelt promised to Stalin that the Second Front would be opened in 1942, that was merely a wishful thinking. The Second Front was not opened either in 1942 or in 1943, and irresponsible promises only cast shadow on the relations between the chief partners of the anti-fascist coalition.

In 1944 the Italian campaign still absorbed a lot of troops and resources, but the priority was finally given to the preparations for the invasion of France, and that priority was strictly observed. Churchill's hopes for snatching East Europe from Stalin faded. He was not even sure now, whether his armies would be able to enter Germany before the Red Army.

In December 1943, Roosevelt, having Churchill's consent, appointed General Dwight Eisenhower the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Eisenhower immediately started forming his staff. He brought General Bernard Law Montgomery from Italy as the commander of the land forces and the commander of the 21st Army Group. The command of the air forces was entrusted to a British, Air Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory, and the navy to another British, Admiral Bertram Ramsey.

For the first wave of the invasion operation, codenamed Overlord, were detached 36 divisions, 10 armoured brigades, and 11,000 aircraft. A fleet of 700 ships of all the classes, including 6 battleships, 22 cruisers and 93 destroyers, escorted across the English Channel the greatest invasion force ever, embarked on 4300 units ranging from trans-oceanic liners to barges. Under the cover of the powerful artillery barrage, five divisions landed on the beaches of Normandy to seize bridgeheads for next waves. To secure the seaborne landing's flanks, two airborne divisions were parachuted in the mouths of the Orne and Vire.

The entire rear of the German defence position, called the Atlantic Wall in the Nazi propaganda, since some time then had been softened through intensive bombings, focused in the first place on railways and bridges. Now the bombings were augmented, and the fighters started sweeping the Luftwaffe from the sky.

In the West, the German commander-in-chief was Field-Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, but since February 1944 the actual command was exercised by Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel, a year earlier beaten in Africa. Under his command were large forces of the Army Group B, deployed in Normandy and Flanders, and disproportionately weaker Army Group G, whose forces were scattered from the Bay of Biscay to the Riviera. It seems that even those two outstanding German commanders truly believed in the Atlantic Wall, and in the impregnability of the fortifications constructed along the entire Atlantic coast of France. But they were wrong.

Added to this faulty arrangement, the very nature of the German coastal defences exaggerated it; for in form they were linear, with little or no depth. They consisted in a chain of works running along the coast linked together by obstacles both under-water and on the beaches. In rear of them there was no secondary defensive line; therefore the whole system was, in fact, a Maginot Wall, and astonishing as it may seem, both Hitler and Rommel had the same confidence in it as the French had had in the actual Maginot Line in 1940. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

Fuller's keen observation requires some corrections however. In 1940 the French had a lot of troops behind the Maginot Line. It was like the second line of defence; the line that had never been used. The Atlantic Wall resembled rather the Polish defences in September 1939 - stretched along a long border and without substantial reserves in the rear. Theoretically, more forces might be mobilized, but that required time, and in June 1944, just like in September 1939, the enemy air forces eliminated the factor of time.

Also the fact that the Allies landed in Normandy surprised the Germans. They expected invasion farther to the north and kept strong forces around Pas de Calais; they also kept strong occupation forces in Norway. The deception to a big degree resulted from Allied intelligence operations. Now the Germans were making hectic efforts to regroup, which was very difficult, as the Allied air forces exercised a full command in the air.

The first wave of the invasion made five breaches in the Atlantic Wall. It was a big contribution to this success that landing troops were supported by tanks, equipped with floating chambers, and parachutists, dropped behind enemy lines. On 10 June the bridgeheads already made a continuous strip of land, 70km wide and 18km deep. By 12 June as many as 16 divisions, including 2 armoured ones, landed in Normandy. Their total strength amounted to 326,000 men and 54,000 vehicles. Needless to say, those were well-armed and well-equipped motorized divisions. They outnumbered German divisions, which on top of that were able to move only on foot or railways. Ant the air raids had paralysed French railways almost completely.

The Allies had also brought to Normandy supplies in excess of 100,000 tons. On the beaches grew artificial ports, towed in sections, while army engineers built a system of airfields. Those airfields increased the range of the Allied fighters by 300km and rendered more efficient support to the troops, as they progressed inland. On the first day of the invasion alone Allied aircraft made nearly 35,000 sorties. Their command in the air was so complete that in daylight, and during good weather, enemy movement used to cease almost completely.

On the left wing of the Allied grouping operated the British 2nd Army, which were advancing towards Caen, and on the right wing operated the American 1st Army, which was moving to an important Atlantic port at Cherbourg. The Americans took Cherbourg on 27 June, but it was not until a month later that the port, ruined by air raids, became partly operational. Until then the Allies had to use artificial ports built on the beaches of Normandy. At any rate, taking Cherbourg, one of the first objectives of the invasion, was a success. A success that was not matched at Caen, where the Germans assumed stubborn defence, and blocked roads to Paris and across the Seine. There the terrain was criss-crossed with all kinds of fences, stone-walls, ditches and hedgerows - so-called bocage - ideally fit to organize defences. And when the Americans were rolling the Cotentin peninsula, namely the part of Normandy protruding farthermost into the Atlantic Ocean, the British were still ramming into the approaches of Caen.

In the battle fought from 25 to 29 June the Allies made a bridgehead on River Odon. The German command hastily sent there armoured reinforcements. Meanwhile on 7 July Caen was literally wiped out by a powerful raid of 2200 bombers. Historians agree that this was an unfortunate repetition of what happened earlier at Monte Cassino in Italy - a failed attempt to destroy the enemy by a carpet bombing. An ancient French town was razed the ground and thousands of civilians were killed, while there were virtually no German troops there. On 9 July another bombing sealed the fate of Caen, hours after the Germans pulled out of its southern part and assumed new defence positions on the other bank of the River Orne. Meanwhile the rumble left behind made an additional obstacle not only to the Allied tanks, but also to the infantry. The bombing of Caen was wrong militarily and morally, wrote a war correspondent John d'Arcy-Dawson. My opinion was shared by others, and I knew of no War Correspondent who was not ashamed of what he saw at Caen. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

The plan of development of the operation, which is now known as the battle of Normandy, can be described in words taken from sport slang: left-cross the enemy at Caen, to contain there as many troops as possible, and then punch them with the decisive right hook. That "right hook" had to be delivered by the Americans, but first they had to assume a proper initial position for such a thrust. For that they needed to clear the Cotentin peninsula of the enemy forces and check them in Brittany with its important ports. The American advance on the peninsula commenced on 3 July. The troops were moving across the bocage terrain, while bad weather conditions hampered air forces' operations. So, before 18 July the troops had advanced only 15 kilometres. At the same time the Germans, who so far had concentrated their forces around Caen, started shifting their troops to the Cotentin peninsula.

On 19 July the Americans had finally dragged themselves out of the bocage, and reached the line St.Lo - Lessay, where terrain conditions were more favourable for offensive operations. Yet on the same day the weather worsened further, and unusually violent storms in the Atlantic Ocean damaged the artificial ports' breakwaters. Supplies were temporarily disrupted, and any further offensive had to be postponed till 25 July.

Meanwhile at Caen the British continued "left-crossing" the Germans. On 10 July the British struck from the bridgehead on river Odon. On 15 July they continued the advance with three divisions. On 18 July they rammed into the German defences still dug in the southern part of the town, broke them in two-days battle, and gained 10km of terrain. Yet, they lost 150 tanks, which amounted to 25% of the engaged armoured troops. Therefore, it was a rather bitter victory, which produced mediocre gains at a high price. Montgomery, however, always inclined to exaggerate, praised it as a great success; according to him, from then on the Germans constantly worried about Falaise.