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June 6th, 1944: the greatest invasion in history

Text by Paolo Rastelli for Corriere della Sera

About 320 kilometers, roughly the distance from Milan to Nice passing through Genoa. This is the distance covered, stern to bow, assuming an average length of 50 meters, by the 6,483 ships used for the Normandy landing on June 6, 1944, seventy years ago. It was the largest and most significant amphibious operation in the history of warfare, an unrepeatable event that still captivates the imagination of military history enthusiasts and historical reenactors who every year on June 6 "invade" the beaches dressed as American, British, or German soldiers. Unrepeatable, we said, if only for the scale: in addition to the six thousand ships at sea, 11 thousand planes roared in the sky, and on 4 thousand landing craft, waiting to set foot on the French beaches, there were 50,000 men while hundreds of thousands waited in Great Britain. In the end, about 2 million would land. As an example, at this moment, the U.S. Air Force, the most powerful in service, deploys 9 thousand aircraft worldwide, while the Royal Navy has no more than about sixty naval units. The opening of the Second Front was the last act of the war in Europe from which Germany had any chance of emerging victorious: the air and naval power of the Allies was immense, the English Channel (the body of water separating France from the English coast) was more of a highway than an obstacle for the Anglo-American forces, and the Germans were drained from three years of ruthless fighting against the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, success was not assured. And if, by chance, the landing had failed, it would have taken years before it could be attempted again. Years in which the Third Reich could have turned undisturbed against the Soviet Union, perhaps convincing Stalin to conclude that separate peace, which had always been the worst nightmare for the Anglo-American leaders, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


The reason why, all in all, things could have gone differently lies in the sheer force of numbers: on June 6, the Germans deployed around 60 divisions in France, while the Allies had 37 ready in English ports. It's true that the German divisions were short on men (the average in infantry formations was 10,000 compared to the Allies' 17,000), with few means of transportation, composed of personnel not of the first choice in terms of age and physical efficiency, and armed with war booty and outdated weapons. However, there still existed a solid core of armored and motorized forces, including the formidable Waffen SS formations (the fighting SS), capable of giving any opponent a hard time. Not only that, but the German army, the Wehrmacht, was an adversary capable of enormous feats on the battlefield: as powerful as the enemy thrust was and great the disproportion of forces, the Germans managed to offer resistance that could always delay and often block enemy offensives. Soldiers fought with the strength of desperation, knowing that the survival of the homeland was at stake and, on the Eastern Front, for fear of the revenge of the Red Army. And, as much as they fought in defense of a criminal and barbaric regime, it must be recognized that the tactical professionalism of German commanders has always proven far superior to that of the adversary.

So, it was quite clear that the Allies would manage to land, despite the fortifications erected on the French coasts (the so-called Atlantic Wall). But if the bunkers, cannons, and machine guns in position on the beaches could hold them for enough time, giving the German commands the time to bring an adequate number of reinforcements to the firing line, the attackers would have remained stuck on the beaches without enough space to amass new forces and deploy their immense power. The game on June 6 was therefore essentially a speed race, between the Allies in widening their foothold and landing reinforcements and the Germans in moving forces from other areas of France to the threatened sector. The Allies, to make life difficult for the opponent, essentially resorted to two systems. First of all, the intensive exploitation of air superiority, which had become almost total. The German fighter planes were all engaged in trying to keep Allied bombers away from German cities and factories, subjected to almost uninterrupted raids. So, in France, there was almost nothing left to oppose the Allies: on D-Day, Anglo-American fighter planes in flight would have been 4,000 against the 162 deployable by the Luftwaffe. These air forces were engaged before the landing in isolating the operational area: roads, bridges, railway stations, and distribution centers were continuously bombed, making troop movements and supplies a long and almost prohibitive endeavor. After the landing, however, Allied fighter-bombers focused on targeting at every hour of the day with cannons, bombs, and rockets the columns of German vehicles that were struggling towards Normandy: the II SS Panzer Corps (and this is just one example), recalled from Poland to come and fight in France, took four days in mid-June to cross Germany and 11 from the French border to Normandy.

The second weapon in the hands of the Anglo-Americans was one of the most extraordinary intelligence operations ever carried out, also born, however, of the monopoly of the air: the goal, achieved, was to make the Germans believe that the real landing would be in the area of the Pas de Calais, the narrowest point in the English Channel, and that any other landing would be just a diversion to divert attention from the real landing. To this end, a fake army group was formed in the Kent area, ostensibly commanded by General George Patton (the most well-known among the Allied commanders), with its own radio traffic, huge tank parks, barracks, and landing craft at anchor. All fake: the tanks and ships were inflatables or wooden and canvas dummies, the radio traffic was fictitious. German reconnaissance flights were allowed only in southeastern England, while the sky over the southwestern and western ports, where the real invasion fleet was anchored, was made impenetrable. All German secret agents in Great Britain, who were actually playing a double game for the British services, were instructed to report to Berlin that the army commanded by Patton was the one destined for the real invasion. The Allies were facilitated in the enterprise by the fact that the Germans were already convinced on their own that the landing would take place in Calais (aside from an intuition by Hitler for Normandy, which the Führer himself did not follow up on), and therefore every clue was interpreted in this sense. So, for much of the battle, while the 7th German Army defending Normandy fought to survive, the 15th Army, deployed in Calais, remained stationary and intact, with its tactical reserves available, waiting for a landing that would never happen. However, despite all this deployment of means and capabilities by the Allies, destiny was still momentarily balanced. The landings were launched on 5 beaches over a front of 80 kilometers: from west to east, according to the code adopted by the Allies, Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword, the first two destined for the Americans, the other three for the British and Canadians. In Utah, the landing succeeded without too much difficulty (the losses were 197), facilitated also by the drop on the back of the beach of two American airborne divisions. The same happened, overall, at Gold, Juno, and Sword, although in some areas, the resistance was fierce, and the losses were high. But it was at Omaha that the bloodbath occurred (the first 25, shocking, minutes of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan are set here): the beach, eight kilometers long, ended with a shingle and a breakwater, and the only exits were flanked by fortified cliffs. Three thousand American soldiers were killed or wounded at Omaha, and by evening, the beachhead was only a maximum of one and a half kilometers deep. In short, at Omaha, the Atlantic Wall had done its job, slowing down the invaders enough to allow a night counterattack that might have thrown them back into the sea, opening a gigantic breach between Utah and the English beaches, a breach that perhaps would have been impossible to fill. But the troops for the counterattack were not there; the regiment that had this task had been sent to hunt paratroopers and then to counter the landing of the US Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, a rocky promontory on which there was a battery of cannons (which, however, were not yet installed, it was later discovered) that could have posed a threat to the beaches. But the landing at Pointe was an absolutely tactical episode that could never have threatened the German front in Normandy, while the missed opportunity at Omaha had enormous strategic significance. The landing, therefore, succeeded (at the cost of 10,300 casualties for the Allies - including 4,400 deaths, source: Wikipedia - and 9,000 for the Germans), and the battle of Normandy lasted until the end of August, with very tough clashes and bloodbaths reminiscent of those of World War I, on the Karst or in Flanders. The Germans, hammered from the sky and the sea, tried in every way to confine the opponents to the beachhead, which, however, was slowly widening, always stretching the Nazi defensive apparatus. In the end, the Americans broke through at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula and flooded into central France until they closed in a gigantic pocket the German forces defending Normandy, which were subjected, in the long summer days, to continuous bombardment by aviation and artillery. The German army in France emerged destroyed from the ordeal: 450,000 men were lost (240,000 killed or wounded), along with 1,500 tanks, 3,500 cannons, and 20,000 vehicles. On August 25, Paris was liberated, on September 3, Brussels, on September 4, Antwerp with its intact port. But the British did not immediately think of clearing the Scheldt estuary from German forces, and the port remained unusable for months because the ships in transit would have come under fire from German batteries. Meanwhile, the supplies of the Allies, which still came from the Norman beaches, began to run low, and the offensive bogged down. The Wehrmacht gave proof once again of its extraordinary recovery capabilities, until it unleashed the Ardennes Offensive on December 16, 1944, against the Allies, while at the same time, in the East, it tried to resist the rising tide of the Red Army. The war lasted another bitter 8 months, from which Germany emerged destroyed and divided in two between the Allies and the Soviets, a scenario ready for a new war, the "cold" one between Moscow and Washington.

©2014 by Massimo Sciacca - All rights reserved

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