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6 June 2023

The month of two D-Days

History will record this deed as an achievement of the highest order.

By David Reynolds

On 5 June 1944, the evening before D-Day, General Dwight D Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, drove to Newbury airfield in Berkshire, where units of the US 101st Airborne Division were preparing to drop into Normandy. Preying on his mind were warnings that the paratroopers might suffer up to 70 per cent casualties – either killed, wounded, taken prisoner or missing. Wandering unannounced through groups of men with shaven heads and blacked faces, clambering over packs and weapons, “Ike” managed to radiate calm and confidence. But afterwards, as he watched the transports take off, those standing around could see tears in his eyes.

In his wallet was a draft press release that he’d scrawled earlier in the day – just in case. It read:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

In his original draft of the first sentence, Eisenhower wrote “and the troops have been withdrawn”. Then, on reflection, he crossed that out and, moving from what we might call the passive evasive to the active attributional, inserted “I have withdrawn the troops”.

It is a moving, “the buck stops here” statement – very different from the blame game played so often today. And striking, too, because it reminds us just how high the stakes were on 6 June 1944. D-Day is such a familiar trope of our national saga that it is easy to forget how vast and risky an undertaking it was to try to land 160,000 men – mainly American, British and Canadian – with equipment and supplies, on five beachheads along a heavily fortified front of 50 miles. Nor is it often appreciated in the West that June 1944 was actually the month of two D-Days: one in Normandy, the other in Byelorussia. Both played a decisive part in the destruction of the Third Reich – and in the genesis of the Cold War.

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“The Longest Day” of myth and movie was actually years in the making. The drama and heroism on the beaches – rightly the central point of commemoration in 2019 – were only possible because what had come before, through the work of thousands of unsung heroes. Thankfully no one then intoned “D-Day means D-Day” and tried to wing it. The blood and tears of 6 June were the result of many months of toil and sweat.

The story of 1944 pushes us all the way back to 1940. With the tendency of most countries to reduce big history to “our” history, that year is largely remembered – and celebrated – in Britain around the “Finest Hour” narrative of Dunkirk and Churchill, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. In terms of the war as a whole, however, the larger point about 1940 is that throughout more than four years of bitter fighting in 1914-18 there was always a Western Front – despite the Marne, Verdun, the Somme and the great German hammer blows of spring 1918. Yet in 1940 the Western Front collapsed in little more than four weeks, leaving Hitler supreme over most of Europe. Vanquishing Nazi Germany would therefore require a far greater military effort than against the Kaiserreich: not just defeating the German army – itself an immense task – but first re-establishing a Western Front on the continent of Europe.

Along that road towards victory, Britain’s defiance did indeed play a crucial part. If the country had capitulated in 1940 or had been invaded and occupied, the United States would probably have turned its back on Europe and adopted a policy of “Western Hemisphere Defense”, concentrating on the security of the Americas. That was a real possibility: in early 1940 President Franklin D Roosevelt reckoned Britain’s chances of survival to be one in three. But instead, despite fierce political opposition, he felt politically able to extend aid gradually to defiant Britain, including the economic lifeline of the Lend-Lease Act, long before the US formally joined the war after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

In 1944 Britain was therefore able to serve as the base for liberating the continent. Wags joked that the country had become so heavy with men and materiel that only the barrage balloons saved it from sinking under the waves. Although the British hosted Allied contingents from all over Europe and the Commonwealth, the US presence was the largest and most vivid – with more than 1.5 million men in the UK by June 1944. “Over-sexed, over-paid and over here,” grumbled some of the locals. GIs quipped back that the Brits were “under-sexed, under-paid and under Eisenhower”.

Fortress Britain was therefore a necessary condition for breaking down Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Necessary, but not sufficient. In December 1940 Roosevelt pledged that America would be the “arsenal of democracy” and his people fully honoured that promise. The United States was the only belligerent country on either side in the war to have both “guns” and “butter” – dramatically boosting arms production while also raising civilian living standards. It was the war boom, not Roosevelt’s New Deal, which finally ended America’s Great Depression. In addition to the output of planes, tanks, guns and ships, humbler products of American ingenuity and mass production would play their part in victory. The Higgins boat, for instance – prototype for the hundreds of shallow landing craft that enabled platoons to disembark right on to the beaches of France. Or the 2½-ton truck, which gave the US army unprecedented speed and logistical mobility during its breakout across France.

But supplies and troops were only useful if they could be transported safely across the ocean for stockpiling in Britain. D-Day would have been impossible without winning the Battle of the Atlantic. The Allies could have mounted a diversionary raid on the coast of France – or a suicide mission of the sort that the Canadians undertook at Dieppe in August 1942 – but they could not have created the Normandy beachhead and “nourished” it (as Churchill liked to say) without having an assured transatlantic lifeline.

This victory then, though often neglected in wartime sagas, was an essential precondition for making the landings. In his memoirs, Churchill claimed that even in 1940 he never seriously feared Hitler could conquer Britain – “invasion, I thought, even before the air battle, would fail” – and then stated that “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”.

The havoc that could be wrought by German submarines was demonstrated off the east coast of America in the first eight months after Pearl Harbor. The US government had been astonishingly slow to implement a proper convoy system, backed by sea and air patrols, and to introduce strict blackout regulations in seaboard communities. As a result, a small pack of experienced U-boats was able to pick off, almost at will, isolated merchant ships and oil transports silhouetted against the nightlights. By August 1942, 485 vessels had been sunk off the coast of North and Central America, a total of 2.6 million tons. The historian Gerhard Weinberg has called this “the most disastrous defeat ever suffered by American naval power”.

[See also: 75 years after D-Day, the ideology we defeated isn’t dead, just dormant]

Overcoming the German submarine menace required a double effort: protecting the maximum possible Allied merchant and naval shipping, while also boosting new production in order at least to replace the losses. The worst month was November 1942, when 721,700 tons were sunk by U-boats. At that point, the Kriegsmarine had more than 100 submarines operating in the Atlantic and, for most of the year, British code-breakers had been unable to decrypt key enemy signals because the Germans had added a fourth wheel to their Enigma machines. No wonder that the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff stated after their Casablanca conference in January 1943, “Defeat of the U-boat must remain a first charge on the resources of [the] United Nations.”

During the course of that year, however, the situation gradually improved. The fourth wheel was cracked. The convoy system was refined, with “hunter-killer groups” prowling around danger hot-spots. Allied long-range aircraft were diverted from bombing Germany to cover the Mid-Atlantic Gap around Greenland, and also the Bay of Biscay where the main U-boat bases were located. And the placing of “Huff-Duff” (high-frequency direction finding) equipment on most ships allowed them to locate U-boats and take action individually. Meanwhile, on the production side, as US yards moved into top gear, February 1943 was the first month in which the tonnage gained by new construction exceeded that sunk by U-boats. And in May the Kriegsmarine lost, on average, one U-boat a day – an unsustainable rate. Although it kept on doggedly through the winter of 1943-44, what the German Navy called “Black May” proved the turning point in the struggle against the submarine. At a cost of more than 70,000 lives, Allied victory in the Atlantic made possible the subsequent build-up in Britain.

Another facet of the D-Day backstory was the work of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. Intelligence operations – a closely-kept secret for 30 years – are no longer the “missing dimension” of the Second World War. Indeed Bletchley, where many of the decaying huts were slated for demolition in the early 1990s, is now a major tourist attraction and has gained global recognition thanks to the 2014 movie The Imitation Game (staring the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing) and the ITV series The Bletchley Circle.

Yet mainstream fame too often means caricature, and three-dimensional history is reduced to two-dimensional heroes. A new book by Bletchley’s official historian David Kenyon, Bletchley Park and D-Day, helps give a more balanced picture. By 1944 GC&CS was no longer – if it ever had been – just a collegiate outstation for Oxbridge eccentrics, but amounted to what Kenyon terms an operation of “industrial efficiency”. In 1942-43 “much of the significant code-breaking work, in terms of the development of decryption techniques, had been done”. The new task was “not to provide a fertile habitat for individual genius, but rather to scale up and industrialise the techniques developed by the master code-breakers, and to create systems allowing their methods to be applied to thousands of items of data, at speed, by staff without an Oxbridge level of education”. This expansion from cottage industry to factory was reflected in the growth of the workforce – which reached 7,000 in January 1944 and nearly 9,000 a year later.

Contrary to the widespread impression that Bletchley mainly handled “hot news” – processing decrypts of German messages and rushing the signals intelligence (Sigint) out to the battlefronts – some of the most significant work involved long-term planning. The Western Front Committee was created at Bletchley in October 1942, before the Allies had landed in North Africa, to start working out the German army’s order of battle in France – its resources and organisation – ahead of a Channel crossing. The Dieppe disaster had shown the importance of knowing exactly what and whom the Allies would be up against. The committee’s first report appeared in February 1943, and 11 revisions followed over the next 16 months. Not much information was gleaned via Enigma from German army units because they generally used landlines, but a good deal was obtained from SS and air force messages as well through decrypts from the teleprinter traffic to Berlin. Some of the most useful information came via American “Magic” intercepts, especially reports by Japanese diplomats about their tour of the German coastal defences in December 1943. One of these documents went right up to Churchill.

This inter-Allied cooperation was vital. The Americans not only shared their intelligence from the Pacific theatre; they also did not try to set up their own Sigint operation for the war in Europe, working instead with and inside Bletchley Park. The resulting information was passed on to Eisenhower’s headquarters and to British and US field commanders, without, as Kenyon puts it, “distinction of nationality, solely on the basis of the usefulness of the product to the particular recipient”. This level of intelligence sharing was historically unprecedented and stood in stark contrast to German intelligence efforts, which were divided across a large number of often competing agencies.

On the eve of D-Day, GC&CS had been able to “identify and locate (more or less approximately) all 58 German divisions in France and the Low Countries, and to develop detailed orders of battle for each of them, listing subordinate units, commanders and, in some cases, individual numbers of tanks, guns and personnel”. What this meant for the ordinary soldier was summed up by a Canadian rifleman, Les Wagar, who landed on “Juno” beach on 6 June. “Each man’s job had been set and memorised days before and there was really nothing to say. We knew the width of the beach we had to cross, the mines we had to avoid, the bunkers, the gun positions, the wall we had to get over or through, the streets and buildings of the town we had to take, the minefields, the possible enemy strength, the perimeter we had to establish for the next wave to go forward”, and so on.

“Juno” and “Gold” were, admittedly, the two most manageable beachheads – joined up before the end of D-Day. At the western end, on “Utah”, the US 4th Division encountered limited resistance. On “Sword”, however, British troops found the beach heavily mined, and congestion soon built up under fierce German resistance. And on “Omaha” beach – target for the US 29th Division – strong currents drove many landing craft off course and the GIs also ran into an undetected German division. For a while that morning it seemed the assault might have to be called off. Equally worrying, behind the German lines many of the heavily-laden US paratroopers ended up far from their designated drop zones because of thick cloud and fierce flak, often landing straight into swamps. Ike’s foreboding had been proven prescient.

The vital point, however, was that the landings did gain a foothold. And Allied casualties were “only” about 10,000 – including some 4,400 dead. The long months of preparation had paid off. Yet the foothold was tenuous. The Allies had not reached any of their goals for day one: Bayeux and St Lô were still in German hands, and the key city of Caen did not fall until 21 July. It would be a struggle to supply the beachhead until major ports had been captured. One of the two artificial, portable “Mulberry” harbours – another feat of forward planning and accomplished execution – was destroyed on 19 June by the worst storm experienced in Normandy for 40 years. And although Cherbourg fell a week later, the Germans blew up the port facilities, which could not be used until September.

For the rest of June and most of July, therefore, progress through the Norman bocage, with its thick hedges and steep banks, was agonisingly slow. The D-Day landings, or Operation Neptune, had succeeded, but Overlord – the battle for Normandy as a whole – hung in the balance.

In the east another D-Day was being planned. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin had met as a triumvirate for the first time at the end of November 1943 in Tehran. There Stalin urged his allies to set a firm date for the cross-Channel attack, so that the Red Army could start planning a complementary offensive against Hitler’s Eastern Front. He also demanded that they appoint the operation’s commander as soon as possible, because “nothing will come out of the operation unless one man was made responsible not only for the preparation but also the execution”. Churchill, still fixated on the British-led campaign in Italy, kept huffing and puffing about “great possibilities in the Mediterranean”, but Stalin dismissed such operations as “diversions” and asked bluntly, “Do the British really believe in ‘Overlord’ or are they only saying so to reassure the Russians?”

It was largely through Stalin’s persistence at Tehran that Churchill, now outvoted two to one, was pinned down to an invasion “during” May 1944 (by which the British meant as late in that month as possible). The Russians then participated in another carefully planned facet of Overlord, the elaborate deception operation that diverted German attention and reserves away from Normandy to confront fictive invasion threats elsewhere – including Norway, where the Soviets assisted by conducting manoeuvres in the Arctic.

On 10 April the Western allies informed the Soviet General Staff that the target date for D-Day had been set for 31 May. On the 18th Stalin thanked Churchill and Roosevelt for this information and said that “in accordance with the Tehran agreement” the Red Army would “undertake at the same time its new offensive in order to give maximum support to the Anglo-American operation”. Over the next few weeks Stalin firmed up the centrepiece of his five-pronged summer campaign, a huge thrust through Byelorussia – code-named Bagration after one of Tsarist Russia’s hero-marshals of the war of 1812 against Napoleon.

He kept his allies abreast of plans and timing and on 21 June informed both of them that the operation would begin “in not more than a week” and would involve “130 divisions” – a detail perhaps inserted for deliberate effect just after Churchill had stated that 20 Allied divisions were now deployed in Normandy. Even allowing for the smaller official size of a Red Army division (12,000 men) compared with US and British divisions (respectively 14,000 and 18,000), this contrast in scale was vast. And Stalin – usually wary, unlike Churchill, of talking things up in advance – added “I and my colleagues expect considerable success”.

“Considerable” was a huge understatement. Bagration’s target was Army Group Centre (Heeresgruppe Mitte) – a strategic command that had been a thorn in the Red Army’s side ever since Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. And aptly, albeit by coincidence, Bagration began on the third anniversary of Barbarossa, during the night of 22 June 1944. Achieving almost complete surprise, four Soviet army groups tore apart Army Group Centre. Within four days Soviet units were across the Dnieper and Dvina rivers; by 4 July the city of Minsk – capital of Byelorussia – had been liberated. The ruthless Soviet pincer operations, reminiscent of Hitler’s in 1941, were so successful that in less than three weeks from 22 June to 10 July, 28 Nazi divisions were so shattered as to be no longer operational – a greater loss than Hitler suffered at Stalingrad in January 1943. In fact, Army Group Centre was simply wiped off the German order of battle. Its destruction has been called by the military historian Steven Zaloga “the greatest single defeat of the Wehrmacht in World War II”.

These events in Byelorussia are seldom mentioned in Britain and America. Yet Bagration deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Overlord, because these two great blows – from west and east – together heralded the Götterdämmerung of the Third Reich. It was no accident that the most serious coup attempt against Hitler by German army officers was mounted on 20 July 1944. Claus von Stauffenberg and his associates could see the writing on the wall: they hoped to overthrow the Führer and negotiate peace with the Allies.

The plot failed and the Nazi regime exacted a terrible revenge, yet the whole scheme, however courageous, was utterly quixotic. Its leaders were mostly conservative nationalists who sought to maintain their country’s territorial position as a great power. But the Big Three – learning from 1914 and 1939 – had committed the Allies to the total defeat of Germany, followed by a process of occupation and democratisation that would eradicate the roots of militarism. In short, they demanded Germany’s “unconditional surrender”. And they had the power to accomplish this.

By now the American and British armies were breaking out of the Normandy hedgerows. Operation Cobra, which began on 25 July, swept south and then east, encircling 50,000 German troops in an area dubbed the “Falaise pocket”, and enabling a thrust across France towards Paris. Meanwhile, at the end of the month, Red Army units reached the bank of the Vistula river, on the outskirts of Warsaw – having covered an astonishing 450 miles in five weeks.

The dramatic success of Bagration triggered an uprising by the Polish Home Army, desperate to drive out the Germans before Poland was “liberated” by the hated Russians. The heroic failure of the rising and Big Three recriminations about whether the Soviets could have done more to help the Poles cast a cloud over the alliance – and highlighted the bitter-sweet consequences of the great Soviet victories of 1944. To quote the title of the final volume of Churchill’s war memoirs, “triumph” over Hitler opened up the “tragedy” of the Cold War.

Yet hints of a dark future should not obscure what was achieved in June 1944 by an unlikely, even unholy alliance that managed to pull together against the bestiality of Nazism. At its heart was an amazing amphibious operation, two years in the making, that retrieved the disaster of 1940.

Let’s leave the last word on D-Day to Stalin. Remember that the Soviets had repeatedly scoffed at the challenge of crossing the Channel, likening it to no more than crossing a big river such as the Volga. Stalin even insinuated that the Allies were cowards. So his telegram to Churchill about D-Day on 11 June, much of it repeated in Pravda a few days later, was not off-the-cuff flattery. The message represented the high watermark of the Grand Alliance – a tantalising hint, perhaps, of what might have been:

My colleagues and I cannot but admit that the history of warfare knows no other like undertaking from the point of view of its scale, its vast conception and its masterly execution. As is well known, Napoleon in his time failed ignominiously in his plan to force the Channel. The hysterical Hitler, who boasted for two years that he would effect a forcing of the Channel, was unable to make up his mind even to hint at attempting to carry out his threat. Only our Allies have succeeded in realising with honour the grandiose plan of the forcing of the Channel. History will record this deed as an achievement of the highest order.

[See also: How the Second World War was won]

This article was originally published on 5 June 2019. It is being repromoted today (6 June 2023) to mark the anniversary of the D-Day landings.

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance