The Liberation of Europe: A Bridgehead Too Late?

John Grigg questions whether D-Day could have taken place earlier and, instead, did it drag out the course of the war?

Into the Jaws of Death by Robert F. Sargent. Assault craft land one of the first waves at Omaha Beach. The U.S. Coast Guard caption identifies the unit as Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division.On June 6th, 1944, British, American and Canadian forces landed in Normandy. By the end of the day they had broken through the German defences and secured a substantial, if still precarious, bridgehead. Only on one of the beaches, the American 'Omaha', was there really serious resistance, and even that was overcome by early afternoon.

The achievement of June 6th cost the Allies about 10,000 casualties, of whom about 2,500 were killed. On the face of it, therefore, D-Day was not only a great and glorious triumph, but relatively economical as well.

Yet on closer inspection there has to be considerable doubt about both the extent of the triumph and the genuineness of the economy. Even if the war in Europe had not dragged on for nearly a year after D-Day, as a result of errors that might have been avoided, it still could be argued that the long delay in carrying out the invasion cost the western Allies half of their victory, and the subject nations an incalculable number of lives.

Instead of liberating the whole of Europe the western Allies left about half of it under another alien despotism, and the half that they abandoned included the country – Poland – on whose behalf Britain had ostensibly gone to war. Moreover, during the last two years of the war the Nazi regime added hundreds of thousands to its toll of victims. For the suffering people of occupied Europe the delayed invasion was anything but economical; for many it came too late to save them from death or slavery.

Was this tragic outcome inevitable? Would an earlier invasion of north-west Europe have been doomed to fail, as most military pundits still tend to believe? The case against a Second Front in 1942 is, certainly, as convincing now as it was at the time, but it does not follow that the invasion had to be delayed for a further two years. The case for a D-Day in 1943 is altogether stronger, though hitherto almost entirely discounted by the military-historical establishment.

There is room here for only a brief summary of the arguments. At the Casablanca conference in January 1943, which followed the successful landings in North Africa and the defeat of Rommel at El Alamein, the British persuaded the Americans to postpone a cross-Channel invasion and to engage meanwhile in further Mediterranean operations.

This led to the long and essentially futile Italian campaign, which tied down many more Allied than German troops and put an immense strain on Allied resources for no remotely proportionate strategic gain. The Germans in Italy were fighting on interior lines, while the Allies had to supply their two armies there over thousands of miles of sea and land.

Churchill had talked to Stalin of the 'soft underbelly' of the Axis, and the phrase soon became a cliche. But like many cliches it was also a fallacy. The southern coast of Europe is not soft at all, but exceptionally hard. The soft coastline is in the north – where the Allies landed in 1944.

It is said that the Italian campaign drew German troops away from the eastern front, but even this is doubtful. The Germans would have been bound to maintain substantial forces in Italy and the Balkans anyway, partly to hold down the local populations and partly to guard against the threat of invasion. It is a suggestive fact that in December 1943 they had more divisions in the Balkans than in Italy. In any case a cross-Channel invasion would obviously have drawn away many more of their troops.

The British prevailed at Casablanca because the Americans were divided. General Marshall, the US army chief, believed that only a full-scale invasion across the Channel could win the war and was utterly opposed to Mediterranean 'side-shows'. But he lacked support from the US navy chief, Admiral King, who had little interest in the European war (and was also, incidentally, very anti-British). To King the war that mattered was the war against Japan, and thanks to the British attitude at Casablanca – shrinking from decisive action against Germany in 1943 – he was able to secure a massive diversion of American resources to the Pacific.

But if the Western leaders at Casablanca had decided in favour of a 1943 D-Day, could it have worked? One familiar argument against it is that there would not have been enough landing-craft. Yet the armada which transported the Allied troops to Sicily in July 1943 was actually larger than the D-Day armada in June 1944. Moreover, when it became apparent that the British would not agree to a cross-Channel invasion in 1943, production of landing-craft in the United States was scaled down from top to twelfth in the order of priorities.

Was there a shortage of troops? The eventual plan for OVERLORD required the landing of eight divisions by sea and air on the first day, and a build-up to thirty divisions by D+35. In 1943 there were twenty-seven British divisions in Britain, of which sixteen were being trained for invasion; and in the rest of the world there were thirty-eight divisions under British command. By the end of 1942 the Americans had mobilised seventy-three divisions. It is hard to believe that there would not have been enough trained men to invade in mid-1943.

Then what about the necessary gadgetry – Pluto, Mulberry harbours, etc? The ideas were all in circulation; indeed many had been in circulation for a long time. All that was needed was top priority for development and production.

Perhaps the most vital precondition of all – the interdiction by bombing of enemy communications behind the landing zone – could almost certainly have been fulfilled in 1943. What would have been needed then was needed a year later: a direction to order the air chiefs to lay off maniacal indiscriminate bombing and to concentrate instead upon roads, railways and other strategic targets within a prescribed area.

On the German side, the defences against invasion were much weaker in 1943 than in 1944. Rundstedt, the German commander in the West, said that the so-called Atlantic Wall had 'no depth and little surface'. But during the winter of 1943-4 Hitler gave Rommel the task of strengthening the Wall, which he performed with his usual vigour.

Logistically the Germans would have been far worse placed in 1943 for a war on two fronts. In July 1943 their eastern front was still deep inside Russia, whereas a year later the Red Army was crossing the Polish border and, in the south, approaching Romania. Grim though this was to the Germans in other ways, it had the advantage of giving them much shorter east-west communications.

Of course it can never be proved that D-Day could have been successfully attempted a year earlier. But at the very least the case should not be allowed to go by default. The enormity of the price of delay is beyond dispute.

  • John Grigg is writing a five-volume biography of Lloyd George. His other books include 1943: The Victory that never was (Eyre, 1980).

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