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For the 72 Million

Allied Planning for Invasion of the Continent, 1942-1944

Early in the war Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, faced with grievous losses in the great encirclements of 1941, was agitating for a second front in continental Europe. The war in North Africa was not enough.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill calmly received his scorn when they first met in 1942. The year Britain stood alone still weighed on his mind, and Stalin seemed to take no note of it. Almost immediately upon greeting Churchill Stalin demanded a landing in France before the end of the year. He could point to over 4,000,000 casualties in the last half 1941 alone.

What he got was the Dieppe Raid. Thousands of Canadians were killed, and it was clear that combined operations had a lot of learning to do if a landing was going to work. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Dieppe Raid commander, imparted his experience to the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the new theatre commander.

Eisenhower took command of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in January 1944. Created in June 1942, SHAEF’s only clear directive was to accomplish a landing in France as soon as possible. How, where, and when were not explicit. By the time Eisenhower took command, plans had been hashed over in London for years.

British General Frederick Morgan, designated Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC), drew up what would become the “Overlord“ plan. Avoiding heavily defended harbors like Dieppe, Morgan and his staff planned to land three divisions in a single day on the Cotentin Peninsula, with eleven more coming in through artificial harbors afterwards.

Massive U-boat deployment struck convoys hard in 1942 and 1943, making the buildup to an invasion impossible and the starvation of Britain possible. Only after the tide turned in the Battle of the Atlantic could an invasion force be built up.

By the time of the Casablanca conference in January 1943, American power and numbers became the dominant force in the Allied coalition. Churchill, and especially his Chief of Staff Alan Brooke, pressed the Americans not to invade prematurely and risk another Dieppe, or worse – another Dunkerque. Eisenhower and, distantly, Stalin, pressured the British to accept May 1944 as the definitive date for the invasion.

Starting in 1942, The Queen Mary, a converted passenger liner that carried 14,000 troops (almost a full division) on each crossing, traveled with Royal Navy escorts back and forth across the Atlantic, bringing American GIs from camps all over the United States from embarkation in New York City. Motivated, green, and heavily armed, the Americans took up residence in camps all over Southern England. “Oversexed, overpaid, and over here,” was the sardonic maxim, but generally Anglo-American cooperation was very high.

By May 1943, Hitler had lost his forces in Stalingrad and North Africa. He recognized that he had to reinforce France against a possible invasion. In Führer Directive 51, Hitler appointed Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel to direct the defenses of the French Coast that April. Rommel was part of an odd command structure, where he reported to Western Front commander Gerd von Rundstedt, the longest serving Western commander. But the Führer himself could only release Rommel’s critical Panzer reserves. By May 1944, the Germans had fifty-nine divisions in France.

The Wehrmacht had the entire coast from Norway down to Southern France to defend. Obliged to defend all of it, it stretched out German units that were already hard pressed by the requirements in Italy and the Eastern Front. Gaps were filled with conscripts from Soviet POW camps, pro-Nazi units from the occupied countries, and anyone the Germans could coerce into a uniform. The master race was becoming a polyglot army. Furthermore, Rommel, the lord of maneuver in France in 1940, limited by both Runstedt and Hitler in 1944, dug into the French Coast, believing the invasion would be decided in the first twenty-four hours. He planted more than 3 million mines, constructed “Rommel’s Asparagus” to rip out the bottoms of landing craft at high tide, and flooded inland areas to drown paratroopers. Even without enough concrete, Rommel ordered the building of pillboxes with twelve-foot thick walls and interconnected trenches to other defensive works. Impressive fortifications scared the Allied planners who would have to plan the assault on them. Guns of all calibers were presighted along the beaches, allowing the Germans to intersect their field of fire. What everyone overlooked was that the master of desert maneuver had grounded himself, faced with a lack of support from an increasingly belligerent superior.

In contrast, the Allied command structure reflected a spirit of mutual cooperation, if not its actual practice. The senior commander, Eisenhower, was an American. His immediate staff was all British, including his ground commander, Field Marshall Bernard L. Montgomery; his Air Chief, Air Marshall Arthur Tedder; and the Naval Commander, Admiral Bertrand Ramsey.

Montgomery immediately argued for resizing the plan. Instead of three divisions, he argued for five, two American, two British, and one Canadian. The beaches were codenamed Utah, Omaha (both American,) Gold, Juno (British) and Sword (Canadian.) Instead of two airborne brigades, he called for three divisions to be air dropped in what would be the largest air invasion up to that time.

His suggestions, despite the massive logistics, were incorporated. The buildup began, amassing 5,000 ships and landing craft, 600,000 tons, and 200,000 vehicles. This armada was radically different than the Dieppe reconnaissance-in-force. Special-purpose tanks, called funnies, would cut corridors through minefields and swim ashore with the troops. Giant “Rhino” ferries would land massive quantities of supplies, vehicles and weapons as soon as the beaches were secured. Pipe Line Under The Ocean (PLUTO) would deliver gasoline to a hungry army.

Meanwhile, a massive campaign of subterfuge began to hold the German Fifteenth Army in place in the Pas-de-Calais. The Germans expected the landing there, since it was closest to England, and they concentrated their forces around the area. The Allies played this up, creating a fictitious United States Army Group under General George S. Patton, complete with unit patches, and generated radio traffic to match.

Security was a huge concern. Overlord plans blew out a window and were never recovered. The London Daily Telegraph used several codenames in a crossword puzzle, causing a flurry of investigation. The words were unrelated to the invasion and a coincidence.

The camps were closed to British civilians, causing thousands to move from southern England and adding to the general feeling of confusion. Allied sailors, airmen and soldiers trained all over the British Isles.

Meanwhile, the Allied strategic bombing campaign switched from targets in Germany to tactical targets in France. 11,000 aircraft dropped 195,000 tons of bombs on France between April 1, 1944 and June 5, losing 2,000 aircraft but cutting off Normandy from the rest of France. Allied air superiority would never be lost for the rest of the war.

By May 1944, the date for the invasion was set for June 5. Heavy rains and fog prevented the landing that night, and the forward elements of the invasion force were called back. Eisenhower had a tough decision to make. He could order the invasion for June 6, possibly risking worse weather, or wait for the next optimal time two weeks later when the moon was full and the tides were low enough.

RAF Group Captain Stagg, the Allied Chief Meteorologist, gave his best estimates for the coming night’s weather to Eisenhower and his staff on the afternoon of June 5, 1944. The airborne elements would need notification soon if they were to go. Eisenhower polled his staff; Montgomery said, “Go! Go!” and Eisenhower took a short walk with a reporter. He returned and ordered the largest amphibious operation in history to begin. That afternoon, he met with troopers of the 101st Airborne, watching as their C-47 Dakota transports and Waco gliders took off. One witness claimed he had tears in his eyes. Airborne casualties were expected to be 60%.

Operation Overlord was about to begin. The invasion of France had come.

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