D-Day, 6 June 1944, marked the start of Operation Overlord, the long awaited Allied offensive to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe.
The writing of history, we are all too frequently reminded, is the prerogative of the victors. That may or may not be the case but what I suspect is much closer to the truth, writes Alex Gerlis, is that there is a tendency to oversimplify the outcome of historical events and to view them through that one perspective alone. All too often history is presented in headline terms, ignoring the subtle nuances that invariably shape it. It is rather like reporting a football match solely in terms of the final result, disregarding what happened during the game.
Operation Overlord is a good example of this. The facts and the eventual outcome of the campaign are impressive and not in doubt: 156,000 Allied troops landed on D-Day, along five beaches on a fifty mile stretch of Normandy coastline and in airborne operations. By the time all the beaches had been secured on 11 June, more than 325,000 Allied troops had landed on them. The Battle of Normandy would last until late August: Paris was liberated on 25 August and the way was then open for the Allies to move into the Low Countries and from there into Germany itself. At the same time, the Red Army was advancing from the east. There was a clear continuum from Normandy to the German surrender almost exactly eleven months later.
A closely fought battle
But behind this reality of D-Day lies a complex tale. In fact, the Battle of Normandy was a much more closely fought battle and its outcome far from certain.
The Allied plans had not envisaged the German defence of Normandy lasting anything like as long as it did. Admittedly, Normandy was well defended, the terrain was well suited to defence and the Germans did, initially at least, have far more troops on the ground (the Allies could only land eight divisions on D-Day: the Germans had 55 divisions in France, nearly 40 of which fought at some stage in the Battle of Normandy). But the Allies also enjoyed a number of important advantages, not least enjoying air superiority and the element of surprise. But despite this the landings and their aftermath did not all go as the Allied commanders hoped. For example, the British commander, General Bernard Montgomery, had planned for Caen to be captured within the first 24 hours: in fact, the city did not fall until the 9th July.
The dogged German defence of Normandy is all the more remarkable considering the way the forces of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Army Group B in northern France were split. General Dollman’s Seventh Army was based in Normandy, south/west of the River Seine, while the superior Fifteenth Army and some of the key Panzer divisions, under the command of General von Salmuth, were based north/east of the Seine in and towards the Pas de Calais.
However, the fact the Allies faced a smaller German force than they might have done was not down to luck. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of D-Day was how successful the Allies were in managing to keep the location of the landings secret. Crucially, they also managed to convince many in the German High Command and even Hitler himself that the Allies main landing would be in the Pas de Calais area, just south of Boulogne – hence the disposition of German forces in northern France in a manner that would prove to be so favourable to the Allies.
This was largely thanks to a highly sophisticated Allied deception operation, codenamed Fortitude. Operation Fortitude depended, among other things, upon a complex web of double agents who fed their German spymasters a stream of corroborating reports which seemed to prove that an Allied force called FUSAG (First United States Army Group), under the command of General Patton, had assembled in Kent, ready to make the relatively short journey across the Straits of Dover to the Pas de Calais. Fortitude did not just rely upon double agents. A whole infrastructure was created in Kent of dummy tanks and troop movements, supported by false wireless traffic. Tinfoil was dropped over the Channel to create the impression of significant naval movements.
The proximity of the Kent coast to the Pas de Calais was at the heart of the deception plan. At its shortest point, that crossing is just over twenty miles. Hitler, who had a higher opinion of himself as a military strategist than the evidence would justify, was convinced that the Allies would invade at that shortest point. There were three main reasons for this. Firstly, it would put them much nearer to the German border than landing in any other part of France. Secondly, the shorter the crossing the greater the chance that the fleet would stay undetected. Thirdly, the range of a Spitfire was 150 miles, meaning that the RAF’s key fighter plane could be operational for some 100 miles over the site of the landings.
The beauty of this deception operation was that it was telling the Germans what most of them expected to hear. Double agents, such as the Spaniard called Juan Pujol Garcia, codename Garbo, were vindicating the judgement of Hitler and many of his generals.
More complex and unresolved to this day is the extent to which German military intelligence – the Abwehr – was aware of the deception operation. The Abwehr was a strange organisation. In many respects it was very effective, especially in the early part of the war. But as the war progressed and Germany’s defeat appeared to be inevitable to all but the most diehard Nazis, it became less trusted. Its head, Admiral Canaris (pictured), and many of his senior colleagues, were old-fashioned German conservatives rather than committed Nazis. There is some evidence of Abwehr officers having ‘back channel’ contacts with the Allies and others being involved in some of the plots against Hitler. There is even a theory that senior Abwehr officers such as Canaris and his deputy, General Oster, may have been quite well aware of the deception plan but went along with it as it suited their main aim: for the war to end as quickly as possible thus minimising the scale of Germany’s defeat. It is a tempting conspiracy theory, although one for which no evidence exists. In April 1945, just weeks before the end of the war, Canaris and Oster were executed as traitors.
Such was Hitler’s distrust of the Abwehr that he disbanded it in February 1944, more than three months before D-Day. But by then the damage, as far as the Germans were concerned, had most probably been done – without them realising it. The intelligence that the Abwehr had gathered pointed overwhelmingly to an Allied landing in the Pas de Calais. Even if it did not convince all of the German generals, it certainly persuaded enough of them that at the very least they needed to defend both Normandy and the Pas de Calais.
Operation Fortitude would have been considered a major triumph had it worked up until the moment the first Allied troops landed in Normandy. It would not have been unreasonable for the Germans to realise at that point that they had been deceived and start to reinforce Normandy with forces from the Pas de Calais. Fortitude would still have served its purpose. But perhaps the greatest achievement of Fortitude was yet to come. As soon as D-Day began, the deception moved into a new phase. Now its aim was to persuade the Germans that the landings in Normandy were only a feint. No doubt pleased that they had not been made fools of after all, Hitler and his generals were only too easily persuaded by the double agents that they need not worry: the main Allied landings were still to come in the Pas de Calais.
It would be well into July before the Germans realised that they had been deceived, but by then it was too late. There would be no Allied landings in the Pas de Calais. The Normandy landings represented the substantive Allied bridgehead into northern Europe.
‘What if’ may be a useful tool for a novelist but it can be one of the least helpful phrases in history, depending as it does on a convenient sequence of usually unlikely events that never happened in any case. Notwithstanding that, when considering D-Day and the whole Battle of Normandy it is worth applying the ‘what if’. What if the Germans had been more sceptical of the intelligence they were receiving? What if they had moved the 15th Army into Normandy within 24-48 hours of D-Day? What if they had possessed some kind of reliable intelligence operation in England which could have exposed the non-existence of an invasion force in the south east?
Had D-Day failed then the end of the war would have been delayed for months or, more likely, years. Remember that two and a half thousand Allied troops died on D-Day alone and the haunting Allied war cemeteries of Normandy contain the bodies of more than 30,000 Allied troops who died in the campaign. Some 20,000 French citizens are estimated to have been killed during the battle, along with nearly 80,000 Germans.
D-Day was an undoubted success, even if it did come at a price. That price would have been significantly higher had it not been for the genius of Operation Fortitude.
Alex is a former BBC journalist. He is the author of The Best of Our Spies, an espionage thriller set against true events in the Second World War, including the deception operation around D-Day. www.alexgerlis.com.