Decisive Battles: The Battle of Normandy (1944)

His heart pounds in his chest so furiously he thinks it may explode. Though the very air above him hisses as legions of bullets tear through it, and the shells drum in the distance, he can barely hear them as blood gushes into his ears. His vision tunnels as the beaches loom larger, larger, ever larger. To his left and right, he catches faint glimpses of his comrades, praying, puking, and chattering as the boat stops. Bullets ping into the front of the boat, itching to sink into flesh. They get their wish when the ramp drops. There’s only one thing he can do now – run forward and pray he isn’t hit as he struggles to storm that beach. It was the furthest thing from his mind in that moment, but the delivery of Europe would depend on his life and the lives of his comrades.

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The Background:

Ever since the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin had been pushing his British and American allies to open a second European front in the west, a point he stressed at the Tehran Conference in late 1943. Though by then the Soviet war machine had shattered the flower of German military power at the Battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, millions of Russians were still dying on the eastern front. Secretly, the Western Allies also recognized the need to open a second front, lest the Soviet Union come to dominate all of Europe in the aftermath of the war.

Unfortunately for the Allies, an invasion was impossible in 1942 and 1943, as the shipping routes in the Atlantic were still not secure, and the decision had been made to go for the “soft underbelly” of German power in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. By the end of 1943, however, the Allies were in position to begin planning for the invasion of Western Europe.[i]

American General Dwight David Eisenhower was put in charge of this effort as Supreme Allied Commander. Eisenhower had had a shaky start in North Africa, but had since proved an able commander in the Mediterranean theater of the war. More crucially, he was a deft diplomat, able to negotiate, work with, and coordinate the multiple players in the Allied coalition.

The key to preparing an invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe was in deceiving the Germans about where and when it would come. Germany had heavily fortified the coast of Northern and Western Europe. Its “Atlantic Wall” fortifications stretched from the north of Norway to the Spanish border. These fortifications could in turn be reinforced with up to a million reserve troops that could be mobilized to throw any landing force back into the sea.

Atlantic Wall

Though the Allies could theoretically invade at any point along the Atlantic Wall, realistically, a landing would need to come in northern France. The Germans were well aware of this, and to make matters worse for the Allies, there were only two realistic landing points in France itself – the Pas-de-Calais and Normandy. As such, the first priority would be to deceive the Germans into believing that the main Allied attack would come at Calais and that the landings at the real target, Normandy, were diversionary. This would be the only way to give the Allies enough time to breach the fortifications and get enough force onto the Continent before Germany could send in reinforcements and throw them back. Everything depended on the success of this deception.

Fortunately, the Allies had a cooperative adversary in Hitler, who was already predisposed to believe that Calais would be the ideal location for an invasion. It was the closest point on the Continent to Britain, after all, which would reduce the hazards of a sea crossing. It was for this very reason that Hitler planned to use it as the staging point to invade Britain 1940 as part of the aborted Operation Sea Lion.[ii]

The Allies knew about all of this. They also knew that Hitler had a sizable ego and a stubborn belief in his own military genius. Triggering confirmation bias in the Fuhrer with an elaborate deception centered on Calais was therefore an entirely realistic scenario, and to make things even better, he was the only one they would need to persuade. The Allies knew that Hitler micromanaged his far more capable generals obsessively and would overrule their pleas to send reinforcements to Normandy if he believed the real attack would come at Calais. Therefore, the main effort to deceive Hitler would focus on Calais. This endeavor was given the codename of “Operation Fortitude.”

However, while Fortitude was the largest and would become the most famous of the efforts to throw Hitler off the Normandy scent, it was truthfully only part of an even larger operation codenamed “Bodyguard.” The aim of the smaller parts of Bodyguard would be to sow additional confusion and prevent the German high command from concentrating their forces near Normandy. The idea was to give Hitler just enough doubt so that he would become paranoid and stay on guard all over Europe. The Allies would then be able to more easily establish a beachhead in France.

In truth, the Allies had a more cooperative adversary in Hitler than even they had realized. Despite his losses on the eastern front, in Africa, and in Italy, Hitler believed that defeating the Allied landings in France would force Britain and America to make a peace settlement. From there, he would finally be able to turn all of his forces against the Russians. A million troops were concentrated in France to meet the invasion. Hitler not only believed that throwing back the Calais landings would be a great opportunity for total victory, but he micromanaged the effort, believing that he alone would need to see through the Allies’ deception. He alone could win this war, he thought. His generals had failed him too many times in Russia.[iii]

On November 3rd, 1943, Hitler issued Fuhrer Directive 51, outlining his beliefs in the coming invasion and his plans to stop it:

I can no longer justify the further weakening of the West in favor of other theaters of war. I have therefore decided to strengthen the defenses in the West, particularly at places from which we shall launch our long-range war against England (via the V2 rockets stationed there). For those are the very points at which the enemy must and will attack; there–unless all indications are misleading–will be fought the decisive invasion battle. (My italics.)

Hitler, however, suspected other attacks:

Holding attacks and diversions on other fronts are to be expected. Not even the possibility of a large-scale offensive against Denmark may be excluded. It would pose greater nautical problems and could be less effectively supported from the air, but would nevertheless produce the greatest political and strategic impact if it were to succeed.[iv]

In Directive 51, Hitler was adamant that “units and elements stationed in the West or in Denmark, as well as panzer, assault gun, and AT units to be activated in the West, must not be transferred to other fronts without my permission.”

D-Day Landings

From this advantageous starting point, the Allies got to work in early 1944. Hitler believed he had a sophisticated intelligence network in Britain, but in truth, all of his spies there had been discovered and forced or deceived into becoming double agents. One of these now presented Hitler with documentation that the Allies would launch an attack on the Balkans in addition to one in France. As the German war machine needed resources from the Balkans, especially oil, Hitler determined to keep troops on guard there and not transfer them to France.[v] This was known as Operation Zeppelin, and German “spies” were suggesting that Stalin himself had pressured the Western Allies to launch it, so as to relieve the pressure on Russia. Hitler believed that enemy troops in North Africa would be used in this attack, and kept on guard.[vi]

In addition to the Balkans, Hitler was receiving reports of an Operation Fortitude North, aimed at Norway. Strangely, King George VI went to the far north of Britain, in the Orkney Islands, to visit troops. Such a trek was dangerous, as these islands were closer to Nazi-occupied Scandinavia than to London. The king’s dangerous journey to raise the morale of troops there suggested that the invasion of Norway, Fortitude North, was a real possibility.[vii] The king’s visits were probably to the troops of the British Fourth Army, whose radio traffic increased significantly in April of 1944, indicating a flurry of activity, as more divisions came to be assigned to this force. There were even reports of a joint invasion of Scandinavia between the Western Allies and the Russians, through a Soviet office in Scotland. Intelligence from Russia seemed to confirm this theory.[viii] Adding to it all, British commandos raided areas along the coast, while Russian submarines patrolled offshore.

There were even reports about Allied activity in Sweden, with a flurry of requests and diplomatic activity. The Allies also demanded that, should they attack German-occupied Norway, Sweden must deny Germany the ability to transit troops through its territory.[ix]

All of this strongly suggested that Norway was, if not the main target, an area of imminent Allied attack. After receiving this information, Hitler decided that he had no choice but to keep large forces in the area. He would therefore not be able to send troops in Norway to reinforce his defenses in France.

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[i] “D-Day, the Normandy Invasion, 6 – 25 June 1944.” Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved June 4th, 2020.

[ii] Charlton Heston, host. “Secrets of War: Espionage: D-Day Deceptions.” Mill Creek Productions. Presented by the History Channel. 2013.

[iii] Greene, Robert. The 33 Strategies of War. Chapter 23. Penguin Group. 2006.

[iv] Hitler, Adolf. “Fuhrer Directive 51.” November 3rd, 1943.  Alternate Wars. Retrieved June 4th, 2020.

[v] Greene, chapter 23.

[vi] “Secrets of War: Espionage: D-Day Deceptions.”

[vii] Paul Elston, director. “D-Day: The King Who Fooled Hitler.” Brave New Media Productions. Presented by Channel 4. 2019.

[viii] “Secrets of War: Espionage: D-Day Deceptions.”

[ix] Ibid.

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