In this chapter from The History of the Second World War by B.H. Liddel Hart, I have tried to highlight something which is not very well known about General Montgomery’s attack on July 18 to capture the city of Caen, in Normandy near the French coast. The attack which had started with a heavy tank assault preceded by a two hour pounding by two thousand Allied medium and heavy bombers, failed, and Monty denied, that it was ever his intention to launch a breakout from here, it was a feint, or was it?
The D-Day landings occurred on June 6 and from that time till July 31 when the Americans eventually broke out, west of General Montgomery’s position on the beach-head, two months had elapsed.
Also an assassination attempt took place on Hitler life on July 20 while the Allied armies were bogged down in the Normandy beach area.
“Before its launching, the invasion of Normandy looked a most hazardous venture. The Allied troops had to disembark on a coast that the enemy had occupied during four years, with ample time to fortify it, cover it with obstacles and sow it with mines. For the defence, the Germans had fifty-eight divisions in the West, and ten of these were panzer divisions that might swiftly deliver a counterstroke. The Allies’ power to bring into action the large forces now assembled in England was limited by the fact that they had to cross the sea, and by the number of landing crafts available. They could disembark only six divisions in the first seaborne lift, together with three airborne, and a week would pass before they could double the number ashore.
So there was cause to feel anxious about the chances of storming what Hitler called the ‘Atlantic Wall’ – an awesome name – and about the risks of being thrown back in the sea. Yet, in the event, the first footholds were soon expanded into a large bridgehead, eighty miles wide. The enemy never managed to deliver any dangerous counterstroke before the Allied forces broke out from the bridgehead. The break-out was made in the way and at the place that Field-Marshall Montgomery had originally planned. The whole German position in France then quickly collapsed.
Looking back, the course of the invasion appears wonderfully easy and sure. But appearances are deceptive. It was an operation that eventually ‘went according to plan’, but not according to timetable. At the outset the margin between success and failure was narrow. The ultimate triumph has obscured the fact that the allies were in great danger at the outset, and had a very narrow shave.
The common idea that the invasion had a smooth and sure run was fostered by Montgomery’s subsequent emphasis that ‘the battle was fought exactly as planned before the invasion’, and the fact that the Allied armies reached the Seine within ninety days—the line shown on the forecast map, produced in April, as the line to be gained by ‘D + 90’. It was Monty’s way to talk as if any operation he had conducted had always proceeded exactly as he intended, with the certainty and precision of a machine—or of divine providence. That characteristic has often obscured his adaptability to circumstances, and thus ironically, deprived him of the credit due to him for his combination of flexibility with determination in generalship.
In the original plan, Caen was to be captured the first day of the landing, June 6. The start was good and the coastal defences were overcome by 9 a.m. But Montgomery’s account has covered up the fact that the advance inland to Caen did not start till the afternoon. That was due partly to a paralysing traffic jam on the beaches but also to the excessive caution of the commanders on the spot—at a time when there was hardly anything to stop them. When they eventually pushed on towards Caen, the keypoint of the invasion area, a panzer division—the only one in the whole invasion area of Normandy—arrived on the scene and produced a check. A second panzer division came up the next day. More than a month passed before Caen was at last secured and cleared, after much heavy fighting. Montgomery’s original intention, also, was that on the British right wing an armoured force would make an immediate drive inland to Villers-Bocage, twenty miles from the coast, and so cut the roads running west and south-west from Caen. But this is not mentioned in his story. The fact is that this push was very slow to get going, although opposition west of Caen was negligible once the coast defences had been penetrated. Prisoners subsequently revealed that until the third day a ten mile stretch of front was covered by one solitary German mobile unit, a reconnaissance battalion. A third panzer division then began to arrive on the scene and was put in here. Although the British managed to push into Villers-Bocage on the 13th, they were pushed out again. Then a fourth panzer division reinforced the block. Two months passed before Villers-Bocage was finally captured.
The original idea, too, was that the whole of the Contentin peninsula, along with the port of Cherbourg, would be captured within two weeks, and that the break-out would then be made, by ‘D+20’, on this western flank. But the advance inland from the American landing points, on this flank, also proved much slower than expected, although the larger part of the German forces, and later-arriving reinforcements, were absorbed in checking the British advance on the eastern flank near Caen—as indeed Montgomery had calculated
While the break-out ultimately came on the western flank as Montgomery had planned, it did not come until the end of July—‘D+56’. It had been clear beforehand that, if the allies could gain a bridgehead sufficiently wide and deep to build up their strength on the far side of the Channel, their total resources were so much greater than the enemy’s that the odds were heavily on a break-out sooner or later. No dam was likely to be strong enough to hold the invading flood in check permanently if the Allies gained enough space to pile up their massed power.
As things turned out the prolongation of the ‘Battle of the Bridgehead’ worked out to their advantage. It was the proverbial ‘blessing in disguise’. For the bulk of the German forces in the West was drawn there, while arriving bit by bit owing to divided views in their High Command and constant hindrance from the vast allied force that dominated the sky. The panzer divisions, arriving first and used to plug gaps, were ground down first—thus depriving the enemy of the mobile arm he needed when it came to fighting in the open country. The very toughness of the resistance that so much delayed the Allies’ break-out ensured them a clear path through France once they broke out.
The Allies would have had no chance of ever getting established ashore but for their complete supremacy in the air. They owed much to the support from naval gunfire, but the decisive factor was the paralysing effect of the Allied air forces, directed by Air Chief Marshall Tedder, Eisenhower’s deputy as Supreme Commander. By smashing most of the bridges over the Seine on the east and over the Loire on the south, they turned the Normandy battle-zone into a strategic isolation-zone. The German reserves had to make long detours, and were constantly harried on the march, that they suffered endless delays and only arrived in driblets.
But almost as much was owed to a conflict of ideas on the German side–between Hitler and his generals, and among the generals themselves. Initially, the German’s main handicap was that they had 3,000 miles of coastline to cover—from Holland, round the shores of France to the Italian mountain frontier. Of their fifty-eight divisions, half were of a static type, and anchored to sectors of that long coastline. But the other half was field divisions, and of these, the ten panzer divisions were highly mobile. That provided the enemy with the possibility of concentrating an overwhelming superiority to throw the invaders back into the sea before they became established and grew too strong for eviction.
On D-Day the one panzer division that was in Normandy, and near the stretch where the Allies landed, succeeded in frustrating Montgomery’s hope of capturing the key-point of Caen that day. Part of it actually pierced the British front and drove through to the beach, but the thrust was too small to have a wide effect. If even the three panzer divisions, out of ten, that were on the scene by the fourth day had been at hand and able to intervene on D-Day, the Allied footholds could have been dislodged before they were joined up and consolidated. But any such strong and prompt counterstroke was frustrated by discord in the German Command, both about the probable site of the invasion and the method of meeting it.
Before the event, Hitler’s intuition proved better than his generals’ calculation in gauging where the Allies would land. After the landing, however, his continual interference and rigid control deprived them of the chance of retrieving the situation, and eventually led to disaster.
Field-Marshall von Rundstedt, the Commander-in-Chief in the West, thought the invasion would come across the narrower part of the Channel, between Calais and Dieppe. His view was based on a conviction that this course was the more correct strategy for the Allies to follow. But it was fostered by a lack of information. Nothing important leaked out from the tight-lipped island where the invasion armies were assembling.
Rundstedt’s Chief of Staff, General Blumentritt, later related in interrogation how badly baffled was the German Intelligence: Very little reliable news came out of England. (Intelligence) gave us reports of where, broadly, the British and American forces were assembling in Southern England—there were a small number of German agents in England who reported by wireless transmitting sets what they observed. But they found out very little beyond that . . . nothing we learnt gave us a definite clue where the invasion was actually coming.
Hitler, however, had a ‘hunch’ about Normandy. From March onwards he sent his generals repeated warnings about the possibility of a landing between Caen and Cherbourg. How did he arrive at that conclusion, which proved correct? General Warlimont, who was on his staff, said that it was inspired by the general lay-out of the troops in England—with the Americans in the south-west—along with his belief that the Allies would seek to capture a big port as early as possible, and that Cherbourg was the most likely for their purpose. His conclusion was strengthened by observers’ reports of a big invasion exercise in Devon where the troops disembarked on a stretch of flat and open coastline similar to the intended in Normandy.
Rommel, who was in executive charge of the forces on the Channel coast, came round to the same view as Hitler. In the last few months he made feverish efforts to hasten the construction of under-water obstacles, bomb-proof bunkers and minefields, and by June they were much denser than they had been in spring. But fortunately for the Allies, he had neither the time nor the resources to develop the defences in Normandy to the state he desired, or even to the state of that east of the Seine.
Rommel also found himself in disagreement with Rundstedt over the method of meeting an invasion. Rundstedt relied on a plan of delivering a powerful counteroffensive to crush the Allies after they had landed. Rommel considered that this would be too late, in face of Allies’ domination of the air and their capacity to delay the German reserves in concentrating for such a counteroffensive. He felt the best chance lay in defeating the invaders on the coast before they were properly ashore. Rommel’s staff said that ‘he was deeply influenced by the memory of how in Africa he had been nailed down for days on end by an air force not nearly so strong as that he now had to face’.
The actual plan became a compromise between these different ideas—and ‘fell between two stools’. Worse still, Hitler insisted on trying to control the battle from remote Berchtesgaden, and kept a tight hand on the use of reserves.
There was only one panzer division at Rommel’s disposal in Normandy, and he had brought this close up behind Caen. So it was able to check the British there on D-Day. He had begged in vain for a second one to place near St Lo—where it would have been close to the beaches where the Americans landed. On D-Day precious hours were wasted in argument on the German side. The nearest available part of the general reserve was the 1st S.S. Panzer Corps, which lay north-west of Paris, but Rundstedt could not move it without permission from Hitler’s headquarters.
Blumentritt stated: As early as 4 a.m. I telephoned them on behalf of Field-Marshall von Rundstedt and asked for the release of the Corps—to strengthen Rommel’s punch. But Jodl, speaking for Hitler, refused to do so. He doubted whether the landings in Normandy were more than a feint, and was sure that another landing was coming east of Seine. The battle of argument went on all day until 4p.m. when the Corps was at last released for our use.
Two other startling facts about the opening day are that Hitler himself did not hear of the landing until very late in the morning, and that Rommel was off the scene. But for these factors, action might have been more prompt and more forceful.
Hitler like Mr Churchill had a habit of staying up until long after midnight, a habit very exhausting to his staff, who could not sleep late but were often in a sleepy state when they dealt with affairs in the morning. Jodl, reluctant to disturb Hitler’s late morning sleep, took it upon himself to resist Rundstedt’s appeal for the release of the reserves.
They might have been released earlier if Rommel had not been absent from Normandy. For, unlike Rundstedt, he often telephoned Hitler direct and still had more influence with him than any other general. But Rommel had left his headquarters the day before on a trip to Germany. As the high wind and rough sea seemed to make invasion unlikely for the moment he had decided to combine a visit to Hitler, to urge the need for more panzer divisions in Normandy, with a visit to his home near Ulm for his wife’s birthday. Early next morning, before he could drive on to see Hitler, a telephone call told him that the invasion had begun. He did not get back to his headquarters until the evening—by which time the invaders were well established ashore.
The commander of the army in that part of Normandy was also away—directing an exercise in Brittany. The commander of the panzer corps that lay in reserve had gone on a visit to Belgium. Another key commander is said to have been away spending the night with a girl. Eisenhower’s decision to proceed with the landing despite the rough sea turned out greatly to the Allies advantage.
A strange feature of the weeks that followed was that, although Hitler had correctly guessed the site of the invasion, once it had taken place he became obsessed with the idea that it was only a preliminary to a second and larger landing east of the Seine. Hence he was reluctant to let the reserves be moved from that area to Normandy. The belief in the second landing was due to the Intelligence Staff’s gross overestimate of the number of Allied divisions still available on the other side of the Channel. That was partly due to the British deception plan. But it was also another result of, and testimony to, the way that Britain was ‘watertight’ against spying.
When the initial countermoves broke down, and had obviously failed to prevent the Allies’ continued build up in the bridgehead, Rundstedt and Rommel soon came to realise the hopelessness of trying to hold on to any line so far west.
Relating the sequel, Blumentritt said: In desperation, Field-Marshall von Rundstedt begged Hitler to come to France for a talk. He and Rommel together went to meet Hitler at Soissons on June 17, and tried to make him understand the situation. . . But Hitler insisted that there must be no withdrawal—‘You must stay where you are.’ He would not even agree to allow us any more freedom than before in moving the forces we thought best . . . As he would not modify his orders, the troops had to continue clinging on to their cracking line. There was no plan any longer. We were merely trying, without hope, to comply with Hitler’s order that the line Caen-Avranches must be held at all costs.
Hitler swept aside the field-marshals ‘warnings by assuring them that the new V weapon, the flying bomb, would soon have a decisive effect on the war. The field-marshalls then urged that, if this weapon was so effective, it should be turned against the invasion beaches—or, if that was technically difficult, against the invasion ports in southern England. Hitler insisted that the bombardment must be concentrated on London ‘so as to covert the English to peace.’ But the flying bombs did not produce the effect that Hitler had hoped, while Allied pressure in Normandy increased. When asked one day on the telephone from Hitler’s H.Q.: ‘What shall we do?’ Rundstedt retorted: ‘End the war! What else can you do.’ Hitler’s solution was to sack Rundstedt, and replace him by Kluge, who had been on the Eastern Front.
‘Field-Marshall von Kluge was a robust, aggressive type of soldier’, Blumentritt remarked. ‘At the start he was very cheerful and confident—like all newly appointed commanders . . . Within a few days he became very sober and quiet. Hitler did not like the changing tone of his reports.’
On July 17th Rommel was badly injured when his car crashed after being attacked on the road by Allied planes. Then three days later, on the 20th, came the attempt to kill Hitler at his headquarters in East Prussia. The conspirators’ bomb missed its chief target, but its ‘shock wave’ had terrific repercussions on the battle in the West at the critical moment.
Blumentritt recalled: When the Gestapo investigated the conspiracy . . . they found documents in which Field-Marshall von Kluge’s name was mentioned, so he came under grave suspicion. Then another incident made things worse. Shortly after General Patton’s break-out from Normandy, while the decisive battle at Avranches was in progress, Field-Marshall von Kluge was out of touch with his headquarters for more than twelve hours. The reason was that he had gone up to the front, and there been trapped in a heavy artillery bombardment . . . Meantime, we had been suffering ‘bombardment’ from the rear. For the Field-Marshall’s prolonged ‘absence’ excited Hitler’s suspicion immediately, in view of the documents that had been found. . . Hitler suspected that the Field-Marshall’s purpose in going right up to the front was to get in touch with the Allies and negotiate surrender. The Field-Marshall’s eventual return did not calm Hitler. From this date onward the orders which Hitler sent him were worded in a brusque and even insulting language. The Field-Marshall became very worried. He feared that he would be arrested at any moment—and at the same time realized more and more that he could not prove his loyalty by any battlefield success.
All this had a very bad effect on any chance that remained of preventing the Allies from breaking out. In the days of crisis Field-Marshall von Kluge gave only part of his attention to what was happening at the front. He was looking back over his shoulder anxiously—towards Hitler’s headquarters. He was not the only general who was in that state of worry for conspiracy in the plot against Hitler. Fear permeated and paralysed the higher commands in the weeks and months that followed.
On July 25, the U.S. First Army launched a fresh offensive, ‘Cobra’, while the recently landed Patton’s Third Army was ready to follow it up. The last German reserves had been thrown in to stop the British. On the 31st the American spearhead burst through the front at Avranches. Pouring through the gap, Patton’s tanks quickly flooded the open country beyond. On Hitler’s orders the remnants of the panzer forces were scrapped together, and used in a desperate effort to cut the bottleneck at Avranches. The effort failed—whereat Hitler caustically said: ‘It only failed because Kluge didn’t want to succeed.’ All that remained of the German armies now tried to escape from the trap in which they had been kept by Hitler’s ban on any timely withdrawal. A large part was trapped in the ‘Falaise Pocket’, and the survivors had to abandon most of their heavy arms and equipment in crossing back over the Seine.
Kluge was then sacked. On the way home he was found dead in his car, having swallowed a poison capsule—as his Chief of Staff explained, ‘he believed he would be arrested by the Gestapo as soon as he arrived home’.
It was not only on the German side that stormy recriminations arose within the High Command. Fortunately on the Allied side had no such serious consequences on the issue or to individuals although they left sore feelings that were of ill effect later. The biggest ‘blow up’ behind the scenes occurred over a near break-out by the British a fortnight before the Americans actually burst open the front at Avranches. The British blow, by the Second Army under Dempsey, was struck on the extreme opposite flank, east of Caen. It was the most massive tank attack of the whole campaign, delivered by three armoured divisions closely concentrated. They had been stealthily assembled in the small bridgehead over the Orne, and poured out from it on the morning of July 18, after an immense carpet of bombs had been dropped, for two hours, by two thousand heavy and medium bomber aircraft. The Germans on that sector were stunned, and most of the prisoners taken were so deafened by the roar of explosions that they could not be interrogated until at least twenty-four hours later.
But the defences were deeper than British Intelligence had thought. Rommel expecting such a blow, had hurried their deepening and reinforcement—until, on the eve of the attack, he was himself caught and knocked out by British aircraft, near the aptly named village of Sainte Foye de Montgomery. Moreover the enemy had heard the massive rumble of tanks as the British armour moved eastwards by night for the attack. Dietrich, the German Corps Commander, said that he was able to hear them over four miles away, despite diverting noises, by pressing his ear to the ground—a trick he had learned in Russia.
The brilliant opening prospect faded soon after passing through the forward layers of defence. The leading armoured division became entangled amid the village strongholds—instead of bypassing them. The others were delayed by traffic congestion, in getting out of the narrow bridgehead and the spearhead had come to a halt before they came on the scene. By the afternoon the great opportunity had slipped away.
This miscarriage has long been enshrouded in mystery. Eisenhower in his report spoke of it as an intended ‘breakthrough’, and as a ‘drive . . . exploiting in the direction of the Seine basin and Paris’. But all the British histories written after the war declare that it had no far-reaching aims, and that no breakthrough on this flank was ever contemplated.
They follow Montgomery’s own account, which insisted that this operation was merely ‘a battle of position’, designed to create a ‘threat’ in aid of the coming American break-out blow and secondly to secure ground on which major forces could be poised ready to strike out to the south and south-east, when the American break-out forces thrust eastwards to meet them’.
Eisenhower in his post-war memoirs tactfully glides over the matter by avoiding any mention of this battle, while Churchill makes only the barest reference to it. Yet anyone behind the scenes at the time was acutely aware of the violent storm that blew up. The air chiefs were very angry, especially Tedder. The state of temper is revealed in the diary of Captain Butcher, Eisenhower’s naval aide. ‘Around evening Tedder called Ike and said Monty had, in effect stopped his armour from going further. Ike was mad.’ According to Butcher, Tedder next day telephoned Eisenhower from London and conveyed that the British Chiefs of Staffs were ready to sack Montgomery if requested, although this is denied by Tedder in his own account of the affair.
It was thus natural that on Montgomery’s side the immediate reaction to such complaints should have been to assert that the idea of a break-out on this flank had never been in mind. That assertion soon became an article of belief, and has since come up to be accepted, without question by military chroniclers. Yet it did not tally with the racy note of the codename given to this attack—‘Operation Goodwood’, after the English racecourse. Nor with the term ‘broke through’ that Montgomery first used in his first announcement of the attack on the 18th. Moreover his remark that he was ‘well satisfied with the progress made’ on the first day seemed hard to reconcile with the absence of a renewed effort of similar scale on the second day. That infuriated the air chiefs, who would not have agreed to divert the heavy bomber armada to the aid of a ground operation had they not believed that the aim of ‘Goodwood’ was a mass break-out. Montgomery’s later assertion was a half-truth, and did himself an injustice. He had not planned to break-out on this flank, and was not banking on it. But he would have been foolish not to reckon with the possibility of a German collapse, under this massive blow, and exploit it if it occurred.
Dempsey, who commanded the Second Army, thought a speedy collapse was likely, and had up himself to the armoured corps H.Q. so as to be ready to exploit it: ’What I had in mind was to seize all the crossings of the Orne from Caen to Argentan’—that would establish a barricade across the German’s rear and trap them more effectively than any American break-out on the Western flank could do. Dempsey’s hope of a complete break-through was very close to fulfilment at midday on July 18. In view of his revelation of what he had in mind, it is amusing to note the many assertions that there was no idea of trying to reach Falaise—for Argentan, his prospective goal, was nearly twice as far. Dempsey, too, was shrewd enough to realise that the disappointment of his hopes might be turned to compensating advantage. When one of his staff urged him to protest against press criticism of the failure of ‘Goodwood’, he replied: ’Don’t worry—it will aid our purpose, and act as the best possible cover-plan.’ The American break-out on the opposite flank certainly owed much to the way that the enemy’ attention had been focused on the threat of a break-out near Caen. But the break-out at Avranches, far to the west, carried no such immediate chance of cutting off the German forces. Its prospect depended on making a very rapid sweep eastward, or on the enemy clinging onto his position until he could be trapped.
In the event when the breakout came at Avranches on July 31, only a few scattered German battalions lay in the ninety-mile wide corridor between that point and Loire. So American spearheads could have driven eastwards unopposed. But the Allied High Command threw away the best chance of exploiting this great opportunity by sticking to the outdated pre-invasion programme, in which a westward move to capture the Brittany ports was to be the next step.
Two weeks passed before the American forces pushed eastwards far enough to reach Argentan and come up level with the British left wing—which meanwhile was still held in check just beyond Caen. This caused fresh recriminations. For when Patton was told that he must not drive on northward to close the gap and bar the Germans’ escape route, for fear of a collision with the British, he exclaimed on the telephone: ‘Let me go on to Falaise and we’ll drive the British back into the sea for another Dunkirk.’”