Chapter 4: The Plan of Attack
(See Maps 1 and 2, and Sketches 4 and 5)
The Allied plan for the invasion of North-West Europe was probably the most complex ever made in the history of warfare. In fact there was not one plan but many, covering all phases of the vast enterprise. They defined and determined the contributions of many nations and the responsibilities of great formations on the sea, on land and in the air. They covered a wide range of detail, from tactical dispositions affecting hundreds of thousands of troops to the last small item of the individual soldier’s equipment. From SHAEF downwards a great pyramid of headquarters and planning staffs completed preparations for the tremendous assault across the English Channel.
In the present chapter the overall plan for OVERLORD can be described only in very broad outline. There are many other books on the subject.1 However, an effort will be made to present the Canadian role in somewhat greater detail.
The Overall Plan
We have traced in Chapter I the tortuous development of the invasion plan through the four long years which followed the evacuation of Dunkirk. In the summer of 1943 the COSSAC plan was produced. During the opening weeks of 1944 the Supreme Commander and his principal advisers reconsidered the whole problem; and on 1 February, as we have seen, there emerged a detailed “Initial Joint Plan” under the combined authority of the Allied Naval Commander Expeditionary Force (Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay), the Commander-in-Chief 21st Army Group (General Sir Bernard Montgomery) and the Air Commander-in-Chief Allied Expeditionary Air Force (Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory).
The “Initial Joint Plan” stated that the object of Operation NEPTUNE, the assault phase of OVERLORD, was “to secure a Lodgement on the Continent from which further offensive operations can be developed”. It emphasized that the operation was “part of a large strategic plan designed to bring about the total defeat of Germany by means of heavy and concerted assaults upon German-occupied Europe from the United Kingdom, the Mediterranean, and Russia”.2
The sector of the French coast chosen for the assault had been exhaustively examined by earlier planners (above, pages 16-18). In Normandy, between the
Orne and Vire estuaries and along the eastern shore of the Cotentin peninsula, lay many fine beaches, sheltered in some degree from the prevailing westerly winds, suitable for the maintenance of an invading force and within the range of our fighter aircraft based in the United Kingdom. Here two armies were to attack under General Montgomery’s direction. On the right or western flank the First United States Army, under Lieut.-General Omar N. Bradley, was to capture bridgeheads between the Drome and Vire Rivers and on the eastern shore of the Cotentin near Varreville. On the left or eastern flank the Second British Army, under Lieut.-General M. C. Dempsey, was to seize a bridgehead enclosing Port-en-Bessin, Bayeux, the important communications centre of Caen, and Cabourg, at the mouth of the Dives River.
Within this framework four corps headquarters were responsible for seaborne divisional assaults. In the American sector, a single divisional attack on UTAH Beach in the Cotentin and a similar assault against OMAHA Beach, west of Port-en-Bessin, were directed respectively by the 7th and 5th United States Corps; in the British sector, the 30th Corps commanded a one-division attack against GOLD Beach, on the right flank, while farther east the 1st Corps coordinated two divisions’ assaults on JUNO and SWORD Beaches. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was to make the JUNO assault, in the centre of the British sector. As noted in Chapter I, the airborne portions of the plan occasioned much discussion, and only at a late stage were they firmly settled, on the basis of two US airborne divisions dropping at the base of the Cotentin to assist the seaborne landings and help isolate Cherbourg, and one British airborne division (the 6th, in which the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had been incorporated) dropping east of the Orne to seize crossings over the Caen Canal and protect the left flank. The Air Commander-in-Chief, Allied Expeditionary Air Force (Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory) was pessimistic about the Cotentin airborne plan to the end, considering that it would result in extremely heavy losses. It was against his advice that General Eisenhower maintained this portion of the plan as finally written.3 The seaborne attacks were to be assisted by specialized assault troops: American Ranger units and two British Commando brigades were to deal with certain key defences along the invasion coast, coordinating their action with the requirements of the Joint Fire Plan.
Immediately following the assault, the First US Army was to capture the great port of Cherbourg “as quickly as possible” and then develop its operations southwards towards St. Lô, conforming to a British advance on its left. The parallel task for the Second British Army was to develop the bridgehead south of the line Caen-St. Lô and south-east of Caen, in order to gain airfield sites, and to protect the flank of the First United States Army while it was capturing Cherbourg.
Much would depend on the speed with which the forces first put ashore could be reinforced. It was vital that the Allies’ strength in the bridgehead should be built up more rapidly than the Germans could build up theirs facing the bridgehead. The Initial Joint Plan as first issued calculated that by the evening of D Day the Allies would have (in addition to the three airborne divisions) two British, one Canadian, and two US divisions effective ashore, with one-third of
a British and one-third of a US division in craft off the Normandy beaches as follow-up. By the end of D plus 3 there would be seven Allied seaborne divisions effective ashore, and one and one-third more either just unloaded or about to land. By the end of D plus 6 there would be nine and two-thirds divisions effective, and three and one-third becoming available (in addition to five British and Canadian armoured brigades, and US tank units in proportion). “Between twenty-three and twenty-four basic divisions were due in Normandy by D+20.”4
Most of the soldiers, and practically all the supplies to maintain them, would cross the Channel to France in ships. Getting them there was thus primarily a naval problem, and there has never been a naval problem of greater complexity. In the words of Admiral Ramsay’s Order of the Day to the Allied naval forces issued on 31 May, “Our task, in conjunction with the Merchant Navies of the United Nations, and supported by the Allied Air Forces, is to carry the Allied Expeditionary Force to the Continent, to establish it there in a secure bridgehead and to build it up and maintain it at a rate which will outmatch that of the enemy. A naval outline of the operation” was issued on 15 February 1944, a Naval Plan on 28 February, and very detailed provisional naval Operation Orders on 2 April. Ramsay’s requirements in forces were enormous; he had difficulties both with the Admiralty and the US naval authorities in obtaining all that he considered he needed, and reported subsequently that the very late assignment of forces by the US Navy was an embarrassment in planning. But by 15 April he had got what he wanted: six battleships, two monitors, 22 cruisers, 93 destroyers, 15 sloops, 26 escort destroyers, 27 frigates, 71 corvettes, and a host of smaller naval craft.5 To these must be added hundreds of landing ships and craft to carry the troops and their equipment. An Admiralty computation is that the total number of ships and vessels of all types finally involved in all phases of the operation (assault, follow-up, build-up, and administration) was 7016.6
The naval forces were organized for the assault into five Assault Forces and two Follow-up Forces. Assault Force U (from Tor Bay, Brixham, Dartmouth and Salcombe) carried the US troops to attack UTAH area in the Cotentin; Assault Force “0” (from Weymouth, Portland and Poole) carried those who were to land on OMAHA area east of the Vire; and Follow-up Force B, from Plymouth, Falmouth, Helford River and Fowey, carried the follow-up troops for the US areas. The first build-up divisions for them would come from the Bristol Channel ports. These various forces for the US area constituted the Western Task Force, commanded by Rear-Admiral Alan G. Kirk, USN
The Eastern Task Force, for the British assault area, was commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Vian, RN It comprised the remaining three Assault Forces: G for GOLD area (50th British Division) (from Southampton, the Solent and Spithead); J for JUNO area (3rd Canadian Division) from the same area; and S for SWORD area (3rd British Division) from Portsmouth, Spithead, Newhaven and Shoreham. Follow-up Force L came from the Nore (Thames Estuary) and Harwich, and the first British build-up divisions would come from the Thames.7
The preliminary air operations which preceded the launching of NEPTUNE have been described in Chapter I. This massive effort, the true measure of which
appeared in later stages of the campaign, inaugurated a vast programme of more direct action. The tasks of the Allied Air Forces were thus set out in an Overall Air Plan which was issued by Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory on 15 April 1944:
a. To attain and maintain an air situation whereby the German Air Force is rendered incapable of effective interference with Allied operations.
b. To provide continuous reconnaissance of the enemy’s dispositions and movements.
c. To disrupt enemy communications and channels of supply by air attack.
d. To support the landing and subsequent advances of the Allied armies.
e. To deliver offensive strikes against enemy naval forces.
f. To provide air lift for airborne forces.8
The principal air tasks during NEPTUNE itself were protection of the assault forces from naval and air attack while they were crossing the Channel; neutralization of coast and beach defences; protection of landing beaches and shipping; and dislocation of German communications and control arrangements. The magnitude of these operations may be gauged by the fact that 69 fighter squadrons were to provide beach and shipping cover, while 36 were allocated for direct support of ground forces in battle. Including reserves, a total of 171 squadrons of day fighters and fighter-bombers were to be available in Britain for employment against the harassed and weakened Luftwaffe.9
The air planners anticipated two crises during the early phases of the invasion: initially, at the time of the first landings, and later, when the enemy had concentrated sufficient armour for a large-scale counter-attack. In the former case, Leigh-Mallory visualized a big battle, similar to that over Dieppe in 1942, which might continue for more than a week.10 But the overwhelming superiority of his forces was a virtual guarantee of victory in these phases of the invasion.
The Joint Fire Plan
It was the job of the navies and the air forces, with some help from army artillery, to “shoot” the troops on to the beaches; and in Chapter I we have outlined the long process of experimentation that lay behind the “Joint Fire Plan” which was finally issued on 8 April 1944.11 Disregarding the pre-D Day bombing already described, it may be said that the operation was actually to be opened by the heavy night bombers of the
RAF Bomber Command, including No. 6 (RCAF) Group. They were to attack ten selected batteries in the assault area during the period roughly between midnight and dawn on the night before the landings. The other main portions of the Joint Fire Plan were to begin virtually simultaneously just after the Bomber Command programme ended, that is, at “civil twilight”,* 44 minutes before sunrise on 6 June.12 In the air, the tale was now taken up by the US bombers. The heavies of the Eighth Air Force were to assail the actual beach defences on OMAHA, GOLD, JUNO and SWORD Beaches, and the city of Caen (with a view to interfering with German movement through
* Civil twilight begins and (in the evening) ends when the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon. Nautical twilight begins and ends when it is 12 degrees below the horizon.
it). The medium bombers of the Ninth Air Force were to attack the defences of UTAH Beach as well as various batteries and “transportation targets”.13 At the same time, the light bombers and fighter-bombers of both the USAAF and the RAF were to assail pre-arranged targets, batteries near the coast and transportation centres inland.14
The naval bombardment fell into two categories, both beginning about the same time. The Joint Fire Plan15 listed 20 batteries for bombardment by heavy ships and cruisers from about 30 minutes before H Hour, “i.e. the time at which Naval [air] spotting can begin”. The majority of the batteries attacked during the night by the RAF Bomber Command were also on this list. The heaviest ships were allotted to the flanks, as the most formidable batteries were in these areas. In addition to this “Counter-Battery Fire”, the smaller vessels—destroyers and support craft—were to engage in a programme of “Beach Drenching Fire”. The destroyers were to open about 45 minutes before H Hour and continue until the leading wave of landing craft had actually touched down on the beaches. The Landing Craft Gun (Large)* would open about 35 minutes before H Hour and would likewise fire until the touchdown. The smaller support craft would supplement this fire. About 30 minutes before H Hour the self-propelled army artillery would open “fire for effect” from their tank landing craft, each regiment firing on one of the main strongpoints (“resistance nests”) in the beach defences until five minutes before H Hour. The Landing Craft Tank (Rocket) were to “fire their full pattern” at the same targets from about H-10 to H-5; and the Landing Craft Assault (Hedgerow) would fire immediately before the infantry went ashore.16
A comprehensive cover plan was designed to mislead the enemy as to our intentions. In general, the object was to conceal the readiness of the invasion forces in the south and west of England, while giving exaggerated emphasis to the strength of formations in the south-east and east and in Scotland. By these, and other, measures the enemy was encouraged to believe in the reality of Allied threats to Norway and the Pas de Calais.17 As we have seen (above, page 60) he discounted the Norwegian menace, but not the other. Elaborate plans were also made to simulate the approach of invasion convoys to the Pas de Calais on the actual night before our landings in Normandy.18
From 24 April First Canadian Army took part in a wireless deception scheme (Exercise QUICKSILVER), sending out fictional messages designed to build up a picture of the Army, with one US corps under command, and itself under the 1st US Army Group, preparing to attack the Pas de Calais. The Third US Army, which also figured in this scenario, was represented as being in East Anglia. QUICKSILVER went on until 14 June, eight days after D Day. How far this particular scheme was effective cannot be determined with certainty from the available German records. The Germans certainly knew that we were running such schemes, for one of their intelligence documents dated 9 June refers to “the radio games played with the enemy Intelligence Service”. They seem to have placed their main intelligence reliance on agents.19
* On the various support craft, see above, pages 7-8.
The Role of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division
In the general area of the Second British Army assault the Normandy coast rises and falls, with stretches of cliffs, none very high, alternating with a low coastline bordered by long sandy beaches and occasional offshore rocks. Behind the coast lies cultivated country, a pleasantly pastoral scene, with many villages and small woods. Three considerable rivers, the Dives, the Orne and the Seulles, run across this part of Normandy to empty into the Channel.
We have already seen that the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, commanded by Major-General R. F. L. Keller, and with the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade under command, was to make its D Day assault against JUNO Beach, in the centre of the sector allotted to the Second Army. Thus, the right (western) flank of the Canadian attack marked the boundary between the 1st British Corps (Lieut.-General J. T. Crocker), which included the Canadian division, and the 30th Corps (Lieut.-General G. C. Bucknall). Immediately west of JUNO the 50th (Northumbrian) Division would assault on GOLD between Le Hamel and La Rivière and carve out a bridgehead including Bayeux. East of the Canadians the 3rd British Infantry Division, landing on SWORD Beach between Lion-sur-Mer and Ouistreham, was to capture Caen and secure a bridgehead over the Orne. The seizure and retention of Caen was described by the Second Army as “vital to the Army plan”.20
The Canadian attack was to be made on a two-brigade front, through sectors known as MIKE (right) and NAN (left), including the villages of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernières-sur-Mer and the western outskirts of St. Aubin-sur-Mer. The sea approach was complicated by a series of rocky ledges which, in the case of Les Iles de Bernières, extended for more than a mile parallel to the shore. These rocks would be covered at high tide, but they were considered sufficiently dangerous to warrant a particularly close adjustment of H Hour for the Canadian attack.21 West of Courseulles the beach was half a mile wide at low water, and was backed by sand dunes about 10 feet high. Our Intelligence reported that here infantry could “move directly inland anywhere” and there were two exits for vehicles.22 To the east, between Courseulles and Bernières, lay long stretches of sand and rocky outcrops, providing good landing places for infantry and suitable exits for vehicles. At some points the assault troops would require scaling apparatus to surmount sea-walls. Numerous roads led inland, chiefly towards Caen and Bayeux. The German defences have been described in Chapter III.*
On D Day General Keller’s troops were to seize an area extending some 10 miles inland to include high ground west of Caen, astride the main road to Bayeux. The landing was to be carried out with the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group, under Brigadier H. W. Foster, on the right and the 8th Brigade Group, commanded by Brigadier K. G. Blackader, on the left. In the first of four phases these brigades would land on both sides of the mouth of the Seulles, mop up the coastal region and capture a beachhead objective known as YEW. The intermediate
* In general our knowledge of the beaches and defences was excellent. Air reconnaissance had been supplemented by the bold work of Combined Operations Pilotage Parties—swimmers who examined the British assault beaches in December 1943 and January 1944.
divisional objective, ELM, would be taken in the second phase. It included crossings over the Seulles and one of its tributaries, the Mue, as well as high ground on the eastern flank near the villages of Colomby-sur-Thaon, Anisy and Anguerny. Speed would be essential. Meanwhile, the reserve formation, the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group (Brigadier D. G. Cunningham) would be landing through either MIKE or NAN sectors, as the situation dictated, and preparing to assist the 7th Brigade in the succeeding phase, the capture of the final objective west of Caen, called OAK. The fourth and final stage of the assault would consist of reorganization on OAK to meet the anticipated counter-attack.23
Air and naval bombardment as already described would assist the Canadian assault. Light bombing of beach defences would begin 30 minutes before H Hour and continue for 15 minutes; heavy bombing would then begin on the flanks of the divisional attack, lasting until H Hour. Subsequently, heavy and medium day bombers would strike at the enemy’s headquarters and communication centres farther inland. Naval support was equally comprehensive. Before H Hour two cruisers would bombard inland batteries. Meanwhile, destroyers would engage beach defences on the flanks of the assault. These considerable resources would be supplemented by a formidable array of support craft, armed with guns, rockets and smoke-laying equipment, which would deal at comparatively short range with gun emplacements and targets of opportunity, and would provide indispensable support during the final approach to the beaches.24
During the initial stages of the assault Royal Marine Commandos were to perform a vital service on the eastern flank of the division. The headquarters of the 4th Special Service Brigade, under Brigadier B. W. Leicester, together with one of its units, No. 48 (Royal Marine) Commando,*25 were to come under General Keller’s command for the NEPTUNE operation. Landing in NAN sector, immediately behind the 8th Brigade Group, No. 48 Commando was given the task of capturing a built-up area, including Langrune-sur-Mer, as far east as the divisional boundary. Other Commandos would land on neighbouring beaches, in the sector allotted to the 3rd British Division, and would capture Lion-sur-Mer and also Luc-sur-Mer, immediately east of the inter-divisional boundary. In this Lion-Langrune area there were low cliffs fronting the sea, and it seemed best to take it from the flanks. Later on D Day these Commandos were to capture the big radar station near Douvres-la-Délivrande before moving west to hold crossings over the Seulles between Creully and Amblie.26
With the foregoing in mind, the D Day tasks of the Canadian battalions can be considered in greater detail. On the extreme right, in the 7th Brigade Group’s sector, The Royal Winnipeg Rifles were to make the assault with three companies “up”, including one under command from the 1st Battalion, The Canadian Scottish Regiment. In the first phase they were to overwhelm beach defences, including those on the inter-corps boundary, clear the hamlet of Vaux and its chateau, and seize both Graye-sur-Mer and a nearby “island” formed by locks at the mouth of
* The battle strength of a Royal Marine Commando was approximately 400 all ranks. It comprised five fighting troops and a heavy weapons troop, with mortars and medium machine-guns.
the Seulles. Reserve companies of the Winnipegs would then advance and take the villages of Ste Croix-sur-Mer and Banville, nearly two miles inland. Meanwhile, on the left flank of the 7th Brigade Group, The Regina Rifle Regiment was to land immediately east of the Seulles, clear Courseulles and seize crossings over the river at Reviers. The main body of the Canadian Scottish, the reserve battalion of the brigade group, were to land in MIKE sector and prepare for the succeeding phase.
The next task, securing the intermediate objective, would be mainly the responsibility of the Canadian Scottish and the Winnipegs. The former, supported by armour and artillery, were to seize and hold crossings over the Seulles at Colombiers-sur-Seulles and Pont de Reviers and secure high ground south of the river between these crossings. In this area the twisting Seulles ran at right angles to the axis of advance. Consequently, the Scottish were directed to get the crossings “with the greatest possible speed”. Meanwhile, the Winnipegs would seize and hold a third crossing and high ground about one mile west of Colombiers, and the Reginas would mop up Courseulles and secure further high ground south of Pont de Reviers.
As we have seen, the final objective (OAK) was to be captured in the third phase. The 7th Brigade Group would continue its advance inland, securing control of an area some five miles west of Caen and astride the main road to Bayeux. On the right, the Winnipegs would capture Putot-en-Bessin; in the centre, the Canadian Scottish would occupy an area south of Secqueville-en-Bessin and, on the left, the Reginas would dominate Norrey-en-Bessin. The Brigade Group’s final task on D Day was to reorganize on OAK in preparation for further advance and to repel enemy counter-attacks. Its Operation Order stated, “if the enemy delivers an armoured counter attack against the brigade fortress it is appreciated that the main thrust on the right will come on the line of the inter corps boundary”. Our own counter-attacking force, in this sector, would consist of the Canadian Scottish and C Squadron of the 6th Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars). With a foresight afterwards reinforced by hard experience, the order placed “digging” at the head of priority work on the final objective.27
The plan for the 8th Brigade Group, on the eastern flank, was parallel. At the outset, Brigadier Blackader’s troops were to land in NAN sector and clear the coastal area east of Courseulles, including St. Aubin. On the right, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada would capture beach defences and mop up Bernières; on the left, The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment had similar tasks at St. Aubin. Both battalions would secure covering positions for beach exits to be developed by the engineers. The North Shore Regiment had two additional responsibilities: to form a “firm base” for the assault on Langrune by No. 48 (Royal Marine) Commando, and to capture the hamlet of Tailleville, nearly two miles inland.
In the second phase, the reserve battalion, Le Régiment de la Chaudière, was to land and pass through the Queen’s Own. The Chaudières were “to avoid becoming involved in the mopping up of the beach defences”, in order to carry out their proper role. Led by one company carried on tanks of the 10th Armoured Regiment (The Fort Garry Horse), they were to capture three battery positions about
three miles inland, in the vicinity of Beny-sur-Mer. The battalion would then move southeast to capture Basly, and a “firm base” south of it, in preparation for the succeeding phase.
The next stage of the 8th Brigade Group’s operations was the seizure of its own final objective, the division’s intermediate objective (ELM). The Queen’s Own would advance through Le Régiment de la Chaudière and capture Anisy—a village more than halfway from the coast to the Caen-Bayeux lateral road—before reorganizing north-east of Anguerny. At the same time the North Shore Regiment would press inland to capture the radar stations west of Douvres-la-Délivrande. Thereafter, Le Régiment de la Chaudière was to reorganize on a spur west of Colomby-sur-Thaon. There would then be a pause, while the brigade consolidated on ELM, preparing the way for the 9th Brigade Group to complete the operation. Finally, Brigadier Blackader’s troops would move westwards across the Mue River to occupy the general area of Cainet—Camilly—Secqueville-en-Bessin—Cully, in rear of the 7th Brigade Group’s final objectives. This movement would be carried out when ordered by the divisional commander, probably on D plus One. Thereafter the 8th Brigade Group would have a defensive role, guarding the approaches to the Canadian sector from the south and south-west, on the division’s right flank.28
For the 9th Brigade Group’s operations on D Day two alternative plans were prepared. As already mentioned, it was to land in either MIKE or NAN sector, depending on the progress of the other brigades’ assault waves. However, the primary intention (expressed in Plan A) was that the Brigade Group would land through NAN, on the left, and advance in cooperation with the 7th to seize OAK. Under this plan The North Nova Scotia Highlanders would land on the right, at Bernières, and The Highland Light Infantry of Canada and The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders on the beaches farther east. The first flight was to land approximately two and a half hours after H Hour; but the fourth and last was not expected to disembark until between seven and nine hours after H Hour.
After regrouping in an assembly area near Beny-sur-Mer, the 9th Brigade Group would again face alternative courses of action, depending on the enemy’s reaction. Brigadier Cunningham’s final objective was the high ground at Carpiquet, a village some two miles west of Caen. If no “serious opposition” developed from this quarter, the North Nova Scotias, with the 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment) under command, would drive south through Buron, Authie and Franqueville to capture this “feature”. But if there was heavy opposition the North Nova Scotias were to consolidate on high ground between Buron and Authie as a base for a further attack against the objective. This attack would then be made by the Highland Light Infantry, the Glengarrians and the armoured regiment. In the final phase the Glengarrians and North Nova Scotias, with one squadron of tanks, were to hold the right and left flanks, respectively, of the objective, the Highland Light Infantry being in reserve. The orders emphasized that all units must “DIG IN and reorganise with greatest possible speed and be prepared for early enemy counter attack, armour and infantry”.29
Thus, reviewing the divisional plan as a whole, by nightfall on D Day General Keller hoped to have the 7th and 9th Brigade Groups well forward, astride the Caen-Bayeux road. On his western flank, the 7th would hold the triangle formed by Putot-en-Bessin, Bretteville l’Orgueilleuse and Norrey-en-Bessin; to the east of the Mue River, the 9th would have control of the Carpiquet-Franqueville-Authie area, within a mile of the outskirts of Caen. Immediately behind these formations Brigadier R. A. Wyman’s 2nd Armoured Brigade, consisting of the 6th Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars), 10th Armoured Regiment (The Fort Garry Horse) and 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment), would be concentrated, under divisional command, ready to strike at any counter-attack, while the 8th Brigade Group was preparing to move westwards, behind the 7th. The Division would thus be firmly entrenched in positions of great tactical value, prepared for further offensive operations.
The Supporting Arms
It remains to examine the roles of the supporting arms. We may conveniently begin with the artillery, whose contribution to the NEPTUNE fire plan has already been mentioned. For the early stages of the invasion the divisional field artillery, consisting of the 12th, 13th and 14th Field Regiments RCA (all self-propelled), under the Commander Royal Artillery (Brigadier P. A. S. Todd), was reinforced, we have seen, by the 19th Field Regiment (also self-propelled). These units were organized in two groups, the 12th and 13th Regiments supporting the 7th Brigade assault, the 14th and 19th the 8th Brigade’s. Each group would have the assistance of one battery of the 2nd Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment, as well as of various units of the Royal Artillery. The four Canadian field regiments, while still seaborne, were to fire heavy concentrations (high explosive and smoke) against the four main “resistance nests” in MIKE and NAN sectors, beginning half an hour before H Hour. Forward Observation and Fire Control Officers, with the leading assault waves, were to make the necessary adjustments to this neutralizing fire during the assault.30
Immediately after landing, the artillery would occupy previously designated gun areas and give continuous support to the advancing infantry and armour. Each field regiment would have at least two of its three batteries deployed at all times. Other units of the divisional artillery had appropriate roles: the 3rd Anti-Tank Regiment would help to neutralize strongpoints and deal with any armoured counter-attacks on the division’s flanks, while the 4th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment protected shipping in MIKE and NAN sectors, the Beach Maintenance and gun areas and key bridges from aerial attack.†
* Heavy mortars of The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (MG) were allotted to both the 7th and 9th Brigade Groups, while their machine-guns would assist all divisional infantry battalions.
† The Royal Artillery would also be represented in the Division’s operations by batteries or detachments of the following units: 62nd Anti-Tank Regiment, 93rd and 114th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiments, 86th (Honourable Artillery Company) and 103rd Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiments and 9th Survey Regiment. In the last phase of the operation, the 6th and 191st Field Regiments and the 79th Medium Regiment would come under the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.
Tanks of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade would also make a powerful contribution to the fire supporting the division. The 6th Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars) and the 10th Armoured Regiment (The Fort Garry Horse) were to support the 7th and 8th Brigade Groups respectively. Two squadrons of each of these regiments were, as already described (above, page 37), equipped with swimming tanks. Landing five minutes before H Hour, they would engage beach defences and assist the infantry and engineers during the most critical stage of the assault. The third unit of the Brigade, the 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment), would support the 9th Brigade Group with ordinary Shermans.
The armour had other tasks, equally significant, during the advance inland. While one squadron of the Hussars supported Brigadier Foster’s infantry, the remainder of this unit was expected to occupy high ground of great tactical importance on the division’s right flank, between Camilly and Secqueville-en-Bessin. Meanwhile, the Sherbrooke Fusiliers would be assisting the 9th Brigade in taking their final objective. Then, in the final phase, the armoured brigade would pass into divisional reserve, “prepared to meet the deliberate counter-attack”. A feature of its plan was provision for the possibility that “serious enemy resistance” might not develop. In this case the brigade (as part of a special group including artillery, engineers and infantry) would drive far south of the Caen-Bayeux lateral to seize high ground between the Odon and Orne Rivers, near Evrecy.31
Two British armoured units had special tasks in the initial stages of the Canadian division’s assault. In both MIKE and NAN sectors “Crabs”* of B Squadron, 22nd Dragoons, were to beat paths through the enemy’s minefields; later, troops of this unit were to support the 9th Brigade Group and the 2nd Armoured Brigade. In addition, armoured cars of C Squadron, The Inns of Court Regiment, were to lunge forward, as soon as coastal defences were overcome, and destroy all bridges over the Orne along a 15-mile stretch between Thury-Harcourt and Etavaux. Thus, deep reconnaissance might be combined with the imposition of maximum delay on the enemy’s operations.32
Because of the many technical difficulties of the assault, the engineers had a particularly vital role. On the Canadian front, their tasks were coordinated by the Division’s Commanding Royal Engineer (Lt.-Col. R. J. Cassidy). Their primary initial responsibility was to clear under-water obstacles and prepare beach exits. While the Royal Navy would deal with all obstacles in more than three feet of water, the engineers were required to destroy or collect those in shallow water and either dump them on the beaches at high water or move them to the flanks. British sappers would assist, among them part of the 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, with 28 AVREs (above, page 10). The units had trained together for some weeks before D Day and they were equipped with many special devices to deal with known obstacles in their particular “lanes”.33
As the NEPTUNE attack progressed, so would the engineers’ duties expand. They would develop beach maintenance areas; clear forward and lateral routes,
* These were improved “Flail” tanks—that is, tanks with short lengths of chain attached to a revolving drum on the front of the vehicle which beat the ground and exploded mines.
destroying or removing mines and booby-traps and filling in craters; construct bridges (including two over the Seulles, at Pont de Reviers and Colombiers); and supervise and assist the infantry in laying and charting defensive minefields. They would also be responsible for a great many miscellaneous, but essential, duties, such as disposing of unexploded bombs and maintaining adequate water supplies.34
At least brief and general mention must be made of the essential work to be performed by the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. The task of the divisional signals, under Lt.-Col. G. O. Gamble, was to provide General Keller and his staff, afloat and ashore, with the communications required to fight and maintain the division. On D Day and subsequently, eight wireless “nets” would be working from the Division, maintaining contact with subordinate formations and units, and with divisions on the flanks. As soon as a foothold had been secured on land, telephone lines would be laid and despatch riders would make regular runs throughout the divisional area.35 In passing, it may be noted that these facilities were to be supplemented by those of the divisional reconnaissance regiment, the 7th Reconnaissance Regiment (17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars). It would supply mobile “contact detachments”, equipped with wireless, “whose primary task would be to see that the Divisional commander was kept informed at all times as to just what his Battalions were doing”.36 The intricate network of rapid communications would be the basis of effective command in battle.
Operations After NEPTUNE
Beyond the NEPTUNE phase, the Allied plan for the invasion was necessarily based on hypothesis. We could only estimate the direction and strength of the enemy’s reaction. A cardinal factor was, however, our own overmastering need for adequate ports to build up and supply our force and thus maintain the momentum of the enterprise. The possible ports fell into three main groups: those in the Loire area (Nantes and St. Nazaire), those in Brittany (primarily Brest), and those on the Seine (Rouen and Le Havre). In addition, the Allied planners had produced the idea of utilizing Quiberon Bay by constructing large but simple port facilities at Locmariaquer, a few miles west of Vannes.37
As visualized by COSSAC, the assault would have been followed by a concentrated drive to capture the Brittany ports. This conception, like other parts of the scheme, was modified in later planning. A succinct statement of the development of the campaign as envisaged early in 1944 was included in the “Joint Outline Maintenance Project” issued by the administrative authorities of the three Allied services on 8 February.38 It sketched the “Outline Plan” in these terms:
a. Initial Assault will be made by three RCTs [Regimental Combat Teams] of First US Army on the right, and five brigade groups of Second British Army on the left with supporting air forces.
b. Second British Army will secure Caen on the left flank and extend the perimeter of its sector to the south, while First US Army [will] capture the Cotentin Peninsula.
c. US forces will open up Loire ports while British forces hold the left flank.
d. Second British Army will open up the Seine Ports.”
On 7 May 1944, a month before the assault, the 21st Army Group produced an “Appreciation on Possible Development of Operations to secure a Lodgement Area”. General Montgomery’s headquarters sent this long document to First US Army Group, First U. S. Army and Second British Army on 18 May, covered by a letter which observed, “With regard to the outline of action at Part N, this represents the Commander-in-Chief’s intentions as far as they can be formulated at this stage. Whether operations will develop on these lines must of course depend on our own and the enemy situation, which cannot be predicted accurately at the present moment.”39 Part IV of the appreciation was relatively brief and can be reproduced here in full:
SUMMARY OF CONCLUSIONS
The type of country immediately South of the initial bridgehead does not favour a rapid advance. The Allied build-up relative to the estimated German build-up indicates that a period may supervene round about D+14, when there will be a grave risk of operations stabilising on a line which gives the Germans advantages in defence. The greatest energy and initiative will be required at this period to ensure the enemy is not allowed to stabilise his defence.
Once through the difficult bocage country, greater possibilities for manoeuvre and for the use of armour begin to appear. Our aim during this period should be to contain the maximum enemy forces facing the Eastern flank of the bridgehead, and to thrust rapidly towards Rennes.
On reaching Rennes our main thrust should be towards Vannes; but diversionary thrusts with the maximum use of deception should be employed to persuade the enemy that our objective is Nantes. If, at this time, the enemy weakens his Eastern force to oppose us North of Redon, a strong attack should be launched towards the Seine.
The Quiberon Bay project offers great scope for surprise. Once the bay is captured and provided constructional estimates are fulfilled, our build-up should be assured for some time to come, and our Southern flank can then be rested economically on the Loire.
For administrative reasons we should aim at securing the Seine ports as early as possible.* By alternate thrusts towards the East and towards the South-West, we should be able to retain the initiative, reap the benefit of interior lines, and keep the enemy moving his reserves from one flank to the other.
The different supply systems of the British and American forces will restrict the flexibility of our plans. Re-allocation of air support, an alteration in the planned build-up and a move of the inter-Army boundary provide the most practical means of influencing the weight behind our alternate thrusts.
The influence of the Quiberon Bay project (Operation CHASTITY) is written large in this appreciation. The actual development of the operations after D Day, as it turned out, threw this scheme into the discard. But other conceptions found in this document had great influence on events. The ideas of alternating blows on the eastern and western flanks, and of switching the weight of Allied air power accordingly, have prominent places in the history of the Normandy campaign. And the concept of containing “the maximum enemy forces facing the Eastern flank of the bridgehead” was to be the foundation of Montgomery’s strategy in the critical weeks following the landings.
These conceptions were reflected in the detailed instructions issued to the land forces before D Day. Following the assault on the front of Second British
* See above, pages 39-40, concerning Operation AXEHEAD.
Army, the 30th Corps was instructed to secure the communications centre of Villers-Bocage, astride the Caen-Avranches lateral, and gain contact with the 5th United States Corps at Caumont. Meanwhile, the 1st British Corps would pivot on Caen, maintaining contact with the 30th on the right. The 30th Corps would then continue its southerly advance to secure high ground, including the commanding feature of Mont Pinçon. The 1st Corps would perform a similar task on the left (eastern) flank, a necessary prerequisite to the construction of airfields south-east of Caen, which was considered of great importance. During succeeding stages Second British Army would secure high ground running through St. Pierre d’Entremont, Mont de Cérisi, Condé-sur-Noireau and Falaise, over 30 miles inland from the beaches. In the course of these operations the 1st British Corps would pivot on Argences and capture the important terrain at Falaise. It was emphasized that the “ultimate object” of the Second Army was to protect the flank of the US Armies while they captured Cherbourg, Angers, Nantes, and the Brittany ports: “There is no intention of carrying out a major advance until the Brittany ports have been captured.”40
On the American front, while one of General Bradley’s corps captured Cherbourg—which, it was calculated in the last stages of planning, would fall about D plus 15—two others were to begin a southerly drive towards St. Lô. The First United States Army would then advance to a line running through Avranches and Domfront, at the junction of the Cotentin and Brittany peninsulas. It was expected that this line would be reached about D plus 20, at which time the Third US Army would become operational and the 1st United States Army Group (afterwards the 12th, under Bradley) would assume command of all American ground forces in France.41 After clearing the Brittany peninsula, the Americans would face east and “pivot on the British position like a windlass in the direction of Paris”42 This great turning movement would bring the Allied line forward to the Seine on a 140-mile front. General Montgomery afterwards commented on the “academic” nature of forecasts in an operation of this magnitude. Nevertheless, the Allied planners had some hope, if not expectation, that their troops would reach the Seine and the Loire 90 days after the initial assault.43 This tentative forecast was closely connected with the administrative aspects of the planning.
As for events further in the future, well before D Day the Supreme Commander and his staff had a plan for operations beyond the Seine, dated 3 May 1944 (below, page 307). Strategy in this phase was destined to produce a heated controversy between General Eisenhower and General Montgomery.
The Administrative Plan
No aspect of the OVERLORD design was more intricate, or more important, than the administrative and maintenance plan. Indeed, the success or failure of the invasion entirely turned upon the adequacy of these arrangements. An army in 1944 required not only a vast daily input of supplies but also an enormous
* The “phase lines” shown in Sketch 4 are as indicated in a “Planning forecast of development of operations” issued by HQ 21st Army Group on 26 February 1944.
administrative “tail” of services and base installations if it was to function with any efficiency. The complexity of the problem was greatly increased if its operations began with an assault across a turbulent body of water like the English Channel. In the case of the Allied Expeditionary Force, the administrative arrangements proved adequate to the enormous requirement. It need scarcely be added that, within the limitations of the present chapter, only the barest outline of the administrative plan can be sketched.
We have already seen that logistics had determined certain significant aspects of the NEPTUNE plan. The urgent need for large port facilities and the availability of shipping and landing craft had imposed definite, limitations on the assault (above, pages 17, 22). There were, however, other equally grave complications, arising out of differences in British and American methods and even dissimilar British and American problems in the post-assault phases. For these reasons, the directive44 issued to the Supreme Commander stated:
In the United Kingdom the responsibility for logistics organization, concentration, movement, and supply of forces to meet the requirements of your plan will rest with British Service Ministries so far as British Forces are concerned. So far as United States Forces are concerned, this responsibility will rest with the United States War and Navy Departments. You will be responsible for the coordination of logistical arrangements on the Continent. You will also be responsible for coordinating the requirements of British and United States forces under your command.
This was the foundation upon which the administrative edifice was erected.
The overall “Joint Outline Maintenance Project/Administrative Plan”,45 which, as we have seen, was issued on 8 February 1944 in conjunction with the “Initial Joint Plan” of 1 February, amplified the policy for NEPTUNE. The Commander-in-Chief 21st Army Group was to coordinate the “general administrative planning” of all services, American as well as British, for “the initial stages”. Under his direction, Generals Dempsey and Bradley would determine the supplies required for the assault and build-up in their respective sectors. The invading force would be maintained “primarily over the beaches”, through Beach Maintenance Areas, in the opening stages, that is until “sufficient ports” had been captured and developed. American forces, as already noted, were expected to capture Cherbourg, and subsequently the Loire ports, and the British in due course to open the Seine ports. With the opening of these last beach maintenance was expected to cease. We have seen (above, page 18) the emphasis which the COSSAC plan laid upon the necessity for “sheltered waters”, and the intention of providing it by sinking blockships. Now, to “reduce dependence on maintenance over open beaches in the early stages”, plans were made not merely to provide small-craft shelters (GOOSEBERRIES) formed by blockships (CORNCOBS), but also to construct two much more elaborate artificial harbours (MULBERRIES) whose complicated components were manufactured in Britain and towed across the Channel. “There were five GOOSEBERRIES, two of which grew into MULBERRIES-no mean horticultural feat.”* Time was to show that this provision against the
* Rear-Admiral H. Hickling, “The Prefabricated Harbour” (Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, August 1945), an informative illustrated article. It may be noted that the Joint Outline Maintenance Project as first issued assumed the existence of only one MULBERRY, but it was shortly amended to provide two, one in the British zone at Arromanches, one in the US zone at St. Laurent.
possibility of unseasonable bad weather in the Channel was more than justified. It should be observed that, although the GOOSEBERRIES were actually finished by D plus 5, the MULBERRIES were not planned to be working to full capacity until D plus 14, and they were not in fact quite completed when they were struck by the great gale of 19 June (D plus 13).
Only a few of the multifarious aspects of the overall administrative plan can even be mentioned. They included provision of ammunition of a great variety of types in enormous quantities; petrol and water supplies; priorities for road and airfield construction; hospitals and depots. A feature of long-term petrol supply arrangements was the famous PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean), designed to carry liquid fuels across the Channel in submarine pipe-lines. Food was, of course, a major item: to ease the problem in the first stage each British soldier, when landing, would carry an emergency ration (together with two days’ additional rations), a “Tommy Cooker”, 20 cigarettes and a water-sterilizing outfit. Special arrangements governed the provision of reinforcements to replace casualties, the evacuation of casualties, the landing of medical stores and the handling of prisoners of war. Repair and recovery services for vehicles and equipment; salvage; Pay and Postal services; and a score of other administrative matters of comparable importance, all required attention, and attention in great detail, for months before D Day dawned.46
Looking beyond the initial stages of the assault, the administrative planners anticipated that most of the American supplies would come directly from the United States, through the Brittany ports, while the British forces were maintained through the Channel ports and Antwerp. These facilities would be taxed to the utmost by the Allied build-up. General Eisenhower expected to have a total of 86 divisions (including 10 from the Mediterranean) in North-West Europe before the winter of 1944-45.47 This great force would be supported by extensive rear echelons and base installations. Thus, for every British and Canadian division landed (some 16,000 men) an additional 24,000 soldiers—or a total “divisional slice” of 40,000—would be present in the theatre. The American figure was estimated to be slightly higher (45,000 men); but later investigation showed that it was almost identical with the British figure.48 The corresponding number of vehicles in the “divisional slice” was estimated to be 8000; the maintenance requirement, for both personnel and vehicles, ran to approximately 700 tons per division per day. Any serious interruption in the delivery of these supplies, resulting from inadequate planning, hostile action or bad weather, would jeopardize the success of the invasion.
The Decision to Launch the Operation
We have already noted some of the tactical factors affecting the precise moment at which Operation NEPTUNE was to be launched (above, pages 10, 12). From the naval point of view, we saw, an assault in daylight, made not long after dawn, was preferable to a night attack. This would reduce the navigational difficulties connected with the control of thousands of ships and craft and landing the troops
with certainty at the proper points; it would also increase the accuracy of the naval bombardment. Daylight would also enable the air forces to bomb more accurately. Broadly speaking, the requirement for overwhelming fire support may be said to have dictated the decision to land in daylight. At the same time, tide conditions had to be taken into account; it was necessary that the first landing should be at a period of relatively low but rising tide, so that landing craft would not become stranded and adequate forces with supporting weapons could be landed on the first tide. Furthermore, bright moonlight was required for the airborne phase of the operation. The portion of the Initial Joint Plan dealing with H Hour ran thus:
58. H Hour, which is defined as the time at which the first wave of landing craft should hit the beach, will be about 1½ hours after nautical twilight,* and approximately 3 hours before high water, so as to allow a minimum period of thirty minutes daylight for observed bombardment before H Hour and to enable the maximum number of vehicles to be landed on the first tide. Should the operation be postponed from D Day, the time of H Hour on successive days may be extended to about 2½ hours after nautical twilight.
59. As H Hour is related both to nautical twilight and high-water, D Day is therefore dependent on the phase of the moon. It is the present intention that D Day should be during the full moon period as opposed to the new moon period, which fixes D Day in first week of June. D Day and the time of H Hour for that day, and for successive days to which a postponement is possible, will be notified later.
The enemy now introduced a new complication. We have already seen that early in 1944 Field-Marshal Rommel gave fresh impetus to work on the much publicized “Atlantic Wall” (above, pages 54-56). The additional ingenious obstructions which he strewed along the beaches in the invasion sector forced the Allied planners to reconsider, since these could only be effectively dealt with when exposed by low tide. Furthermore, our Intelligence discovered that the obstacles in the American sector extended farther down the beaches than in the British sector. Consequently, as Admiral Ramsay afterwards recorded, “it was finally necessary to select five different H hours, ranging over a period of one hour and twenty-five minutes”.49 In the Canadian sector, where offshore rocks presented an additional problem, two H hours were chosen—7:35 a.m. for the western and 7:45 for the eastern assaulting brigade.
When was D Day to be? At a meeting at SHAEF on 8 May, Admiral Ramsay gave the decisive naval recommendation: 4 June was unacceptable, 5 and 6 June acceptable, 7 June “could be accepted in case of extreme necessity”.50 On 17 May the Supreme Commander informed the Combined Chiefs of Staff that he had designated 5 June as D Day.51
But there was still the dreadful question-mark—the weather.
On the basis of the records, the chances for pleasant days in the first week in June were good. Yet as that month began the weather deteriorated, and the Allied meteorological staffs, under Group Captain J. M. Stagg, RAF (Chief
* See above, page 74n.
† Both General Eisenhower and Admiral Ramsay state in their published reports that the decision was made on 17 May, but Dr. Pogue, the author of the US official volume The Supreme Command, concludes that the decision was made on the 8th and merely reported on the 17th.
Meteorological Officer, SHAEF), became increasingly apprehensive over the prospects for the chosen day. Finally, at a meeting in the early hours of 4 June, with an actual gale imminent, they reported to General Eisenhower that on the 5th air support would be impossible. Even under these conditions, General Montgomery was prepared to go; but the air commanders were opposed to taking the risk, and according to Montgomery Ramsay was unwilling to commit himself. The Supreme Commander postponed the operation for one day.
At this moment all the vessels of Force U from Devonshire and part of Force “0” from Portland were already at sea. Signals were sent to recall them. One convoy (Force U2A), consisting of 138 vessels and craft, did not receive the signal and at nine in the morning it was 25 miles south of the Isle of Wight and still steering for Normandy. Two destroyers and an aircraft were sent at full speed to turn it back, and succeeded. “Had this not been done”, Admiral Ramsay later reported, “it is possible that the Force would shortly have been detected by the enemy’s radar and this would undoubtedly have resulted in his increased vigilance for the next few days.”52
At 9:30 p.m. on Sunday 4 June Southwick House, Portsmouth, where General Eisenhower was again meeting with his chief subordinates to consider the weather forecast, was being lashed by wind and rain. But Stagg and his colleagues had noted a decided change in the prospect, indicating the likelihood of temporary “suitable conditions” on the 6th. They added that “it was quite impossible to forecast the weather to be expected on Thursday, 8th June”. Naval considerations at this stage rendered it impossible to execute the operation on the 7th even if the weather were favourable. For one thing, the naval bombardment forces which had sailed from their northern bases on the 3rd would have to put back to port to refuel; for another, if the US assault convoys were told to sail for Tuesday and were recalled, they could not be ready again for Wednesday morning.53 And as we have already seen the Navy had indicated in the beginning that the 7th would be the last suitable day. Essentially, therefore, General Eisenhower was forced to choose between Tuesday the 6th—when the weather would at best be possible rather than ideal—and postponement for a fortnight until the next suitable moon and tide period (which, we now know, was precisely the period of the great gale). Such a postponement involved frightful administrative complications as well as great danger that the secrecy of the operation would be compromised.
The Supreme Commander polled his subordinates. Again Montgomery was for going. Ramsay seems to have concurred. Leigh-Mallory and Tedder were dubious. The painful decision was Eisenhower’s. And the decision was to go on the 6th. Orders were immediately issued accordingly. The matter was reviewed at another conference at about 4:00 a.m. on 5 June; but since the forecast had not changed for the worse the decision and the orders stood.* OVERLORD was going in.
* There is a rather remarkable disparity between the various versions of these events given by different witnesses and different historians. The foregoing account is based mainly on the US official volumes, Pogue’s The Supreme Command and Harrison’s Cross-Channel Attack, which in turn are based on a thorough examination of the contemporary evidence. See also the narrative in the late Chester Wilmot’s The Struggle for Europe, which contains long quotations from Stagg’s diary.54