Chapter 11: Normandy: The Balance Sheet
With the final closing of the Falaise Gap a definite and most significant phase of the campaign in North-West Europe came to an end. This is a good point, then, to pause and attempt a brief commentary upon the two and a half months of bloody fighting since D Day.
The German Losses and Our Own
The Germans had lost a great battle, and in losing it had suffered casualties in men and equipment on a tremendous scale. It is difficult to find absolutely precise figures. But the statement in General Eisenhower’s report, covering the whole period since 6 June, is certainly generally accurate:
By 25 August the enemy had lost, in round numbers, 400,000 killed, wounded, or captured, of which total 200,000 were prisoners of war. One hundred and thirty-five thousand of these prisoners had been taken since the beginning of our breakthrough on 25 July. Thirteen hundred tanks, 20,000 vehicles, 500 assault guns, and 1500 field guns and heavier artillery pieces had been captured or destroyed, apart from the destruction inflicted upon the Normandy coast defenses.
Completely satisfactory statistics are not available from the German records. Army Group B reported that its casualties from 6 June until 13 August were 158,930 in all categories. The next weekly report, that for the week ending 20 August, remarks, not surprisingly, “Figures not yet computed”; and the reports for the succeeding period are not to be found. However, on 29 September the Commander-in-Chief West stated that army casualties for the period since 6 June had risen to 371,400, while naval and air force losses increased the grand total to 460,900.1
An indication of the desperate state to which the Germans in the west were reduced after Normandy is given by the fighting strength of the Fifth Panzer Army on 25 August. It then had under command all the fighting troops that remained in the theatre both of its formations and Seventh Army’s, and the latter are probably, though not certainly, included. It reported its fighting strength as 17,980 infantry, 314 artillery pieces, and 42 tanks and assault guns.2 On 22 and 23 August Army Group B reported3 the state of its eight* armoured divisions as follows:–
* The Panzer Lehr Division had been virtually destroyed in the St. Lô area at the end of July. The 9th Panzer Division had suffered a similar fate in the Mortain counter-offensive.
2nd Panzer Division—one infantry battalion, no tanks, no artillery
21st Panzer Division—four weak infantry battalions, 10 tanks, artillery unknown
116th Panzer Division—one infantry battalion, 12 tanks, approximately two batteries
1st SS Panzer Division—weak infantry elements, no tanks, no artillery
2nd SS Panzer Division—450 men, 15 tanks, six guns
9th SS Panzer Division—460 men, 20-25 tanks, 20 guns
10th SS Panzer Division—four weak infantry battalions, no tanks, no artillery
12th SS Panzer Division—300 men, 10 tanks, no artillery.
The scale of the German disaster can be judged by recalling that on D Day the 12th SS Panzer Division had had a strength of over 20,000 men and 150 tanks (above, page 129).
By comparison, the Allies’ losses, though heavy, had been much less. As of the end of August,* they had suffered 206,703 casualties, of which the United States forces had had 124,394 and the British and Canadians 82,309.4
Canadian losses had been large in proportion to the strength engaged. From D Day through 23 August the total casualties of the Canadian component of the 21st Army Group had been 18,444, of which 5021 were fatal. Field-Marshal Montgomery has published figures indicating that down to 1 October the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division had more casualties than any other division in the army group, and the 2nd Canadian Division was next.5 From the morning of 1 August to the morning of 23 August the casualties of the whole of First Canadian Army, as reported at the time, were 826 officers and 11,833 men killed, wounded and missing. Of these 423 officers and 6992 men were Canadians, 276 officers and 3594 men were British, and 127 officers and 1247 men were Polish.6 From the commencement of Operation TOTALIZE (taken as 8 August). through 21 August, the last day of heavy fighting in the Gap, Canadian battle casualties in the theatre had numbered 1479 killed or died of wounds, 4023 wounded or injured and 177 taken prisoner.7
The Rival Strategies
If one compares the German and Allied performances in Normandy, and attempts to estimate the reasons for the German defeat, certain fundamental facts immediately present themselves.
The Allies owed their victory in great part to numerical and material superiority. Above all, it is notable that the Germans had almost no naval support, and very little support in the air, whereas the Allied armies enjoyed the cooperation of very powerful naval forces (which not only carried them to Normandy and protected their supply lines, but also frequently intervened effectively in the land battle with their guns), and tremendous air forces which enjoyed almost entirely undisputed command of the air and were constantly brought into play against the enemy troops on the ground. Many German accounts, some of which are quoted in the foregoing narrative, testify to the paralysing effects of Allied air power throughout the campaign.
Even on the ground, however, the Germans were, as time passed, considerably
* The figures are for 30 August for the Americans, 31 August for the British and Canadians.
outnumbered. By 1 September the Allies had landed, according to contemporary records, 826,700 military personnel in the British area and 1,211,200 in the US area of Normandy. This presumably includes air force personnel (though not those who intervened in the battle from bases in England). It does not include the large forces landed in Southern France since 15 August.8 It is impossible to find a precisely comparable German figure, but it appears likely that the Germans deployed about 740,000 men of their army in Normandy south of the Seine.
Nevertheless, in addition to being outnumbered the Germans had also been decisively outgeneralled. “On the strategic level” the Allied conduct of the campaign was far superior to theirs. The weaknesses of their command organization have already been noted (above, page 57). Hitler’s interference in the operations, and his refusal to accept the recommendations of the commanders on the spot, were undoubtedly a continual and a very serious hindrance to the German conduct of the campaign, although the post-war writings of German generals have somewhat exaggerated its importance by comparison with other factors. German Intelligence was also extraordinarily ineffective, as we have seen; one influence making for this result was doubtless the inadequacy of German air reconnaissance at this stage of the war, but as we have suggested the deficiencies of the intelligence provided on the higher levels were so serious that it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that there was deliberate sabotage within the organization.
Whatever the causes, the Germans were completely deceived as to Allied intentions both before the landings in Normandy and during the campaign there. Their continued expectation of a further assault in the Pas de Calais, and their consequent retention there, for six or seven weeks after the initial landing, of large forces which could probably have turned the scale in Normandy, were disastrous for their cause. But their generals also, as we have seen, failed to foresee the course of Allied operations within the Normandy theatre. They thought in terms of a thrust from the eastern flank of the bridgehead directed on Paris, and played into Montgomery’s hands by concentrating the great bulk of their forces, and particularly of their armour, in the Caen sector; while he was planning to break out from the bridgehead, not on this flank where the Germans expected it, but on the western flank where they did not.
“Into Montgomery’s hands”. The phrase is appropriate, for the direction of the Normandy campaign was, essentially, the British general’s. The matter has unfortunately become one of controversy, for national as well as personal susceptibilities are involved. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff wrote of Montgomery in his diary in June 1943, “It is most distressing that the Americans do not like him, and it will always be a difficult matter to have him fighting in close proximity to them.”9 Here Lord Alanbrooke was a true prophet. But the directives and other documents which have been quoted at length in this volume leave no doubt
* This is a very rough calculation on the basis of the “theatre slice”10 for the 45 divisions known to have been deployed south of the Seine and north of the Loire (6 SS Panzer and Panzer Grenadier, 5 Panzer, 13 Infantry including 2 Luftwaffe field divisions, 15 Static, 4 Parachute, 1 Reserve Infantry, 1 Airlanding); it allows also for the 40,000 replacements known to have been received during the battle.
as to the credit for the Normandy victory. From the moment early on D plus 1 when he gave his first orders to Bradley and Dempsey (above, page 141), Montgomery’s grip of the operations was firm and effective. As we have seen, he conducted them in accordance with a pattern laid down before the landings, for his forecast dated 7 May 1944 (above, page 83) contains a definite indication of the policy of attracting the enemy’s strength to the British front in the Caen sector; and the same policy appears in his reports and directives written in France as early as 11 June (above, page 142). It is true that his own statement of 1947, “The outstanding point about the Battle of Normandy is that it was fought exactly as planned before the invasion”,11 is a considerable exaggeration. (For some reason, commanders seem to consider it the supreme form of military achievement to plan an operation in advance and subsequently carry it out precisely as planned; though surely it might be considered a higher attribute of generalship to maintain and profit by the degree of flexibility which enables the commander to adjust his operations to events and to alter his plans to take advantage of fleeting opportunities.) In fact, as the reader of the foregoing pages knows, there were constant adjustments in Normandy, one of the most important, the decision to undertake the “short hook” directed on Argentan instead of the long envelopment to the Seine, owing much to the initiative of General Bradley. Another was the abandonment, as the result of events at the same period, of the Quiberon Bay project that had bulked so large in Montgomery’s early appreciation (above, page 83). Nevertheless, the broad conception of the campaign as fought certainly remained very much as forecast by him before D Day; as he says in his memoirs, “the fundamental design remained unchanged”.
Montgomery’s position as de facto ground commander under Eisenhower was temporary. The triumphant success of his operations in Normandy did not alter the command arrangements made before the landings, and on 1 September he relinquished his broader authority and became merely one of three army group commanders under General Eisenhower, with whom the coordination of ground operations thereafter rested. Before that date, however, and particularly during June and July, Montgomery was the person in effective control of the campaign. The role of Eisenhower at this stage was limited to support, encouragement and criticism. So far as he influenced the operations, he did it by commenting tactfully upon the directives issued by Montgomery to his army commanders. These comments were usually directed towards urging Montgomery to speed up the operations, and on at least one occasion (above, page 200) such a comment seems to have had a material and useful influence.
After 1 September, of course, the situation was changed. Montgomery no longer issued directives covering the whole theatre of operations. This was now Eisenhower’s business. Montgomery was now the commentator, but his position was quite different from that of Eisenhower in the earlier months; for he was Eisenhower’s subordinate, and the comments of a subordinate upon his superior’s directives are not like a superior’s remarks upon the conduct of operations by a subordinate. The new role was not one to which Montgomery readily adjusted himself.
On the Battlefield in Normandy
Although there is no doubt that on the higher levels of command the Allies’ operations in Normandy were far better conducted than the Germans’, the same cannot be said with confidence about the operations on the actual battlefield. The German soldier and field commander showed themselves, as so often before, to be excellent practitioners of their trade. The German fighting soldier was courageous, tenacious and skilful. He was sometimes a fanatic, occasionally a brutal thug; but he was almost always a formidable fighting man who gave a good account of himself even under conditions as adverse as those in Normandy certainly were. German commanders and staff officers were in general highly competent. Man for man and unit for unit, it cannot be said that it was by tactical superiority that we won the Battle of Normandy.
The enemy’s opinion of Allied tactics is always interesting and sometimes instructive. Not many contemporary critiques of this sort are available for Normandy, but we have a careful report by the 21st SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 10th SS Panzer Division “Frundsberg”, which that division’s headquarters sent to all its units on 29 July.12 It made no distinction between “English and American” fighting methods, and made no mention of Canadians; at this time, indeed, the 10th SS had had little if any contact with Canadian troops. The report constantly emphasized the effects of the Allies’ complete air superiority: it was now necessary, in planning a march, it said, to “figure at least three times the amount of time previously allowed”, and it was essential to move in darkness and ensure that the main body reached its destination before daybreak. When enemy aircraft appeared, “All marching motion must cease completely.” On the whole, the German commentator, rightly or wrongly, had no very lofty opinion of the Allied foot soldier:
The morale of the enemy infantry is not very high. It depends largely on artillery and air support. In case of a well-placed concentration of fire from our own artillery the infantry will often leave its positions and retreat hastily. Whenever enemy is engaged with force, he usually retreats or surrenders.
He had a healthy respect for the Allies’ artillery, “the main arm” of their “attrition and annihilation tactics”. He remarked however that the guns did not fire deception shoots; the main artillery effort was always in “the area where the penetration is to take place”. As for the Allied tanks, they showed “good combat spirit; together with artillery they form support for the infantry”.
All the Allied armies committed to the battle had one thing in common: a high proportion of the formations used had never fought before—and those that had fought had operated under conditions very different from those of the Northwest Europe theatre. It is probably true, in these circumstances, that all the Allied forces had very similar problems, and the comments upon Canadian formations which follow could doubtless be applied with little change to the British and American forces also.
The lack of battle experience undoubtedly had its due effect within the Canadian formations. They did well, but they would certainly have done better had they
not been learning the business as they fought. It is true that all had undergone exceptionally long and careful training; but no training is entirely a substitute for experience of battle, and no division has ever realized its full potentialities until it has actually fought and thereby acquired the “battle wisdom” and the confidence that can only be gained in action.
At the same time, we had probably not got as much out of our long training as we might have. In an earlier portion of this history,* the writer ventured the opinion that the Canadian Army suffered “from possessing a proportion of regimental officers whose attitude towards training was casual and haphazard rather than urgent and scientific”. Analysis of the operations in Normandy seems to support this opinion. Regimental officers of this type, where they existed, were probably the weakest element in the Army. At the top of the command pyramid, Canadian generalship in Normandy does not suffer by comparison with that of the other Allies engaged. At the bottom, the vast majority of the rank and file did their unpleasant and perilous jobs with initiative, high courage and steadily increasing skill, as their fathers had done in the First World War. As for their officers, the Canadian regimental officer at his best (and he was very frequently at his best) had no superior. He worked to make himself master of his craft, which usually was not his by profession; he watched over his men’s welfare and led them bravely and intelligently in battle. There still remained, however, that proportion of officers who were not fully competent for their appointments, and whose inadequacy appeared in action and sometimes had serious consequences.
This situation was reflected in some degree in the many changes in command which took place within First Canadian Army in the course of the campaign. Thus, by the end of August 1944, among the nine infantry or armoured brigades in the 2nd Canadian Corps there had been eight changes in command, and only three brigades retained their original commanders. Four of the changes were due to battle casualties, a fact which reflects the extreme fierceness of the fighting. Two were the result of what higher authority considered unsuitability. Among the commanding officers of armoured regiments, two were changed as consequences of death or injury, and two for other reasons; seven commands remained unchanged. In the infantry and machine-gun battalions (24 in number) only seven commands had not changed by the end of August. No less than 14 battalion commanders had been changed as the result of battle casualty or sickness.-Five commanding officers had been promoted, and five removed because considered unsuitable. A great deal had been done before D Day to weed out officers who were unlikely to succeed;‡ but the final screening had to be the test of battle, and sometimes a man who appears to good advantage under training conditions turns out to be little use under fire.
It is not difficult to put one’s finger upon occasions in the Normandy campaign
* Six Years of War, 253.
† The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada had five commanding officers in little more than five weeks, not counting Major Gagnon’s temporary tenure during TOTALIZE (above, pages 219-20); and every one of these changes was the result of a battle casualty.
‡ See Six Years of War, 413-19.
when Canadian formations failed to make the most of their opportunities. In particular, the capture of Falaise was long delayed, and it was necessary to mount not one but two set-piece operations for the purpose at a time when an early closing of the Falaise Gap would have inflicted most grievous harm upon the enemy and might even, conceivably, have enabled us to end the war some months sooner than was actually the case. A German force far smaller than our own, taking advantage of strong ground and prepared positions, was able to slow our advance to the point where considerable German forces made their escape. That this was also due in part to errors of judgement south of the Gap should not blind us to our own shortcomings.
Had our troops been more experienced, the Germans would hardly have been able to escape a worse disaster. They were especially fortunate in that the two armoured divisions available to the First Canadian Army—the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and the 1st Polish Armoured Division—had never fought before they were committed to battle in Normandy at one of the highest and fiercest crises of the war. Less raw formations would probably have obtained larger and earlier results. In the case of the Canadian division, the results of inexperience were most evident in the operations of its armoured component, the 4th Armoured Brigade. The 4th Division was the youngest of the Canadian divisions, having been converted from infantry to armour during 1942 and arrived in England that autumn. It did not take part in Exercise SPARTAN in March 1943 because it had not reached the point of equipment and training where it could do so effectively. It was exercised for the first time as a formation only in the autumn of 1943, when it had two divisional exercises; at this time it still did not have all its battle equipment. The events in Normandy lead one to conclude that its armoured brigade had scarcely had sufficient training in cross-country operational movement before it went into action. (It must be added that conditions in England, where such considerations as the desirability of not interfering with growing crops hampered movement, were not ideal for this training.) Dissatisfaction with the division’s operations south of Caen was reflected, almost inevitably, in a change of command,13 Brigadier H. W. Foster from the 7th Infantry Brigade being promoted to replace Major-General Kitching on 21 August.14
The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division had also had its troubles, accompanied by very heavy casualties, in the bloody battles in the second half of July. It is in order to recall again here the frank opinion of its commander, General Foulkes: “When we went into battle at Falaise and Caen we found that when we bumped into battle-experienced German troops we were no match for them. We would not have been successful had it not been for our air and artillery support. We had had four years of real hard going and it took about two months to get that Division so shaken down that we were really a machine that could fight.”15
* It may be noted that General Kitching took over the division only at the end of February 1944. He never had the opportunity of commanding it in a full-scale exercise before it went into action. During the spring months tank movement was kept to a minimum to conserve the tracks of the tanks that were to be used in operations.
Nor had the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, the first Canadian formation to meet the enemy in Normandy, been without its own reverses, which are described in the foregoing chapters along with its successes.
While it seems clear that lack of battle experience hampered our formations in Normandy, one must remark that, although some of the German divisions were subject to the same disability, it appears to have had a less serious effect on them. The 12th SS Panzer Division, which was responsible for many of our troubles, was formed only in 1943 and had never fought before 7 June 1944. (As we have seen, however, it did contain a high proportion of experienced officers and NCOs. It also had the advantage, after the first days of the campaign, of having a commander and a senior staff officer who had special knowledge of the theatre of operations, having exercised there with the 1st SS Panzer Division in 1942.)16 There were other German divisions committed against us in Normandy which had not fought before and which nevertheless gave a very good account of themselves. This may have been due in part to the fact that the German formations were on the defensive while ours were attacking, a more difficult role. Nevertheless, one suspects that the Germans contrived to get more out of their training than we did. Perhaps their attitude towards such matters was less casual than ours.
The Significance of Normandy
The victory in Normandy did not end the North-West Europe campaign. It continued for more than eight months after the German disaster about Falaise. The German army, as we shall see, showed extraordinary power of recovery. It stabilized the situation in the Netherlands and on the western frontiers of Germany, and we had to fight a succession of hard battles before Hitler’s regime collapsed in the following spring. Nevertheless, in Normandy the most significant battle of the campaign had been won.
The successful landings on 6 June, followed by the consolidation of the lodgement area, were in themselves its most vital phase; for in the light of the superiority of Allied resources the successful establishment by the Allies of a fighting front in France was almost certain to prove fatal to the Germans in the end. However, Normandy meant more than this. There Hitler lost the armies that were his best hope of staving off ultimate disaster. The formations destroyed could never be adequately replaced; indeed, as we have seen, few men could be spared during the campaign to replace the Germans’ vast number of casualties. The new divisions brought into existence by tremendous efforts in the autumn of 1944 were to be no substitute for the men who were now in Allied prison camps or in the cemeteries about Falaise.
At the same time, fatal damage had been done to the morale of the German army and in particular of its officer corps. Many senior officers had been deeply discouraged even before D Day. The success of the landing in Normandy completed their conviction that the war was lost, and a group of them tried to
kill Hitler on 20 July, and failed by the narrowest of margins. Every thinking German with knowledge of the facts must now have realized that his country’s military situation was beyond saving, and the courage with which the German armies continued to fight until the final collapse was largely the courage of despair.
We must not, of course, fix our gaze exclusively upon the events in western Europe. In the summer of 1944, as in earlier periods, the largest portion of the German Army was engaged against Russia. Some 168 German and satellite divisions were in action there on 15 July 194417 as compared with the 45 that opposed the western Allies in Normandy,* and the whole strategic situation depended upon the continuance of the campaign on the Eastern Front. But there was now no question, as there had been in 1942, of the possibility of Russian collapse. The Russians, like the Allies in the west, were advancing victoriously. After Normandy Hitler’s position was hopeless. It was only a question of how long he could urge his courageous but disenchanted people to continue the struggle.
* Divisions reduced to battle groups have been counted as half divisions, “name groups” in each case as one third of a division. The Germans suffered a catastrophic reverse in Russia as well as in the West in the summer of 1944. On the basis of computation used here, they had had 199 divisions on the Eastern Front on 15 June, and were down to 123 by 15 August. German medical records show that from 22 June 1941 (when the attack on Russia began) to 31 March 1945 (the last date for which figures are available) the German Army suffered 7,620,323 casualties. Of these, 1,364,198 were incurred in fighting against the Western Allies.18