THE NORMANDY INVASION
6 June 1944
Up to the very hour of the invasion of the Normandy coast on the morning of 6 June 1944, the Western Allies had succeeded in concealing from the Germans the exact destination of the vast amphibious operation – known as ‘Overlord’ – that had been preparing in southern Britain for months beforehand. Normandy was certainly on the Germans’ list of guesses, but their failure to anticipate exactly where Allied forces would land meant that the German armies were divided between all the probable options and this fatally weakened their ability to react quickly enough to drive the invaders back into the sea. One of the greatest deception operations in history, codenamed ‘Bodyguard’, allowed the Allies to achieve almost complete surprise and the first firm foothold in Adolf Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’.
Planning for the invasion had begun in April 1943, when the United States and Britain (supported by the British Commonwealth and Empire) finally reached a very provisional agreement for an operation to be mounted sometime in the spring of 1944 against the northern French coast. The British lacked confidence in the invasion; the Americans were determined to carry it through, but understood its many serious dangers. A way of reducing the risks was to mislead the enemy and weaken his initial response. However, to keep secret the destination of 4,000 ships, 2 million men and 12,000 aircraft was an unprecedented challenge. It seemed at the time almost impossible that the plan to invade Normandy (the date was not yet fixed) could be kept secret for six months. Practical measures could be taken: no-go zones were established around the southern coasts of Britain; travel restrictions were imposed, preventing anyone not on official business from leaving Britain in the last weeks before the invasion; mail was severely censored, and, in the weeks just before the invasion, mail to destinations abroad was suspended altogether. These precautions were designed to reduce the risk of information leaking out – an issue of secrecy rather than deception.
The Allies soon realized that a daring plan of misinformation was needed to convince the German leaders that they had correctly guessed the main destination of the invasion. In December 1943, ‘Bodyguard’ was launched, codenamed after Churchill’s wry dictum that in war truth had to be concealed ‘by a bodyguard of lies’. The plan was divided into two separate operations. ‘Fortitude North’ was designed to persuade the German High Command that a diversionary attack on Norway was planned using forces stationed in Scotland. This was to compel the German army to keep or even enlarge its forces there. ‘Fortitude South’ had to make it appear that the major invasion force was stationed in southeast England, ready to cross to the Pas de Calais and threaten western Germany. ‘Fortitude North’ had limited success, not only because Hitler had always worried about a Norwegian invasion and kept a larger garrison there than commitments on other fronts justified, but also because the German radio intercept system in Norway was tuned in to the approaching Soviet enemy and paid little attention to the false radio traffic signalled from Scotland. Much more rested on the success of ‘Fortitude South’.
The operation in the south involved a complex web of deceit. In the first place, a vast phantom force was set up in the southern and eastern counties of England under the bogus title of First United States Army Group (FUSAG). Command was given to the most famous and flamboyant of American commanders, the pistol-toting General George S Patton. This was given as public knowledge, to persuade the Germans that FUSAG must really exist. The falsehood was sustained by huge parks of dummy tanks made from rubber (built by prop-makers at the Shepperton film studios), landing craft of wood and fabric, and numerous air bases with dummy buildings and fake aircraft, and all illuminated sufficiently for the benefit of German night reconnaissance, but not so much as to make the deception evident. On a line west of the south-coast town of Portsmouth, where the real invasion forces were stationed, everything was dark and darkened – tents were covered, towels changed from white to khaki, smokeless stoves installed. By day, the Germans’ aerial reconnaissance was hazardous, but their aircraft were allowed to photograph the FUSAG area in order to provide evidence of this as the main invasion force. Double agents in Britain – German spies who had been caught and turned, some for years – fed small drops of information to confirm the existence of FUSAG. One agent in particular, an elderly Dutchman known as ‘Albert van Loop’, originally recruited by the German secret service, then turned by the FBI, fed the Germans a diet of false military unit numbers. This was plausible because the American army numbered regular units from one to twenty-five and reserve units from seventy-six onwards, leaving plenty of numbers free in between. By January 1944, German military intelligence had identified fifty-five divisions in Britain when there were only thirty-seven, and by May had identified seventy-nine when there were only forty-seven.
The deception worked better than the Allies could have hoped. Hitler became convinced that Calais was the principal target. The Germans had evidence to show that Allied forces were clustered in southwest England, too, but it was assumed that this was for a diversionary assault in Normandy, not the real thing. This forced the German army to divide its forces in the West: fourteen divisions of the 7th Army were stationed in Normandy and Brittany; twenty divisions of the 15th Army were in the Calais region. More divisions were held in southern France in case of an invasion there. The idea that Normandy might be a ruse to divert the Germans west and allow FUSAG to attack an undefended Calais lodged so firmly in Hitler’s mind that not until 7 August, long after the Allies had almost defeated the German army in France, did he order 15th Army to move. The timing was less important than the disposition of forces. The German army was weaker in Normandy than it would have been; even knowledge of the date of Operation Overlord would not have persuaded Hitler to risk putting all his eggs in the Normandy basket.The story of D-Day itself is well known. The weather in early June seemed too poor to launch an invasion and the Germans relaxed. The commander of the coastal defence, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was away in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday; most of the junior commanders had been sent away on an exercise to Rennes.
On the night of 5–6 June, paratroopers slowly descended into the Normandy countryside to secure bridges and roads. In the early morning of 6 June, German sentries on the coast were greeted by the staggering sight of an armada of 4,000 vessels emerging out of the mist. Soon, over 2,500 heavy bombers were pounding the German guns and concrete bunkers, followed by waves of rocket-firing fighter-bombers and a ferocious fusillade from the Royal Navy. On the three beaches assigned to British and Canadian forces – codenamed ‘Gold’, ‘Juno’ and ‘Sword’ – a lodgement was made by mid-day with modest casualties; on Utah Beach, assigned to the American army, a bridgehead 10 kilometres (6 miles) deep had been achieved by evening. Only on Omaha Beach, where neither the heavy bombing nor the naval barrage had done sufficient damage to the defenders, was the struggle bitter and costly, but here, too, a small beachhead was secured by evening. Over the next few days a more secure front was established and the invasion battle was over. Hitler and the High Command regarded Normandy as a sideshow and anticipated an assault on the Dieppe area further east some time in mid-June. ‘Fortitude South’ had done everything expected of it, confirming once again that in situations where the danger is great, surprise can be the most precious strategic asset of all.