British Sky Tours

                  

 

 

 

***  OVERLORD  ***

 

 Anyone taking our Normandy sky tour finds it helpful to have an idea of the scale of Operation Overlord. One Man behind the Plan, Their Finest Hour and The Special Relationship are worth a glance to understand some of the events before America's entry into the Second World War. Many visitors to our website probably know much of what is set out below. Please grant us your forbearance. The more you know before a tour the more you will discover while flying and on the ground. We try to ensure that those less familiar with the background to D Day, particularly the young, start their tour with a sound conception of what was at stake thereby making your time with us all the more worthwhile and enjoyable.

 

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 MILITARY SITUATION BEFORE D DAY

The map below gives the order of battle for the Allies and the German land and air forces on the morning of D Day. How to read the symbols is explained below. We will go through the order of battle during the tour and also discuss the different approaches to battle command of the Allies and the Germans. During the first three years of World War War Two - 1939 to 1942 - the German Army employed a highly flexible form of battlefield command with spectacular results. On the whole, during most of this time, Adolf Hitler stood back from the tactical and strategic decisions made by the professional officer corps. The map below reflects a major disagreement among the most senior German generals over tactics and potentially more dangerous, Hitler's increasing meddling by the spring of 1944 with the dispositions of individual divisions, regiments and battalions.

 

Formations and Symbols

Blue denotes Allied formations and red German. The same colour code applies to the routes taken by the naval and airborne forces on their approach to the landing zones and assault beaches in Normandy. Continuous red lines indicate the tactical dividing lines between individual German major formations at army level, for example between the Fifteenth and Seventh Armies.

The map shows formations the size of a division and larger. Small squares with xx above them represent divisions - the xx reflects the number of stars worn by the general. Thus xxx above an oblong represents an army corps - two or more divisions plus support arms and logistics - commanded by a three star general. An oblong with four stars - xxxx - represents an army. This is a formation made up of a number of corps plus support arms and logistics. There is no formal number of divisions in a corps nor a formal number of corps in an army formation. The largest oblongs represent a theatre commander - such as the red oblong at the lower right of the map, below which is the name RUNDSTEDT, the Field Marshal who was OB West - Oberbefehlshaber West - Commander-in-Chief West. On the other side of the Channel at the top centre of the map is a blue oblong with the letters SHAEF which stood for Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force commanded by General Eisenhower.

An open square is a coastal division - infantry though not mobile - and a square with an x inserted is an infantry division. A square with an oblong egg shape inside it means an armoured division. The location of the German Panzer ( armoured ) divisions was so crucial to Allied plans that on this map they are indicated as red bricks. A small red chain ring is a fortified port. The propeller under RUNDSTEDT denotes the Luftwaffe's Third Air Fleet commanded by Sperrle.

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Opposing Forces

By the spring of 1944 the German Army had lost huge numbers of men and vast amounts of equipment fighting in Russia. As a result the infantry divisions had been reduced from three regiments - usually with three battalions - to three regiments of only two battalions leaving an infantry division about 12,000 strong with all its artillery and supporting arms included. Coastal divisions had virtually no transport and were manned by older soldiers, even prisoners of war from the Eastern Front who had swapped sides. The average age of coastal divisions was high, over 36 years, whereas for example, the 12 SS Panzer Hitlerjugend Division were largely teenagers. Coastal divisions and supporting artillery suffered from an assortment of captured weapons and transport from every country defeated by the German Army - from Czech heavy guns to French light tanks - making the supply of ammunition and spare parts a nightmare. 

The German Army was highly innovative and regarded a division as a headquarters with units placed under its command as required therefore the mix of artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft units varied depending on the role of an individual division. A powerful armoured - Panzer - division could hold 200 tanks plus strong artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft ( the latter known as flak ) resulting in over 20,000 men on its strength. The SS was a private army loyal to the Nazi Party and its divisions normally were kept at full strength. The Luftwaffe fielded parachute and air-landing divisions and these too normally were kept at full strength.

Tiger Tank and Assault Gun

Nor did the German Army go in for restrictive practises - engineers would fight as an infantry battalion if required. Weapons such as the famous 88 anti-aircraft gun were dual purpose and frighteningly effective against tanks. Artillery was mounted on tank chassis as assault guns. Panzer divisions were generally near full strength and equipped with tanks that often proved more than a match for the Allies' tanks. One serious handicap for the German armour was the wear on tracks. This meant that tanks and assault guns depended on railways to move forward to the front line.  

An ' 88 ' gun

  German infantry divisions marched and much of their transport was horse drawn. Some battalions were equipped with bicycles. Only the panzer grenadier divisions were fully motorised. Generally, however, the infantry were equipped with many more crew served weapons - mortars and heavy machine guns - and automatic personal weapons than their opponents giving them much greater fire power per infantry soldier. At this stage of the war although the German Army had suffered appalling losses in Russia and North Africa and found it harder to replace these losses, its divisions still benefited from a solid core of combat experienced officers and NCOs. Veteran at mobile warfare the German Army also had a fearsome reputation for dogged defence and shock counter attack.

 

The Allies' reply to the heavier Panzers - A long barrelled 17 pounder gun ' Firefly ' Sherman

In contrast, apart from several veteran divisions brought back from the Mediterranean campaign, most of the Allied troops training in Britain had no previous experience of combat. Battle proven leadership at several command levels, both officers and NCOs, had to spread itself thinly throughout an army that had been training to defeat invasion for two years and then training for another two years to launch an invasion. Fortunately both American and British divisions - and this blanket term includes the Canadians - were at full strength and lavishly equipped with armour, artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, above all motor transport. Special tanks had been designed for the assault landings - Duplex Drive tanks that would swim ashore and 79 Division Royal Engineers owned a whole stable of gadget tanks that would clear minefields, destroy block houses and bunkers with mortars and flame-throwers, fill ditches and bridge gaps, largely the brain children of its commander, Sir Percy Hobart.

 

AVRE - Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers

Clockwise from top left - a fascine anti-tank ditch filler, petard climbing over a bridging sister AVRE, bunker-busting mortar on a petard, finally a flail clearing a minefield.

American divisions consisted of three, sometimes four regiments of three battalions. Apart from the artillery, whether armour, infantry, signals, logistics, medical, the US Army worked as regiments, battalions, companies, platoons. In the British Army what Americans called a regiment in 1944 is still known as a brigade - in fact the US Army nowadays employs the same term. Artillery companies refer to themselves as batteries in both armies but only the British infantry refer to themselves as battalions - the term regiment applies to the ' parent ' of each infantry battalion. Thus the Grenadier Guards could have several battalions and all serving in different brigades and divisions. British teeth and support arms  refer to themselves as regiments, squadrons - other than the artillery - and troops, a troop being the counterpart of a platoon.

AN ARMY FROM THE BOTTOM UPWARDS

Infantry platoons in 1944 divided into three or four sections of about ten soldiers plus a mini-headquarters. Sometimes a heavy weapon crew was added as part of the small headquarters including a signaller and message runner built around the platoon commander, normally an officer though sometimes a sergeant. The infantry section had not changed much during the war and by 1944 in the Allied infantry still consisted of a section leader - corporal - with a light machine gun manned by a crew of two and the remainder riflemen. This allowed the section commander to practise basic fire and movement - employing his machine gun to pin down a hostile position while he led the riflemen in an attack. By 1944 a platoon carried many more automatic weapons. Airborne infantry and commandos were even more heavily armed with automatic weapons to make up for their lack of mortars and comparatively meagre artillery support.

For the invasion the American infantry making the actual landings converted their platoons into assault teams - more akin to the American Rangers and British Commandos - broken down into smaller teams armed with everything from wire cutters to portable flame-throwers. Generally in the US Army four platoons made up a company with a support platoon for heavier weapons and a small headquarters team led by a captain or a major. British companies were similar though usually lacked a support weapons platoon. American battalions consisted of four infantry companies and a support company for crew served weapons and a headquarters company. The British placed their crew served support weapons in the headquarters company.

Normally a lieutenant-colonel commanded a battalion but sometimes a major commanded, particularly in the American Army. An American infantry regiment was usually three battalions and commanded by a full colonel. Three, sometimes four battalions formed an infantry brigade commanded by a brigadier in the British Army. Both armies placed their reconnaissance troops, artillery, engineers, signals, medical corps and logistics units with the divisional command organisation. Divisions were commanded by a major-general and varied from 13,000 in an airborne division to sometimes more than 18,000 in an infantry division. 

Armoured divisions consisted of a single armoured regiment/brigade with one, sometimes two infantry regiments/brigades. An armoured regiment/brigade normally had at least three tank battalions/regiments and an infantry battalion. Divisional headquarters controlled the reconnaissance battalion, supporting self-propelled and towed heavy artillery, engineers, signals, logistics and so forth. 

D DAY

The Americans added strong forces of engineers and other specialists to their assault regiments and called the whole combined force a regimental combat team. These specialist troops would clear the mines and obstacles off the assault beaches to allow the landing craft and follow-up forces safe arrival on the beaches. Regimental combat teams were 4,000 strong, twice the size of its core infantry regiment. For the actual landing the 29th Infantry Division was placed under the command of the 1st Infantry Division - the Big Red One as it is known because of its divisional symbol. The British also placed armoured and infantry brigades and a commando brigade, plus specialist engineer armour and other troops under the command of each individual assault division for the seaborne attack on the invasion beaches. Effectively the two British and the Canadian infantry divisions each came ashore with four brigades of infantry, one armoured brigade plus another brigade of specialist engineers with armour, infantry, and logistics troops to clear the beach for the follow up forces to land. Both the American airborne divisions were strengthened with an additional glider infantry regiment for the airborne assault on the night of D Day.  

 

TRUMP CARDS

 

At left with the Mediterranean Fleet, HMS Rodney firing both her main armament 16 inch guns and secondary 6 inch guns - at right a year later off Normandy shooting at targets near Caen.

Moreover the Allies held two trump cards - command, total and complete, at sea and supremacy in the air. This gave the Allies almost complete freedom of movement and thus the strategic initiative - the Allies could pick where next and when to attack. For the Germans it meant that even weather flights over the Atlantic were a problem, reconnaissance over the south coast of England almost impossible. Worse, the Allies held a third, secret trump card. After the fall of their country in September 1939 the Poles handed over an Enigma code machine to the British in Paris. From that moment onwards the code breaking ' factory ' at Bletchley Park were able to read increasingly more German military coded messages. To add to the German's troubles, all six of their secret agents still at large in the British Isles had been turned around, become double agents, supplying false information to their masters in Germany. That made it much easier for the Allies to mount an effective deception plan.

 

At left a B 24 Liberator, at right the view from the nose of a B 17 Flying Fortress - machine gun visible on left and Norden bomb site at centre.

Hawker Typhoon armed with the cannon and rockets

More than sixty years after the invasion, despite honourable retirement at the RAF Museum, Hendon, North London ( well worth a visit ) this veteran Hawker Typhoon still makes a breathtaking impact with its lines for sheer speed and brute strength.

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OUR VIRTUAL D DAY TOUR HAS LOTS OF PHOTOS OF THE LEGENDARY SITES TODAY

SEE ALSO

CHURCHILL COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE

BRITISH DEFENCE STRATEGY

 THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP                AIRBORNE FORCES                ONE MAN BEHIND THE PLAN

                                                        THEIR FINEST HOUR        TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH         OUR SKY GUIDES          STOP PRESS          OUR TOURS PAGE