British Sky Tours

                  

 

 

 

***  OVERLORD  ***

 

 Anyone taking our Normandy sky tour finds it helpful to have an idea of the scale of Operation Overlord. Their Finest Hour and The Special Relationship, Map Table and One Man behind the Plan 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. 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 their time with us all the more worthwhile and enjoyable.

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Two weeks after Pearl Harbour Roosevelt and Churchill met in Washington with their Chiefs of Staff. They reached two far reaching decisions. The first was that the whole military and economic resources of both nations should be pooled under the direction of a common command, the Combined Chiefs of Staff. The US Joint Chiefs voted General Marshall as their chairman, the British chiefs voted Field Marshal Alan Brooke as theirs. Both posts were informal, the incumbents' only authority the great respect of their fellow service chiefs.

The second decision was an Allied strategy. Only a fortnight before on Sunday morning the 7 December 1941 without warning the Japanese had attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour causing the loss of many American lives. Despite this extreme danger from the Pacific a strategy was drawn up to keep the Japanese at bay and as the priority supply and strengthen the British Isles until an invasion of Occupied Europe could open a path for the defeat of Germany.

Hanging over the Combined Chiefs was the very real possibility of a collapse of all Russian resistance. With such a catastrophe would come the very real threat that German and Japanese territorial expansion would meet, either in India or Iran.  Already the German armies were only a few miles from Moscow. Stalin repeatedly demanded that the Allies open a second front. Thus a landing somewhere in Europe was urgent to take some of the pressure off Russia. Constantly aware of this fearful prospect and of the Allies' awesome responsibility for a civilised future, General Marshall went so far as to propose a landing in France during 1942 as a sacrifice to keep Russia fighting. Even if a small bridgehead was established, perhaps it could be expanded the following year. This plan became known as Sledgehammer - however, for the moment there were nowhere near enough landing craft to carry out any such major operation.

At first 1942 brought disaster after disaster. Out in the Atlantic the U boats sank record numbers of Allied ships. Malaya and Singapore fell to the Japanese with catastrophic losses of troops and two of the Royal Navy's most powerful ships. Japan next seized the Dutch East Indies - modern Indonesia. The Philippines were captured with great loss of American lives and General McArthur forced to leave the islands although with a Napoleonic promise to return. Now the United States desperately fought to block the Japanese advances while British Empire was squeezed from both sides. A combined German and Italian Army under General Rommel attacked British held Egypt from the deserts of North Africa.  Supplies for India, Australia and New Zealand sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and Africa because the British Mediterranean Fleet had to fight every convoy through ferocious air and U boat attacks to reach Malta and Egypt. Although the Germans had not taken Moscow their southern group of armies pressed eastward towards Stalingrad and ultimately the oil wells beside the Caspian Sea.

The more the British studied the problem the more convinced they became that an Anglo-American landing should take place in North Africa. This would clear the whole southern coast of the Mediterranean and allow an invasion of Europe from the south. General Marshall still believed that only an attack across the Channel would help Russia and suggested the Cherbourg peninsular as an objective. This plan became known as Roundup.

The Americans in turn concluded that the British had become over cautious after suffering a row of defeats. Neither Marshall nor Fleet Admiral King had any experience of amphibious operations nor of the German military strength. Marshall was also very conscious that the United States was raising the largest army in its history and politically that army could not stand idle in training camps. The American public might not support a holding action against Japan if there was no aggressive move against Germany. When the British turned down Sledgehammer only Roosevelt's insistence on Hitler first and Churchill's advocacy of a North African landing - by now called Torch - kept the Allies on course. Torch, argued Churchill, was essential before any landing in France. By clearing the coast of North Africa, followed by invasion of Southern Europe with surrender of the Italian fleet, the Allies would reopen the shortest route to the Indian Ocean and a million tons of shipping would be freed for other tasks.

Marshall and King were still not convinced and tried to persuade Roosevelt to change his mind. News of the disastrous raid on Dieppe that August when despite their bravery the Canadians suffered heavy losses, proved beyond doubt that no fortified Channel port could be taken by direct assault with the resources available in 1942.

A turn of the tide changed the Allies' fortunes. At sea in the Atlantic through a combination of code-breaking and imaginative tactics the U boats were beginning to suffer significant losses. Apart from the Royal Navy and US Navy at this time the Royal Canadian Navy was third largest in the world. In the Pacific the US Navy revenged Pearl Harbour with two great victories over the Imperial Japanese Navy at Coral Sea and Midway. The RAF and USAAF were bombing Germany night and day, at that point in the war the only means the Allies had to bring their strength into the enemy's own backyard. In the Western Desert the Germans and Italians were defeated by the British Eighth Army led by General Montgomery.

Operation Torch commanded by General Eisenhower was a success although the American's found their baptism of fire against the Germans much tougher than anticipated. With North Africa clear of the enemy Roosevelt and Churchill met with their combined staffs in Casablanca. This time there was consensus - the momentum should be exploited and an invasion of Sicily launched during summer 1943, code-named Husky. There was less agreement on where to go after Sicily.

The Americans greatly admired Churchill for his courage and imagination but always wondered where he was leading them. With some justice they regarded the British chiefs as cautious and lacking imagination. America had not suffered the loss of a generation during the First World War. America's manpower and industry were coming onto the battlefield and despite a bloody nose from Rommel at the Kasserine Pass the Americans believed that ultimately might would prevail and the Allies could smash a path into Germany. Rarely enjoying superiority in men and materials, the British won their victories by manoeuvre, subtlety, deception. Churchill wanted to invade Italy and draw as many German troops as possible away from the Channel coast before an invasion was attempted. He also worried about the future of Europe after victory, convinced that Stalin would occupy any countries he ' liberated ' and most of Eastern Europe fall to the Communists. On the last day of January 1943 the German 6th Army had surrendered at Stalingrad.

General Marshall saw value after capturing Sicily in going as far as Sardinia but no further. He wanted enough shipping and landing craft available for landing in Southern France as well as the Channel coast. Only the shortest route to Germany would end the war quickly. However, Marshal regarded the capture of Marseilles as essential for resolving the eventual demands for fuel, ammunition and supplies during an advance from France into Germany. General Eisenhower had displayed a knack for holding together a coalition force and was the natural choice as commander for the invasion of Sicily.

Operation Husky went ahead on the 9/10 July 1943. The glider and parachute landings went badly due to high winds and jumpy gunners on the Allied fleet. The seaborne assault by eight divisions of Americans, British and Canadians along 80 miles of coast involved landing some 150,000 on the first day and following two days. The British naval task force was commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay who had masterminded the Dunkirk evacuation three years earlier. Allied superiority in the air was so great that the enemy withdrew its bombers and fighters to the Italian mainland.

Two more landings followed: Salerno in September 1943 and Anzio just south of Rome in January 1944. It had taken six months fighting to advance half way up the leg of Italy. What Churchill described as the ' soft under belly of Europe ' was proving a lot tougher than expected, making the Americans even less inclined to keep forces in Italy for an attack through the Ljubljana Gap in northern Yugoslavia towards Vienna and Budapest. 

Back in January at Casablanca  General Morgan ( British ) and Brigadier-General Barker ( US ) had been appointed to plan for a cross Channel invasion. Morgan's title was Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander ( Designate ) otherwise known as COSSAC and he was tasked with setting up a headquarters for the eventual supreme commander and drawing up an outline plan for the invasion of North West Europe from the United Kingdom.

Their first meeting took place on the 17 April 1943. During the next weeks they produced their first blueprint. The plan called for two airborne brigades and three seaborne divisions to land on day one with two more divisions in landing craft ready for immediate follow-up. Morgan was restricted to planning with the resources that would be available on the day, rather than the resources he felt essential for success. Already the planners were looking at the coast of Normandy. There are a number of very good reasons for this choice although other stretches of the northern coast of France are more suitable on both tactical and strategic grounds; if anything, better suited for an invasion over the open beaches. Although the margin between success and failure looked narrow for the plan, at Quebec in August 1943 the Combined Chiefs of Staff adopted the COSSAC plan with 1 May 1944 as the target date for D Day.

Not until December 1943 was General Eisenhower appointed as Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force - SHAEF - with Air Chief Marshal Sir Aurthur Tedder as Deputy Supreme Commander and General Walter Bedell Smith as Chief of Staff. General Sir Bernard Montgomery was appointed Commander Land Forces during the invasion phase until SHAEF moved from London to the European mainland. The naval commander was Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay with Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory as Commander Allied Expeditionary Air Forces. Ramsay had masterminded the 1940 evacuation of the British Army off the Dunkirk beaches. A brilliant staff officer, Ramsay had organised the North African landings and commanded the Eastern Task Force for the invasion of Sicily. During the summer of 1943 he was a natural choice for masterminding the naval task for Operation Overlord. Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian RN and Rear Admiral A G Kirk USN commanded the two task forces.

Leigh Mallory had commanded 12 Group during the Battle of Britain and the fighter squadrons that fought over Dieppe and had a great deal of experience giving the Army support from the air. None-the-less the bomber commanders, British and American, proved reluctant to place their squadrons under Eisenhower's direct command. They argued that the bombing campaign over Germany took priority until D Day was imminent. Eisenhower managed to thrash out a compromise that allowed his staff to direct bombing operations in support of D Day during the months leading up the invasion.

  Throughout the months leading to D Day plans were modified, sometimes significantly, because Field Marshal Rommel, newly appointed by Hitler, constantly improved the defences on the other side of the Channel. There were disagreements among the German generals how best to thwart invasion, starting with its most probable landfall on the French coast.  Language influences the logic and this played an intriguing part as did Hitler's style of command. We go into all this on the Normandy D day tour.

Forget what you may have seen in the movies. During the months before D Day General Eisenhower led a strong and loyal team. Both he and Montgomery believed that a three division landing was far too narrow for reasons which we'll show you from the air. The final plan called for a landing consisting of three airborne divisions - one British and two American - with six divisions making the seaborne assault, two British, one Canadian, and three American Divisions. More divisions were in the immediate follow-up. Once a beachhead was established a race would begin between the Allies and the Germans to bring more divisions ashore and more divisions into battle. One of Montgomery's main criticisms of the earlier plan was that it did not anticipate how the battle would develop once the Allies were ashore and gained a foothold on the Continent.

The American Divisions landing from the sea belonged to the US First Army commanded by General Omar Bradley who had served under General Patton for Operation Torch. Bradley commanded the US VII Corps for Sicily. He was popular with his troops and by this time a seasoned commander. For D Day the two US Airborne Divisions and Ranger Groups also came under the First US Army. Their airlift or sky train was provided by General Lewis Brereton's Ninth US Air Force and 46 Group RAF. General Omar Bradley lived to his nineties' and became the last of the great wartime commanders still alive. One of his last public appearances was to ride past cheering crowds in the motorcade of President Ronald Reagan's first inaugural parade.

The British and Canadian divisions for the seaborne and airborne landings along with the Commando brigades were commanded by General Sir Nigel Dempsey as Second British Army. These US and British Commonwealth armies formed 21st Army Group under Montgomery.

One of the most complex tasks was selecting the date and exact timings of D Day. Tide, moon, weather records, the enemy defences all had to be put into the equation. Individual leaders at all levels then had to make their own plans. Young sailors, soldiers and airmen had to learn their tasks. Numerous rehearsals were performed, from glider attacks at night to swimming tanks ashore in broad daylight. Special landing craft, amphibious vehicles, obstacle busting tanks and a brilliant deception plan were all required to gain a foothold on the Continent and begin Occupied Europe's liberation. General George Patton applied himself with customary energy and flamboyance to his role as the ' real ' invasion commander, inspecting troops all over Kent, thereby convincing the German staff that the invasion would come at the narrow straits between Dover and Calais.

During the flight-seeing part of the tour we give you an understanding of this deception plan, the invasion tasks and the logic behind them by examining the objectives inland and along the coast and the strength of the defence. Once on the ground we explore what happened at key objectives and crucial moments on D Day. We delve into what went right and what went wrong, for both sides, and the reasons why. There are lessons for any leader or manager today.

Industry on both sides of the Atlantic, up against a deadline, struggled to provide enough landing craft for the Pacific and Europe. There were shortages of transport aircraft. Imaginative projects such as the Mulberry Harbours and Pluto - pipe-lines under the ocean - demanded their share of materials and engineering skills.

The figures give perspective - the final plan involved landing on the first two days 176,475 men and 20,111 vehicles, including 3000 guns, 1500 tanks, and 5000 other armoured vehicles. On the day the air plan would involve 13,743 sorties by all types of aircraft. The naval plan was for the largest fleet in history - still not surpassed - with 143 warships from the Royal Navy, 46 from the US Navy and 11 from the Allied navies. No fewer than 6047 landing craft were available for D Day, more than half from the Royal Navy. The warships included 7 battleships, 2 monitors, 27 cruisers and 164 destroyers.

When Eisenhower outlined the plan to the British Prime Minister, Churchill said to him, ' If by the winter you have a bridgehead from the mouth of the Seine to Cherbourg and the Brittany Peninsula, and you have 36 divisions ashore, I'll consider it a victory, and if you have Le Havre as well I'll consider it decisive.'

' By Christmas,' replied Eisenhower,' we shall be on the Rhine.'

 

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

SEE ALSO

ONE MAN BEHIND THE PLAN

AIRBORNE FORCES

CHURCHILL COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE

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