Sunday, December 6, 2015

What If D-Day Had Failed?

The Allied amphibious landing in Normady on June 6, 1944, is one of the most legendary military operations of all time and one of the most dramatic events of the Second World War. It has a particular resonance for Americans, for while the British tend to remember their great victory in the skies in the Battle of Britain, we Americans tend to recall our brave men storming ashore on Omaha Beach. Cinematic masterpieces such as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan make this perfectly clear.

The success of the American, British, and Canadian armies on D-Day opened the way for the Allies to liberate France, press into the Low Countries, and ultimately invade Germany itself. It also forced the Germans to pull badly needed units from the Eastern Front and thereby assisted the Soviet Union in its own offensive against the Germans. In the end, the D-Day invasion was one of the most successful operations in military history.

But what if the D-Day landings had failed?

An Allied failure on the Normady beaches was far from impossible. Amphibious landings are among the most tricky of all military operations, requiring nearly perfect planning and a good deal of luck if they are to succeed. As a counterpoint to the success of D-Day, one has only to look at the utter fiasco that was the invasion of Gallipoli during the First World War. In that failed operation, the British, French, and ANZAC troops were contained on the beaches by the Turkish defenders, suffered enormous casualties in several months of fighting, and ultimately had to be evacuated, having achieved none of their objectives. Could the same disaster have befallen the men landing on Normandy in 1944?

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander at Normandy, certainly thought defeat was a possibility. Indeed, he drafted a public letter that was to be released in the event that the invasion failed. Here is the full text:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and placed was based on the best information available. The troops, the air, and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

There were many scenarios in which the Allied invasion of Normandy could have failed. As Eisenhower hints in his letter, the timing of the invasion was crucial. The plan required attacking when there was both a full moon and a spring tide, limiting Eisenhower's options considerably and making the question of the weather conditions paramount. The weather in the English Channel is notoriously unpredictable and played a major role in the planning of the operation. Eisenhower's original plan called for the landings to take place in mid-May. Bad weather forced a postponement. Eisenhower then selected June 5, but again the weather was poor. By ordering the invasion to go forward on June 6, when his meteorologists told him there was a chance of good weather, Eisenhower was taking an enormous gamble.

If the weather had been bad on June 6, the outcome could have been a complete disaster for the Allies. Many of the landing craft were swamped and sank on June 6, carrying many Allied soldiers to a watery grave. If a driving rainstorm had been taking place, this fate would surely have befallen many more. If the seas had been rougher, the soldiers would have had much more difficulty disembarking from their landing craft, making them easy targets for German artillery and machine guns. Air support and naval gunfire, so critical to the success of the operation, would have been greatly hindered by poor visibility if the weather had been poor. Rather than creating successful lodgments on each of the five beaches, the coast of Normandy might have remained in German hands by the end of the day. Even had they succeeded in securing a beachhead in poor weather, the Allied forces would have been considerably weaker in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, leaving them perilously vulnerable to a German counter attack.

Alternately, had Eisenhower blinked and postponed the landing yet again, the next time the lunar and tidal situation would have allowed for a landing was two weeks later. As it turned out, this would have been in the midst of a severe Channel storm which would have certainly led to yet another postponement. If such delays had continued, it would not have been outside the realm of possibility for the entire year of 1944 being lost to the Western Allies.

There are many factors other than the weather, of course. Within striking distance of the Normandy beaches were three powerful German armored formations: the 21st Panzer Division, the 12th SS Panzer Division, and the Panzer Lehr Division. Due to a variety of poor German command decisions, only one of these - the 21st Panzer Division - was actually committed to combat on June 6. Had the Germans reacted quickly and effectively, all three divisions could have been used in a powerful counter attack. This would have posed a very serious problem for the Allies, who had enough trouble getting off the beaches as it was. If combined with a scenario of worse weather, the Allied forces on the beaches might well have been destroyed.

Another major failure of the German high command, most especially of Adolf Hitler himself, was believing that the Allies invasion of France would take place at Pas de Calais, far to the northeast of Normandy. The brilliant Allied deception plan, known as Operation Fortitude, succeeded so amazingly that the Germans continued to believe that Pas de Calais was the true Allied objective even after Operation Overlord had begun. In their minds, the landing in Normandy was merely a diversion. As a result, a powerful Germany army sat quietly around Pas de Calais, awaiting an Allied landing that never came, even as their outnumbered comrades were fighting desperately in Normandy.

Had the Germans realized that the invasion of Normandy was the real deal, whether before or immediately after the landings took place, the Allied forces in Normandy would have been faced with a considerably larger and more powerful Germany army. Considering the difficulties the Allies had historically, this development would have been very grave, indeed.

An Allied failure on D-Day could take one of two forms. The Allies might have had to evacuate the beaches altogether and withdraw their forces to England, which was the scenario Eisenhower envisioned. For the Allies, this would have been a disaster that defied any attempt at description. Alternatively, they might simply have remained trapped in their beachhead. Historically, even after the great success of the June 6 landings, the Allied forces were unable to break out of the Normandy beachhead for nearly two months, during which time they suffered heavy casualties in bloody fighting. If bad weather had disrupted the landing or if the German forces facing them had been stronger, the Allies might have found themselves with a smaller and less defensible beachhead. Could they have been pinned against the beach until winter brought an end to active campaigning for the year? Might they have suffered even heavier casualties than they did historically?

What would have been the consequences of an Allied failure on D-Day?

There can be no doubt whatsoever that Germany would still have lost the Second World War. Defeating the Allied at Normandy would not change the fact that Germany had already lost air superiority over Europe, leaving their cities completely vulnerable to the ever-increasing numbers of American and British bombers. The Western Allies had long since established themselves in Italy and, in August of 1944, invaded southern France. Conceivably, the forces which would have otherwise been allocated to the invasion of Normandy would instead have gone to those two sectors, placing the German forces there under an even greater strain.

There is a further consideration. If the Germans had still been fighting during the summer of 1945, two new Allied weapons would have made their appearance in Europe: the B-29 bomber and the atomic bomb. If the Germans had staved off defeat by winning the battle on the beaches of Normandy, the result might have been German cities being transformed into piles of radioactive rubble a year or so later.

But even if we could wave a magic wand and remove the Americans and British from the war altogether, Germany would still have eventually been crushed by the power of the Soviet Union. It's often forgotten by Westerners, by the biggest German defeat in the summer of 1944 took place not in Normandy, but in Eastern Europe. On June 22, 1944, the Soviets unleashed Operation Bagration, shattering the German Army in the East and bringing the Russians into Poland. The Germans suffered far heavier casualties as a result of Operation Bagration than the did as a result of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Had the Germans defeated the Allies in Normandy, they would certainly have been able to shift much of their army in the West to fight against the Soviets in the East, but it is unlikely that this would have made much of a difference in the end. By 1944, the Soviet war machine dwarfed that of Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union by itself was producing more war material than Germany, the Soviet Air Force had achieved a clear superiority over the Luftwaffe, and the Red Army was fielding vastly greater numbers of troops, tanks, and artillery than were the Germans. Moreover, as the great victories at Stalingrad and Kursk had demonstrated, the Soviet military leadership had become truly formidable.

By 1944, the Soviet Union was perfectly capable of defeating Nazi Germany without the help of the Western Allies. If the Allies had failed in Normandy, the war might have lasted longer and cost more in blood and treasure. But by the summer of 1944, the eventual defeat of Germany was no longer in doubt.

The question we should ask is how far would the Red Army have gotten in Europe had the British and Americans been defeated on D-Day. Rather than stopping at the Elbe as they did historically, could they have gotten to the Rhine, or conceivably all the war to the English Channel? As was proven by actual events, once the Red Army took control of a place, they did not make a habit of leaving it. The Allied soldiers who stormed ashore at Normandy on D-Day might not have realized it, but they were fighting to keep Europe out of Stalin's clutches no less than they were fighting to free it from Hitler's.

If the D-Day landings had failed, Germany would still have gone down to defeat within the next year or so. The defeat might have come at the hands of American B-29s armed with nuclear weapons or at the hands of the Red Army, but it surely would have come. But this is certainly not to say that the sacrifices of the men who fought in Normandy were meaningless, for their brilliant success undoubtedly shortened the way by many months and thereby saved innumerable lives. They prevented Europe from falling to the dark forces of Soviet Communism and, perhaps ironically, saved unknown numbers of German cities from suffering the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And for that, the world will forever be in their debt.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the Iron Curtain might well have been the English Channel. Would we have ended up using atomic bombs against the Soviets in Europe? Or a Paris airlift? I love considering alternative outcomes. My favorite is the Battle of Midway, the outcome of which essentially determined the course of the war in the Pacific, and was determined by where the most clouds were that day. The American planes sighted the Japanese carriers under broken skies, while the Japanese planes missed the American carriers under an overcast.