Seventy-one years ago, the British, Canadians, and Americans landed on the Normandy beaches to open a second ground front against Nazi Germany.
Operation Overlord — the Allied invasion of Western Europe — proved the largest amphibious operation in military history, dwarfing even Xerxes’s Persian invasion of Greece in 480 B.C.
Brilliant planning, overwhelming naval support, air superiority, and high morale ensured the successful landing of 160,000 troops on the first day — at a cost of about 4,000 dead.
Three weeks after the June 6 landings, nearly a million Allied soldiers were ashore, heading eastward through France. Hitler’s once-formidable Third Reich seemed on the verge of collapse.
On the Eastern Front, the German army was imploding under the weight of 5 million advancing infantrymen of Russia’s Red Army. At the same time, Allied four-engine bombers, with superb long-range fighter escorts, at last were beginning to destroy German transportation and fuel infrastructure.
Yet Hitler held off for another eleven bloody months. Why?
What followed the D-Day landings was as confused as the initial assault was superbly carried out. Planners had underestimated the impassable terrain of the French boscage — dense thickets planted along huge earthen berms — just miles beyond the American-sector beaches.
It would take most of June and early July for the stalled Americans to cut through the nearly impassable, well-defended hedgerows.
The stalled Allied armies had given time for the arrival of crack German Panzer reinforcements to bottle up the invaders. Finally, the Allies broke out with the help of massive carpet-bombing of German positions some six weeks after D-Day.
Unfortunately, the command structure of the Allied invasion force was topsy-turvy. The swashbuckling U.S. general George S. Patton — in the doghouse for the slapping of ill GIs a year earlier during the Sicily campaign — came to Normandy late. His superb Third Army was relegated to a supporting role and assigned the longest route into Germany.
In contrast, the professional (but slow and methodical) General Bernard Montgomery won the pivotal position in the north to break through to the Ruhr on the shortest path into the Third Reich.
Meanwhile, U.S. general Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Forces, and his subordinates, generals Omar Bradley and Courtney Hodges, were reconciled to a slow, incremental slog through France along a broad front.
Patton, however, would have none of it. By early August, the Third Army was unleashed and off to the races — in a series of brilliant armored outflanking movements that encircled and bypassed stunned German divisions.
Taking great risks, the mercurial Patton outsourced the protection of his flanks to the U.S. Air Force. Patton plowed ahead, seeking to stun, bewilder, and collapse German resistance.
It almost worked. The Third Army “rolled” with Patton right through France to near the largely unguarded German border. An exuberant American media dreamed that the war in the West might be over by autumn 1944.
Hundreds of thousands of trapped Germans either surrendered or were killed by Allied pincers. British and American fighters blanketed the skies above nearly 2 million Allied soldiers, most of them motorized and protected by thousands of tanks and artillery pieces.
But then the wondrous American August came abruptly to an end.
Allied planners had never found a way to recapture intact the key French ports on the Atlantic Coast from besieged German defenders.
The farther Patton and other Allied armies advanced from the beaches, almost 400 miles away, the longer their supply lines grew — and the easier it became for the enemy to support its own retreating forces.
Shorter late-summer days, inclement weather, mounting casualties, supply shortages, and the need to help liberate occupied France all slowed down the once-rapid American advance.
The farther Patton and other Allied armies advanced from the beaches, the longer their supply lines grew — and the easier it became for the enemy to support its own retreating forces.
In an unwise move, Eisenhower in early September had diverted gasoline and ammunition from the American sector to Montgomery’s theater. Montgomery, in a risky gambit, planned to leapfrog across the Rhine from Holland into the German Ruhr Valley, hoping to paralyze Germany’s industrial heartland and end the war outright.
The result, however, was the disastrous Operation Market Garden, or “A Bridge Too Far, catastrophe.
Meanwhile, Patton’s advance sputtered by early September and ran out of gas. The Third Army, like other American forces, prepared for a mostly static war near the German border for the next six months.
The American nightmares of fighting in the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge lay ahead, as the war eventually turned into a World War I-style bloodbath until March 1945. The stalled Allies would lose more casualties from autumn 1944 to the end of the war than they had in the rapid advance from Normandy to the German border.
But for a brief moment in August 1944, everything seemed possible, as the American military had never experienced a breakthrough quite like George Patton’s roll through German-occupied France 71 years ago this summer.
© 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
25 thoughts on “Could World War II Have Ended Sooner than It Did?”
Wow, an excitingly written summary of the American involvement in WWII European Campaign. And unfortunately for many, the US Army hamstrung by ‘political correctness’ and fairness in dealing with Allies. Using Patton as a decoy prior to the landings is great strategy. Relegating him to a back up role at a critical time is just wrong. You always give the ball to the guy who you know will do what it takes to win. In this case, it was the opposite of dropping the nuclear bomb on Japan. It was pulling your punches and doing the nice thing and letting the Brits have their tea time. No disrespect meant to the fine British soldiers, but ego stroking the likes of Monte is a bit much when you are on the home stretch and we could have shut out the Rooskies at the same time from the nightmare that became a divided Berlin and the cold war. But I guess other considerations like post war Presidential runs and dividing up the spoils of war still needed time to be worked out, didn’t they?
Always give the ball to the one who knows how to win? Remember the Seahawk on the 1 yard line, 2nd down, seconds left on the clock. Do they give the ball to the best runner in the league. Ah, no.
How about Sherman’s “march to the sea” ?
Why didn’t Eisenhower pivot on the British with Patton’s third army the center gravity? Politics and personalities are often bring down military logic.
“The Great Apologist”
Your WWII reminder calls to mind yesterday’s news of the State Department (read “Whitehouse”) decision to accelerate in to the month of June – any and all U.S. celebration or recognition of the Fourth of July in the Phillipine islands. I read the article to mean we (America) did not want to interfere or demean the celebration of a month of Ramadan.
This is insane. Perhaps the Phillipine islands should be sending love and kisses to us in remembrance of the American lives lost at Corregidor, the Bataan Death March and, later, the return of the American army led by MacArthur – a colossal investment to free them of Japanese occupation.
Who, in God’s name, is running our State Department. Whoever it is – they need to apologize for their disrespect of those who died saving the Phillipines (so they can celebrate Ramadan 70 years later) in a largely “free” country. Have we become a nation without a spine? Should we exit the Phillipines and apologize for our presence?
Would Patten go through ISIS like (you know what) through a goose? Or be fired for urinating on a river of lies?
War is a bloody business and should be fought accordingly. General Slim was a much more dynamic leader than Montgomery. He was flexible and aggressive, a great example of a modern British general. But they dont make war leaders like Patton and Slim anymore. On the other hand, Petraeus was an excellent general who was able to be aggressive and maintain political correctness at the same time.
I just finished reading “The Soul of Battle”. I enjoyed your book, and the stories of Epaminondas, Sherman, and Patton. History is interesting, and Eisenhower and Bradley were a lot less than what history portrays.
I also just read a book about Lasker. Would love to hear your take on him.
An opportune and problematic occasion, whether civil or military, usually creates enough vacuum to draw in a person capable of working it to the full. Success requires a leadership smart enough to recognize both the occasion and that person and allow the two to meet head on. That leadership does not exist at the highest levels today……..but the problematic occasion certainly does.
Patton was not very good on logistics and it showed when he reached Germany. He was marginally better than Bradley, Hodges, Eisenhower, Clark and MacArthur but that’s like saying someone is smarter than George W Bush. It’s a pretty low standard.
Of course the war was won on the Eastern Front by the Russians who killed far more Germans than the Western allies, whose unit for units could not match the German. But we all knew Hanson would ignore that.
Actually, Patton was brilliant at logistics – he practically created the “red ball highway” – a near continuous conveyor belt of trucks rolling to where they were needed.
He was also an early and extraordinarily effective advocate of combined arms operations, working hand-in-glove with tactical air units in a way that no one outside of the United States Marine Corp – with their own integral air force – ever did during WWII
As an aside – the snark at Bush was just stupid – one could just as easily note that all available test scores and 3rd party measurements pretty clearly indicate Bush was more intelligent than John Kerry or Barry Obama – but as noted above, this would not be a very high bar to clear
A big factor in why Ike in early Sept ’44 diverted gas & ammo from the American sector to Montgomery (and his risky “bridge too far gambit” gambit) was the V-2.
“Beginning in September 1944, over 3,000 V-2s were launched by the German Wehrmacht against Allied targets during the war, firstly London and later Antwerp and Liège. According to a 2011 BBC documentary, the attacks resulted in the deaths of an estimated 9,000 civilians and military personnel…”
Source, Wikipedia article for V-2 rocket
So each V-2 killed 3 people? Hardly an endorsement for this weapon.
“” Gov. moonbeam on drought..”” from breitbart. Quote– state could accommodate as many as 10 million more people in the coming years.. The Cali dream is being flushed down a waterless toilet. Weaknesses of democratic rule, Neel Kashkari or the Brown turd.
I guess a contemporary Soviet battle report form would not even have a checkbox to record casualties in the mere thousands. The D-Day landing picked the low-casualty coast. That was far away from where it mattered. North of the Rhein-Maas-Waal river-delta is where an invasion is effective. I see two alternatives if one actually had wanted to end the war quicker, say with a Red Army flavor.
1) Use all possible air cover and accept ten times more casualties landing troops along the coast from Hoek van Holland to Zandvoort. That invasion target would also accept the possible destruction of most major Dutch cities. On the other hand there would be not a single bridge, close or too far, between that part of Holland and the industrail West of Germany.
2) Forget liberating France, parades through Paris and all this romantic stuff. Instead have the Western Allies join the Red Army via the Baltic coast cutting off a million of German refugees trying to make it back into Western Germany. That would have demonstrated to the German infantry-man that sustaining the fight would be suicidal. This option is deliberate warfare against civilians.
Had a Dutch friend comment about Arnhem. He says the anniversary of a Bridge too Far is still a big deal in Holland, as every year since the failure of operation Market Garden Dutch children have layed flowers on the graves of the Allied soldiers who died trying to liberate Holland from the Nazis.
He also gave a shout out to a Canadian soldier named Léo Major and his amazing heroics. Major is credited with single-handedly liberating the Dutch town of Zwolle using bluff and shear courage and skill to overcome a much larger German force. He also single-handedly captured a German armoured vehicle shortly after D-Day that contained valuable intelligence.
I think we all owe Léo Major and all the other Allied servicemen an eternal debt of gratitude.
Hopefully when a boots on the ground WW3 comes around the Russian Army will be with us, again.
Re: Patton at the ‘almost’ end of the war..
You know as far as a personality the guy with the pistol could be a firecracker. All he wanted was action to be executed and quickly to give the enemy no time to rest.
It’s probably an understatement to say the general was irascible and could rub people the wrong way. But there’s one thing we can’t criticize him for and that’s acute and brilliant observation of our enemies.
So he read the Russians right perhaps better than the politicians who arguably got caught in negotiations of the post-war map. He knew what they were after and what they would become as the war ended. Curious what would have happened if he lived. I don’t think he would have kept his mouth shut.
Ol’ Monty was (at best) a mediocre commander, a self-serving, arrogant lying SOB (sound familiar?) who never should have been put in charge of anything larger than a regiment. Market-Garden was always a fool’s errand. One road (1…only 1…) to supply all ground firepower and logistical support for the entire mission? A blind man could have read the maps and called that one. After that debacle he should have been relieved of duty by Churchill.
Ike’s biggest blunder in the entire ETO was to cave to British sensibilities and allowing this craven bastard free range and, as a result, lengthened the war by at least six months and got a huge number of brave Americans captured, wounded and killed (not to mention allowing the Communists to take over the entirety of Eastern Europe for the next 50 years).
George Patton should have been taken out of cold storage at least a month sooner, given all the support, ammo and gas he needed to go balls-out to Berlin and end the war. (BTW, this also would have freed us up to shift resources the the Pacific sooner and thereby end that war quicker as well.) The blood of all those Americans, not to mention the Brits, Canadians, Poles and all the civilians is forever on the hands of Ike, Marshall and, most especially, FDR for failing to stand against Churchill. I, for one, will never forgive them.
Montgomery was not ‘allowed free range’. His plan for a thrust into Germany in August 1944 would almost certainly have won the war. Instead Eisenhower, a far inferior strategist, choose the foolish ‘wide front’ advance, which guaranteed that the war would not end in 1944. Eisenhower made the wrong decision, Montgomery was right. Americans will never forgive Montgomery for being a better soldier than Eisenhower.
Professor VDH, thank you for mentioning the Canadians. After the Normandy breakout the Canadians had the dirty job of clearing the Channel ports. Hitler designated each Channel port as a “fortress” that could not be surrendered. The Germans fought ferociously and held out at Le Havre, Boulogne and Calais into September. Even after capture it took extensive clearance and repair to make use of these small ports. The jetties were in ruins, the towns were heavily mined, they had suffered thousands of civilian deaths in the bombing and bombardments, and the Germans had sunk ships to block sea access.
Each side knew that logistics was vital. After the failure of “Operation Market Garden” the big prize became Antwerp, whose massive dock facilities would solve Allied supply problems. However, it was not enough to capture the city; the Allies had to clear the sea approaches and Walcheren Island. The geography of the region did not suit armor (low lying and flooded flat land bisected by canals). Our tanks were easy targets on the dykes. As autumn rains pelted them, Canadian and British infantry (augmented by Polish, Czech, French, Dutch, Belgian and Norwegian units) had to slog it out in horrendous conditions reminiscent of the First World War. Half the casualties in the Battle of the Scheldt were Canadian soldiers. The estuary then had to be cleared of sea mines. The first large cargo ship docked at Antwerp on November 28th.
The sacrifices made by the Canadian Army in clearing the Channel ports in 1944 must be remembered as a key component of the Allied Victory in Europe.
I think the campaign in France in 1944 demonstrates stupidity on both sides.
With the break-out from Normandy, the collapse of the Falais pocket and the re-capture of Paris, the Allies clearly became too wrapped up in the euporia of victory and seriously underestimated the tenacity of the Germans. Most military blunders can be put down to either arrogance, bureacracy or complacency. Clearly that’s what happened here.
The folly on the German side was at a deeper level. In retrospect, the Germans would have spared themselves decades of misery if they had thrown everything into holding the line against the Soviet hordes and simply waived the American / Commonwealth armies through. If the latter had taken the surrender of Berlin, while the Soviets were still slugging it out (say) in Poland, the defeat of Germany would not have been as abject as it was. (Instead, the lunatic corporal decided to fight down to the last man, so as to prove something – who knows what? Or perhaps, he had a vague hope that some last-minute turn of events might save him in the same way that Fredrick the Great escaped defeat upon the death of the Russian Empress.)
This leads me to a broader subject. One of the problems of history, as a field of study, is that it tends towards the glorification of the various leaders who strut the stage at the relevant time. Perhaps that’s caused by the incentive to sell books!? I don’t know. I suspect, however, that if historians spent more time analysing the often faulty decision-making of those heroes, it would be a lot more instructive for those of us who want to avoid the errors of the past.
Infidel is right. In addition Patton and others did not want to replace the M4 deathtraps. Single Panthers and Tigers would wipeout complete tank companies at one engagement. How much longer was the war because of the lost trained tank crews? Arrogant US generals would not demand M4 fireflies or Russian T34s (I wonder how much the US knew about T34s?). If Patton had Monte’s assignment and M26’s I believe there would not have been a Battle of the Bulge. The German High Command might have killed Hitler and surrendered Berlin to us if they believed that we would let the Russians take Berlin. We will never know.
Patton was an effective general and a strong leader, but he disgraced himself when he slapped two soldiers in an Army hospital suffering from what we today would diagnose as PTSD. From my training as a nurse, I was taught always to be an advocate for my patients, so I find Patton’s behavior particularly disgusting. Had I been there, he would have had to have gotten past me first before he put his hands on one of my patients.
PTSD is real and can affect even the toughest special ops “meat eater.”
For my psyche clinical, I worked with vets at American Lake, WA. Many of them had endured serious combat trauma and needed help. For example, one of my patients was a young man in his mid-20’s who had been both physically and psychologically injured in a roadside ambush in Afghanistan. He had watched all of his buddies die and recounted to me having to pick up their body parts for identification and burial. This incident had caused him to have repeated nightmares, extreme anxiety r/t survivor’s guilt which had led to suicide attempts and opioid, nicotine and alcohol abuse. His wife had also left him and he had been homeless. After completing the six month in patient Tx program and the two year out patient therapy and counseling which had also included job training and drug rehabilitation he was able to deal with the past and move on with his life. Sadly, his success story was more the exception than the rule, as many of the Vets in the program suffering from PTSD were what are known as “frequent flyers” or returning patients who just can’t cope in the real world for very long.
He may have been a great military tactician and an otherwise fine officer, but these two incidents showed Patton to be an ignorant bully lacking any sense of compassion or empathy for someone else’s suffering.
I am surprised by your account of the 1944 French campaign. You ignore the heated debate with Patten and Montgomery on one side and Eisenhower on the other between the ‘broad front’ approach ordered by Eisenhower and Montgomery’s preferred narrow thrust into Germany. With hindsight it is clear that a broad front approach was always going to fail to make any breakthrough into Germany and was going to be heavily restricted by supply limitations, whereas a narrow thrust would have a high probability of breaking into the Ruhr and ending the war in 1944.
The sad reality is that on this matter Eisenhower was both strategically very limited and also constrained by the political issue of a narrow thrust coming from the sector the Canadians and British were based in rather than the American sector. Very petty and sad.
I know Americans can’t bear the man but history shows that Montgomery was right and Eisenhower was wrong.
According to the book “War as I Knew It, which was compiled after Patton’s death from his diary and letters home, Patton at the time thought he could have won the war if he was given the gasoline — or at least reach the Rhine a lot sooner than turned out to be the case. I’ve never seen any serious historical analysis, in either of the two biographies I have read about him, whether or not he might have been right.