British 2nd Army on D-Day

British 2nd Army on D-Day

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The D-Day Companion, ed. Jane Penrose. A selection of thirteen separate essays on different aspects of the D-Day lands, from the initial planning to post-war memorials; this is an excellent piece of work that sets the D-Day landings firmly in context. An excellent starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about Operation Overlord, but its wide range of topics means it is likely to be of value to anyone with an interest in the subject. [see more]

Rudder’s Rangers and the Boys of Pointe du Hoc: The U.S. Army Rangers’ Mission in the Early Morning Hours of 6 June 1944

Pointe du Hoc, a prominent position along the coast of Normandy, was a focal point of the amphibious assault by U.S. forces during the early morning hours of D-Day, 6 June 1944. The cliff top (sometimes referred to as Pointe du Hoe) is located between Utah and Omaha Beaches and sits atop overhanging cliffs up to 100 feet in height. The careful and thorough planning of the Normandy invasion determined that several key missions would require painstakingly accurate execution in order for the invasion to go as planned, and one of those missions was the capture of Pointe du Hoc. As such, Allied planners named Pointe du Hoc one of the most dangerous German defensive positions on the Norman coast.

Early on in the war, following their defeat of France in June 1940 and occupation of the northern part of the country, the Germans came to understand the strategic importance of Pointe du Hoc. As a part of their defensive system along the Norman coast known as the Atlantic Wall and established under the direction of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Germans installed a battery of 155mm guns on top of the cliff. The guns had a range of approximately 20,000 yards and could cover both Utah and Omaha Beaches with artillery fire. Defended by elements of the 716th and 352d Infantry Divisions, along with artillerymen, Pointe du Hoc became a heavily fortified bastion for the Wehrmacht that threatened the lives of the thousands of American soldiers who would soon be landing on the nearby beachheads.

Understanding the perils and vital importance of the landing beaches along the coast of Normandy, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff planning Operation OVERLORD assigned the Rangers of the 2d and 5th Ranger Battalions, under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder and organized into the Provisional Ranger Group, the mission of destroying the enemy positions on the cliff top. Unbeknownst to Allied planners, the Germans failed to believe that U.S. military command would consider the cliff top accessible by sea. The Americans, however, considered it an accessible assault point and reasoned that with a well-trained force, soldiers could land on the narrow beaches below at low tide and ascend the cliffs with the assistance of ropes and ladders. When Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley told Rudder of the assignment, the Ranger officer could not believe what he had heard, but he understood the importance of the mission at hand. In his memoir, A Soldier’s Story, Bradley wrote, “No soldier in my command has ever been wished a more difficult task than that which befell the thirty-four-year-old Commander of this Provisional Ranger Force.” An intelligence officer on the staff of Rear Admiral John L. Hall, the commander of naval forces supporting the landings at Omaha, claimed that the mission could not be accomplished by the Rangers, adding that, “Three old women with brooms could keep the Rangers from climbing that cliff.”

On D-Day, Rudder and his force from the 2d Ranger Battalion, made up of 225 soldiers, along with Lieutenant Colonel Max Schneider and the 5th Ranger Battalion in support, would carry out the mission to scale these cliffs before dawn on that fateful day and neutralize enemy positions atop Pointe du Hoc. Rudder, who had commanded the 2d Ranger Battalion since its activation on 1 April 1943 at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, was largely responsible for developing the plan for his Rangers on D-Day. (The 1st through 4th Ranger Battalions were officially redesignated as Ranger Infantry Battalions on 1 August 1943.) The plan called for the use of a force consisting of three separate elements in the form of Force A, B, and C. Force A consisted of Companies D, E, and F, 2d Ranger Battalion, and would land just below Point du Hoc. The assault teams would come ashore in a group of nine British-crewed Landing Craft Assault (LCA) boats carrying twenty-two men each. LCAs 668 and 858 would carry Company D. LCAs 861, 862, 888, and 722 would transport Company E and Rudder’s command element, while Company F would occupy LCAs 887, 884, and 883. In addition to the LCAs, four DUKW amphibious vehicles equipped with extension ladders, acquired from the London Fire Department, would accompany Force A.

Companies E and F would land on the eastern side of Pointe du Hoc Company D would land on the west. Additionally, a twelve-man fire-support group comprised of U.S. Navy personnel and a forward observer from the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion would accompany Rudder’s headquarters. Lieutenant Colonel Schneider, with the 5th Ranger Battalion and Companies A and B, 2d Ranger Battalion (Force C) were to remain offshore for approximately thirty minutes until they received a signal from Rudder’s force ordering them to follow Rudder’s assault team ashore. In the event that Rudder’s mission to capture the guns atop Pointe du Hoc failed, it would become the mission of Schneider’s force to capture the position. To accomplish such a task, Schneider would send Companies A and B, 2d Ranger Battalion, and the 5th Ranger Battalion to the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach, behind Company A, 116th Infantry, 29th Infantry Division, and Company C, 2d Ranger Battalion. After landing, Schneider and his force would take Pointe du Hoc via an overland attack.

Force B, led by Captain Ralph Goranson and comprised of Company C, 2d Ranger Battalion, had its own unique mission. The plan was for Company C to land on Omaha Charlie beach, located to the right of where the 116th would be landing. Upon reaching Omaha, Force B would climb the cliffs of Pointe de la Percée. Like Pointe du Hoc, Pointe de la Percée played host to German strongpoints and required the Rangers of Company C to destroy them. Percée, located about three miles to the west of where Force A would land at Pointe du Hoc, required a climb of approximately ninety feet. Following their ascent up Pointe de la Percée and the destruction of enemy positions atop the cliff, Company C would move east along the cliff side in the direction of Pointe du Hoc destroying any enemy positions they came into contact with until their eventual link up with the Rangers of Force A at Pointe du Hoc.

Due to the nature of the mission, scaling cliffs obviously became a major part of Ranger training, and Rudder’s Rangers spent a considerable amount of time learning, practicing, and reviewing to ensure their minds and bodies were in shape for what many considered to be a suicide mission. While the Rangers received some instruction from British commandos, who had experience in coastal raids against German positions on the French coast, the Rangers mostly learned cliff climbing by good old trial and error. The Rangers practiced with various types of ropes and ladders. Rocket-fired, grapnel-equipped ropes eventually become the primary tool of choice when ascending the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. In the weeks leading up to D-Day, the Rangers trained, developed, and tested their newly formed skills on various cliffs along the English coast and on the Isle of Wight.

At 0445 on the morning 6 June, Companies D, E, and F, 2d Ranger Battalion (Force A), boarded their designated LCAs and headed out into the choppy sea for an hour-long trip to their destination. Riding in the landing craft was rough and cold, and several Rangers became seasick. Others worked vigorously to empty water out of the boats in an effort to keep them from sinking. One LCA capsized, leaving the assault team with twenty-two less men for the mission.

At 0645, as the men of Company C landed on the shore of Omaha Beach, they were immediately subjected to German artillery fire. Before even making it to shore, the lead craft was hit by artillery fire and the company lost its first fifteen men. A second LCA was also hit with incoming fire and the fifteen men aboard this craft were either killed or wounded. Roughly ten minutes or so after the landing of Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, the remaining Rangers of Company C landed and fought their way to the base of the cliff to begin the ninety-foot ascent to the top of Pointe de la Percée. Upon reaching the base of the cliff, Captain Ralph E. Goranson soon realized that of his original seventy-man team, only thirty-five were left to climb the cliffs. By nightfall, that number would fall closer to twelve. Upon reaching the cliff top, the Rangers immediately set out on patrol, knocking out enemy strongpoints atop the cliff and moving their way towards their fellow Rangers of the 2d Ranger Battalion at Pointe du Hoc.

While the Rangers of Company C were already climbing the cliff side of Pointe de la Percée, Rudder’s Rangers had not yet made it to shore. H-Hour was set for 0630, but as the early morning sun began to rise, the Rangers of Force A quickly realized that something was wrong. The cliffs in their line of sight were actually Pointe de la Percée and not Pointe du Hoc. The waters were choppy and the current so strong that it caused the Rangers to travel some three miles off course of their objective.

Once back on track, the Rangers were now well behind schedule. Naval ships watching the landing craft travel ashore were responsible for laying covering fire. However, because the Rangers were scheduled to land on the beach at 0630, the naval ships ceased their covering fire at 0625. Because of their navigational mishap, the Rangers did not land on the beach until 0710, nearly forty minutes after their scheduled time. The delay gave the Germans enough time to recuperate, reposition their defenses, and lay heavy gunfire on the incoming Rangers from companies D, E, and F. The Rangers, no longer able to follow Rudder’s original plan, were now instructed to land all companies to the east of Pointe du Hoc on a strip of beach about 500 yards long and thirty yards wide. They came under heavy fire from the Germans while coming ashore. As the soldiers at the front exited the landing craft, the Rangers toward the rear laid down covering fire as their comrades ran to shore and took shelter in a small cave at the base of the cliff or in craters along the narrow beach.

Each LCA was equipped with a grapnel-tipped rocket behind the rocket was a box that contained coiled rope and each box contained a different rope set. The first was made up of ¾-inch ropes, another had rope with short pieces of wood called “toggles”, and the last consisted of rope ladders. Each LCA was also packed with two portable rockets and lightweight rope. This allowed for them to be carried ashore by the Rangers and fired from the beach. The choppy seas and spray of seawater, however, had caused the climbing ropes to become extremely wet, increasing their weight and making it difficult for the rocket-fired ropes to make it to the cliffs and take hold. Some of the ropes that caught the cliffs were cut by the Germans. Though many ropes never caught hold or were cut, there were still enough to allow the Rangers to scale the cliffs. The Rangers were also assisted by the fact that the naval and air bombardment had knocked off portions of the cliff and created a pile of rubble forty feet in height the soldiers placed sections of ladder against the cliff face from atop the pile and had a relatively short and easy climb to the top. On the other hand, the ladder-equipped DUKWs accompanying Force A could not maneuver across the cratered beach and did not contribute to the efforts to scale the cliffs.

The Rangers experienced much difficulty climbing up the cliffs that day. Many of the ropes that caught hold of the cliffs that morning were completely covered by enemy fire, making the number available for climbing severely limited. The wet ropes were slippery and soldiers were weighed down by damp uniforms and mud clinging to their clothes, boots and equipment. German bullets and “potato masher” grenades rained down from above. Nevertheless, the Rangers climbed to the top of Pointe du Hoc while under enemy fire. Several German soldiers were killed and others driven off from the cliff edges when Rangers opened fire on them with Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs).

The preparation for Operation OVERLORD included an intense aerial bombing campaign on Normandy and the rest of northern France. Air strikes targeting Pointe du Hoc took place on 25 April, 21-22 May, and 4-5 June, and these were followed by naval gunfire by the battleship USS Texas and destroyers USS Satterlee and HMS Talybont on the morning of 6 June. Once the Rangers reached the top, they were astonished by the destruction they found. Nothing resembled the aerial photographs and sand tables the Rangers had studied prior to the mission. Any recognizable landmark had been replaced with craters and rubble.

According to the original assault plan, Force A was to land at 0630, leaving Schneider and Force C to wait offshore for the signal to follow the three companies of Force A ashore by thirty minutes. If no signal was received by 0700, Schneider was instructed to land his force at the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach and take Pointe du Hoc by a land assault.

Schneider and his force anxiously waited long past the 0700 mark for the arrival of the designated signal from Rudder’s forces that they had made a successful landing. Lieutenant James W. “Ike” Eikner, the communications officer for Rudder’s 2d Battalion, developed Force A’s communication plan. Once atop the cliff, Eikner and his communication team would use a series of mortar flares and predetermined radio signals to alert Schneider and his force to land and begin their climb to the top. By 0713, Rudder’s communication team was working quickly to get the communication radios set up. Eikner, along with Rangers Lou Lisko, C.S. Parker, and Stephen Liscinsky worked to get a line of communication by way of SCR-284 and SCR-300 radios. Around 0725, the codeword TILT was radioed to Schneider’s forces and acknowledgment was received. However, it is unclear who sent the acknowledgment signal there was no indication on Schneider’s end that any signal had been received from Rudder. Schneider’s force received a rather unintelligible message sent at 0715, the only understandable word being “Charlie.” Schneider went forward with the contingency plan and led Force C to Omaha, where they would storm the beach and attempt to reach Pointe du Hoc by an overland assault.

At Omaha, Force C landed at Vierville-sur-mer. The first two waves of Schneider’s force took heavy fire upon their approach to the beach. Seeing this, Schneider diverted the rest of his men to land just a mile to the east landing between Dog White and Dog Red sectors. Despite the intense artillery fire that covered their approach, thirteen of the fourteen LCAs in Schneider’s force landed safely, with the 5th Ranger Battalion suffering six casualties. Fighting their way across the beach and over the sea wall, the battalion was directed by the 29th Division to stay and help establish a beachhead instead of moving forward with their original plan of pushing toward Pointe du Hoc. 1st Platoon, Company A, 5th Ranger Battalion, however, became separated from the rest of the Rangers and, unable to establish contact, set off on foot to connect with the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc. The rest of the 5th Battalion remained in Vierville overnight, defending the right flank of the beachhead against German counterattacks.

Atop Pointe du Hoc, the Rangers of Force A formed into small groups and took off toward their assigned objectives—the elimination of the observation post and guns. In the planning stages of the mission, each gun position atop Pointe du Hoc was assigned a number. Company D was assigned the task of eliminating guns numbered four, five, and six, all located on the western point of the cliff. Company E was to destroy the observation post and gun number three, and F Company would destroy guns numbered one and two, as well as the antiaircraft gun positioned on the eastern sector of the cliff top. The Rangers soon took their first prisoners and sent them back down to the cliffs to the narrow beach below, where Rudder had set up his command post (CP).

A group of Rangers immediately turned their attention to the concrete OP near the tip of the point. While the Rangers silenced a German machine gun and managed to place some grenades and bazooka rounds into the fortified position through its firing slits, several German soldiers remained holed up in the OP. Not until the following day, when demolition charges were brought up from the beach, was the OP finally neutralized and the eight German soldiers manning the post taken prisoner.

As the other Rangers moved toward their objectives, they soon realized that the Germans had moved the guns many of the emplacements/casemates, damaged by the Allied bombardment, held only dummy guns made out of painted telephone posts. Two days before the attack, the Germans moved the guns away from Pointe du Hoc. After discovering that the guns had been repositioned, the Rangers regrouped and set out under intermittent sniper, automatic weapons, and mortar and artillery fire to find the new locations of the artillery.

In addition to trying to locate the German guns, the Rangers moved inland toward their secondary mission, which involved establishing a roadblock along the coastal road that connected Grandcamp and Vierville. The Rangers also set up defensive positions and waited for the arrival of the 116th Infantry advancing inland from Omaha Beach. During this period, the Rangers were joined by three paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division who landed far from their drop zone some fifteen miles away.

At around 0900, a two-man patrol from Company D consisting of First Sergeant Leonard Lommell and Staff Sergeant Jack E. Kuhn stumbled into a camouflaged gun position approximately 250 yards south of the coastal highway and discovered five of the six missing 155mm guns (the sixth was never found) and large quantities of ammunition. With Kuhn covering him, Lommell went to work destroying the guns. He dispatched two of them by placing thermite grenades in the guns’ recoil mechanisms, effectively fusing the parts together. After smashing the sights of a third gun, Lommell returned to friendly lines to acquire more thermite grenades, but upon arriving back at the gun position, he found that a second patrol from Company E had finished the job. The Rangers returned to their lines, but not before tossing grenades into the powder charges and starting a large fire. A runner was also sent off to let Lieutenant Colonel Rudder, who had moved his CP to the top of the cliffs, knew that the guns, the main focus of the assault on Pointe du Hoc, had been located and eliminated.

Throughout the rest of the day and into the night, the Rangers maintained their positions along and forward of the coastal highway, enduring German snipers, artillery fire, and counterattacks. At around 2100, the Rangers received reinforcements with the arrival of First Lieutenant Charles H. Parker and his 1st Platoon, Company A, 5th Ranger Battalion, which had become separated in the confusion at Omaha Beach and marched overland to Pointe du Hoc. During the night, beginning at 2300, the Germans launched a series of three strong counterattacks against the Rangers’ lines. The final attack at 0300 on 7 June drove the Rangers back to their lines just north of the coastal highway. Several men from Company E were killed or captured, while a number of Rangers from Company D did not hear the order to withdraw and were cut off. While some made it back to friendly positions, several were forced to hide among the hedgerows and ditches to avoid capture. While discovery by the Germans was certainly a problem for the Rangers, another cause for concern was friendly fire as shells from Allied ships supporting the landings fell perilously close the American positions.

By the following morning, Rudder’s force had a little less than 100 men still capable of fighting. Food and ammunition was also becoming scarce, although a landing craft bearing ammunition and a small number of reinforcements arrived at Point du Hoc later on D+1. In desperate need of reinforcements and expecting further German counterattacks, the 2d Rangers at Pointe du Hoc sent a message to the 116th Infantry asking for permission for the 5th Rangers and the rest of the 2d to push through. Permission was denied as the 116th Infantry suffered serious causalities coming in from the beach and through multiple German counterattacks on the morning of 7 June, forcing Major General Charles T. Gerhardt, commander of the 29th Infantry Division, to deploy four Ranger companies of the 5th Battalion to protect Vierville and the division headquarters. A small relief force broke through during the evening of 7 June, with a larger relief force arriving the following morning (D+1) consisting of all three battalions of the 116th Infantry.

Following their actions Pointe du Hoc on 6-8 June 1944, Rudder’s Rangers suffered a seventy percent casualty rate. Less than seventy-five of the original 225 who came ashore on 6 June were fit for duty. Of those who served in the 2d Ranger Battalion on D-Day, seventy-seven were killed and 152 wounded. Another thirty-eight were listed as missing. In the 5th Battalion, casualties numbered twenty-three killed, eighty-nine wounded, and two missing. Among the casualties was Lieutenant Colonel Rudder, who was wounded twice and later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for his actions at Pointe du Hoc. Thirteen other Rangers also received the DSC for heroism at Pointe du Hoc, and the 2d Ranger Battalion was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for capturing the position.

The 2d Ranger Battalion would valiantly serve its way through the rest of World War II, but would never again use the special skills they trained for. Serving alongside various infantry units, the 2d Ranger Battalion took part in operations at Cherbourg, Brest, the Crozon Peninsula, Le Fret, the Hürtgen Forest, and other locations in the European Theater. Today, 2d Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, is descended from the 2d Ranger Battalion.

Today, a monument to the 2d Ranger Battalion sits atop a cliff eight miles or so west of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial . The Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument was erected by the French to honor the men of the 2d Rangers and their accomplishments on D-Day. The monument, formally transferred to the American Battle Monuments Commission on 11 January 1979, consists of a granite pylon positioned atop a German concrete bunker with tablets in both French and English at the base. It was the site where President Ronald Reagan gave his famous “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” address on 6 June 1984 as part of the fortieth anniversary of D-Day commemoration ceremonies, and it remains a highlight of any D-Day-related tour of Normandy.


The aim of this website is to educate and inform. It is hoped that this engenders informed and constructive debate about the Second World War from the perspective of the United Kingdom, its territories and dominions. My humble opinion is that the historiography of the Second World War in the U.K. is rather narrow, and often focused on what are taken to be the key events such as Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, El Alamein, D-Day and Operation Market Garden. It is probably not a coincidence that these events have been subject to films, and are therefore higher in the public conscience. Personally, I only realised how little I knew, and how narrow my own understanding of the Second World War was, when I attended the University of Birmingham to study for two years to acheive a Master’s degree in British Second World War Studies. I must thank my inspirational tutor, Ian, for bearing with me and showing me how to learn. I must admit that what I miss are the debates we would have as a course on various issues relating to the war.

I have a particular interest in the African forces within the British Army, and the British Indian Army, but not the exclusion of the mainstream British Army which was composed of men and women from across urban and rural England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus many volunteers from Eire. The commitment of the Dominions to support the U.K. in the second major war of that century is recognised, plus the Poles, Dutch, Belgians, Czechs, French, Italians, Germans, Greeks, Jews, Palestinian Arabs, Brazilians, and the Americans, who fought with, and alongside, the British Army.

In addition to the Army aspects of this website, there is a section on Coastal Command and R.A.F. Chivenor. This is because I live in North Devon, and undertook my dissertation on R.A.F. Chivenor, and its role in the defeat of the U-boat, during the Second World War.

My means of disseminating my research is through the medium of this website and the documents I post onto the site. This allows me great flexibility, as often new information comes to light which allows me to update, correct and enhance existing documents. I view learning as a continuous process, and have found that the mere act of posting a document leads to new developments coming to light. This is why I suggest that you visit the website often and see my Facebook page for recent additions.

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The Days After D-Day: What Happened Next

D-Day was just the start – the Battle of Normandy soon followed.

Moving 156,000 men from one country to another in 24 hours is an impressive feat by any military standards.

It's also an historically and militarily significant figure, for this was the number of Allied soldiers who had managed to get ashore in Normandy by the end of 6 June, 1944: D-Day.

What's more, it dwarfed the 78,000 Germans defending the region – (For a comprehensive look at the D-Day mission that kicked off the Battle of Normandy, click here).

On the other hand, this was barely a 2-to-1 advantage, and even less so when the 10,000 Allied casualties sustained on 6 June were taken into account.

The textbook ratio for an attack force was 3:1, and while the Germans had certainly been overwhelmed for the time being, there were potentially huge numbers of reinforcements on the way.

And some of them, James Holland explains in 'Normandy '44', were crack units:

"German reinforcements were reaching the front… Oberleutnant (Senior Lieutenant) Cornelius Tauber had managed to escape the horror of being nearly grilled alive and had run into a group of Waffen-SS men. These had been from the reconnaissance battalion of the 12. SS ‘Hitlerjugend’ and Tauber had been immediately struck by the difference in mentality between these young, aggressive, confident men and those he had led in the bunkers. He had also watched agog as they calmly knocked out two Canadian Shermans with their Panzerschreck– hand-held rocket launchers – then shot all the crew."

The Allies had every reason to fear these men, for the SS, of which there were several divisions' worth in Normandy, were generally the most motivated and strongest units in the German army.

The Germans also had close to a million men spread throughout the 'Westheer' – the Western Front – an area encompassing Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries and Italy, as well as France.

Fortunately, thanks to 'Operation Bodyguard', most of them were in the wrong place and would remain so for some time.

Yet Allied military planners couldn't rely on their spies to go on misleading the Germans (although, they ultimately would) and getting their own reinforcements into Normandy before the enemy was essential.

"The rapid build-up of troops and the establishment of a watertight and connected bridgehead was the absolute priority for the Allied commanders. Achieving this trumped everything. While during the planning there had been lofty talk, from Montgomery especially, of driving beyond Caen on D-Day, deep concern had also been expressed that the entire enterprise might fail. On D plus 1, the mood in the Allied camp was this: huge relief that the invasion had so far gone considerably better than many had dared hope but not quite as well as the best-case scenario. There was, though, no complacency and the urgent need to join the bridgehead together and speed up unloading was, rightly, of paramount importance…

"Once they had ensured that threat had gone, the Allies could go all-out on the attack. It would be madness now, everyone agreed, for some units to press ahead too far without proper support, leaving themselves with vulnerable flanks and open to being cut off. What fighting the Germans so far had taught the Allies was that they always counter-attacked and their instinctive predilection was to be aggressive."

In this, they were repeating the strategy of German 'Eingreif Divisions' in the First World War – units that were held in the rear for the expressed purpose of savagely counterattacking enemy soldiers who'd broken into their trenches. It was a formidable obstacle, though as Holland shows, in this war, it would be the Germans’ undoing.

British military planners, on the other hand, seemed to have absorbed the vital lesson of the last war – that mass slaughter must be avoided:

"(British General) Montgomery's reputation had been founded on the build-up of overwhelming materiel and a steady and methodical drive forward using heavy fire-power to support the infantry and armour, and precisely this approach enabled the number of front-line troops to be kept comparatively small, which in turn saved lots of lives… Cut and dash might, conceivably, result in a decisive breakthrough, but far better, at this stage, to maintain pressure all along the front…"

That said, there were also reasons to move quickly. On the American side of Normandy, come June 9, US paratroopers were still holding onto La Fiere bridge – with surrounding fields flooded with water by the Germans, this was the only way out Utah Beach, and the 82 Airborne troops there knew it.

And 101 Airborne Division had also been having trouble at the village of Vierville. This action involved 'Easy' Company, led in this instance by Lieutenant Dick Winters, who was later immortalised by Damian Lewis in the HBO series 'Band of Brothers'.

Likewise, 'Saving Private Ryan's' Rangers were still struggling to get a comfortable grip on one of their objectives above Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc.

In the east, near Caen, the British and Canadians were coming into contact with two formidable German units, the 12 SS 'Hitlerjugend' and the 21 Panzer Division, both tank formations.

In general, German infantry divisions by this point had shrunk from 8,100 frontline infantry (and 15,000 with support personnel) to 5,400 troops (with 12,000 all told), the war having taken its toll. But crack units – like 12 SS ‘Hitlerjugend’ – were usually maintained at full strength, and sometimes more:

"Armoured divisions… especially Waffen-SS panzer divisions, tended to be swollen and above their authorized establishment. The 'Hitlerjugend' Division was a case in point, with a total strength of 20,540 on 1 June, with substantially inflated battalions in its two panzer-grenadier regiments, all of which were motorized, as well as having just under a hundred Panzer Mk IV tanks and almost fifty Mk V Panthers."

These were formidable, although it was the Mark VI Tigers that were the heaviest and most feared tanks (of which, there were 36 in Normandy.)

"The division also had a self-propelled gun regiment [tracked guns that could move in their own right rather than having to be towed] and a lot of artillery support, with nearly 150 (artillery) guns… including (70) 88mm high-velocity anti-tank guns… This was… almost as many as an artillery-heavy British division."

In terms of personnel, British infantry divisions each had three brigades of 3,500 men, breaking down further into three battalions of 845 these had four 120-man rifle companies and a support company of engineers, mortars and anti-tank guns. Rifle companies contained three platoons of 37, arrayed in three 10-man sections led by an NCO, Non-Commissioned Officer, and a seven-man headquarters with a subaltern, platoon sergeant, runner and mortar team.

Battalions were the primary modular component of the Army, recruited and assembled out of a parent regiment (i.e. the first and second battalions of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.) In battle, battalions "would be given an objective: a village, stream, a wood, or ridge – generally something that was challenging but achievable. Companies would then also be given specific objectives – the church in the village, or the farmhouse on the right-hand side of the village, for example".

"The average rifleman would be told what his specific objective was, but how much of the bigger picture was explained would depend on what the platoon commander told him and how much the platoon commander himself had been briefed in the first place. Most soldiers had very little idea of the wider battle or of what was happening more than a few hundred yards – if that – either side of them. Once the platoons were out in the open, communication with the company headquarters was dependent on runners…

"Generally, companies would move in platoons, which would in turn move in sections, the ten men usually spread 5–10 yards apart, one Bren-gun team per section."

Because machine gun bursts or mortar blasts might result in all or most of a section being taken out, men had to be kept in reserve. Thus:

"…on paper, two brigades sounds quite a lot: six battalions, 5,400 men and three armoured regiments of 50 tanks each. However, a brigade would only ever attack with two of the three battalions – one would always be in reserve – so there were only four battalions attacking, not six. On top of that, 10 per cent would always be 'LOB' – left out of battle – in case the worst happened and the battalion was destroyed. This meant there would still be a cadre from the battalion around which it could be re-formed."

The same logic applied further down the chain:

"(Battalions usually placed) three companies forward and one in reserve, which meant that the lead elements of an attacking infantry division had, in fact, been whittled down to about 2,000 men, not 5,400, which wasn't very many from a division of 15,000. The same principle applied to the armoured regiment so that instead of having 150 tanks in support there would be more like 80."

Conditions on the ground in Normandy soon proved the logic of this arrangement correct. Fighting around Caen got brutal, with both sides killing prisoners – although it seems the SS engaged in the most egregious war crimes, deliberately running over wounded Canadians with their tanks.

As well as crack German enemies, there was also a second antagonist lurking in the background: the bocage consisted of tightly interlaced woodlands and fields rimmed with thick hedgerows. An attackers nightmare and a defenders dream, these acted as natural trench lines, allowing the Germans to lay in wait and fall back almost endlessly behind each subsequent layer. Existing throughout Normandy, it ensured that, even without the presence of elite German troops, this was going to be a long slog for the Allies.

Although before the Allies even got deep into this literal and metaphorical thicket, they had to work on linking up the British and American beach heads that had been established closely, but not completely adjacently, at Juno, Gold, Sword and Omaha and Utah Beaches on 6 June.

Still, they at least had one thing going for them – overwhelming air power. As well as swooping in and shooting up many a vehicle before it even reached battle, ground-attack aircraft could also help to tip a battle once it had started:

"At 3.50pm, right on cue, first one squadron of Typhoons roared in overhead, then a second five minutes later. Thundering in over the town, they shot off their rockets and cannons with impressive accuracy, then disappeared again. 'Our target,' noted Wright (a commando on the ground), 'had been transformed into a miniature volcano'."

"With smoke still in the air, Captain David Walton, the troop commander, raised himself up and gave the order to fix bayonets. Wright climbed out of the ditch, clicking his bayonet onto the end of his rifle. 'I must be dreaming,' he thought. 'This isn't really happening – I'll wake up in a minute'."

No doubt, small arms fire was about to make him do that:

"Mortars and a few Bren guns gave them some covering fire, and then they were running and shouting and in moments had reached the foot of the mound, miraculously still alive. Pushing into a concrete entrance, Wright and his fellow Marines, black streaks on their faces (part of the commandos' camouflage) and their blood up, emerged into a bunker to find about twenty Germans, all cowering. 'White faced, hands held high,' noted Wright, 'they were shaking uncontrollably.' Half an hour later, X Troop was marching back towards the town. As it turned out, their objective had been a walkover."

Again, though, the defenders had certain key advantages that helped counterbalance things – things the Allies learnt to be very careful of:

“(Sergeant Bob) Slaughter and his squad followed a squeaking Sherman tank as it trundled forward along a sunken road. High hedges lined the way, and Slaughter and his men took solace from the protection both these and the Sherman gave them, although because of the dust from the tank, he was happy to hang back a bit.”

The falseness of his newfound sense of security was soon brought home to Slaughter:

“Then sporadic mortar and the occasional larger shell began whistling over, until suddenly an almighty explosion up ahead pulsed through the ground. A fireball erupted and rolled in all directions as the Sherman hit a teller mine, blowing all the men inside to smithereens, as well as almost an entire squad of ten men who had been crouching behind the tank. Slaughter felt the blast and heat from some 40 yards back, and when the flame, dust and smoke began to settle, he saw that the 30-ton tank had been flung sideways into the ditch at the edge of the road.”

As well as the direct losses, this kind of thing had psychological effects on those who survived:

“‘One minute they were healthy young men,’ (Slaughter later) wrote, ‘and the next minute they were bloody arms and legs wrapped around bloody torsos.’ They found body parts, including boots with the feet still in them, more than 25 yards away. Slaughter was far from being the only one to vomit.”

He soon learnt to keep his distance from tanks as they crawled along roads like this.

But the Germans, very often, were also afraid:

Somalia And The Scramble For Africa

“Overnight on 7/8 June, Karl Wegner and his comrades, who the day before had been defending Omaha, were ordered to fall back a short distance… Their mission… was to hold the Americans where they were until reinforcements arrived. Every field… was to be made into a fortress. Furiously, they began digging behind the dense hedgerows of the bocage. Wegner was scared and rather overawed by the Rangers he knew were opposing him.”

As his unit was forced into continued retreat, his comrades taking advantage of the bocage to hold up the Americans and buy their comrades time, they were also terrorised by Allied planes:

“All day they were harried by Jabos, fighters and even bombers, while the roads were littered with dead horses and burning vehicles. ‘Even though we fell back,’ he said, ‘other parts of our regiment were still fighting in the hedgerows’… As they trudged on, Wegner and his fellows kept a constant watch on the sky, but time and time again the Jabos dived down on them and they had to jump for cover and hope for the best. ‘But always we asked the same question: where is the Luftwaffe?’ he wrote. The most common answer was, ‘They’re all back home protecting Fat Hermann’s medals’.”

Even without ‘Fat Hermann’, a reference to the obese Air Force commander, the Germans still managed to strike London… with V1 rockets, or ‘doodlebugs’. And fighting on to the launch sites was an additional impetus for increasing the pace of the Allied advance.

On the other hand, by keeping things bogged down in the Normandy bocage, the Germans were allowing the Allies to play one of their strongest hands – the continued use of naval bombardment, which remained an option as long as the Germans were accommodating enough to remain within range.

One German observer’s account speaks to the destruction that far outclassed whatever the doodlebugs were doing to London:

“‘Then began… the heaviest naval bombardment we had known so far.’ He could actually see the warships out at sea firing, great stabs of flame erupting from their guns, followed by the scream of shells. The Jabos followed, swooping down apparently unhindered. ‘A veritable inferno,’ he added, ‘broke over our heads’.”

As the next battle broke out at Villers-Bocage, ‘great stabs of flame’ would flare out of German guns too.

Having bypassed an anti-tank gun (because the gunner was busy relieving himself), one Tiger tank ambushed the British, knocking out several tanks.

This more or less set the tone for the whole battle, with somewhere between 13 and 15 German tanks being lost overall to 23 – 27 British.

This may seem like a German victory, but Holland shows these kinds of comparisons can be deceptive.

While it’s certainly true that the Germans were well disciplined and excelled at battlefield initiative, this masked problems higher up the chain of command:

“…brilliant, highly experienced generals and commanders (weren’t much use) if they were hamstrung in their efforts to bring that flair and experience to bear. Allied generals have been repeatedly criticized over the years for being dull and methodical, and not as tactically ruthless as their German counterparts. At least, though, they were operating under very clear chains of command. The political leaders at the top, while sometimes meddlesome, were not totalitarian despots.”

Hitler may have personified authoritarian military discipline, but he was also a perfect example of why it didn’t work as a wartime leadership style:

“…the Germans were stuck with… a command structure that was ultimately the toy of Hitler, and therefore subject to the capriciousness and whims, as well as many drawbacks, of this one-man. Being so authoritarian and small-minded, Hitler simply didn't possess the worldly background, education, and openness to outside ideas and cultures to have ever arrived at the kind of strategic, political mastery that his opponents gained over him.”

Churchill and Roosevelt, on the other hand, had “quite exceptional geo-political understanding and far-sighted strategic vision, and were supported by government ministers and by the Chiefs of Staff – the most senior commanders in their respective services – who were free to voice their opinions even if contradictory to those of their political chiefs”.

Even difficult personalities like Montgomery, Holland says, worked within clear chains of command, while German military leaders broke into factions, each one trying to please ‘the Fuhrer’.

This must have been evident on the ground too – whereas a mere 50 German soldiers had been shot for desertion during the First World War, that number ballooned to 30,000 during the Second.

It would also become evident in results:

“What mattered was winning campaigns – which the Allies had been doing since the late summer of 1942 – and then ultimately the war. This required clear strategic thinking, superbly efficient supply lines and a mastery of the operational level of war – the level that has been so often relegated in the narrative of the Second World War. However, with good strategy, and superior control and understanding of the operational level, the tactical level of warfare would, to a very large extent, sort itself out as a matter of consequence. Shooting up a few British tanks single-handedly might seem very impressive, but that wasn’t going to win the Germans the battle for Normandy, let alone the war as a whole, especially not if they were unable to manage the bigger picture very well, which they most certainly were not doing at present.”

This shows Allied leaders had absorbed the key lesson of the First World War – that the slaughter of the Western Front should not be repeated. In fact, as Alan Mallinson has argued in ‘Too Important for the Generals’, the First World War very possibly should have been fought like the Second, with an avoidance of large-scale attack right up until the end, when the Allies were finally ready.

By the time the Second World War rolled around, the trend towards increasingly specialisation that had started in the First now meant that only 14 percent of army personnel were infantry. This, combined with the fact that the Allies’ maximally-efficient supply lines ensured they got plenty of kit, led to reduced overall casualties (even if units that did see combat came off as badly damaged as they had in World War 1.)

Even if worse supplies and less-complex logistics resulted in a certain battlefield flexibility that gave the Germans an initial advantage, it was this less-glamorous-but-smarter approach that won the war for the Allies, Holland says:

“Germans always wanted to attack, but for the Tommies the priority was ‘to do harm to their enemies and take care of themselves.’ Despite the slight tone of condescension, destroying the enemy while saving the lives of one’s own side was really quite a sensible approach to war, while Pavlovian counter-attacking and incurring large numbers of losses in the process perhaps was not always the right approach. Ritgen, however, believed – like almost every fighting German – that a swift counter-attack against the British enabled them to quickly regain ground lost. The catch, though, as he admitted, was that this always incurred losses, ‘which we could not adequately replace, while the British received replacements during the night’. The military machine that could both look after its men and equipment better, and effectively make good its losses swiftly, however, was always going to be superior to the one that could not”.

By the end of the campaign, the numbers attested to the great success of the Allied approach:

“Churchill was incredulous over how so many Allied mouths could be kept regularly fed. The logistics were mind-bogglingly complicated and quite superbly executed. By 4 September, for example, the Mulberry B (one of two purpose-built harbours) had delivered 39,743 vehicles, 220,231 personnel and, in total, 517,844 tons of supplies. Then there were the beaches, which on average, collectively, continued to deliver some 16,000 tons of supplies per day. Enough fuel was provided to keep over 100,000 Allied vehicles on the road. On average a tank used 8,000 gallons of fuel a week and an entire armoured division some 60,000 per day. It was an incredible amount and yet it was provided, mostly by four ship-to-shore pipelines that were built in each beach area and which allowed a tanker to discharge 600 tons of fuel per hour. Code-named ‘Tombola’, it was another ingenious innovation.”

“In mid-August, the PLUTO pipeline was laid under the sea from England and also became operational. That was a further technological breakthrough, as it needed to be strong enough to withstand the pressure of lying on the sea bed while also large and sturdy enough to cope with a constant flow of fuel. The Germans, meanwhile, had focused much of their innovative energy on weapons such as the V-1s, which killed a fair number of civilians but not one combat serviceman at the front.”

The Home Front was an important ingredient in all of this. While the British and Americans had held back a large number of their own men to keep their industries going, the Germans had chosen to bolster their forces with as many of their own as possible, whilst relying on slave labour. Quite apart from being utterly barbarous, this was also much less efficient.

And on the battlefield, the Germans had also been hampered by a romantic notion of their own military greatness…

“Ritgen, like so many of his contemporaries, still believed in their aggressive tactical superiority, but this was largely because they had little else to offer and simply could not compete with the complete war effort of the Allies. It was, of course, why they were losing so badly and failing to gain any significant ground”.

…whereas the usefulness of the Allied approach must have been rapidly becoming apparent to those on the receiving end of it:

“…on 16 June the Americans attacked the high ground to the north and east of Saint-Lô, again behind a heavy artillery barrage. Shells screamed in and exploded, smashing trees, buildings and churning up the ground. Karl Wegner had welcomed the pause of the past few days, but as the shelling began he hurriedly put on his helmet and crouched at the bottom of his foxhole. When eventually the barrage stopped, the Americans pressed forward with infantry and tanks. Still in his foxhole, Wegner could not see much, but not long after Obergefreiter Kalb yelled for them all to get up and pull back. ‘One could feel the panic in the air,’ said Wegner. ‘I must admit that even I felt the Amis were right upon our heels.’ Hordes of men were hurrying towards the last bridge across the River Vire, a mile or so to their west the road became clogged with troops and vehicles in full retreat, desperate to cross the bridge before it was blown by the engineers.”

As well as Wegner, Sergeant Bob Slaughter was also involved in this battle:

“Their attackers had been 2nd Battalion of the 116th, with the 1st Battalion and Company D on their left, pushing through Couvains. Moving up along high hedgerows, Bob Slaughter and his men crossed hurriedly abandoned German trenches until up ahead they saw the steeple of Couvains’ church. Suddenly, artillery shells and mortar fire started falling around them. Slaughter dived into a ditch for cover and when the shelling stopped he dusted himself down only to see a German arm, still in its sleeve, lying beside him. Trying not to think too hard about it, he got his men moving again and was approaching a gap in the hedgerow when he heard someone moaning.”

It was a wounded German paratrooper:

“‘Kamerad, bitte,’ mumbled the man, who, Slaughter realized, was probably as young as he (19 years old.) Back on Omaha, Slaughter had told himself not to take any prisoners, but the wounded man looked filthy and desperate. ‘That was then, this is now,’ thought Slaughter. ‘I couldn’t just shoot a wounded human being at point-blank range.’ Crouching down, he tied a tourniquet around the German’s thigh, applied sulfa powder, gave him a drink of water and lit a Lucky Strike for him.

“‘Danke,’ said the man, smiling weakly. ‘God bless. Guten luck’.”

In actual fact, the Allies didn’t need ‘guten luck’, not when they had Hitler on their side.

The obvious next move for the Americans coming out of Utah and Omaha Beaches was the storm across the Cotentin Peninsula, cutting off the Germans still holding out at the city of Cherbourg. They were on the verge of the next major battle, and the juxtaposition with the ‘calm before the storm’ was duly noted by one famous observer:

“The war reporter Ernie Pyle was touring through the newly captured part of the central Cotentin and thought the countryside truly lovely. ‘Everything was a vivid green,’ he wrote, ‘there were trees everywhere, and the view across the fields from a rise looked exactly like the rich, gentle land of eastern Pennsylvania. It was too wonderfully beautiful to be the scene of war’.”

After the initial bombing of the city, Pyle was also on the ground with the American troops who went in to mop up:

“Some men had Garand rifles, others had grenades at the ready, while several had the big Browning automatic rifles. One man carried a bazooka. Medics were interspersed among the men. They all seemed hesitant and cautious, more like the hunted than the hunters as far as Pyle could tell. ‘They weren’t warriors,’ he wrote. ‘They were American boys who by mere chance of fate had wound up with guns in their hands, sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in driving rain. They were afraid, but it was beyond their power to quit.’ As usual, Pyle was unerringly observant and spot on.

“Pyle made his own dash for it, safely reaching the street. The troops were hugging the walls on each side and he followed. Most of the house windows were shattered and there were bullets and cannon shell holes all over the place. Telephone wire lay everywhere, twisted and ugly. Some dogs suddenly tore down the street, barking and snarling. The street was winding, but soon they began to hear firing from up ahead– single shots, steady machine guns and the rapid brrupp of the German MGs. Word came back that the street had been cleared and a hospital liberated, which included a number of wounded Americans. Lieutenant Shockley, Pyle, Capa and Wertenbaker went on down the street and reached the hospital. Beyond, there appeared to be more fighting, although it was hard to tell what was happening there would be some shooting, then an inexplicable lull, then some more.

“In a street beyond the hospital, Pyle came across two Shermans, one 50 yards beyond the other. Pyle scurried towards the lead tank and was only some 50 feet from it when it fired its 75mm gun. ‘The blast was terrific there in the narrow street,’ he recorded. ‘Glass came tinkling down from nearby windows, smoke puffed around the tank, and the empty street was shaking and trembling with the concussion.’ Pyle ducked into a doorway, figuring the enemy would likely fire back. And so they did, just as the lead Sherman was backing down the road. A yellow flame pierced the belly of the tank with an immense crash. A second shot whammed into the pavement next to it. Smoke engulfed it, but it didn’t burst into flames and a moment later the crew bailed out and sprinted manically for Pyle’s doorway. The five men were all safe and began jabbering excitedly, relieved at their lucky escape. This was the third time they had had their tank knocked out and each time it had been swiftly repaired and put back into action. They h ad named it Be Back Soon.”

In general, the Allies were very good at repairing tanks and chucking them right back into circulation – yet another reason they were winning the war of material.

And again, Hitler continued to be an impediment to German progress. It was he who, despite repeated warnings from Rommel, had insisted that his soldiers remain in Cherbourg, using their ‘iron wills’ to resist the enemy. And it was he who - again, despite Rommel’s advice to pull out of Normandy, regroup and attack at a time and place favourable to the Germans – had insisted on checking the advance in Normandy… within range of Allied naval guns.

As bad as this was, relations between Rommel and Hitler were to get even worse. Following the unsuccessful attempt by several of his own officers to kill Hitler on July 25, Rommel would eventually be implicated in the plot and forced to take poison.

But the eventual collapse of German military might doesn’t seem to have been apparent to all the men on the ground. At least, not if the attitudes of some of those at the village of Meautis, near Carentan, on the southern end of the Cotentin peninsula, is anything to go by.

The Germans there began vigorously shelling a tower US forces were using as an observation post, and…

“…(their) best sniper had racked up a growing score of dead Americans. As if to show there were no hard feelings, they prepared a large white card with naked ladies drawn on it inviting the American commander and staff to a variety show called ‘Parisian Women’ on 6 July. During the night, a patrol planted it on a stake just before the American lines. ‘The Americans,’ noted Pöppel, ‘will scarcely be able to believe their eyes when they see our little joke’.”

And at the time, it also doesn’t seem to have even been obvious to Allied leaders that they were onto a winner in the wait-and-supply model of warfare they’d adopted:

“…the bridgehead (near the Normandy beaches) was becoming immensely crowded almost every field was covered in airfields, rear military area camps, depots and field hospitals. Southern England of May 1944 had been transported to Normandy and packed into an even smaller area. What options there were for bursting through the mass of divisions arrayed around Second Army were limited by the sprawl of Caen, now mostly lying in ruins, and large numbers of rivers that all worked against the Allied axis of advance.”

Holland recounts the tensions rising between Montgomery and his American counterparts over his slow and methodical progress. At one point, ‘Monty’ apparently made a childish comment about General Omar Bradley’s Aide de Camp being a major, because aides were meant to be mere ‘whipping boys’ and he, therefore, shouldn’t have been anything more than a captain.

That, and he insulted the American M1 helmet. Evidently, the pressure was making him a little petty.

The continued rocket attacks on London didn’t help either, since the powerful blasts that shook the city and shattered windows were a continuous reminder of the need to push through and take the launch sites.

This tension between the Allied leaders would assert itself during the most crucial portion of the campaign, and the point at which the Germans made their most costly mistake.

Continuing their practice of always counter-attacking, huge numbers of Germans ended up west of the commune of Falaise, unbeknownst to them with the Americans closing in from the south and the British and Canadians from the north. This pincer movement was, in due course, only going to cut them all off, leaving them encircled and defeated.

The Day English History Was Turned Upside Down

When they finally realised this is what was happening, a desperate attempt to escape down the narrowing corridor between the Allies was attempted, before the ‘Falaise pocket’ became a ‘Falaise circle.

One of those who swooped in to harass them while they tried to escape was Flight Sergeant Ken Adam:

“With its thick wings and huge, protruding radiator jutting from underneath the nose, the Typhoon certainly had none of the finesse and elegance of the Spitfire, but it was an extremely effective gun-platform as well as exceptionally quick. It could also carry a 1,000lb bomb, while Adam had discovered he was pretty good at firing its rockets: during training that spring he had regularly fired with an average error of 50–60 yards with eight 60lb warheads exploding, that still created an enormous amount of damage.”

“The Typhoons took off in pairs and by the time it was Adam’s turn the dust was so thick he could barely see a thing. Such was the power of the Sabre engine that the torque from the propeller caused the aircraft to veer violently to the right unless the pilot heavily corrected the yaw by pressing down hard on the port rudder. He was well used to this foible by now, but even so, taking off, especially with such poor visibility, was a hazardous occupation and had to be done blind, using the gyro – the aircraft compass – to keep him straight.

“They immediately climbed steeply and turned northwards, out to sea. Normally Adam could see the silver barrage balloons shielding the Mulberry harbour glinting in the sun, but not that morning: Normandy was draped in soft, grey cloud. Merrett took them to 8,000 feet, then they turned and flew inland once more. Circling over their patrol area, they soon spotted a cluster of scattered enemy transport – trucks, lorries and smaller vehicles – so Merrett led them down, their engines screaming, plunging at nearly 600 m.p.h.

“As they hurtled over the enemy vehicles, Adam released half his rockets, two at time, and pressed his thumb down on the gun button. Their efforts were clearly striking home. Balls of flame and columns of thick, black smoke erupted into the sky. All eight Typhoons managed to escape the fray and climbed once more before attacking a wood they thought might be hiding more enemy equipment. Firing their remaining rockets, they left it in flames. Looking back, Adam saw smoke rising high into the sky. A little over ten minutes later, all eight aircraft were touching back down again at B-7.”

From the Allied point of view, the tragedy was simply that they couldn’t get more Germans before they got away, and there were disagreements about whether or not the British and Canadians should have moved more quickly.

Interviewed on the Thames Television series ‘The World at War’, Major General David Belchem, who was on General Montgomery’s staff, said of the affair:

“There were very great practical difficulties, in this closing of the Falaise gap quickly and it was difficult for the one side – British, Canadian, Polish – to appreciate the point of view of the other side, the Americans. We were coming down from the north, launched from the congested, bombed and difficult areas of the Caen sector secondly, the Germans facing us on that north side of the corridor they were trying to keep open for their escape were in areas where they had been fighting against us for two months or more. The Americans were coming up to meet us from the south in more open country, and against much less prepared and organised German resistance.”

The American Major General J Lawton Collins told the same program:

“Had the British and Canadian forces been able to move faster, we might have trapped many more Germans in the Falaise Pocket. Very little of their equipment got out, but quite a number of the Germans were able to escape toward the Seine river and this was too bad. I think perhaps the basic reason was that Britain had been in the war for much longer than we and had taken very heavy casualties and the Americans were fresh, and they had had practically no casualties in comparison. So while we were anxious to drive forward, and were not too concerned about the casualties, as long as we could get our objectives, it was natural, I think, that the British and Canadian forces did it in a more orderly, pacing way – and, perhaps this was part of Monty’s characteristics and one of his drawbacks. In other words, he never did quite drive the way the American commanders did. This was part of his nature I guess – he was a more cautious man, combined with the fact that he couldn’t afford the casualties that we could take if it was necessary to take them.”

What he doesn’t say here is that Montgomery was also shadowed by the ghost of the First World War, in which Britain had lost close to a staggering one million lives, compared to the roughly 117,000 deaths sustained by the Americans.

Furthermore, Holland points out that, in the days before NATO and the US accounting for around 50 percent of the spending that goes into it, the British were mindful of keeping enough troops alive as a bulwark against what they must have feared was the soon-to-be-Russian-dominated Europe. The US could go home after the war the British would be left with this new threat on their doorstep.

Having said that, American spending and industrial might was certainly behind many of the hammer blows now falling on the Germans, and the British – weary after six years of war – were surely grateful for that:

“The full might of American industry, begun a mere four years earlier after a series of meetings between President Roosevelt and certain leading captains of industry, had in barely comprehensible rapid time transformed itself into a Titan of mighty war-materiel manufacturing. It was unprecedented in world history and utterly remarkable. For the Germans, it must have seemed as though the American forces were like some horrific Hydra’s head no matter how many Nebelwerfer rounds they fired, or how many 88s or Panthers or machine guns they dragged into the battle, there were yet more Americans coming towards them… (and it was) the incredible Allied logistical system ensured those vital bits of equipment, as well as the engineers and service corps to man and oversee such work, were readily and swiftly available.”

And it was these continued hammer blows, delivered by the Americans, the Brits and the Canadians, that resulted in 300,000 German casualties to only 209,000 Allied losses (roughly 10 percent of the more than 2 million brought across the Channel) during the Battle of Normandy.

They may not have got as many Germans trapped as they wanted, but the might of the industrial Allied war machine soon closed the Falaise gap, and with it the Battle of Normandy.

For more, read ‘Normandy ’44: D-Day and the Battle for France’ by James Holland. You can pick up a copy from Bantam Press, part of Penguin Books, or search for it (including the audio book) on Amazon.

For illustrated accounts of the battle, read ‘Normandy 1944: Allied Landings and Breakout’ by Stephen Badsey, ‘Cherbourg 1944: The First Allied Victory in Normandy’ by Steven J Zaloga and ‘Caen 1944: Montgomery’s Break-Out Attempt’ by Ken Ford. For more illustrated military history, visit Osprey Publishing.


Full dress is the most elaborate and traditional order worn by the British Army. It generally consists of a scarlet, dark blue or rifle green high-necked tunic (without chest pockets), elaborate headwear and other colourful items. It was withdrawn from a general issue in 1914, but is still listed in the Army Dress Regulations, which speaks of it as "the ultimate statement of tradition and regimental identity in uniform" and the "key" to all other orders of dress. [1] Each regiment and corps has its own pattern, approved by the Army Dress Committee. [2] They are generally a modified version of the pre-1914 uniforms. In the case of units created since the First World War, such as the Army Air Corps, the Full Dress order incorporates both traditional and modern elements.

Full dress is still regularly worn on ceremonial occasions by the Foot Guards, the Household Cavalry and the King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery. It is issued at public expense to these units and to the various Royal Corps of Army Music Bands for ceremonial use. [3] Other units may obtain Full Dress on occasion, as it can be worn whenever a parade is attended or ordained by the monarch or a member of the British Royal Family, including ceremonial parades, state funerals, and public duties around royal residences (such as the Changing of the Guard), or participating in the Lord Mayor's Show. [4]

Most regiments maintain full dress for limited numbers of personnel, including musicians and guards of honour (in some cases). However, all of these uniforms must be purchased and maintained from non-public funds. [5]

Historically, musicians were an important means of communication on the battlefield and wore distinctive uniforms for easy identification. This is recalled in the extra uniform lace worn by infantry regiments' corps of drums, and the different coloured helmet plumes worn by trumpeters in the Household Cavalry. Shoulder 'wings', which were originally used to distinguish specialist companies in line infantry battalions (grenadiers or light infantry) are now a distinguishing feature worn by musicians of non-mounted regiments and corps in ceremonial forms of dress.

Headgear, as worn with full dress, differs considerably from the peaked caps and berets worn in other orders of dress: field marshals, generals, lieutenant generals, major generals, brigadiers and colonels wear cocked hats with varying amounts of ostrich feathers according to rank the Life Guards, Blues and Royals, 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards and Royal Dragoon Guards wear metal helmets with plumes, the plumes variously coloured to distinguish them. The Kings Royal Hussars, Queen's Royal Hussars, Light Dragoons, and the Royal Horse Artillery wear a black fur busby, with different coloured plumes and bags (this is the coloured lining of the busby that is pulled out and displayed on the left-hand side of the headdress), as do the Royal Regiment of Artillery and the Royal Signals, despite not being hussar regiments. As the uniforms of Rifles regiments traditionally aped those of the hussars, a somewhat similar lambskin busby is worn by The Rifles and the Royal Gurkha Rifles, with coloured plumes to distinguish them. However, these busbies do not feature bags like in their hussar counterparts. The Royal Lancers as well as the band of the Royal Yeomanry, feature the czapka, or 'lancer's cap'. The plumes and top of this headgear historically distinguished the various Lancer regiments. The Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards, Irish Guards, Welsh Guards and Royal Scots Dragoon Guards wear bearskins, as do officers of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers whose other ranks, however, wear the flat-topped fusilier cap. The Royal Regiment of Scotland wears the feathered bonnet, as do pipers in the Scots Guards and Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. The Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment, Mercian Regiment, Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, Royal Anglian Regiment, Yorkshire Regiment, and Royal Welsh, as Line infantry regiments, wear the dark blue Home Service Helmet with a spike ornament on top, as do the Royal Engineers, Adjutant General's Corps and Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. The Royal Logistic Corps, Royal Army Medical Corps, Royal Army Veterinary Corps and Royal Army Dental Corps wear the Home Service Helmet, but with a ball ornament on the top rather than a spike. The Royal Gibraltar Regiment wear a white helmet with a spike ornament on the top. The Royal Tank Regiment, Army Air Corps, Parachute Regiment, Special Air Service, Intelligence Corps and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment wear berets as they do with all orders of dress. The Royal Irish Regiment, as well as the pipers of the Queen's Royal Hussars wear the caubeen.

Not all full-dress uniforms are scarlet light cavalry regiments (hussars, light dragoons and lancers) and the Royal Artillery have worn blue since the 18th century, while rifle regiments wear green. The seven support corps and departments in existence in 1914 all wore dark blue dress uniforms, with different coloured facings. Hussar and Rifle regiments' tunics feature cording across the chest, while that of the Royal Lancers and Army Air Corps features a plastron in the facing colours. [6]

Facings Edit

Each regiment and corps of the British Army has an allotted facing colour according to Part 14 Section 2 Annex F of the British Army dress regulations. Where full dress is currently not used, the notional colours can be ascertained by the colours of the mess dress if the regiment in question has not been amalgamated with another. The Intelligence Corps, SAS and SRR have no design on record for full dress, and the Intelligence Corps mess dress colour of cypress green would make this unlikely for full dress, and the full dress facing colours of the SAS and SRR can be inferred from their beret colours (like the Parachute Regiment) according to this section of the regulations. The London Regiment and existing Yeomanry regiments have a variety of colours for their various sub-units.

Blue: The Life Guards, 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards, The Royal Dragoon Guards, The Queen's Royal Lancers, Foot Guards Regiments, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, The Royal Welsh, Adjutant General's Corps, Honourable Artillery Company (Artillery dress), Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers

Scarlet: The Blues and Royals, Queen's Royal Hussars, Royal Horse Artillery, Royal Artillery, The Rifles, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Educational and Training Services (part of Adjutant General's Corps), Royal Military Police (part of Adjutant General's Corps) Royal Army Physical Training Corps, Royal Corps of Army Music, Honourable Artillery Company (Infantry dress), The Royal Yeomanry

Yellow: Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment.

Crimson: The King's Royal Hussars, Army Cadet Corps

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Dark blue: The Royal Anglian Regiment, The Queen's Own Gurkha Logistics Regiment

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Blue velvet: Royal Engineers, Queen's Gurkha Engineers, The Royal Logistic Corps

Unit History: 2nd Ox and Bucks

The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry was an infantry regiment of the British Army.

The regiment was formed as a consequence of Childers reforms, a continuation of the Cardwell reforms, by the amalgamation of the 43rd (Monmouthshire) Regiment of Foot (Light Infantry) and the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot (Light Infantry), forming the 1st and 2nd Battalions, The Oxfordshire Light Infantry on 1 July 1881.

In 1908 the regiment’s title was altered to become the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, commonly shortened to the ’Ox and Bucks’.

2nd Battalion
Transport moving across the Caen Canal Bridge at Benouville, June 1944. The bridge was renamed Pegasus Bridge after the mythical winged horse on the formation sign of British airborne forces.

In 1941 the 2nd Battalion re-roled as an airborne, specifically an Air Landing, unit, joining the 1st Airborne Division and in 1943 the 6th Airlanding Brigade, 6th Airborne Division. As part of Operation Tonga just before the landings on D-Day 6 June 1944, D Company, 2nd Ox & Bucks Commanded by Maj. John Howard as well as Royal Engineers and men of the Glider Pilot Regiment (totalling 181 men), were to land via 6 Horsa gliders to capture the vital Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal and the bridge over the Orne River (known as Horsa Bridge and east of Pegasus). This was intended to secure the eastern flank to prevent German armour from reaching the British 3rd Infantry Division that was landing on Sword Beach.
Pegasus Bridge

The Ox and Bucks landed very close to their objectives at 16 minutes past midnight—the first Allied unit to land in France—they poured out of their battered gliders, completely surprising the German defenders, and taking the bridges within 10 minutes, losing two men—Lieutenant Den Brotheridge and Lance-Corporal Greenhalgh—in the process. One Glider assigned to the capture of Horsa Bridge was landed at the bridge over the River Dives, some 7 miles from where they were meant to land.

They, in spite of this, captured the River Dives bridge, advanced through German lines towards the village of Ranville where they eventually rejoined the British forces. The Ox & Bucks were reinforced half an hour after the landings by 7 Para, with further units arriving shortly afterwards.

The Germans launched many attempts to re-capture the bridges, all being repulsed. Later in the day, at about 1:00pm, Lord Lovat and elements of his 1st Special Service Brigade arrived to relieve the exhausted defenders, followed by the British 3rd Infantry Division. The operation was immortalised in the film The Longest Day.

As the first day of the landings closed, more reinforcements arrived as part of Operation Mallard, they included the rest of the 2nd Ox & Bucks. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Darell-Brown DSO replaced Lieutenant Colonel Michael Roberts who had been injured during the landings and remained in command of the Battalion during the defence of the Ardennes and on the Rhine landing. On 7 June the Battalion captured the small village of Herouvillette and then headed for the village of Escoville where they met some extremely determined resistance.

Having experienced intense fighting with German troops supported by armour and unable to successfully dig in and hold the village, the Battalion withdrew, moving back to Herouvillette where they took part in its defence. The Battalion subsequently held the line on Bréville ridge until August, then taking part in the British breakout and advance to the Seine that began in August, known as Operation Paddle. After a successful offensive, the 2nd Ox & Bucks, along with the rest of 6th Airborne, was withdrawn to the UK in early September to recuperate and reorganise.

By then, of the original 181 men that had taken part in the Pegasus and Horsa operation, just 40 remained fit for active duty. The 2nd Ox and Bucks and the rest of the 6th Airborne were then rushed back to Belgium to take part in the defence of the Ardennes after the German invasion on 16 December.

By the time the Battalion arrived in the Ardennes the German offensive had lost its momentum. One of its companies was involved in heavy fighting whilst in support of 13 Parachute Battalion in the village of Bure. The 2nd Ox and Bucks remained in the Ardennes until 24 January. The Battalion then moved to the Netherlands, before returning to Britain in late February.

The 2nd Ox and Bucks were once again involved in a gliderborne air assault landing known as Operation Varsity the objective of which was to cross the Rhine. Operation Varsity which began on 24 March 1945 was the last major battle on the Western Front during the Second World War.

The Battalion, like many others during the assault, suffered heavily as the Germans met the landing gliders with ferocious fire in the air and on the ground, suffering hundreds of casualties. It saw very heavy fighting at Hamminkeln, where its objectives were the railway station and the bridge over the River Issel, having to undertake a bayonet charge to take the bridge.

The Germans launched a number of counter-attacks, all of which were repelled. The Battalion subsequently took a leading part in the 300 mile advance across Germany, mostly on foot, including taking part in the opposed crossing of the Weser and eventually linking up with the Russians near the Baltic port of Wismar on 3 May 1945.

The Battalion provided the Guard of Honour for the meeting between British commander Field Marshal Montgomery and his Russian counterpart, Rokossovsky, at Wismar on 7 May 1945.

Gold Beach

Gold Beach was one of five designated beaches that were used during the D-Day landings in June 1944. Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha and Utah beaches were all in Normandy and designated to either the British, American or Canadian military forces. The landings at Gold Beach were to prove highly successful.

Out of the five designated targets for the Normandy landings, Gold Beach was in the centre. The sector called ‘Gold’ was five miles wide. At the western end of the beach was Arromanches – the site for the Mulberry Harbour.

Gold Beach with remains of the Mulberry Harbour

The commander of the invasion force for Gold was Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey and the main assault unit was the British 50th Infantry Division, part of the British 2nd Army. The main regiments used in the attack were the Dorsetshire, Hampshire, East Yorkshire and Devonshire. Along with these regiments was 47th Royal Marine Commandos who were attached to the 50th Division.

Against the attacking force were the German 716th Division and units of the 352nd Division. Many of the defenders were in exposed positions and vulnerable to Allied naval and aerial gunfire. Based in Bayeaux was the mechanised unit of the 352nd Division and this was expected to rush to the front once an attack had started. Also on top of the cliffs at Longues there was an observation post for four 155-mm guns, located half-a-mile further inland. This observation post was taken out by HMS Ajax thus putting out of action the guns, which were effectively blinded.

The time for the landing at Gold Beach was set at 07.25. However, the British forces here experienced a major problem. Intelligence had provided the British with information that the beach was littered with defences – be they Rommel’s anti-tank creations or mines. On the morning of June 6th, a strong wind whipped up the water along the coast so that it was higher than planners had anticipated. The major problem was that the seawater covered over the mines and other obstacles so that engineers could not go in and disarm them.

The first landing craft landed military vehicles that were subsequently damaged by mines. Twenty armoured cars were damaged this way. Such a situation could have been very dangerous but the German defenders had been neutralised by constant and accurate naval and aerial bombardment. By midday, a lot of the designated beach was in the hands of the British.

By the early evening, 25,000 men of the 50th Division had been landed and the advance force of this division had moved six miles inland and had linked up with the Canadian forces that had landed at Juno Beach. Just 400 casualties had been taken whilst securing the beach.

The British Army in Normandy: Winning the War the Wrong Way

Edward E. Gordon and David Ramsay are co-authors of Divided on D-Day: How Conflicts and Rivalries Jeopardized the Allied Victory at Normandy (Prometheus Books, 2017).

The commander sighed. “Well, there it is: it won’t work but you must bloody well make it.” 1 With these words Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, instructed Lieutenant General Sir Frederick E. Morgan in 1943 to begin preparing a cross-channel invasion plan. From the first day of the war, America’s leaders were determined to confront and defeat the German army speedily by invading northwestern Europe. But because the British had recently been decisively defeated by German forces at Dunkirk as well as in Norway and Greece, Churchill and the British armed forces chiefs of staff were much more cautious. They still remembered the slaughter of an entire generation on the Western Front during the First World War.

Britain’s war leaders also harbored grave doubts about the battle readiness of US soldiers, believed that American generals lacked combat experience, and were skeptical about America’s ability to increase the production of war materials rapidly.

From December 1941 to June 1944 this British foreboding cast a pall over the very idea of mounting a successful cross-channel invasion. “Why are we trying to do this?” Prime Minister Winston Churchill was shouting even as late as February 1944. Almost up to the day of the actual Normandy landings, Churchill continually bombarded the Americans and his own generals with alternatives such as invading Norway, Portugal, or the Balkans. This continued insistence on these diversionary maneuvers weakened his relationships with the American commanders.

Operation RANKIN was the British chiefs of staff alternative plan to implement this peripheral strategy with attacks in the Mediterranean Region, the Balkans, Norway and elsewhere. These thrusts would help to wear down the Nazi empire in Europe until it collapsed. Perhaps it was all wishful thinking on their part, but as late as November 1943 the British Chiefs still considered the possibility of implementing RANKIN as an alternative to a major landing in Normandy.

Here two fundamentally opposing conceptions of war—the indirect versus direct approach—collided. For the British, an invasion of northwestern Europe would come only as a final knock-out blow. First the German Wehrmacht had to be worn out by fighting on many fronts. The Americans contended that the Allies should be using the Clausewitzian principle of concentration of their forces at the decisive point. Their dispute was never resolved and repeatedly hampered the successful course of the Normandy campaign.

Overall Brooke did not believe that the Wehrmacht would be sufficiently weakened before 1944. Furthermore he doubted that US war production would be able to turn out the huge quantity of goods required for an invasion or that America could train an adequate number of troops before this date.

Above all Brooke believed that the way to victory was to conduct a war of attrition. This strategy had been the linchpin for the Allied victory in the First World War. He continued to preach this attritional doctrine throughout the Second, much to the annoyance of Churchill and US war leaders. This perspective had a clear impact on the final British army ground campaign in Normandy. 2

Montgomery’s “Plan”

On 15 May 1944, a dazzling array of commanders and leaders gathered at St. Paul’s School in West London for the final full-scale briefing. Because General Dwight D. Eisenhower had appointed General Sir Bernard Montgomery the temporary ground commander for the initial phase of the OVERLORD operation, he was designated to do the main briefing. In this presentation and in his 8 May planning document, Montgomery emphasized that the Allies must quickly move forward and keep the initiative.

He stressed that the main D-Day objective of the Second British Army was to take Caen. “Once we can get control of the main enemy lateral [corridor], Granville-Vire-Argentan-Falaise-Caen, and the area enclosed in it is firmly in our possession, then we will have the lodgement area we want and can begin to expand,” he assured his audience. 3

The army that quickly gained control of this Caen-Falaise corridor would control the battle. This was borne out by subsequent events. A slow, safe advance would give Rommel the time he needed to reinforce and shift his troops across the battlefront to keep the Allies contained inside their bridgehead.

For the Allies the very boldness of Montgomery’s plan to take and hold Caen on D-Day ensured its failure. Max Hastings termed it “a substantial strategic misfortune.” 4 The overall failure of British senior commanders to warn their assaulting forces of the presence of the German Twenty-First Panzers was inexcusable. Could they have reinforced the British Third Armoured Division and better orchestrated the landings by delivering a stronger combined armor-infantry Caen assault on D-Day? The fact that these alternatives were not even considered is evident by examining Montgomery’s diary and papers from early June 1944. 5

After 6 June, Montgomery makes no mention of his initial failure to take the city. As historian Carlo D’Este states, “To have taken, [Caen] according to plan…would have needed…some sort of miracle.” 6 Monty’s failed plan to capture Caen on D-Day stalled the entire Normandy campaign.

Montgomery’s Mind Games

On 11 June, Montgomery made his first attempt to disguise a change in his own plan when he informed General Alan Brooke that “my general policy is to pull the enemy on to Second Army [British and Canadian] so as to make it easier for First Army [American] to expand and extend the quicker.” 7

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower thought that Monty’s 11 June message was an admission that his original plan had been nullified by the Caen failure. Ike interpreted this British switch to the defensive as Montgomery’s reversion to his previous battlefield behavior of over-caution and reluctance to risk heavy casualties. At that time whatever Monty’s intention, it was not clear to the other Allied commanders.

Until Montgomery’s 11 June invention of his new strategy, he had always made it perfectly clear that D-Day required an initial aggressive thrust that gained more ground and broke through the German defenses to take Caen. British and Canadian armored forces would rapidly move onto the Falaise plain, then toward the Seine and Paris. This was Montgomery’s original planned “feint” at Caen that would draw the German panzers into a battle highly favorable to the Allies. Overwhelming British and American air superiority and the mobility of their much larger armored forces would destroy any German counteroffensive. This “feint” in turn would assist a faster American breakthrough in support of the British. The Americans would largely bypass the bocage country and help flank the German positions along the coast, forcing their general retreat to the Seine.

It was only after D-Day that this new 11 June strategy became his plan. None of Montgomery’s pre-invasion planning, reports, or presentations ever suggested that the British would stop short of attacking and quickly taking Caen. Thus Montgomery opened the door to what became a long battle of attrition in Normandy. 8

It took the British and Canadian forces six battles over forty-two days—from 6 June to 18 July —to capture all of Caen. What was behind Montgomery’s thinking that might help explain his slowness in taking the city? Why had he suddenly shifted the “plan” from a British- and Canadian-led offensive breakout strategy to one of attrition warfare?

The United Kingdom was reaching the end of its manpower reserves. Churchill feared that the manpower situation would diminish his influence with Roosevelt and his status in the “Big Three Conferences” with Roosevelt and Stalin then deciding the postwar future of Europe.

Montgomery believed that a major sustained British offensive to take Caen would lead to heavy casualties. Instead, throughout June, July, and early August, he mounted a whole series of limited attacks. In the long run, Monty’s attrition strategy failed. The failure to take Caen quickly stalled the entire Allied offensive and resulted in heavy British infantry casualties. Montgomery became an “attrition general” who paradoxically could not afford to fight attrition battles. In the long run, his strategy failed.

By 17 July, British and Canadian losses were 37,563. Though actual D-Day casualties had been fewer than expected, the situation went rapidly downhill afterwards. British infantry casualties were eighty percent higher than estimated, with fewer and fewer available replacements.

The set-piece battle was the forte of Montgomery and many other British and American commanders. At Caen and afterward to the end of the war, Monty’s limitation was his lack of quick exploitation to follow up rapidly on battlefield success.

Montgomery’s operational approach was a holdover from his First World War experience on the Western Front—use a “colossal crack” to hit the enemy with devastating modern firepower. This strategy proved to be very misleading for his Allied partners. Time and time again at Caen, for closing the Falaise gap, in the planning and execution of the MARKET GARDEN campaign, and in opening the port of Antwerp, Montgomery seemed to promise the desired breakthroughs but delivered much less. 9

Soldier Morale, Training, and Performance

Montgomery’s set-piece battles around Caen and elsewhere usually resulted in some penetration by forces under his command, but they were repeatedly held back from gaining a breakthrough. This was attritional warfare at its worst that began to break down the fighting spirit of the troops. 10

Both the United Kingdom and Canada began the Second World War with small professional armies. Their career officer corps was still much weakened by the devastating losses of the First World War. Huge numbers of citizen soldiers had to be conscripted and trained. The OVERLORD operation was their first combat experience. Their training, however, failed to prepare them for combat in Normandy’s difficult bocage terrain and against a determined and more experienced German army. Although many individual soldiers showed outstanding bravery and self-sacrifice in combat, their attacks have been frequently characterized as sluggish.

Casualties among infantry officers were very high. One new officer who was among a group being sent as replacements to a unit that had just been involved in heavy combat reported that a British major announced, “Gentlemen, your life expectancy from the day you join your battalion will be precisely three weeks.” 11

Combat fatigue was a significant problem in veteran British army units. This was true even among Montgomery’s “Desert Rats”: the Fifty-first Highland Division, Fiftieth Northumbrian, and Seventh Armoured. They were frequently overcautious and lacked the elan of fresh troops. Many began to feel they had done their fair share of the fighting, and it was for someone else to do the job left. Brigadier James Hargest, a New Zealand observer attached to the 50th Division, offered this evaluation: “The morale of…officer and soldier is not high….[This] applies to new…troops and veterans….Even senior officers grumble about being too long in the line….they are being ‘used.’” 12

While the Canadian troops suffered from inadequate training, their overall enthusiasm, higher morale, and quickness to learn battlefield lessons were impressive. Poor leadership by officers, however, led to heavy casualties and frequent tactical battlefield failure. 13 General Charles Foulkes, commander of the Second Canadian Infantry Division, freely admitted that his officers and men were ill-prepared in Normandy: “At Falaise and Caen… when we bumped into battle-experienced German troops, we were no match for them.” 14

Fitness to Lead and to Fight

By the beginning of July, the Allied invasion had deteriorated into a stalemate. Allied casualties began to resemble the trench warfare losses of the First World War. By 30 June the British Second Army had suffered 24,698 casualties, and this rose to more than 46,000 (excluding combat-fatigue cases) by 25 July. 15

Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir Alan Brooke

Montgomery’s generalship was in great measure to blame. His boss and mentor Brooke also condemned the alarming weakness in the British officer corps: “Half of our Corps and Divisional Commanders are totally unfit for their appointments, and yet if I were to sack them I could find no better. They lack character, imagination, drive and power of leadership.” 16 The rapid expansion from a small peacetime army had stretched the quality of the British officer corps to its breaking-point.

General Sir Miles Dempsey Commander, British Second Army

Montgomery had limited confidence in his Second Army commander Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey and practically none in First Canadian Army commander General Henry Crerar, whose leadership he dismissed as inadequate. As a result, Monty intervened in their field operations, thus undermining their performance and self-confidence. Precious time was wasted. Battlefield opportunities slipped by unexploited. The Germans were given breathing space to regroup.

Leadership Failures Prolong the War

The failure of Montgomery’s uncharacteristically aggressive plan to take Caen on D-Day unleashed a cascade of problems for a breakthrough from the Normandy beachhead. Reversion to a war of attrition led to higher casualties and weakened morale. In many cases, inexperienced Allied forces faced battle-hardened German troops. Brooke’s and Montgomery’s lack of confidence in the British and Canadian officer corps meant that decisions had to be referred to Montgomery, which denied forces the ability to take advantage of opportunities in fluid combat situations. The Normandy campaign was a tough proving ground for the Allies. While many lessons were learned, this did not extend to the top leadership. Everyone makes mistakes the key is to learn from them. Unfortunately, Montgomery did not, and he was allowed to keep his position as temporary ground commander far too long. Monty continued to exhibit a lack of aggression in key tactical situations, and his egotism continually led him to cover up the failure of his strategic plans. He and the other Allied leaders could and should have done better.

The Normandy campaign led to the Allied victory in Europe in 1945. Historian Martin Blumenson related what General George Patton said afterwards: “Patton believed his superiors had won the war the wrong way. They had been much too slow.” 17


1. Carlo D’Este, Decision in Normandy (Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 1994), p. 32.

2. Edward E. Gordon and David Ramsay, Divided on D-Day: How Conflicts and Rivalries Jeopardized the Allied Victory at Normandy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2017), pp. 21–26.

3. William Weidner, Eisenhower and Montgomery at the Falaise Gap (New York: Xlibris, 2010), p. 262.

4. Max Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), p. 121.

5. D’Este, p. 149 Bernard Law Montgomery, Normandy to the Baltic (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), pp. 116–34.

7. Stephen Brooks, ed., Montgomery and the Battle of Normandy (Stroud: History Press, 2008), p. 129.

8. Gordon and Ramsay, pp. 171–72.

10. C. J. Dick, From Victory to Stalemate: The Western Front, Summer 1944 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2016), p. 37 and p. 62.

11. Antony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), p. 281.

14. Charles Perry Stacey, The Victory Campaign: The Operations in Northwest Europe 1944–1945 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1960), p. 276.

15. Beevor, p. 263 Dick, p. 62.

16. Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman, eds., War Diaries, 1939–1945: Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke (London: Phoenix Press, 2001), p. 243.

17. Martin Blumenson, The Battle of the Generals (New York: William Morrow, 1993), p. 272.

Second World War

1st Battalion served in France and Belgium with the British Expeditionary Force in 1939-40. 2nd Battalion, which had been raised in May 1939, joined them in France in May 1940, taking part in the defence of Boulogne.

That same month, Lieutenant the Hon Christopher Furness of 1st Battalion won a posthumous Victoria Cross at the Battle of Arras. The remnants of both battalions were evacuated at Dunkirk.

In October 1941, a 3rd Battalion was raised. This fought in North Africa and Italy (1943-45) with 8th Army, ending the war at Adige in the Po Valley.

Back in Britain, 1st and 2nd Battalion formed part of the Guards Armoured Division, 1st Battalion serving as infantry and 2nd Battalion as an armoured unit. The two battalions landed in Normandy in June 1944 and fought their way through northern France, Belgium and Holland. Working together, they were the first troops to re-enter Brussels in September of that year.

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