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1944 continued

Omaha beach was the biggest, but also the most easily defendable, and was defended by the veteran 352nd division. Hours before the Americans landed, the coast was painted with bombs and shellfire from planes and warships, trying to knock out the enemy emplacements. As soon as the landing craft landed at 6:30 am, they knew something was wrong because enemy fire rained down upon them, indicating the Germans had been unaffected by the Allied bombardment. The Americans steered in their "DD tanks" (dual-drive), which had a flotation device harnessed around the tank, allowing it to float. The US 1st division was allocated 29 tanks, but because of choppy water and heavy fire, only 2 made it ashore, with the other helpless Americans drowning or burning alive inside. The 29th division's tanks were far more successful because they were dropped off on the beaches themselves. The rough waters forced every company in the 29th infantry division's 116th regiment off course except for Company A. This may have been a good thing, because company A was nearly wiped out--only 24 of 220 men survived and only 8 of those were healthy enough to go on. 10 landing craft were sunk before even reaching the shore as soldiers frantically threw anything heavy overboard to keep from sinking. Some were hit by German fire, some by underwater mines, but most made it to shore. Since the landing craft missed their locations, the units were thrown together, adding to the hellish confusion.

The beaches were a tangled mess of bodies, beach obstacles, destroyed vehicles and enemy fire, of which the Germans had months to perfect their pre-sighted artillery. Many soldiers were cut down as they stepped off the boat ramp, but they had to advance because the boat coxswains were ordered to drop their men off as quickly as possible, then return to the ship for another 30 men. Due to the high casualties and zero progress made, the invasion was nearly called off, and all landing ceased at 8:30. The Germans had them pinned down behind a shelf of sand called the "seawall," guarded with mines and barbed wire, and could have literally blown them off the beach and back into the sea. However, because of the confusion and the belief that this was a diversion from the "real" invasion was at Calais to the north, few reinforcements were sent. As a result, 4 hours after landing the exhausted Americans began punching through the seawall barriers. US Rangers also scaled the 100 foot cliffs surrounding the beaches to take out guns and by noon the enemy fire began to slow down as the Americans struggled up the beach and fought back. This was even more difficult than the commanders had planned. Many soldiers were so gripped by fear from their trauma that they would not share any of their ammunition or move from the seawall. By evening they held their position but did not even come close to any of their mission objectives because of their 2400 casualties. The German 352nd division only had 1200 casualties but had no reinforcements.

Originally Utah beach was not intended for an invasion, but at the last minute General Eisenhower felt a beachhead at Utah would secure the port city of Cherbourg. The landing at Utah was much easier compared to Omaha because the landing craft landed 2000 yards from the original destination, and the beach they found was vastly less hostile. This let them bypass most of the German 91st, 243rd and 709th divisions and land their DD tanks with miraculously few casualties. 7 landing craft were sunk off of Utah beach, and one LCT dropped its ramp right on top of a mine, sending metal and men flying. By noon they actually reached the 101st Airborne troopers near Pouppeville and had advanced 4 miles by the end of the day. Only having 300 casualties, they landed 20,000 men plus 1700 vehicles and even avoided a German counter-attack because the Airborne confused them as to where the main assault took place.

At 7:30 am the British landed at Gold beach under heavy German fire, but they landed with relative ease. The invasion here was relatively orderly and everything went as planned. Most German defenses were quickly overrun because they could not stop the incoming British, who used specially modified tanks, called "Hobart’s Funnies." These were specially armored vehicles named for their inventor, British General Percy Hobart, and had many different forms. The Duplex Drive tank (DD tank) had a collapsible flotation device and was the only Funny used by the Americans. The others, used wisely by the British were the "Crocodile" (a flamethrower tank), the "Crab" (a minesweeper with flailing chains), the "Flying Dustbin" (a mortar tank) and the "Bobbin" (a tank that laid down artificial road). During the invasion here, some French citizens fled the combat zone while others went about their usual daily routine, and some even enthusiastically greeted the British with champagne.

The Canadians landed at 8:00 am, taking heavy fire, and the first wave was just as bloody as the Omaha landing: company B had just 25 survivors and one officer to lead them. The difference here was that many of the DD tanks made progress over the seawall, which was the highest of any beach in Normandy. Hobart’s Funnies also did well and they advanced into the coastal villages, farther than any team on D-Day. The Canadian determination was due in part to the motive of redemption for their earlier failure at Dieppe years ago. They advanced far, but not quite as far as they were supposed to because the initial invasion lost its momentum. They had 1200 casualties but put 21,400 men ashore. It was here that the Allies began to learn that much of the "German resistance" of the Atlantikwall were not actually Germans--they were Czechs, Poles, Russians, and many other victims of German domination. Many of these Ost battalions would shoot their German commander and then surrender the first chance they got. This demonstrated that Hitler was becoming reliant on unwilling foreign soldiers to fill the gaps left by dead regulars, much like Napoleon just before his defeat.

The DD tanks were supposed to precede the British landing, but strong currents slowed them down until they landed at 7:30 am. They were met with a moderate amount of enemy fire and got up over the seawall quickly with the help of Hobart’s Funnies. 30 minutes later the fighting had moved inland, where the Germans retreated and fought viciously with snipers, machine gun nests and mortars. The British still could not meet up with the Canadians and later in the afternoon the Germans ordered the only counter-attack that day. They sent the 22nd regiment of the 21st Panzer division but the British had good anti-tank weapons and held them back. The British put 29,000 men on the beach and had only 630 casualties. By the end of D-Day the Allies were far from achieving all they wanted, but effectively secured enough of a foothold to allow further reinforcements in. Overall D-Day was a success, but at a high price for the Allies--some 10,000 dead, wounded or missing, mostly Americans.

Once of they secured the beachheads, the Allies began pouring in hundreds of thousands of reinforcements, tons of supplies and many vehicles. However, the Allies missed another golden opportunity to wipe out the Germans by procrastinating on the beach and creating slow traffic jams. In the meantime, the Germans began advancing their Panzer divisions into Normandy to meet the invasion. The Germans also missed a golden opportunity to keep the Allies at bay because of Hitler, who was convinced the "real" invasion was at Calais, so he kept several Panzer divisions tied up uselessly. They also should have retreated behind the Seine river and set up a strong defense, thereby making it much more difficult for the Allies. The Germans did have one advantage, however--the hedgerows.

The Normandy hedgerows, called bocage were the ultimate defensive terrain. One of the great Allied blunders of the war was the failure to recognize the threat of the bocage before the invasion. They were over 10 feet tall and impossible to see or get through on foot, and the Germans hid behind them in wait for unsuspecting Allies to come along, then gun them down. This was part of Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s plan to draw the Allies in, then smother them with reinforcements. The hedgerows were like a maze, criss-crossing the French countryside and created a natural wall of defense that the Germans would fire mortars over with pinpoint accuracy. Fortunately, large teeth were later welded on to Allied tanks to cut through the hedges with a fair amount of ease.

The other problem faced by the Allies was the fierce German resistance, coupled with the foul weather of the Normandy coastal region. Perhaps more hurtful was General Montgomery’s hesitance to advance on his objective, the city of Caen. He waited to build up his forces then tried to take the city in "Operation Epsom," which failed during the last week in June. The British mentality was that they, unlike the Americans, had almost no reserves to replace their dead, so they had to be much more cautious. Both the Americans and British wanted the war over quickly so they threw as many weapons as they could against the Germans instead of effectively advancing at the cost of more lives. As a result, the war was prolonged another year.

After D-Day, Hitler was adamant about reinforcing the Ukraine, leaving Army Group Center (under von Busch) with only 500,000 men to defend a 650 mile front. The Soviets, meanwhile, had 1.2 million men, 4000 tanks and 6000 planes in the Baltics and Belarus and were gaining ground each day. The newest assault on the Germans would be called "Operation Bagration," in honor of the Russian General who repelled Napoleon in 1812, and would commence on June 22, 3 years after "Barbarossa." In these 3 years the Soviets had learned from the mistakes of fighting a wide-front war, and now focused on hitting the Germans at key points, using concentrated artillery fire, even 300 guns per mile. The Soviets also began using deception tactics, creating huge advances once "Bagration" began. The Germans were forced to retreat in the north on 24 June and 3 days later Vitebsk was taken along with 30,000 German POWs. In the south, Mogliev was taken on 28 June and the next day Bobruysk fell. Minsk was captured on 3 July, causing the bulk of the German 4th and 9th Armies to give up. This allowed the Soviets to take the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on 13 July and cut off Army Group North, who were forced back to the original German/Soviet border of the Bug river and gave up 25,000 men at Brody. 2 weeks later Lvov was captured and by now the Soviets had retaken most of their original territory and began absorbing Poland.

Cherbourg was captured by the Allies on 28 June, the same day that Field Marshal Dollman, head of the 7th Army died of mysterious causes. Sensing imminent defeat, von Rundstedt begged Hitler to surrender to the Allies and was consequently dismissed from service and replaced him with Günther von Kluge. On 17 July Rommel’s car was strafed by RAF fire and was badly injured. There was one good thing on 18 July and 19 for the Germans: the failure of Montgomery’s plan to break out called "Operation Goodwood." Montgomery tried to cover up the failure by saying he never intended to break out and even though the Allies captured a couple thousand prisoners and secured Caen, they suffered nearly 6000 casualties and lost more than a third of their tanks. Meanwhile, the Germans tried to find Mussolini, who was moved about constantly to fool the Nazis. On 17 August they learned his location from a German guard and attempted to capture him, but they were too late. Mussolini even tried to cut his wrists open, but the Germans eventually found him and carried him away to Hitler, who ordered him to revive his Fascist regime. They set up a new state and executed the old members who voted against Mussolini.

The German "success" was short-lived because the following day on 20 July, Hitler was nearly assassinated by his own men. The German high command had become fed up with Hitler’s meddling in military affairs over the last few years and cited his incompetence as the main reason the Germans were losing the war. In fact, since the beginning there were several anti-Hitler conspiracies surrounding Nazi Germany, many in the form of Germans double-agents and spies and even high ranking German officers tried to kill Hitler the previous year. They wasted time with their indecision about how to carry out the coup and ran into trouble with the ever-suspicious Hitler, who continuously arrested suspected conspirators. The plan to control Berlin after Hitler's assassination, "Operation Valkyrie," was coordinated by some of Hitler’s closest personnel, including Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, Field Marshal von Kluge and Field Marshal Rommel. On 20 July von Stauffenberg met with Hitler’s office in Rastenberg, Germany and placed a bomb-filled briefcase on his desk. He set the timer and left the room, which was blown apart moments later. Instead of meeting in his concrete bunker, which would have concentrated the blast force, the meeting was held in a building which dispersed the explosion. Also, only part of the bomb was set (in haste), and was put near the leg of a sturdy desk, which absorbed much of the blast.

As a result, Hitler suffered only minor injuries and immediately knew he had been betrayed. The conspirators, assuming Hitler was dead, flew to Berlin to assume command but were stopped by SS troops who got the message from Hitler that there was foul play. Hitler’s vengeance ran wild and within 24 hours he had 160 officers suspected of guilt put to death. Some of his men he allowed to humanely commit suicide a month later, including Kluge and Rommel. Rommel was not directly involved, but Boormann included him as a conspirator. In reality, Rommel wanted Hitler to be legally removed from power without bloodshed and be tried before a civil court. From there, Germany's new government could make peace with Western Allies and then concentrate on defending the east from the Soviets. However, at the time the Germans did not know that the Allies would only accept an unconditional surrender. Regardless, Rommel chose suicide over he and his family being disgraced before a court; a fittingly honorable end to one of the most respected military leaders of all time. Hitler never again trusted his military and had to rely on his personal military force, the SS, to get the job done. By coincidence, Mussolini visited Hitler shortly after his brush with death and realized his only ally was hated even more than he was.

The Allies had become frustrated with the stalemate in Normandy and the Americans were tired of Montgomery’s ineffectiveness. Eisenhower turned to one of his best men, General Omar Bradley, to devise a plan to heavily bomb German positions then move in immediately with infantry. This became known as "Operation Cobra," the Allied breakout of Normandy, which had to be carried out quickly or the Germans would just regroup and dig in again. The saturation bombing began on 24 July but problems with the accuracy of the excessively powerful bombs got "Cobra" off to a bad start. The plan only got worse the next day as thousands of bombers dropped thousands of tons of bombs, yet many fell on their own soldiers, killing 111 and wounding 490 Americans. Eisenhower was appalled at this logistical disaster and vowed never again to use heavy bombing in conjunction with infantry. Finally 3 infantry divisions moved forward to capture Marigny and St. Gilles, then the armor could roll in courtesy of General Patton.

On 28 July he took Coutances while the next day the Allied bombers destroyed hundreds of German vehicles as they began retreating in a crazed escape. Again the Allies made their conditions worse by trying to chase after them, creating a huge traffic jam. On the positive side, thousands of German prisoners were taken each day and the German war machine was finally collapsing on itself. After the general success of "Cobra," the Allies sought to cut off the northwestern tip of France, called Brittany, then encircle the existing pocket of German resistance: the 5th and 7th Panzer Armies. The Allis immediately began streaming across France to the south and the 4th and 6th Armored divisions ran to Brittany. They were to capture the port city of Brest, but this was a controversial decision because there was no strategic value westward. Still, the Allies bombed cities and advanced into fierce German resistance, who were ordered to fight to the last man. The Allies pounded them relentlessly until the Germans finally surrendered on 17 August. Although the campaign made it to Brittany and liberated the French living there, it failed to captured the original objectives: the ports.

Simultaneously the Allies pounded the 5th Panzer Army near Falaise as Patton’s 3rd Army sped along the south to encircle the German bulge, known as the "Falaise Pocket." General Bradley then ordered one of the biggest blunders in the war by telling the 3rd Army to delay the encirclement of the Germans. Instead the Allies began hammering the German army from all sides. Hitler thought the breakout would be a good time to counter-attack in "Operation Lüttich" using the 1st and 2nd Panzer SS divisions and 2nd and 116th divisions. The operation was a failure because of intercepted German Enigma messages and the Americans already had their anti-tank defenses set up. Hitler then dismissed von Kluge, believing him to be a traitor, and replaced him with Field Marshal Walther Model, who quickly informed Hitler that retreat was necessary to avoid certain defeat. The Germans had no choice since the only available escape route was only a few miles wide and closing. Over the next 2 days the Germans ran for their lives, trying to avoid the hurricane of Allied fury which killed 10,000 men, hundreds of tanks and took 50,000 prisoners. The Allies, victorious in Normandy, turned to the east.

Planned a year earlier, the invasion of southern France would establish a beachhead near the Italian border and secure the present Italian invasion. "Operation Anvil" would rely on successes in Italy and was strongly urged by Stalin to draw the Germans' attention to the west, which it did. The Mediterranean defenses were far less powerful than in Normandy, but were still deadly. They included hundreds of guns and pillboxes under the command of General Johannes Blaskowitz, whose 2 full armies had 200 tanks that were hastily moved into position about a day before the invasion. On the night of 14 August, Allied paratroopers and commandos raided the shore as warships pounded the coast to draw attention away from the invasion. The troops landed at 8 am 15 August, facing almost zero resistance from a shell-shocked German army. They quickly moved inland and were greeted by exuberant French villagers. Most of the invasion forces accomplished their missions at a minimal casualty rate.

Realizing he would need the endangered forces in southern France to defend Germany’s borders soon, Hitler authorized a rare retreat. Over the next week the Allies began taking cities and villages one by one, including the difficult Toulon on 4 September. With the help of Moroccan tribesmen, the Germans surrendered and gave up 17,000 POWs while the Free French armies had 2700 casualties. The Allies then pursued the German 19th Army and 11th Panzer division, leaving a trail of destruction, but the Germans still managed to escape eastward. US General John Dahlquist was blamed for failing to encircle the fleeing Germans, many of whom made it to eastern France. On 11 September General Patton moved in from the north to meet with French General Jean de Lattre to the south, strengthening Allied forces and ensuring French liberation. The 7th Army advanced 500 miles in 1 month and captured key ports on the Mediterranean, causing many to cite this as a victory. US Chief of Staff George Marshall called it “one of the most successful things we did,” but Churchill did not agree, citing that the hundreds of thousands of soldiers in southern France could have been used more effectively elsewhere.

As they marched across France, the Allies and the Charles de Gaulle-led French resisters drove towards Paris. Hitler’s reaction to the incoming swarm of soldiers was to destroy Paris completely so the Allies could not use it, and told General Dietrich von Choltitz, who had experience with scorched earth tactics, to level the city. This would not be an easy task with a rebellious police force and 25,000 armed resisters, led by the Communists, who on 19 August killed 50 German soldiers and wounded 100. Talks of a truce interested Choltitz because he knew Paris could not be held in the long term, considering most of the Allies in western Europe were heading east. They had planned to bypass the city, but he would never receive enough reinforcements to hold out in its inevitable seige. Choltitz was also disgusted that Hitler was more interested in destroying the French capital than defending it. Much of the city was rigged with explosives to blow up when the Allies came near. However, Choltitz did not want his name associated with the unnecessary destruction of the French capital and intentionally delayed acting on orders from Hitler to sacrifice Paris. After weighing the issues, he sent Swedish consule Raoul Nordling to ask the Allies to change their plans, and move on the capital immediately. If they arrived before the German reinforcements, Choltitz would show only a token resistance to save his reputation, his military pride, and the jewel of Europe.

The Allies reluctantly shifted towards Paris, although French General Jacques Leclerc was already on his way with the French 2nd armored division. The US 4th infantry division followed soon after, and a brief but bloody battle ensued. Too determined to let that stop him, Leclerc met with the French resistance leaders then signed an armistice with Choltitz at 3pm on 25 August. Soon after he met with Charles de Gaulle, whose presence signified the end of war in Paris and soon in France. This struck a huge blow to the Communists in Paris, who had hoped to seize power after their insurrection. Taking the city cost 628 Allied soldiers, 2300 French rebels, 2600 French citizens, 7200 German soldiers but netted 10,000 German POWs. The battle for France itself cost the Germans far more: 250,000 killed, 250,000 wounded and thousands of tanks destroyed. They also lost France as a resource, which contributed more food to Germany than any other occupied territory. France supplied 20% of the horses during the war, and most of the army moved on foot and most supplies came by horse-drawn carriage.

As for the French, the ones who had collaborated with the Germans were immediately dealt with as traitors. Most were not killed, but many were beaten and humiliated in public and ostracized for the rest of their lives. In the first month after liberation, France was aflame with the desire to punish anyone who sided with the Germans on any level. Hasty trials were set up and people were dragged out of their homes to face up to their crimes, even if there was little evidence against them. Often if they refused to admit their guilt they were tortured, and many innocent French people were imprisoned or executed based on the sketchy testimony of a witness. However, after 6 weeks or so, the "mob rule" mentality quieted down and legitimate trials were set up with a judge and jury. These followed legal procedures and fortunately very few criminals escaped and very few innocents were punished. Perhaps the most hated were the women who literally slept with the enemy; they were stripped to their undergarments and seated in front of a large crowd that jeered them. They were then shaved bald with swastikas painted on their faces so everyone would know for months what they had done. Some were even paraded in the streets with a sign saying "I whored with the Krauts."

On 20 August the war in the south continued around Romania, but the Axis-sided Romanian army was weak and by now they had lost all faith in Germany. With the ensuing high Romanian casualties, King Michael arrested his dictator, Ion Antonescu, on 23 August and subsequently began peace talks with the Allies. Hitler offered 6000 reinforcement troops, but he would have needed to give 600,000. King Michael was insulted and declared war on Germany on 26 August and signed an armistice with the Soviets, all but handing over Romania over to Stalin. The other Axis power, Bulgaria, was now cut off from any outside help and tried to sneak out of the war since technically they had never actually declared war on the USSR. Stalin crushed out that idea by declaring war on Bulgaria on 5 September and vowed to occupy the country with troops and a Communist government. Stalin kept his promise, even though Bulgaria declared war on 8 September, and he let the British handle Greece so he could shift his attention to Hungary.

On 10 June Stalin sent 2 heavily armed divisions to destroy the Finns’ stubborn persistence. The Finns put up a strong fight, but with overwhelming numbers and munitions the Soviets made their way up Finland. As the western front opened up in France, the Soviets began slowing their offensive in Scandinavia to concentrate on knocking out Germany. In late August, Soviet-Finnish talks began again and the Soviets demanded that either Finland break off their relations with Germany and remove the German presence there, or Soviet troops would take over Finland. Finland had no choice but to agree, so in early September 1944 the Continuation War came to an end. The Soviets reduced the reparations to $450 million, but made Finland shrink their military to 41,500 men and let the Red Army use their ports, ships and airports until the war was over. They also took Petsamo and the Norwegian territory of Kirkenes, but the new Finnish President Mannerheim could do nothing to protest, since they had lost 60,000 men during the last summer and could not afford to lose any more.

Early 1944

Late 1944


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