Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Long Slog

Related to the previous post, as something of a space filler I figure I might as well post up an essay I wrote a couple of months ago on the subject of the fighting in Normandy in 1944. It got a First ("A superb exposition of the various factors which contributed to the fighting in Normandy..."), though there are obviously things about it with which I am not entirely satisfied and it could be improved upon.


Why did it take so long for the Allies to defeat the Germans in Normandy? Were the Germans superior to the Allies as all round soldiers?

“This is the damndest country I ever saw.”

- General Omar Bradley

“Tommy is no soldier.”

- Comment in German after action report.

There are a number of reasons why Allied progress in Normandy following the D-Day landings was as slow as it was. Disparity in quality between the Allied forces and the Germans facing them is indeed a key reason. However, it cannot serve as an explanation by itself. The Allies faced a number of challenges during the Normandy operations that would have vexed the finest fighting forces in the world and this must be taken into account. However, the qualitative advantage enjoyed by German troops served to exacerbate the existing challenges facing the British, Canadian and American forces and made an inherently difficult job significantly more costly.

The Allies themselves identified four main impediments to swift progress in Normandy; first, the nature of the terrain; second, the weather; third, the quality of the German army and fourth problems with their own troops at various levels.[1] To this list can be added certain other factors relating to strategic planning and logistics. Although each aspect can be examined separately, the various factors involved fed into each other and it was the combined impact of all of the above that proved so troublesome.

The terrain encountered in much of Normandy, bocage, consisted of a chequerboard effect of small, self-contained fields, separated by high, thick hedgerows. This presented the defender with excellent terrain in which to operate for a number of reasons. In effect, the battlefield was compartmentalised, each field becoming a miniature battle in itself. This served to break down Allied command and control capabilities and resulted in Allied troops feeling isolated and vulnerable with a parallel decline in morale. Combat took place at extremely short ranges – 300 yards or less. This impeded advancing allied troops from bringing up heavy machineguns against already entrenched German positions and effectively served to negate one of the key allied advantages – weight of materiel. Close air support, artillery (one area in which the Allies [especially the Royal Artillery] excelled and upon which they were highly, perhaps excessively, reliant[2]) and mortars were all hampered by the close proximity of the two sides and Allied troops were often denied fire support due to the fact that the Allied and German positions were almost indistinguishable. The situation was worsened by differing approaches between the two sides. The Germans gave priority to weight of fire concentrated on set lines, employing machine and submachine guns to suppress advancing Allied troops, whereas the Americans gave priority to aimed fire over suppression (not something with an especially happy historical pedigree[3]), frequently not firing at all when there was nothing obvious at which to aim[4] – a situation that was the norm in bocage territory. The fact that the Germans possessed superior machineguns was an added problem when a firefight could be decided based on which side could keep its opponents to ground long enough to work around the flanks. In thick bocage terrain it was estimated that four small German defensive teams spread across four individual small fields could expect to tie down an entire US Army battalion and support units.[5]

Bocage territory was also deadly for tanks, given the heavily obscured sight lines and opportunities for infantry to approach tanks unseen. This problem was exacerbated by two factors. The first was the employment by the Germans of the panzerfaust (armoured fist), a highly effective one-shot, man portable anti-tank weapon tipped with a shaped charge. The second was very poor coordination between the infantry and tank arms of both the British and the American armies.[6] The British especially favoured formations that were excessively tank heavy. There were two further reasons for this. The first was faulty training.[7] In the matters of exploiting cover, concealment, dispersion (made more difficult by the nature of the terrain), suppressive fire, combined arms integration and small unit initiative, the British were woefully deficient.[8] Some of this can be explained by the fact that the British army was not an army of regulars, but one of citizen soldiers, facing an enemy of extreme professionalism and ideological zeal, but even so the British failed to make the best of what they had.[9] The second was the fact that Britain was facing an extreme manpower squeeze.[10] By August 1944, only 2,654 trained draft quality infantry were available to plug gaps in the British infantry force.[11] The British could not afford to lose infantry, but they could afford to lose tanks – an early expression of the concept of never sending a man when a bullet can be sent instead.[12] In the case of the Americans the situation was better, but not by a dramatic margin. One key problem that massively hampered co-operation between combat arms was that American infantry and tankers employed radios that operated on different frequencies and were completely incapable of communication with each other except face to face.[13]

It should be noted that not all problems were the result of tactical deficiencies. The Allies went into Normandy expecting a long, attritional slog and their planning made this almost inevitable.[14] Although enormous amounts of petrol were stockpiled, the logistical planners managed to heavily underestimate the rate of ammunition usage and this took some time to rectify. There were problems regarding unity of command, with different contingents harbouring differing priorities and command styles.[15] In the early days of the campaign, several key geographical points were left unsecured. The most notable of these was the Anglo-Canadian failure to secure Caen, a vital transport hub and assembly point, on the first day of the campaign (it ultimately fell a month and a half after D-Day).[16] Later, following the capture of Amsterdam, the British failed to open up the Scheldt estuary to Allied traffic, which resulted in continuing logistical problems (and gave the Germans valuable time to rest and refit).[17] Later, sluggishness on the part of senior British generals resulted in the failure to close the Falaise Gap, permitting in excess of fifty thousand crack German troops to escape – these troops would form a cadre that served as the foundation for continuing German resistance. For their part, the Americans often failed to adapt pre-invasion planning to new realities on the ground. Much time was spent attempting to secure French ports that had already been wrecked beyond all utility.[18] Meanwhile, General Bradley failed to concentrate American forces, distributing them in penny packets, which played into the man-to-man superiority possessed by the Germans.[19] Good old-fashioned bad luck also played a role, especially in the matter of the weather. 1944 having generally been a clement year, the Allied landings were almost immediately succeeded by the worst wind and rain in fifty years.[20] This not only destroyed one of the Mulberry harbours, significantly degrading the Allied logistics effort but it also served to ground large parts of the British and American close air support capability, further hampering the employment of what was among their key trump cards.

In order to establish areas of relative strength and weakness, it is useful to look at the qualities of the three main national forces – American, British and German – engaged in the Normandy campaign in more detail.

The US army, like its British counterpart, underwent a rapid crash expansion in order to fulfil the requirements of global total war. Unlike its German adversary, which had been planning for movement to a war footing for years before 1939, the US Army was not even fully aware of the strategic environment to which it would have to adapt until 1943.[21] As things stood, during the course of the Second World War, the army underwent a staggering increase from 334,000 men in 1939 to 12 million men under arms in 1945 – an increase of 3,500 per cent.[22] This expansion came at significant qualitative cost, a production line analogy being not unapt. US Army training tended to focus on technical competence rather than human factors and the entire system was impersonal and lacked stability.[23] A willingness to turn to technological solutions to perceived problems is a widely perceived keystone of American strategic culture[24] and this tendency was given full rein in this instance. Firepower and weight of materiel was employed as a substitute for high quality human factors.[25] The US Army was highly mechanised which in good terrain and with reliable supply lines resulted in mobility superior to that of the Germans. Unfortunately, as we have already seen, during the early stages of the Normandy campaign the terrain was very far from good, stymieing the largely road-bound US Army transport system, and the logistics train was splitting apart at the seams.[26] Ironies abound. Although the US Army took a somewhat techno-centric approach to war, its equipment was, with the exception of rifles (which, as we have already seen, the Americans did not employ well), largely inferior to that of the Germans.[27] The only combat arm that enjoyed a clear superiority over the enemy in terms of both equipment and competence was that of the artillery, which was unable to showcase its talents in the awkward terrain of bocage country. Additionally, doctrine and reality intersected only through happy coincidence. The US Army’s reliance upon artillery barrages, close air support and infantry of only moderate capability made it naturally effective on the tactical defensive. However, US doctrine stressed not only the operational offensive (understandably, given that the US Army was part of an invading force) but the tactical offensive too. This was not suited to the relatively rigid, brittle capabilities of the American infantry, which lacked initiative and combat motivation[28]. It would be wrong to argue that the Americans did not improve their performance - they did, creditably, all the while having to cope with an extremely steep learning curve.[29] However, the Americans themselves calculated that American attacks against German positions required, at minimum, a four to one manpower advantage in the Americans’ favour.[30] In reality they rarely enjoyed this advantage[31] and the results were predictable.

Painful though it is to note, British performance was, on balance, probably even worse. The British Army had been grossly under-funded in the interwar period and had to undergo an expansion of a similarly traumatic nature to that experienced by the Americans.[32] In spite of this, the British managed to excel in a number of areas. Inter-service co-operation was excellent, at sea thanks to a longstanding strategic culture of maritime expeditionary operations, at land in no small part thanks to the sterling efforts of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder.[33] The Imperial General Staff as a body put in the finest performance of the war at the strategic level. The British were the senior intelligence partner and consistently led the way in this field, running rings around the Germans. British artillery best practice was the finest in the world and British combat engineers, clanking into battle atop bizarre and yet rather effective Heath Robinson-like “funnies”, were highly skilled and put in an outstanding performance.[34] However, the rest of the story is largely dismal. Combat arms integration, notably that of tanks and infantry, was extremely poor.[35] Infantry training lacked rigour and realism in comparison with that of the Germans.[36] Dissemination of doctrine ranged from inconsistent to non-existent.[37] The British regimental system was a double-edged sword. On the one hand it served to sustain morale to a certain degree (though this is a relative judgement - the British suffered from significant morale problems all the same[38]) and gave troops a sense of comradeship and belonging that was largely absent from their American counterparts. On the other, it could result in British troops adopting an actively hostile attitude to co-operation with other units, let alone other combat arms.[39] The British often suffered from weak leadership, perpetuated by the dominance of the class structure. Cliques existed in every army, but it is unlikely that a character such as Neil Ritchie, having failed so signally in the desert war, would have found continued employment at high level in the US or – especially - German armies. Additionally, due to internal army politics, armoured warfare specialists (notably those from the Royal Tank Regiment) were held back or sidelined to training posts far from field command.[40] Contrary to popular belief, social mobility within the British army was probably less flexible in the Second World War than it had been in the First; ironically, the Germans themselves rated British non-commissioned officers with singular respect, but relatively few were commissioned, even in the face of attrition.[41] British operations tended to be characterised by initial success followed by rapid breakdown when British infantry and tankers were required to operate (often separately) beyond pre-planned artillery support.[42] A final problem was that of experience. The British Army was significantly more experienced than its American counterpart and on paper at least, this should have paid dividends.[43] It did not. No soldier can continue to fight indefinitely and it is entirely plausible that many British units were simply outstripping their period of effectiveness, becoming ever more cautious as time progressed. The Americans, largely fresh, harboured no such inhibitions. It is noteworthy that high level US commanders feared that the continuation of military conflict in the Pacific beyond V.E. Day would soon result in American troops relocated East from the European theatre to suffer from a similar malaise. However, this can be taken too far. Most German units had also seen extensive combat experience and did not experience so marked a lack of performance. War-weariness on the part of the British was probably a very real factor in British performance but, as with so many other things, it was exacerbated by very real deficiencies elsewhere – deficiencies that could and should have been rectified, or at least ameliorated.[44]

The Allies themselves recognised that the fighting quality of the German soldier was one of the key factors in their slow progress across North West Europe.[45] German troops were brought up to a very high standard of training. German doctrine emphasised combined arms operations, small unit initiative and decentralised leadership.[46] Self-criticism and an open forum for ideas were also seen as key to training, something that could infrequently be said for British practice.[47] Training was also backed up be ideology[48] – many German soldiers were true believers, in contrast to their more cynical British and American counterparts. This had a major impact in terms of morale, aggressiveness and staying power.[49] The Germans tended to defend in depth, with large mobile reserves and had the flexibility and initiative to react effectively to Allied operations. Promotion on merit was far more strongly entrenched than in either of the two main Allied armies.[50] Although German equipment was largely superior, this cannot be held up as a deterministic explanation for German capability[51] Similarly, while, as noted, the terrain of Normandy largely favoured the Germans as a matter of nature, it was their skill that enabled them to employ it to greatest effect, actively seeking to neutralise where the Allies were strongest. In contrast to the focus on materiel cherished by the Allies, the Germans focused on human factors and on this basis it should come as no surprise to discover that man for man they were superior.[52] Happily, their operational and tactical brilliance was equalled only to the extent that they were also abominably bad strategists.[53] As Colin Gray has pointed out, the Germans were unequalled in the matter of fighting, but not very good at making war.[54]

In conclusion then, it can be seen that a variety of factors conspired to contribute to the slowness of Allied victory in Normandy. The superior quality of German soldiery must be a key plank in the overall explanation. It is not sufficient in and of itself. The Allies faced numerous obstacles, many of them unavoidable, or at least understandable. In warfare, perfection is a chimera, excellence is relative and glory is generally achieved merely by being better than the other man on the day. However, in examining Allied performance, lit though it was by enormous and ultimate success, it is impossible not to conclude that the British and Americans supplemented their already heavy burden with several loads of their own creation. And inevitably – to employ a turn of phrase with some contemporary resonance – they paid the blood price.


Biddle, Stephen (2004), Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)

Creveld, Martin van (1983), Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (London: Arms and Armour)

Creveld, Martin van (1977), Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Doubler, Michael D. (1994), Closing With The Enemy: How GIs Fought The War In Europe, 1944-1945 (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press)

Doughty, Robert A. and Gruber, Ira D., eds. (1996), Warfare In the Western World (vol.2): Military Operations Since 1871 (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath)

Gray, Colin S. (1999), Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Harrison Place, Timothy (2000), Military Training in the British Army, 1940-1944: From Dunkirk to D-Day (London: Frank Cass)

Holden Reid, Brian, ed. (1997), Military Power: Land Warfare in Theory and Practice (London: Frank Cass)

House, Jonathan M. (2001), Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press)

Jensen, Geoffrey and Wiest, Andrew, eds. (2001), War in the Age of Technology (New York: New York University Press)

Keegan, John (1982), Six Armies In Normandy (London: Pimlico)

Megargee, Geoffrey P. (2000), Inside Hitler’s High Command (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press)

Millett, Allan R. and Murray, Williamson, eds. (1988), Military Effectiveness (vol.2): The Second World War (Winchester, MA: Allen & Unwin)

Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. (2001), A War To Be Won: Fighting the Second World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

Sheffield, G.D., ed. (2002), Leadership and Command: The Anglo-American Experience Since 1861 (London: Brasseys)

[1] Doughty & Gruber, eds. (1996), p.789 and Doubler (1994), p.36

[2] Murray & Millett, eds. (2001), p.417

[3] Jensen & Wiest, eds. (2001), pp.31-36

[4] Doubler (1994), p.40

[5] Doubler (1994), p.39

[6] Millett & Murray, eds. (1988), pp.110-112

[7] Harrison Place (2000), pp.128-153

[8] Biddle (2004), p.121

[9] Harrison Place (2000)

[10] Murray and Millett (2001), p.425

[11] Holden Reid, ed. (1997), pp.142-143

[12] It may be noteworthy that Montgomery gained early experience on the staff of British Second Army in the Great War, whose motto was “waste metal, not flesh”. It was a good rule to live by and Second Army’s performance was excellent, but the campaign in North West Europe saw this taken to extremes and nowhere was the finely tuned co-ordination inherent to the impressive British advances of summer 1918 in evidence. Sheffield, ed. (2002), p.125 lends weight to this notion.

[13] House (2001), p.167

[14] Murray and Millett (2001), pp.419-420

[15] Murray and Millett (2001), p.416

[16] Doughty & Gruber, eds. (1996), p.786

[17] Doughty & Gruber, eds. (1996), p.794

[18] Doughty & Gruber, eds. (1996), p.791

[19] Murray & Millett (2001), p.426

[20] Doubler (1994), p.36

[21] Millett & Murray, eds. (1988), p.46

[22] Millet & Murray, eds. (1988), p.47

[23] Van Creveld (1983), pp.76-79 and Sheffield, ed. (2002), p.123

[24] Gray (1999), pp.145-146

[25] Doughty & Gruber, eds. (1996), p.788

[26] House (2001), pp.138-139

[27] Millett & Murray, eds. (1988), p.73

[28] Van Creveld (1983), p.88 and Millett & Murray, eds. (1988), p.83

[29] Doubler (1994)

[30] Murray & Millett, eds. (1988), p.61

[31] Murray & Millett (2001), p.426 and Millett & Murray, eds (1988), p.61

[32] Millett & Murray, eds. (1988), p.90

[33] Millett & Murray, eds. (1988), p.107

[34] Millett & Murray, eds. (1988), p.73

[35] Harrison Place (2000), pp.128-130

[36] Harrison Place (2000), pp.40-63, van Creveld (1983), pp.72-74 and Millett & Murray, eds. (1988), pp.112-113

[37] Harrison Place (2000), pp.8-18

[38] Holden Reid, ed. (1997), pp.132-133

[39] Sheffield, ed. (2002), p.123 Harrison Place (2000) notes the incidence of a British armoured officer refusing to serve with Royal Artillery attached to his tank unit because, “the Royal Horse Artillery serves with the cavalry.” This is mind-boggling and would have been unthinkable in the US or German armies.

[40] Millett & Murray, eds. (1988), p.126

[41] ibid

[42] Biddle (2004), p.121

[43] Harrison Place (2000), p.3

[44] Harrison Place (2000), pp.168-177

[45] Doughty & Gruber, eds. (1996), p.789 and Doubler (1994), p.36

[46] House (2001), p.179, van Creveld (1983), pp.35-37 and Murray & Millet (2001), p.412

[47] Millett & Murray, eds. (1988), p.209

[48] Murray & Millett (2001), p.412

[49] Sheffield, ed. (2002), p.174

[50] Van Creveld (1983), pp.25-26

[51] Biddle (2004), pp.112-113

[52] Millett & Murray (1988), p.214

[53] Megargee (2000), pp.230-236

[54] Gray (1999), p.50


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