Hermes' Wings

History, Writing and Personal Musings

A Day at the Beach: Normandy 1944

Masthead-Normandy

In the blank, unexplored spaces of the ancient world, map makers set down warnings that “here be dragons.” In the modern world, dragons might not exist but ambiguity does.running

When an associate recently suggested a quartet of books revisiting the battle for Normandy for the upcoming 75th anniversary of D-Day in June, I realized that I had no desire to add to the existing span of literature on Normandy. To do so felt trite, conventional and despite the overwhelming heroic mythos of the campaign, boring, because it meant retreading ground already explored at length but hundreds of writers since 1944.

While I may be incapable of adding words, I have no compunction about adding art pertaining to the battle, and especially maps, because here is a medium capable of heightening clarity and through which a modicum of originality can be achieved even though the places have all been mapped a thousand times before since early humans began to wonder about the world around them, recording the lines, culverts and rises made by people and nature alike on parchment in order to quash our fear of the unknown. Swords and arrows, it turns out, are not the only ways to kill dragons. Structure and knowledge are equally potent.

For me, map-making, like music, is another form of communication, using a language made up of lines, hues and symbols to tell a story. Maps are meant to be things of precision and when they work, they invite the viewer to explore the world set in pixel or ink before them, allowing us traverse a landscape in our imagination and wonder what happened here or there.

Below follow my attempts to map the most important events in the three-month slog which constitutes the battle for Normandy. I have given myself until January 31st February 10 to complete the series in order to start an unrelated photography project on living spaces on the Indian subcontinent, partly inspired by the work of the living British artist, Doreen Fletcher, who paints the neighborhoods of London’s East End, even as gentrification threatens to expunge the character of the place. (Check out her work; it’s interesting)

In any case, here are the maps, with a handful of pertinent photographs and my thoughts. If you have comments or criticisms to make, I’m open to hearing them.

The below map, titled “Closing the Gap,” while posted out of chronological order in the following series, is possibly my favorite, with my dispensing of the usual NATO-style military symbols which are a staple of battle maps in favor of a self-devised system of icons and glyphs intended to compact unit designations. I think the end result is more attractive and effective in the way it conveys information.

Normandy - Falaise - Closing the Gap

Building on the work of Major C.C.J. Bond, late of the Canadian Army, whose work was published in the official “The Victory Campaign,” Part III, this map includes research from several sources, including Terry Copp’s Fields of Fire (2003). I was particularly interested in analyzing the travails of the Free Polish Division around the town of Falaise (depicted using blue arrows) whose contributions have been largely ignored by postwar historians. The included figures of German motorized transport and tanks claimed as destroyed by the Allied air forces can be misleading in that claims by pilots often did not mirror reality. In fact, the Germans lost 133 tanks (most of which were abandoned), 701 “soft-skinned” vehicles and 51 guns in the so-called “Falaise Pocket,” in contrast to claims by pilots that they had blown up 6,251 vehicles within the pocket.

An Overall look at Operation “Overlord”

Normandy D-Day Map

The prospect of returning militarily to France sent the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill into paroxysms of fear and dread, haunted as he was by the specter of another “Dunkirk.” For years, he had put off a cross-channel invasion of western France by cajoling and manipulating the Americans into participating in military expeditions in the Mediterranean intended to take the Allies into Germany through the soft, underbelly of Italy. By 1943, however, the Americans were of the firm belief that Nazi Germany could only be defeated through a direct assault on Hitler’s “Atlantic wall” a metaphysical entity threading from Spain to Norway. The American planners of the 1940s knew well enough that walls, no matter how thick or tall, offered no impediment to determination and a plan began to coalesce, involving pitching twelve Allied divisions (roughly 156,000 men) into German-occupied Normandy, to hew an iron beachhead from which Allied troops could range deeper into Nazi-occupied Europe.

In retrospect, Churchill’s fears seem unfounded. He spent much of June 5 and 6 in a state of unbridled inner terror, fearing that the invasion, codenamed Operation “Overlord,” would fail, dealing the western alliance with a critical setback, and forcing them to marshal manpower for another invasion in late 1945 or 1946 — by which time Hitler could have used his western reserves to smash the Soviets on the eastern front. Yet, the bulk of Germany’s forces along the Norman coast were tired, rear-echelon units with substandard equipment. The best division in the area was the 12,734-strong German 352nd Infantry Division, which had almost no combat experience (50% of its officers were green while the rank and file was largely made up of teenagers from the Hannover area). Only the presence of a hardened cadre of veterans from the Eastern Front peaked the division’s fighting prowess to acceptable levels. The other divisions were worse, with the exception of the 709th Infantry under the experienced Lt-General Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben, also a veteran of the Russian front.

Von Schlieben’s command, however, was less than stellar, being largely composed of men regarded as unsuitable for frontline service. The average age of a soldier in the 709th was 36 and their training had been minimal. Russian defectors padded out the infantry even though their combat effectiveness was questionable. The unit’s left flank, however, was bolstered by the 91st Airlanding Division, which although green, was better motivated and tough.

The Allied armada, which left England on June 5, would take 17 hours to cross the English Channel while Allied paratroopers flew out after dusk to secure the flanks of the invasion zone – west of the Norman capital Caen and on the Cotentin peninsula, in order to stem the flow of German reinforcements into the planned beachhead assault zone. At midnight, 13,348 Allied paratroopers began to descend onto Normandy, throwing the Germans into chaos. Then, just after dawn, at 6 am, the Allied invasion fleet hove into view off the Norman coast.

Sword Beach

Normandy - Sword Beach V2

A critically important sector, troops hitting “Sword” Beach were meant to roll up into the Norman capital, Caen (population 54,000), whose great road hub would have facilitated an easy advance deep into Nazi-occupied France and open the way to Paris, just 149 miles away.

The unit handed the task was the British 3rd Infantry Division, the oldest command unit in the British Army with exploits ranging back to the Battle of Waterloo in the 19th century. Bolstered by 4,000 commandos, a brigade of (212) Sherman tanks, and the paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division on their right flank, the Third pushed ahead towards Caen on the morning of June 6, sweeping aside German resistance until the sole German armored division in the area, the 21st Panzer, placed itself between them and Caen at midday.

The 21st Panzer, once a fabled stalwart of the North African war was now a toothless tiger, replete with misfits and recruits — although 2,000 original members, having been hospitalized for wounds in North Africa two years ago, had returned to swell its ranks. Evidence of its diminished standing was borne out by the fact that it had until recently, been equipped with old French tanks captured in 1940, although by D-Day, it had been outfitted with Panzer IVs, a medium tank which was an even match for the Allied Sherman. Even its commander, Major-General Edgar Feuchtinger, behaved as though the running of this division was something of a chore, if not punishment. Accordingly, Feuchtinger spent more time lavishing attention on his mistress in Paris, than on working to get his division to full operational status. In fact, Feuchtinger was once again philandering in Paris when the invasion materialized, enraging his superior, Lt-General Hans Speidel, the Chief of Staff of Army Group B. As a chastened Feuchtinger raced back to Normandy on the afternoon of the 6th, the division activated itself and sent out patrols.

Troops from the British 3rd Infantry Division press on towards Caen on D-Day. (IWM)

British tanks and Infantry streaming towards Caen began to take heavy fire as they reached the Periers Ridge, a stretch of high ground before the villages of Periers-sur-le-Dan and Bieville. Instead of smashing through, the British infantry of the 1st South Lancashire Regiment and the tanks of the 13/18th Royal Hussars dug in. Aside from a smattering of German infantry and strung-out screens of antitank guns, there was virtually nothing between them and the city. They could have well been in Caen by mid-afternoon. But their leader, Brigadier Edward Cass, preferring to wait for reinforcements. It would prove a fateful decision.

Meantime, senior German officers were scrambling to deploy their armored reserves scattered around central and southern France. At 9 am, nearly two hours after the beach landings, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt of OberKommando West, had attempted to rush the 12th SS (Hitler Jugend) Panzer Division and the elite Panzer Lehr Division into the invasion zone, only to be stalled by Field Marshal Alfred Jodl, the German Chief of Operations Staff in Berlin, who argued that only Hitler had the authority to move these units. But Hitler, a habitual late riser, was still asleep and would not awake before noon. When he did, he flew into a rage at the news of the Allied invasion. By when the armored units finally began to move, it was 4 PM.

By this time, British thrusts towards Caen and Lion sur-Mer had stalled, prompting them to give up on their plan to link up with Canadian troops fighting in the neighboring “Juno” sector. Rushing through this gap, tanks and infantry of the 21st Panzer reached the coast intact. “The future of Germany may very well rest on your shoulders,” a senior officer had told their commander, Colonel von Oppeln-Bronikowski. “If you don’t push the British back, we’ve lost the war.” Instead, the Germans were horrified to see a swarm of Allied transport aircraft tugging gliders headed in their direction at 6 pm. Afraid that they would be cut-off by gliders landing all around them, Oppeln-Bronikowski called the retreat. Caen, however, would remain in German hands for the next five weeks, becoming a thorn in the Allied side and costing the lives of thousands of troops before it eventually fell.

This map was arduous to make, in that it took nearly 10 hours to complete, because instead of separating the various component actions of June 6 into three entities — the airborne landings, the main beach assault and the push inland and the German counterattack — I sought to encompass every aspect of the eastern British sector into a single map. However, in comparison to my map of “Utah” Beach which can be found below, this map was also frustrating to make because of a paucity of information.

For example, I did not have the luxury of detailed information about the drop patterns of British airborne units from official British sources — unlike the US military which liberally proffers information about the activities of the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions on Normandy’s Cotentin Peninsula. Movements of land forces were established through careful research and by consulting several books on Normandy, specifically Georges Bernage’s Gold Juno Sword (2007). The resulting map, I hope, offers a clear picture of events in the “Sword” sector, although, given its complexity, I feel myself searching for Waldo.

Juno Beach

Normandy - Juno Beach V2

Admittedly, the Canadian involvement in the Second World War has never much interested me because it smacks of an imperial obligation rather than an idealistic desire to defeat Nazism (unlike the United States, Britain and “Free Forces” of Europe) — although I know deep down that this is untrue.

At “Juno,” forces of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division under a fat-faced general, Rodney Keller, who was popular with his men because of his penchant for plain-speaking but unpopular within the high command for his drinking problems, faced six German wiederstandnests (strongpoints) set at one kilometer intervals, each protected by layers of mines, trenches, barbed wire, machine guns, antitank guns and mortars, with heavy artillery located behind the coast to pummel invading forces. To the dismay of the Canadians, the Allied aerial bombardment which had preceded the beach assaults along the coast had failed to knock out many of the strongpoints and artillery emplacements in their sector. On the flip side, many of the German troops in the area were little more than teenagers or Russian defectors of the Ostlegion (Eastern Legion) who lacked motorized transport. Soldiers had to walk to positions and heavy guns had to be moved using horses.

 

As the Canadians landed, heavy fighting erupted along the length of “Juno.” Under withering fire, one company (B Co., Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada) lost a third of its strength — 65 men — while sprinting across 100 yards of knee-high water from their landing crafts to the beach. The beaches soon began to pile up with bodies, burning Sherman tanks, bulldozers and landing craft. Other companies, however, made good progress. By 2.30 PM, the Canadians were at the town of Cruelly, five miles from the coast, where they found just eight enemy defenders, five of whom were Russians and three Lithuanians (the German garrison in the town had been sent to reinforce Caen). Cruelly was intended to be the meeting point between the Canadians and British troops landing at the neighboring “Gold” sector. Yet, by late afternoon, no British arrived and so the Canadians pressed on, seizing as much as six kilometers of territory inland – and in the process securing the greatest amount of territory of any of the invasion forces on D-day, at the cost of 1,200 dead.

While all of this is rousing stuff, I found this map a little boring to make because of the large tracts of land where nothing happened. There was no massed German counterattack or a Clausewitzian masterstroke, just a series of small unit actions which led to the categorical defeat of the Germans.

Gold Beach

An American aircraft photographs “Gold” beach (specifically “Jig” sector with the town of Meuvaines at the center-right) at about 11.30 am on D-Day, as British troops head inland. (Aerial Reconnaissance Archive)

With nearly 2,500 beach obstacles strewn across the 10-mile width of “Gold” Beach, and facing a coastal landscape which alternated between marsh, flooded plains and boulders, troops of the British 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division struggled to advance off the beachhead despite being aided by special support tanks (nicknamed Hobart’s Funnies) from the British 79th Armored Division under Major-General Percy Hobart. The British finally secured the beachhead by mid-afternoon and linked up with the Canadians at Cruelly, although their efforts to capture their primary objective, the Norman city of Bayeux ran out of steam by dusk.

While making these maps, I began to wonder if any one of the 146,000 Allied troops in France who survived the bloodshed of that “longest day,” and once safe for the night, spared a thought for the future historians and map makers who would anguish over the deciphering and recording of their battle lines and unit movements.

This map of “Gold” took approximately 12-13 hours of work to complete, during which I had consult several sources (some dubious) in order to capture what I feel is an accurate lay of the land and the actions of the combatants.

Omaha Beach

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Despite the legendary place it occupies in the pantheon of American history, a mythology heightened by Steven Spielberg’s gripping yet bombastic anti-war film, Saving Private Ryan (1996), the nature of events at “Omaha Beach” are disquieting. On one hand, it is fascinating to chart how, despite the fact that the Canadians and the British largely managed to get their forces in on time and on target, the American beach assaults verged on the farcical, with units landing on every beach sector except that which they had been assigned. In fact, just one infantry company out of nine (‘A’ Company, 116th Regiment) landed at its appointed location.

Incompetence also raged among the American armored support when two company commanders, over the objections of the US naval officers, demanded that their amphibious “swimming” Sherman tanks be launched nearly 5,000 yards from the shore, in heady waters, which prompted the sinking of 27 machines, badly depriving the American infantry of support at “Omaha” where the Germans had sited 12 strongpoints bristling with machine guns and antitank weapons. The result was the death, maiming or capture of 2,400 Americans, which nevertheless, was five percent below the final casualty rate that Allied planners had been prepared to accept.

Making this map was relatively easy because of its small scale size despite contradictions posed by other sources. A book by Osprey Publishing, for example, offered up the terrain of “Omaha” as one of a gentle incline, ignoring the fact that the beaches in this part of the coastline are overlooked by 100-foot tall bluffs from where German bunkers heaped death and destruction. Other maps are confused in their depiction of landing units and still others are largely unreadable because they used too similar colors, added sketchy information or did not add enough terrain relief. In order to capture the trueness of the landscape, I had to turn to the original “Bigot” maps used by Allied war planners, although I was forced to omit the lines of hedgerows depicted in these maps because they added denseness to the subject matter.

I hope the end result offers a clear depiction of events at “Omaha” although I am dissatisfied with my work. There is something about this map which does not feel tangible and I should have added an additional half mile of the southern landscape in order to better depict the extent of the American penetration of the beachhead before dusk. I suppose at the time that I felt (however irrationally) that since the story of “Omaha” is so ingrained in the consciousness of ordinary Americans, like Gettysburg is or Appomattox or Little Big Horn, not to mention D-Day enthusiasts, that I did not necessarily have to go into full detail.

Utah Beach

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I personally favor this map not  just because of the landscape it covers (which is now stuff of western folklore with benevolent American paratroopers descending scattered out of the summer night to land amid sleepy Norman towns before rallying in the dark and ejecting German troops) or the colors (of which there are many), but because of the information it conveys. Armed with accurate American airborne drop patterns, I was able to translate that information into an overall map of the Cotentin peninsula detailing not only the primary beach landings by the US Army and Navy but also the tepid German counter-reaction.

At 12.48 am on June 6, members of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions began to drop over the southeastern part of the Cotentin, in order to secure static locations intended to prevent German reinforcements from streaming into the beach assault zones. Unfortunately, for the Americans, bad weather and heavy German anti-aircraft fire severely disrupted the para drop, which for example, resulted in only 2,500 out of 6,600 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne assembled in their appointed areas. The rest were strewn across the peninsula, many of whom came down in flooded areas after Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the commander of the German Army Group B had ordered open locks at the mouth of the Merderet River, flooding parts of the countryside. An estimated 680 paratroopers of the 507th Parachute Regiment (82d Airborne) came down in a swamp to the east of DZ ‘T’ where water depths were over eight feet. At least 36 paratroopers drowned, some in less than three feet of water (another source claims over a hundred) as they were weighed down by 130 pounds of kit. Despite these setbacks, the American airborne divisions largely accomplished their objectives.

The main amphibious assault landings by the US 4th Infantry Division began at 6.30 am, preceded by a wave of 32 Sherman amphibious tanks. As at “Omaha,” the landings nearly devolved into a fiasco when the first wave landed on the wrong beach. The assistant divisional commander, the arthritis-ridden Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt III (son of former president Teddy Roosevelt and cousin to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) took immediate charge, saying: “We’ll start the war from right here.” Although the military credited him with salvaging a potentially disastrous situation by adapting the original plan of attack to compensate for the landing error, and rewarding him with a Medal of Honor for the fact, none of the American commanders at “Omaha” who had done much of the same, were similar recognized. Roosevelt’s family pedigree undoubtedly helped.

While the German defenders at “Utah” possessed 110 artillery pieces, in addition to a further 18 batteries of artillery (including massive 210 mm guns), they were unable to prevent the Americans from entrenching themselves on the peninsula. Adding to the general sense of rout was that much of the beachfront at “Utah” had been held by an Ost battalion of Russian defectors and a unit from the troubled 709th Infantry Division. The Americans made swift progress off the beach, but the Cotentin which  was bocage country with thick hedgerows offered other challenges for the Americans as they pushed north towards the port city of Cherbourg and south towards Carentan.

Studying this map and that of “Omaha,” one gets a sense of the sheer absurdity of the plot of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. First we have a company of US Army Rangers landing at “Dog One” (across from Exit D1) at “Omaha” and once the beach was secured, making their way through at least 50 to 60 kilometers of hostile landscape teeming with German troops to reach the Cotentin Peninsula, where they eventually decide on a last stand at a small bridge only to be attacked by German Tiger tanks and SS panzergrenadiers — in a scene clearly inspired by the real-life battle of Graignes (a village about 4 miles south of Carentan). The plot defies the fact that American troops never encountered any of the 126 Tiger tanks which eventually deployed in Normandy. Such machines belonged purely to the realm of the Anglo-Canadian experience in Normandy. In fact, the sole German armored unit on the Cotentin during the early stages of the campaign was the 100th Panzer Battalion which was equipped with obsolete French tanks captured in 1940. German SS troops also did not arrive on the peninsula until June 11.

no-7

Pointe-du-Hoc

Normandy - Pointe-du-Hoc

Despite my best intentions, I feel that this map is a complete failure and that the landscape and actions are better suited for a diorama. But, heck, what can you do? Several hours of work had already been sunk into it.

It is somewhat repetitive to talk about the action at Pointe-du-Hoc, a landform 7 kilometers (4 miles) east of “Omaha,” which was assaulted by men of the American 2nd Ranger Battalion. Aerial reconnaissance had identified several large caliber gun emplacements and success of the entire landings was seen as related to the destruction of these fearsome weapons. Scaling the almost 40 meter (130 ft) high cliff under intense fire and supported by heavy-fire from several offshore Allied destroyers, notable USS Satterlee and HMS Talybont, plus the British motorboat ML304, the Rangers fought their way to the casemates only to discover that the guns had never been installed. Dismayed, the Rangers nevertheless pushed on and discovered that the six 155 mm guns had been abandoned in transit half a kilometer (550 yards) down the road, guarded by a 100-strong force of Germans. Driving away the enemy, the Rangers then blew open the guns’ elevating and traversing mechanism using thermite grenades. They then returned to Pointe-du-Hoc, which they held for two days against fierce German counterattacks. Reinforcements arrived on June 8, by which time the gallant battalion had suffered the loss of 77 men killed, 152 wounded and 38 missing. Only 75 men were fit for combat. In all, they were the first of the amphibious-landed Americans to attain their objectives on D-Day.

No-8

The Americans Advance through the Cotentin Peninsula

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There were arguably no greater aids to Allied fortunes than Hitler’s overblown ego and his penchant for petty symbolism. When his generals warned him that several divisions would be cut off in the Cotentin as the Americans cut across at the center of the peninsula, Hitler refused to authorize the withdrawal of the threatened units and instead ordered them to make a last stand at the port city of Cherbourg which the Allies were anxious to secure after a violent storm in the English Channel had smashed or impaired their artificial harbors (codenamed “Mulberries”) which had been constructed on the beachheads in the days after D-Day.

Hitler’s orders were maniacal but only one senior officer, Major-General Rudolf Stegmann of the 77th Division, chose to disobey the Fuhrer’s direct orders and withdrew his division south, before the gap was sealed by the American 9th Infantry Division. The rest, lacking heavy weapons and tanks, hunkered down around Cherbourg and prepared to make a fight out of it. They hopes were buoyed somewhat by the slow progress of their American enemies, especially by the troops of the 90th Infantry Division, which, composed of men from Texas and Oklahoma, prided itself as a bunch of “tough ‘ombres” but nevertheless constituted the worst division in the US Army.

No-9

The Capture of Cherbourg

Normandy - Cherbourg Assault

‘When worst comes to worst’, Hitler told Lt-General Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben, commander of the 16,000-stong garrison at Cherbourg, “it is your duty to defend the last bunker and leave to the enemy not a harbor but a field of ruins.” Meantime, the task of capturing Cherbourg had fallen to US Lt-General Omar Bradley’s First Army.

At 2 pm on June 22, preceded by a massive bombardment by artillery and more than a 1,000 planes, the American opened their attack against the three ridgelines that constituted Cherbourg’s first line of defenses. The city’s defenses were originally intended to hold off invaders from the sea, and for this task, the port and coastline was populated with heavy coastal batteries, including a large 240mm gun battery codenamed “Hamburg.” The Allied naval task force charged with neutralizing the batteries found the going tough. Shell after shell was lobbed at the batteries, seemingly without effect. One vessel, the British HMS Enterprise, lobbed 316 rounds of six-inch ammunition at a coastal emplacement codenamed “York” before the battery was silenced, only to see the guns return to life in the evening as the task force withdrew. Other vessels, namely the American battleships Texas and Arkansas, plus five destroyers, hurled 206 rounds of 14-inch ammunition, 58 rounds of 12-inch ammunition and 552 rounds of five-inch ammunition at “Hamburg,” to achieve nothing more than the destruction of a one gun out of four. The German shelling against the ships was equally poor. “It was like throwing stones at a bottle and always missing,” said one naval crewman later.

On terre ferme, the Germans fought fanatically for every yard of ground and defensive posts had to be eliminated one by one. American infantrymen were given a terrifying refresher course in tactics, when they were forced to engage in two days of brutal house-to-house fighting on the road to Fort du Roule. The remnants of five German divisions held out in the besieged port and were intent on following Hitler’s orders to the end. American infantry platoons improvised street-fighting techniques of covering  building across streets as squads leapt forward; they also learned to pave their way forward with grenades and machine-gun fire, rooting out the enemy in close-combat fighting, reminiscent of the fighting in Stalingrad on the Russian Front in 1942.

Slowly the American ring around the city tightened until the Germans finally cracked on the 25th. On the following day, von Schlieben and 800 of his men surrendered when tanks began pounding the tunnel entrances above their bunker. A shock awaited the victors. True to Hitler’s orders, the Germans had carried out a systematic destruction and perhaps the most brilliantly planned and executed demolition of a city, which saw the Germans lay mines, sink blockships and demolish facilities. It would be months before the port achieved full operational status, by which time other ports would have fallen to the Allies, making the battle of Cherbourg nothing but a hollow victory. Bradley was so furious with von Schlieben for having destroyed the port that he refused to meet with him as military protocol dictated.

In all, American troops had captured 39,042 Germans in the Cotentin since the beginning of D-Day for the loss of 1,800 dead and 15,000 other casualties.

no-10

“Epsom” – The British Break the Back of the German SS

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I was leery of tackling “Epsom” and the ensuing British struggle to capture “Hill 112” which the Germans regarded as a “cornerstone” of their defenses in Normandy, because of a confused book on the subject that I had read as a teenager which had built a fragmented understanding of the battle in my mind. I am unsure if this is a common human trait, but I find it difficult to deprogram my mind from things assimilated during childhood, even when the information is faulty. The book, like many subsequent pulp history books on Normandy, was a collection of disjointed vignettes with spoke of places and events without introduction as though the reader was expected to know of the things mentioned, a situation made worse by a collection of maddeningly ineffective maps which often did not contain the names of places being mentioned in the text.

The above map took me roughly three days to complete, following a close reading of three books: Antony Beevor’s “D-Day,” Tim Saunders’ unimaginatively titled “Operation Epsom” and Kevin Baverstock’s “Breaking the Panzers.” The clarity of Saunders’ text made up for the conventionality of his book title and whose small details form the foundation of this map. I can joke that the end result is something akin to a Jackson Pollock painting.

“Epsom’s” importance lies in the fact that it drew the greatest number of German SS Panzer divisions than had been assembled since the titanic tank battle of Kursk on the Russian front in July 1943. The Shutzstaffel’s opponents during “Epsom” were largely green, considering that Britain’s A-Team, the 7th Armored, the 50st Northumbrian and 51st Highland Divisions, all veterans of the earlier campaign for North Africa, had been repulsed with heavy losses while trying to penetrate German lines (see my post on Villers-Bocage) earlier that June. In fact, during “Epsom,” just two smaller units, the 4th and 8th Independent Armored Brigades, were battle proven. The rest, including the 15th Scottish, the 11th Armored and the 49th (West Reading) divisions were rookies and their fighting prowess was regarded ad questionable. What ensued, however, is fascinating from a sociological and military point of view.

These green divisions, envious of and intimidated by the titanic reputations of their desert brethren, fought fiercely, emerging as the most capable fighting formations in the British Army. The advance of the 15th Scottish Division during “Epsom” displayed a remarkable level of skill and determination, with the division bashing its way towards Hill 112 in defiance of per-operational estimates. By June 28, the British were poised to fold up the German lines and rumble towards Caen, only to be betrayed by the cautiousness of their commander, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who pulled them from Hill 112 in the face of a German armored counterthrust. As for the SS? With their units ravaged and demoralized by the Scots and the English, they would never again commit to a counteroffensive against the British Army.

no-11

Operation “Charnwood” – The Allies capture Half of Caen

Normandy - Charnwood

I initially had little interest in making a map about Operation “Charnwood,” a half successful Allied attempt to secure the Norman capital of Caen which was supposed to have been captured by Anglo-Canadian troops on D-Day, because it thought it would be superfluous, considering that it would be rehashing cartographic ground covered by some of my other maps. After researching the battle, however, I recognized the need to create a map examining the battle.

“Charnwood” was borne out of Montgomery’s angst over his previous failed attempts to take the city, and the British commander had become so determined to seize the city without further delay that he was even prepared to accept it as a field of rubble. Consequently, on the later afternoon of July 7, British naval vessels, including the battleship HMS Rodney began to hurl heavy fire upon Point 64, a bit of high ground dominating a network of roads just north of Caen. Airstrikes by British Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers followed before the main “curtainraiser” began — an airstrike by 467 heavy British bombers at 9.50 PM.

By midnight, 400 French civilians had died under the weight of 2,000 tons of bombs and northern Caen was in smoldering ruin. “Charnwood” and the land offensive began at 4.20 am on the 8th, soon encountering troops from the German 12th SS “Hitler Youth” Panzer Division, who had been reinforced by elements of the 1ss SS Panzer Division —   hardened cutthroats from the Russian front.

Although troops from the newly arrived British 59th Division faltered in the face of German fire, Anglo-Canadian forces from the twin “Thirds” — the 3rd British and 3rd Canadian Infantry Division — bashed on. By 4 PM, men of the 2nd King’s own Shropshire Light Infantry of the 185th Brigade had wrested control of Point 64 from the Germans. It was a momentous occasion. This had been the brigade’s original objective on D-Day. It had taken them 32 days to fulfill their mission.

On the Canadian front, leapfrogging over other regiments such as the Queens Rifles of Canada and the Regiment of Chaudieres, men of the North Nova Scotia Regiment met fierce fire from the 12th SS.

Kurt “Panzer” Meyer, the divisional commander, who had been watching the advance of the Canadians from the tower of the Abbaye Ardenne, decided to counter-attack with two panzergrenadier battalions supported by tanks. The Novas were overrun at Authie after a vicious close-quartered battle and Buron was lost after a fierce tank battle. Following the loss of 21 tanks, 120 men killed, 192 wounded and 120 captured, the commander of the Canadian of the 9th Brigade decided to withdraw the Novas and the Fusiliers to Les Buissons where other Canadian battalions were preparing a “fortress” position.

Then an incident occurred which stiffened Canadian resolve. Eighteen captured members of the North Nova Scotias were executed by the SS at Buron, while 37 others were killed in Authie — a war crime for which Meyer was sentenced to death after the war (although he took no active part; the sentence was later commuted). Renewed fighting erupted, with the infuriated Canadians hammering German lines relentlessly until the line broke. The cost had been stiff, however. In the two days before “Charnwood” petered out, some British and Canadian battalions lost 25 percent of their strength Allied troops celebrated the capture of the northern half of Caen, but the Germans still held the south and the Collombelles steelworks to the northeast.

 

No-12

Operation “Goodwood” – A British Schwerpunkt Meets its Match

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This operation, with its kinky name, has always served to distract.

In any case, I’ll eventually have something clever to say here…and about Field Marshal Montgomery’s overcautious stupidity.

No-13

An American Cobra in Normandy

Normandy - Cobra

I’ve always felt that “Cobra” was a somewhat boring American offensive, which nevertheless took troops of US Lt-General Omar Bradley’s First Army out of the nightmare of the hedgerows and onto the clear fields beyond.  Is there anything interesting that I can say about the offensive? probably not, although mention should be made of the tragic circumstances which served as a prelude to the operation.

“Cobra” was scheduled for July 23, 1944, but eyeing heavily laden grey skies overhead, American ground commanders decided to postpone the attack. The message was passed onto to the Allied air commander, Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, a martinet and a self-important “Colonel Blimp,” who called off the attack, although he failed to ensure that the message reached many of the American B-17 and B-24 bombers already in the air. Approaching the front on a perpendicular trajectory, over 350 planes dropped nearly 700 tons of bombs through heavy cloud cover. Some of the bombs landed on the American 30th Infantry Division when a faulty release mechanism caused a bomber to drop its load prematurely. The resulting 150 casualties shocked and angered Bradley, but unwilling to give the alerted Germans time to respond, he approved an attack for the following day with only a few changes in procedures. This time six groups of fighter-bombers and three bombardment divisions of heavies took off from bases in England on the morning of 24 July, only to have disaster strike once again. The force of 1,500 heavy bombers, 380 medium bombers, and 550 fighter-bombers could barely see the Periers-St. Lô road due to dust, and bombardiers again experienced difficulty in spotting targets and judging release points. The “short bombings” killed 111 American soldiers, including the visiting chief of Army Ground Forces, US Lt-General Lesley J. McNair, who had done so much to organize and train the Army prior to its deployment overseas. McNair would become the highest-ranking American to die in the north-west European campaign.

Stunned and demoralized by the short bombings, American troops made little initial headway. Bradley later commented that when news of the failures and the bombing filtered into his headquarters, dejection “settled over us like a wet fog.” But the airstrikes had had even more of a debilitating effect on German forces. At the center of the penetration, the German Panzer Lehr Division had virtually ceased to exist as a fighting force. Finally gathering their wits, American tanks and infantry moved through the ravaged landscape and headed south.

No-14

Operation Bluecoat

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Bluecoat is another under-reported, if esoteric, British offensive whose details were largely lost to me, until I took to creating this map.

Despite the Americans committing fifteen of the twenty-two divisions under General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group for Operation Cobra, in order to bash south into Brittany, US Army gains were initially tepid until the Germans began to retreat at the tail of July. To help the Americans, the British launched an offensive of their own down the “Suisse France” area of Normandy, so named because it resembled Switzerland with rolling hills, ridges and wooded plains. The British operation, codenamed “Bluecoat,” launched on July 30, diverting significant German forces away from “Cobra.” By July 31, the American offensive was over, with US troops have seized 40 miles of territory, which took them out of the confines of the bocage. “Bluecoat” carried on into August, with British troops securing Mont Pincon, the highest feature in Normandy.

In retrospect, this map was extremely challenging to make because of the sheer range of forces involved. Information was sketchy in places and too detailed in others. My attempts to research accurate strengths and losses for the units which took part in this battle relied heavily on fragmented data and as a consequence, are largely approximates or estimates.

No-15

The Mortain Counterattack

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Since the “Mortain Counterattack” is described in some detail on wikipedia, I’ll get to the more interesting aspects instead.

The counterattack was another in a long line of Hitlerian fantasies of driving his enemies into the “sea,” a vision realized in 1940 in spectacular fashion when he had driven the British to Dunkirk. In August 1944, as US Lt-General George S. Patton’s Third Army rushed south along Normandy’s western coast, following the American breakout out of the hedgerows during Operation “Cobra,” Hitler saw an opportunity to strike at Patton’s flanks and isolate the Third Army in the south where it could be destroyed. He authorized five armored divisions (which had been badly wracked by losses in the proceeding weeks of combat) to cut across the American lines and reach the sea at Avranches. Unfortunately, three problems stood against Hitler’s miasmatic dreams of victory — overwhelming Allied fighting strength, superior Allied air power and exasperated German generals. One, Lt-General Graf von Schwerin, an officer of the Old Prussian school, was so convinced that the offensive would fail that he neglected to move his division to the appointing launch-off area. Von Schwerin’s reluctance was rooted in his hatred of the Nazis. In 1939, he had even traveled to England, under the aegis of another German anti-Nazi, Admiral Canaris, head of German Intelligence, to warn the British of Hitler’s plan to invade Poland.

Von Schwerin’s lethargy in moving his division into place against Mortain prompted his immediate superior, General Hans von Funck to lament that von Schwerin had made a “mess of things.”  Unknown to von Funck, Hitler and the Gestapo, von Schwerin was also complicit in the July 20, 1944 bomb plot against Hitler. He was sacked but with his hatred of Hitler well-concealed, he escaped the possibility of a firing squad following the intervention of senior Prussian officers, including the venerable Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. By that time, the Mortain counterattack had failed, brought to a standstill by stiff American resistance and airstrikes by the British 2nd Tactical Air Force.

The battle offers an interesting parallel to the events of Operation “Epsom” mentioned above.  In both operations, Allied troops had held the strategic high ground, but unlike during “Epsom,” American troops had not retreated despite being nearly overrun, while being supported by Allied aircraft which achieved total air superiority over the battlefield. The result was shattering German losses. Had Montgomery allowed his troops to hold on to Hill 112 during “Epsom” during which they would have been supported by massed squadrons of Allied fighter-bombers, the likely result would have been the categorical destruction of several German SS divisions while allowing the British to use Hill 112 as a base to capture Caen at an earlier date, obviating the heavy loss of lives which instead ensued.

No-16

“The Big Push” (Towards Falaise)

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A complicated and fun map to make, this is really a “double map” describing two separate military offensives, Operation “Tractable” and Operation “Totalize.” It took nearly four days to complete, with its large “poster-sized” dimensions taxing the RAM memory of my laptop.

With American troops under Lt-General George S. Patton, taking up position south of the German army concentrating in a valley in-between the French towns of Argentan and Falaise, the Anglo-Canadians were ordered to secure the area around Falaise in order to entrap the Germans in a “pocket.”

Their initial offensive, codenamed “Tractable,” however, petered out in the face of fierce German resistance, prompting the Canadians to launch a second offensive days later with fresh troops, who, although untested in battle, were nevertheless determined to prove themselves, especially the Free Polish Armored Division who were driven by a fanatical hatred of the Nazi war machine which had subjugated their homeland four years before.

Falaise eventually fell, but a gap of 25 kilometers (15½ miles) still existed between the Anglo-Canadian-Poles and the Americans at Argentan, prompting an exasperated Patton to threaten to “drive the British into the sea for another Dunkirk.” He was all set to order his own troops to advance out of Argentan and close the gap, but his superior, US Lt-General Omar Bradley — in a controversial decision — stopped him, arguing that it could lead to a clash between the Allied forces. He preferred, as he said: “a solid shoulder at Argentan to a broken neck at Falaise.” The “pocket” was eventually closed and the actions entailed are described in the first map of this post.

No-17

The Falaise “Pocket”

The idea of German efficiency evokes a vision of the future, of Maglev trains, rockets and hyper-modern kitchens straight out of Popular Mechanics. Arguably, however, the Third Reich was diametrically contradictory to this image, being a society sustained on bribery, cronyism and mismanagement. It seems inconceivable now that the Reich, had it won the war, would ever have been a bonafide superpower and capable, as some writers believe, of colonizing the solar system. What is conceivable in every reality however, is the situation that the German army found itself in August 1944. Hammered by three Allied armies, the Germans had fallen back into the Norman hinterlands, unable to prevent American troops under Lt-General George S. Patton’s Third Army from breaking out of the bocage and arching down south to come up beneath them at the town of Argentan.

Unable to withdraw because of pressure maintained on them by the Anglo-Canadians fighting down from Caen, the Germans presented the Allies with an “opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century,” as General Omar Bradley of the American 12th Army group told US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr. “We are about to destroy an entire German Army.”

Penned in on all sides, with an eastern exit being relentlessly tightened by Canadians and Free Poles, an estimated 80,000 Germans became entrapped in what was christened the “Falaise Pocket” by August 16. Even as the Germans held on, Hitler issued fantastical orders calling on them to counterattack. By 21 August, the Canadians and the Poles had closed the pocket, trapping an estimated 60,000 Germans in an area measuring 32 by 15 miles. Carnage ensued. Attacked from all sides, about 10,000 Germans died before the rest surrendered. The battle for Normandy was over.

Divider-9

The Situation on August 3, 1944

Normandy - Situation - 3 August

No-18

Extra – Allied Airfields in Normandy

Normandy - Air Landing Grounds

 

 

10 responses to “A Day at the Beach: Normandy 1944

  1. Chris Hanley January 26, 2019 at 5:04 am

    very impressive work and I really appreciate the amount of research and detail.

  2. Carlos Romero Valiente March 2, 2019 at 4:58 pm

    Congrats!! I knew your work, but with this one you have reach the glory. Many famous writers about World War II should learnt of you or take your permission for use your impressive maps and graphics.

    Cheers from Spain!!!

    • Akhil Kadidal March 2, 2019 at 6:55 am

      Ha. Thanks, Carlos. I was determined to get these maps as accurate as possible, primarily because I was annoyed that such maps on Normandy do not exist. Hopefully, the effort was worth it.

  3. Steve Parry March 6, 2019 at 2:12 am

    I’ve spent many a year studying this Battle and your maps are exceptionally clear and informative. The right balance of detail and clarity. Congratulations!

  4. Colin Foster May 6, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    Hi, these maps are absolutely awesome! Well done. Only downside is that the link to the Epsom one (to see in another window & therefore larger) isn’t working & generates a “Page not found” error

  5. Jean-Marc PAUWELS May 16, 2019 at 12:36 pm

    Dear Sir, I study Bluecoat since a while, having been on the terrain, and your map on this operation (and all others) is absolutely brilliant. Better looking than military maps, and easier to understand for non specialists. I have made done by a printer a poster size 100cm X 84cm copy out of it, and it is a fantastic educational tool, especially for children. It would be worth making a book out of all those fantastic maps ! Thank you very much ! I would like also like to study Totalize/Tractable, but the link doesn’t work(page not found). Is it possible to sort it out ? (Epsom now is OK) I imagine all this has been a considerable work, many thanks again !

    • Akhil Kadidal May 16, 2019 at 3:59 am

      Thanks, Jean-Marc. The intention is to publish all the maps in a book sometime this year or maybe next year. I’m glad that people are finding the set informative.

      I didn’t realize that the link to the Totalize-Tractable map was also broken. Mighty strange. In any case, I am reworking that map and will post an improved version soon.

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