Long regarded as the single-greatest amphibious ventures in the history of warfare, operation overlord succeeded where many others have failed. The success of the cross-channel invasion by the allied expeditionary force in the summer of 1945 has been studied, analyzed, scrutinized and admired for its brilliant execution in the face of inexplicable risk.
Hailed as a marvel of military ingenuity on a scope unparalleled in human history, overlord has become a text-book case for how an amphibious invasion should be executed while at the same time providing a few examples of how that execution could’ve been done better.
So successful was overlord that its key components and various prerequisites for success have been adopted, revised and modernized over sixty years later for use in today’s military handbooks. These individual components and pre-conditions can be identified and the lessons learned therein still hold a place of relevance today in the world of high-tech warfare, particularly in the realm of logistical and operational execution; unit structure and objectives; cross-branch cohesion and overall synergy; and tactical, sub-divisional unit mission design. It could be said that overlord became the godfather of modern amphibious doctrine with a whole host of problems being resolved, questions receiving answers and lessons learned.
The first lesson learned: amphibious forces because of their vulnerability to counterattack required air superiority at the point of attack and in advance of the attack.
In the months leading up to d-day, allied air gradually took command of the skies and by may of 1944 it was clear that the allies’ air power had triumphed over its adversary the luftwaffe. However with that advantage firmly in allied hands there emerged strong debate as to how to exploit this distinct advantage.
Eisenhower’s recommendation was the “transportation plan”; to utilize combined allied bombing strength to hit german rail lines in addition to bridges and other key transportation points which would hamper german reinforcement ability to lower normandy. The british, who objected strenuously to the use of british air power in this manner, believed they could force germany to surrender by continuous strategic bombing campaigns on key cities within germany itself. The deadlock was ultimately decided by franklin roosevelt and the “transportation plan” won the day. In march 1944, allied strategic air force was ordered to shift part of its bombers to the transportations system of northern france. The purpose was to destroy, as much as possible, the german supply and communications lines behind the forces defending the western wall.
The resulting success or failure of this plan was debated among allied analysts prior to the invasion and in post-war accountings, however, stephen ambrose points out that “the ones in the best position to know, the german generals,” were “strong in their belief that the various air attacks were ruinous to their counter-offensive plans”. Echoing this sentiment was the supreme commander of german forces in normandy at the time, erwin rommel:
“our operations in normandy were tremendously hampered, and in some cases even rendered impossible by the following factors: the immensely powerful, at times overwhelming, superiority of the enemy air force. As i and the officers of my staff have repeatedly experienced…the enemy has total command of the air over the battle area up to a point some sixty-miles behind the front. During the day, practically our entire traffic—on roads, tracks and in open country—is pinned down by powerful fighter-bombers and bomber formations, which the result that the movement of our troops on the battlefield is almost completely paralyzed, while the enemy can maneuver freely.”
Ambrose reinforces this assessment by quoting gordon harrison, the official historian of the cross-channel invasion, who concluded that by d-day, the “transportation system in france was on the verge of total collapse” and “this was to prove critical in the battle of normandy”. This system included “vital bridges over the seine river which were rendered impassable thereby isolating the battle area and prevented the germans from reinforcing the invasion area.”
The success of the air campaign for overlord cannot be understated. While many scholars and military analysts have been critical of various aspects of overlord, the one area that cannot be disputed is the air campaign’s success relative to its intended objective.
How this concept of air superiority contributed to the general amphibious assault handbook was to point out its necessity for not solely as a defensive asset, but that exploitation of this important ingredient was vital for offensive purposes as well. The lesson learned here was that air superiority in this context not only provided protection for amphibious forces upon embarkation, but it further added to the security of those forces by severely hampering the ability of the enemy to mobilize against those forces once a beachhead was established. The difference between the two general schools of thought at the time can be seen in the allies use – at the behest of eisenhower – of its air asset and advantage in a primarily tactical versus strategic manner.
One of the most vital lessons learned during overlord was that the element of surprise was absolutely essential to the success of the mission. So much so that the allies were willing to endure more casualties if it meant that the element of surprise was preserved. Critics have charged that the number of casualties suffered on the beaches, particularly at omaha could’ve been greatly reduced with a lengthy bombardment of the beaches. Stephen ambrose points out why this was not done:
“in world war i, all frontal attacks had been preceded by tremendous artillery bombardments, sometimes a week or more long. Thanks to their enormous fleet, the allies had the firepower to duplicate such artillery preparation. But the allied planners decided that surprise was more important than a lengthy bombardment, so they limited the pre-assault bombardment to a half hour or so, in order to ensure surprise”
Furthermore, ambrose argues that additional air bombardment would’ve tipped the allies hand and whatever advantage a lengthy bombardment would’ve had, it would’ve been eliminated if the germans had notice and could summon its reserves at the right time and place.
Combining surprise with deception, the allies were able to able to “delay the germans with the most successful intelligence operation in history”. So much so that even as the attack descended on the beaches of normandy, rommel was convinced, as was hitler that the “real” attack was yet to come.
The ability to dictate to the enemy where and when the fight is to take place is the one true advantage amphibious operations have. Overlord was testament to the requirement of surprise in any amphibious operation, a point echoed by larry evans, who stated that “the value of amphibious raids is that they achieve their effect by employing shock action and surprise, based on sound intelligence and timing rather than brute force.”
Once surprise was attained and the attack underway, all that really matters is performance and what dictated performance as much as anything during operation overlord was the equipment, specifically landing craft or “higgins boats”. The crown jewel of higgins industries, it made possible what was impossible or very difficult before: beach landings. Time magazine’s 60th anniversary tribute to d-day points out that higgins boats, specially designed to carry men and machine directly onto the beach, “changed the nature of warfare: seaborne assaults, which had always required harbors, now could be mounted against almost any shoreline in the world. Without higgins boats, eisenhower would later say, ‘we could never have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.’”
Amphibious forces could now function to a greater degree in the absence of natural ports. By being able to apply men and material directly to the attack, it greatly opened up options from which to attack and conversely decreased the chances of the enemy being able to know where the attack was coming.
However, while the higgins boats and mulberries (artificial ports) worked wonders in the way of improving logistical performance, it was not enough to sustain the efforts of the armies once the campaign moved from the beaches inland. Herein lays one of the greatest lessons learned during overlord. Because of the overwhelming success of the amphibious operation, men, machine and material reached the beach and were on the ground in france faster than probably was anticipated and soon the problem shifted from getting it on the beach to getting it to the troops. Martin blumenson describes the problem:
“the logistical establishment was unable to keep up with the operational advance. A normal logistical structure based on the depot system was lacking. Ninety-five percent of the supplies on the continent were near the invasion beaches, now 300 miles from the front. Deliveries to field army dumps decreased in september, dwindled, and finally ceased.”
They ceased ultimately because the infrastructure wasn’t in place and operable to transition the amphibious operation to the more conventional ground war. In reality, it cost the allies months of more war and casualties. The success of the initial invasion was quickly proved a double-edged sword.
“operation overlord succeeded in providing the allies with the logistical necessities of combat. But the quick thrust beyond the boundaries of the lodgment area proved the tyranny of logistics. Without a functioning infrastructure in normandy, the allies were unable to mount the early decisive offensive to defeat the enemy… “desert storm/shield, not to mention recent us interventions in africa, the caribbean and the balkans, serves to remind today’s strategic planners that the hands of the world’s one great superpower could easily be tied if the port and staging facilities of overseas target areas are inadequate to receive our gargantuan military machine” ultimately, what was learned was that the job isn’t finished once the beach is reached.
How are the lessons learned at normandy being applied to the modern military machine at present? In short, it’s taking what was done correctly and efficiently, and expanding on it. James brown describes today’s marine force capability in terms of speed and structure:
“currently the marine corps can seize an amphibious landing area with seaborne troops brought ashore at speeds of over 40 knots aboard landing craft air cushion (lcac) landing assault vehicles in concert with heliborne troops who conduct air movement to shore....Cuts in the marine budget, force structure, and procurement of lcacs and equipment have increased the vulnerability of the amphibious operations area to massed mechanized counterattack. The battle at the beachhead can hang in the balance and will ultimately go to the commander who can bring more forces to the point of battle. The 101st airborne division was first used to prevent this very threat at normandy in 1944 and can blunt it again”
The 101st airborne division illustrates current us capabilities in terms of an amphibious approach, much the same way it did sixty years ago:
“the division possesses unique deep strike and armor killing capabilities with its 72 apache and 32 kiowa warrior helicopters. Three assault infantry brigades supported by three assault helicopter battalions (90 uh-60 blackhawks) and a medium lift helicopter battalion (48 c-47d chinooks), divisional artillery with 54 105 mm and 18 155 mm howitzers and combat support and combat service support units can air assault up to 350 km into the enemy rear to block counterattacks against the amphibious objective area (aoa). The capability to isolate a foe from lines of communication and reinforcements can ensure immediate success at the beachhead and help transfer the focus from the amphibious area to the enemy center of gravity. The similarities between this mission and the first combat mission of the 101st airborne division are striking”
Today’s amphibious forces are also much more proficient in making use of cross-service support, or what james brown describes as “synergy of combining three attack aviation battalions of the 101st with a marine air wing (resulting) in more deep targets being eliminated.”
Expanding on the previous examples of today’s structure and amphibious purpose of the 101st airborne, roger hand brings up army air forces plan c, a little-known plan of attack involving the 101st and airborne capabilities and how its original purpose of being utilized as a division was broken down into units capable of retaining its purpose on a much smaller scope:
“the original intent in creating division-size airborne units had been to employ them strategically. However, their use in the normandy landings was far more tactical than operational….It’s relevant today since it represents an example of the possible use of corps-size units in maneuver and deep operations….This small footnote in the history of operation overlord presents a relevant lesson in operational art for today’s leaders and planners as they examine possible uses for airborne forces in maneuver and deep operations in the future.”
Operation overlord while remaining perhaps the greatest military operation ever to take place in terms of scope and size was also a dress rehearsal of sorts. With an operation of this magnitude having never taken place before, a number of important lessons were learned – lessons that would revolutionize the concept of amphibious assault.The ramifications of which laid the foundation for amphibious operations to come in terms of doctrine and application.
Specifically, the american military learned a great deal about air superiority, its importance and its proper application in support of amphibious forces. A great deal was also learned about how vital the element of surprise plays in the overall battle plan. Overlord was also a dry run for the new innovations of the navy and illustrated clearly the importance of amphibious-specific equipment.
The success of higgins boats played a major role in the future development of amphibious transport craft and attack vehicles in the american military arsenal. Finally, overlord was the first amphibious attack in military history which was successfully staged despite a lack of natural ports nearby. The use of artificial harbors was paramount in the logistical schematic plan for the allies, allowing for rapid embarkation of machines and supplies directly on the beaches. Following the amphibious invasion, the allies broke out from the beachhead but soon learned its logistical setup was insufficient to sustain the push inland at the speed that they would’ve liked. Military planners and engineers certainly learned a great deal from the logistical plan in terms of its successes and its failures. All of which contributed to the way amphibious forces are built and run today.
Military establishments have borrowed a great deal from overlord, particularly in the way that amphibious operations are orchestrated across service lines with each service playing a key role in a single operation. Logistical problems that come from amphibious operations have been anticipated and added to the overall operational equation. Equipment, weapons systems, air power and airborne units are now designed and integrated with amphibious capability being at the forefront. The practical application of which has resulted in “lower casualty rates among amphibious raids since 1945”.
So while overlord planners probably could never have imagined today’s amphibious capabilities, they’d be proud to have served as the torch bearers for a new breed of military might.
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