D-Day – Piercing The Atlantic Wall
The battle of D-Day was not decided within 24 hours as suggested by Cornelius Ryan in The Longest Day. It took the allies nine days to dominate the foreshore upon which they landed. D-Day describes how the Allies pierced the Atlantic Wall to the point at which German operational planning accepted it was dealing with an established bridgehead. The battle of Normandy followed.
The book describes how the deception plan achieved a strategic check-mate over the Wehrmacht, enabling eight Allied divisions to come ashore and overwhelm five German divisions in place, despite overwhelming enemy superiority on the Continent of Europe.
The German plan was born of a compromise between those who believed the decisive battle would be fought inland, against those who saw the fundamental importance of defending on the beaches. The much vaunted Atlantic Wall had no depth and sparse coverage in many sectors.
The story of the parachute night and daylight beach assaults is told through the medium of vivid personal veteran accounts, diaries, letters and oral stories. The perspective is given of what it was like to jump from an aeroplane by night in Normandy or assault through obstacle strewn surf at dawn across heavily defended beaches. The tale is also taken up by confused German reactions to scattered Allied parachute descents, which appeared to lack coherence; as also the stunned reaction of German observers gazing from their bunkers at the huge Allied armada, knowing this was no deception.
Local German reserves were decoyed away from beaches awaiting impending assault looking for paratroopers, convinced landings were a feint. Once the scale of the invasion was apparent, Allied air power reduced German counter-measures to impotency. Surviving such air attacks is recounted in graphic detail.
On the American Omaha beach the first and second assault waves were fought to a stand-still. German telephone log extracts bring the landings to life as observed from both sides. At Utah the Americans ripped a seven kilometre hole in the German defences while by evening three British and Canadian divisions were ashore, forcing dispersed German company groups from five to 12 kilometres inland.
The sudden appearance of Allied tanks – Hobart’s ‘Funnies’ – on the foreshore was decisive. Technological surprise contributed much to the success of the invasion. The geographical spread of the assault from sky and sea was unsurpassed historically, therefore beyond rational German intelligence assessment, distracted by deception, to comprehend. Allied air power stymied command and control thereafter and all but broke the Wehrmacht logistic chain.
The battle of D-Day was an Allied success but took nine days to achieve. Village fighting in the hinterland developed into stalemate as the Germans began to match the Allied build up after seven days. Bocage hedgerow terrain proved two-edged, favouring defence but stymieing the mobility sought by both sides and unsuitable for armoured sweeps.
This is a human story. Clinical comparisons of division strengths suggest a missed Allied opportunity, but the human cost to both sides invalidate mathematical equations. The Allies alone suffered 15,000 casualties in the first 48 hours. D-Day vividly describes the battle for the next hedgerow and hill, the fight for survival and comrades. Strategic design was of little consequence to soldiers beset by the terrors of the battlefield. It was the business of generals. Psychological and physical pressures, alongside fear and appalling casualties was to negate the planning process on both sides.
D-Day was won, but set up a battle of attrition to be fought in Normandy.
Alastair Horne: The Times 30 May 1994
A fluent German speaker who has served with the Bundeswehr, Kershaw’s accounts from the German side are thorough and fair. Equally vivid are the descriptions of just what it would have been like to jump from a plane, or land on those murderous beaches on D-Day.
‘Kershaw indicates just how immense were the risks run by the Allied armada, the largest that ever put to sea.
Background & Preparation
This book was written on the back of an offer from the publisher Ian Allan to write a book to coincide with the fortieth D-Day Commemoration. My response was that there was a plethora of good books on the market with Ryan, Keegan and Hastings and what could I possibly add? They assured me ‘I would think of something’ and offered to republish It Never Snows in September in the United States if I signed up, and this was the hook.
As I was then a serving battalion commander with 10 PARA I cracked the problem by running a succession of battlefield tours in Normandy with my officers. Although sponsored by the Army, much was individually paid. By employing my officers to solve World War II problems on the landing zones and beaches utilising modern equipments – such as helicopters, unavailable then – they got the professional benefit, while I could expose ideas to scrutiny across terrain I needed to view in depth in order to write the book.
The Bundesarchive in Germany provided wonderful support gathering obscure, yet important documents such as the telephone log of the German Omaha defenders and the E-Boat commander’s log of the Slapton Sands pre-D-Day exercise debacle, when American landing ships were sunk on exercise. Other reports covered German units vainly seeking Allied paratroopers in the darkened Normandy hinterland during the first night.
The project came to a fitting end as I parachuted into Normandy as part of one of the commemorative jumps. Everyone, including myself was amazed at how I could pack in the books despite a very busy military career.
D-Day was published in time for the fortieth anniversary and I gained a lot of publicity from writing feature length articles for the Times and Sunday Times for their special commemorative editions.
The Times 30 May 1994
‘He has followed the Cornelius Ryan technique of ‘orals’ interspersed with historical text. But it is particularly well done; as a para himself, he describes well the scattering and near failure of many of the airborne drops…