D Day in Perspective

Les J Louis

June 6 every year unleashes a torrent of media appraisals of D Day 1944. Through the distortions of the Cold War, extravagant claims are still made for the significance of Operation Overlord: that it was the greatest invasion in history, and that it turned the tide against Nazi Germany. As the largest amphibious invasion in history, the Normandy landing was, undoubtedly, an extraordinary achievement. Yet it was dwarfed in scale and brutality by the campaigns on the Eastern Front where the Red Army had already turned the tide.

The Eastern Front is usually ignored in history-according-to-Hollywood. Those campaigns opened on 22 June 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and ended on 8 May 1945, following the capture of Berlin by the Red Army. The Nazi’s Operation Barbarossa involved 150 divisions (4 million Axis troops), 19 panzer divisions (3,350 tanks) 10 motorized infantry divisions, four SS motorized divisions, 7,000 field guns, and over 2,000 air craft. Sweeping across the 2,000-kilometre-long Soviet frontiers, the three-pronged fascist attack made enormous advances, surrounding hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops in huge pockets: 300,000 at Smolensk in July, and over 600,000 at Kiev in September. In the first three weeks, the Red Army lost 3,500 tanks, over 6,000 aircraft, and some two million men. Wehrmacht casualties by the end of August were about 400,000.

The onslaught was checked during the winter of 1941-42. The first major defeat inflicted on Nazi forces came in the winter of 1942/43 at Stalingrad. There, three Soviet armies encircled the 6th Army, which had been reduced from 300,000 to 91,000 before it surrendered. The Fourth Panzer Army had also been destroyed, and in the whole engagement the Axis lost over half a million men. If the turning point in World War Two was not Stalingrad, then it was the Battle of Kursk in July 1943. Operation Citadel saw the greatest concentration of Wehrmacht power, and the largest tank battle in history (2,700 Nazi tanks and assault guns pitted against nearly 4,000). While both sides suffered tremendous losses, the backbone of the panzer force was broken. Whereas Soviet production could replace losses, Germany did not have that capacity. In a war of attrition of human and material resources, the Soviet Union was going to win. Assisted by considerable U.S. and British Lend-Lease aid, it relentlessly drove back the Axis invaders to the border and then Berlin.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, Germany declared war on the US, propelling that quasi-neutral country into the world war. The US halted the Japanese advance across the Pacific during 1942.

After shuffling, and postponements of the Second Front urged by Stalin since 1942, the US and UK launched Operation Overlord on 6 June 1944. An armada of 3,000 landing craft, 2,500 other ships and 500 naval vessels carried the invasion force to five beaches. During the night 822 aircraft made the largest drop ever of almost 20,400 paratroops behind the coastal defences. Eight divisions (over 130,000 troops) were landed, and about 13,000 aircraft were employed in support of D Day. The Allies had total naval and air superiority – the Luftwaffe had 169 fighter aircraft in Northern coastal France. The Allies also had the advantages of tactical surprise and the assistance from the French Resistance. Nonetheless, the invading troops had to breach the formidable fortifications of the Atlantic Wall.

But four-fifths of Hitler’s forces and his best troops were on the Eastern Front. Indeed, 4.3 million German troops were in the East, against over one million in France and Italy, with 6 panzer divisions in Northern France. To oppose the landing on D Day, the Nazis had two panzer divisions and four divisions of troops, only one of quality – the others included Russian and Polish POWs. Progress inland beyond the beach-heads was slow, and the Battle of Normandy lasted for more than two months, during which almost three million troops (47 divisions) were deployed.

By early 1944, the Red Army had driven back the Axis forces to the Polish border. Soon after the Normandy landings, the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, on 22 June. This offensive, involving 2.5 million men and 6,000 tanks, destroyed the German Army Group Centre, taking 350,000 prisoners. As Soviet forces continued their advance for the final assault through Germany and onto Berlin, German resources were directed East not West.

In the West, Montgomery suffered a disastrous defeat at Arnhem when he attempted to implement the strategy of a concentrated thrust across the Rhine with Operation Market Garden. The Allies then settled for an advance on a wide front with three Army Groups (North, Centre and South) which led to them becoming vulnerable to a counter offensive through the Ardennes. The Battle of the Bulge (16 December to 15 January 1945) was to be the largest US land battle of the war. The Germans attacked with four armies (the equivalent of 29 divisions) but their numbers in men and panzers (600 tanks and 1,900 guns) again had to be curtailed because of the demands along the Eastern Front. The US forces employed were the equivalent of 31 divisions together with three British. Both sides fielded over 500,000 men. Initially, as the panzers swept towards Antwerp, a Nazi success seemed possible. Then, as the other Allied Army Groups closed in, German fuel supplies were exhausted, and return of clear weather enabled devastating air attacks. Hitler’s counter offensive was crushed.

In the early critical stages, there had been such concern that Churchill had appealed to Stalin to assist by stepping up pressure on the Eastern Front. On 12 January, the Red Army did launch an offensive, but whether there was a connection remains in contention. Estimates of casualties at the Battle of the Bulge vary widely. The figure for American casualties is usually put at 78,000 (with 8,607 killed). German casualties range from 68,000 to over 80,000 (over 12,600 killed). The US lost 733 tanks and the Germans about the same number.

By January 1945, the Red Army, with 6.7 million troops, was on a front stretching from the Baltic to the Adriatic, with over four million of them massed in Poland and on the East Prussian border for the successful offensive launched on 12 January. The final phase of the war was to be the Battle of Berlin, its capture by the Red Army, and the surrender of all German forces. As Stalin was determined to get there before his allies, whatever the cost in material and casualties, the Battle of Berlin almost beggars belief in scale and brutality. For the encirclement of Berlin, launched on 16 April, the greatest concentration of fire power ever was amassed: 2.5 million troops, 6,250 tanks and self-propelled guns, 41,600 artillery pieces and mortars, 3,255 truck mounted Katyushas, 95,383 motor vehicles( many manufactured in the US ), and 7,500 air craft. Antony Beevor puts the Russian casualties for the three fronts in the Berlin operation at 78,291 killed and 274,184 wounded. By contrast, one estimate of the Normandy campaign is that 2,500 Allied troops were killed on D Day, while in the battles that followed, the Allies suffered 37,000 killed, 18,000 missing and 154,000 wounded (as with all statistics cited, these are approximations, and not universally accepted).

Precise numbers are not required to establish the disparities between losses on the Eastern and Western Fronts. The Red Army lost nearly 9 million killed and 18 million wounded. Deaths of Soviet civilians used to be put at up to 20 million, but Gorbachev has claimed up to 28 million. In the entire war, the US military lost a total of 295,000 killed in action, and Great Britain 326,000 troops and 62,000 civilians. The Red Army’s reliance on weight of numbers, and the indifference of Stalin and military leaders to casualty rates, made for large losses.

The horrendous death toll of civilians and POWs on the Eastern front was a consequence of Nazi ideology being put into practice. Lebensraum and rang nach Osten meant expansion East, and Germans (as the super-human race) had the right to eliminate or enslave the sub-human Slav people (untermensch). The invasion was to be a war of annihilation. In a different universe to “Hogan’s Heroes”, it was Nazi policy to deny Soviet POWs all protections of international law. The single massacre of Americans at Malmedy was common on the Eastern Front. Soviet POWs were murdered at Auschwitz or other camps. Mostly, they were killed by deliberate neglect or worked to death. Of the 4.5 million Russian prisoners taken by the Germans, only 1.8 million survived, a death rate of 60 per cent (the death rate of American POWs was 4%). The policy of annihilation was applied to Soviet civilians in the occupied territories.

Such statistics are notoriously inadequate, and, furthermore, there were critical political determinants in the war. To the very end, Hitler clung to the hope that an accommodation with the Americans and British was possible, and that they would realise the need to make a stand against the common Bolshevik enemy. Why was the opening of the Second Front delayed for so long? Was it simply a matter of logistics? Or did Churchill and other leaders play for time while the Wehrmacht bled the Red Army, which would allow the Allies (with their forces intact) to dictate the final settlement? Churchill and Montgomery always had the political shape of post-war Europe in mind, and this influenced their military strategy. For political reasons, they urged a concentrated thrust to capture Berlin before the Red Army. Supreme Commander Eisenhower focussed more on military strategy and winning the war with a minimum of casualties. Before, during, and after the war, the US credo was that there should be no barriers to its trade and capital. Stalin deceived his allies about his intentions, determined to capture Berlin with its nuclear research facilities and uranium oxide. The Cold War was in the making before VE Day.