Background image is Les Dernières Cartouches (The Last Cartridges) by Alphonse de Neuville

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Commemorating the D Day Landings: Normandy '44 and setting the scene.

Being a historian, I feel a connection to dates, times, places that have historic meaning. As a military historian, I feel that connection especially when it comes time to recall and commemorate the great battles of the past. And as a wargamer, I find that exploring those events through games, seeing and understanding the factors that framed those events, the choices that commanders had, and the decisions that they made an especially satisfying way to get closer to those events.

Two of the most momentous events of Western military history occur in June. One is the last string of battles of France's First Empire, often called The Hundred Days (after the time that elapsed between Napoleon I's flight from Elba to his surrender and exile) but which consisted of a brief campaign starting when the French Army crossed the Belgian frontier on 15 June 1815 and reaching its crescendo a mere three days later at the battle of Waterloo on 18 June.

But nearly 130 years later, an army even more massive sat waiting for a battle even more decisive, the battle that would open the American, British, and French campaign to liberate Europe from the armies of Nazi Germany. Trained, organized, and expectant, the Allied armies sat in Britain, waiting for an opportunity to cross the narrow sea to France. If their landings were defeated, their campaign would be as short as Napoleon's, and their defeat might be as bitter. Even if the landings were successful, they would just be the first in a long series of bitter battles before success could be achieved. Originally called Operation Overlord, these landings, which began on the night of 5 June and continued throughout the day of 6 June 1944, have become famous simply as D Day.

"Into the Jaws of Death" by Chief Photographer's Mate Robert F. Sargeant,
one of the most famous photographs of the D Day operation.

Allied troops had landed in Sicily, captured Corsica, and landed in Italy. But German forces in the Italian peninsula had proved tough defenders, and ultimately the Alps would prevent American and British armies from liberating Europe from the south. Armies must be landed in France, and invading northern France would allow the Allies to use Great Britain as their training ground, jumping-off point, and depot. But where in northern France should they land?

As this map shows, the two obvious locations were the Pas de Calais, where France and England stood closest, and Normandy, the next stretch of coastline to the south and west. North of Calais stood the Dutch and Belgian shore, an area of mudflats, marshes, and tidal estuaries, a chancy place to land and difficult to drive out from after landing forces had established themselves. Brittany, the long peninsula to the west of Normandy, was a rocky shore, hard to land on and, with its limited road and rail infrastructure, too easily isolated from the rest of France.

While Calais was closer to Allied troops across the Channel, Allied planners in the end felt it was too obvious a choice. It would be better defended; it was closer to Germany, so its defenders could be more easily reinforced; and its air defenses, being on the route between Alllied airfields and Germany's industrial heartland, made it less likely that American and British aircraft would be able to establish the air superiority over the landing beaches that planners believed essential to a successful invasion. So, while strong intelligence efforts were mounted to convince Germany that Calais was the Allies' goal, planning proceeded on seizing Normandy.

Many wargames have been published on this campaign. For illustration, I'll be using one, GMT Games's Normandy '44. It's an excellent game of medium complexity and medium size. Normandy '44 has the added benefit that the publishers have kindly allowed a VASSAL module to be created for it which allows me to play through the campaign and share screenshots of the maps as I go. Here's an overview of the map, with some notes about operational and strategic considerations that motivated Allied planners.

The map shows the game's basic setup for the Normandy campaign. German counters (mostly in shades of grey) are shown defending the beaches and waiting in reserve throughout the area "behind" (inland from) the beaches. Some US (green) and UK (brown) airborne troops are shown where they are slated to land on the night of 5/6 June. Other US and UK forces and the warships supporting them are shown offshore, with arrows pointing toward their landing areas.

Not explicitly shown are the air forces. The Allies bombed the Normandy area heavily before and during the invasion, seeking as much to damage and interdict German reserve forces that could be used to reinforce the defenders as to attack the actual defensive fortifications. These efforts are for the most part represented in an abstract way by increasing the movement costs for German units in good weather (when aircraft would be most active) and by limiting what reinforcements are available. Once Allied forces got ashore, they began organizing close air support operations, and these are represented in later turns by close air support rules that aid Allied ground forces in combat and inflict limited losses on high-value German units. Some Luftwaffe units were available to counter ground-support aircraft, and these are reflected by modifiers to the Allied air support.

The map shows the critical strategic terrain of major towns and cities in the region and the road network linking them. Cherbourg, at the north end of the Cotentin peninsula, was an especially important Allied goal; it was a large deep-water port, essential to quickly bringing supplies in to the Allied armies. Le Havre, to the east, was another, but it was thought to difficult to capture quickly and intact. Giant artificial harbours were constructed (codenamed "Mulberries") that would serve until Cherbourg could be captured. Once supplies landed, they had to be brought forward to the fighting forces; clear roads and bridges would be needed for that. And the fighting forces themselves would need roads and bridges to move deeper into France, towards Paris (an important political goal) and towards Germany (the long-term military goal).

So US forces were aimed at two sets of beaches: one, codenamed Utah, would receive forces intended for the capture of Cherbourg. Another set, named Omaha, would be the landing area for troops headed inland to seize the road juncture of St. Lo. Elite Ranger units would be sent in to Pointe du Hoc, between Utah and Omaha, to neutralize powerful guns mounted there which might damage Allied naval forces.

The beach at Utah, though a good landing zone, could be isolated from the towns inland by the marshy areas, so the causeways leading out of the beach area had to be seized. And the crossings over the Merderet River had to be secured to prevent German counterattacks from bottling up American forces at Utah Beach. These tasks were given to the US airborne forces.

Meanwhile, to the east, Commonwealth forces were given three beaches of their own. Gold and Juno would be attacked by British and Canadian forces respectively. These troops would move inland, linking up with the US troops through the city of Bayeux to the west and beginning operations to take the city of Caen, which could serve as a major air staging area once it was secured.

Further east, British and Free French special forces and British infantry and armour would secure Sword Beach, including the resort town of Ouistreham. Flowing into the sea at Ouistreham was the Ourne River, which would could serve as a strong defensive barrier on the Allied flank, if needed,

But in order to prevent the Germans from using it likewise as a strong blocking line, British paratroops and glider-borne infantry would be landed east of the river to control the crossing points of the Ourne and of the Caen Canal that flowed parallel to it. Additional troops were dropped to secure another battery of heavy guns, at Merville, that threatened the Allied fleet.

Thus, the stage is set for the invasion. The game does not concern itself with the deception operations at Calais or with the naval operation that gets the landing forces to the Norman coast. A special series of actions on Turn 1 determines the extent to which the airborne forces land safely and achieve their initial objectives and the degree to which the Allied amphibious operations successfully defeat German beach defenses (and the vagaries of time, tide, and pre-GPS navigation) and deliver troops to (and hopefully off of) the invasion beaches.

Next time: The Turn 1 Special Invasion Operations.

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