This is an extract from Chapters 15 and 16 of Britain at War 1939 to 1945 by James Lingard available on Kindle or from AuthorHouse. The writer questions why the Allies put so much effort and resources into attacking mountainous terrain in Italy when the south of France gave much easier access to Europe.
THE BATTLE FOR EUROPE
‘You may rest assured that we shall do everything possible to render assistance to the glorious forces of our Allies.’ (Marshal Stalin to Churchill)
Heavy German reinforcements were hastening to the front (where the D Day landings had taken place), but equally the Allies planned to have twenty five divisions deployed within a month. The sixty German divisions – of which ten were Panzers – available to defend France against the invasion were widely spread around the coast; only nine infantry and one Panzer being on hand in Normandy. Such had been the success of the allied deception that they planned to attack Calais.
By 12th June, the Germans had brought four Panzer divisions into the battle – less than General Eisenhower expected. The air offensive had succeeded in disrupting communications. Cherbourg held out until the 26th June and the port suffered heavy demolition which put it out of action for a further ten weeks. The weather also deteriorated and storms destroyed one of the two floating harbours which had been towed across the Channel. Even so, good progress was made in supplying and building up the bridgeheads.
As in Russia, Hitler made the mistake of ordering his troops to stand and fight where they were, rather than making strategic withdrawals. In the last week of June, the British front was attacked by strong Panzer forces, but they were beaten off with heavy losses by air attack and accurate artillery fire. On 8th to 10th July, a British counterattack at last succeeded in taking Caen which had suffered heavy bombing.
By mid-July the Allies had thirty divisions ashore opposed by twenty seven German divisions weakened by heavy allied bombing whenever the weather permitted. Rommel himself suffered severe wounds from a low flying fighter. The Nazis could only respond at night with attacks by single aircraft. Then, on 20th July 1944, desperate anti-nazis attempted to assassinate Hitler, but failed – leading to a massive purge which included Rommel himself.
Hitler now released his Fifteenth Army to oppose the landings, but their intervention came too late to make much impact. The American break out under General Bradley began on the 25th July and cut the German escape route down the Normandy coast. Four Panzer divisions checked the Canadian advance on Falaise. Brest on the tip of the Cherbourg peninsular held out until the 19th September.
Hitler insisted on a major counterattack by five Panzer divisions on Mortain but this was beaten back. Much of the surviving armour succeeded in withdrawing before the gap in the allied advance at Falaise closed, but eight German divisions were effectively annihilated.
The allied advance continued and on 24th August entered Paris. The Germans are estimated at this stage to have lost 400,000 men – half prisoners – and 1,300 tanks.
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On 14th August 1944, allied forces landed in the South of France in a number of places along a stretch of coast between Toulon and Cannes. The landing craft hit the beaches under cover of a substantial naval bombardment provided by six battleships and twenty one cruisers with supporting destroyers. The Allies also had total air supremacy and had bombed the fortifications in the area for the previous fortnight.
American and British paratroops dropped around Le Muy to cut German communications and sieze the pass through to St Tropez. They were quickly joined by the seaborne forces. Shortage of landing craft restricted the initial attack to commandos and three American divisions, but they were quickly followed by seven French divisions.
The Germans had withdrawn four of their divisions to support the defence of Normandy. Ten divisions remained but only three were in the vicinity of the landings and they had also to deal with 25,000 men of the French Resistance who had been resupplied by the Allies.
Marseilles and Toulon were left to the French divisions and held out to the end of the month. Meanwhile, the Americans drove north reaching Grenoble on August 24th and Lyons on September 3rd. The only serious opposition came from a Panzer division at Montelimar north of Avignon, but they were driven back by heavy air attacks. The French Resistance liberated Dijon on September 11th and on that same day, the allied forces which had landed in the south met those from Normandy. Less than a month after the landings, the Germans were in full retreat leaving behind over 50,000 prisoners.
* * *
Meanwhile, General Eisenhower took command of the allied forces in France on 1st September 1944 – thirty seven divisions comprising over half a million troops. The Germans opposed them with about seventeen divisions, harassed continuously by overwhelming air power. The Allies urgently needed a port to ease their stretched supply lines and advanced as fast as possible. The Guards Armoured Division covered 200 miles in four days – Antwerp was taken on the 4th September before the Germans had carried out demolition of the harbour facilities.
However, resistance stiffened as the Allies neared the German border. There, they came upon the Siegfried Line – a long prepared defensive position. Any further advance only came after much hard fighting. Unfortunately, the Nazi strength was seriously underestimated in intelligence reports. The parachute drop to sieze the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem launched on 17th September ran into a Panzer division and failed with the loss of 7,500 experienced troops. The bridge over the Waal at Nijmegen was, however, taken and held despite German attempts to destroy it.
During October, the Allied advance paused whilst strenuous efforts were made to capture the strongly held Scheldt estuary, which barred the access of shipping to Antwerp. After heavy bombing and bombardment, the Germans eventually succumbed to courageous Commando attacks in the first week in November. The first convoy began to unload supplies on the 28th November amist a deluge of flying bombs and rockets which caused many casualties.
Early December 1944 found the Allies stuck on the German frontier, still well short of the Rhine. Equally, they remained stuck in Italy where the Germans still retained twenty six divisions, and the weather negatived allied superiority in armour and in the air. The situation in Burma, where weakness forced Chinese forces to withdraw, was no better. The Americans, however, were making progress in the Pacific; as were the Russians on their front.
But Hitler had been regrouping his forces for a counterattack. No fewer than seventy divisions – fifteen of them armoured – faced the Allies on the Western front. A seventy five mile sector in the Ardennes, from Bastogne in the south to Malmedy in the north, was relatively weakly held by four US divisions. On 16th December, under cover of a heavy artillery barrage, the Germans launched ten Panzer divisions supported by fourteen infantry divisions against them, and inevitably broke through the allied lines. Could they swing north and recapture Antwerp thereby depriving the Allies of much needed supplies?
In the north of the salient, the Sixth Panzer Army met advancing detachments of the First US Army and were held for some days in fierce fighting around St Vith by the Seventh US Armoured Division. However, the Fifth Panzer Army brushed aside the forces opposing it and headed for the river Meuse.
General Eisenhower stopped all allied attacks and committed all his reserves – some sixteen divisions – to defend the northern flank of the salient and prevent the Germans reaching the coast. Hitler’s forces penetrated some sixty miles towards the Meuse, but on 23rd December, the weather improved and the Allies launched heavy air strikes with considerable effect. The attack faltered and switched to Bastogne where the US 101st Airborne Division had held out. They continued to hold against all the odds.
On 1st January 1945, the Luftwaffe launched a heavy surprise attack on all allied forward air bases and did substantial damage. But then, General Montgomery in the north and General Patton in the south attacked the salient simultaneously, whilst the Russians brought forward an offensive they were planning on the eastern front.
The forces north and south of the salient struggled through snow storms until they met at Houffalize on 16th January. The Germans were squeezed back to their frontier with casualties of 120,000 men – losses they were unable to replace.
The book has received excellent reviews including:-
History Direct and History Times (May 2009)
‘James Lingard’s Britain at War 1939-1945 presents the reader with an excellent easy to digest overview of the key events that affected Britain during World War two. He has skilfully weaved personal accounts and his own experiences into the book to deliver a fascinating insight into the trials of civilian life in Britain at this key juncture in our nation’s history.’
The History Magazine (Spring Issue 2009)
For many older people the Second World War was the major event in their lives, but for the rest of us it is just history and it is hard to imagine what life was really like for them. In his book James Lingard tries to give us a picture of how a small boy saw life in the war interspersed with a potted history of the war to put things in context. This book gives historically accurate facts and figures and cuts through the propaganda which was fed to the wartime public. I enjoyed this book giving as it does an insight into one person’s war.’
UCL People (University College London) (March 2009)
‘A memoir of boyhood in Britain during World War II, this short but powerful book brings together personal reflections with the historical and political context. The author’s memories are interwoven with quotations from Churchill’s speeches and overviews of the major campaigns. ‘Britain at War’ is written from the standpoint of people directly involved, and all personal experiences are based on actual events.’
The Sunday Times of Canada
‘A great book by James Lingard introduces the reader to the harsh realities of war.’
Personal comments from Amazon include:
Mr. M. W. Wabe (UK)
‘This is a factual but interesting book of the lives of people who lived through WWII. It gives the stories of peoples’ lives, interspersed with the great speeches of such great men as Winston Churchill. It is enjoyable as a read in itself, but even more so for the memories it evokes for those who lived in those times. It provides a valuable insight into those times for us who were born in the 1950s, and onwards and without such a book, it is impossible for us to understand what life was like then. Death was almost always imminent from the bombing, food was short, hunger was not unusual, but a sort of national spirit emerged that is no longer present today.’