History Friday — Books to Read for the D-Day 70th Anniversary

After a hiatus, for the birth of Mindy’s and my third child Clyde, this “History Friday” column returns to mark the 70th anniversary of the Normandy D-Day landing with reviews of three books that, IMO, shatter many of the myths of June 6th 1944. Myths established in and often repeated from “the big three” Normandy campaign authors Hastings, Ambrose, and Keegan.

These books, in author alphabetical order, are the following:

o The 2009 book “Cracking Hitler’s Atlantic Wall: The 1st Assault Brigade Royal Engineers on D-Day” by Richard C. Anderson.
o The 1989 book “Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy” by Joseph Balkoski, and
o The 2013 book “The Devil’s Garden: Rommel’s Desperate Defense of Omaha Beach on D-Day,” by Steven Zaloga.

Each book has important points from original research in primary source material and they can be seen as Anderson, The planned Allied attack; Balkoski, the infantry fighting; and Zaloga, the planned German defense.

Men of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, rush toward the shelter of amphibious tanks at the water’s edge of Easy Red sector, Omaha Beach, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Left and right in the foreground are M4 Sherman tanks with wading equipment. The troops in the photo, expecting weak defenses, are loaded down with food and equipment for several days of combat. Most of which was discarded on the beach in their desperate fight for survival. Source: Britannica Online for Kids, http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-40275

Anderson’s book, as can be judged by the title, centers on the nuts and bolts details of people, plans, equipment, training and execution of the assault landings on D-Day. He looks closely at British Royal Engineers, their supporting 79th Armoured Division “Funnies” (Special assault engineering tanks predominantly based on the British Churchill Tank) plus he compares and contrasts the American assault engineers at Omaha and Utah Beaches w/o funnies to the British Commonwealth beaches with them.

The myth busting points from Anderson are as follows —

1. The America Army did not turn down Funnies from the British. There simply were not enough Funnies to go around for British forces, let alone British and American forces.
2. American equivalents British funnies were duplex-drive (DD) Amphibious M4 Shermans and M4 Sherman tank-dozers. The later only arrived in kit form in England in May 1944 and a total of 16 used in the assault. The DD-Sherman served well the British beaches but the rougher waves off Omaha made them death traps there.
3. Even if there were enough Churchill funnies for Omaha Beach, there were not enough LCT tank landing craft to move them to Omaha Beach. Eisenhower and Montgomery’s decision to increase the size of the invasion landing force to five divisions required more landing craft to be shipped and this limited shipping space for American built heavy armored combat engineer equipment to get to Britain in time for the invasion.
4. And even if more Funnies – British or American — had gotten to Omaha Beach, they would not have saved lives because the rocky sheldt beaches and German obstacles in the draws would have prevented their movement just like it did for the Sherman tank-dozers that did get there. Point in fact; the American beach with the most tanks suffered the most combat deaths.
5. The Americans had at least one “Funny” — the T40 “Whiz-Bang” 7.2 inch rocket launcher, with the T-37 explosive rocket, on M4 Sherman tanks – that was tested and rejected. They could have been in the assault but was not due to weight and balance issues with British LCT. And when tested, they did not fire weapon at its recommended 100 foot range, instead they did it at 100 yards. This meant that the heavy explosive warhead T-37 rockets landed all over steel reinforced concrete test targets rather than pounding one place. An average T-37 removed 2/3 of a cubic yard of concrete per shot, but it often took 3-to-4 impacts in the same spot for the concrete to crumble. IOW, three shots in the same place pulled down 2 cubic yards of concrete.

The myth busting points from Balkoski revolve around American infantry doctrine. American small unit infantry doctrine was hugely flawed by a lack of crew served machine guns and its unit cohesion was deeply affected by its individual replacement system. His chapter five titled “Men and Guns” goes deeply into the nuts and bolts of German versus American infantry organization, doctrine and effectiveness and should be studied closely by anyone interested in understanding infantry combat in the Normandy campaign.

Both German and American infantry were geared to achieve “Fire superiority” over their opponents. Senior American infantryman thought individual American rifleman with eleven M1 Garand semi-automatic rifles and a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) in their 12-man squads could achieve that.

The Germans had placed their bets on the single Machinegerwehr 42 (MG42) general purpose machine gun (GPMG) in their infantry squad.

Balkoski makes the following points regards those competing bets:

1. A German regular infantry company in Normandy had 142 men at full strength and 15 MG42. Its organization and doctrine were built around those 15 weapons in both the offense and defense.
2. A German MG42 GPMG weighed 26 lbs with a bipod, were belt fed and had a quick change barrel design. They were capable of supporting the offensive rapidly with a single man and on defense they operated from three alternate positions.
3. The 193 man American infantry company had two Browning M1919A4 .30 Caliber air cooled machine guns and nine BAR automatic rifles.
4. The Browning M1919A4 was very heavy and required two men to carry the tripod and actual machine gun. It did not have a quick change barrel like the MG42 and was limited to 150 rounds a minute of continuous firing. This amounted to a burst of up to 25 rounds every 10 seconds.
5. The BAR in the American infantry squads fired a 20 round clip from the bottom of the gun, could not change its barrel at all and at 19 lbs was only six pounds lighter than the MG42.
6. A German infantry squad MG42 had two barrels one of which cooled down while the other was being used. It could fire up to 3,000 rounds of ammunition in a day, because the entire squad was carrying ammunition for the machine gun. That was the equivalent of 150 BAR magazines!
7. Heavy versions of the MG42 (usually but not always seen in the infantry battalion heavy weapons company) replaced the bipod with a precision optical sight and tripod tracking mechanism and had three to four barrels for sustained fire. Many Omaha Beach infantry company defensive MG42 positions were set up as “heavy” mounts and one such position burned through 12,000 (!) rounds before being knocked out.
8. A skeletal German infantry company with 50 men could man its 15 MG42 with 30 men and use the other 20 as ammo bearers and still hold a frontage longer than the 193 man US Army company at full strength!

The reality of infantry combat showed the Germans won the fire superiority bet, and it took a lot of American artillery to make up that difference.

Finally, while Steven Zaloga’s book is titled, “The Devil’s Garden: Rommel’s Desperate Defense of Omaha Beach on D-Day” its real theme is Intelligence Failure on Omaha Beach.

The myth busting points from Zaloga are the following —

1. General Bradley and his intelligence staff did not understand General Erwin Rommel’s defense doctrine was radically different than the 1943 Axis beach defense doctrine. This meant they saw a great deal of what they wanted to see and missed the extra beach defense weapons that Rommel outfitted every coast defense division at Normandy.
2. This inability to see the true firepower of the German beach defenses meant Bradley’s plan placed his troops into the draws of Omaha Beach — the kill zones — expecting weak defenses, having outfitted his men to carry a basic load for two-to-three days fighting inland when they needed a minimum combat load.
3. Further, Bradley’s follow-on assault waves were in larger infantry company lift LCI(L) landing ships and not the squad sized American LCVP or British LCA, and larger platoon LCM’s landing craft after the first few waves. These and the Tank carrying LCT were perfect targets for the German casement anti-tank guns.
4. This intelligence analysis error was compounded when Allied intelligence collection missed the movement of the 352nd Infantry Division to area behind Omaha beach. This was due in part to a bad break where the local French resistance cell for the Omaha Beach area was caught by German counter-intelligence just before the invasion.
5. The flawed intelligence collection and analysis at Omaha beach meant the biggest killer there was undetected and unengaged German artillery. Artillery that ran out of ammunition thanks to American tactical airpower. In particular the Allies missed the German 352nd Infantry Division’s 105mm howitzer and 150mm gun (twice the number of heavy guns at Pointe-Du-Hoc) battalions plus the fixed batteries of 280 mm and 320 mm artillery rocket batteries behind the beaches.
6. Even for the targets it did identify, General Bradley’s fire support plan was, to be kind, inadequate at best. He had 1/3 of his naval gunfire aimed at the rubble of Pointe-Du-Hoc, his heavy bomber strikes (which flew at high altitude and aiming with radar) completely missed Omaha beach defenses, and his British provided rocket bombardment against the Colleville and Vierville Draws were ineffective.

Geography, Rommel’s “Devils Garden” obstacles, and heavy weapon firepower advantages held the American 16th and 116th Regiments in a kill zone on Omaha beach for five to six hours. The guns in the draws prevented the beach obstacle clearing teams from doing their work and caused the US Navy beach masters to shut down reinforcing landing waves from 830 to 1045, when high tide covered both the obstacles and the few gaps cleared in them.

It was the young captains of the US Navy Destroyers risking the grounding of their ships on the close shore to engage in point blank gun battles with German shore guns and the American infantry, ditching their packs, ignoring the plan, going up the bluffs between the draws and coming in behind the Germans who won the day on Omaha Beach.

As Zaloga put it as he closed his book:

“The battle of Omaha beach had more in common with the trench battles fought on the Western front in 1915-16 during World War I than the more typical battles in the European theater in 1944-45: it consisted of a direct frontal assault against a prepared position without adequate preliminary bombardment.”

Now you know a little bit about both this books, and what the men of D-Day went through.

Books Reviewed —

Richard C. Anderson, “Cracking Hitler’s Atlantic Wall: The 1st Assault Brigade Royal Engineers on D-Day” [Kindle Edition], Stackpole Books (December 16, 2009), ASIN: B004EPYFGW

Joseph Balkoski, “Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy,” Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, USA, ISBN:0-8117-2682-7 c 1989, 1999

Steven Zaloga, “The Devil’s Garden: Rommel’s Desperate Defense of Omaha Beach on D-Day,” Stackpole Books (October 1, 2013) ASIN: B00GB0Z5H6

9 thoughts on “History Friday — Books to Read for the D-Day 70th Anniversary”

  1. Trent, thanks for this post. Very interesting details, as usual from you.

    Congratulations on the baby!

  2. Mike K,

    I have a Kindle HD…when I can get it away from my children, that is!

    It is good enough for illustrations, maps and pictures, but inferior to a good book.

    Many of the book titles I use for my column are not available via Amazon or other provider e-books.

    I find Amazon useful for buying those books 2nd hand because libraries around the country are “remaindering” them.

    Increasingly it is only in universities that you can find them and that seems set to change for reasons that Glen Reynolds has made clear over on Instapundit.

  3. Thank you very much for the great article per usual. I just bought the book on the German armor at Omaha beach and it was fantastic. The photos, diagrams and analysis all seemed to be on point. I also like how the book went through various assumptions and charts comparing the casualty totals by beach.

    by the end of it I was terrified for the US troops on Omaha. The well organized and well placed German troops really created a killing zone.

  4. We did turn down the British offer to convert some of our Sherman tanks to the 17 pounder anti-tank gun. I doubt if it would have made much difference; however, it is a shame that we took so long in up-gunning our tanks with a higher velocity gun or the very impressive HVDS round.
    After the initial landings in Normandy, our lack of experienced NCO’s and Junior Officers was devastating. The majority of U.S. casualties were from German mortars. You can see it in “Band of Brothers”, where Winters is forced to literally kick soldiers who have gone to ground in order to get them moving and advancing towards enemy fire. That takes exceptional leadership and bravery. The soldiers that tried to seek cover were almost always hit by mortars. It took exceptional bravery to stand up and charge the next hedgerow – but it was, ironically, the only way to reduce casualties.

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