Thursday, June 6, 2013

Marking D-Day with Context

Given that today is the 69th anniversary of D-Day, it is fitting that I finished reading Rick Atkinson's The Guns at Last Light yesterday.  It is the third book in his Liberation Trilogy about the American wars in North Africa (first book), Italy (second book), and Western Europe.  I had read a fair amount about WWII before, but these books did a great job of covering the alliance politics from top to bottom, and the warfare at the level of the generals, on the ground and in between.

So, on this D-Day anniversary, I want to highlight a few things I learned from this well-trod ground of WWII history (thanks @ncprime for pointing that out).  First, while we know a great deal about D-Day, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge thanks to movies (I need to re-watch the first part of Saving Private Ryan again), TV (Band of Brothers always deserves a re-watch), non-military historian types know far less about Hürtgen forest, for example, and how tough the fighting was not just to get over the Rhine but to get near it.  I do not mean to underplay D-Day, as it was an amazing collection of acts of bravery, but there was more to this war than that.  Including a lot of bad leadership.  Indeed, reading Atkinson's books makes one realize how much the fog of war really exists and how rare it is to have great leadership at the highest levels.  Having crappy 2-4 star generals is not just a 21st century problem.

Second, not planning for the day after is an old problem apparently.  Just as the US military, thanks to poor civilian leadership and Tommy Franks's limitations didn't plan for the aftermath on Iraq, the Americans and Brits did not plan very well for what happened after landing on the beaches.  That is, I knew that bocage/hedgerow country in France was tough from other stuff I read, but I didn't know that the allies never really prepared at all for it.  The good news is that improvisations by the guys on the ground to create blades that they put on the Sherman tanks and other improvisations made a difference. 

Third, a lot more friendly fire during the WWII than people tend to recall.  I knew of the bombs that fell short in the effort to break out of Normandy, but not the other many examples. 

Fourth, while I had read about Operation Market Garden before, and visited the sights when I was on my way to doing research in the Netherlands, the book does a great job of showing how poorly planned this effort was, and how much intel failure was involved (a recurring theme).  The Polish Commander's comments on the plan "But the Germans, how about the Germans, what about them?" are most instructive.  Worse, this was not the last time paratroopers were thrown into a battle with not so much thinking (see the effort to cross the Rhine).  

Fifth, I wished this book was out before we finished our book on NATO and Afghanistan, as De Gaulle provides us with some great examples of when double hats and national command complicate alliance operations.  Namely, when Ike wanted to pull allied troops back from Strasbourg to solidify the lines, DeGaulle ordered his commanders to disobey Ike "I order you to take matters into your own hands."  While the defeat of France was, of course, a very bad thing, it at least kept France from mucking up planning and operations until France was mostly liberated. 
Beetle Smith, Ike's chief of staff:  Juin said things to me last night, which, if he had been an American, I would have socked him on the jaw."
 The book documents very, very well the bickering between the Americans and the British (Monty, once again, comes off as a dick extraordinaire), but adding De Gaulle and the French just made things worse.  Indeed, I didn't know that the French had their own squabbles as one key general had stayed with Vichy and another had not.  They, of course, didn't get along. 
A great Ike quote: "Next to the weather ..., [The French] have caused me more trouble in this war than any other single factor.  They even rank above landing craft."
The book even goes into the talks at Yalta with more piling on the French, who were not there.  

Oh, and of course, one other non-surprise.  While the book focuses mostly on the American war, it does address the stuff at the leadership level, so we can get glimpses of a recurring pattern: that the British lead the Canadians poorly.  The Canadians did a lot of the tough fighting to free up Antwerp, which should have been Monty's priority as ports were mighty hard to come by (geez, the Germans were great at destroying ports!)  

In the epilogue, Atkinson cites a Churchill quote we use in our book: "There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them." Indeed.  This is not the only big bonus of the books, to document this, but it is one that sticks out to me as I await the proofs for our book.

D-Day was an amazing day with such allied cooperation among the Americans, British, Canadians, Poles and others.  There was a lot of stress and tensions among these folks, but they managed to put enough troops on the beaches so that the Germans could be defeated 338 days later (with, of course, the Soviets doing much more of the killing and dying).  So, this day is very much worth marking.  Reading some really good history is good way to remember what the young men did on that day and the days after.

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