Friday, July 10, 2015

D-Day, Part 2

This is a continuation of the previous D-Day lessons post based on the book, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climatic Batle of World War II, by Stephen Ambrose. 

Here are some more tidbits from the book that offer lessons relevant to today’s amphibious assault concerns.

Rommel had an interesting view of the decisive moment to defeat an amphibious assault and how to accomplish it.

“Drawing on his experience in North Africa, Rommel told his chief engineer officer, Gen. Wilhelm Meise, that Allied control of the air would prevent the movement of German reinforcements to the battle area, so ‘Our only possible chance will be at the beaches – that’s where the enemy is always weakest.’  As a start on building a genuine Atlantic Wall, he said, ‘I want antipersonnel mines, antitank mines, antiparatroops mines.  I want mines to sink ships, and mines to sink landing craft.  I want some minefields designed to that our infantry can cross them, but no enemy tanks.  I want mines that detonate when a wire is tripped;  mines that explode when a wire is cut;  mines that can be remote controlled, and mines that will blow up when a beam of light is interrupted.”

Rommel’s focus was clearly on mines.  Even today, mines remain, arguably, the most potent, affordable, anti-assault weapon available.  Despite this, the USN has allowed its mine countermeasure (MCM) assets to dwindle to a nearly non-existent state.  The Navy has, currently, only 11 Avenger class MCM vessels and some helo squadrons to counter countries that are believed to have hundreds of thousands of mines available for use.

Consider the Navy’s current MCM resources versus those the Allies used to accomplish the D-Day assault.

“The first to move out were the minesweepers.  Their job was to sweep up along the English coast in case the Luftwaffe and E-boats had dropped mines in the area, then proceed to clear five channels for the separate assault forces (O, U, G, J, and S), marking them with lighted dan buoys spaced at one-mile intervals along the 400-meter-wide channels, and finally clear the area in which the transports would anchor off the beaches.  There were 245 vessels involved in this mammoth sweeping job.”

The D-Day assault used 245 vessels for just the minesweeping portion of the operation.  The Navy has 11 Avenger MCM vessels and some helos.  Does anyone see any hope of conducting an opposed assault by a country with thousands of deployed mines?  Also, note that the D-Day minesweeping operation had to be completed in just a few hours in order to get the troops ashore before the element of surprise was lost.  Contrast that to the current LCS minesweeping effort which clears mines at the rate of about one mine per hour per LCS.  Do the math.  We have absolutely no hope of executing effective minesweeping operations in a relevant time frame today.

One of the interesting aspects of the D-Day assault was the debate concerning the use of airborne troops (paratroops).  Eisenhower’s view on airborne troops was,

“… an airborne force well inland would not be self-contained, would lack mobility, and would therefore be destroyed.  The Germans had shown time and again, in the war that they did not fear a ‘strategic threat of envelopment.’  Using the road nets of Western Europe, they could concentrate immense firepower against an isolated garrison and defeat it in detail.  …  An inland airborne force, cut off from all supply except what could be brought in by air, without tanks or trucks, immobile and inadequately armed, would be annihilated.”

Again, this a warning to the modern strategist/tactician that airborne assaults such as the Marine Corps is now proposing are a very risky proposition and suited only for very short, very low end combat operations.  The Marines need to carefully re-examine their desire for aviation based assaults.

The role of naval gunfire was recognized by the German defenders.  Responding to Rommels desire to entrench the Panzer divisions on the coast rather than use them for mobile and powerful counterattack forces, Gen. Heinz Guderian, Hitler’s panzer expert, had this to say to Rommel.

“He advised Rommel to pull the tanks back out of range of Allied naval guns.  He insisted that the lesson from the Sicily and Salerno landings was crystal clear – the Germans could not fight a decisive battle while they were under those naval guns.  Guderian knew that an amphibious force is not at its most vulnerable when it is half ashore, half at sea.  It is at its most powerful at that time, thanks to those big naval guns.”

Thus, we see the power of naval gunfire in the minds of the German defenders (at least some of them!).  While this lesson would and should apply today, the sad reality is that the Navy has NO naval gunfire capability.  Even the paltry 5” guns on Burkes are useless in an amphibious assault scenario since doctrine has the ships standing 25-50 miles out to sea, beyond the range of the guns! 

British Gen. Montgomery summed up the requirements for success in the assault at a pre-assault planning meeting,

“Montgomery said, ‘We have the initiative.  We must rely on:
(a)  the violence of our assault.
(b)  our great weight of supporting fire from the sea and the air.
(c)  simplicity.
(d)  robust mentality.’ “

It’s interesting that the first two requirements are about providing an overwhelming degree of explosives, to put it bluntly.  This is nearly opposite of today’s combat philosophy of focused, narrow power with an emphasis on minimizing collateral damage.  Further, we are designing smaller, less powerful weapons rather than larger, more powerful ones.

Equally fascinating is the requirement for simplicity.  Again, this is completely at odds with today’s dependence on exquisitely aligned networks, data, databases, communications, and coordination.  Of course, come combat, none of that will work and we’ll revert to simplicity but we seem unable to grasp that concept today, preferring to focus on our fantasies of clean, analytical, surgical combat with minimal effort and no casualties.

We see, then, that the historical example of D-Day offers many lessons that are still relevant today.  Yes, technology may have altered a few of the lessons but the alterations are more a matter of degree than obsolescence. 

I’ll offer a few more posts of this nature based on this book.  D-Day and its lessons are too important to leave in the dustbin of history.


  1. My thinking is that due to the advent of modern sensors and systems you shouldn't need the great numbers of ships used in WW2 to clear the approaches to beacheads of mines.

    I would imagine, but am not sure if current systems have such capabilities, that sonar systems, be they towed, autonomous (underwater vehicles) or air launched buoys, as well as MAD (magnetic anomaly detectors), and above ground vessels like ACTUV could all be used quiet succesfull to locate mines.

    Then the mines could be destroyed perhaps through some sort of ASW grenade launched system, similar to what you see on modern FACs but with a greater ability to home in onto targets?

    Ofcourse I do not believe any such systems to do this have been designed to specifically have these capabilities, or have the software written, and the training and equipment necessary to do what I described. But personally I see such a thing being a way to quickly clear large areas. Ofcourse the opposing forces can always seed the cost with devices that emit noise or something to counteract.

    Its interesting that you bring it up, I believe since the end of ww2 something like only 3 USN ships were sunk, one was by a terrorist attack by israel, another by mines, and more but I can't remember where. Considering this, I find it interesting that their has not been a focus on this, saying that there was not a focus on putting defensive capabilities on auxillary ships after the terrorist attack by israel.

    1. Anon, you may not be grasping the enormity of the mine clearance task in an opposed assault. Let me see if I can offer some further insight.

      There are two steps to mine neutralization: finding and neutralizing. Both are just what they sound like.

      The first, finding, is an enormous task by itself. Even if we didn't want to neutralize the mines but only locate them, it would take days or months to find them in an opposed landing scenario where an enemy uses tens or hundreds of thousands of mines. You may not be appreciating the utter lack of speed that remote minehunting vehicles operate with. They move at only a a few knots. Further, their data must be analyzed after to collection which imposes further delays and then, often, the possible mines must be verified. Complicating this still more is the current high failure and false positive rates from the LCS MCM module components. Current doctrine calls for searching the suspect area multiple times to compensate for the failures.

      The next step, neutralization, is currently accomplished one mine at a time with each neutralization requiring 30-60 minutes. Do the math to see how long it would take to clear a minefield at the rate of one mine per hour. Of course, we would employ multiple assets but that would make no significant difference when faced with tens or hundreds of thousands of mines.

      Adding to the difficulty of the above, is the need to accomplish this while under enemy fire. A smart enemy, realizing that mine clearance is the key to an assault, would concentrate their fire on the very few MCM assets we have. Survival time of MCM assets would likely be short in such a scenario.

      Lastly, remember that in order to take advantage of the element of surprise the clearance operation must be completed in a matter of just a few hours.

      To be fair, there are sweeping techniques that can neutralize larger areas in shorter times but at the expense of a lack of certainty. Are we willing to risk our few (and expensive!) ships on a "fairly clear" area that sweeping might, at best, produce?

      Does this give you a better feel for the difficulty of the MCM task?

    2. I understand, its an enourmous task, an opposing force could forseeably saturate a series of strategically important beacheads and waterways with a very, very large number of mines. I am not contesting that, I am also not contesting that the current series of mine clearance systems are probably not very effective. I am not even saying what I propose is dooable with existing equipment!

      What I am saying, Is I don't see why Air, Surface and Subsurface based sonar systems, on manned and unmanned platforms can not (in theory, and therefore with appropriately designed systems, in practice) be used to locate large numbers of such mines, and then detonate them like the army does to IEDs using devices for instance similar too (but not necessarilly the same as) depth charges and anti-submarine grenades.

      I imagine blowing suspected, (not confirmed) mines would be a very quick way of determining whether or not they are indeed mines, and if they are, of being sure they have been disabled.

  2. The other thing to consider is that mine technology has also advanced considerably over the past couple of decades.

    Mine detection, although it has advanced, has not advanced as much.

    Mines have never been about creating an impenetrable defensive layer. It's always been about trying to slow the enemy down.

    While you are busy trying to clear mines, one thing to consider is that a good land based enemy can bring land based weaponry as well. Plus by virtue of being the defender, they have advantages in terms of supply line distance, and perhaps the ability to bring more firepower to the scene.

  3. Slightly off topic, but relevant.

    The most important part of d day, was England.
    A limitless store from which to draw fuel, ammunition, spares and reinforcements, and to return the dead and injured.

    The second world war pacific forces required 20kg per man per day
    A more modern division 4,200t per day,
    The UKs bay class carries 200t of stores, barely enough to see the embarked battalion through a couple of days.
    The point classes 14,000t enough to see it through 3

    Ships could load up in England, an hour across the channel and then unload at mulberry.

    Avoiding a minefield is possible if implausible, avoiding eating?

  4. From:

    "During World War II, US Marines demonstrated great bravery by assaulting fortified islands. However, the Japanese always suffered four times more deaths despite their advantage of occupying carefully prepared defenses because heavy naval gunfire pummeled the Japanese and killed most of them beforehand. In some cases, naval gunfire was so devastating that Marines only had to "mop up" the survivors, which was not an easy task, but much safer once Japanese defenses had been wrecked.

    Unfortunately, the USA lost most of its shore bombardment firepower since the retirement of the four Iowa class battleships, along with their 16-inch (406mm) guns. This was because US Navy officers think that thousands of naval rounds were fired during World War II because the guns lacked the accuracy to hit targets. They believe that expensive precision-guided munitions can destroy targets at a lower cost. This is false, naval guns usually had no exact target, they just fired into areas occupied by a concealed enemy knowing that some rounds would hit something of value. This may seem wasteful, but each round that hit the enemy saved lives in the landing force.

    Such is the nature of naval gunfire and artillery support, firing large numbers of rounds to saturate a target area occupied by enemy forces."

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  6. " ... airborne assaults such as the Marine Corps is now proposing are a very risky proposition and suited only for very short, very low end combat operations."

    One can hardly describe the D-Day airborne operations as low-end. The point of them was make the defender's lives harder, by impeding responses to the landing, with the expectation that the airborne troops would be relieved by troops landing on the beaches within a day or two. Attempting to seize towns like Caen or Valognes with airborne forces on June 6th would likely have led to just the kind of consequences Eisenhower described.

    As for the development of less powerful weapons, it's simply a consequence of the kind of fighting that US forces have been doing since 9/11. Everyone involved feels the need to demonstrate commitment by doing the appropriate short-term things, and the vast monetary cost of the operations has meant no money to develop high-end weapons. The situation somewhat resembles that of the British in the early 1930s, before re-armament; the operations the US has been doing have been logistically somewhat like the colonial actions of the British in the 1920s and early 30s, although the motivations are different.

    1. It was by no means "low end".

      But the Allies did enjoy massive air superiority, naval superiority, material superiority, numerical superiority, and a massive logistics chain to keep this all supplied.

      Whether such superiority is assured in the future is open to debate. All the more so, as ships like the LCS seem to be making a larger portion of the fleet.

    2. That superiority was because of the massive industrial base the Allies had.

      The other thing to remember was that in WWII, the Germans were extremely hard pressed on the Eastern Front, which is where the biggest land battles were taking place.

      It's hard for me to communicate this to Americans, but the bulk of the ground fighting was won in the Eastern Front. That is not to understate the courage of the Western nation or their efforts, but to recognize the reality of the situation.

      The most important thing the US contributed was it's massive industrial base.

    3. "One can hardly describe the D-Day airborne operations as low-end."

      John, you're correct. The airborne portion was by no means low end. It was a massive undertaking by multiple divisions. Unfortunately, it was also a nearly complete disaster. The success that it had was due to overwhelming numbers and German ineptitude - neither of those are factors we can count on in future assaults against peers. The lesson is that unless we're willing to throw massive numbers of soldiers and equipment at an aerial assault, we need to recognize the inherent limitations thereof.

  7. The scariest thing of all is that mines are simply not on the radar right now. I think that there's a big chance that unless things change, the US might find out the hard way.

    The other, naval gunfire support seems to be languishing as well.

    - Tomahawks and VLC is probably too expensive.
    - There has been few talk of adding more guns or more powerful guns to the existing fleet (or for that matter any upcoming vessel).
    - The rail gun remains something that "may or may not" happen in a few decades.
    - Whether or not the Zumwalt class was effective does not matter, as there will only be 3 built (which probably means that at any time, only 1 will be available - hardly enough to make a big difference).
    - Lasers and other technologies, like the rail gun, remain years off.

    You get what I am saying here.


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