Monday, July 13, 2015

D-Day, Part 3

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.

Communications were a key target.

“Communications was a factor in the German failure.  The American paratroopers had been told that if they could not do anything else, they could at least cut communication lines.  The Germans in Normandy had been using secure telephone and cable lines for years and consequently had become complacent about their system.”

Does this sound familiar?  The Navy has become complacent about its electromagnetic emissions, communications, GPS, etc.  We assume that everything will work just as well in combat as it does in peacetime and against third world countries or terrorists.  Unfortunately, the reality is that combat against a peer or near-peer will see the entire electromagnetic spectrum contested and our communications, data transfers, networks, etc. will be severely compromised.  We must begin designing equipment and training for degraded electromagnetic enviroments.

Allied airpower was counted on to deliver vast quantities of explosives, destroy many targets, and otherwise prepare the battlefield for the infantry.  In the event, little of this happened.  Weather and a fear of dropping on friendly forces resulted in the aerial bombardment being almost totally wasted with the bomb loads landing far from their intended targets.

“For the B-17 crews, flying mainly at 20,000 feet, … such bombing was clearly inappropriate to its purpose. … Eisenhower learned the lesson that the B-17 was not a suitable weapon for tactical ground support.”

This discussion continues today with advocates of bombers claiming their ability to provide precise close air support.  Certainly, the advent of laser guidance offers the possibility, under the right circumstances, of providing a limited and haphazard degree of support.  However, in an assault, there will be no one to provide the laser spotting.  The troops will not be calm, cool, well equipped, well trained, and ready with all necessary gear for precise direction of air support.  Instead, they will be panicked, disorganized, and lucky to have hung on to their rifles.  B-1/2/52 bombers will be of no use trying to provide direct, close support.

The effectiveness of naval gunfire was discussed.

“From the point of view of the soldiers going ashore, the great naval bombardment was as ineffective as the great air bombardment.  According to Admiral Morison, the reason was ‘not enough time was allowed,’ and the fault was the Army’s, not the Navy’s, because the Army did not wish the bombardment to start before daylight.”

So, dozens of battleships and cruisers, all with their big guns, failed to provide the necessary degree of destruction due, in part, to a lack of time and also to the physical strength of the German emplacements, many of which shrugged off major caliber hits.  What does this tell us, today?  It tells us that our non-existent naval gunfire and meager airpower will not significantly degrade an enemy’s defenses.  We need to drastically rethink our view of the delivery of large quantities of high explosives, in general, and naval gun support, in particular.  A handful of Tomahawk missiles will not suffice.

The failure of plans in the face of enemy contact was a notable feature of D-Day.  No operation before or, arguably, since, had been so carefully and meticulously planned, trained, and rehearsed as the D-Day assault.  Every minute aspect was accounted for several times over.  Unfortunately, the plan completely fell apart even before the first soldier landed.  The simplest and most fundamental aspect of the plan was to simply “drive” the troops straight ashore to their designated landing spots.  However, as demonstrated at Omaha beach,

“With the exception of Company A 116th, no unit landed where it was supposed to.”

Weather, tides, German defensive barriers, sand bars, defensive fire, and general confusion combined to scatter the troops widely.  Units were intermingled and too far away from their specific objectives to act effectively.  If the simple act of landing can’t be counted on to happen as planned, what can?  The answer is nothing.  If anything does go right, we should consider it a blessing but not something we can count on.  Our modern tendency to allocate just the bare minimum assets to an objective with the assumption that all will go reasonably well is a recipe for disaster. 

The actions of naval destroyers was noteworthy.  Often in defiance of orders and doctrine, they moved right up to the beach and engaged in duels with German emplacements to good effect.  Lt. Joe Smith, Navy beachmaster, said,

“… the destroyers come right into the beach firing into the cliff.  You could see the trenches, guns, and men blowing up where they would hit.  They aimed right below the edge of the cliffs where the trenches were dug in.  There is no question in my mind that the few Navy destroyers that we had there saved the invasion.”

Contrast this use of destroyers with the Navy’s current doctrine of standing 25-50 miles off shore.  The infantry will be left without any heavy gun support (to the extent that a 5” gun can be considered heavy) during the critical initial phase of an assault.

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 post a concluding piece on this book, shortly.  D-Day and its lessons are too important to leave in the dustbin of history.


  1. Good Post. Highlights the conflicts in planning and what works in an amphibious assault. There are a number of cases from the pacific that also substantiate the inability of big guns to destroy well built bunkers. Big Bombers with big bombs can't knock them out either. And then there is the case where one commander didn't return fire to give away his positions and waited until the Marines were on the beaches to open up.

    So what does this tell us about how to conduct an amphibious assault? Perhaps the keys are:

    1. Pick a spot that can be isolated from large formations moving to reinforce.
    2. Forget big pre bombardments they don't work.
    3. Use big guns to keep defenders from reaching/reinforcing their prepared positions.
    4. Have quick response pinpoint accurate fires (either Naval gunfire or CAS) to knock out/suppress particularly effective positions.
    5. Hammer enemy reinforcements as they move towards the beaches.
    6. Get inland immediately and roll up coastal defenses from the rear.
    7. Most importantly is your point, figure nothing will go right and #6 above has to be the order of the day for everyone from General to private.

    1. Anon, that's a pretty good list.

      Your first point is one that I hear a lot in slightly modified form from people who believe we'll have no trouble conducting amphibious assaults. They say we'll simply land where there are no significant defenses and thus avoid the opposed assault entirely. Similarly, the airborne assault will use its inherent mobility to land where there is no opposition. These people neglect the fact that if there are no enemy forces where you've chosen to land, it's probably because there's nothing worth taking/defending there and you've probably landed hundreds of miles from any strategically useful location and will now have to fight an extended campaign through enemy territory just to get to a position where you can accomplish something - all the while having to move enormous quantities of supplies with nowhere near enough transport capability.

      So, your point is an excellent one but may be difficult to reconcile with landing in a strategically useful location. Referring to D-Day, both the Allies and the Germans knew that there were only a few places a landing could occur. While Normandy was not the German's first guess, it was not a surprise, either.

      Good comment.

    2. I certainly do not believe we will have no problems making an amphibious assault in the future.

      Your point is well taken but sometimes you have to take the long way (an extended land campaign) to get ashore at all. Brittany was too far and easily isolated, Calais was too obvious and so Normandy became the trade off.

      Also an enemy cannot be strong everywhere and so his weak spots offer you a chance to get ashore and establish the logistics tail you need. Back to isolatable location.

      To address the extended campaign, if you have to perform an amphibious assault you are probably engaged in a knife fight in a phone booth (iPhone generation what is a Phone Booth?). Maybe that is the bigger strategic issue here, under what conditions will we engage in the most perilous of undertakings?

      History says only when it is a fight to the death (Unconditional Surrender).

    3. You continue to raise excellent points.

      "The long way" ... If you've been following this blog for any period of time, you've undoubtedly seen the point made that the US no longer has the logistics capability to support "the long way".

      1. We simply don't have the tonnage of supplies and equipment to support "the long way".
      2. We don't have the connectors to transport the amount of supplies that would have to be moved ashore.
      3. We don't have the number of vehicles and helos that would be needed to transport the supplies off the beach and up to the combat teams as they take the long way.

      So, your point is quite right and logical but we no longer have the capability to do it. My point is that we need to recognize that shortfall and either remove that option from our strategic toolbox or we need to address the shortfall and start concentrating on the logistical side of things instead of just buying shiny new toys.

      Your second, excellent point is your question regarding under what circumstances we would engage in a major amphibious assault. I've opined that there are no circumstances and we should accordingly adjust our amphibious fleet size and Marine Corp size and force structure. However, for the time being, the Marines insist on maintaining the illusion of being able to conduct a major assault. If so, you then understand my several posts about our inability to actually do so. If we are serious about wanting to be able to conduct major assaults, we need to begin restructuring the Marines and Navy to enable an assault and we need to drastically rework our amphibious assault doctrine which is completely divorced from our actual capabilities.

      Just an all around good comment. Thanks!

      By the way, do you see a set of circumstances under which we'd attempt a major amphibious assault?

    4. That actually demands the entire question be asked about force structure.

      The USN for example is organized around the idea that it can be all over the world and to take own any rising peers (I would assume this means Russia and China).

      If the US does not have the advertised capabilities, then new questions need to be opened.

      1. What are the actual capabilities?
      2. What level of capability is needed based on the prevailing circumstances in the world?
      3. How much will it cost? Or, how much are the American people willing to spend and for that kind of money, what is the best fleet that can be bought?
      4. Will the situation in the future change requiring a new force structure? What types of changes are needed?

      Amphibious landing like another D-Day may or may not be "necessary". The question is, if it's not then it's a matter of opportunity cost. Where should the money go? If it is needed, then the costs and what is actually needed for a good amphibious landing are very relevant.

      Right now I feel like it's a "half measure", kind of like how the Zumwalt class is a "half measure" towards naval gun support. They recognize the need for it, but they haven't really committed to trying to make it happen nor asked the difficult questions.

    5. Yes we have let a lot of our capability lapse. I don't understand the costs of ships anymore, everything else is coming down, but ships go up???

      I think only within our hemisphere. That would not be against a peer, but would need to be a major assault against a dictator that might arise and enflame his/her population against us. Basing from other countries might go away and so from the sea might be the only way.

      But that would be a great stretch and would require a country to go so far that a severe spanking (bombing, cruise missiles, blockade, etc.) wouldn't suffice.

  2. Speaking of bombers, another consideration is how many bombers are in the force these days?

    Like naval gunfire, it's fraction of WWII.

    The other issue left unmentioned is PGMs - many people think that they will somehow be perfect all of the time.
    - First, that is in question. There is always a CEP and some bombs will inevitably malfunction.
    - Second, air superiority is not always going to be assured (so deploying bombers is itself open to question when they are most needed).
    - Third, how many PGMs are in the inventory? Simply not enough.

    I would also question as you've noticed the wisdom of building bombers for this kind of operation.

    1. Alt, absolutely correct. We do not have enough bombers to even remotely entertain the notion of effective aerial strike power over an extended campaign which would include a major amphibious assault.

      Regarding precision munitions, you are quite correct that even LGBs are nowhere near as precise as we'd like to believe. Desert Storm reports put the LGB accuracy at around 80% although I've seen some reports putting the accuracy at 50% or less (it largely depends on the definition of accurate). Likewise, cruise missiles are far less accurate than we've been told. Again, Desert Storm demonstrated accuracy far less than claimed. Still, LGBs and cruise missiles are far more accurate than unguided bombs, for sure!

    2. There are other risks involved here.

      - First, most obvious, there's the fact that the enemy was not destroyed by the munitions.

      - Malfunctioning weapons are a friendly fire danger. Cluster munitions especially tend to have bomblets that do not always explode. Friendly forces can go over the area.

      - Civilian casualties from malfunctions can be a huge moral boost for the enemy. This is a huge problem if you want to been seen as the "good" guys.

      I think that bombers are actually counterproductive for that reason. Historically, loss rates have been quite high for where air superiority is in dispute. Bombers often miss. They are also very expensive, which means opportunity costs elsewhere.

      Another issue on cost is the costs of precision weapons. I have noticed that in many short engagements, the reserves were depleted in a relatively short period of time. The volumes needed would have to scale up in a short time or you risk running out. The problem is that such weapons can cost several times that of "dumb" bombs.

      Historically, strategic bombing has failed for example to terrorize a population. The Blitz in the UK for example is remembered as a time of national pride.

      I think a more Close Air Support centric air force is the way to go.

  3. I would agree that enemy jamming too is a huge problem. Forces should be trained to assume that the enemy is aware of jamming as well.

    There should also be extensive contingency planning, along with a "what if" analysis.

    Another thing I should note is that troops need to be taught to "think of themselves" quickly on the go. Otherwise when things go wrong, it will leave troops in a panic.

  4. One more point - the getting close to shore part.

    I remember reading in WWII that the British had special boats for bombardment. They were basically gun boats with a very shallow draft that allowed them to get closer to shore.

    They were small (partly due to the shallow draft), and they did not have high calibre guns, but being able to get close to shore and into rivers was very useful.

    Another is that I think that ships with large guns are going to have to carefully weigh the risks of running aground versus the risk of higher casualties without naval gun support.

    1. "Another is that I think that ships with large guns are going to have to carefully weigh the risks of running aground versus the risk of higher casualties without naval gun support."

      Maybe, maybe not.
      Some 'modern' (late/post-WW2) Large-Caliber Naval Gun (LCNG) designs have a max range of about 50 miles (43n.mi), with what would be a CEP of about 150yds at that range (with WW2 tech).
      These being the never-built Japanese and German 20in designs and the American 16"/62cal and 16"/75cals (both actually built and tested, but never used on a ship).

      If the US seriously went whole-hog back to using LCNGs (we'll assume new manufacture), the 16"/62 would probably be their first consideration - seeing as it's really just an upgraded Mk7 and all the related developments for the Iowas would work on them out-of-the-box.

      Some more... imaginative designs from modern sources place the effective unguided range of LCNGs as about 150nmi, for Grid-Destruction-Doctrine purposes.
      Of course, 'blind' accuracy equipment may have improved drastically since WW2 (better metallurgy and construction), but I still wouldn't expect precision fire at those ranges.

      But running aground is always a large challenge to gun-ship designs, there were protocols for avoiding it. Of course, nobody has any idea how to take a large vessel coast riding anymore...

      - Ray D.

    2. " in WWII that the British had special boats for bombardment. They were basically gun boats with a very shallow draft that allowed them to get closer to shore.
      Yer they were a specific designation called MONITORS. Cheap, shallow draft, large guns. Get close to shore and support the troops, unfortunately Monitors were considered eminently expandable. They were often adapted from civilian designes.

      They predate WW2 but we did used to use them specifically for this kind of thing.

      I have this horrible suspicion that the LCS is supposed to be a nod in this direction.


    3. Oh that's just so fluky. A Monitor from the Galipoly compains has just been restored and open to the public. Story on the BCC today.

      ( Seriously thought I cant see these working today )

    4. Beno,

      Re: Monitor-type Warship

      If you wanted an easier jump than the LCS, the Zumwalt-class is literally stated to be a modern Monitor in design. So, yes, the concept is very much alive.

      Keep in mind the LCS is known to be an anemic design when it comes to shore-bombardment (even with Missilery Modules or if it were to somehow house Attack Helos).
      I don't think it would be capable of shore support the same level (or better) that the even old 1800's Monitors were, let alone the British WW1/2 ships.

      - Ray D.

  5. I suspect there is something going on in the world of NGS.

    NG was used in Libya quite a few times by RN vessels and this come as something of a surprise.

    Unrelated to this the UK was developing a 155mm naval gun for the new Type 26. To be rolled out across the fleet.

    Unfortunately recoil and the recession put pay to that development and it has now been canned.

    Type 26 then had 3 guns to play with. The exceptional Otobreda Vulcano. The existing RN 4.5inch offering and the US standard 5 incher.

    The Otobreda 127mm offered higher rate of fire, European standardization and exceptional accuracy and ranges with existing smart munitions. Pretty much out performing anything.

    Here is the weird bit; we have decided to go with the US gun. Which has half the rate of fire, doesn’t have the best magazine, and its only advantage its caliber.

    BUT I suspect after the AGS the UK and US are about to engage in a big development effort. Featuring magazine automation, rate of fire and extended range.

    Excalibur already has developmental funding for Naval caliber, and GPS \ SAL, I suspect it will get range and Infra-red targeting like Vulcano, to offer a step change in new anti-ship and NGS.

    But watch the Type 26 space.


    P.S. there is a brilliant article here on the subject of future NG. I highly recommend it.


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