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.