Over the next 90 days or so the 75th anniversary of some of the most important Allied victories of WW2 will be happening.
- The Battle of Monte Cassino
- The Normandy Landings (D-Day)
- Operation Bagration
- Operation Dragoon
Of these the best-known is undoubtedly D-Day, and you’re bound to hear a lot of publicity about it over the next few weeks. Much of that will give the impression that the Normandy Landings are much more important and worthy of remembrance than anything else that was happening at the time. That’s both inaccurate and in my opinion dishonours the memory of those who were fighting just as hard and winning victories just as (or more) important than what happened in Normandy.
While I don’t want to detract in any way from the remembrance of D-Day itself I do wonder why we make such a fuss about just that one operation from the summer of ’44 when it was actually just one of several and wasn’t even the biggest, or the most significant.
Is this skewed perception entirely down to the Hollywood blockbusters that the Normandy campaign spawned? If so we’re dong a disservice to the men and women who fought and died in the other big Allied operations that broke the armies of Nazi Germany over that historic summer.
Battle of Monte Cassino (11 May 44 – 18 May 44)
The fighting at Monte Cassino in Italy had been raging since the 17th of January, but so far the German defenders had stopped every assault the Allied forces tried to throw at it. The fourth and final assault by Allied troops took place in May. Up until the Normandy Landings in June this was the main front where the western Allied forces were fighting the Germans.
An army of British, Americans and a mixed bag of everybody else (Poles, Kiwis, Indians, Canadians, Brazilians, etc, etc) had been spearheading the drive out of North Africa and into southern Europe for nearly a year. Despite the collapse of their Italian allies the Germans had dug in solidly into Italy and were fighting hard for every scrap of ground. The German general Kesselring had proved himself more than a match for the Allies’ Mark Clark, and despite the terrible strategic situation Germany faced by mid-44 they had been able to slow Allied progress to a crawl. Poor leadership and planning from the Allies meant that the amphibious landing at Anzio behind German lines had failed to break out, and the heights of Monte Cassino controlled the road the rest of the Allied forces needed to link up with Anzio and drive on to Rome.
The Allied forces threw some of their best troops and plenty of artillery into assaults on the high ground but failed three times, taking tens of thousands of casualties. It wasn’t until the fourth assault by US, British, Canadian, Polish, French and Indian troops that the ruined abbey finally fell and the road to Rome was opened. Controversially, Mark Clark squandered the opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat on the retreating Germans. Instead of sending the troops breaking out from Anzio to cut off the retreating German 10th Army, he diverted them to take Rome, a meaningless political gesture as the Italians had already surrendered months prior.
The 75th anniversary of this battle took place recently at the National Arboretum and was particularly well attended by Polish representatives, as it was Polish II Corps troops who took the summit in the final assault.
The Normandy Landings (6 June 44 – 30 Aug 44)
Needing little introduction, this is probably the most famous Allied operation of the late war.
By mid-44 the Germans were losing the war badly, with Allied control of the Atlantic and the skies over Germany, and a string of German defeats on the Eastern Front. While the western Allies’ own efforts in Italy had failed to produce a breakthrough, planning continued to open a third front by landing in France.
In fact, two landings were planned; the first in the north (Overlord) and then shortly after another in the south (Dragoon). Overlord benefited from a very successful deception operation and the proximity of airfields and ports in Britain. It was felt that these advantages and the short drive to the German industrial heartland favoured landing in the north first, but they also meant that the Germans prioritised defending against a landing so close to their border. The Norman terrain though proved challenging and the Germans rushed in reserves including some of their best troops. The beachhead however was never seriously threatened and over the next few weeks the massive logistical and firepower advantage of the Allies built up the forces ashore to unstoppable levels, and they ground the Germans into oblivion. Allied forces eventually extended the German line beyond what they could hold and outflanked them, encircling and destroying several divisions in the Falaise Pocket.
Operation Bagration (23 June 44 – 19 Aug 44)
While the fighting raged in Normandy, most of the German forces were still pinned down on the Eastern Front. By this stage of the war the Soviets dominated the strategic picture, and the Wehrmacht was reduced to a completely defensive posture. The Germans knew another Soviet offensive would come soon, which is why they couldn’t release the forces they needed to defeat the Allies in Normandy, even if they did have the strategic resources to redeploy that many troops, which arguably they didn’t.
Combined with another excellent deception operation, massive Soviet forces had been amassed for what was intended to be the knock-out blow that would end the war. And that is exactly what happened. German resistance disintegrated quickly, with many of their front-line units annihilated within the first few days. The Germans tried to hold important transport hubs like Minsk for as long as they could, throwing in everything from police to rear-echelon security divisions so that they could keep the railways running and evacuate their troops. It was all to no avail, as Red Army units repeatedly steamrollered, outflanked and outran the collapsing German defenders. The retreat became a rout, and huge numbers of prisoners were taken. The result was the single greatest Allied victory of the war. German Army Group Centre was annihilated, with 28 out of 34 divisions destroyed, and German losses during the 8-week operation are estimated at around 400,000. To put that in perspective the total German losses on the entire western front from D-Day to VE Day (nearly a year) were also about 400,000.
Bagration was the final nail in the coffin of Nazi Germany, and rewrote the post-war map of Europe. It ensured that the Red Army would be able to drive deep into Germany in spring ’45, and left the US and Britain scrambling to capture as much of western Europe as they could before the Iron Curtain fell across it.
Operation Dragoon (15 Aug 44 – 14 Sep 44)
With the beachhead in Normandy secure the Allies planned to use their massive amphibious capabilities again to open a fourth front against the failing Third Reich. By this stage of the war Allied planners were very confident with their ability to make large opposed amphibious landings, having landed in North Africa, Sicily, Italy (several times) and now Normandy. Stripping units out of the forces in Italy (including a large number of Free French), they stormed ashore in southern France in mid-August.
With all the German forces in the west entangled in the bloody Falaise pocket and those in the east smashed and in full retreat after Bagration, only the existing garrison units were on hand to oppose the landings, and the result was never in much doubt. Allied units overwhelmed German resistance and managed to do what Overlord hadn’t, opening the major ports of Marseilles and Toulon intact. Allied forces rolled up through France and linked up with the forces from Normandy in early September, allowing supplies from the southern ports to get through to the troops in Normandy, who were still only being supplied over the beaches as the Allies had not managed to capture and repair a good port in the north. The Allied supply situation was critical, and it’s no overstatement to say that without Dragoon the broad-front breakout from Normandy simply wouldn’t have happened, which would have left far more of Germany behind the Iron Curtain at the end of the war.
An oft-overlooked operation, Dragoon was in many ways a much more successful operation than Overlord. It took more ground, captured vital ports and cost the Allies far fewer casualties. Admittedly German casualties were also lower, but it did chop about 160,000 more men off the Wehrmacht’s rolls, at a time when they were already suffering badly. Allied casualties were quite light, at around 25,000.