From: Cobblestone, 2007-04

On the Beaches of Normandy

By Kenneth P. Czech

To the American soldiers huddled behind the thin steel walls of their landing craft, it seemed as if nothing could survive the destruction whirling around them. Huge naval guns belched fire and smoke from the decks of Allied battleships and cruisers. Shells whistled toward the French coast, fiercely stabbing at camouflaged enemy bunkers. Waves of Allied warplanes thundered inland, searching for enemy targets. It was the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. D-Day, the invasion of western Europe by Allied forces, had begun.

World War II had been raging for nearly five years, and the Allies hoped to finally break the stranglehold the German army had on Europe. For some time, the Germans had been expecting an attack to occur near Pas de Calais, France, at the narrowest point of the English Channel between England and France. But they had taken the precaution of reinforcing the German defenses all along the fortified French coast.

Meanwhile, U.S. general and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower had hoped the Ger­mans would continue to concentrate on Pas de Calais. The Allied plan — called Operation Overlord — was sending more than 150,000 soldiers to land on the French coast at Normandy, farther to the southwest. Their objective was five different beaches that spanned a distance of 50 miles. It was the largest amphibious invasion in the history of the world.

Since the trip across the channel took about 17 hours, thousands of Allied ships had begun the crossing to Normandy on June 5. As the armada maneuvered into position in the early morning hours of June 6, American and British ships blasted the French landscape. Earlier, between 1:30 and 2:30 a.m., Allied gliders and planes had dropped Allied soldiers and paratroopers behind German lines.

The Germans were caught off guard. Americans landing at Utah Beach met only light resistance. Brought over on huge transport ships, engineers and bulldozers cleared minefields and blew up beach obstacles as landing craft poured ashore. English, Free French, and Canadian troops stormed Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches, sweeping away the enemy while pushing into the French countryside. Several German generals hesitated to send more soldiers and tanks to stop the Allies because they were convinced that the Normandy landings were a trick. They thought the real attack was still to come at Pas de Calais.

Although the Allies encountered some resistance, they were successful on four of the Normandy beaches. The fifth landing area, Omaha Beach, was a nightmare, however. Thousands of German soldiers had managed to survive the initial Allied naval and aerial bombardment by hiding underground in concrete shelters. These German troops now sent a tremendous volley of firepower from their cannon and machine guns into the American landing craft rolling about in the surf at Omaha. American troops jumping from the boats into waist-high, and sometimes higher, water were easy targets. They crumpled in the water as their boats and tanks burst into flames. For those who made it to the beach, they faced hidden mines exploding underfoot and bullets from German positions scraping the sand in front of them.

A second wave of landing craft piled up against the first. Omaha Beach was littered with smashed vehicles and dead and dying men. Survivors huddled together behind what little cover they could find. “What I recall most is the yellowish-gray smoke that shrouded the whole shore,” an American officer recalled. “That, and not being able to see any of the guns firing on us.”

Despite the confusion and savage fire, the Americans struggled forward. Bulldozers attacked enemy strongholds. Small groups of men used grenades and rifles to blast German machine gun shelters. More men and equipment rumbled ashore, and, by nightfall, the weary Americans on Omaha Beach had driven the Germans inland almost a mile.

All along the Normandy coast, the Allies were pushing the enemy to retreat. The Germans still fought ferociously, but all five beaches had been won by the Allies. Their next task was to reinforce their positions and move inland. A pair of huge artificial harbors were towed across the English Channel and anchored off the Normandy coast to allow the docking of larger ships that were transporting more troops, equipment, and supplies.

Within two weeks of D-Day, French port cities began to fall to the Allies, and more men and equipment were able to come ashore. By late August 1944, Paris, the capital of France, had been liberated, and the Germans had been driven to their final defenses on the Siegfried Line, near the border between France and Germany. D-Day had been a high-stakes gamble that required many components to come together at the right time. It paid off — Operation Overlord was a success.

While D-Day represented the beginning of the end for Germany, fighting continued in Europe until May 1945. Germany surrendered on the 7th of that month, soon after the western Allied army combined with the Soviet army in Germany. World War II did not officially end, however, until Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945, after two atomic bombs had been dropped on its cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Amphibious means a military landing that combines naval and ground forces.

An armada is a fleet of warships.

Gliders are light, engineless airplanes designed to glide after being towed aloft or launched from a catapult.

Paratroopers are members of an infantry who are trained and equipped to descend from an airplane by parachute.

Sorties are flights of combat aircraft when on a military mission.

Ancillary means helping or giving assistance.

Fast Fact

Before the end of June, both artificial harbors were damaged by bad weather. The one built for the American army could not be repaired and was abandoned.

Revealing Numbers

It is difficult to present precise numbers for all the personnel, vessels, and aircraft involved in D-Day action. Indeed, millions of people from many Allied countries had a hand in just the planning and organizing parts alone. But to appreciate the enormous complexity of what the Allies pulled together, we offer these general military statistics:

- about 156,000 Allied troops landed on Normandy’s beaches on D-Day

- about 11,590 Allied aircraft flew more than 14,000 sorties in support of the beach landings

- nearly 7,000 vessels made up the invasion’s naval component. This number includes more than 1,200 combat ships, more than 4,100 landing craft, more than 700 ancillary craft, and more than 800 merchant vessels.

- about 2,400 aircraft and more than 800 gliders carried about 15,500 American and 7,900 British and Canadian paratroopers to their drop zones

- within days of landing at Normandy, the Allies brought in more than 326,000 troops, 54,000 vehicles, and 104,000 tons of supplies

By nightfall on June 6, Allied troops had suffered more than 10,000 casu­alties. It is believed that the number of German casualties for that day was somewhere between 4,000 and 9,000. The French city of Caen and possibly as many as 20,000 French civilians also fell victim to the Allies’ pre-invasion bombing. Toward the end of August 1944, when the fighting connected with the Normandy Invasion finally ended, about 209,000 Allied soldiers and roughly 400,000 German troops were considered casualties. More than 110,000 men from both sides are buried in 27 war cemeteries in Normandy. For more D-Day statistics, go to www.ddaymuseum.co.uk/.

Fast Fact

“Casualties” refers to soldiers who have been killed, injured, captured, or are missing in action after a battle.


From: Cobblestone, 2007-04

Deception

By Kelly Poltrack

In the months leading up to D-Day, the date and the site of the invasion were two of the Allies’ most tightly guarded secrets. And to keep this information safe, the Allies launched an unprecedented deception campaign designed to confuse the Germans.

Both sides knew that Hitler’s Panzer tank divisions could mean the difference in the success or failure of an attack. The Germans thought an assault was coming but did not know exactly where to position their troops. And the Allies wanted to keep the Germans from amassing their equipment near Normandy, France, because the Allied forces needed time for their initial wave of troops and reinforcements to come ashore.

The Allies developed two basic deception plans, known as Fortitude North and Fortitude South. Forti­tude North involved planting the idea with the Germans of a possible invasion of Norway. The Allies used diplomatic pressure on neutral Sweden, reconnaissance flights, and special forces missions to enhance this ruse. As a result, when the fighting in Normandy finally began, tens of thousands of Germans remained tied up well to the north in Den­mark, Norway, and Finland.

The other plan, Fortitude South, involved the creation of a fictional army group based in England near the English Channel. Known as FUSAG, an acronym for First U.S. Army Group, it was used to trick the Germans into believing that the main thrust of an Allied attack would come farther north at Pas de Calais, France, and that Normandy was the fake landing area. To the Germans, Pas de Calais seemed a logical invasion point because it was located at the shortest distance across the English Channel between England and France.

The Allies put American lieutenant general George S. Patton, Jr., in charge of FUSAG. They knew that the Germans considered him to be the top Allied general and would expect Patton to be in command of a major invasion. Patton made appearances around the city of London, England, as well as the English countryside. Articles placed purposely in the newspapers discussed his actions and were made to read as if no one were supposed to know of Patton’s whereabouts.

The Allies took the deception further by moving around wooden aircraft and rubber tanks and boats and making it appear as if they were assembling an armada. By 1944, the Allies enjoyed air superiority, which enabled them to keep German reconnaissance aircraft at least 30,000 feet away from whatever the enemy pilots were trying to observe on the ground. From that distance, the Germans could see the wooden aircraft and rubber tanks and boats, but they could not tell that they were not the real thing!

In addition, to make it look as though supplies were pouring in to support a large army, the Allies drove trucks and caravans around southern England. Trucks were driven out of the woods into pretend camps and then disappeared back into the woods. The same trucks then turned around and did it again, thereby simulating a large army using just a relatively small number of trucks.

The Allied commanders knew they needed to really push the impression of a large number of troops, so they dedicated an entire office to sending false wireless messages for the Germans to intercept. The Allies also turned to the newspapers for help in printing articles about fictional FUSAG soldiers being assigned to fictional units, getting married, and even getting arrested.

Wireless message traffic, blurry reconnaissance photos, and newspaper articles would not be enough to fool the Germans, however. The Allies realized that the Germans would want to confirm with people on the ground everything they saw and heard. Early in the war, the British had caught and turned nearly every German spy in England into a double agent. The British ran Operation Doublecross, which used these spies to feed false information to commanders in Ger­­many’s capital, Berlin. The English carefully orchestrated what stories the double agents used and mixed just enough true facts with false information to keep the double agents credible.

The Allies used their advantages in controlling the skies and spies to fool the Germans and paint the picture they wanted to be seen. Not only did the Germans not have the majority of the Panzer units deployed to Nor­mandy when the invasion began, but they failed to move them right away for fear of a second major attack at Pas de Calais. And FUSAG, the myth­ical army commanded by a real war hero, played a very important role in the outcome of D-Day without ever firing a shot.

Reconnaissance is a mission to investigate and gather military information.

A double agent is a person who pretends to work as a spy for one government while actually working as a spy for another government.

An enigma is something that is puzzling or inexplicable.

A cipher is a system whereby plain text (letters) is substituted according to a predetermined code.

Cryptologists are those who study secret writings, or ciphers.

Espionage is the practice of spying or using spies to obtain secret information.

Diversionary means drawing attention away, or distracting.

Fast Fact

George S. Patton, Jr., had seen action in North Africa and Italy, earning the nickname “old blood and guts” before playing a pivotal role in the allied invasion plan. Patton got the name when a reporter misquoted his statement that it took “blood and brains” to win a war.

Cracking the Enigma

By R. Bruce Ward

During World War II, German forces sent and received coded messages using a specialized tool called the Enigma machine. It was about the size of one of today’s small computers and had a typewriter-like keyboard. But instead of a single cipher alphabet, the Enigma used a sequence of alphabets to encrypt a message. German leaders thought no one would be able to crack their intricate key, which changed every day.

Enigma’s complexity, however, gave the German military a false sense of security. In fact, British cryptologists (originally with French and Polish assistance) read most of Enigma’s messages from mid-1941 through the end of the war in 1945. Breaking the German codes was very difficult, though, and had to be done on a daily basis. But deciphered

Enigma messages revealed the location of German U-boats, the existence of new guidance systems for bombers, and the destinations of enemy troops and supplies.

My Name Is Pujol, Juan Pujol

As the German occupation of Europe spread, Spaniard Juan Pujol approached the British and offered to spy for them. They turned him down, but his strong antifascist beliefs would not let him end it there. He pretended to be a Nazi sympathizer and asked the Germans if he could spy for their country. They gave Pujol a quick course in espionage and instructed him to go to England and set up a spy ring. Instead, he went to Lisbon, Portugal, and began sending made-up reports to the Nazis. The Germans believed Pujol’s fake stories, in spite of the fact that they contained several errors.

Once he had established himself with the Germans, the English became interested in working with Pujol. In 1942, they brought him to London, England, and had him work with an established British agent. Together, they created an entirely fictitious network of spies, complete with made-up family histories. Pujol, known as Garbo to the English, became one of the Allies’ most successful double agents and played an important role in the success of D-Day.

Garbo fed the Germans false reports that he supposedly received from his spy ring. His greatest contribution came when he convinced the Germans that the invasion of Normandy was only a diversionary tactic. He insisted that an army led by American lieutenant general George S. Patton, Jr., stood ready to attack at Pas de Calais, France.

In order to maintain his credibility, Garbo also provided the Germans with small amounts of true information that they would have learned or intercepted on their own anyway. For example, the Allies had Garbo warn the Germans about the attack on Normandy, France, three hours before it was to begin. The Allies felt that the Germans would be grateful for the tip but would not have time to use it.

Fast Fact

Juan Pujol was decorated for his service during the war by both Great Britain and Germany.


From: Cobblestone, 2007-04

Dropping in on Normandy

By Kip Wilson

When top-level Allied commanders began to plan for D-Day, they encountered a problem. It would be to their advantage to position some troops deep within enemy territory before the bulk of the Allied infantry coming across the English Channel stormed the French beaches at Normandy. Having troops inland not only would confuse the Germans, it also would allow the Allies to attack from two sides. But how could they get troops behind German lines?

The answer soon became obvious: drop soldiers from planes. U.S. general Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the plan to send in three airborne divisions. Two paratrooper divisions would land behind Utah Beach: The 101st Airborne Division — nicknamed the “Screaming Eagles” — would jump into France’s Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and Caren­tan, and the 82nd Airborne Division — nicknamed the “All-Americans” — would land near the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. A third division, the British 6th Airborne, would be sent in behind Sword Beach. These elite and highly trained troops were ordered to secure the towns and prevent the Germans from bringing up reinforcements, thereby buying time for the Allied soldiers who would be landing on the beaches.

Once the decision was made and after months of training and preparation, the waiting game began. Only the weather stood in the way of action. Then on June 5, the soldiers learned they would be heading in that night.

World War II paratroopers packed a lot of gear — about 70 pounds of equipment, on average. Along with a rifle, hand grenades, ammunition, and emergency rations, each carried a 10-pound land mine. At about 10 p.m. that June night, more than 15,500 American and about 7,900 British and Canadian paratroopers packed up, strapped on their parachutes, and made their way to one of the nearly 2,400 aircraft that would transport them across the English Channel. Most of the men were silent during the crossing. Some prayed or thought of their families or sweethearts back home. They knew that some soldiers might not come back alive.

As the French coastline came into view, the C-47 pilots carrying the majority of the American paratroopers switched on a red light in the plane’s cabin to signal the paratroopers to get ready. The doors opened, and the men stood up and hooked their parachute lines to the anchor line at the top of the plane. When the light turned green, it was time to jump, and one by one, the paratroopers plunged into the darkness. Almost instantly, enemy fire and tracer bullets flew at them through the air.

Cloudy conditions, along with attempts by pilots to avoid flak from German antiaircraft guns, forced many of the planes to fly either dangerously low or too high. Both made it more difficult on the paratroopers. Some had only seconds before they hit the ground; others seemed to take forever to land. Once on the ground, many of the paratroopers found that they were nowhere near their planned drop zones. The soldiers tried to find other members of their units, or at least fellow Allies, in the dark. In the first chaotic hours after landing, men began to form groups that were nothing like the organized platoons and companies with which they had trained.

One group of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne got an unwelcome surprise upon landing. Rather than coming down several miles out of Sainte-Mère-Église as expected, they ended up in the wide-open town square! This was extremely dangerous, as German forces occupied the town. And it left the paratroopers unable to approach the town under cover of darkness.

One soldier, John Steele, was trapped when his parachute caught on the church’s steeple. He dangled there for two hours, pretending to be dead so the Germans would not shoot him. When they finally noticed Steele, German soldiers took him as a prisoner of war. Many other Allied troops were shot as they descended into the town or as their parachutes became hung up on tree branches. A few of the jumpers died when they were unable to avoid a fire that was burning in the town.

Even though they had been dropped off course, the paratroopers still managed to have an immediate impact. They cut communication lines wherever they could, making it difficult for the Germans to relay information about the invasion. The 82nd Airborne secured Sainte-Mère-Église and held it until the rest of the infantry arrived. Meanwhile, members of the 101st Airborne captured areas along Utah Beach, providing an easier entry for the Allied soldiers who would come in from the sea at dawn. The paratroopers had done everything possible to make D-Day a success.

Rations are fixed portions of food.

Tracer bullets are bullets that leave lit or smoky trails in the sky; generally, one in every four to six bullets was a tracer.

Flak is ammunition fired from antiaircraft guns.

Kip Wilson, a former U.S. Army lieutenant, received her doctorate from the State University of New York at Albany. She is a freelance writer who loves to read about military history.

Fast Fact

To further confuse the Germans, the allies also dropped life-sized dummies from planes all over Normandy.

We’ll Take That to Go, Please!

American paratroopers carried small reserve chutes in case their parachutes did not open; British paratroopers did not. And in addition to their parachutes, packs, weapons, and equipment, paratroopers carried emergency supplies, including chewing gum, instant coffee, chocolate bars, candy, pipe tobacco, bouillon cubes, and a jar of water purification tablets.

Fast Fact

Almost three-quarters of the paratroopers on D-Day discovered upon landing that they were lost.

Silent Gliders

Like the American paratroopers, the 6th Division of British airborne soldiers also was ordered to land behind enemy lines. Taking a different approach, though, some of these troops and their equipment would hit the ground at Normandy in motorless gliders. The gliders were towed across the English Channel by transport planes and released near where they were to touch down. Unlike the noisy C-47 airplanes, gliders were silent as they floated to their landing points. They had the additional benefit of being able to carry heavier equipment, such as jeeps, and antitank and antiaircraft guns.

The 6th Division had orders to land in the east, behind Sword Beach. Unfortunately, the gliders ran into the same problems as the paratroopers. Once released by the planes that pulled them, some of the gliders encountered enemy flak. Others could not find a place to touch down because of all the hedgerows. About one-quarter of the British gliders were lost. However, most of them made it to their correct landing zones, which was a great achievement.

The glider soldiers accomplished their important missions, including the capture of Pegasus Bridge on France’s Orne River, the waterway that led to the city of Caen and a highway that connected to Paris.

Hedgerows are fences made up of dirt, trees, bushes, and stone that are several feet high and several feet thick.


From: Cobblestone, 2007-04

Engineering Marvels

By Kenneth Hoffman

Wars are not won by strength alone — it has to be combined with “smarts,” as illustrated by the Allies’ success on D-Day. The British introduced innovative tanks, artificial harbors, and a fuel pipeline that played huge roles in making Operation Overlord work so well.

Hobart’s Funnies Solve Serious Problems

The first challenge the Allies faced in planning for D-Day was how to overcome the German defenses on the French beaches of Normandy. The Germans’ Atlantic Wall was fortified with underwater and beach obstacles, land mines, antitank ditches, and heavily defended bunkers. Under the direction of British major general Percy Hobart and England’s 79th Armoured Division, the British came up with a collection of creative tanks that helped solve the problem. Their odd-looking tanks, nicknamed Hobart’s Funnies, played a crucial role in aiding British and Canadian soldiers on D-Day. Hobart and his men found solutions for each problem:

Problem: How could the Allies get the first tanks to the shores of Normandy?

Solution: Make tanks that can swim through the water by employing canvas screens as flotation devices. Duplex Drive (DD) tanks could move two ways: with propellers in the water or via tracks on land. These tanks were launched from Higgins boats in the English Channel, were able to “swim” to the beaches, and then were put into action against the Germans.

Problem: Parts of the Normandy beaches were too soft to support heavy tanks and vehicles.

Solution: Make tanks that lay down their own roads. The Bobbin Tank carried a huge spool of strong fabric that could unroll to create a temporary road for other vehicles to follow.

Problem: The Germans dug large ditches that swallowed up tanks.

Solution: Make tanks that carry their own bridges. The Box Girder Tank and the Armoured Ramp Carrier Tank carried and positioned bridges that could span a 30-foot ditch and support 40 tons.

Problem: The Germans buried thousands of deadly land mines all over the beaches.

Solution:
Make mine-exploding tanks. The Flail, or Crab, Tank was outfitted in front with steel chains that rotated on a cylinder. These chains would slap the ground a few feet in front of the tank and harmlessly explode any land mines before the vehicle rolled over them.

Problem: German soldiers and their large guns were positioned in fortified bunkers.

Solution: Outfit tanks with flamethrowers. The Crocodile Tank could shoot a deadly stream of fire 80–120 yards from its gun. It towed a trailer with 400 gallons of fuel — enough for eight bursts of flame at one second each.

Code Name: Mulberries

Another challenge the Allies faced was what to do about the lack of ports at which to unload the men and supplies that would be needed in the weeks after D-Day. Large vessels need deep-water ports so as not to get stranded on land when it is low tide. The British solution was to build two artificial harbors, tow them to Normandy, and sink them off the beaches. The harbors were code-named Mulberries.

The Mulberries were constructed from many different parts. Once the Normandy beaches were successfully under Allied control, hundreds of old merchant ships were sunk off the coast of France in order to make a breakwater, which had the code name Gooseberries. Hollow concrete blocks, each one the length of half a football field, were towed by ship from England and sunk near the Gooseberries. Each of the blocks — code-named Phoenix Caissons — took four months to construct. More than 200 were built, the largest being 60 meters long.

With a solid breakwater in place to create a calm harbor, the British positioned piers that rested on 30-meter-high steel legs that could rise and fall with the tide. Called whale piers, they were connected to the beaches by jetties, which also moved with the tide.

These man-made harbors were in place in a matter of weeks after D-Day. Large ships then could safely offload their supplies in these artificial harbors. With the Allied armies needing 10,000 tons of supplies each day in order to fight through France, the Mulberries were crucial to their success.

An Underwater PLUTO

Lastly, the British tackled the problem of fueling the Allies’ tanks, trucks, jeeps, and ambulances. To move gasoline from England to France, the British designed, manufactured, and laid a series of fuel pipelines across the English Channel. The project was called Pipe Line Under the Ocean, or PLUTO.

Long sections of specially designed three-inch-thick lead pipe were made secretly in southeastern England. The sections then were welded together, wrapped in the holds of ships or wound around huge floating cylinders, and uncoiled along the bottom of the channel. In all, 17 PLUTO pipelines totaling 780 miles were laid between England and France, pumping more than 150 million gallons of fuel to the Allies.

According to English prime minister Winston Churchill, “Operation PLUTO was a remarkable feat of British engineering, distinguished in its originality, pursued with tenacity, and crowned by complete success. This creative energy helped to win the war.”

In considering the wartime engineering innovations of the British, World War II historian Stephen Ambrose said, “It is far too simple to say that the marriage of British brains and American brawn sealed the fate of Nazi Germany in the West. Still, there is some truth to it.”

A breakwater is a barrier that protects a harbor or shore from the full impact of smashing waves.

Caissons are watertight structures within which construction work is carried on under water.

Jetties are structures that project into water to influence the tide or protect a shoreline from erosion or storms.

Tenacity is the state of holding fiercely onto something, such as a point of view.


From: Cobblestone, 2007-04

The Atlantic Wall

By Kelly Poltrack

As early as December 1941, the German high command requested that a wall, later known as the Atlantic Wall, be created to guard the western coast of Europe against an invasion. Not one simple structure, the Atlantic Wall actually was a series of defensive steel and concrete fortifications that included beach obstacles and observation posts stretched along the 2,400-mile coastline of northern Europe.

Early construction and manning of the Atlantic Wall, however, took second place behind Germany’s war to the east with the Russians. The Germans constantly moved their top soldiers and weapons from the West to the action in the East. By 1943, the German forces remaining in the West were made up mostly of old men, teen­agers, and soldiers recuperating from injuries.

By the fall of 1943, the Germans knew an Allied attack on the western coast of Europe was inevitable. German dictator Adolf Hitler believed that his country’s ability to repel the attack would be the defining moment of the war. He called on German field marshal Erwin Rommel to inspect and strengthen Europe’s western defenses.

Rommel was dismayed at what he found. While Pas de Calais was well fortified, the rest of Normandy was not. Rommel believed both the quality and quantity of defenses were lacking and immediately set out to reinforce German positions. But he could not secure the entire coast. So, the Germans fortified the sites where they believed the Allies most likely would attack.

Positioned several hundred yards inland, a typical German defensive bunker had six-and-a-half-foot-thick concrete walls. These bombproof walls were covered with barbed wire entanglements; equipped with machine gun nests, or pillboxes, and artillery; and often camouflaged to obscure their positions from the air. Nearby, smaller bunkers housed communications equipment, ammunition, and sleeping quarters for the 80 to 150 men who made up each of the gun crews.

Before the Allies could reach these fortifications, however, they would have to get past anti–landing craft obstacles, such as “hedgehogs,” Belgian gates, and log ramps that had been positioned in the water and on the beaches during low tide. Built of steel, wood, or concrete, and often armed with mines, these structures would either disable or blow up Allied ships as they brushed against them.

In six months’ time, Rommel oversaw the placement of more than four million mines — double the total number from the previous three years. Some of these mines were scattered along the beaches to hinder Allied troops attempting to move inland.

Rommel also ordered barbed wire set up and antitank ditches dug in the beaches to slow the Allies’ advance. He instructed that the areas behind the beaches be flooded so that paratroopers would have a difficult time landing. And, at his command, tall poles — nicknamed “Rommel’s Asparagus” — were driven into open fields so as to hinder glider landings.

Lastly, Rommel believed the key to stopping an invasion was the availability of Hitler’s Panzer units. These crack tank groups would make it very difficult for the Allies to get off the beaches. But the Germans were not sure where to position them, and Hitler refused to allow these special tanks to be deployed without his authorization. The decision to keep these tanks in reserve and never use them on D-Day would prove costly for the Germans.

Kelly Poltrack is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. She is a former naval intelligence officer and currently works from her home in Indiana as a freelance writer.

Erwin Rommel (1891–1944)

Rommel was a talented field marshal who led the German invasions of Poland and France during the early stages of World War II. In North Africa, his skill earned him the nickname “the Desert Fox.” Although Rommel was in charge of
the German ground forces in Normandy, he was not present on June 6, 1944, because he had counted on bad weather to stall the Allied forces. Rommel became disillusioned with Hitler after D-Day, and shortly thereafter, was implicated in an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. The Nazi leadership gave him a choice of facing a firing squad or suicide. Rommel chose suicide by ingesting poison.

Adolf Hitler (1889–1945)

As Germany’s leader from 1933 to 1945, Hitler established a brutal, racist government based on the ideology of Nazism. Although his powerful and well-equipped forces were successful in the late 1930s and early 1940s, by mid-1943, Hitler’s empire had begun to crumble. The Normandy Invasion began while Hitler was asleep (he had taken a sleeping pill and ordered that he not be disturbed), so he did not know of the landing until the beach battles had been raging for many hours. As the Allied forces pushed through France and Germany and on to that country’s capital, Berlin, Hitler committed suicide one week before his country surrendered.

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