All the Tsar’s Men
Why Mobilization Can’t Save Putin’s War
THE spring of 1944 has been a time of preparation. Now the preparations are to be put to the test. The invasion of western Europe, an operation of such size and peculiar complexity that there is probably no analogy to it in military history, is imminent as these lines are written. By the time they are published, the Allies may be engaged in the furious battles which will decide at the minimum the duration of the war, at the maximum its outcome. This article cannot do more than review the events of the final months of preparation and indicate the principal factors which the reader will want to keep in mind as the invasion unfolds.
The bulk of the Allied effort during the spring was concentrated on the transport of supplies and troops to Britain, and on an air offensive of ever-increasing intensity to soften up the Continent in preparation for the invasion. Britain was bursting with men and equipment. Thousand-plane raids upon western Europe became common. In one week in April, for example, RAF and United States bombers dumped almost 30,000 tons of bombs on enemy targets. In earlier months we strove particularly to knock out plants manufacturing fighter planes or their component parts and factories producing roller bearings. The attempt met with success, though probably not to the extent estimated by some of our most optimistic air officers. Gradually in April and May much of the weight of our air attack was shifted from industrial targets to enemy communication centers and enemy airfields. Railroad junctions such as Hamm and Cologne were hammered, and medium bombers and fighters of the Tactical Air Forces smashed at German airfields, at Luftwaffe maintenance and repair facilities, at the rocket-gun coast in the Pas-de-Calais area, and at German military positions along the coast.
Bombers of the Fifteenth United States Army Air Force, based in Italy, joined the two-way assault against "Fortress Europe" by striking at various Balkan points and at objectives in southern Germany and Austria. Their blows impeded the German communications which supplied and reënforced the Nazi armies facing the Russians in the Carpathians and in the neighborhood of the Galatz gap.
In the Pacific as in Europe the spring was plainly a period of preparation for a summer of larger operations. Our successful conquest in February of Kwajalein led gradually to the extension of our hold over nearly all of the Marshall group of islands. Four principal atolls were still in Japanese hands at the time of writing, but they were neutralized and "withering on the vine." Strong American carrier task forces raided Truk, the Marianas, and Palau and Yap, with no losses in ships. The opposition they encountered was slight. The highlights of the period were our consolidation of the positions we captured in the Marshalls and continuous bombing operations to soften up Truk, Ponape, Kusaie, and other Japanese Central Pacific positions.
The remaining Japanese forces in the northern Solomons and the Bismarck Archipelago were virtually contained and neutralized by our moves into the Admiralty and Green Islands. General Douglas MacArthur was free to press westward along the New Guinea coast, and did so with greater naval support than in any previous operation he had undertaken. After heavy preliminary bombardments of Wewak, Hollandia and other points, strong amphibious forces landed late in April near Aitape and Hollandia, New Guinea -- a westward jump of some 415 miles beyond our previous positions. This move was covered in part by an Allied raid on Sabang, in northwestern Sumatra, in which American carriers, British and French battleships and light Dutch naval units participated. Part of the Japanese Fleet has been based at Singapore, and this foray under the direction of the British Eastern Fleet, based in Ceylon, was probably intended to distract its attention while we were preparing our move in New Guinea.
With the coming of the monsoon rains in May the land operations in Burma drew to an end. Here as in Italy there was a virtual stalemate. The Japanese invasion of Manipur State in India was a limited success in that it forced Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten to divert forces from other fronts to oppose it; but it did not sever the vital Bengal-Assam railway, and the Japanese lost heavily. On the other hand, neither in northern Burma nor in Arakan did the Allies accomplish all that they had hoped when the fighting season started last fall. Lieutenant-General Joseph W. Stilwell had not forged a land route through Burma to China, and the British in Arakan were still far from Akyab. Our lack of success and the Japanese invasion of India focused a good deal of attention on this theater. Stung by criticism of defects both in command and supply, the British gradually began giving more attention to the area and concentrated more strength there. Probably the new plans will bear fruit when the monsoon rains end in the autumn.
The limited nature of our spring operations in the various theaters is explained, of course, by one simple fact: Allied efforts in men, shipping, supplies and air power were concentrated on preparations for the invasion of western Europe.
Our military purpose in undertaking an invasion is obvious -- to defeat Germany. But it cannot be accomplished by the invasion alone; Allied strategy in Europe as a whole must be concerted. Four or more main offensives -- either simultaneous, or nearly so -- are therefore to be expected. The invasion of western Europe will be one. A Russian smash through Poland, possibly with the main effort in the direction of Lwow and Silesia, to the accompaniment of another drive toward Brest-Litovsk and Warsaw, will be another. This may be correlated with Russian drives into the Baltic States and at least a holding offensive in the Carpathian passes and the Galatz gap. The Allied operations in the Mediterranean area -- secondary to the two great drives against Germany from east and west -- seem likely, at this writing, to include some Commando raids or even landings in the Balkans; and renewed pressure on the German armies in Italy may be supplemented by an attack in southern France. Fourth, and finally, Germany will continue to be pounded from the air.
Those who are optimistic expect these hammer blows to bring about Germany's defeat by fall or winter; even pessimists believe that she will be unable to continue resistance for more than 12 or 18 months from the present time. Such hopes, of course, are predicated upon the success of the concerted strategy. And the success of this concerted strategy will largely depend, in turn, upon the success of our invasion of western Europe.
The enemy forces which we shall have to defeat in order to accomplish our mission in Europe are still large and are excellently trained, well equipped and formidable. The disposition of the German land forces today is about as follows: 10 to 12 divisions in Norway; 5 in Denmark; 50 to 60 in the Low Countries and France; 25 to 30 in Italy; some 200 divisions opposed to the Russians; the remainder in reserve or in the Balkans or garrisoning other conquered areas. Today the German Luftwaffe and the German Navy are the weakest elements of the German defense, which is why the battle for western Europe will start at the coast line and not far out at sea. The Luftwaffe is greatly outnumbered and is spread thin. Allied plane superiority is perhaps two or three to one in Russia; eight or ten to one in the Mediterranean; at least two to one and perhaps more in western Europe. But despite the Luftwaffe's numerical inferiority our invasion forces will find many planes in the air against them.
The size of Russia's land forces and the number of troops which the Allies have in the Mediterranean and in Britain ready for the invasion of western Europe is, of course, a closely guarded secret. The Red Army undoubtedly has at least a three to two superiority over the Germans in ground effectives, or possibly a two or three to one superiority. Up to the time of writing, only about two divisions of the French Army have been in action; yet last fall that Army was being organized, trained and equipped on the basis of 11 divisions. In Britain, the American and British divisions available for the job of invasion must presumably be ample, yet the public should not count upon their enjoying overwhelming numerical ground superiority in the west. Allied strength has been dispersed -- for example, there are some 20 Allied divisions in the South Pacific area alone -- and neither Britain nor the United States is able to muster in the British Isles the "hundreds" of divisions which are supported in Germany and Russia. In comparison with the Germans, moreover, we labor under one considerable disadvantage. Very few American divisions in Britain, and relatively few British units, are veteran troops, tested and tempered in combat. The bulk of the invading forces will be green. But those forces will have the advantage of more weapons and equipment than their enemies, as well as of air and of naval superiority.
What are the logical areas for invasion?
Since our over-all military objective is to defeat the enemy quickly and conclusively the invasion obviously must be launched against a section of the western coast near to Germany's heart. We are striving to strike a mortal blow. Adventures on the periphery of Germany's conquered territory will not accomplish our purpose. We can therefore rule out most or all of Norway as a main invasion area, though quite possibly it may be a theater of secondary operations. Denmark has only one good west-coast port and that is too small to support great invasion forces; the Germans could probably hold the neck of the Jutland peninsula indefinitely and the configuration of the Danish west coast is unfavorable to invaders. Germany's short strip of coast on the North Sea is highly fortified and lies behind Helgoland, sandbanks and other islands; the approaches to it are canalized through narrow channels which can readily be mined and defended. An invasion here would be a daring and dangerous move. Southwestern France is too far from the heart of Germany for a main effort and too far from Britain to enable us to supply a maximum of air support. The best area for an invasion that will accomplish our mission lies between Holland and the Brittany peninsula. It is precisely this area, moreover, which is closest to our bases in Britain, thus simplifying the problems of air support and of supply. And in this stretch of coast there are ports adequate to support an invading army.
The invasion possibilities of the various sectors of coast within this general area may be analyzed further, not in order to predict the points of attack but simply to suggest to the reader various aspects of our military problem which he will wish to keep in mind if the assault does come here.
Invasion forces landing in the Netherlands would not only find good ports at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, but would have the advantage that they might outflank some of the strongest Westwall fortifications. However, they would have to cope with the added hazard of flooding. The Belgian sea frontier is about 42 miles long, with many sloping beaches well adapted to landing operations; but the Rhine and parts of the Westwall would constitute added obstacles inland. The portion of the French coast from the Belgian border to the mouth of the Seine at Havre lies nearest to England. It has beaches suitable for landing at several points, and harbors at Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne and Havre; but armies driving thence toward Germany would meet defense lines along the Oise River and through Sedan, Verdun, Toul and Épinal, and might have to break through the Westwall and cross the Rhine.
The French coastline west of Havre lies further from Britain. A crescent of 20 or more miles of beach in the neighborhood of Deauville offers good landing points. Further west, the Norman peninsula is rocky and in some places lined with cliffs. It might be invaded from both sides simultaneously, and if this move were successful it would have the advantage that we would acquire a good base at Cherbourg, on the tip of the peninsula. To do this we would perhaps first have to seize the Channel Islands, which the Germans hold and undoubtedly have strongly fortified. A similar effort to seal off the rocky Brittany peninsula from two sides might be made by attacks in the region of Dinan and St. Nazaire. Not only would any invading forces landing west of the Seine have the disadvantage of operating over longer lines from England, but they might encounter greater difficulties inland, for they would have to break through the German defense lines along the Seine and take the region around Paris before driving ahead into Germany.
Because the part of the coast from Holland to the Brittany peninsula is the most favorable for invasion it is more heavily defended than any other strip of coast in Europe. Concrete antitank walls, "Element C" (a grillwork barrier of steel and cable), pillboxes, guns of all sizes from machine guns to 20-inch howitzers and rifles (or perhaps even larger), millions of water and land mines, underwater obstructions, turrets moved from the Maginot Line and every other kind of fortification that human ingenuity can devise are studded thickly on this coast. The Channel tides offer another impediment; a 20-foot rise and fall is not unusual and sometimes the variation is more than 40 feet.
What are the principal factors involved in an invasion? Books could be written on the subject. All that can be attempted here is a simple résumé of the known factors involved, with a brief indication of the part each must play if the invasion is to be a success.
1. Air bombardment. We must continue our attrition attacks upon German industry, but gradually the weight of our air power will be shifted to an assault on communications and airfields. The heavy bomber forces which have been operating more or less directly under the British War Cabinet and the Combined Chiefs of Staff will probably have come under General Dwight D. Eisenhower's direct command some time before D-Day. The use of heavy bombers for the close support of ground forces is difficult and usually inefficient, as Cassino showed; a strategic bomber force is not a flexible weapon. But we shall have to use these bombers to smash enemy communications and to try to break, or at least impede, the flow of supplies and reënforcements to the section or sections of the coast selected for invasion.
2. Airborne troops. The destruction of enemy communications will be in part, also, the job of the airborne troops. They will be dropped by parachute, or transported in glider or transport plane behind the enemy's coastal defenses. They must cut telephone lines, blow bridges and perhaps seize an airfield or a railroad junction, holding these points to prevent the Germans from rushing their strategic ground or air reserves to the threatened part of the coast. They may also be used in attacks upon the rear of the enemy's fortifications. The immensity of the task of landing enough airborne troops to be effective can be briefly illustrated. To transport one airborne division of some 8,000 men requires hundreds of transport planes and hundreds of gliders -- the total is in four figures; yet one airborne division would be a relatively small unit in an airborne invasion of western Europe.
3. Underground armies. French, Dutch, Belgian and other patriots may be expected to mobilize their utmost possible strength at a concerted signal on D-Day. Their job, like that of the air forces and the airborne troops, will be to hamper and cut German communication and supply lines, particularly those supplying enemy troops in the invasion area. The resistance forces inside the Continent must not be counted upon too heavily; Hitler has suppressed them ruthlessly, and the police forces of Europe are filled with collaborationists.
4. Navy. To the British and American Navies will fall the task of transporting, supporting, supplying and reënforcing our invasion forces. The British will carry a preponderant part of it. Operations will probably be both "ship-to-shore," i.e. from large ocean-going transports, via landing craft, to the invasion beaches, and "shore-to-shore," i.e. by landing craft direct from British bases to invasion beaches. Transports will be of many different types. Landing craft vary from little assault boats, armed with rocket launchers, to great 4,000-ton LST's (Landing Ships, Tanks) which can cross the Atlantic under their own power. The magnitude and complexity of this effort can be illustrated by two examples. It requires about 120 normal landing craft to carry only two battalions. About 25 big transports and cargo ships are needed for one division, "combat-loaded," i.e. ready to disembark fighting.
Consider, too, just the one difficulty of amphibious operations described by Commander R. C. Todhunter, R.N., in a recent article in Britain. He wrote: "If you have a tank landing craft, say 200 feet long, drawing three feet forward and seven feet aft, the keel slopes four feet in 200 feet, i.e. one in 50. On any beach that is one in 50 or steeper, the craft will ground bows first in three feet of water; but if the beach is very flat, say one in 200, she will ground aft, and there will still be five feet of water at the bow, which may be too much for tanks or vehicles to wade." Add to such complexities a great rise and fall of the tide, and the problem of the Navy begins to be seen in perspective. The Navy also has the job of reconnoitering and marking the beaches, of removing mines (up to the high-water mark) and underwater obstacles, and of bringing the troops to the specific beaches they are to assault. And when the assault begins, naval gunfire ranging in size from rockets to 16-inch shells must substitute for the Army's field artillery.
5. The assault troops. The invasion will reveal all sorts of new techniques, tactics and weapons -- rockets, special anti-concrete shells, detachable gas tanks filled with viscous flaming liquid to be dropped from planes, new devices for eliminating mines, etc. Amphibious tanks may play a rôle. The timing must be to the split second, the plans must be letter-perfect. But nothing will substitute for courage, and the assault battalions must be prepared for heavy losses.
6. Supply. The establishment of a beachhead is not enough. If the knockout punch is to be successful our troops must sooner or later capture a port or ports. A modern army requires something like a minimum of one to two tons of supplies per man each month. Despite the great advance in amphibious technique and the development of specialized landing craft which permit the unloading of supplies over open beaches, the delivery of such a volume of supplies necessitates the possession of a sheltered port. But even if we capture ports we shall find them blasted and torn, with piers and cranes demolished and channels blocked.
The mere statement of such problems indicates that the invasion will be the biggest military undertaking in history.
There follow, in approximately accurate sequence, the minimum requirements for the establishment of a beachhead on an enemy-held coast. The reader can check off those which he knows have already been fulfilled. We shall see on D-Day -- and thereafter -- whether we have made adequate preparations to meet the others.
1. We must have sure and detailed knowledge of the topography of the coast and of the strength and dispositions of the enemy and his fortifications.
2. We must have clear-cut sea superiority. In the vicinity of the invasion coast we must have sea domination.
3. In the air, we must have at least localized superiority, if possible localized domination.
4. We should have at least a two-to-one superiority in manpower and firepower at the selected points of landing.
5. We must sever or impede the enemy's lines of communications to the interior, so that he can be prevented from launching a tremendous counterattack before the beachhead is really established.
6. We must silence or neutralize the enemy fire -- particularly the fire from his coastal batteries -- along the strip of coast to be assaulted.
7. Our troops must get ashore.
8. They must push inland beyond the beach. At Dieppe, many of the British troops never got further than the beach. At Tarawa, the Marines were pinned down to a strip of beach for 24 hours.
9. The beachhead must be extended sufficiently to put our landing craft beyond small-arms range.
10. It must then be extended so that our landing craft and transports are beyond light field artillery range and perhaps beyond that of medium artillery.
Finally, if a beachhead is to be held against German efforts to push us into the sea, or if several beachheads are to be coalesced into a great beachhead, we must quickly capture or construct numerous airfields. We must quickly capture and put into working order a port or ports, and we must then extend the beachhead so that our principal supply port is beyond the range of the enemy's artillery.
These are heroic tasks. In the eyes of our High Command they are susceptible of accomplishment, or the invasion of western Europe would not be undertaken. But we must remember that nothing is certain in war. Any military operation, and particularly one so unprecedented as this, is a gamble. There are many unknown quantities. Our Army is still relatively untested. The exact strength of the Germans and the size of their reserves are still question marks. There is little doubt that we can get ashore somewhere on the coast of western Europe -- perhaps in several places simultaneously. The problem will be to stay there. There will be many crises.
The first crisis, of course, will come in the act of invasion itself. The second crisis may come at any time from D-plus-1 to D-plus-7, when the German reserves immediately available near or relatively near our beachhead are thrown against us in heavy counterattack. This may be the most dangerous moment. It will not necessarily come quite so soon; at Anzio it was delayed. Still a third crisis may come between D-plus-30 and D-plus-60 when the enemy's strategic reserves, perhaps drawn from Germany or even from the eastern front, come into action. From 7 to 12 divisions, for example, might be shifted from the eastern front to the French coast in somewhat more than two weeks. If our troops surmount these crises it will be safe to believe that they are in western Europe to stay.
The invasion is the climax of everything we have done heretofore. Failure will be the failure of our entire strategy; success will justify it -- our training, our preparations, our plans. The Germans know the decisive moment is here as well as we do. The struggle will be sanguinary.