Today the word "Overlord" is synonymous with the massive military operation the landed allied forces in Europe leading to the eventual defeat of Hitler and Nazi Germany. The importance of the struggles that the allies underwent between the start of Operation Overlord to the Battle of the Bulge is often neglected by amateur historians, who often place more emphasis on the actual D-Day operations. The allies faced many problems and obstacles from their advance off Omaha, Utah, Sword, Gold, and Juno beaches, attempt to take Caen, battle of the Falaise Gap, and the defeat of the German Ardennes offensive while all along having to deal with internal squabbles amongst themselves.
The first task on the allies agenda of landing forces in Europe was to fool Hitler into believing that the invasion would take place at Pas de Calais. The allies launched Operation Fortitude to conduct this task. By setting up the fictitious First US Army Group located in Sussex and Kent and sending false communications between themselves they hoped to divert Hitler's attention from Normandy. Operation Fortitude was a success even though Hitler "attached particular importance to Normandy" (Keegan pg. 373). Although he believed that Normandy was a possible site for an allied attack, Hitler did not change the OB West's defensive positions. He did have to facilitate a compromise between Rommel, who wanted to position armor on the beaches, and Rundstedt, who believed the armor would better serve its purpose in a reserve capacity to counter attack the impending invasion. The six divisions of the Panzer Group West were split between Rommel and Rundstedt with Rundstedt's divisions ordered not to move without the Fuhrer's permission. This would further slow down Germany's counter attack once the invasion was launched.
Operation Neptune, the allied plan for the navel operation to destroy the Atlantic Wall and gain a foothold in Europe, was to start on June 4. During the final week leading up to it, the allies began jamming German coastal radar stations. This along with all the German secret agents in London being "turned" gave Hitler false information. Bad weather forced Eisenhower to postpone the invasion to the morning of June 6. The night of the invasion a fake landing force went across the channel to Calais to further deceive the OB West.
Under the cover of darkness, early in the morning of June 6, the allies parachuted two American and one British airborne divisions behind enemy lines in France. The British made an almost perfect drop and moved rapidly to their objective. The American divisions suffered a much different fate. Inexperienced pilots dropped the American 82nd and 101st airborne divisions outside of their planned drop zone. This was first seen as a major disaster, but "in retrospect it can be seen materially to have added to the confusion and disorientation the invasion was inflicting on their German opposite numbers" (Keegan pg. 382). Proof of this was seen with the ambush that killed the German 91st divisions commanding general.
With the American and British paratroopers behind enemy lines the allies launched their assault on the five beaches in Normandy. Bradley's US first Army landed on Utah and Omaha and Dempsey's British Second Army landed on Gold, Sword, and Juno with the mission of securing a beachhead for the arrival of additional allied divisions. Normandy was only defended by four German divisions with three of them being of substandard quality. On Utah, Sword and Juno German resistance was light and the allies quickly moved inland off the beaches. The British 50th Division on Gold was only able to overcome the Germans after some initial setbacks and by the end of the day they were closer than any of the allies to reaching their first day's objective. The American 1st Division landing on Omaha beach encountered the fiercest resistance than any other of the landing forces. Omaha beach was defended by the German 352nd Division where they held positions on steep cliffs overlooking the steep path leading away from the landing point. The Americans launched their "Swimming Shermans" to far from the shore. This proved to be a disaster because many of them did not make it to the beach. This along with the overwhelming German artillery contributed to the disaster on Omaha beach. The soldiers there suffered almost all the allied casualties on D-Day.
The allied bombing campaign in France in the months leading up to D-Day had destroyed all the bridges and roads leading into Normandy. This gave the allies the upper hand because Germany was unable to get their much needed reserves to Normandy promptly. Only the 21st Panzer Division "was close enough to the scene of action to exert a decisive effect" (Keegan pg. 387). They were positioned near Caen, Montgomery's objective on June 6. The British Infantry was driving towards Caen from Sword beach where their tanks were caught up in the confusion and unable to advance toward Caen. When they finally caught up with the infantry it was to late because the 21st Panzers arrived to the scene stopping the British only three miles outside of Caen.
The allies placed great importance on Caen. They planned to use the large, 20 mile plain, that ran from just south of Caen to Falaise, as an airfield. This is where Montgomery was seen by the allies to have acted slowly. After launching a few minor attacks towards Caen, he decided to wait and not attack again until he believed he would be successful in capturing the city. Eisenhower, Montgomery's superior, was reluctant to order him to attack because he believed in letting his subordinate commanders make the tactical decisions. It was not until the end of June that Eisenhower suggested, not ordered, that he attack. The RAF bombed Caen on July 7 enabling Montgomery's troops captured the cities outskirts.
Montgomery now planned to launch Operation Goodwood. He hoped this new offensive would destroy the German panzers and open a clear path for the allies. A bombing of the Germans, before that assault, had caught them by surprise. If it was not for the quick actions of Hans von Luck Operation Goodwood would have been an overwhelming success. He put together the German armor and artillery that had survived the bombing and led their defense. The advancing British were totally devastated but they did succeed in pulling the German Army Group B's reserves away from the Americans who were planning a breakthrough into Brittany.
On August 7, Hitler's major counter offensive began. He wanted to turn the tide in the West in Germany's favor by driving to the sea along the See river and rolling up the allies along the coast. Ultra again proved to be one of the allies greatest weapons. Because they had intercepted Hitler's plans, the 2nd Armored Division was lying in wait for the advancing Germans. Operation Luttich was a failure for the Germans in which "defeat confronted each unit which had been committed" (Keegan pg. 403).
On the same day Montgomery launched an offensive towards Falaise. The allies hoped that Patton could move north to meet Montgomery and close the Falaise plain, destroying the Germans trapped inside. Montgomery sent the Canadian 1st Army to attack the Germans. Suffering from poor leadership they failed to close the Gap. Patton's 3rd Army was moving north, on a small hook, to meet Montgomery when Bradley ordered him to stop. He feared that the Americans and Canadians would mistake each other for Germans and battle. Montgomery agreed with Eisenhower because his pride. He did not want to see Patton come to the rescue of the "Canadians from their bogged down position and consequently, Monty worked to prevent the closure of the encirclement" (Hull pg. 7). Bradley and Montgomery had been bickering from the onset of Overlord and a few days later Bradley ordered the gap closed. This period of indecision caused by personality conflicts, enabled more than half of the Germans to slip out of the Falaise plain.
With the Germans defeat in France. The allies began their drive towards Germany and the Ruhr. Operation Market Garden was to seize the bridges of Nijmegan and Eindhover, by the Americans, and Arnham, by the British. The American airborne divisions accomplished their task with great success while the British ran into the 9th and 10th Panzer Divisions who were regrouping after their defeat at Normandy. They were able to trap the British there, allowing only 200 of the 9000 men to escape. In his drive North, Montgomery bypassed the Schelde estuary where the Germans still had a sizable force that denied the opening of Antwerp by the allies. Eisenhower was criticized by both Patton and Bradley for approving of Montgomery's Market Garden campaign. They thought he allowed Montgomery to exert to much influence over him; "his desire to keep subordinates happy was exacting a high price" (Hull pg. 2)
By mid September, Hitler was preparing to launch a massive offensive to capture Antwerp believing that a victory could set back the allied drive into Germany. Hitler went about forming new divisions and filling the ones that were short of men by scouring every German unit, that was not committed to the Eastern or Western front, for soldiers. His plan would have been quickly defeated if it had not been for the complacency of Bradley and Hodges. They had positioned the 8th Corps in the path of the impending German attack. They did not think that the Germans were strong enough to launch such an offensive, especially not during the harsh winter months. They had been placing divisions in the 8th Corps that were not battle tested.
On December 16, Hitler launched Autumn Mist by sending his 5th and 6th Panzer Armies into the Ardennes. The lack of air reconnaissance due to the heavy fog along with the Germans radio silence prevented the allies from learning of the enormity of the attack. Three of the four American divisions in the Ardennes were quickly overrun. Only the 4th Division was able to mount a concerted defense with the aid of the 9th Division. Bradley ordered the 7th Armored Division down from the North were they wee able to repel the 1st SS Panzer Division who was approaching the Stavelot fuel depot on their way to the plains of Belgium. If Hitler’s operation was to be successful, the town of Bastogne would have to be captured. With the Panzer Lehr Division driving towards Bastogne the 101st Airborne Division was sent in to prevent its capture. “The parachutists were quite unequipped to combat tanks” (Keegan pg. 445), but were able to hold off the Germans. Montgomery was given the task of halting the Sixth Panzer Army. He sent orders for the bridges on the Meuse River be held by the British and American divisions that came down from the North.
On 25 December the weather had begun to lift and the allies were able to launch air strikes on the advancing German columns. This enabled the 4th Armored Division, coming from the south, to relieve the 101st Airborne Division who was under siege at Bastogne. Eisenhower wanted Montgomery to launch a counter offensive to encircle the Germans but he balked at the idea, insisting that he would need reinforcements to complete this task. This is when Eisenhower stopped letting Montgomery have his way and got him to commit to an attack on 1 January. With Bradley’s army already attacking, Montgomery again postponed his advance. Eisenhower informed him that unless he attacked he would be replaced. The finally invoked Montgomery into action and he launched a counter attack on the Northern and Western Bulge. Hitler soon ordered the “four leading panzer divisions from their exposed situation” (Keegan pg. 446) and the allies were able to close the Bulge on 16 January. In the end, Hitler’s Ardennes campaign was a failure because he did not succeed in making a breakthrough to Antwerp and had weakened his strength on the Eastern front in the process.
Between 6 June and 16 January the allies were able to land forces in Europe and drive the Germans back to the Rhine. They did so by overcoming all the challenges that Hitler placed in their path. The squabbles that Montgomery caused in the allied camp only hurt the allies by slowing their advance. This prevented the fall of Germany in 1944. In spite of all this, Operation Overlord is today seen as the most successful military campaign in modern warfare.