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LAURENCE REES: Moving on to D Day. It's instructive, isn't it - as a comparison - that roughly at the same time as D Day there is this massive offensive called Operation Bagration on the Eastern Front directed against German Army Group Centre, which is relatively unknown in the West? And this was happening at the same time.

ANTONY BEEVOR: Yes. Well, soon after D Day, yes. Operation Bagration was one of the most astonishing achievements of the Red Army during the Second World War, and it was prepared brilliantly by 'maskirovka'. The deception plans were as successful, if you like, as Plan Fortitude, helping the D Day invasion itself. When they broke through, again there was almost disbelief in Berchtesgaden, the Berghof, that they were capable of achieving anything like this. And Hitler’s orders to hold firm were totally disastrous. He refused to allow his generals any flexibility or leeway which was totally contrary to all the precepts and the teaching of the Prussian general staff, the German general staff in the First World War, but because Hitler so distrusted his generals he wanted to control everything and that was basically the undoing of the German Army.

LAURENCE REES: And Operation Bagration on the Eastern Front is on a much larger scale than what’s happening on the beaches of D Day and in Normandy, isn’t it?

ANTONY BEEVOR: I think that one mustn’t underestimate the scale of Normandy in a way, from two points of view. One is that eventually a force of two million troops was actually landed, but also the ferocity of the fighting. Everyone said that the fighting on the Eastern Front has always been worse, but it’s quite interesting the studies which one or two historians, particularly a Swedish historian, Nicolas Vetting, made. These actually showed that the fighting in Normandy was more savage, and that there were higher casualties - in terms of casualties per division per month - than on the Eastern Front. What happened with Normandy was that the casualties in the actual invasion on D Day itself were much less than had been expected, but the casualties afterwards were far higher than had been expected, and, in fact, for the British Army, and the Canadians too, there was nearly a disaster because we were running out of manpower very, very rapidly.

LAURENCE REES: And so, on D Day, was there a real possibility that it could have gone wrong on the beaches?

ANTONY BEEVOR: I think one must recognise with D Day that the Allies were incredibly lucky. We were extremely lucky with the weather and that break in the weather which the Germans had not been able to foretell. So as a result, although the troops had in no way been withdrawn or anything like that, key commanders were away from the battlefront, both in Rennes on war games and Rommel back in Germany. Also it meant actually that the Kriegsmarine didn’t put out any patrols that night. It’s impossible really to estimate what would have been the result if they had been fully aware of what was coming, but the Allies were relying much too much on the effects of aerial bombardment.

Well, actually, the aerial bombardment was very ineffective, and that was the disaster at Omaha. And that was, again, a bad choice in a way because the British doctrine had always been that you make your invasion at night, but the Americans had persuaded them that with full air support and with the heavy naval artillery of the fleet we don’t have to worry about that, we can go in and achieve surprise and overwhelming force at the same time. They achieved more or less surprise, but they didn’t achieve overwhelming force because there weren’t even any craters on the beaches for the soldiers to hide in. So in many ways, yes, we were extremely lucky.

The only way, I think, that the invasion could have failed completely is if it had been postponed for two weeks and they’d sailed into the great storm which occurred later in June. Presumably they would have had meteorological forecasts and warnings of that, but it would have actually then have pushed the whole thing back. Aerial power made a huge difference, if you like, in a negative. The Luftwaffe was unable in any way to  attack the troops, all it could do was bomb fitfully at night and so forth. So that was, if you like, the main achievement of air power in the initial invasion. Later on there were other aspects to it. The other aspect was the massive naval bombardments.

Now, funnily enough, they were not that effective on D Day, but they were extremely effective later on in breaking up Panzer counterattacks and things like that. So the naval support was important, but on D Day it didn’t make a huge difference, it was much more the destroyers which came in close at Omaha especially. These were able to pinpoint their targets, while the big battleships that were firing from ten miles offshore were not actually achieving what had been hoped for.

LAURENCE REES: And as far as Stalin was concerned, D Day was two years too late. Could D Day have taken place earlier - if not in 1942, perhaps in 1943?

ANTONY BEEVOR: I think that D Day would have been a disaster if it had taken place a year earlier, there’s no doubt about it. Unless you could get ashore that number of divisions - and for that you needed the landing craft and that degree of support in air power - it would have been a very dodgy operation indeed. You also needed the Russians to have ground down the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front that much more. But I think when one talks about the promises to Stalin one needs to go back slightly to the origins of the whole thing. The invasion of north-west Europe was always the major American intention. The Americans believed in big operations, and the trouble is that the British always liked smaller operations and side-shows, for many reasons - fear of repeating the losses in the First World War; Britain had never been at home in a major continental war and was very much afraid of the performance of its troops and of its own equipment in that sort of fighting. But of course, Churchill loved special forces, he loved the idea of raids, and he was obsessed with the Mediterranean.

So although he accepted, in early 1942, in principle, discussions with the Americans about the whole idea of D Day, the British were saying 'yes' and then raising perfectly legitimate reasons why it couldn’t take place for some time. Their fear was that if they didn’t say 'yes' straight away the Americans would then start shipping their troops to the Far East rather than keeping to the policy of Germany first. When it came to the stage then of talking to Stalin about it, Stalin was demanding D-Day even if it lost 100,000 or 120,000 men, purely so as to take pressure off the Red Army. Now, the Americans were so worried about the Red Army and about the Soviet Union dropping out of the war that they were putting huge pressure on the British the whole time. But at that stage it meant sending British troops across to be sacrificed rather than American troops, and the British were, not surprisingly, rather reluctant. What could they do? One plan was to seize the Cherbourg Peninsula and try and hold it. Well, that wouldn’t have tied down very many German divisions, so in fact it really wasn’t a very intelligent strategy, but it was very much pushed on by Roosevelt’s determination to help the Soviet Union at this critical moment. The logic of going for North Africa was absolutely right and I think that Churchill made a major contribution to the general war strategy by persuading Roosevelt to go for North Africa.

Marshall was absolutely horrified and deeply unhappy at the way that Churchill had this access to Roosevelt and could persuade him to change strategy in that particular way. But it was the right thing from the point of view of a peripheral strategy, because we were not strong enough and the American Army was simply not experienced enough. If the American Army had gone in to D Day in 1942, even in 1943, I think one would have seen the Kasserine Pass, the disaster in North Africa, when they were landed there. From that point of view the American Army did need to have that toughening up period, and the Americans showed, in fact, that they could learn much more quickly than the British, and they did.

LAURENCE REES: But wasn’t it a political error to keep promising Stalin D Day was going to happen when it didn’t?

ANTONY BEEVOR: It was indeed a political error to keep making these promises to Stalin. At the same time, though, it was very hard to say we’re not going to do it, because one has to remember the political situation at home. Churchill was under huge pressure from the Left, the Communist Party, with everybody virtually saying 'SecondFront now, why aren’t we doing more?' Because the British were sitting there and they had troops in North Africa who basically were having a pretty unsuccessful time up until late ’42, but they had to try to pretend that they were doing something.

Now, that was one of the reasons obviously for the strategic bombing of Germany and why that developed in its particular way. We had to show that we were hitting back, but Churchill had to satisfy Roosevelt, he had to satisfy Stalin and he had to satisfy consumption at home. And the only way of doing it was to say: 'Yes, that’s what we’re intending to do'. But they simply didn’t have the means or really the forces, but particularly the means, of crossing the Channel and launching an effective invasion at that stage.

LAURENCE REES: And whilst D Day was successful in June 1944, far fewer people are aware of just how horrendous the battle then subsequently became in Normandy.


LAURENCE REES: And why was this?

ANTONY BEEVOR: I think that people writing home always tended to minimise the horrors that they were going through, I think that the journalists covering it were basically kept away from the front line, and so they weren’t privy to casualty rates, and that was kept pretty quiet. But we know how terrified the British were when you have the Adjutant General flying over to Normandy and simply saying, 'we are running out of men'. That’s how bad it was. And the Americans too, one has to remember the Battle of the Bocage and the way that the Americans had to advance south towards the Perrier St. Lo Road which was going to be their start line for Operation Cobra, the final break through and break out.

All of that was very bloody business. I mean, the Germans themselves described it as a dirty bush war, and it was, and neither the British nor the Americans were really prepared for that sort of fighting in the Bocage. And even in the open areas round Caen one may have said, well, it’s wonderful tank country, and the British had a huge superiority in the number of tanks, but one always tends to forget that in fact it wasn’t the tanks which were the danger, it was the 88 millimetre guns which could knock out the British tanks at well over twice the range that the British tanks could hope to engage them. So it was pretty demoralising for the British armoured troops to say the least, and ditto for the infantry.

LAURENCE REES: But the Allies had been planning this operation for years. They'd managed to land on D Day, hadn't they then thought through the fight in Normandy?

ANTONY BEEVOR: The planning of the invasion itself was incredible, I mean, every eventuality had been looked into. Okay, they got some things wrong , but overall it was an astonishing piece of staff work to say the least and of organization. But the problem was that nobody had really thought through stage two. The idea was that the British on the left flank would have seized the city of Caen and then that almost was going to be the pivot, and the whole idea was that they’d swing round on Caen. Well, there was some, shall we say, hazy thinking to say the least.

If you’re going to try to capture a city over 10 miles inland on your very first day you really need to have motorised infantry to keep up with your tanks. Well, none of this had actually been organised properly, the poor brigade of King's Shropshire Light Infantry and a supporting tank armoured regiment were incapable, obviously, of making the breakthrough and capturing it. Now as soon as the Germans started bringing up reinforcements, the British strategy was going to be stymied. The idea of being able to seize Caen and also seize enough territory for the RAF to build forward airfields was in disarray. Montgomery, very unfortunately, tried to say that his strategy never changed and that it was all part of the master plan, but in fact it wasn’t him establishing the strategy at all it was in many ways the Germans who established it, even against their own better instincts. What happened was that the reserve tanks, the SS Panzer Divisions, were brought up, and because the German infantry was so weak these divisions had to be broken up. So the Germans did not achieve the great armoured counterattack which they had all wanted. Rommel had actually always wanted to have the tanks kept forward because he knew if you were going to defeat the invasion you had to defeat it on the beaches immediately. But, anyway, there was no chance of launching a major counterattack simply because they had to act as a corset, as it was called, to stiffen the weak infantry divisions. And they did it effectively.

What the British and the Americans had failed to see was that the Germans were going to throw their most powerful divisions against the British on the left, partly because they believed that the British were the more experienced and therefore posed the bigger danger, and in that case they underestimated the Americans, but the other reason was that on the left it was the shortest route to Paris, and if the British did break through around Caen towards Falaise and down towards Paris that would actually cut off all of their forces to the West in Normandy, but also in Brittany. So that is why they concentrated on the British. The British were stymied and the Americans thought, 'oh, they’re not fighting', but in fact they were involved in a terrible battle of attrition. And then the Americans were more or less stymied, partly because the great storm came at a crucial moment when they had to capture the whole of the Cherbourg Cotentin Peninsula and Cherbourg itself before they could advance south. And this had given the Germans time to bring up enough reinforcements so as to really fight a very effective rear guard campaign. And I think it’s very striking that almost throughout the Cold War NATO armies were always taken to Normandy to be shown how we’re going to hold back the Russians; i.e. we’re going to learn from the German lessons on the Eastern Front, with small groups, which were mixed groups often of, say, an assault gun, a few tanks, groups of infantry and pioneers fighting together, often in improvised groups, always managing to inflict casualties, pull back, and inflict more casualties. And this became the great NATO strategy in the Cold War if the Soviet armies were suddenly going to roll across the frontier.

LAURENCE REES: But it was surely a failure of strategic thinking in the planning of D Day, not to realise that these problems in Normandy were going to happen?

ANTONY BEEVOR: I think it was definitely a failure of imagination, yes. There was also another failure. Field Marshal Alanbrooke had warned of the Bocage, because he’d actually been there in 1940, and he said that the Bocage was very different to what they imagined and that the fighting there would be very, very hard and that the Germans would be able to defend. I mean, it was perfect defenders countryside, and then even in the open countryside with the superiority of 88 millimetre guns and the fact that the Germans concentrated the majority of their 88 millimetre anti-tank guns on the Eastern flank against the British, those poor British tank guys trying to advance didn’t really stand much of a chance.

It was a pretty demoralising thing, and I think it showed considerable bravery to get into a tank, particularly if you’d already been brewed up in another tank, knowing that you again were going to get clobbered from a far greater range than you could possibly take on the enemy.