(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on June, 5, 2013)
SIXTY-NINE YEARS ago tomorrow (June 6, 1944), more than 150,000 Allied troops stormed the Normandy coast. The early morning amphibious assault on Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” was preceded by a staggering naval and air bombardment of Nazi defences coupled with a string of British, Canadian and American airborne landings miles in from the coast. Offshore, nearly 7,000 warships from eight navies covered the invasion, while overhead more than 11,000 aircraft dominated the skies above northern France. By the end of one day of hard fighting, the Allies had carved out a tenuous foothold through which millions of fresh troops would pour into Europe. While larger, even bloodier battles would follow, D-Day is often seen as the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. Within less than a year, Germany would be chased out of France, Holland and Belgium and Berlin would be in Allied hands. Interestingly enough, while the massive operation, codenamed Overlord, was more than two years in the making, some Allied commanders had actually been pressing for the invasion to take place a year earlier or more. How might the course of the war (and history itself) have unfolded differently had these generals had their way? No one can be sure, but here is what the Normandy campaign might have looked like.
Almost as soon as America entered the war with Nazi Germany, generals Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall began lobbying for a strike across the English Channel into France. One of their plans foresaw a joint British and American assault on either of the French port cities of Cherbourg or Brest as early as the fall of 1942. The operation, codenamed Sledgehammer, called for a measly six divisions to attack, capture and hold either one of the two strategically-vital, deep-water harbours. The Allied force, which likely would have totalled no more than 60,000 men, would have been expected to withstand the inevitable Nazi counterattacks until the following spring when reinforcements could arrive. Despite the fact that the Germans would have been free to throw as many as 30 divisions at the invaders, the U.S. Joint Chiefs (as well as the Soviets) endorsed Sledgehammer wholeheartedly. The American commanders seemed to favour any plan that would bring U.S. forces into action in Europe quickly, while Stalin was thrilled at the prospect of an Allied offensive in Western Europe — anything to divert German forces away from the Russian front. Oddly enough, while the mission called for the heavy use of American air and sea power, at the time there was still only a handful of combat-ready U.S. Army units in England. As such, the ground portion of the invasion would be left entirely up to the British military. Cooler heads, namely Prime Minister Churchill, convinced Ike to shelve Sledgehammer – Britain was already stretched thin in Egypt and America still had yet to fully mobilize for the war in Europe. An invasion of France would simply have to wait.
Later in 1942, the Allies roughed out a second plan to put troops ashore in Western Europe the following spring. This operation, dubbed Roundup, called for 18 British and 30 American divisions to hit a series of landing zones along a 200 km stretch of coastline between Boulogne-sur-Mer near Calais and the port of Le Harve. Overhead, more than 5,700 Allied aircraft were to sweep the skies of the Luftwaffe clearing the way for a series of airborne drops. D-Day was set for some time in April or May of 1943. The British, already strained by three years of total war against the Axis, were understandably reluctant to throw their army into the teeth of Germany’s Channel fortifications. They pushed instead to attack Sicily and Italy – what Churchill called the “soft underbelly of Europe” — by way of North Africa. A sober appraisal of British and American fleet strength, air assets and manpower ultimately convinced the Allied high command that no invasion could be mounted until 1944 at the earliest. For one thing, American factories had yet to manufacture enough of the landing craft needed for such a massive undertaking. Washington and London turned their attention instead towards a late 1942 invasion of Tunisia – Operation Torch. The rest is, as they say, history.
In 1943, it was the British, not the Americans, who were pondering an attack from the south of England into occupied Europe – although this time the target area wasn’t France, but rather the Channel Islands. Captured in July 1940 by the Nazis, the British-owned islands of Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney had since been heavily fortified by more than 40,000 Wehrmacht troops. Gun emplacements and concrete bunkers of the sort seen all along the French coast dotted the islands’ shorelines. Yet, once liberated, the small territories could be used as staging areas for the final assault on France. The attack plan, championed by Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, was eventually scuttled after it was felt that in order to dislodge the occupiers, naval and air units would need pummel the defences into submission, likely resulting in massive civilian casualties. The Channel Islands would be left alone. In fact, the D-Day plan bypassed them altogether. The Germans would remain there until after VE Day. Surprisingly, the Wehrmacht forces occupying Alderney wouldn’t surrender for more than a week after Nazis called it quits. They held out until May 16, 1945.