OTHER STRATEGIC CONSIDERATIONS
Although the primary purpose of this paper is to address the military requirement for OVERLORD, any paper on OVERLORD would be deficient if it ignored the broader political and strategic issues which concerned senior policy makers during World War II. The first of these issues was the desire for a “second front” to provide relief to the Russians.
While this had been a consistent and well-justified theme from Stalin throughout 1941 and 1942, by late 1943 the urgency had been relieved. At Tehran, Stalin knew he could defeat the Germans unilaterally, if required. (15:340) Although the possibility of a separate peace between Germany and Russia may have been a basis for real concern in 1942 and early 1943, by the time of the Tehran Conference it would have taken a catastrophic reversal to change the Russian commitment to victory. Russia was in the war to stay and to win. Furthermore, the Americans would have been well justified had they maintained that the second front already existed in the Pacific, where the Russian forces were not engaged. It may have been a great historical misfortune that the other allies could not do more to relieve Russia during the darkest days of 1941 and 1942 when she faced the Germans essentially alone, but this compelling need simply did not exist at the Tehran conference. By that time, the argument for a second European front was merely a “rationale of convenience.”
Some assume the allied decision to proceed with OVERLORD was based on a desire to limit Russian territorial gains to eastern Europe. This rather Machiavellian rationale probably has more validity than a purely military one, but it also has several deficiencies. First of all, it was not apparent in late 1943 that Germany would fight to the bitter end. It was conceivable that surrender, rather than destruction would be chosen at some point prior to Russian invasion of German territory. Occupation forces would then have entered Germany unopposed, and it is reasonable to assume that American and British forces would have been given preference. Secondly, even if the Germans did not surrender, continuing attrition on the eastern front would gradually have resulted in the transfer of German forces out of France, so British and American forces would have faced little or no opposition to a deferred landing there. This was the contingency covered by the war plan known as RANKIN. It provided for a very rapid invasion and advance across France in the event of an imminent collapse of the German government. There is no question that Hitler would have expended his last resources fighting the Russians for Berlin rather than British and American forces for France and western Germany. Had British and American strategists been truly Machiavellian in their deliberations concerning OVERLORD, they would have deferred the invasion and waited for a later opportunity when they would have faced little or no opposition.
Even more opportunistic strategists would have recognized the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s recommendations for a Mediterranean strategy rather than a massive invasion of France. His strategy promised to do two things. First, it would have limited British and American casualties and risk, so that strong forces would have been available to confront Russia in the post-war world. Secondly, successful execution of this strategy would have prevented Russian occupation of much of eastern Europe. As described by Churchill and British Field Marshals Alexander and Wilson, the Mediterranean strategy would have included campaigns throughout the Danube basin. (17:466-475) (23:537-538) As indicated earlier, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslavakia, and even Poland could well have come under British and American control. It is entirely conceivable that this option, followed by operation RANKIN, would not only have prevented Russian occupation of western Europe, but would also have kept them out of much of central and eastern Europe as well. Unfortunately, Churchill’s mistrust of the Russians was completely ignored or discounted as an insufficient basis for changing the OVERLORD planning. It is therefore very unlikely that American insistence on OVERLORD could have been based on distrust of the Russians or a desire to limit their occupation of Europe. There were too many more favorable opportunities for doing this, had it been a strategic objective, and there is simply too much evidence to the contrary.
As a final point on the strategic basis for OVERLORD, the potential gains from OVERLORD did not compare with its potential cost to the allies. Allied victory on the beaches of Normandy followed by the successful invasion of France were not decisive In the European theater. Even without OVERLORD, the outcome of the European war had already been decided. The Russian Army and the combined bombing campaign could guarantee Germany’s defeat. Furthermore, British and American forces could have been massacred on the beaches of Normandy or “Dunkirked” at a later date. This outcome is not only plausible, it came very close to actually happening. Repositioning one or two divisions would probably have given the Germans a victory on the Normandy beaches. Less interference by Hitler in the decisions of his commanders might also have given him a victory even after the allied beachead had been established. The invasion was a serious and unnecessary risk. American and British strategists can be critically questioned for deciding on an operation which in all likelihood was going to cost them more than it could possibly gain. Good strategists do not give their opponents the opportunity to win major victories when they are under no military compulsion to do so.
Having determined that OVERLORD was not necessary for allied victory in Europe; that OVERLORD was too late to provide the much needed relief to Russia; that OVERLORD was perhaps the least advantageous opportunity to limit the scope of Russian post-war occupation; and that as a strategy, OVERLORD had a greater potential for losing or extending than for winning the war; it is extremely difficult to Justify the operation. The apparent basis for the final decision on OVERLORD was that the American strategists were committed to it. Even though the original rationale for OVERLORD was sound, American strategists refused to recognize that the European situation had changed. After fighting for OVERLORD for over two years with the British, the US Army would not relinquish its only opportunity to play a major role in the defeat of the Germans. By late 1943 the inertia associated with OVERLORD was simply too great to overcome.
The massive allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 was not necessary for the military defeat of Germany. The German Army had already been destroyed on the eastern front, and the German war industry was being devastated by the combined bombing offensive. According to Trumbull Higgins,
When the British were finally compelled by their Allies to invade France in 1944, it was an invasion essentially undertaken in the self-interest of the West, the terrible risk of the collapse of the Soviet Union having long since passed. At this date the Red Army no longer needed more than Western supplies with which to occupy eastern Europe. (4:283)
The Normandy invasion was simply too late to be of meaningful assistance to the Russians. In fact, Stalin had conceded that is was no longer necessary.
Furthermore, many capable allied strategists knew that OVERLORD was no longer required and recommended against it. Why were these recommendations not heeded, especially since they would have resulted in greatly reduced British and American casualties? Two considerations cannot be ignored. First was the sheer momentum behind the OVERLORD planning. American planners had placed all their European “eggs” in this basket, they had been advocating OVERLORD against the British for over two years, and they were unwilling to concede to the British position in late 1943. Secondly, American leaders, including Roosevelt, felt that unless American forces took a significant (albeit late) share in defeating the German Army, the Russians would be entirely uncooperative in the post-war world and probably would not assist in defeating the Japanese. The British were much less concerned about Russian sensitivities, feeling instead that their post-war interests would be better served by strengthening and conserving their armed forces rather than squandering them on the beaches of Normandy.
OVERLORD was not a military necessity; it was an unnecessary military gamble that could easily have failed. In retrospect, it is impossible to understand why American strategists were so committed to it. This commitment itself is evidence of serious strategic inflexibility. American planners either could not or would not adjust to the realities of the European theater in late 1943 and early 1944. Having already made the investment in a strategic bombing force that, in combination with the Russian Army, could have defeated Germany in a matter of months, why did the US not unleash the bombers and turn its attention to the Pacific theater? Why did US strategists not accept British recommendations for a less risky Mediterranean/Balkan strategy that would have left the western forces in a much more favorable post-war position relative to the Russians? The answers to these questions have political as well as military dimensions. President Roosevelt believed he could buy Stalin’s post-war cooperation. When Stalin expressed his final preference for OVERLORD at Tehran, he essentially allowed American political and military strategy to coalesce. OVERLORD was what the Russians still wanted and it was what Gen Marshall had always wanted. Roosevelt could not have been more pleased.
In the final analysis, parochialism cannot be discounted. During World War I American leaders and forces had chafed under the constraints of a strategy developed by Britain. With World War II, America had another opportunity to assert its world leadership role and develop the strategy for victory. Gen Marshall was entirely consistent with the attitudes of the American people and their political leaders when he insisted that OVERLORD, the American plan, would be used to defeat Germany. Furthermore, and perhaps even more important to Gen Marshall, he knew that victory in the Pacific theater would be achieved primarily by Naval and Air forces. Geography alone dictated this. OVERLORD was the last opportunity for the US Army to play a major a rather than a peripheral role in the victory. General Marshall simply would not let such an opportunity pass.
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