I want you to imagine picking up every resident of a medium-sized city, everything they’ll need to eat and drink and rest for a few days, any vehicles they might need, gasoline, of course, plus lots of guns and ammo — did I mention this was a hunting trip? — and then moving them all in a few short hours a distance of anywhere from 30 to 125 miles or so.
Now imagine you have to move all those people and all that stuff partly by air, but mostly across heavy seas in foul weather.
Under enemy fire.
I should also mention that if you messed up any of the big details, a lot of your people are going to die, and then you’re going to have to figure out how to move them all back without getting too many more of them killed.
And all that is just the beginning. Because once you’ve done all that, those men on that “hunting trip” are going to have to take and widen a beachhead big enough and secure enough that you can rebuild (or build from scratch!) the ports and roads necessary to bring another million men over… plus all the additional stuff all those additional men will need.
That, in a logistical nutshell, was what the Allies had to accomplish 75 years ago on D-Day.
Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, General Dwight Eisenhower said that “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The planning which went into Operation Overlord boggles the mind.
The units involved included six American combat divisions under First Army, landing at German-held French beaches code-named Omaha and Utah. There were four infantry divisions tasked with storming the fortified beaches, plus two airborne divisions for landing by parachute and glider behind German lines. British Second Army brought four more divisions to the fight, including 6th Airborne and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. And the British 79th Armored Division provided troops and specialized landing vehicles to the British sector.
The preparatory air bombardment was delivered by more than 2,000 Allied bombers. The invasion fleet included 1,200 warships, 4,125 landing craft, and another 1,600 support vessels of various kinds, all courtesy of eight different Allied nations. That’s about 7,000 ships, their crews, their supplies, and the tons and tons of fuel required to run them. The official count was nearly 200,000 naval personnel.
Keep in mind though that before any of that could happen, the skies first had to be swept clear of Axis aircraft, and the Channel cleared of enemy mines. Just another note jotted down in Ike’s 87-million-page Trapper Keeper.
Three divisions worth of American and British paratroopers led the attack inland hours before the first leg infantry hit the shore. I’m not able to find solid figures on how many C-47s cargo planes and gliders were required, but a safe guess would be “a whole lot.”
(Graphic courtesy of Statista.)
The American airborne units got spread all over Hell and gone, and in the resulting chaos only about 2,500 paratroopers were under their divisions’ command after a full day of fighting. The other 10,000+ men had to accomplish their missions, as best they could, through initiative, improvisation, and… well, hope that their supplies didn’t run out, or the Germans surround and kill or capture them, before they were able to hook up with the Allied soldiers moving in from the beaches.
Some of those beaches were lightly defended by third-rate troops. Others not so much, particularly Omaha, which was a slaughterhouse. Confusion prevented USAAF bombers from smashing the beach defenses, and fickle Channel currents put entire units in the wrong areas. Opposition was stiffer than expected, too — there were three times as many German troops as Allied intelligence projected. Of the 32 tanks the troops counted on to support them, only five made it ashore. The rest foundered at sea, taking their crews with them. Of all the Allied losses on D-Day, nearly half were suffered by the men taking Omaha Beach.
Nevertheless, they persisted. Securing the initial objectives took longer than expected, but in the end, the Germans didn’t stand a chance against the Allies’ logistical wherewithal, or the determination of individual soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
To prepare for all this, the U.S. delivered 1.9 million tons of supplies to Britain just in May of ’44. That’s 3,800,000,000 pounds of stuff in one month, with, I might remind you, more than a few German submarines hunting the merchant ships. To keep the fight going after the beaches were taken, another million troops were shipped to France in the four weeks after D-Day, along with more than 565,000 tons of supplies and a staggering 172,000 vehicles, from jeeps to tanks and every size and shape in between. To keep the vehicles moving the Allies laid an undersea oil pipeline (called PLUTO) across the Channel. And to keep the troops fed and armed, they even hauled across transportable piers (called Mulberries), because the Normandy ports were too few and too small to bear the massive logistical strain.
If these huge numbers seem too abstract, remember that it was living, breathing men who made them happen. It was officers and their staffs who made the plans. It was human beings who devised PLUTO and the Mulberries. It was factory and shipyard workers who made the rifles, pistols, ammo, fighters, bombers, jeeps, trucks, tanks, and ships. Men and women in oilfields and refineries provided the gas and diesel which kept the war machines humming. “Men of the West” manned the ships, flew the planes, hit the beaches, airdropped in. It was fragile human bodies enduring the shelling, the bullets, and the rigors of what Eisenhower deemed the “Great Crusade,” the most logistically ambitious undertaking in human history… and a moral cause almost without parallel.
Those men saved western Europe from the Nazis, but also from “liberation” by the just-as-brutal Soviets. The final battle lines they drew just 11 months later became the eastern boundary of the Cold War, where the West stood firm yet again against totalitarianism. In other words, they saved the world.
There are damned few of those people left, their numbers shrinking daily. Don’t forget them.