Eisenhower’s verdict was epic in its consequences. Except for Truman’s resolve to strike Hiroshima, no World War II air war decision was more complex or caused more bitterness than Ike’s move to attack the French railway system in advance of the June 6, 1944 Allied landings in Normandy.
Across the English Channel in France waited Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, nicknamed “Desert Fox.” Hitler personally put him in charge of Army Group B, with orders to push the Allies back into the sea should they manage to put forces ashore.
Contrary to popular belief, Eisenhower saw no problem in getting his forces ashore. Even the German generals acknowledged this would be manageable. The so-called “impregnable” Atlantic Wall fortifications of German propaganda were “sheer humbug,” according to Field Marshal Karl R. Gerd von Rundstedt, who was commander in chief in the west and Rommel’s putative superior.
In this, airpower was the key. Eisenhower’s whole premise for Normandy called for defeating Germany’s air force and then using Allied airpower to hinder transportation so that Rommel could not maneuver rapidly and get his forces in position to oppose the landing in strength.
Since February 1943, the air offensive in Europe had been focused on pushing back the German Luftwaffe. Air superiority remained everyone’s top goal. However, as 1944 began, the new question was this: What else could the air forces do before the landings to ensure the success of the Normandy invasion?
Zuckerman was an unlikely architect of airpower. One contemporary described him as “a small, mysterious man in an unpressed tweed suit.” In 1943, this 39-year-old South African-born Oxford professor of zoology was best known for his book The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes. Some, like RAF Air Marshal Arthur T. Harris, never warmed to Zuckerman, whom he derided as “a civilian professor whose peacetime forte is the study of the sexual aberrations of the higher apes.”
Next, Zuckerman helped Tedder prepare and execute coordinated attacks on the rail and road lines of communication crisscrossing the key island of Pantelleria, which the Allies during mid-1943 took in preparation for the invasion of Sicily.
Unique KnowledgeIn January 1944, Tedder sent Zuckerman home to London to join in the secret Overlord planning work that was then under way at Norfolk House in the British capital. “His knowledge of bomb damage gathered in North Africa and Italy was unique and was occasionally to confuse those who imagined that they alone could know anything of bomb damage,” said RAF Air Vice Marshal E.J. Kingston-McCloughry, who was already at work on D-Day air plans when Zuckerman arrived.
Those impressions could not have been more wrong. “The air forces reported that their preliminary bombings had disrupted all rail and road communications in central Italy,” wrote naval historian Samuel E. Morison after the war, “but they had not done so.” Soon, 14 divisions from as far away as Yugoslavia and southern France were closing off the Anzio beachhead. On Feb. 16, 1944, German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring launched a massive counterattack. He attacked with 125,000 troops, compared to the Allies’ 100,000.
It was a close call. Everyone knew that, at Normandy in a few months, the Allies would have to do much better. Heeding the lessons of North Africa and Italy, Eisenhower and Tedder crafted a sophisticated plan of attack, taking into consideration the shocks and surprises of those earlier campaigns.
By early 1944, France’s rail system was a ripe target. It was already suffering from the effects of four years of German occupation and neglect. Investment was minimal, and Germany had taken a third of the locomotives and rolling stock out of France for use elsewhere in Europe.
The final plan specified rail center targets across the length and breadth of France, Belgium, and western Germany. Initial attacks began in early March.
Eisenhower was well aware of the controversy among his commanders. He was determined not to let their squabbles stand in the way of the two things he had to have: command of all air assets for the invasion and an immediate start to the transport plan.
Eisenhower faced many problems in that tense period, but only one made him threaten to quit.
Eisenhower had no objection to the oil plan but rail targets had to come first. The Germans already had 12 Panzer divisions in the west and Eisenhower reminded the group that the success of the whole plan was “conditioned on [there being] no more than 12,” with three near the landing areas.
Eisenhower won his point with the military commanders. His next obstacle was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill, who also served as Minister of Defense, was known for delving deeply into minute details of the war. He often formed opinions with an eye on postwar outcomes. This was no exception. Churchill balked at the idea of risking so many French lives, which he warned could conceivably drive postwar France into the arms of the Soviet Union.
When Churchill again wavered in May, none other than President Franklin Roosevelt weighed in. Roosevelt told Churchill that “however regrettable the attendant loss of civilian lives,” he, the American leader, would not constrain his commanders from doing whatever it took for Operation Overlord to succeed.
By then, intensive operations were under way. They had started up with Ike’s April 17 directive moving rail centers to No. 2 priority. As always, Luftwaffe targets came first.
The German forces felt the effects of this bombing right away. Long lines of railcars backed up, unable to move. Von Rundstedt pulled 18,000 workers off construction of defenses on the Atlantic Wall and set them to work repairing railways.
Churchill pinged Tedder on May 29 with a memo asking if the rail attacks had exceeded the 10,000 casualty limit yet.
However, one man—Rommel—wasn’t fooled. Rommel won his “Desert Fox” nickname in North Africa, and there he also learned stern lessons about the impact of Allied airpower. Like Eisenhower, Rommel believed that everything depended on swift movement of his mobile reserves. He wrote in late April that, “failing the early engagement of all our mobile forces in the battle for the coast, victory will be in grave doubt.”
Here Rommel’s instincts almost upset Eisenhower’s plans. Rommel began moving forces into the Normandy area in response to the rail bombings. He transferred seven mainly battalion-strength units during May. One unit, the 352nd Infantry Division, went undetected by Allied intelligence and put up the fierce D-Day resistance that almost repulsed the attack on Omaha Beach. On the coast, Rommel stepped up defenses. His tours to the lines bolstered German morale. Yet unless he could quickly move in reinforcements and organize for a counterattack, it would all be for naught, Rommel knew.
Allied airmen also began systematically dropping every bridge on the Seine between Paris and the sea. Bridges were not part of Zuckerman’s original vision. He considered them “uneconomical and difficult targets.” With a blanket of air superiority, however, airmen proved he was wrong.
When the Germans attempted repairs, pilots strafed the workers and bombed the bridges again. This was a tremendous testament to precision bombing. Given the right tactics and the right conditions, airmen in 1944 could be precise indeed. They did it with a surprisingly low tonnage count, too. Dropping the Seine bridges and others marked on the system took a total of 4,400 tons of weapons. Not one train ran on those routes after the end of May. Harris’ night bombers also scored highly precise attacks, knocking out several rail centers in just a single attack.
Across northern France, German military dislocation and paralysis set in. Rail traffic after May 19 fell to 38 percent of what it had been in February. By D-Day the French National Railway was operating at only 10 percent capacity, and Normandy was, “for all practical purposes, a strategic island,” concluded Rommel biographer Mitcham.
Rommel’s forces put up fierce defensive resistance, holding out in some locations for weeks, but he needed reinforcements to hold defensive lines so he could pull out his Panzers and mass for counterattack. Those reinforcements did not come in time. As later noted by Harris, “When they did percolate through to the front, they found themselves operating in conditions of extreme disadvantage.” Not only were the Nazi units fighting “under the shadow of overwhelming Allied air supremacy,” he said, “they were attempting to hold a front behind which, for three or four hundred miles, the vital rail system was in a state of wreckage and complete confusion.”
To get to the battle, the 2nd Panzer division had to travel 160 miles and did not arrive until June 13. It took another week to prepare the road-weary unit for battle. The 17th Panzer grenadiers division made it to the fight on June 17. Another division, the 2nd SS Panzers, did not show up until June 26. It was July 1 before Rommel at last had four Panzer divisions ready for a counterattack. The attack advanced only a few miles before petering out.
Within days, von Rundstedt had been replaced. By mid-July 1944, Rommel was gone too, severely wounded in a strafing attack. The transport attacks, however, only expanded after the invasion. Germany was the next target. Under Tedder’s guidance, the Allies attacked rail targets throughout fall 1944. Heavy attacks in the Ruhr in October 1944 slowed coal deliveries.
As Tedder pointed out, the Germans could build underground factories, but “their lifelines remained on the surface.” The more the Nazis dispersed, the more they depended on rail and other lines of communication.
Eisenhower had said he’d judge the rail plan worthwhile if it delayed even one division. Instead, the combined effects of the campaign delayed them all in the crucial days after June 6, 1944. The results reverberated throughout the remainder of World War II in Europe, and, indeed, still do.
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