While the point of decision for 1944 clearly lay in the west, the German high command was not of one mind about how to defeat an Allied invasion. The Germans rushed to complete their Atlantic Wall, but they could not fortify the entire coast. The key to the defeat of the invasion lay with the Germans’ mobile, hard-striking panzer divisions, the scheme for the employment of which remained a subject of debate. Rommel, whose Army Group B controlled the coastal sector, drew on his experience fighting the British and Americans in North Africa. He was convinced that Allied air power would prevent the timely movement of an armored reserve to the coast. Rommel wanted the armored divisions deployed immediately behind likely landing sites. But there was an obvious problem: since the Germans were unsure where the Allies intended to land, the armored divisions would have to be dispersed, rather than concentrated. Generals with experience on the eastern front wished to keep their mobile reserves concentrated in a central location, from which they could be dispatched to meet the landing. As was often the case with the Germans’ strategy, they adopted a compromise: Rommel controlled a few divisions deployed near the coast, but the rest were held in the OKW reserve and could be released only on Hitler’s authority.
Thanks to Ultra, the Allies were aware of German uncertainty about the likely landing area. The British and Americans spent two years developing a detailed and comprehensive cover and deception plan—Fortitude South—designed to convince the Germans that the invasion was coming in the Pas de Calais region. The Allies even deployed an entire sham army group—the First U.S. Army Group, or FUSAG—commanded by the ostentatious George S. Patton, who was temporarily out of work after he slapped a shell-shocked soldier in Sicily. The Allies’ reinforced their deception efforts by feeding inaccurate information to the Germans through double agents. Ultra allowed the Allies to monitor the effectiveness of their work. Fortitude South worked so well that even after the Allied landing in Normandy, weeks passed before the Germans realized that they were facing the primary invasion force, not a feint, there.
Throughout the spring of 1944, the Allied air forces helped prepare for the campaign by isolating the invasion beaches. Strikes against rail yards, rolling stock, and bridges would hinder the movement of German reserves and supplies to the beaches once the invasion began.
By the spring of 1944, the military buildup in the British Isles to support the invasion had been underway for almost two years, under the codename Bolero. The actual plan for the operation—codenamed Overlord—called for the landing of five infantry and three airborne divisions on the Normandy coast near the base of the Cotentin peninsula. Montgomery would command the Commonwealth forces on the left; Omar Bradley the American forces on the right. Eisenhower was overall commander. Once ashore, the Allies would secure a lodgment and seize the port of Cherbourg. Allied air power would assist the landing and, aided by the French resistance, interdict German movement toward the beachhead. The buildup would continue until the Allies were ready to drive to the Seine River, an objective to be reached by the ninetieth day after the landing. In mid-August, a second landing operation—Anvil-Dragoon—would take place in the south of France. These two advances would link up in central France and push together toward the Rhine.
The Anglo-American spring offensive opened on 11 May 1944 under an umbrella of total Allied air superiority. Within a week, the Allied offensive broke the German front in Italy. Polish troops finally gained the Cassino position on 17–18 May, while Anglo-American forces broke out of the Anzio beachhead and advanced along the western coast of Italy. American troops entered Rome on 4 June—a major victory soon overshadowed by the Normandy landing.
At that point, the Allied high command decided not to exploit the victory, but to redirect, as planned, assets from the Mediterranean toward the main drive in France. Forces from the Italian front were withdrawn to refit in preparation for Anvil-Dragoon. As a result, the Allied advance in Italy bogged down again north of Rome against the Germans’ Gothic Line. The Allies would not break this line until April 1945.
The Allies launched Overlord on the night of 5–6 June, after a twenty-four-hour postponement caused by bad weather. Going ahead on the sixth was risky, since conditions were still less than ideal, but Eisenhower’s decision paid off, since the Germans believed the weather to be too poor for an invasion. Rommel was home celebrating his wife’s birthday when the landings began.
Overlord was a complete surprise—and a success. The Allies met stiff resistance at only one of the five invasion beaches—Omaha, in the American sector. The battle was nonetheless chaotic, and the Allies did not reach all their objectives. The inevitable German counterattacks came soon enough to contain the invaders, but, as Rommel had feared, too late to destroy the Allied beachhead.
From mid-June until mid-July, both sides fed reserves into a static attritional meat grinder. Normandy may have been an excellent choice for landing beaches, but once ashore, the Allies discovered that the terrain, marked by the thick and tall hedgerows that divided the fields of the Norman farmers, was perfectly suited to defensive operations. Cherbourg fell on 27 June. British forces did not take Caen, expected to fall on D-Day, until 19 July.
But while the Germans halted the more immediate threat posed by Montgomery’s advance on the Allied left, the Americans on the right were on the verge of a breakout. Bradley’s U.S. First Army launched Operation Cobra near St. Lô on 5 July. Within a week, the Americans had shattered the German front and reached Avranches, the key road junction leading westward into the Brittany peninsula. At this point, the Americans activated the U.S. Third Army, under Patton, for a planned drive into the Brittany peninsula to secure the major French Atlantic ports. But the collapse of the German front presented Eisenhower with an opportunity to destroy the German field armies deployed against him. Ultra indicated that the Germans, rather than retreating, were preparing a counterstroke to close the Avranches gap. Eisenhower decided to send Patton east, rather than west, in a movement designed to annihilate the Germans. Unfortunately, the Allies failed to spring their trap. Many Germans escaped, although without their heavy equipment. The Allies had destroyed German striking power west of the Seine and now began a rapid drive across France. French troops entered Paris on 19 August.
The Allies had more than made up the time lost slugging it out in Normandy and were well ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, their rapid advance also placed them ahead of the supply buildup planned to support a drive to the German border. As a result, the Allies conducted their operations in France and the Low Countries during the late summer and fall of 1944 on a logistical shoestring.
Supply limitations shaped the strategic debate about the course of future operations—a debate perhaps more important for its political ramifications than its strategic merits. Montgomery believed that the supply shortages dictated the need for a more focused advance. He suggested that Eisenhower halt the American advance and funnel available supplies to the British and Canadian forces on the Allied left, where the terrain was more suited to mobile operations. For obvious reasons, such a proposal held few attractions for the Americans, who argued for a continued advance on a broad front.
There were advantages and disadvantages to both strategies, and it is impossible to say with certainty which was better from a purely military point of view. But Eisenhower recognized that Montgomery’s strategy was politically dangerous. Such a decision would infuriate the American public, place a huge burden on the British-Canadian forces that would henceforth bear the brunt of the casualties, and risk a weakening of the heretofore solid Anglo-American alliance. By now, the Allied invasion in southern France had begun (5 August), and by the end of the month, advance elements had reached Grenoble. Eisenhower hoped that this second supply corridor would help alleviate the logistical crisis before the Germans recovered.
Unfortunately, the Allied broad advance slowed and then stalled. In September, Eisenhower agreed to allow Montgomery to try to break the Rhine River line in the Netherlands by using three Allied airborne divisions to seize a series of bridges leading to the main crossing at Arnhem. But the daring operation failed, principally because the Germans had already recovered their equilibrium. The Allied advance continued along the front from the Channel to the Swiss border, but the fighting was more attritional than mobile. Allied hopes that the war might end before Christmas were dashed.
As the western Allies struggled to break out in Normandy, the Soviets opened their summer 1944 offensive. On 23 June, the Russians launched Bagration, an operation designed to destroy the German Army Group Center. In six weeks, a series of successive and deep attacks encircled and destroyed the bulk of an entire German army group. By 1 August, the Soviets were on the outskirts of Warsaw. Much of German Army Group North was trapped in Estonia and Latvia. In August, the Soviets struck farther south and broke the German lines, overran most of Romania, and drove into Bulgaria and, later, Yugoslavia and Hungary. In the fall, the Russians closed up on the East Prussian border in the north, but remained idle in the center while the Germans destroyed the Polish resistance in Warsaw.
Hitler, facing disaster on all fronts, decided to gamble. During the fall, the Germans had built up a sizable reserve of panzer divisions. He knew that these divisions would be quickly consumed in the east, but their impact in the west would be substantial. He planned to strike through the Ardennes, split the Anglo-American front, and recapture the main Allied supply port of Antwerp.
The Germans struck on 16 December along the American front in the Ardennes, achieving near-complete surprise. Bradley’s troops were caught off balance and with few reserves. The situation was an embarrassment for the American high command, and Montgomery did little to spare their feelings.
But despite initial success, the operation was a forlorn hope. The Germans had thrust through the Ardennes in May 1940, but at that time had motored unopposed through a virtually undefended region. The Americans defended their positions in the Ardennes, and whatever the faults of their high command, the troops were dogged in their determination. German panzer leaders quickly discovered that the Ardennes was not, in fact, prime tank country. They were tactically road-bound and unable to move quickly. The advance fell behind schedule, and fuel supplies ran short. Initially, poor weather kept the jammed roads safe from Allied air attacks, but when the skies cleared on the 23 December, the dreaded Allied fighter-bombers appeared. On the northern flank of the Bulge, as it became known, the Americans, backstopped by the British, held firm. In the south, Patton masterfully redirected his Third Army from an easterly to a northerly orientation and drove into the German flank. On 26 December, Patton relieved the Americans at Bastogne, a major road junction that had held out in the German rear. The Allies spent the rest of December and January eliminating the Bulge and, with it, Hitler’s final hope for something other than complete and utter defeat.