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Standing in a Normandy pasture with no other Allied troops at hand other than his five anxious Canadian paratroopers, Lieutenant John Madden had legitimate cause for concern. But not that the invasion of Normandy had been cancelled, as Operation Overlord was very definitely proceeding and the next twenty-four hours would prove the most decisive of the war. The invasion was a winner-take-all game with the jackpot to be won or lost on a single roll of dice. The Western Allies were gambling that they could win and hold a beachhead in France from which they could drive to the Rhineland and into Germany's heart-the most direct route to bring the war to a rapid conclusion. This was not, however, an impulsive or rash crapshoot. No previous military operation had been more carefully planned, more meticulously scripted in the form of time-tables and deployments, more intensely trained for, and more methodically launched.
Even as the last British troops had evacuated the beaches of Dunkirk on June 14, 1940, Britain's War Office had been considering how continental Europe could be reinvaded and liberated from the German conquerors. This despite the fear of imminent invasion by Adolf Hitler's triumphant divisions massing on the opposite side of the English Channel. That threat had not yet slackened when the British Joint Planning Sub-Committee of the Chiefs of Staff presented Prime Minister Winston Churchill with a report on October 5, 1940 that outlined the challenges Commonwealth forces would face in launching a cross-channel invasion. The prospects, the report stated, were bleak for the Commonwealth stood alone. Even should America weigh in against Germany, the logistical complexities involved in deploying modern armies meant "we can never hope to build up a very large force on the Continent." Any landing was likely to be swept back into the sea by rapid deployment of nearby German divisions that would quickly outnumber and outgun the invaders. Hitler's Fortress Europe appeared unassailable.
Consequently, when the 15,911 men of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division arrived in Britain that December nobody was thinking of offensive operations. The immediate task was to transform an ill-trained and badly equipped volunteer civilian force leavened with a cluster of pre-war Permanent Force soldiers into an effective fighting division; one capable of defending Britain's shores from an invasion expected with the spring.
Germany's Luftwaffe, however, failed to gain air superiority over British skies during the aerial battle that raged from August 1940 to May 1941-a necessary precursor to any invasion. Then, on June 22, Hitler unleashed three million men against the Soviet Union on a front extending 1,300 miles from Finland to the Black Sea. Now the British planning staff considered a more favourable situation. Despite the stunning initial victories, those millions of German troops advancing into Russia were moving ever farther away from Fortress Europe's western ?ank and would not be easily recalled.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth continued to strengthen and modernize its armies, navies, and air forces. By 1942, 500,000 Canadian soldiers were in Britain-a stunning achievement in mobilization by a nation of only 11.5 million souls. By then, too, American troops were starting to arrive. Japan's December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor had at last provoked the United States to declare war on fascism. On January 14, 1942, the British and American governments quickly agreed that "only the minimum of force necessary for the safeguarding of vital interests in other theatres should be diverted from operations against Germany." The first priority for the Western Allies would be to defeat Hitler, with the war on Japan secondary.
But where should the first blow be struck? Although the British Joint Planning Staff had an operational plan called Roundup that envisioned six armoured and six infantry divisions assaulting the French coast somewhere between Dieppe and Deauville, the defending German forces were judged far too strong. Merely drafting the plan had convinced the British that such an invasion could only be delivered as part of "the final phase" of the war on Germany. First the Third Reich's military machine must be greatly diminished through attritional battles fought elsewhere. Those other fronts, Churchill believed, were to be found in northern Africa and the Mediterranean. Only there did the British have sufficient military strength to quickly launch operations. And with the Russian army reeling in disarray back on Moscow, time was of the essence. If Russia capitulated, the Western Allies would face a potentially unwinnable war.
Furthermore, America's military might was still nothing more than potential. Like Canada, the U.S. had gutted its military during the inter-war years and had not seriously started mobilizing despite the gathering war clouds until Japanese bombers pounnced oooooon Pearl Harbor. Even the world's most industrialized nation could not whip into existence overnight a military force capable of the kind of amphibious invasion necessary to successfully breach the German defences on coastal Europe.
Curiously, this fact seemed to elude American military planners. While Churchill and his generals cautioned that an immediate invasion of France would be premature and destined to end in disaster, General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, recommended to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the "first great offensive" be directed at northwest Europe. Marshall wanted the quick, decisive results he thought could be achieved by a frontal attack across the English Channel-the shortest route to Germany-employing maximum strength and accepting the severe casualties that such a strategy would undoubtedly incur. If this invasion could not be immediately mounted, and Marshall recognized this was the case, then a series of limited cross-channel assaults should be undertaken in 1942. The Americans designated this strategy Operation Sledgehammer.
Meanwhile, Premier Joseph Stalin was demanding that his Western Allies do something besides talk and bluster. Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union had committed Hitler to a war on two fronts-always risky because it forced a division of strength and attention-but there was little happening on the western front to distract or weaken German operations against Russia. Northern Africa presented the most immediate front that could be opened against Germany with the military strength, resources, and capability that the Allies could rapidly assemble.
So it was that at the end of July 1942 the Americans reluctantly agreed to abandon Sledgehammer in favour of offensive operations in French North Africa, one of the Axis power's most far-?ung outposts. Vichy France-a puppet regime established after the French surrender in 1940-had little military strength in the region and any invasion there would necessitate Hitler's countering it with German troops. The decision to undertake operations here represented a political victory for Churchill's favoured strategy of chipping away Germany's strength through operations in the Mediterranean, which he considered Europe's "soft underbelly." It also meant that there would be no invasion across the English Channel until 1943 at the earliest and more realistically, 1944. It was going to be a long war.
Even as mediterranean operations were initiated, Britain's Combined Operations Headquarters (COHQ), which included planners from all the armed services, started studying the tactical requirements for a successful invasion of northwest Europe. Various commando raids on the European coast were meticulously reviewed for the lessons that could be learned and applied to a larger operation. On March 28, 1942, a major raid had been launched against the U-boat pens at St. Nazaire and the facility considerably damaged despite heavy casualties to the attack