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Some military expeditions require the combined skills and resources of two or more armed services to achieve an objective. Amphibious operations use armies to seize overseas objectives and the navy to get them there. In the past, the commanding general and admiral shared command, “each supreme in his own sphere.” Kings and governments expected them to work together to obtain victory, though cooperation could not be guaranteed.

Joint operations challenged leaders because generals and admirals did not understand their partner’s capabilities and limitations. In his book, The Influence of Seapower Upon History: 1660-1783, Alfred Thayer Mahan characterized such misunderstandings.

“The army thought that the navy might have beaten down stone ramparts ten feet thick; and the navy wondered why the army had not walked up the same ramparts, which were thirty feet perpendicular.”

Failed Joint Operations - Santiago de Cuba

In my book, Disaster on the Spanish Main, I discuss the inept command structure of the British attempt to capture Santiago de Cuba in 1741. A massive British expeditionary force had just returned to Jamaica from their failed siege of Cartagena. The two commanders Vice Adm. Edward Vernon and Maj. Gen. Thomas Wentworth then set their sights on Santiago. Wentworth wanted the navy to blast its way past Castillo San Pedro de la Rocha and land his troops inside the harbor. Vernon refused to risk his ships in the narrow channel under the castillo’s guns.

Without consulting the army, Vernon landed the troops at Guantanamo Bay, fifty miles east of Santiago. He expected the army to march across enemy territory, over forest trails with no draft animals then assault a castle. Once the general saw the terrain and the distance to be marched, he refused to budge. Instead of working through their differences, both commanders became obstinate and accused the other of sabotaging the operation. After the mission was abandoned some of the army officers sent a proposal to London. They begged that in future amphibious operations, “the chief command of the whole should be lodg’d in a single person.”

Tragic Joint Operations - Operation Cobra

In World War II, General Eisenhower managed to get unified command of the three combatant arms for the Normandy landings. Eisenhower, a big proponent of joint operations, once said, “When you put sea, ground and air power together, the result you get is not the sum of their separate powers. You multiply their powers, rather than add.” Under a single commander, Allied forces worked together more effectively but still had issues sorting out combined missions.

Target Box for Operation Cobra

To achieve a breakout in Normandy Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley planned to bomb part of the German defensive front. He wanted to drive into a void created by heavy bombing. Bradley plotted a “target box” just beyond a highway to be saturated by British and American strategic bombers.

During a planning session the general and air staffs disagreed about the direction of the air attack. Bradley wanted a parallel approach to the target box, so the bombers would not fly over his troops. The air commanders opposed the parallel approach because it jammed the planes into a narrow corridor. They argued for a perpendicular flight path that posed less risk for their crews. The meeting broke up without a clear understanding of how the bombers would make their runs. Without consulting Bradley, the air commanders later decided to attack the target box at a right angle to the front.

Operation Cobra achieved mixed results. The strategic bombers inflicted serious destruction, though not total, on the German defense. The benefit of the carpet bombing got offset by numerous short bomb loads dropped on friendly troops. The units making the attack suffered confusion and the loss of over 100 killed and nearly 500 wounded. Bradley’s penetration succeeded in breaking through but he swore off using strategic bombers ever again.

Successful Joint Operations - Fort Fisher

There have been notable examples of successful joint operations. During the Civil War the Confederates fortified the point of land at the entrance to the Cape Fear River. This fortification, Fort Fisher, had kept the vital port of Wilmington open to blockade runners. After an abortive attempt on Fort Fisher in December 1864, the Union organized a second attack in January.

Rear Adm. David Porter and Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry coordinated an amphibious landing north of the fort. The navy provided massive fire support against Confederate positions while Union troops came ashore on January 13. The ships shifted their fire to the fort as the army cut off the peninsula and made its approach. After a continual bombardment the army and a supporting force of marines assaulted the fort’s northern face. The troops penetrated the fort while communicating their progress with the navy. The ships kept shifting their fire ahead of the advance until the Confederates surrendered. Careful planning and communication produced a decisive Union victory against a formidable defensive position.

Naval Bombardment of Fort Fisher

Lessons

In sum, joint operations depend on each armed service understanding the resources, tactics and shortcomings of the others. The operational plan demands input from each service to involve joint assets to their fullest capability. A single unified commander should settle disputes and disagreements between services. During execution, all services must overcome systems incompatibilities to inter-communicate and keep the battle properly coordinated. When joint planning, communication and control come together the results can achieve the multiplicative effect Eisenhower described.

Portrait of Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley

This week marks 75 years since the German Army’s last offensive in France, Operation Luttich, or the Battle of Mortain. Hitler personally ordered the surprise panzer attack on August 7 for the purpose of regaining the initiative in the West. The Germans tried to slice through the flank of the American breakout and drive to the Normandy coast. They hoped to cut off Patton’s Third Army and push the Allies back to the beaches. It failed miserably. The panzers only made local penetrations then spent days holding off American counterattacks. By the time they gave up, Patton’s army had circled behind them in a bold sweeping maneuver. As a result, the Allies slaughtered much of the German Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies as they retreated through the Falaise-Argentan Gap. General Omar Bradley called the German decision to attack Mortain, “The greatest tactical blunder I’ve ever heard of.”

Tactical Failure

Map of Western Front August 1944

In retrospect, the attack at Mortain looks like a hopeless, forlorn misadventure. First, gathering the panzer divisions to form the strike force robbed the rest of the western front of the resources necessary to hold their defense together. Second, even with the collected panzers, they lacked the strength to achieve a breakthrough at Mortain. Third, after the initial attack stalled, the Germans sent more forces “into the lion’s mouth.” Fourth, they stayed too long and let the Allies crush their armies in Normandy. Fifth, the huge losses forced the Germans to abandon France rather than fight a delaying action. Most historians agree with General Bradley. The Battle of Mortain was a foolish military debacle that caused the collapse of the German western front. It serves as another example of Hitler’s poor military judgment.

From a tactical perspective, I agree. Mortain was a disaster for the Germans. However, Hitler’s decision makes more sense when viewed from a strategic point of view.

Strategic Perspective

Within a few days of the Normandy Landings, the Allies held a firm lodgment in France. The German high command had a choice. They could draw forces from the eastern front to crush the Allied foothold in Normandy or contain it with the troops they had. They chose the latter. Hitler focused on the eastern front. As long as the Allies could be stalemated in hedgerow country, he wasn’t worried.

The July breakout, code name Operation Cobra, changed the strategic situation. The Allies forced their way out of Normandy and moved boldly into central France. Suddenly, Hitler and the German high command perceived the strategic threat of a true second front forming in the west.

Hitler's Gamble

Hitler conferring with his staff

Looking at the narrow breakout between Avranches and Mortain, Hitler saw an opportunity to restore the strategic situation. A powerful panzer thrust might sever the Allied penetration and choke off Patton’s Army. The German commander in the west, Field Marshal von Kluge, warned about risking everything on an iffy attack. The rest of the western front could give way while the Germans committed their panzers at Mortain. Always a gambler, Hitler went all in. If it worked, the second front would be contained, once again. If it failed, the Germans would have to abandon France, something they would have to do anyway.

Hitler’s mistake was launching such a panzer attack in 1944 and expecting the results of 1940. The German armored thrust at Mortain had no chance of success. The Allied armies amassed too much firepower to simply charge through with panzers. The four panzer divisions were not strong enough to break through the single American infantry division defending Mortain. Allied dominance of the air prevented any major movement during daylight. Furthermore, the Americans had plenty of tanks in the vicinity to blunt any German penetration. In the end, General Bradley allowed Patton to continue his sweep while he drove back the Germans with infantry divisions.

Books on Mortain

I wrote extensively about the 12th Infantry Regiment's involvement in the American counterattack at Mortain in my book Battle Hardened. The entire battle is described in depth by Mark J. Reardon's Victory at Mortain.

Conclusion

I believe historians have misread the Battle of Mortain. They have concentrated on German tactical failures and the disastrous results that followed. Bradley and others have written the battle off as a huge blunder. In truth, Mortain was Hitler’s last effort at retrieving a crumbling strategic situation with another desperate gamble.