Shortly after the Normandy landings, the German Army noticed something about the American Army’s fighting habits. “There was usually a lull in the fighting during the nights.” The Americans seldom continued a fight after the sun went down. A reading of American unit journals confirm that little action occurred during the hours of darkness. Only the Germans used the dark to launch attacks.
The Advantages of Night Operations
The Germans made excellent use of nighttime for “tactical regroupings, unit transfers, the forward movement of replacements and supplies…tactical movements in preparation for an attack…movement into defensive positions…disengagement, and retreat.” With Allied planes roaming the skies, the Germans risked exposure to air attack if they moved at all during the day. Pressed during the day by American infantry and Allied air, the Germans felt a huge sense of relief to have nighttime to themselves. While the Americans slept the Germans used the night to recover and reset their defense.
The Americans sacrificed several tactical advantages by restricting offensive operations to daytime. First, the added concealment of night could’ve saved lives when American riflemen had to attack over open farmland. Second, darkness shortened the effective range of defensive weapons making it easier to close with the enemy. Third, the infantry missed the chance to infiltrate German positions under the cover of dark. When German resources dwindled too far to put together a solid defense, they began defending a line of forward isolated outposts backed by reserves. Their combat outposts often blunted American attacks and cost the Americans a lot of casualties. The American infantry could've compromised this strategy by slipping between the outposts at night.
Why Didn’t the Americans Attack at Night?
The natural difficulty of controlling movement in the hours of darkness explains some of the reluctance. A German general, Gunther Blumentritt, once noted, “Night is no man’s friend.” Given the inexperience of the leaders, American units may have considered a night attack too risky. Fatigue also played a part. After planning and supervising attacks during the day, commanders and staffs did not have the energy to extend operations into the night. Fatigue does not justify losing lives. If commanders thought they could attack successfully at night, they would've exploited that tactic. Why did they lack confidence in their ability to attack at night? I have an explanation for why American units avoided night attacks.
The Army’s field manuals from the early 1940s discussed night attacks but always from the view that such an operation was employed under exceptional circumstances. Manuals at company, battalion and regiment levels emphasized the difficulties of night operations but seldom mentioned the potential benefits. Doctrine imposed extra reconnaissance and movement control measures. Units required special training and rehearsals before any night attack could be considered. Given the daily grind of offensive operations in Normandy, commanders had no opportunity to plan and prepare such complex operations. As a result, the American Army slogged away, day-after-day, against German defenses in the light of day.
I had my introduction to the Army’s tactical doctrine when I served as a lieutenant at Fort Hood. I put together a field training event on the night attack. After pulling out my rifle company field manual (FM 7-10), I read through all the requirements for a successful night attack. I programmed each step in the tactical exercise. The company performed daylight and evening recons of the objective. Men stayed behind to maintain observation on the objective. The platoons posted guides to
help with night navigation and rehearsed for an assault in the dark. All this preparation took hours. A relatively simple night movement bogged down when the platoons wasted time just linking up with the right guides. Even then the guides themselves had trouble navigating to the correct positions for the final assault. The attack dragged for more hours.
At the end of the training exercise, I got together with the other lieutenants to discuss the operation. All of us agreed that the whole attack grossly violated the KISS formula (Keep It Simple Stupid). We felt that a single recon of the objective followed by careful map reading and a little compass work would’ve gotten us to the objective a lot sooner. The conclusion—the Army’s tactical doctrine was way too complex and difficult to execute.
In truth, tactics for a night attack should mirror those for a daylight attack. Had the troops of 1944 been taught and trained that way, they might’ve seized the advantages of night operations and put relentless pressure on the German defenders.