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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.

Actions on D-Day

Roosevelt at Utah Beach
BG Roosevelt and MG Barton at Utah Beach

Of the thousands of Allied soldiers who landed on D-Day, none stood up more than Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt. The 4th Division’s beloved General Teddy landed with the first wave on Utah Beach. Once on land, he realized the division’s landing craft had dropped the initial wave in the wrong spot. His call to bring the other waves ashore in the same location spared the troops from confusion and disorder. He personally greeted each succeeding wave to point the way inland for each unit. Because of his hands-on leadership, the 4th Division adapted to the change in landing sites without trouble. One man made a huge difference in the success at Utah Beach.

The Army awarded Teddy Roosevelt the Medal of Honor for his courage and leadership on D-Day. It added to his collection of medals. He had a Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart from World War I and four Silver Stars. General Bradley even overcame his misgivings about Roosevelt and promoted him to division commander, though Roosevelt died before he could take command.

Casual Leadership Style

General Teddy Roosevelt
General Teddy in Normandy

Bradley had good reason to think twice about elevating General Teddy. He was the type of officer enlisted men loved and superiors despised. Courageous to the point of fearlessness, Roosevelt led by example. His landing with the first wave was no act of bravado. He could be found at the front in most tough situations. He could also be found drinking with the enlisted men after hours. His devil-may-care attitude about military civilities and formalities grated higher ranking generals. General Bradley had relieved him from a position with the 1st Infantry Division for numerous oversights on matters of discipline.

My father had a notable encounter with General Teddy at Utah Beach, when he noticed that Roosevelt was not wearing his helmet. It was typical behavior for the self-assured general. You can read about the incident in my book Battle Hardened.

Businessman, Soldier and Statesman

By the time he fought in Normandy, General Teddy had reached a point when he may not have cared a flip if his actions brought censure or a scolding from a superior officer. His reputation and legacy were beyond rebuke. He had already enjoyed surpassing success as a businessman and statesman. Coming out of Harvard, he earned a fortune on Wall Street. He volunteered to serve as a private in World War I but was commissioned, instead. He ended the war as a colonel then helped found the American Legion.

Theodore Roosevelt Statesman
Teddy Roosevelt while in office

Wherever he went, he earned the respect and affection of the people who depended on him. As an example, the people of Puerto Rico nicknamed him the “Hillbilly in the Governor’s Mansion” because of his embrace of their culture while serving as their governor. Filipinos called him “One Shot Teddy” in admiration of his hunting skills while Governor-General of the Philippines. For those who have the time, I suggest reading about his many accomplishments and political offices held.

Legacy

General Roosevelt died from a heart attack on July 12, 1944.  Stepping out from the shadow of an American giant, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. (he was actually the III) made his own mark in the world and at Utah Beach. Well-loved and sorely missed, he deserves to be remembered.

With the 75th anniversary of D-Day approaching, I want to reflect on a subject that people often misunderstand.

Operation Fortitude

After World War II ended, the public learned of Allied deception efforts to confuse the German high command. The most successful trickery disguised where the Allies intended to open the Second Front in western Europe. The coordinated hoax known as Operation Fortitude spread false information to convince Hitler and his generals that the D-Day landings would take place near Calais. British and American intelligence agents devised elaborate schemes to turn the Germans’ focus to the narrowest part of the English Channel and away from the Normandy beaches. Publicity surrounding General George Patton’s presence in southeast England and the staging of dummy vehicles and landing barges appeared to indicate an invasion of the northeastern French coast.  Double agents fed disinformation to German intelligence services that led them to fixate on the Pas de Calais sector.

Dummey Sherman tank
Inflatable model of a Sherman tank

Film clips of men inflating fake tanks and aircraft have made for good theater on recent TV shows. Commentaries by historians tout the success of Fortitude. It fooled the Germans! Because of that, Hitler positioned the bulk of his panzers and infantry forces near the Flanders coast. Even after D-Day, the clever deceptions persuaded the Germans to keep their panzers in the north and delayed their counter-attack in Normandy. Such comments lead viewers into thinking that without Fortitude the Germans would have reinforced Normandy and crushed the invasion.

I believe the recent hype over-states the importance of Operation Fortitude.

The Role of Uncertainty

Allied intelligence operations did succeed. The German high command thought the D-Day invasion would come in Flanders. However, this misconception did not significantly influence the Germans’ disposition of their forces, nor did it need to. Uncertainty dictated German defensive planning.

Rommel and von Rundstadt
German generals planning defense

Barring precise and firm proof of enemy intentions, something almost impossible to obtain, defenders must account for all enemy options. There are never enough troops to cover everywhere. Therefore, a defender looks at the terrain then deploys forces to block enemy avenues of attack. A sensible plan concentrates precious combat assets on the most dangerous avenue for two reasons. First, it’s a way to redirect the enemy to an area that is less threatening and/or easier to defend. Second, if the enemy does attack on the most dangerous route, the defender can commit the bulk of his forces at once.

German Defensive Planning

Map of Overlord
Map of Operation Overlord

Put yourselves in Rommel’s and von Rundstedt’s shoes then look at a map of the English Channel. Aside from being closer to England and offering a quicker channel crossing, Calais posed a greater threat than Normandy. Allied air cover could extend deeper and stay longer over the invasion area. In addition, a landing at Calais would put the Allied armies north of the Seine and Somme Rivers. Because of that, it provided a shorter and easier route into Germany. As a result, the Germans had to place their panzers in Northern France and Belgium to cover this Allied avenue. Otherwise, they would have invited disaster.

German defensive planning achieved some of its purpose. The Allies chose the safer avenue and landed on the Normandy coast. It took them three months of brutal fighting to reach Flanders, as opposed to landing there on D-Day.

Post D-Day Uncertainty

Panzer reserves
Panzer Reserves

Fortitude played a helpful though not a decisive role in slowing the German response to the D-Day invasion. Also it helped keep the panzer reserves away from Normandy. Again, uncertainty weighed more heavily on German thinking than false assumptions. It took Rommel and von Rundstedt only two days to perceive that the Normandy landings were a main effort rather than a feint. However, they could not rule out a possible second landing near Calais. Because of that, they could not commit their panzer reserves and leave Flanders uncovered. Either Hitler had to back-fill with reserves from the Russian front or contain the western Allies with the forces in France. He chose to hedge his bets in the west. The Germans bottled up the Allied invasion in hedgerow country for two months. By the time the Germans could disregard an invasion at Calais, their defense in Normandy had collapsed.

Summary

In conclusion, readers should be cautious about the claims of intelligence operatives who take credit for “deceiving the enemy.” Military strategists understand that enemy options have to be considered and resources allocated to cover each one. It’s uncertainty that forces planners to split forces, not a misreading of the situation. A good intelligence operation only needs to reinforce that uncertainty to achieve its purpose.

World War II Indirect Fire Weapons

Rifle Company mortar
60mm mortar

When asked to name indirect fire weapons used by infantry units, most people think of mortars. Yet, US Army infantry battalions in World War II fielded three indirect fire weapons. Each rifle company had two 60mm mortars, and the heavy weapons company employed six 81mm mortars. The third indirect fire weapon system surprises most people—the M1917A1 .30 cal. water-cooled heavy machine gun.

Heavy Machine Gun Team
M1917A1 Machine Gun Team

Wait! Aren’t machine guns direct fire weapons? Sure. The heavy machine guns served a crucial role in suppressing enemy weapons or mowing down enemy infantrymen with direct fire, especially in defensive situations. In offensive operations, machine guns had limitations on their direct fire role because advancing friendly infantrymen often masked their fire. The M1917A1 machine guns could overcome those limitations by using indirect fire techniques to shoot over the heads of friendly troops and pin down distant enemy positions.

What Is Indirect Fire?

What differentiates direct fire from indirect fire? In direct fire mode, a machine gunner uses a sight to aim at a target. He can adjust the sight to account for cross-wind and/or distance, but he still observes the target as he fires. In indirect fire mode, the gunner may not see the target. Instead he is given a direction of fire and a range to the target by an observer who has eyes on the enemy.

In order for an observer and gunner, working together, to place rounds on target, the weapon system must have 1) a mount calibrated for traverse and elevation and 2) a table of firing data.

The diagram below shows the machine gun and its mount. Just above the tripod, a traversing dial allows the gunner to swivel the direction of the gun left or right of center at a specified angle. The elevating arc sitting above the dial enables the gunner to raise the gun’s aim by a measured amount.

Water-Cooled Heavy Machine Gun
M1917A1 Machine Gun

The army field manual (FM) for the machine guns printed firing data to tell the gunner how far a round would travel at a given elevation of the barrel--assuming the ground was level. For instance, to hit a target at a range of 1,500 yards the gunner had to set an “angle of elevation” of 35 mils, or about 2o. The FM also printed formulas to tell a gunner how to adjust for targets on higher ground and how much to elevate the gun to clear the heads of friendly troops moving forward.

Infantry Observer

The observer had the harder job. In a tactical situation, he had to know his own location and the location of the M1917A1s, then he had to spot an enemy position. The observer either had to identify the enemy’s grid coordinates on a map or visualize an imaginary line from from the guns to the target. With a compass, protractor and some math, the observer calculated the initial azimuth and range from the guns to the target. Once the machine guns fired tracer ammunition at the target, the gunner had to spot the strike of the rounds and estimate how far off the target they landed. He then applied a couple more formulas and called back corrections to the gunners until the rounds hit the target. Requiring all that math and estimation while under fire, placed a huge burden on the observers.

Infantry Plotting Board

World War II Infantry Plotting Board
Infantry Plotting Board

The infantry observers’ lives got a whole lot simpler when the army issued plotting boards to the field in the summer of 1944. The plotting boards were fashioned with a clear plastic disk that rotated over a base with printed grid lines. The pivot point on the disk represented the position of the guns. The section sergeants, co-located with the guns, marked the observer’s known position on the disk using the grid lines on the base to correspond with map coordinates. When an observer called in an enemy target, he only had to tell the section sergeants the azimuth and estimated distance from his position to the target. Back at the gun position, the sergeants measured the angle and distance called in by the observer then marked the target position on the disk. The sergeant measured the line from the pivot point to the target position to determine the range and azimuth between the guns and the enemy. He gave that firing data to the gunners, so they could set proper direction of fire and elevation on the guns. After the guns fired spotting rounds, the observer only had to call back corrections as he saw it from his position. The sergeants with the plotting boards issued the corrected directions of fire and ranges to the gunners.

Conclusion

The heavy machine guns played an important role in the attack because they could employ indirect fire techniques. With the advent of the simple plotting boards the infantry battalion could get indirect fire from the mortars and heavy machine guns onto enemy targets more accurately and faster than before. You can read more about how World War II infantry units made use of the plotting boards in my book Battle Hardened.