70 years ago, thousands of British, American, Australian, New Zealander, Indian and Canadian soldiers streamed onto beaches formerly frequented not by troops but by tourists. A patchwork of nationalities, they united in the hope of quashing conclusively the fascist regime which threatened the liberty of humanity.
Along with other units in Italy and on the eastern front, they started the long push to Berlin. By less than a year, that threat had ended, and a new one had emerged.
It is estimated* that 4,000 Allied troops died on this day, and 9,000 of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) foe, a sacrifice never to be forgotten.
Despite the massive advantage held by the Germans, the success of Operation Fortitude – a deception operation arranged mainly by the British armed and secret services to persuade Nazi high command that the Normandy landings were fake and the real invasion was to come near Calais – helped to keep Allied losses a great deal lower than what they perhaps might have been.
Lancaster bombers of 617 (Dambusters) Squadron dropping thin strips of tin foil to mimic the radar signals of an entire fleet, double agents transmitting a web of false information about a huge ghost army under General Patton poised to invade the Pas de Calais and another in Scotland for Norway and inflatable or wooden tanks, Spitfires and transport trucks – Fortitude was an ingenious solution to the problem of German coastal strength.
Deception was a favourite technique of the British war machine by now. To help the troops invading Italy, MI5 produced an elaborate scheme to convince the Axis that the invasion would come not from Sicily – the obvious point – but from Sardinia, Corsica and Greece. To do this they floated the partially preserved body of a dead tramp into the Mediterranean, clutching a briefcase filled supposedly with documents proving the points of invasion meant for Allied generals in Africa, and identity naming him as a military courier. The Spanish, whose government was also fascist and – despite official neutrality – was inclined more to the Nazis – collected the body and the documents, and passed them onto German agents who photographed them and sent them to Berlin. Operation Mincemeat was swallowed whole & the invasion of Sicily was much easier with few of the enemy present.
You will have heard of the man who claimed to have imagined up the ‘dead tramp’ scheme, Ian Fleming, but you probably won’t have heard of Juan Pujol Garcia. This Spaniard was a dedicated advocate of democracy and freedom and, upon being rejected for espionage work in Madrid by the suspecting British, began to work for the Germans, gained their trust and made up an entire network of sub-agents active in Britain whilst still living on the Iberian peninsula. With the British afraid of this ‘super’ agent detected through German messages decoded at Bletchley Park, they eventually found him to be on their side and brought him to Britain, where he continued his invaluable work until 1945. Not only did his ‘network’ provide the ‘information’ for the Norwegian and Calais landings, but also helped the British to round up every single German agent in the country and feed their enemy with the wrong information.
During the 1942 desert battle El Alamein between the Allies’ Montgomery and the Axis’ Rommel, but on a smaller scale, trucks being disguised as tanks and driven about different parts of Egypt to dupe Axis reconnaissance ‘planes whilst the real tanks moved swiftly round to attack Rommel from where he was least expecting it.
That same Rommel, defeated in northern Africa, now wielded the highest command post in northern France, awaiting an Allied invasion after that of Sicily had meant the capture of Rome a few weeks before. Yet at the most crucial time he was at home, celebrating his wife’s birthday, the Nazis having completely swallowed Fortitude.
By the time he returned and the Nazi high command had realised it was indeed the real invasion, it was much too late. The road to Berlin was begun, and Rommel was forced to commit suicide.
Despite being Germany’s most popular general if not public figure, Rommel was connected to opponents of the regime – the 20th July plotters – and was made to poison himself to prevent negative harm coming to the regime from executing this popular man. Others in the Wehrmacht – Stauffenberg, the bomber, and Schlabrendorff (from whom we know much of the opposition thanks to a bombing raid destroying the courtroom in which he was to be sentenced) – as well as in the secret services – even the head, Canaris – endeavoured to destroy the regime.
They failed, and the implications of their failure on 20th July led to huge repercussions across Germany. But Hitler underwent significant psychological damage, a damaged arm linking him now physically to Wilhelm II, the emperor who brought Europe to war the last time.
On 30th April, newly married Hitler shot himself, and on 8th May, victory in Europe was assured.
The veterans now gathering on the beaches of Normandy did a huge amount to win the Allies the war, but those behind the scenes, the deception plotters of MI5 and MI6 and the military underground to Hitler’s regime, also deserve our recognition.
Lest we forget.
It is said that Abwehr (German equivalent of MI5 & MI6) resistance to Hitler, run primarily by Wilhelm Canaris, Hans Oster and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, may have saved a significant number of Jews and of Nazi opponents by hiring them and shipping them into neutral territory to make good their escape, in addition to communicating Nazi plans to the Allies, swallowing deception plans and fiddling troop sighting reports to make the Wehrmacht put the wrong number of troops in the wrong place. This is very hard to investigate or prove. I am currently researching the extent to which the Abwehr harmed the Nazi regime, so if you are an expert on the subject, I welcome your comments on the subject.