Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Guest Post: Western Allies attack the soft underbelly of the Axis without Eisenhower

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History.


May 21, 1944 -

Allied Command undertook a comprehensive re-evaluation of the landing operation for the invasion of France. This successful attempt to regain consensus followed the tragic death of Major General Dwight D. Eisenhower in a jeep accident one day after being unceremoniously appointed Supreme Commander in the coming Operation Overlord.

Having proven himself as supreme commander of a mixed force of Allied nationalities, services, and equipment on the battlefields of North Africa and Italy in 1942 and 1943, Eisenhower's ill-fated, botched appointment in a handwritten note from FDR to Stalin was an advancement over nearly four hundred more senior officers. The reason was that the job was considered largely political, not military tactics, and it was rather telling that his specialty was with logistics and his organizational abilities. Suffering from bad health and a fiery temper, he outwardly displayed confidence and serenity. But the main problem was he had lacked any direct combat experience during his twenty-seven years as an army officer and his broad front approach had been strongly resisted by his commanders. They much preferred a narrow front, a divisive conflict of opinion that brought into question their own vainglorious ambitions for becoming the architect of victory. Selecting a solitary ground forces commander would make matters even worse. The lack of respect for his credentials was self-evident from an argument he had with Bernard Montgomery. Eisenhower put his hand on Montgomery's knee and replied: "Steady, Monty, you can't speak to me like that; I'm your boss."

Rightly or wrongly, this broad v. narrow front circular argument was trapped in the logistical constraints inherent in Northern Europe. Logically, the only way to resolve this problem was to launch the main attack in Southern France through North Africa by an extension of Operation Torch and the invasion of the Italian peninsula. This of course was nothing more than the original logic of Prime Minister Churchill's soft belly strategy. The British had favored a more peripheral strategy that centered in the Mediterranean. As early as the Second Claridge Conference in July of 1942, he was firmly against the idea of an assault on the heavily defended northern shore of France.

Having restored harmony by substituting the broad v. narrow front with an agreed two-front approach, one fresh problem emerged. There were insufficient landing craft to launch both invasions simultaneously. However, the choppy waters of the English Channel would not be suitable until early June. This was the basis of an opportunity for going early in the south and this army group to proceed up the Rhone River and eventually occupy the right flank of the Allied offensive. It was therefore agreed that Normandy would be the second landing when the weather permitted, with Supreme Commander Allied (Expeditionary) Force George Marshall in charge of Montgomery, Patton, and Bradley in command of three separate army groups.

Their revised approach to attacking Fortress Europe had many secondary advantages over the original plan: the flatter beaches of the Côte d'Azur for amphibious assault, calmer weather in the Mediterranean and a side-step of the Atlantic Wall just as the Germans had masterfully taken with the Maginot Line. From a political perspective, Montgomery was given the honor of leading the first assault in Provence with Patton and Bradley in the rear driving the assault in Normandy. It was felt that this separation of command would avoid personality clashes and power struggles between Anglo-British commanders. Their strategic goal for this pincer movement was to make the German occupation of France untenable, forcing a withdrawal that would end the war before Christmas.

The impressive sight of the Royal Navy arriving in considerable force off the southern coast of France was a great delight to Churchill & co. Onboard were Montgomery's Expeditionary Force comprising British and Canadian Forces plus a French Army reluctantly serving under his command on the promise they could liberate Paris. They managed to successfully establish a beachhead, but, characteristically, Monty delayed his drive inland until he had accumulated overwhelming superiority. By this time, the second landing was ready for go-ahead and, following moments of savage fighting on the beaches, was executed at great speed by American forces. An early sign of aggressive intent was signaled by Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. arriving on Utah Beach as he repeated Pershing's famous words, "Lafayette, we are here!"

Hitler, wrongly believing that the pedestrian landing in Provence must be a feint, launched a furious counter-attack to "throw the Allies back into the English Channel." The centerpiece of the assault was a counter-attack from Mortain towards Avranches to cut off the American breakthrough at its narrowest point. Tragically, Roosevelt would die of a heart attack shortly thereafter; at the time of his death, he had been recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross to recognize his heroism at Normandy. The recommendation was subsequently upgraded, and Roosevelt was a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor. Meanwhile, the uniquely American victory at Mortain would be the beginning of the end of the Second Battle of France. Montgomery and de Gaulle were infuriated with this lack of attribution as junior military partners, but they ultimately had fallen victim to their own hubris in being part of the first landing. This maneuver of course was the wily Marshall's plan from the very beginning.

Author's Note:

In reality, although initially designed to be executed in conjunction with Operation Overlord, the Allied landing in Normandy, a lack of available resources led to the delay of the second landing until August.

Provine's Addendum:

Marshall was hailed as the Hero of Europe, again much to the disdain of British military leaders as his fame continued into peacetime with a Nobel Prize for his plan to rebuild postwar Europe. While many hoped he would run for president, Marshall declined, and Omar Bradley instead won the 1952. Montgomery looked to imitate the peacetime political careers of American and French Allies, using his position as commander of the Western Union to tie the UK much more closely to the continent and ultimately shifting the capital of what would become the European Union to London. Patton, meanwhile, continued his service with the military, being among the first advisors in South Vietnam.

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