Section 2: Normandy to the Seine

Main purpose:

This section looks at the planning process for the logistics of Operation Overlord, how that plan was different from the actual operation's logistics, and what caused the differences.

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Van Creveld begins by stating the basic concept of operations behind Operation Overlord...dump as many men and machines into Europe as possible, and do it so fast that the Nazis can't handle the volume. After musing on how this shows logistics driving strategy yet again, since it shows that Overlord was fundamentally a transportation and resupply operation driven more by logistical concerns than operational concerns, Van Creveld moves on to how the planning process for Overlord worked.

It began over a year in advance, with the creation of an incredibly complicated model for how the invasion would run. The model took thousands of factors into account, each of which affected the flow of forces in some way. This eventually identified four major factors that had to be considered in creating the plan.

First, the number and types of ships likely to be available on D-Day, and the distance of those ships' bases from the landing site. Second, the size and number of beaches, and all terrain and weather factors that might affect how close the ships could get to shore. Third, the location of deep water ports, which were thought to be a necessity to support follow-on forces. And fourth, the feasibility of air support, which would be critical in disrupting the Germans as they tried to reinforce. Van Creveld only points out a minimum of silliness in this phase of the planning, but the great idea fairies, then as now, were hovering over the heads of some of the leadership...Van Creveld's best examples of this are the huge artificial harbors, which were assumed to be critical for supply and logistics in the initial phase of Overlord.

In any case, equipped with their complicated model, the Allies began looking at coastal maps of Europe. They found, not surprisingly, that the perfect landing site for their factors did not exist. Happily, their job was made easier because the requirement to stay close to Britain for both air support and quick shipping turnaround meant the only two real options were in Northwestern France, specifically Pas de Calais or Normandy. Van Creveld suggests that if it weren't for this obvious restriction, which eliminated 99% of the possible sites, Overlord's planners would have probably continued to review every inch of Europe's coastline. After weighing all the factors and choosing Normandy as the landing site, the unloading and support plans were developed. These were planned down to the gnat's ass detail...the number of troops to be offloaded at each beach on each day, the exact day at which 5-gallon drums would be replaced by bulk fuel, an exact order of priorities for offloading each type of item, how each item would be packed, what equipment would move which supplies, how everything would be distributed, where the supply depots would go after the initial landing, etc.

After talking at length about the extreme level of detail in the Allies' nearly two-year-long planning phase, Van Creveld gleefully describes how initial contact with the enemy caused every single aspect of the plan to immediately fail and get thrown out the window in favor of what we would consider more practical "company gunny"-type solutions. The failure of the artificial harbors was overcome by the use of blockships. The failure to capture and utilize the deep water ports was overcome when the beaches' capacities were found to be adequate on their own. The failure of the priority system for unloading was overcome by simply unloading everything regardless of its priority. And the problem of being unable to beach and unload ships at low tide was overcome by simply beaching and unloading ships at low tide, which the Navy had previously claimed wasn't feasible. In retrospect, it seems likely that the reason massive logistical planning failures in Operation Overlord aren't more obvious to historians is that the tactical-level operators were so good at improvising their way out of ill-conceived, needlessly complicated, lockstep plans, an institutional memory problem which is probably just as true of our own "MPF offload" in Southern Afghanistan preceding Operation Khanjar in 2009.

Having addressed the huge differences between the plan and the actual operation, Van Creveld has presented us with a picture of Normandy as an extremely chaotic foothold, totally flooded with supplies, overseen by conflicting commands and headquarters, and bearing almost no similarity to the original plan except that a huge pile of forces and supplies had now appeared on the beaches of France, which was the intent behind Overlord anyway. This brings Van Creveld to the logistics of the breakout.

Bottled up in Normandy, the Expeditionary Force's massive brain went to war against itself, with a tug of war developing over who controlled what (COMZ versus the Armies over supplies, and COMZ versus ADSEC over the Armies themselves). Additionally, Van Creveld describes the extremely negative outlook of the Allied supply and logistics personnel, who continued to cling to the original, invalid plan and its inaccurate estimates of what was required before they could move forward with an offensive. Fortunately, the momentum was preserved by General Patton, who ignored the logistics plan and pushed forward regardless. As Patton rapidly advanced, enabling breakouts by both General Hodges and Field Marshal Montgomery, van Creveld notes that all progress was being made over the screaming protests of the logisticians, who were still claiming that any progress was logistically impossible.

Van Creveld closes by saying that the differences between the plan and the actual breakout can only be explained by one thing...timid, unaggressive logisticians. On a continent saturated with roads, rails, and rivers, during warm weather, with little enemy air activity, with a local population that was both dense and friendly, and with more motorized vehicles than any other army could dare to hope for, the Allied logisticians still didn't think they could support combat operations.

To sum up, van Creveld has shown us two logistics planning failures in this section. First, the logistics plan to land the Expeditionary Force on the beaches, and second, the logistics plan to support the breakout from Normandy. Both of them failed because they were too rigid and too detailed (i.e., over-planned), when they should have allowed for flexibility driven by the tactical-level operators' common sense and situational awareness. Van Creveld doesn't do it, but I think this is also a good point to look at the differences between Rommel and Patton in terms of logistics. The first time I read the two case studies in Supplying War, I thought "okay, so Rommel was an idiot for ignoring his logisticians, but Patton was a genius for doing the same thing? I guess the only thing that matters is success." Looking at it more closely, I don't think that's true. Looking at his interest in logistics as a commander, Patton was nearly as bad as Rommel (in spite of having a bit more common sense when it came to logistics, van Creveld tells us that Patton seems to have only talked to his G-4 twice). If their positions had been reversed as commanders, I think that Rommel would have succeeded in Europe while Patton would have failed in North Africa. The next section's discussion of supply problems with Patton's later advances seems to support this. The big difference between the two commanders wasn't their own understanding of was their staff's understanding of logistics. Rommel's logisticians knew what they were talking about, but unfortunately the boss didn't listen. Patton's logisticians didn't know what they were talking about, but fortunately the boss didn't listen. So while the section of the book on Rommel can be read as a lesson for commanders to never underestimate the role logistics can play in restricting operational possibilities, the section on Patton can be read as a lesson for logisticians to never underestimate the role operations can play in expanding logistical possibilities.

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Capt Palmer's favorite quote:

"...the beaches...proved capable of discharging supplies far in excess of what the plans had allowed for. This, however, was achieved only by disregarding all the plans. The first breakthrough came on D+2 when it was decided to ignore the predetermined order of priorities and unload everything regardless. Having for months resisted the beaching of its craft during low tide...the Navy suddenly discovered that such a procedure was feasible after all...Thus, unloading proceeded not so much in accordance with the plans as without them, and in some cases against them, which was additional proof that the planning staffs had grossly overestimated the value of complex artificial arrangements and underestimated what determination, common sense and improvisation could achieve."