The Battle of Normandy was key to Allied success in France. After the landings on the Normandy beaches on June 6th 1944, the Allies faced the major issue of moving off the beaches and into the heartland of Normandy and from Normandy to Paris. With D-Day, the Allies had the element of surprise but once the landings had occurred, this had been lost. The Germans now knew for sure where the Allies would make their push inland and it was not to be in the Pays de Calais. The deception before D-Day had worked extremely well but post June 6th, German army commanders knew where to concentrate their forces. Normandy was fraught with difficulties for the Allies. The Americans moved west along the coast to free Brittany while the British, Canadians and Polish forces had the job of moving inland and this required the capture of Caen, a major city in Normandy. If the fighting at Omaha Beach had been hard, it was only a taster of what the Allies could expect inland. Victory in Normandy only culminated with the near destruction of a German army at Falaise. However, that only occurred after numerous operations had been carried out to free Normandy and Brittany from German control – Operations Spring, Tractable, Charnwood, Goodwood, Totalise and Atlantic were attempts to capture Caen and push inland towards Falaise. Operation Cobra led by the Americans was an operation to liberate Brittany.
With the exception of Omaha Beach, Allied landings at Sword, Gold, Utah and Juno had been relatively casualty free. Precise planning and the use of the so-called ‘Funnies’ to swiftly get off the beaches had greatly helped this. However, further inland, the Allies faced a major obstacle that was to greatly assist the Germans and hinder the Allies as they attempted to move inland – hedges. Normandy was ‘bocage country’ with countless fields bordered by large hedges. These afforded the Germans excellent hiding places for their anti-tank guns – such as the feared 88 – and machine guns. The hedges exposed the Allies tanks and other mechanised units and movement forward was slow and hazardous. Post D-Day, the Germans had moved experienced Panzer units into Normandy that had not been in the area during the landings. The most common Allied tank was the Sherman and these came up against German Tiger and King Tiger tanks. The bocage terrain meant that the Sherman exposed its vulnerable base as it crossed over hedgerows – and many suffered accordingly. The Tigers did not have things all their own way either. Tigers had much greater firepower than the Sherman but it also consumed a far greater quantity of fuel and this was a major weakness. The Tiger also found it difficult to manoeuvre through the ‘sunken’ roads found in Normandy and fought mainly in the fields where they were vulnerable to attack by tank-busting RAF Typhoons. However, lack of a consistent fuel supply was a very real problem for tank commanders. This weakness became even more apparent as Allied bombers and Resistance units destroyed routes along which fuel could be supplied. An inability to reliably provide fuel for Panzer tank units was something the German High Command had no answer for and the matter got worse as the Allies moved further into France and towards the River Rhine.
Fighting in Normandy was fierce and bloody. The Germans knew that there was only one chance of pushing the Allies out of France and that was in Normandy itself. The further inland the Allies got, the weaker the German position would be – hence the ferocity of the fighting. For men such as Marshal Kluge, the battles fought in Normandy were literally make or break for the German army. Defeat in Normandy would almost certainly mean the loss of France before the Allies turned on Nazi Germany itself.
Both sides saw control of Caen as being pivotal to success in Normandy. The Allies launched various attacks on the city, which eventually fell but only after Allied bombing had all but destroyed the Old City. Equally fierce fighting took place just three miles to the south of Caen at Verrières Ridge – a place of great strategic importance for whoever held it as the ridge gave a commanding view over the surrounding terrain.
The Germans faced an army that had access to a seemingly endless supply of fuel and equipment. While the Mulberry Harbour had not lasted long, it had served its purpose. With the beaches secured, with the port of Cherbourg captured and with effective control of the English Channel, supplying the Allied forces in Normandy was not a huge issue. The Germans were not in the same position. Regardless of this, fighting in Normandy was fierce and progress inland was slow. German resistance was invariably strong. German resistance culminated in mid-August 1944 when the Allies trapped 150,000 German soldiers in and around the town of Falaise. Thousands of Germans did escape via the Falaise Gap (Falaise Pocket) before it was closed. But many thousands were captured along with their equipment. The loss of such a large force was a disaster for the Germans and one the German Army in France did not recover from.