Going back to May 1940, what was left of the British Expeditionary Force was rescued from Dunkirk. Over 330,000 men were brought back to England by the Royal Navy and a hotchpotch fleet of vessels of all sizes – the famous “Little Ships”. It was on this tired and ill-equipped rump of professional Regulars that Britain built its new Army.
As invasion of Britain was fought off during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, recruiting and training commenced with a new vigour. After the fall of France, Great Britain was alone in the fight against Nazi Germany. The threat of invasion was very real. Had the British Isles fallen to Hitler’s forces, there would have been a European Union much sooner, but of a different sort.
Very aware of the critical importance of national morale, the newly appointed Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a speech to the Nation; using rousing and confident language. This speech concludes with the words…
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."
To avoid helpful directions to an invading force, all road signs were removed across Britain. The King was advised by Parliament to escape to Canada with his young family; although he refused. Britain’s gold reserves and art treasures were moved north, and secret resistance forces were established whilst the Army had a chance to recover and re-equip. After the Battle of Britain, the enemy turned to heavy bombing to subdue the civilian population and force surrender. The ‘Blitz’ came to the country’s major cities, bringing the Home Front into the front line.
For nearly two years Britain stood alone, all the time recovering, growing and building. The civilian population joined in with their valiant contributions. In order to free men for military combat duty, women took on traditional men’s roles, becoming welders and technicians in munitions factories all around the Kingdom. Land Army girls worked on farms helping to overcome shortage of agricultural workers, and the Merchant Navy ran the U-Boat gauntlet to bring vital provisions into the island fortress.
With the sudden and treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, an extended European War became a World War. Troops were sent from Britain to India to resist the Japanese advance through Malaysia and Burma. The British 14th Army fought a very distant war which, to the home population, was seemingly disconnected.
These men, fighting a different enemy, so far from the European theatre better understood, became the ‘Forgotten Army’ and experienced disease and unthinkable deprivation. General Wingate’s ‘Chindit’ force was another new and innovative military idea – to develop new skills in jungle warfare in order to confront the Japanese Army on its own terms. This was a new ‘Special Force’ whose ideas and skills contributed to the training of Commandos in the highlands of Scotland.
The British Army’s fight back in Europe came with the invasion of North Africa. Operation Torch, launched mainly from Liverpool, Glasgow & Gibraltar, the British 8th Army went up against Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s highly trained, well equipped and comitted Afrika Corps.
A number of British Commanders tried and failed until Lieutenant General Montgomery took over in August 1942. With dependence upon long range supplies, it is fair to claim that a combination of Home Front Industry, Military Intelligence, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Army drove the Afrika Corps out of North Africa. The Enemy’s supplies of fuel and munitions had to be cut, and Intelligence played a key role in guiding Monty’s tactics.
A new kind of warfare was developing. The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and David Stirling’s Special Air Service (SAS) were innovative projects tried and tested in the desert of North Africa. Such ideas were seen by traditionalists as unorthodox, yet they took their place in contributing to the successful outcome of the campaign and were used more and more in planning for the eventual Normandy Landings.
As valuable lessons were learned, the training continued in Britain. With American troops arriving by sea into Liverpool and ports along the Clyde, the British Isles became a massive army camp as the build-up for D-Day steadily grew.
With North Africa secured, a joint invasion of Sicily was carried out in July 1943. The US Army under General George Patton landed in the West at Palermo, whilst Montgomery’s 8th Army (supported by 1st Canadian Infantry Division) landed at Gela in the South. The invasion of Europe had begun. This First Front saw tough fighting as the occupying German Forces put up stiff and organised resistance. With Sicily taken, the Allies advanced across the Messina Straits. Further landings at Salerno and Anzio provided more experience of seaborne landings in force against a heavily defended coast.
Back home training continued extensively, with mock landings carried out in Scotland and the West Country. Decoy bases and depots were constructed in the South East of England to indicate preparations taking place at Dover.
Before detailed planning could begin, two main conditions needed to be met. Firstly, enough men would need to be trained and equipped for the task and sufficient shipping would need to be available to supply to Britain from where the invasion would be launched and sustained.
The success of the forthcoming invasion of Northern Europe hinged on eliminating the German U-boat threat in the North Atlantic; achieving air superiority over enemy-controlled Europe; destroying or disrupting the German economy and war industries; degrading the German military machine on other fronts; and establishing harbours and military bases in Britain.
Looking at the catastrophic low starting point of the evacuation from Dunkirk, initial planning for future invasion across the English Channel was an almost impossibly tall order, especially given the fact that the United States at that time was still a third-rate military power with a small army and obsolete equipment.
"You are to prepare for the invasion of Europe. You must devise and design the appliances, the landing craft and the technique. The whole of the South Coast of England is a bastion of defence against the invasion of Hitler; you've got to turn it into the springboard for our attack."
Aware that harbours were essential to the success of such an invasion, work began on two huge floating sectional harbours which could be towed to France and put into use on the northern coastline after the invasion had succeeded.
Intelligence gathering made it well known that Field Marshall Rommel had been appointed to take control of defences against the anticipated allied landings. To secure ‘Fortress Europe’, the Germans had built fortifications all along the Channel coast. Known as the “Atlantic Wall”, the ‘Todt’ forced & slave labour organisation had built steel, concrete and wire obstacles along beaches, extending underwater. Artillery and machine gun emplacements were establish periodically all along the coastline.
Rommel well knew that an invasion must be repelled at the landing grounds. To have any real hope of defending that long coastline, the battle would be won or lost on the beaches and on that first critical day. Indeed, it was on 2nd April 1944 when Rommel spoke to his Adjutant, declaring that would truly be ‘the Longest Day’…“der längste Tag”