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Why D-Day Matters

The invasion of Normandy by Allied forces on 6 June 1944, was the Western Allies’ most critical operation of World War II.

By 1942 German armies had overrun most of Europe, North Africa and the western Soviet Union. They set up murderous police states and imprisoned million of people in the pursuit of implementing a policy of breeding a Germanic master race. With gas chambers and firing squads, Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, homosexuals, gypsies, disabled people and others undesirable to the Nazi regime. If the attack, nicknamed ‘Operation Overlord’, had failed – and Hitler’s Wehrmacht had succeeded in pushing the invaders back into the sea – then world history would have been altered. ‘It’s hard to imagine what the consequences would have been had the Allies lost,’ says Timothy Rives, of the Eisenhower Presidential Library. ‘You could make the argument that they saved the world.’

Failure on D-Day would have freed Hitler to redeploy 20 more divisions, including eight Panzers, to meet the Red Army’s summer 1944 onslaught on the Eastern Front. The German generals would never have risked their 20 July bomb plot against a now victorious Führer and Germany’s V-weapons programme would have had the critical extra time it needed to produce thousands more new rockets and jet fighters. Many people forget that, even with D-Day and the Allied bombing offensive, German industrial production peaked in September 1944.

Also, as Andrew Roberts points out, if the Russians had overwhelmed the German armies in the East, nothing could have prevented the whole of Western Europe – perhaps even as far as Paris – falling to Joseph Stalin’s USSR.

The 50 miles of Normandy coastline is therefore one of the most important battlefields of World War II. Today’s golden tourist beaches witnessed the start of one the most ambitious and historically important campaigns in human history. In its strategy and scope – and with its enormous stakes for the future of the free world – it was among the greatest military achievements ever. The Western Allies’ goal was simple and clear cut: to put an end to the Germany military machine and topple Adolf Hitler’s barbarous Nazi regime.

For the very old men of the surviving British, American and Canadian troops who spearheaded that assault at dawn on what one commentator called ‘the longest day’, this year’s anniversary was special. It will be their last big celebration of their victory, 75 years ago in the summer of 1944. Amid the beautiful French holiday countryside, one of the most critical struggles of the twentieth century took place. It was a struggle that would eventually end at the gates of Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin on the last day of April 1945, as a demented and broken Hitler poisoned his dog and his mistress, before finally blowing his own brains out.

But D-Day nearly didn’t happen. The whole enterprise was delayed for 24 hours by bad weather and heavy seas. Having taken the momentous decision, on the night before the invasion Eisenhower drafted an ‘In case of failure’ note, to be published if necessary: ‘If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone,’ he wrote. Like all professional soldiers, he knew that in the final analysis – assuming that his soldiers had weapons and would fight – only two factors are of paramount importance in war: intelligence and logistics.

On both counts the Allies triumphed. One of the biggest and most successful deception operations ever fed the German General Staff a brilliantly conceived and executed stream of false intelligence. From a phantom ‘4th Army’ in Scotland, preparing to invade Norway, to Patton’s massive ‘1st US Army Group’ in Kent, with its thousands of rubber tanks, fake landing craft and a mock oil depot across from the Pas de Calais at Dover, the Germans were completely fooled. In reality the busiest warriors were a few hundred Allied radio operators busy transmitting phoney signals to simulate non-existent armies’ radio traffic.

What is also often forgotten also is the staggering scale of the logistic back-up effort put in to ensure that the amphibious assault went well.

The statistics of all the materiel the Allies piled up on the beaches of southern England to support the invasion are mind blowing – not just in scale, but in attention to detail. All over southern England massive new ammo and supply dumps mushroomed. Millions of tons of stores, 100,000 vehicles and 250,000 men piled into the Channel coast bases in the spring of 1944. One of those supply units alone piled up 3 500 tons of soap, which Eisenhower insisted went to France so that his soldiers could take baths.

‘Ike’ had 3 million troops under his command; what they all devoured in just one day was stupendous. According to historian Rick Atkinson, US commanders had ‘calculated daily combat consumption, from fuel to bullets to chewing gum, at 41,298 pounds per soldier. Sixty million K-rations, enough to feed the invaders for a month, were packed in 500-ton bales.’

With his experiences of the Somme and Gallipoli, Churchill was deeply pessimistic about casualties. There is ample evidence that he harboured grave misgivings about the whole enterprise. The US Chiefs of Staff were having none of it. They insisted that casualty evacuation was given particular attention. Many of the ships headed across the channel for France, had no soldiers on board. Instead, they carried some 30,000 stretchers, 96,000 blankets and tons of supplies – blood, dressings, splints, plasma, beds, to name a few – for the assault troops that would land at Normandy.

Once ashore, a sophisticated and well-organised system of field hospitals swung into action. Medics on the beach applied basic first aid as they sorted the casualties. The ‘transportable wounded’ were embarked on to the very ships that had carried the blankets that now covered them. Across the channel they were loaded on to trains for the 150 American-built hospitals across southern England. This was the medical staffs’ vital contribution: to save lives, none more so than the forward Casualty Clearing Stations and mobile Field Hospitals as the battle plunged further into France. ‘Doctors and nurses, often working 14-hour-long shifts, consider this time as their actual battle participation,’ one medical official wrote.

Except for the difficulties on Omaha Beach – when the Americans launched their swimming tanks too far out, where they were swamped by the waves – casualties were surprisingly light, considering the perils of any frontal assault. Although German machine-gunners hit Allied soldiers hard as they came ashore from their landing craft, the Montgomery’s attack plan (in his role as Land Forces Commander) overwhelmed them, as 160,000 assault troops, 12,000 aircraft and 200,000 sailors manning 7000 vessels first blasted the defenders, then stormed the beaches.

The eight assault divisions suffered 12,000 killed, wounded and missing. The Americans lost 8230, with 2400 casualties at Omaha alone. On the other beaches casualties were surprisingly light; at Utah, the US lost only 197 men. Thanks to the firepower of their swimming tanks and other ‘funnies’ the British and Canadians had only 3000 casualties. Although no major French units took part in the invasion, many French civilians were killed, mostly by Allied bombs or shell fire. Some injured citizens were reduced to disinfecting their wounds with calvados, the local apple brandy.

By dawn on 7 June the Allies were safely ashore, dug in and there to stay. German counter attacks had been repulsed. Supplies and fresh reinforcements were flooding in and the bridgehead was expanding. As the Allied soldiers marched inland from the beaches, the delighted French cheered, many of them giving flowers to the soldiers. The success of D-Day changed the course of history for ever.

That is why President Johnson’s tart reply to de Gaulle in 1966, when the arrogant French leader demanded that all US troops leave France immediately, still hits home: ‘What? Including all the ones in your cemeteries?’

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A Most Secret World

Reproduced by kind permission of Eye Spy intelligence magazine, where this article first appeared in 2004 (Volume IV, Issue 28)

On the launch of his 2004 book, The Puppet Masters (Amazon: UK; USA) Colonel John Hughes-Wilson wrote articles published in the RUSI Journal and in Eye Spy that described his service as an intelligence corp officer. His Eye Spy feature is reproduced below as a series of images.

 

 

 

North Korea: A Third World War?

Just like Cyprus, Korea is still officially at war.

An armistice (a ‘temporary cessation of hostilities’) remains the international legal position in Korea. Just as there is still no peace treaty between Greece and Turkey for the events of 1974, there is still no peace treaty between North and South Korea following the 1953 end of fighting in the Korean War.

And therein lies an almost insoluble problem. Because North Korea is now hell bent on going nuclear. And if it does, we will be confronting a serious threat to world stability and peace. Does this matter or concern us, thousands of miles away?

Yes, it does; for in the delicate balance between North and South Korea, backed respectively by China and the USA, with Japan and the South China Sea in the wings, there are now some very dangerous regional catalysts for conflict – even a major war between superpowers.

‘Fanaticism armed with power’ has always been the greatest threat to peace since the end of the Second World War. That is why the Big Five and the Security Council have strenuously tried to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.  In North Korea under its homicidal and unstable leader Kim Jong-Un, it now looks very much as if fanaticism is acquiring power – nuclear weapons. We are headed for confrontation, if not a war, because not only is the Korean dictator determined to get nuclear weapons, he is now quite openly threatening to use them.

Kim claims that his country has attained the status of a nuclear power and says he is prepared to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) against American targets. The little sealed-off communist country has carried out five nuclear tests and several missile launches recently, despite stern warnings from the UN. Only last week Kim warned that his North Korean army could ‘deal deadly blows’ without any warning against the US and South Korea. US intelligence believes that Pyongyang is in the final stages of readying itself for another yet nuclear experiment – possibly within a matter of days.

The question is; does Kim really mean it, or just blustering? The answer is, no-one knows. The fat, blood thirsty little despot has a track record of mouthing off with blood-curdling threats and then backing off.

North Korea is a strange place; a closed country with insufficient arable land and few natural resources, squeezed between China and South Korea, which is still protected by tens of thousands of U.S. forces. In the north, since the end of the Korean War, Pyongyang has accepted Chinese protection while maintaining domestic control and military power – the so called “poison-shrimp” strategy: best to ignore, because invading it would be more dangerous.

But things are changing rapidly.  With Kim’s promise to go nuclear soon, North Korea now poses a grave risk to stability, not just in the region but to the rest of us. The situation is not unlike the alliance system just before the outbreak of war in 1914, when the small fry went to war in the Balkans and dragged the major nations backing them into hostilities. The problem today is that superpower China underwrites and backs Pyongyang; over the border in the South, superpower America guarantees Seoul’s security.  A very nervous Japan looks on, horrified.

Whatever we think of Kim, his policy is very clear and rational: to stay in power by building a nuclear deterrent. With this he hopes to neutralise the long-standing threat of America, determined to destabilise his government and forcing the collapse of the North Korean regime. But now America is facing a genuine challenge to its leadership in the Far East.  Washington has to make a big decision soon. There are some serious questions to be answered.

First, how dangerous is North Korea’s nuclear capability, really? The answer is no-one for sure.

North Korea is now thought to have some 50 kg of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make 10 nuclear bombs, according to South Korea intelligence.  Pyongyang has also made significant advancements in its ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, as well as its ability to enrich uranium. The big problem is where exactly are these nuclear assets? North Korea has at least ten nuclear sites, scattered around the country, many deep underground.

Although the United States is unmatched when it comes to military power projection, any attempt to cripple North Korea’s nuclear programme by force faces some serious problems. Major intelligence gaps complicate Washington’s decision-making.  There is no doubt that if the US decides to carry out an air strike against North Korea, using B2 bombers with Ordnance Penetrators and 900-kilogram GBU-31 JDAMs, it could destroy North Korea’s known nuclear production infrastructure and associated nuclear sites.

The problem is that although the immediate impact would be devastating for Pyongyang, it might not be fatal. Even with the United States’ advantage in intelligence and equipment, uncertainty about the exact locations and dispositions of North Korean nuclear assets means that the complete success of any conventional strike on North Korea cannot be assured. Realistically, without the use of nuclear weapons or the invasion and total occupation of North Korea, the United States and its allies cannot guarantee absolutely the complete removal of the threat of a North Korean counter-attack in some form or other.

The most immediate and expected method of retaliation would be with conventional artillery. North Korea has an incredible 13,000 guns positioned along the border, many of them within range of Seoul, one of the world’s most densely-populated cities, just 35 miles away.

Just a single volley could deliver more than 350 tons of explosives across the South Korean capital, with massive civilian casualties.  North Korea also has an advanced chemical warfare capability, as well as large commando and sabotage forces. The latter are capable of being inserted into South Korea through tunnels or off-shore, to wreak havoc by attacking key infrastructure, logistics nodes, and US command-and-control facilities, causing mayhem behind the lines.

The conclusion is that any American pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear programme will come at a heavy price. North Korea’s revenge response to any attack is something that  U.S. policymakers cannot ignore. And China cannot be expected to stay neutral if America moves in. Beijing is already flexing its muscles with the US Navy over control of the South China Sea, and has warned Washington that deploying Terminal High Altitude Air Defence Missiles (THAAD) to protect South Korea is ‘a hostile act.’ Things are hotting up.

Kim Wrong-Un understands that he now has very little time to field his credible nuclear deterrent. But once he has one, then the chance of American intervention becomes increasingly unlikely. A diplomatic resolution is obviously preferable to direct intervention, because attacking North Korea guarantees massive destruction in return. But that needs China’s agreement and support to rein in its erratic and increasingly dangerous neighbour. And North Korea isn’t looking for diplomacy.

Logic dictates that now would be the best time to strike, before North Korea can finalise its nuclear capability. The result is that America’s new president is now between a rock and a hard place, thanks to his predecessor’s failure to act. If Trump orders a strike, then the consequences for South Korea could be devastating, as Pyongyang would almost certainly respond. But if nothing is done, then North Korea will become a nuclear power, placing American bases in Japan, Okinawa and American carrier groups in the region at risk for the first time. Would the unthinkable then become the inevitable: would Japan go nuclear for self-protection?

There will never be a perfect time to launch an operation to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability. But one thing is evident: every week that goes by brings Pyongyang closer to a credible nuclear deterrent. Confrontation, even war, looms.

The omens are not good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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