We must blast our way on shore and get a good lodgment before the enemy can bring sufficient reserves to turn us out. Armored columns must penetrate deep inland, and quickly, on D-Day. This will upset the enemy plans and tend to hold him off while we build up strength. We must gain space rapidly and peg out claims well inland. — Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, May 5, 1944
As you probably already know, if you have studied the Normandy campaign at all, that didn’t happen. Montgomery’s vision of how the invasion should play out on the first day instead took weeks of hard fighting to realize. Caen, the area’s main town barely ten miles from Sword Beach, was a first-day objective that did not fully fall into British and Canadian hands until roughly 19 July. Nonetheless, the battle did unfold as Monty described it — just much more slowly than he hoped or planned — but was there ever an actual chance that the invasion might fail entirely? Or was it a foregone conclusion that the months of meticulous planning, the overwhelming weight of materiel superiority, the Allies’ total command of the skies, as well as the successful deception strategy of Operation Fortitude in Southeast England, would together virtually guarantee success on June 6? In hindsight, D-Day looks like it was a sure thing — bloody, hard-fought, and terrifying to be sure, but never really in doubt. On June 5 I don’t think anyone could have known how readily the Atlantic Wall would be breached. Allied casualties were about half of what planners expected, after all.
As a WW2 buff, I have always been fascinated by war games (“historical simulations”) where I could replay situations like these. I’m talking about the board games with cool maps and hundreds of tiny cardboard pieces to represent the forces at hand. I have recently been spending a good chunk of my hobby time with GMT Games’ 2009 monster version of D-Day, “The Battle for Normandy: June – August 1944.”
It’s a battalion/company-level simulation of the landings and subsequent campaign. Yes, it’s big! I have a fair amount of space, as you can see in the image above, but even that isn’t big enough to accommodate two more maps I don’t have on the table. For now, that doesn’t matter, because everything is happening nearer to the coast. I have a hard time imagining anyone with a table big enough to have it all out for as long as it would take to play the whole campaign. The size and duration of the game might be a turn-off for some, but for some reason I have always loved these huge, full-campaign-in micro-detail games.
Actually, the reason it might be better to call them “simulations” is that often there isn’t much of a “game” to be had out of them, in the sense that outcomes are usually somewhat preordained. The only question is, How badly will the side that won in history beat the losers in your game of it? That’s how it is with this one. If you play as the German, there is really no way that you will “win.” It’s all a question of husbanding your resources (which is frustrating in the face of Allied numbers!) well enough to stop the Allied player from winning too quickly.
And that brings me back to the $64,000 question: could the Allies have failed? Judging by my experiments with this game (and with a big old favorite, SPI’s Atlantic Wall from 1978), the answer is no! The Allies had the wherewithal to put 150,000 soldiers onto a hostile coast in one day. The battle had to be fought — bravely — and won by the Allied troops, but there doesn’t seem to be any way that the Germans could actually have pushed them back into the sea. In my current playing of the scenario, I opted for a variant the game designers called “A Bloody Nightmare,” in which the Wehrmacht deploys its panzer divisions as Rommel wanted, and the way General Marcks (the famous figure with a cane in The Longest Day who won the staff war games by predicting the Allies would land in Normandy) had apparently recommended. The complete 12th SS “Hitlerjugend” starts in Caen; Panzer Lehr starts in St. Lo; and 21st Panzer starts in Valognes on the Cotentin Peninsula. That’s three elite panzer divisions, right next to the beaches!
Even at that, the German side cannot actually prevent the Allied side from getting a solid foothold on June 6. What has happened is that the Allied beachhead is smaller than the actual one was, meaning reinforcing German divisions, such as 2nd Panzer and 3rd Fallschirmjäger, could come in farther and hem in the Allies much more tightly than in the actual battle. It is shaping up to be more of a stalemate like at Anzio, with an army trapped on the coast where they landed.
There are other random effects that make these simulations interesting, such as weather rolls each day. The Allies have had miserable luck in this department, with light to heavy rain on four out of five days since the landing, which severely limits reinforcements, supply and, most importantly, air support. 7th Armored thought it saw an opportunity to cross the Orne bridgehead (“Pegasus Bridge,” won by 6th Airborne) and push around to the east of Caen, but because the main highway between Bayeux and Caen had not been severed, two panzer divisions were able to gather there for a counterattack that threatens the bridgehead.
In the end, a better answer to the big question (Could the Allies have failed?), is that the Germans never had to literally annihilate the Allied armies to defeat them. If the Anzio-like situation that has unfolded in my counter-factual Normandy simulation had happened in the real Normandy, that could have been disastrous. If the Germans had maintained containment until winter, for instance, it might have drawn out the end of the war for an extra year, leading to unpredictable but certainly unsavory outcomes. And that, for me, is the fun and the interest of a game like this: I see all the units and locations I have read about for so many years, and I can play around with it enough to get a feel for making the division and corps-level decisions.
Well, that’s about it for this nerdiest of hobby posts. I find it rather an amazing fact of our times that I can “publish” a little essay like this and have it be seen by a/the few people who might actually find it as interesting as I do. Here’s to you all for being a like-minded community — and, if you’re actually this far in and still reading, I assume that is what you are — I may never meet in person!