Lessons from World War II

Lessons from World War II

In early June 1944, 200,000 troops were bivouacked along the coast of England waiting to cross the English Channel for Operation Overlord—the Allied invasion of France. Overlord was—and remains—the largest armada of assaulting troops ever assembled. On a single day, over 160,000 soldiers crossed the channel. Within the next 12 weeks, there were three million Allied troops (equivalent of the world’s largest army— People’s Liberation Army of China) in France.

While the D-Day landings are famous, what is not so well known is that the success of this incredibly complex campaign hinged on resolving a series of contradictory approaches, interdependent operations, resolute leadership and innovative solutions that acted as pivots and game changers, and whose lessons are timeless.

The location of the landings itself was a contentious issue. Calais, to the north, was the obvious choice as the assaulting troops would have the shortest distance across the channel, but it was heavily defended for the same reason. Landing further south at Normandy would give the Allies a greater choice of depth targets, including the two ports of Cherbourg and Brittany—essential for the subsequent build-up of war material—but involved a longer exposure to the vagaries of weather and seasickness.

The fickle weather of the channel allowed only a three-day window every month, and 4 June was initially selected for the launch. However, bad weather forced postponement by either a day or two weeks. Despite severe criticism, General Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the Allied forces, gave the go-ahead for 6 June, later to be known as D-Day. Had he waited for two weeks, the assault troops would have run into the worst weather in the channel for over 40 years, and certain annihilation.

Overlord was preceded by operations Bodyguard and Fortitude: Elaborate deception and internal resistance plans designed to make the Germans believe the attack would come in Calais, and to leverage the French population for the ensuing battle. Fortitude consisted of four major deceptions. The first was creating fictitious armies across the channel from Calais, complete with dummy tanks and aircraft, and “allowing" German reconnaissance to photograph them. The second, Operation Skye, simulated wireless traffic of this phantom army group. The British media cooperated by announcing fake game scores and wedding announcements for non-existent soldiers. The Allied even relocated George Patton, a contender to lead the D-Day invasion, to the dummy location to reinforce the perception of Calais as the target.

The third was Operation Double Cross, which used a network of double agents to feed misinformation to the Germans. A sophisticated subterfuge involved an agent revealing plans of an Allied invasion of Africa, with the documents postmarked before the invasion date, but their delivery deliberately delayed until after the troops had landed, to convince the Germans that their agent was sending quality material. The last deception, just before the attack, was by RAF paratroopers who dropped hundreds of dummies and metal foils over Le Havre (a harbour to the north), which was construed by German radar operators as a fleet of landing craft.

Overlord was supported by a series of synchronized operations by commandos and resistance fighters to seize or sabotage bridges, roads, rails, dumps and causeways, reactivate French resistance and neutralize key German commanders. Ultra, codename for the intelligence gathered by cracking the German cipher, helped foil several counter-attacks, and confirmed that the Germans had fallen for the Calais ruse.

Overlord was the beginning of the end of World War II, Germany and, of course, Hitler. Within three months, the Germans were routed and liberation of France followed.

But its success depended on a series of separate plans and different stakeholders pressing ahead with extraordinary cooperation and faith, despite many instances of failure, doubts and setbacks. Several sub-units took heavy casualties, but remained steadfast in completion of their missions. Though principal Allied leaders—Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Eisenhower, Patton and Bernard Montgomery—had bitter differences, they preferred to argue in private and rally together in public, resisting all divisive efforts, including by Americans who advocated that Hitler was Europe’s problem. Concentration of force was achieved with a sense of purpose, meticulous preparation, local intelligence and innovation. These basic principles remain true for any complex operation, regardless of its nature or scale.

Closer home, India’s effort against the Naxal menace requires political unity, resolute stewardship, organizational skills and innovative thinking at the strategic level. It also needs trained operatives supported with on-ground intelligence and a capable junior leadership which can seize fleeting opportunities. The operation demands the ability to look beyond immediate losses, the guts to make difficult calls with minimal information and involvement of the local population. It must leverage deception and a blend of force with control. Most importantly, a campaign of this magnitude needs support and endorsement by citizens who must recognize the subversive intent of the Naxals and maintain the momentum without undermining the efforts of government forces.

Operation Overlord’s success did not come cheap. The Allied sustained heavy casualties and the leadership came under criticism for various aspects of the operation, including diversion of resources from other theatres of the war. But the fact remains that this campaign ended fascism and paved the way for democracy in Europe and the rest of the world.

The Naxal problem is certainly not of the same scale; yet it poses a significant danger to the sovereignty of India. Stakeholders would do well to remember the fundamental principles of operations instead of frittering away resources, mindshare and public support on tangential and ill-informed issues.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

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