D-Day in Perspective: What if the Allied Invasion of Normandy Failed?
For most people today, there are few historic counter-factual questions more disturbing than, “What if D-Day failed?” This is a detailed look at the nightmarish, dystopian world that might have resulted if Operation Overlord ended in catastrophe.
On June 6, 1944 the Western Allies launched Operation Overlord – better known as D-Day – an amphibious invasion of northern France that was a dramatic and unprecedented gamble for the future of Western Europe. It’s success ensured the defeat of Nazism by creating a western Second Front in Europe opposite the Soviet Union’s Red Army in the east. Their presence also guaranteed that Soviet influence would not extend beyond their furthest reach in the occupied eastern portion of Central Europe.
Today, D-Day is rightly remembered as a day of heroes with forces from every Allied nation assaulting the heavily defended beaches of Normandy. Through its mythologized retelling, countless consider the landing’s success a historical inevitability. However, that belief could not be further from the truth. Overlord’s architects who planned and executed the offensive understood that their efforts may have instead been mourned as one of the greatest disasters in military history. Yet with profound conviction Allied leaders accepted the risk because success might ensure the freedom of humanity from one of the greatest evils it had ever faced. On the other hand had it failed, world history would have become unrecognizable compared to our own.
To appreciate the sacrifice of those who boldly attacked the Atlantic Wall 73 years ago today, one must consider the world they risked their life to avoid. As we take a moment today to honor their sacrifice, let’s consider what that other course of history may have entailed. This piece postulates what turns the war may have taken if Germany had succeeded in repelling the Normandy attack, squashing the Allied invasion, and leaving the Second Front stillborn.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, United States Army
Democracy During Total War
Many historians contemplate and debate if a true liberal representative democracy could emerge victorious and intact when faced with a total war. Had Operation Overlord failed, an even higher sacrifice would be required to achieve a desirable victory in Europe. The decision to undertake an even greater effort would have then faced the people of the Allied powers. The United States and Great Britain each lost over 350,000 members of their armed forces during the war. A failure of D-Day, and the need to renew their commitment to liberating Western Europe would have entailed an ever greater cost of life.
In historian Max Hastings estimation, the Soviet Union could likely have only survived their nightmare war with the Germans with the full mobilization of the Stalinist terror apparatus to scare the population into full resistance. As similar tactics would never be used in the other Allied nations, the leaders and people of those countries would have needed to reassess their willingness to pay the great price of peace. Their answer would have had near incomprehensible consequences to history, whatever it might have been.
Finger Pointing Among the Allies
With a loss the magnitude of Operation Overlord, the finger pointing and blame would have extended far and wide. While in reality Allied leadership would be at a collective fault, it is unfortunately not the nature of politics to assume and proceed from such a rationale conclusion. In all likelihood, two outlooks would have prevailed between the Anglo-American nations.
The British would have likely claimed that their previously stated arguments for placing a cross-channel invasion at the bottom of Allied strategic priorities should have been heeded.
The U.S. would have laid the blame with the decision to delay Operation Anvil, a simultaneous invasion of the Channel coast and the French Mediterranean coast. By design, the dual invasion was intended to force the Germans to divide their response in France so as to engage both Allied forces.
Operation Anvil was ultimately canceled for June 6th because the necessary landing craft for the invasion were unavailable. The craft had been in use at Anzio, a failed attempt to break the deadlock at Casino in Italy. The plan was entirely Churchill’s brain-child. Had D-Day failed, the U.S. would have pointed to the landing craft’s assignment to Anzio as a waste of resources in Italy, considered a diversionary theater, when they should have been used to support the invasion and ultimate liberation of France. Moreover, U.S. leadership would point to Churchill for conceiving the foolhardy plan at the expense of their paramount strategic priority.
As acrimonious as the diplomatic and military relations would be following a D-Day failure, the wide-spread political ramifications would have been catastrophic.
The 1944 U.S. Presidential Election After A D-Day Defeat
On June 6th, 1944 President Roosevelt was five months away from his fourth and final presidential election. The final result historically was not close against Republican challenger, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. FDR rode his continued popularity with the American public, as well as significant Allied military progress by November of that year. By Election Day, not only had France been almost entirely liberated, but Belgium was largely in Allied hands. Meanwhile, Italy was also occupied just beyond Bologna.
Had a complete failure of D-Day occurred, none of this would have been possible at that time. It would have colored the entirety of that election, leading the American public to consider very different issues at the polls.
In a race where the primary issue was choosing the candidate most suited to creating the best American post-war peace, D-Day defeat would have immediately raised questions where none were before: “Is FDR up to the job?” “Could he end the war successfully without an even greater sacrifice of American lives?” “Can we actually defeat Hitler?” If the voting public faced an Allied failure on D-Day, the likely answer to the first two questions would have been “no.” The voting public’s response to the final question could have demonstrated a crisis of confidence whose resolution would have directed the future war effort.
D-Day Failure: The Survival of the Churchill Government
Given the nature of British parliamentary democracy’s ability to enact swift and sweeping change, the Churchill government would definitely have come under tremendous political scrutiny for a D-Day failure. Specifically, in light of the British losses experienced in northern France during WWI, as well as his personal history as architect for the disastrous landings at Gallipoli, confidence in Churchill’s continued wartime leadership would be seriously questioned. Both instances embodied a tortuous legacy in the minds of all Britons at the time. Nor would this have been Churchill’s first significant challenge to his leadership and wartime cabinet.
Prior to the victory at the Second Battle of El-Alamein in November 1942, Churchill’s premiership sat in a tenuous position having little to show in the way of a high value victory over the Germans on land. In addition to the collective disgrace following the surrender of forces stationed at Tobruk in June 1942, Churchill was under pressure to deliver.
Labour MP and Leader of the House of Commons in Churchill’s wartime coalition government,Sir Stafford Cripps, was believed to be a genuine rival for the premiership in 1942. He had served as the government’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1942. Cripps became a popular figure in the U.K. as an advocate for an “All Aid to Russia” approach to fighting the war.
Due to the minimal British military progress in 1942, and the Soviet Union’s enduring the wrath of the Wehrmacht nearly alone, Cripps advocated a greater role in providing any and all resources to the Soviet Union given British inability to achieve a favorable and definitive outcome themselves. This challenge ended with the British 8th Army’s decisive victory at the Second Battle of El-Alamein.
There were no serious contenders for the post of PM in summer 1944, following a period of sustained military success. Yet such figures like Cripps would have emerged quickly following a disaster with Overlord, a crisis that would have outstripped anything Churchill’s leadership endured prior.
When considering the design of the British parliamentary system, as well as the seriousness of the defeat, it would have led to at least a serious shakeup of serving Cabinet members.
D-Day Disaster: The End of Germany First?
Prior to U.S. entry into the war, U.S. and British military representatives held a secret conference from January to March 1941 in Washington D.C. This clandestine meeting was dubbed “ABC” – American British Conversations – a perfectly innocuous title for the talks which established that, if the U.S. entered the war, Nazi occupied Europe would be the “decisive theater” or the Germany First priority. This determination was made only nine months before the war came to America.
With the full formation of the Grand Alliance in December 1941, the one strategic priority each of the three powers agreed upon was defeating Nazi Germany and its European Axis collaborators before turning their full attention toward Japan. Their decision was informed by the perception that Nazi Germany presented as the most dangerous adversary.
In early 1942 alarming public opinion polls found that 20% of Americans favored signing a separate peace with Hitler to focus the war effort against the Japanese. Many Americans during this period held a visceral hatred of Japan for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite Germany declaring war against the US on 12/11/1941, four days after Pearl Harbor, most Americans at that time did not harbor nearly as much animosity toward Germany compared to that of Japan. Though it must be understood that this was several years prior to the public revelations of Nazi racial policy and genocide.
Though it was the proper strategic priority to focus on the defeat of Germany, keeping American public opinion in favor of Germany First was often contingent on the success of the fight in Europe and the expediency of said success. Had Overlord failed, the public and policy makers may have given in to their desire to enact their collective vengeance against the Japanese in the Pacific. If so, the resources necessary to attempt a second invasion or even support progress elsewhere in Europe may have decreased significantly. Any reduction in the level of the overwhelming resources of the United States would have placed the freedom of Western Europe in peril.
What Were the Alternatives?
Next Best Theater of Opportunity in Europe
With a failure of the Invasion of France, Allied war planners would have had to determine a new possible theater of strategic opportunity. Italy was the only other area of mainland Europe where the Western Allies were engaging the Germans on the ground. With Churchill’s previous desire to enter Yugoslavia via Trieste, the cross channel invasion disaster may have given this idea new life and traction.
Italy was thought a serviceable diversionary theater, as it caused Germany to further disperse their forces throughout Europe. The Italian campaign was costly, as war in Italy proved highly attritional due to fighting in the Apennines mountain range. Nor did it serve its greatest purpose of drawing a significant number of divisions off the Eastern Front.
Due to the harsh nature of combat in Italy – specifically invading from the south – it was deemed unsuitable as a main axis of advance toward the heart of Germany. The idea of fighting a million Axis troops well fortified in the Alps would have been nothing short of purgatory.
While a cross channel operation disaster may have created renewed interest in Churchill’s desire to enter the Balkans, fighting in Yugoslavia and other Balkan nations would have been no more pleasant than in northern Italy and Austria for precisely the same reasons.
Additionally, the Soviet’s eyed the Balkans as within their future sphere of post-war influence, save Greece to the south by prior agreement. A large Western Allied military presence in the Balkans would have undoubtedly created significant friction between the Eastern and Western Allies.
In all probability, the prospect of capitalizing on the Balkans as a hypothetical theater of opportunity would not have been an automatic contingency plan. It would have taken time to both amass the materials to do so properly, and determine the best way to engage the enemy. It’s success would have certainly required the support of a US dedicated to victory in Europe, which in this scenario would have been no guarantee.
The Eastern Front Opposite D-Day
Had Operation Overlord not achieved a victorious outcome, the war in Europe would have been decided almost entirely by the rival tyranny’s on the Eastern Front. With Nazi Germany able to redeploy a significant number of divisions no longer needed in the West – including some of their most crack divisions. Their possible renewed resistance would unquestionably changed the look of the wars outcome, and the world itself.
Operation Bagration: Belorussia to Bordeaux?
In a less popular piece of history from the Second World War, Operation Bagration – also known as “Death of German Army Group Center” – was launched on 22 June, 1944. In scale, the Soviet offensive to clear German Army Group Center from Belorussia (modern day Belarus) was ten times the size of D-Day’s initial phase in manpower.
The offensive liberated Minsk, portions of Latvia, Lithuania, southwest Poland, and it ended with the Red Army halting on the eastern bank of the Vistula opposite Warsaw. The Soviets effectively crushed Army Group Center, advancing up to 4oo miles from their start line in easternmost Belorussia, doing so in just over a month. Their progress was incredible, and left the Red Army within reach of their ultimate target, Berlin.
Though without the major presence of the Western Allies in Western Europe, there never would have been a symbolic embrace between East and West on the river Elbe. It would have created an opportunity to extend Soviet influence from Lisbon to Vladivostok, if Stalin was willing to cut the huge check necessary to achieve it.
With the inability to create a significant Second Front in Western Europe, the situation would have constituted a fundamental strategic shift for Germany with their new found available options to resist the Red Army. Had D-Day failed, it would have likely been the conclusion of the Germans that a similar invasion by the Western Allies would have taken no less than 18 months to remount – IF indeed they ever attempted another invasion again.
Between March 1943 and June 1944, the Wehrmacht stationed between 44 and 60 divisions awaiting to defend the expected Allied invasion of France. As they sat deployed in various locations throughout France and the Benelux nations, they were of absolutely no use anywhere else. If even 50 percent of those divisions had been redeployed to the fight in the East, the cost of Soviet progress would have been staggering. An additional 30 divisions is the equivalent of an entire German Army Group, all of which the Soviets never had to face historically because they were occupied by the successful Allied liberation of France.
Though it is not possible to know that even the addition of fresh resources from the Western European theater that Germany would have been able to conduct a credible, large scale offensive to change their fortunes in the East. Given the manic decision making process of Adolf Hitler, any number of possibilities present themselves whether or not they appear prudent. It is fair, however, to imagine a scenario in which the Germans sought to achieve a stalemate. Without a threat in the West, Germany did not need to win the war outright. Germany simply did not have to lose to ensure their continued existence.
Based on Soviet grand strategy and method of war, it seems unthinkable that Stalin could ever have accepted an end to hostilities that didn’t include the total capitulation of Nazi Germany. Given his overwhelming desire to create a bloc of aligned Communist nations in Eastern Europe to buffer the USSR from another Western invasion, he could never have felt secure under conditions where the German threat remained. Moreover despite the high cost, with the combination of a hostile neighboring Nazi Germany, plus the reward of establishing communism across two continents, as a leader who cared not at all for the lives lost in war – Stalin would never have refused to make whatever sacrifice was necessary to achieve that outcome.
Western Allied Pressures and Options
In addition to US public pressure to increase focus and resources to the war in the Pacific, there would have also likely been a push for an even greater level of Lend-Lease aid provided to the USSR. It would likely be viewed that the valiant Soviet allies were doing almost all of the heavy-lifting to the wars completion, and the US/UK would certainly be compelled to provide all the material support they possibly could. Even surpassing the exceptional amount of Lend-Lease they provided during the actual war.
A New Cold War Hot Spot
At the war’s conclusion, the Allies only predictable holdings on the continent of Europe would have been their occupation of Italy. Given the extreme difficulties and predictable cost of forcing progress through the Alps – their position on the Italian peninsula may have proven fateful and long term. With a new border through portions of northern Italy that meet with newly Communist aligned nations, it may have created a point that constituted an altogether different epicenter of cold-war tension, partitioning Turin instead of Berlin.
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A Nuclear Option That Is Not So Taboo
Throughout the Second World War, the United States and Great Britain collaborated to create the first atomic bombs. In Project Manhattan, the Allied nations recruited scientists to work collaboratively in a secret site in New Mexico, all in hopes of being the first powers to possess the most destructive weapon in history.
There was particular haste for progress because the Germans had perused research to create nuclear weapons themselves through the use of heavy water. While Hitler never pushed the project as he was never convinced of the weapons feasibility, the Americans and British did not know that. Hence they spent over 2 billion US dollars to complete the project.
It is well known that the first two – and only – atomic bombs were dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan in August, 1945. In a world in which the Allies were repelled from Normandy, the likelihood of the war in Europe ending in May 1945 were next to none. Therefore, Nazi Germany would have been the primary target for the newly developed U.S. atomic bombs when they became available in July 1945. Their creation was always intended for use on Germany, but did not occur historically because Nazi surrender occurred two months too soon.
Despite the devastation caused by humanities first strategic nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that even such a weapon would have caused Hitler to surrender. Unlike Emperor Hirohito who surrendered before the major pressures of the atomic bombings and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, Hitler would have cared not at all. Due to his intransigence, the U.S. may have used many more atomic bombs on Germany as they became available.
In an age where no one fully understood the long term dangers of using nuclear weapons, such a situation may have irradiated Europe for generations to come. An even more disturbing possibility is that the bombs continued use may have never lead to the “nuclear taboo,” the guiding belief of all nations that possess nuclear weapons (possibly excluding North Korea) to never use them.
D-Day Success: A Better World
What you have just read is undoubtedly a nightmare scenario in which all of our greatest fears came to pass. It is of course impossible to know exactly what course history may have taken, as the failure of D-Day is a counter-factual. It does however serve to invoke a newfound appreciation for what Operation Overlord really achieved, and more accurately, what it prevented.
Today we all raise our full glasses, with full hearts, to the achievement of those who played a role in one of the most critical events in human history. A military success that was fundamental in creating the world order that has ushered in the longest period of sustained peace between great powers in human history. We may never be able to repay the debt of our dearest blood, but we can honor it every day. As well as indeed taking a deep breadth that only a free people can genuinely appreciate.
Want to learn more about if D-Day failed? Listen to Paul K. DiCostanzo’s D-Day interview on KFAB 1110 with Gary Sadlemyer!
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