The Swimming Shermans Of Omaha Beach.
If there is one thing that was learned in the First World War, it was that armoured support for infantry made for far fewer casualties. Not only were the tanks able to engage the enemy, they also provided moving cover for the infantrymen.
You can imagine that this was a consideration when planning the invasion of Europe in 1944. It was decided to land in Normandy rather than the more obvious Pas de Calais, which is a mere 20 miles from Britain. The long, flat beaches of Normandy are a feature of low tide and allow the infantryman no cover. This would mean that without armoured support, the infantry would be annihilated. Indeed, later at Bastogne in the Ardennes, German infantry would suffer the same fate because of this lack.
British Inventiveness To The Rescue.
It was the British – what is it about the British character that is so inventive? – who dreamed up the daft idea of making a tank that swims. The idea of floating fifty tons of metal to most casual observers was frankly absurd. Well, again, the British excel at the absurd, and in a rare few cases, actually provide something genuinely useful.
The swimming tank being one of them. It was in 1942 that experiments were made with the Valentine tank, which worked well. Only on realizing that this machine was outmoded, the British turned their eyes on the American M4 Sherman. The result was a tank with propellers and a canvas flotation skirt that would keep it afloat in calm weather. With this, it could make its way to shore independently of any bulky landing craft that would be an easy target for the enemy. What’s more, drop the skirt and the tank is ready to fire.
Once the machines had been converted, it was possible for the crews to practice in the run-up to the D-Day landings. It was made clear that the vehicles had a serious shortcoming: they could only operate in calm weather. Were they swamped, as happened in a few occasions during practice, the tank would sink like a stone.
Americans Are Best.
Now it has to be emphasized that this was a British invention. The Americans don’t usually take the British seriously, for the very good reason that the Americans do everything better. Bigger country, bigger industries, you name it. In the American mind, everything that was good about Britain was brought to it from the new world.
You can imagine that the British self-denigrating humour that named the experimental equipment “The Funnies” only made the American’s eyes roll. They don’t understand the British style of humour that gives the nickname ‘Lofty’ to a man standing four foot six. The Funnies were anything but funny. American humour needs to be direct and to the point; but that’s why they’re not inventive and the British are.
The tanks just looked stupid, and to the mind of an American where everything needs to look the same, they just didn’t fit in.
That didn’t mean they weren’t useful, it did mean that the American mind found them a little difficult to accept. Add to which they weren’t American either. Only American is best for the American, and by extension, everybody else. As a side-note, when this kind of thinking is forced on Russia, the only way for an American to accept that the Russians are better is for the Americans to get a nastily broken nose. Even then, it’s someone else’s fault.
It was this attitude of “we’re the best” that took the Americans to the shores of France in early June of 1944. The other side of this kind of thinking leads directly to one rather dangerous phenomenon: a disregard for the immediate circumstances a person finds themselves in. This is fine in an officer in a modern army, just as long as you’re facing someone armed with the modern equivalent of a musket. As they did in Afghanistan. Face your equal, and you are in for trouble, because if those immediate circumstances are against you, you may find yourself forced onto the back foot.
Obeying Orders: Omaha Beach, 0630 Hours.
So the gun-ho Americans piled into their landing at Omaha Beach. Now, as any person who has seen the documentaries, the landing was supposed to be the day before. Only the weather was too stormy. As is usual with a stormy depression, there is an area of calmer weather that allows for a ‘window’. This was what was forecast for the 6th of June.
So here we are, just after dawn, and four miles out to sea. The officers have their orders and the ramps of the landing craft are lowered and the Swimming Shermans are let loose on the world.
In a five foot swell.
With equipment that couldn’t cope with two.
The American officers were obeying their orders to the letter. A moot point is that they were doing the very thing that they were fighting a war to free themselves from! But that’s America for you…
The tanks were swamped and sank like stones. All of them. The result was that there was barely any armoured support for the infantrymen on Omaha beach. The resulting casualties were in the thousands.
Sword Beach, 07:30hrs.
The British didn’t obey orders in the way the American military did. They looked at the immediate conditions and realized that their orders – which had probably been written weeks ago – had assumed the calm weather necessary for such a landing. Instead, they took a risk both with their careers and their landing craft – which would form a bigger target for the enemy.
As luck would have it, nobody noticed. Years after the invasion, a German soldier remembered a tank “rolling towards us, from a direction in which we had not even suspected the presence of the enemy.”(1) The tanks managed to paddle their way to shore with the result that casualties on Sword Beach were around 650.
What Are You Fighting For?
If a person is fighting for freedom, yet is behaving in precisely the way their enemy was supposed to be behaving… one has to ask if they are deluded. I want to add here that German generals like Erwin Rommel were men who thought of their soldiers just as much as they thought of their leader. This quality of thinking led the German army to put up a resistance that was out of proportion to their strength.His son Manfred, who I knew personally, had the same gritty qualities.
If one is to punch above one’s weight, one really has to put one’s thinking cap on. There was a joke in the British army that the best army in the world would have German officers and British sergeants.
It’s not just a matter of carrying a bigger club in the way the Americans thought. Because without that armoured support, the infantry were sitting ducks. Machine guns are designed to kill lots of soldiers, and that is exactly what they did on Omaha beach.
It needn’t have been so: the American officers behaved like Nazis… that is to say, they obeyed orders as though they had been handed down by a god. Had they disobeyed orders, they would have saved a good many lives.
Please remember that after the war, the Americans formed the Hague Convention that states that a soldier can disobey orders if it is morally appropriate. They forced this on a country that had little need of it, if generals like Rommel were in command. The Americans forced this on those who had capitulated.
They would have served their soldiers better had they swallowed this bitter pill themselves.
(1) A more detailed account of the landings can be found here