Rivalry at Normandy, or a poor grasp of history?

Here’s a rather stunningly stupid article at NRO, by the usually bright W. Thomas Smith, Jr.

Sixty-years-ago, along a 60-mile stretch of France’s Normandy coastline, a combined force of American, British, and Canadian soldiers began streaming ashore as German artillery, mortar, machine-gun, and rifle fire ripped into their ranks. The mission of the Allied force was to kick down the door of Nazi Germany’s Fortress Europe, and then launch a drive toward the heart of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

Overseen by American Gen. Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, the operation was–and remains to this day–the largest amphibious assault in history.

Since then, the question has often been raised as to why the U.S. Marine Corps did not play a leading role in the landings. After all, the Corps’s raison d’être was amphibious warfare. Marines had been perfecting the art of the amphibious assault since the 1920’s, and between 1942 and 1944, they had put their skills to practical use at places like Guadalcanal, Makin, Bougainville, and Tarawa, in the Pacific.

In the Atlantic, Marines had trained Army forces for seaborne landings prior to the North African campaign in 1942, and then made landings during the same. Marines trained Army forces for the Sicilian-Italian landings in 1943. Marine Corps amphibious experts were on Ike’s staff. And most Normandy-bound Army units were in fact instructed by Marines prior to the 1944 invasion.

I’ve written extensively about Army amphibious operations. And I left  a reply, but as NRO frequently seems to not post my comments, I’ve copied it here for your edification.

Your column overlooks the enormous effort the Army put into amphibious training prior to and during World War II, and implies that the Army had no previous experience with amphibious operations.

The very first pre-war efforts to establish a large scale amphibious capability was a joint effort between the Army and the Marines with Navy oversight. Far from being led by the hand by the Marines, the Army was an equal partner in developing the doctrine, techniques, equipment and training for amphibious operations. It can easily be argued that the Marines would never have acquired their amphibious ability without Army efforts.

Further, rather than petty inter-service rivalry being the reason Marines weren’t used at Normandy, there were vast operational and strategic reasons the Army was the sole force. In the Pacific (where a heck of a lot more Army soldiers made amphibious landings than Marines, by the way), most objectives in the Central Pacific were discrete islands that called for an opposed landing, followed by a relatively brief fight, and then exploitation of the island as an advanced base.

In Europe, landings were only the opening of an area as a theater of operations, a means to introduce forces into what then became a conventional ground battle. The Army had to develop (in cooperation with the Navy and our allies) the means to not merely land combat echelons, but also the vast logistical tail that permitted operations on a large scale. The Marines rarely faced the challenge of landings larger than division, or at most, corps sized elements. And I’d argue that when they did operate at corps or higher echelons, the Marines history led them to be less than successful, whereas the Army was better prepared for large scale operations.

Now, I’m not knockin’ the Marines. Heck, I’ve invited not one, but TWO of them to write here (though one of them has seen the light and joined the Army via the National Guard). I am, however, knocking the PR machine that always seems to find the Marines to have been slighted.

19 thoughts on “Rivalry at Normandy, or a poor grasp of history?”

  1. One of the commenters at the blog I write at mentioned this article as well. I remarked, “leave it to a Marine to turn a story about the Normandy invasion into a story about Marines.” The story was also full of conjecture and short on actual fact. As individuals I know many Marines and they are all wonderful people, the problem occurs when they start believing their own PR. 🙂

  2. I like to see pompous inter service rivalry bashed on the head, good post.

    Just to add, D Day really was a joint effort, not just joint between the UK, USA and Canada, but joint across the three services and numerous civilian organisations as well.

    A superb display of coordination with everyone pulling in the same direction.

    Of course there were disagreements and a spot of politicking but could we really have expected anything else, the end result was a stunning success though.

    It would be interesting to ask what would have been different had the USMC played a greater role instead of complaining about not being invited. The only thing that springs to mind that could have (with hindsight) been done differently by US forces was to use more armoured combat engineering resource but not sure the USMC would have influenced that one way or the other.

    Oh, cheers for the plug the other day on your post about ISO containers 🙂

    1. Any complaints about the USMC not being invited are decades ex post facto.

  3. “The question has often been raised…”

    It has? Having done my share of poking around the historical accounts of amphibious operations during World War II, I have only heard it asked by those who don’t really have a solid grasp of history.

    The Marines were kinda busy at the time, landing on Saipan, and Guam, and preparing for Peleliu.

    Even if Army sensitivities were true regarding the landing of fewer than 100 Marines from USS Texas, this was in the middle of a landing that put 134,000 men ashore on the first day. And, professional as they may have been, ship’s company Marines from USS Texas had not trained as understudies to the Rangers in any case, who, themselves had trained for the mission for weeks.

    As for the Marines’ PR machine, we are still in existence because of it. See: Johnston, Louis, and Truman, Harry.

    Hataz gunna hate, yo. Don’t hate da playa, hate da game, yo.

    1. “The Marines were kinda busy at the time, landing on Saipan, and Guam, and preparing for Peleliu.”

      Yea, and the Army was kinda busy at the same time making landings at places like Makin, Kwajalein, Hollandia, Biak, Noemfoor, Sansapor, Leyte Gulf….. Indeed one gets the notion that the Army may have conducted more amphib operations during World War II than the Marines have in their entire, laudable, history.

  4. The problem was looking at Normandy is this, this was not a single operation. Actually, Normandy was the end result of many operations. There were many things that needed to be done for preparation and these were done for many reasons. Rommel believed 2 things, the 1st was the attack was going to come from Calais and 2nd was that George Patton would lead. Therefore, Eisenhower fed these beliefs with a complete fake army with George Patton in command. This is why Rommel felt comfortable going home just before the attack. Patton’s command had a whole section with the objective of supplying him with fake orders. By the way, copies of these fake orders, “just happened to fall in the hands of the Nazi spies.”

    It is important to understand the context of this event. While working with the actual Normandy invasion, there were many issues that needed to be resolved and they were. I will not go into those details. But there was also all of the same actions for an attack on Germany from many different places on their border. They were moving on the principle of a “house–divided will fall”

    Crazyhorse13, I think you really put your finger right on the center of the issue, as you write, “the problem occurs when they start believing their own PR :-).” I also agree that the overwhelming number of our Marine Corps are great people.

    To all: WELL DONE!

  5. Craig,
    Relax. I am well aware of those Army landings in the Pacific. Believe me. My point was that at the time, the USMC had four divisions in the fight, with two on the way. The Army had almost 90. It would stand to reason that the Army made a lot more landings.

    1. Most of the lack of public awareness of Army operations in the Pacific is the Army’s own fault. First, the campaign in Europe was the main effort, and so got the lion’s share of publicity. Second, Perrett does a fine job of explaining why MacArthur insisted the theater’s spotlight shine on him, and not the operations as a whole.

      Having said that, in the modern era, no service comes remotely close to the Marines as a PR machine.

    2. And further, my post was in no way an indictment of the Marines, but rather of cheerleaders for them who should know better. URR doesn’t fall in that category. He’s downright modest by most Marine standards. He hasn’t even tried to add an EGA to the graphics here!

  6. As a side note, Craig, I knew a participant in the landings at Noemfoor, Tanamerah Bay, Humboldt Bay (Hollandia), Wakde, Biak, Cape Gloucester, Arawe, Los Negros, and a bunch of other places.

    They were markedly different from the drive across the Central Pacific.

    1. On the other hand, it might make for a Survivor series I’d actually watch.

  7. W. Thomas Smith has a reputation for being somewhat, er, “factually challenged.” He was fired by NRO years ago for basically making up a story about Hizballah out of whole cloth and reporting it as if he was there. I’d take anything he writes with a rather large grain of salt. (Note, also, that this article in question was written eight years ago).

  8. I’m not surprised they wouldn’t post you comment Brad. NRO is an interwebz neocon rag and often not worth reading. Since Buckley acquired mild dementia, NR and NRO are pretty much worthless. Anyone that would publish Jonah Goldberg regularly is suspect, at the least.

  9. This reminds me of an article written in PC Gamer magazine back in 2000. This neckbeard writes that US forces in the Philippines should not have been defeated in WII. He added that Japanese army was “weakly armed, slow and rickety”. The a veteran of the Bataan Death March and his son e-mailed the magazine to set him straight. It was an epic beatdown. The neckbeard left the magazine almost a year later IIRC.

    For every reporter in the MSM and most newsstand magazines, if it’s big and green it’s a tank. If it flies it’s a warplane. Not surprised by NRO, but they should be ashamed of themselves.

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