Studying the Normandy Campaign and the Battle of the Bulge in Europe
In my paper, I explained this failure by pointing to the dramatic changes in armored vehicle technology, military organization, and anti-tank weaponry that occurred between 1941 and 1944. These changes rendered American tank destroyer doctrine obsolete by the time U.S. forces decisively engaged the German Army in 1944. After writing my paper, I applied for a summer grant to go to Europe in order to study the Normandy Campaign and the Battle of the Bulge, which I viewed as the critical (dis)proving grounds of American tank destroyer doctrine. By studying these battles on the ground, I hoped to either further validate my argument or find reason to reassess it.
With this goal in mind, I organized my trip in two parts: the first focused on the Normandy Campaign and the second focused on the Battle of the Bulge. The Normandy portion began in Paris, where I spent hours at the French Army’s museum, the Hôtel National des Invalides. Following Paris, I traveled to the Normandy coastline, where I toured all five Allied D-Day invasion beaches as well as the paratrooper drop zones. Following this focus on the initial landings, I conducted a staff ride of OPERATOON COBRA, the American offensive which largely destroyed the German Army in Normandy. This staff ride focused heavily on the initial breakout at St. Lo and Avranches, the German counteroffensive at Mortain, and the sealing of the Falaise Gap just north of Argentan.
The Battle of the Bulge portion of the tour started in Brussels, where I visited the Belgian military museum and admired their collection of WWII tanks and armored vehicles, many of which played critical roles in the fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Afterward, I traveled to Bastogne, where a local Belgian veteran, who had witnessed the Battle of the Bulge as a child, took me on a two-day tour covering the major points and events of the battle. This tour culminated with a staff ride of Kampgruppe Peiper’s attempted breakout north of St. Vith.
I recognized that studying the battles as an academic endeavor might desensitize me to the horrific suffering and brutal combat that occurred. For this reason, I made it a priority to visit the cemeteries of all warring sides in order to physically see the cost in young, human lives that each battle generated. For the same reason, I also ended my trip in Berlin in order to visit the Gestapo Headquarters and Holocaust Memorials; these memorials confronted the losses of the Normandy Campaign and the Battle of the Bulge with the terrifying necessity of war with Nazi Germany.
How Did I Come Up With My Project?
From a social science perspective, I decided to conduct a hoop test of the tank destroyer doctrine based on case studies. In Layman’s terms, I decided to test the doctrine under the conditions for which it had been explicitly designed and under which it should perform optimally. As the doctrine expected to use a massed, theater-level reserve of tank destroyers to counter German armored attacks at the operational level, I restricted my case studies to examples when German armored formations of corps-size or larger launched attacks against U.S. forces; I ignored all instances in which tank destroyers were used in ways inimical to doctrine, such as in infantry support roles.
My survey of WWII yielded three case studies. At Kasserine Pass in Tunisia and Mortain in Normandy, the German Army attacked U.S. forces with four panzer (armored) divisions spearheading an operational-level breakout. In the Battle of the Bulge, two panzer armies spearheaded a deep lunge to the Atlantic coast. As the U.S. won all three engagements, I did not simply measure if the U.S. won the battle. Rather, I investigated each case to see if concentrated tank destroyers succeeded in destroying the German armored attacks. In each case, I found that the German armored forces were largely stopped by U.S. infantry and artillery, supported by air power, tanks, and tank destroyers. Thus, tank destroyers cannot be said to have completed their mission. Rather, they acted as supporting units to other combat arms which proved to be the decisive elements. In fact, at Mortain, tank destroyers were largely irrelevant to the outcome of the battle, which depended largely on U.S. infantry and artillery backed by elements of a single U.S. armored division. Thus, I concluded the doctrine ultimately failed.
This judgement came from the observations of others. While I used a combination of primary and secondary source material, I had no first-hand knowledge of the vehicles, forces, or the battlefields on which they fought. I sought to remedy this situation by traveling to Normandy and the Ardennes (the region in Belgium in which the Battle of the Bulge occurred) in order to personally view the terrain, road networks, and weather in order to get a better understanding of the variables at play in these engagements. I also searched for surviving vehicles from the engagements to get a better understanding of their limitations and capabilities.
Why Did I Chose These Particular Countries?
I chose Normandy and the Ardennes for a number of pragmatic reasons. First, travel to Kasserine Pass in Tunisia was significantly more difficult, more expensive, and more dangerous. I also found it easier to rent a car in France and Belgium, although I did learn rather belatedly that turning right on a red light in Belgium is illegal. The most important consideration, however, was that I did not simply want to stand on a piece of land where a poor young soldier had died. Rather, I intended to gain a historical and academic understanding of what had transpired and why. In that regard, France and Belgium were ideal. The Normandy region is full of museums and preserved artifacts and, just as importantly, there is a cottage industry of small touring companies that hire historians with knowledge of the battle and of historic locations. As a result, I was fortunate enough to get guided tours of the Normandy landing beaches by historians who could point to specific places and artifacts and also explain their significance. In addition, the French government has maintained signposts and even an app service that allows enthusiasts to conduct staff rides of famous battles.
Belgium had less of a historical infrastructure, but there were still notable historians in the area willing to give a tour. In addition, the region sported a substantial number of museums and artifacts from the battle. In my case, I was fortunate enough to receive a tour of the battlefield by a retired
What was the biggest lesson you took away from this experience?
This experience largely confirmed my previous hypothesis. In order to spare the reader greater detail on the operational-level employment of tank destroyers, I will focus on two things I learned purely from my staff rides in Normandy and the Ardennes, which relate to the tactical-level employment of tank destroyers. At this level, tank destroyers were expected to ambush German tanks from concealed positions and then displace to another concealed firing position. This was the famous “shoot ‘n scoot” tactical doctrine. This doctrine was aided by the speed and firepower of the tank destroyers but also necessitated by their light armor.
My first observation, as I learned trying to navigate on the battlefields, was that control of and access to the road networks were crucial for both sides during the two battles. Road junctions such as Avranches in Normandy and Bastogne in the Ardennes were critical objectives without which it would have been impossible to move supplies and non-tracked vehicles. Moreover, the ground in the Ardennes was and is especially soggy, meaning that heavy fighting vehicles driving off of well-traveled roads were and are liable to become immobilized in mud. Thus, control of roads enabled movement while roadblocks could forestall it. In these situations, tank destroyers needed to stand and fight in order to control specific road junctions. If cover was lacking, the vehicles would simply have to fight in the open. In many instances, such as at Noville during the Battle of the Bulge, tank destroyers had to conduct a stand-up fight in which their thin armor was a critical failing.
Second, the terrain in Normandy and in the Ardennes could be a double-edged sword for tank destroyer units. In contrast to North Africa, where it has been reported that tank destroyers suffered from a lack of cover and concealment, Normandy and the Ardennes had plenty of favorable terrain. In many instances, this abundance of cover and concealment aided tank destroyers. For example, tank destroyers hidden in a forest managed to ambush and severely maul a German tank unit pushing toward the 101st Airborne Division headquarters.
That said, cover and concealment worked both ways. In the bocage in Normandy and the forest roads of the Ardennes, tank destroyers could easily find cover. However, displacement after firing could be heavily obstructed, as American forces were frequently canalized along the roads. In addition, limited visibility produced by such terrain could enable surprise German attacks just as much as American ambushes. Without heavy armor, tank destroyers found themselves in very dangerous situations as they were forced by limited visibility and road restrictions to engage German armor at close range where maneuver was difficult.
The grant offered by the SSP was a unique opportunity. It not only provided access to valuable data for my research, but it also enabled me to take a subject from class and make it come alive. It was an amazing experience to walk along roads and visit locations that I had read and studied about. I highly recommend the program and would encourage all SSP students to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity.