Finding Operational Art: The Normandy Breakout

Abstract: What is and is not operational art? That is a mysterious question because the answer is not definitive. Determining what falls into the description of operational art is difficult because even some military education centers are reluctant to take a stance on conclusive examples. Consequently, practitioners must rely on their own interpretation of what exactly constitutes this form of orchestrated warfare, further complicating the matter because operational art as a concrete concept becomes what one makes of it. Therefore, this essay attempts to provide an example of operational art argued through the framework of the Normandy breakout in WWII.

Current Army and Joint doctrine provide varying definitions of operational art.[1] Generally, they agree that the arrangement of tactical actions (for instance synchronized operations) is the way to achieve an overall strategic end or purpose. During WWII, Allied forces led by Dwight Eisenhower, engaged in a multifaceted campaign to liberate Western Europe. The invasion of Normandy initiated operation OVERLORD that comprised numerous subordinate operations from the beach landings to the pursuit of German forces across the Rhine River.[2] As they expanded the lodgment, Allied forces became mired in a stalemate along a line stretching from Caen through St. Lo, France. Not only were they mired tactically in intense, challenging fighting, they were mired operationally in ineffective operational design. Their singular focus on a large-scale frontal attack limited the overall tempo against the German line and limited the Allied ability to seize sufficient initiative. Arguably, the stalemate occurred because Allied forces did not apply operational art to overcome their immediate problems. Only when they applied operational art through operations GOODWOOD and COBRA did the Allied forces successfully break out of the stalemate and break through the German line.[3] GOODWOOD and COBRA complemented each other as arranged tactical actions designed to counter competing operational and mission variables and capitalize on the mysterious elements of chance.[4]

Breakout as Operational Art

GOODWOOD was a shaping operation for COBRA’s decisive action, which was to effect breakout from the stalemate. One way to describe the breakout’s operational approach is to describe it as a three part, fix-and-flank maneuver. First, Montgomery’s British 21st Army would fix German forces along the North/Northeast flank near Caen. Then, Bradley’s 1st Army would penetrate the German defense line along the South/Southwest flank near St. Lo creating a maneuverable gap and more importantly seizing the Allied initiative. Bradley would then transition control of 1st Army to General Hodges and assume command of the 12th Army Group which included Patton’s 3rd Army. Patton would finally exploit the initiative to seize further terrain and destroy the German forces.[5] The arrangement of these tactical operations was the sum operational approach, synthesized through the coordination of GOODWOOD and COBRA.[6]

Carlo D’Este’s account read separately from that of Allan Millet and Peter Maslowski would not lead one to understand the cooperation of planning that took place between the British and American operations. However, Eisenhower’s recollection of the planning indicates a more coordinated, orchestrated plan making the combination of GOODWOOD and COBRA a more representative example of operational art.[7] Eisenhower says “From the beginning it was the conception of Field Marshal Montgomery, Bradley, and myself [sic] that eventually the great movement out of the beachhead would be by an enormous left wheel…”[8] The German forces prevented the initial execution of the wheel by giving stiff resistance creating a stalemate along the Caen-St. Lo line. Thus, the tactical plan required an adjustment. Since frontal attacks by the British 21st Army Group and the American 1st Army provided little to no progress in both terrain and initiative, Allied forces needed to rearrange their tactical actions and even to rearrange their purposes. Therefore, operations GOODWOOD and COBRA reframed the stale frontal attack by creating different conditions with which to “seize, retain, and exploit the initiative and gain a position of relative advantage” against the Germans.[9]  

Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Bradley recognized that by June 23, their anticipated gains, in terms of expanding the lodgment, failed to materialize.[10] The initial tempo that began on June 6 stalled between the third and fourth week as German forces provided greater than expected resistance and circumstances on the ground, namely terrain, slowed the rate of advance. This shift in tempo worried Allied commanders that their operational efforts were reaching a point of culmination.[11] Leading up to the perceived stalemate, Eisenhower hoped Allied forces would pressure the German defenses creating any form of breakout. He said, “We planned, following upon any breakout, to push forward on a broad front, with priority on the left.”[12] Unfortunately, the initial design relied on “any breakout” rather than coordinated efforts to effect breakout.[13]

When Bradley and Montgomery consulted with Eisenhower regarding an impending stalemate, they decided to adjust their planned course of action to overcome the risk that culmination would translate to termination (Figure 1).[14] ADRP 3-0 discusses culmination as an element of both operational design and operational art.[15] Culmination, however, is not termination, another factor of operational design. Eisenhower never intended to terminate prior to crossing the Rhine. However, he did consider that Allied forces had effectively culminated by late June because of the operational variables.[16] ADRP 3-0 notes that when forces culminate they reach a “critical shift in combat power” and must either defend or pause.[17] Therefore, the stalemate inadvertently forced a necessary Allied pause to shift combat power. When they shifted combat power to attempt a large-scale coordinated attack, the Allied advance broke through German defenses. This action ended the stalemate, re-started the Allied operational tempo, and regained the Allied initiative.

Operational Variables

Competing operational variables prevented the Allied frontal attack from successfully advancing beyond the Caen-St. Lo line.[18] As mentioned earlier, terrain conditions slowed the Allied advance more than anticipated because natural barriers, such as hedgerows, created unforeseen movement and maneuver challenges.[19] This was mostly the case for the American front with 1st Army as they eased into the “brocage country.”[20] These hedgerows created an altogether different physical environment than that of the earlier beach landing because fighting dispersed in pockets between hedgerows. This significantly reduced maneuverability, particularly when a unit engaged in fighting needed support from another unit. D’Este argues that “[t]he one major oversight in the pre-OVERLORD planning seems to have been the lack of a suitable terrain study of the Normandy bocage and its implications.”[21] Bradley found he was not only fighting German forces; he was fighting the terrain.[22]

That fight continued to be generally a frontal attack, as was the case along the Allied line with Montgomery’s British forces too. D’Este notes that in order to break through the enemy and terrain defenses, Bradley needed to do something different.[23] Operation COBRA specifically did that. Bradley designated a desicive point. He sought to penetrate a narrow piece of terrain near the St. Lo-Periers road. In doing so, he concentrated his forces to create a breach through the rough terrain and enemy line. His objective was to concentrate on creating a gap that Patton’s 3rd Army could then exploit. Additionally he phased his operation with a preceding aerial bombardment that neutralized enemy forces enabling two divisions to establish the breach lane.[24] When viewed from Eisenhower’s perspective, sequencing the GOODWOOD and COBRA operations and providing resources to support Bradley’s rearrangement of his forces, demonstrates that elements of operational art overcome operational and mission variables.

While Bradley and Montgomery were engaged in a ground fight, a more nuanced political fight took place behind the scenes. A conspicuous element of the political atmosphere emerged in the form of tension between Eisenhower and Churchill specifically and the United States and Great Britain generally. Which operational strategy should Allied forces take following a breakout from the lodgment stalemate? Should they attack directly from landings in France into the heart of Germany, which Eisenhower viewed as tactically more sound? Alternatively, should the Allied forces attack along a circuitous route through the Balkans first then into the heart of Germany, which Churchill favored?[25] Moreover, Churchill placed additional pressure on Eisenhower to quickly achieve breakout results with OVERLORD. He also urged Eisenhower to cancel a secondary Allied landing in Southern France (Operation ANVIL).[26] Eisenhower was reluctant to cancel ANVIL because he viewed it as necessary to shape the eastern flank of the Allied drive following the breakout.[27] Consequently, the debate over ANVIL led to bitter disagreements between Eisenhower and Churchill because the debate tested the viability of a political operation versus a military one.[28]

In an effort to assuage Churchill’s political interests, Eisenhower wrote a carefully worded counterargument. In it, he warned that the line of basing Churchill proposed would over-extend the Allied operational reach, stretching their logistics line of operation beyond effectiveness.[29] Furthermore, Eisenhower reminded Churchill of the effects French resistance forces had and would continue to have in France as long as the objective remained destroying German forces and not an alternative, tangential objective. Finally, he emphasized the importance of all these operations, GOODWOOD, COBRA, ANVIL and reinforcing logistics operations arranged in a manner to achieve tactical successes that fit the overall strategic aim.[30] D’Este’s depiction of the ANVIL debate was more vigorous than that of Eisenhower’s. D’Este argues that the severity of the political tension regarding ANVIL in part reinforced the importance of Eisenhower prioritizing operations within OVERLOR followed by ANVIL which, arguably, added to the overall effectiveness of the entire operational design.[31]

Exploiting Chance

The breakout was neither luck nor a gamble; it was a proper accounting of chance as part of the operational calculus that Clausewitz contends distinguishes the genius of a commander.[32] Although chance is not an element of operational art, it is incorporated into the tenets of unified land operations as adaptability.[33] Two particular examples of adaptability gave the Allied forces an advantage of initiative in part because Eisenhower and Bradley learned from their operational environment and interacted with chance as opportunities rather than vulnerabilities.[34] The first involved the aforementioned hedgerow fighting. The second involved Hitler’s failed counterattack following the breakout.

One of the problems when fighting through the hedgerows occurred when tanks attempted to drive over and through the natural divides. They would drive up the hedgerow berm and expose their vulnerable underbelly to direct enemy fire. Eisenhower also described that “with the tank snout thrust skyward, it was impossible to bring guns to bear upon the enemy (Figure 3).”[35] Eisenhower suggests a young sergeant mitigated this problem by designing a scythe-like apparatus on the front of the tank that cut through the hedgerows and their berms.[36] Adapting to hedgerow operations did not factor into the original offensive plan. It came by chance, through trial and unfortunate error. One might presume that eventually Allied ingenuity would figure out a way to overcome the tank-hedgerow interface, but in a fortunate circumstance of chance, that ingenuity came unprompted. Nevertheless, adapting to the crude but welcome technology lent an additional boost to the ground tempo as Bradley surged through the hedgerows during the breakout.

The other matter of chance occurred after the breakout as Patton’s 3rd Army exploited the breakthrough operation. Hitler ordered his 7th Army to counterattack against the 12th Army Group at Mortain.[37] He hoped to slice through the Allied line of attack, splitting the Alied forces into two separated elements. Unfortunately, the counterattack failed to materialize because Bradley’s reinforcements halted the German advance.[38] This move by Hitler was a major tactical miscalculation and one that Eisenhower fully welcomed.[39] The tactical arrangement of 1st and 3rd Army coupled with Montgomery’s forces in the east enabled the Allied line to absorb the German attack. Furthermore, the German move increased the Allied ground tempo by positioning German forces properly for an Allied encirclement. In what is known as the Falaise Encirclement, a coordinated effort by Patton’s 3rd Army to sweep around the southern flank of the German 7th Army meeting with the Craer’s First Canadian Army at Falaise cut off the German Army in a decisive defeat.[40] Hitler’s mistake gave the Allied forces even more initiative because the coordinated breakout rearranged their operations to afford greater flexibility and capitalize on chance opportunities.[41]

Conclusion

Prior to the Allied breakout in Normandy, Allied forces relied on an operational plan that hoped to break through the German defenses with force. When force resulted in stagnation and little to no further movement beyond the Caen-St Lo line, Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Bradley needed to re-think their course of action. Initial breakout attempts did not resemble effective operational design. Their operations were not coordinated in a shaping-decisive fashion. Their tempo stalled. Operational and mission variables prevented further initiative and even worked to thwart the overall success of OVERLORD’s main objective.[42] When they applied operational art by arranging operations GOODWOOD and COBRA in conjunction with ANVIL, they overcame competing variables. Doing so enabled them to adapt to the opportunities of chance and break through the German line. These adjustments renewed the Allied tempo and initiative achieving a decisive victory.


[1] JP 1-02, ADRP 1-02, ADP 3-0 and ADRP 3-0 define operational art differently.

[2] Although some historians characterize OVERLORD as merely the beach landing operation, the scope of OVERLORD included the whole of liberating Western Europe. See D’Este, p. 68, footnote 68. Additionally see Eisenhower, ch. 13, Planning OVERLORD, pp. 220-252.

[3] While the breakout operations demonstrated many elements of operational art and accounted for most operational variables, the scope of this essay will only deal with a few of the more noteworthy elements.

[4] Clausewitz, pp. 101-102. Additionally, Thucydides and Machiavelli both consider chance (tyche and fortuna respectively) a critical element of clashes of power.

[5] Millet and Maslowski, p. 450.

[6] D’Este, p. 358..

[7] Eisenhower, p. 271.

[8] Eisenhower, p. 266.

[9] ADP 3-0, p. 10.

[10] Eisenhower, p. 266. D’Este accounts for a stalemate closer to D+30, or early July. See D’Este, pp. 321-322. This image of Montgomery, Eisenhower, and Bradley is retrieved from the National Library of Australia at http://nla.gov.au/nla.ms-ms5654-0-1x.

[11] D’Este, p. 321. He notes that Bradley feared a stalemate similar to that of WWI.

[12] Eisenhower, p. 226.

[13] Ibid.

[14] D’Este, p. 334. D’Este implies that Bradley may have spearheaded the initiative leading Montgomery to Eisenhower with ideas for an alternate plan. Eisenhower suggests the adjustment of course was mutually arrived by all three. See Eisenhower, pp. 267-268.

[15] ADRP 3-0, p. 4-3 and 4-8.

[16] Eisenhower, p. 265. Eisenhower refers to the stalemate as temporary indicating he understood a breakout would eventually occur. His greater concern was maintaining sufficient levels of morale to sustain combat actions.

[17] ADRP 3-0, p. 4-8.

[18] ADP 3-0 identifies operational variables, political, military, etc. (PMESII-PT) and mission variables, mission, enemy, etc. (METT-TC) that define the operational environment. See more at ADP 3-0, p. 2.

[19] Millet and Maslowski, p. 449. See also, D’Este, p. 342.

[20] Eisenhower, p. 268.

[21] D’Este, p. 342. He also questions the decisions by American commanders to accept a plan that would place their unit’s movement through such difficult terrain. 

[22] This image of the Contentin peninsula depicting the severity of hedgerows is retrieved from the public domain at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bocage_country_at_Cotentin_Peninsula.jpg

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Eisenhower, pp. 282-284.

[26] D’Este, p. 301. Eisenhower decided not to cancel Operation ANVIL, also named DRAGOON, but he decided to delay since he considered it an integral part of the OVERLORD campaign. See also, Eisenhower, pp. 282-283.  

[27] Eisenhower, pp. 282-283.

[28] D’Este, p. 461.

[29] Eisenhower, p. 282.

[30] Eisenhower, p. 283. Eisenhower does not specifically mention the operations GOODWOOD or COBRA by name in his memoir, but he does refer to ANVIL as DRAGOON in this particular correspondence to Churchill. The implication of Allied actions is obvious he is discussing the GOODWOOD and COBRA operations.

[31] D’Este, p. 462. He cites Sir Edgar Williams as saying, “’Ike insisted on carrying on with ANVIL simply because he realized it was the only way of absolutely guaranteeing the priority of that [GOODWOOD] campaign.’”

[32] Clausewitz, p. 100.

[33] ADP 3-0, p. 8.

[34] ADP 3-0 discusses adaptability as an interactive process that commanders do as they learn about conditions in their operational environment. Doing so enables the commander to adapt to circumstances and adjust to them to exploit their nature and seize further initiative.

[35] Eisenhower, p. 268. The image of a Rhino tank is retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sherman_Rhino_Normandy_1944.JPG

[36] Eisenhower, p. 269. He attributes the design to Sergeant Culin. The image of hedgerow cutters is retrieved from the Center of Military History online book, The Ordnance Department: On Beachhead and Battlefront, p. 253, by Lida Mayo, available to the public at  http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/Beachhd_Btlefrnt/OD14.htm.

[37] D’Este, p. 418.

[38] D’Este, p. 419.

[39] Eisenhower, p. 291. He says they “grasped eagerly at the opportunity to swing in from the south.”

[40] D’Este, p. 431. See also Eisenhower, pp. 277-279.

[41] D’Este considers Hitler’s move a blunder. The point is that it was an unanticipated chance decision that favored the Alllied commanders.

[42] Referring back to D’Este, OVERLORD intended to liberate Western Europe.

 

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Comments

Maps would be much appreciated.

I think it's pretty generous to term Goodwood as a shaping operation. Much of the sources I've seen on Goodwood point to Montgomery's intent to breakthrough into the better tank country south of Caen so his three Armoured Divisions could "crack about as required". Montgomery was still the ground force commander at this point and his ego drove him to seek decision on the eastern end of the theater, despite (if I recall correctly) post-war statements that it was all part of a grand plan.