Map of Normandy 1944

The manner of strategy

By Iona Joy 13 September 2013

The Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day in June 1944 has to be one of the most complex and ambitious military events ever planned and executed. I’ve just finished ‘The manner of men’, by Helmand veteran Colonel Stuart Tootal OBE DSO, which relates how the 9th Parachute Battalion disabled the Merville Battery in the hours before D-Day. Charities don’t generally face such life and death situations, but the example provides valuable lessons on the elements involved in creating a successful strategy. The Merville Battery was a very large German gun threatening Sword Beach, one of the beaches where the Normandy landings were to take place. A fully-functioning Battery would have compromised the success of the invasion by slaughtering any man landing on Sword. So disabling the gun was seen as critical to the landings’ success.

9 Para’s action was very nearly a disaster. There were flaws in its planning and major snafus in  execution. The paratroopers were dropped in the wrong place—many drowned when they landed in fields flooded defensively by the Germans, encumbered with pounds and pounds of kit. Others couldn’t locate their rendezvous points and were captured. Almost all the kit went missing, leaving paratroopers without radios, explosives, beacons for the gliders that were to join them, or medical supplies. Only 150 men, out of the original 600 that left England, made it to the Battery. And of those, only 75 survived this and subsequent encounters. The extraordinarily brave actions of this minority, many fighting with serious wounds, saved the day and put the Battery out of action long enough for the landings to take place.

So what had gone wrong? Reading the book I was struck by the complexity of the plan, and its rigidity. Rehearsed over and over again on a Berkshire hill, the plan’s intricacies needed perfect interaction in order to succeed. Everything focused on what was to happen upon landing. No alternative scenarios were contemplated, let alone rehearsed. But when the troops got there, 60% of the plan was irrelevant—the men simply  weren’t there to execute it.

I was also struck by the vast quantities of baggage they were to take with them. When it came to the night, a lot of this got in the way, hampering speedy jumping, and injuring troops. And in the end they had to do the job without most of the kit anyway.

The pilots were inexperienced and under-rehearsed, and had to cope with last-minute changes to aircraft design. Their training had not prepared them for the reality of enemy fire, and this distracted them from the drop zones. Yet wasn’t  perfect execution of the actual drop a critical element to success?

Fortunately the rigorously selected and trained paratroopers were armed with huge reserves of initiative and resilience. This enabled them to adapt the plan on the spot, and carry the day against the odds.

So, following on from Rob’s blog about what a strategy actually is and how you begin to approach one, this example offers the following lessons:

  • Keep it simple: too much detail is distracting
  • Focus on the elements critical to success
  • Keep it flexible and prepare for the unexpected
  • Consider different scenarios
  • Don’t weigh yourself down with non-essentials: they can become obstacles
  • Ensure external parties essential to your plan can deliver
  • Find the best people and give them the tools to succeed.

It was this last element—the men—that salvaged success at Merville Battery. Getting the other elements wrong cost many lives.