14 Feb 20

Many of us have read and probably retained at least one book about the Allies’ audacious operation to invade Northern Europe in 1944, OVERLORD. David Abrutat’s offering, in this 75th anniversary year of the landings, is quite different. Drawing upon Allied and German historical references, he has sought to describe in great detail how comprehensive and daring the reconnaissance and intelligence preparations were ahead of the decisive amphibious operation. The quality of Abrutat’s research is impressive. Much of the subject matter has undoubtedly been told before, but possibly not so definitively from this perspective.

Vanguard charts the establishment of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force Europe (SHAEF) through to the breakout from Normandy. The author highlights the fundamental role Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan played as Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC) during the initial phases of planning in 1943. Morgan understood well the need for all source intelligence collection, compilation, fusion, and analysis on a scale hitherto unseen. Moreover, he recognised and instilled in his subordinates from the outset the immutable requirement for operational security. SHAEF G2 drew upon a variety of disparate intelligence sources, ranging from discrete ULTRA signals intelligence and French Resistance reports, to the seemingly innocuous Inter-Services Topographical Department at Oxford University. The staff sought to afford the Commander, Eisenhower, the best possible intelligence appreciation ahead of the assault and in the initial phases of the subsequent campaign in Northern France. In an era which preceded ‘Jointery’, satellite imagery, and other capabilities which we now take for granted, the risks underwritten by British and American forces, and French resistance operatives are difficult to comprehend. The command’s tolerance of casualties to obtain crucial elements of intelligence, such as the capture of the German air search radar components at Bruneval, is a sobering reminder of the cost and consequence of total war.  Where possible guile, subterfuge, and innovation were used to derive insight and to mitigate operational risk. The remarkable story of a French painter and decorator, Rene Duchez, who stole the German’s TOP SECRET plans for the Atlantic Wall from the offices of the Organisation Todt in Caen and smuggled them to Britain in a biscuit tin on a fishing vessel, is but one example. The conditions for Allied operational success in Normandy were established long before the 6th of June.

The advance force and intelligence preparations ahead of Operation OVERLORD, were hugely impressive, and too numerous to precis in a short book review, but hopefully this has whetted your appetite. I commend David Abrutat’s book to those who have a keen interest in the subject matter. As with those who prepared for D-Day, he has clearly invested a great deal of time and effort in his research. I would, however, caution that is not an easy narrative read, but it is difficult to put down when you get into your stride.