Monday, November 1, 2010
On March 20, 1941, Operation Overlord was initiated, when one hundred thousand soldiers, under the command of General Eisenhower, landed on the Gulf Coast between Mobile and Tallahassee. The primary objective of Overlord was to secure the ports of Pensacola and Mobile, to allow addition forces to land. After the cities fell, a week into the fight, a rapid advance on Confederate Highway 10 to Jacksonville succeeded in cutting Florida off from the rest of the nation. The genesis of Operation Overlord came at the very start of the war, when Confederate General George Patton was tearing up the Maryland countryside. To turn the tide, the Joint Chiefs believed that a second front must be established far to the south of Patton.
The choice for the Gulf Coast was not the most obvious choice. Hitting the Carolinas from bases in the Bahamas would have had the same effect. However, such an attack was obvious, and defenses were far more formidable. The option to strike at the ‘Soft Underbelly of the Confederacy’ was made in June of 1940, and planning the invasion would fall to a Brigadier General named Dwight Eisenhower. At the time, Ike, as he is affectionately known, was rushing to Cuba to bolster defenses there and to defeat Holland Smith’s invasion force. Once Cuba was freed from Confederate occupation, addition American forces were funneled down south.
At first, it was not known if such an invasion would be needed. After the Battle of Gettysburg, Patton’s army was in a slow but steady retreat. The Americans would win the war, it was only a matter of time. But with war raging in Europe and the Pacific, President Roosevelt demanded the Confederates be beaten for good, and as expediently as possible. By January of 1941, the 101st Airborne Division (the famous Warbling Turkeys) along with 17th, 21st, and 8th Infantry Divisions had already joined the 2nd Marine Division in training for the amphibious invasion. Ike chose Pensacola as a primary objective because of its port facilities, as well as Mobile because of the Confederate Navy’s remaining assets holed up there. Southern Florida was out of the question, since it was mostly uninhabited, and New Orleans was too far of a stretch to risk a cut supply line.
The invasion port departed from Havana on March 17. With one hundred thousand soldiers and their transports came seven battleships, three carriers, sixteen cruisers and thirty destroyers, plus hundreds of frigates, corvettes, mind sweepers and other auxiliary craft. On the night of March 19, the 101st took off from airbases in Cuba and were dropped behind the invasion beaches in southern Florida and Alabama. Their goal was to secure several key points on Confederate Highway 10, and to prevent Confederate reinforcements from hampering the landings.
Reaching the coast was the easy part, and the transports had total surprise on their side. Blackouts were only imposed in the two cities and all along the coast. Twenty kilometers in land, and there might as well not even be a war waging. Confederate AAA was slow in catching on, but fifteen minutes after the first paratroopers had landed, the sky was aflame with flak and tracers. Many transports were too badly damaged to return to Cuba, and a few even managed to land on the highway.
The invasion struck the Confederacy as a total surprise. No Confederate plans ever existed to battle an invasion of their Gulf Coast. Apparently the Bund believed their navy would thwart any such attempt. When the fleet came within range of the coast at 0300 on March 20, they let loose a bombardment that lasted for three hours. The three carriers, Valcour Bay, Lexington and Yorktown provided sufficient combat air patrols to thwart the few Confederate bombers that tried to hamper the invasion. Battleships California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Utah, Idaho, Lakoda and Indiana ceased firing at 0600. They would remain with the rest of the fleet to provide artillery support for the invasion.
At 0600, three division set out to their respective beaches. The 21st Division landed on the western most beach, code-named Coffee, and began their drive towards Mobile with minimal resistance. On the middle beach, code-named Cocoa, the 17th Division met serious resistance along the beaches from a few Confederate Marine units, as well as local wielding hunting rifles. Various local private militias went out to meet the 17th on Cocoa Beach. Out of the five thousand that did, only seven survived. The eastern most beach, code-named Sugar, was taken by the 2nd Marine Division and secured after an hour of fighting local militia. The Marines marched largely unopposed towards Pensacola. The 8th Division was held in reserved, and released at 1100 to Cocoa Beach.
By the next day, all three beaches were secure, and the infantry were moving towards their objectives. The 8th gave aid to the Marines in taking Pensacola, which fell on March 26. The 101st and 17th pushed towards Mobile, which fell a day earlier than Pensacola, but at a much higher cost in men. The USN moved its fleet towards Mobile once the beaches were secure, leaving behind a screening force to defend the beachheads. The battleships of the USN pounded the city, the harbor and what remained of the Confederate Navy from March 22 to 24. Units of the Iroquois Regiment of the 101st captured the Confederate Naval Academy in the late morning hours of March 23, tearing down the Confederate flag and raising Old Glory over the academy. The students put up a valiant effort to defend, but after two hours of fierce fighting, the Commandant decided to spare his students and surrendered the academy.
On March 30, reinforcements over Infantry, Armored and Artillery began disembarking at the two ports. This second front hastened the fall of the Confederacy, but more over taught the Americans about how to operate an amphibious invasion. These same lessons would be used again by Eisenhower during the invasion of North Africa, Spain and of Fortress Europe. Marine Corps landings would be used as template for their amphibious operations against the Japanese. In the eyes of the Marines, the Japanese would put up far fiercer resistance than did the Confederates on March 20, 1941.
Operation Undertaker, the diversionary plan for Overlord, was stationed in the Bahamas. During the winter of 1940-41, the United States Navy and Marine Corp built up a large force in the Bahamas in plain sight of the Confederates. Confederate President Bedford believed that this invasion force would strike somewhere in Georgia or the Carolinas. So well was this deception that critical units were moved to Georgia and South Carolina that could have been in the Florida panhandle to thwart Eisenhower and Overlord. Carrier raids from the Bahamas added to the deception. Both carrier-borne and land-based bombers began to strike at Savannah, Georgia starting on February 28, 1941, almost a month before Overlord. The systematic destruction of Savannah’s defenses made some in the American War Department wonder if they could land there. However, nearly one hundred thousand Confederate soldiers based around the city for fifty kilometers north and south, was a prime reason why not. American loses in Undertaker were high, but it is believed these deaths saved more lives and made Overlord such a smashing success. Even after Overlord’s invasion force hit the Gulf Coast, Bedford was hesitant to move forces from the Georgian Coast, and did not do so until March 24.