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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

D-Day: Planning, Chaos and the Human Decision Maker

I was reading this old Atlantic piece by WW2 army combat historian S. L. A. Marshall, in which he recounts the fates of several of the hardest hit companies that landed on Omaha Beach 73 years ago today.

D-Day is a fascinating intersection of complex, detailed planning and completely unpredictable, seemingly chaos-driven, human choices and experiences. Massive amounts of planning, logistics, and training went into getting the American, British, and Canadian troops to the Normandy beaches, delivering them in effective landing craft and providing them with the necessary equipment. The attack plans, the naval bombardment, the areal bombardment, the parachute drops-- all were meticulously planned.

And yet the story of many of the units which went ashore is one of chaos: Boats foundering, boats landing in the wrong place, men drowning or wounded in the water.

The breakthroughs off the beach are seemingly a combination of unbelievable courage and complete chance. Many brave men full of initiative were killed without any chance to lead up and off the beach. Others escaped horrendous fire by seemingly random chance and led the way inland.

Those who trained the men in the first waves might have had a good idea which men had the most leadership and courage, but they had no way of knowing which would have the opportunity to use those skills.

Does this mean the work of the planners and trainers was all for naught? Was the operation really simply a matter of chaos and chance? Was it the sort of battle in which the work of the staff and logistics officers were useless while the day was won by the bravery of individual grunts, NCOs, and junior officers?

The answer is that all elements were essential to the success: the grunts, the planners, the supply lines, and a dose of luck.

The planners could not have known which men would have the chance to make it through the storm of fire on the beaches, but they were responsible for getting enough men there, on time and with the right equipment, so that whoever did have the opportunity to lead men off the beach would be able to do so. The plans for a huge operation such as this can seem mechanistic: put all the pieces in place and expect them to move through the planned motions like pieces on a game board. However, these are thinking pieces, responding to the situations they face with fear, bravery, leadership, or paralysis. At each individual point, the success or failure of the attack was the result of the very individual actions and reactions of the Allied attackers and German defenders. And yet it took incredible planning to put all those men there, with the confidence that in the chaos of the day enough of them would win through.

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