Haig’s innovative plan to invade the Belgian coast may have been doomed from the start, but he had glimpsed the future, and someday his ideas would work.
On New Year’s Day 1917, there seemed to be little hope for either the Allies or the Central Powers. Despite countless attacks and hundreds of thousands of deaths in the trenches of the Somme, Verdun, the battlefields of Mesopotamia, Palestine, Italy, and the eastern front, the Great War was still hopelessly stalemated. New fronts had been opened, new techniques tried, but they all came to the same end: An entire generation of Western youth was being relentlessly slaughtered. It had to be different in 1917.
The war’s leaders were characteristically optimistic. The Russians were planning a huge offensive. The Germans were to begin unrestricted submarine warfare. General Erich Ludendorff, head of the German general staff, had a scheme to take Russia out of the war and was implementing a greatly improved defense system on the western front. The French had a new commander in chief, the enthusiastic General Robert Nivelle, who claimed his innovative offensive methods could finally bring the war to an end. General Douglas Haig, the British commander on the western front, was now gathering enough tanks, trucks, and supporting aircraft to create a different form of combat: mechanized warfare. London was also building a formidable strategic bombing force. Air raids deep into the heart of Germany might be possible. It could be different in 1917.
But to Admiral Reginald H. Bacon, the Royal Navy officer responsible for the defense of the English Channel, New Year’s optimism was tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism. If the newly planned Allied efforts on the western front were not successful, the war might grind down to a negotiated peace, leaving the Germans still holding a good part of the Belgian coast. That, in turn, raised the Royal Navy’s age-old horror: At war’s end, Britain could be facing hostile ports on the Channel, and isolation from the Continent would be a distinct possibility.
Bacon worked long and hard to convince both his superiors and Haig of the importance of taking the Belgian coast out of German hands. Haig was committed to a summer attack in Belgium–as part of a general Allied offensive, not an operation aimed primarily at liberating the coast. But as the U-boat toll on Allied shipping mounted alarmingly that spring, the elimination of submarine bases at the Belgian ports of Ostende and Zeebrugge seemed ever more urgent. Haig warmed to Bacon’s ideas, and the two officers worked together, developing a novel amphibious plan. Their target was a stretch of beach a few miles north of the Yser River, close to the point where the western front ended in the North Sea dunes. Among the confidants, the resulting scheme was referred to as “the Great Landing.”
Bacon and Haig’s plan had to satisfy a number of demanding tests to be considered “great,” or even promising. First, since most offensive military operations (particularly amphibious operations) hinge on surprise, there had to be secrecy during the preparations. Second, the plan had to include neutralizing German beach defenses. This would be difficult because the Germans had fortified the Belgian coast with no less than 100 guns, ranging in caliber from four to 11 inches. Third, even if the invaders managed to silence the German guns, they still had to ensure the rapid disembarkation of a ground force. After all, the inability to quickly build up strength ashore had been one of the prime reasons for British grief in the Dardanelles landing two years earlier.
The Dardanelles tragedy also suggested a fourth and vital planning factor: The landing force had to be positioned so that the Germans could not isolate it. There had to be provisions for substantial reinforcement; the Great Landing had to be in close proximity to a general British advance. It was essential that the defenders be hard pressed and pinned down. Finally, the gains of the plan had to outweigh the inevitable costs.
The two commanders had begun their work in 1916; surprise and secrecy were foremost in their minds. When he described his plans for the summer, Haig was careful to avoid telling his ally, Nivelle, of the intended amphibious assault. The French general was known to talk too much. Haig waited until April before informing the prospective leader of the operation and swore his subordinate to secrecy. Bacon was equally careful. Ships, boats, and landing craft were sequestered in uninhabited estuaries along the English coast, their crews under a strict quarantine. A special staff of censors read all outgoing mail, and a hospital ship was provided so that sick or injured crewmen did not have to be evacuated from restricted areas. The landing craft were placed in a separate hideaway, apart from the supporting ships, and consolidation for rehearsals was done mostly under cover of darkness.
The landing force–the 13,000-man British First Division–was assembled under similar quarantine conditions in late July, but on the French coast near Dunkirk, far away from the invasion craft. The two forces were to be united at night and make their way up the coast so as to begin the run in to the beach just at dawn. A feint was planned farther up the coast, well away from the actual landing site. The British hoped to confuse the Germans further by employing 80 smoke-generating boats that would precede the invasion flotilla almost up to the shoreline.
Secrecy would probably end with the appearance of seven British monitors. These huge, shallow-draft, heavily armored, battleship-like vessels mounted12-and 14-inch cannon and were normally used as seagoing gun platforms. They were Bacon’s antidote to the German coastal-defense system. The monitors were also vital to the rapid-debarkation requirement. Six of them worked in pairs, each pair attached on either side to an enormous steel pontoon over 550 feet long. Troops and equipment of the First Division were to be distributed on the six monitors and three giant pontoons. In effect the invasion force was creating an artificial port by bringing its own three piers, already loaded with artillery, vehicles, and troops. Trials indicated the entire division would be on dry land 20 minutes after the bows of the pontoons touched Belgian soil. Bacon went to great lengths to ensure that monitors and pontoons would not ground short of the waterline. His biggest problem was the lack of accurate data for depths along the shore line. He solved the problem by sending aircraft over the coast to photograph the outgoing tide every 20 minutes or so. Relying, too, on figures supplied by a depth-sounding submarine, Bacon was able to calculate the beach slope accurately.
As early as September 1916, Haig had encouraged Bacon to include tanks in the landing force. But the energetic admiral and his staff ran into a new problem: a formidable seawall only a few yards from the beach. The wall’s steepest slope was 60°, and British tanks could negotiate only a 30° incline. Bacon’s men built a replica of the wall, then fashioned a triangular ramp of timber and fitted it to the nose of a tank. The contraption could be dropped from inside the tank onto the wall in front of the machine’s treads. The test was a success. Bacon could assure Haig that the 30 artillery pieces, 24 motorcycles, and six motor ambulances of the landing force would now be led by nine tanks in the initial assault.
Once ashore, the First Division might join a battle already in progress. The division would assault German artillery units that were a mile and a half behind the enemy front line. The Germans were going to be suffering a tremendous artillery bombardment during the landing, from both the Royal Navy and Allied artillery units opposite German lines. While the first pair of monitors and their attached pontoon landed troops near German artillery, the other two pairs would be landing troops farther to the German rear, behind the enemy’s second line of defense. The three landing sites were to be about a mile apart from each other. With an attack on the German front in progress, the amphibious operation was designed to take the Germans in the flank and rear. The idea was to “unhinge” German forces from the beach. Of the possible options, this scheme was probably the least likely to result in isolated and stranded British amphibious units.
The invasion would actually be part of a combined operation, which seemed to further guarantee its success. Even as the First Division was landing, units holding a shallow bridgehead north of the Yser would push forward and join it. In June the British relieved French units along the coast and quickly put a company of Australian miners to work digging a tunnel from the bridgehead trenches toward the German defensive position on the dunes. Tunnels had not been attempted in the sandy coast before, but the Australians developed a technique of shoring their excavations with a rapid timbering process. The unsuspecting German defenders were to be not only attacked from the sea but also bombarded by 636 British guns and literally blown up by explosives planted beneath them.
The trouble was that the Germans were not unsuspecting. “This is supposed to be the lull before the storm which is to break upon us simultaneously from land and sea,” a diarist noted on June 24, after a visit to the front line on the beach. Ludendorff considered those beach positions weak and had long planned to reduce the bridgehead held by the Allies forward of the Yser. A successful German assault here would provide a stronger defensive position, a line with the Yser as an obstacle.
In July 10 the Germans launched their surprise attack and gained most of the bridgehead. On capturing the tunnel, their suspicions were confirmed about the possibility of an amphibious operation. Still, they persisted in their belief that the British would land at Ostende or even in Holland. The German attack made little difference to the British. They simply decided to cross the Yser in boats in conjunction with the planned amphibious operation.
The Great Landing never came to pass. Troops, tanks, ships’ crews, and staffs waited in readiness through July and August. September came and went. Finally, in mid-October, the First Division packed up and moved from its secret embarkation point. The decision to cancel the enterprise had nothing to do with weather, tides, or enemy discovery; both Bacon and the First Division staff had remained confident of success. The problem was that Roulers had not been taken. Haig’s Flanders offensive was bogged down short of its objective. The British attack had proven unable to get beyond a village five miles short of Roulers: Passchendaele.
The Great Landing thus became one of the Great War’s many might-have beens, perhaps for good reason. To later generations, jaded by massive attacks from the sea during World War II, Haig and Bacon ‘s plan seems of minor interest. First of all, it could be criticized for being too cautious-it would have amounted to little more than a tactical envelopment; the landing was not envisioned as a deep attack on the German rear. Second, with the benefit of hindsight–knowing what worked in a later war–it is clear the plan might not have succeeded. The invasion was less than 30 yards wide at the critical point of landing (the combined width of the three ramps of the pontoons). If a few German guns had survived the preparatory bombardment, the assault might well have been added to the list of London’s disasters. A little more than a month after the operation was abandoned, direct-fire artillery proved tragically effective against tanks at Cambrai. A good case can be made that the Great Landing was ill conceived–a waste of time, troops, and energy.
On closer examination, however, Haig and Bacon ‘s plan deserves better. Some measure of surprise probably would have been achieved: Bacon noted that the Germans anticipated a landing, but farther up the coast; the target landing area was not reinforced by the Germans until months after the plan was canceled. Haig was probably right in selecting a close-in objective. The Dardanelles had proved amphibious operations to be risky at best in the early part of the 20th century. His chosen beach might have been a bloody one, but chances of the Germans isolating the First Division were small. Then too, German machine guns probably would have been overcome by the tanks, and any muzzle flashes from German guns would have resulted in point-blank fire from the massive guns of the monitors. Haig recognized enough risk to insist on a precondition, the seizure of Roulers. A year later, in fact, Ludendorff did withdraw from the coast when Haig’s troops finally took Roulers. Haig’s 1917 judgment therefore cannot be dismissed out of hand.
The most important aspect of the Great Landing, however, centers on the concept, not on what might have happened in 1917. Up to 1915, amphibious landings were little more than ancillary extensions of sea power. Troops were put ashore from ships’ boats, lighters whatever was handy–and landings were often limited to undefended beaches and entailed long marches to objectives. Haig and Bacon’s enterprise constituted a significant change in thinking about amphibious operations. Their plan called for specially constructed landing craft, artificial ports, the use of armor in the initial assault, and detailed preparations. These innovations promoted the ability to launch an attack directly into the teeth of a substantial coastal defense, with a landing on the objective. They put us a long step closer to D Day–and in that sense, the Great Landing earned its name.
ROD PASCHALL is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute. His latest book, The Defeat of Imperial Germany, will be published this fall by Algonquin Press.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1989 issue (Vol. 2, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: D Day 1917
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