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Today is the 68th Anniversary of the massive and critical Operation Neptune, the Invasion of Normandy by American, British, Canadian, and French forces. As I have been preparing Fields of War – a Second World War battlefield travel guide, my thoughts have been focused on Lower Normandy, its terrain, cities, and highways – and its men.
The similarities with the Norman Invasion by the English Army of King Edward III 598 years earlier are striking. Much like Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the French believed that the invasion was aimed at Calais and they had their fleet patrolling off the Pas-de-Calais coast. Edward III landed his army along the coast of the Cotentin Peninsula only 21 km north of Utah beach. Just like German 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment commander, Major Friedrich von der Heydte, the French commander of Carentan, Robert Bertrand, burned the four bridges north of the city to delay the English advance as reinforcements moved north. Just like US 29th Infantry Division’s commander, Major General Charles Gerhard, Edward III attacked St-Lô from its vulnerable eastern side. And, just as in 1944, the key to Normandy was the capture of Caen.
It was with these events in mind that a new Virtual Battlefield Tour was created which follows Edward III and his army from their landing at St-Vaast-la-Hougue to their seizing of the city of Caen. It can be found on my blog at Invasion of Normandy 12 July 1346
On 12 July 1346 an English fleet of one thousand ships appeared on the coast of Normandy. The fleet carried thirty thousand men, horses, fodder, equipment and all of the associated materiel necessary for a full invasion of France. It was personally led by Edward III, king of England; his objective was to land at the harbor of St-Vaast-la-Hougue, capture Caen, and advance his claim to the throne of France. Edward was not seeking a direct confrontation; instead, he was launching a chevauchée, that is, a scorched earth raid into enemy territory where everything of value was to be confiscated and everything not taken was to be destroyed.
01a Invasion of Normandy 12 July 1346
Region: Basse Normandy
A French Battlefields “Virtual Battlefield Tour” [This battlefield is not included in Fields of War.]
Summary: Edward landed his fleet in the undefended harbor at St-Vaast on 12 July 1346. By 18 July the troops and supplies were all unloaded and they began their march through Normandy. The main French army was occupied in the south fighting a second English army. A rearguard commanded by the experienced Robert Bertrand fought a delaying effort trying to gain time for the French king, Philippe VI, to gather his forces. Bertrand burned bridges at Carentan and Pont-Hébert; led the English to St-Lô and away from Caen; and proposed a defense of the massive chateau in Caen. Edward’s Army surrounded and quickly captured the city aided by local commander refusal to follow Bertrand’s advice.
Edward III and Philippe VI continued to play a ‘cat and mouse’ game of maneuver until the climactic encounter north of Crécy-en-Ponthieu. (See Battle of Crécy)
In 1356, Edward III, the victor at the Battle of Crécy, sent his son, Edward the Black Prince, to lead a chevauchée through northern Bordeaux. This scorched earth warfare was designed to weaken the French populace’s support for their king. John II, king of France and known as ‘the Good’ assembled a force estimated at 16,000 – 20,000 men and forced an engagement south of the ancient city of Poitiers. Edward’s forces were considerably smaller than John’s and he had no wish for a battle. His interests were to escape to Bordeaux. He arrived at the Abbey de Nouaillé.
01b Battle of Poitiers: 19 September 1356
A French Battlefields “Virtual Battlefield Tour” [This battlefield is not included in Fields of War.] Unfortunately, the battlefield of Poitiers is not well served by Google Maps streetview. Few of the roadways near the battlefield have been photographed utilizing this process.
Edward positioned his forces with their backs to the Bois de Nouaillé; Earl of Salisbury’s division to the north; himself in the center; and Ear of Warwick’s division to the south. The French ‘battles’ were in four rows with a small group led by Marshals de Clermont, d’Audrehem, and Brienne in front followed by the Dauphine, duc d’Orléans, and King John in the back. The main French body, led by the Dauphine, was unable to break the English line and fell back. Upon seeing this, the duc d’Orléans also withdrew, leaving the battle to King John’s division, which advanced upon the tiring English. Edward sent Captal de Buch in a sweeping arc to the east and north to come upon the French flank. Attacked on two sides, French resistance crumbled and John was captured.
01 Battle of Crécy-en-Ponthieu: 26 August 1346 Département: Somme Region: Picardy Country: France
A French Battlefields “Virtual Battlefield Tour”. This battle is more fully described in Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium published by French Battlefields.
Summary: King Edward III of England landed an army of 15,000 men at St-Vaast-la-Hougue on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. His objective was to claim the crown of France as his own. Edward was prevented from attacking Paris by maneuver of the much larger army of the French king, Philip VI. Now trapped and without ability for resupply, Edward attempted to join forces with his Flemish allies to the north. Philip’s vanguard, led by Jean de Luxembourg fought to deny Edward bridges over the Somme River, essentially assuring his destruction. At Crecy, Edward positioned his dismounted men-at-arms and his archers so as to take maximum advantage of the longbow’s superior firepower. The French army, the largest in Europe, fielded thousands of mounted, armored knights. Although greatly outnumbered, Edward’s army, led on the field by his son the Prince of Wales (The Black Prince), produced a stunning victory over the French aristocracy.