D day the battle for nor.., p.15
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.15

           Antony Beevor
 

  The French had to cope as best they could in the circumstances. A couple of American officers ‘came across a little French farm cottage where a good sized French woman was dragging a dead German soldier out of her house. With one heave, she flung him across the road up next to the hedgerow. She waved to us indicating that she was glad to see us, but she went back into the house, I suppose to clean up the mess that had been made.’ On the road to Sainte-Mère-Eglise another American saw ‘a German soldier lying dead, stripped to the waist and shaving cream on his face’. He had been in the middle of a shave when paratroopers stormed the building and was shot down as he ran out. At the back, there was a field kitchen, or Gulaschkanone as the Germans called them, with its draught horses dead still in their traces.

  The most extraordinary encounter of the 4th Division’s advance to relieve the paratroopers was American infantry fighting a German cavalry unit made up of former Red Army prisoners. The horsemen had forced their mounts to the ground to take up firing positions behind them, a classic cavalry tactic. ‘We had to kill most of the horses,’ wrote a lieutenant unused to such warfare, ‘because the Germans were using them for shelter.’

  Other surprises came when talking to prisoners. One German captive spoke to an American soldier of German origin.

  ‘There isn’t much left of New York any more, is there?’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you know it’s been bombed by the Luftwaffe.’

  Americans were to find that many German soldiers had swallowed the most outrageous lies of Nazi propaganda without question.

  The paratroopers had managed to hold off German counter-attacks against their Chef du Pont bridgehead over the Merderet. They knocked out two light French tanks from the 100th Panzer-Battalion with bazookas. Elsewhere, particularly round Sainte-Mère-Eglise, they stalked them with Gammon grenades, which they found just as effective.

  Generalleutnant von Schlieben, the commander of the 709th Infanterie-Division, had hoped that the sound of tanks would panic the Americans. He ordered this attached panzer battalion of Renault tanks, captured from the French in 1940, to drive around, but when they came to close quarters, the paratroopers found it comparatively easy to knock out these obsolete vehicles with their Gammon grenades. Yet the airborne commanders remained extremely concerned. Their men were low on ammunition and they had no idea how the seaborne invasion was progressing. French civilians were afraid that the landings might fail, like the raid on Dieppe in 1942, and that the Germans would return to take revenge on anyone who had assisted the Americans. Rumours even spread that the invasion had failed, so when the Shermans and leading elements of the 4th Infantry Division made contact with the 101st, the relief was considerable. The advance over the narrow causeways had been slow and came to a halt before nightfall, but at least the right flank between Sainte-Mère-Eglise and the marshes by the sea had been secured by the follow-up regiments of the 4th Division.

  The area near Les Forges, south of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, where part of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment was due to land at 21.00 hours, had still not been properly secured. An Ost battalion of Georgian troops held out just to the north. Spread between Turqueville and Fauville on the road from Carentan northwards, they prevented the reinforcement of the increasingly embattled force at Sainte-Mère-Eglise, which Schlieben was trying to recapture from the north. When the sixty gliders of the 325th Glider Regiment swooped in, fierce machine-gun fire opened up. They lost 160 men killed or injured on landing, but the survivors had all their equipment and were fresh. They went into action that night, fording the Merderet, and swung left to secure the crossing at La Fière on the west side.

  When the first American prisoners were marched through Carentan, the reserve battalion of Heydte’s 6th Paratroop Regiment gazed at their tall, shaven-headed counterparts from across the Atlantic. ‘They look as though they’re from Sing Sing,’ they joked. From Carentan, the prisoners were taken south to Saint-Lô to be interrogated at the Feldkommandantur, then on to a holding camp, which they dubbed ‘starvation hill’, because they received so little to eat. French civilians, having known since before dawn from the frantic activity of German troops that the invasion had begun, watched their arrival with sympathy.

  Citizens of Saint-Lô had been reassured the day before by the precision of an American fighter-bomber strike against the railway station. One group playing cards had watched ‘as if it were a movie’ and applauded. ‘These friendly pilots,’ wrote one of them later, ‘comforted us with the idea that the Allies did not blindly bomb targets where civilians were in danger.’ But on the evening of 6 June at 20.00 hours, Allied bombers began to flatten the town systematically as part of a strategy to block major road junctions and thus delay German reinforcements rushing to the invasion area. The Allied warnings over the radio and by leaflet had either not been received or not been taken seriously.

  ‘Windows and doors flew across rooms,’ one citizen recalled, ‘the grandfather clock fell flat, tables and chairs danced a ballet.’ Terrorized families fled to their cellars and a number were buried alive. Old soldiers from the First World War refused to shelter underground. They had seen too many comrades suffocate under the earth of bombarded trenches. The air became choking with dust from smashed masonry. During this ‘night of the great nightmare’ they saw the double spires of their small cathedral silhouetted against the flames. Some burst into tears at the sight of their ruined town.

  Four members of the Resistance from Cherbourg were killed in the prison. The headquarters of the Gendarmerie, the Caserne Bellevue, was completely destroyed. Well over half the houses in the town were razed to the ground. Doctors and aid workers could do little, so wounds were disinfected with Calvados. Accelerated by the vibration from the bombing, one heavily pregnant woman went straight into labour and a baby girl was ‘born right in the apocalypse’. As soon as the air raid started, many had instinctively run out into the countryside, where they sought shelter in barns and farmyards. When they finally summoned the courage to return to Saint-Lô, they were horrified by the smell of corpses still buried beneath the ruins. Some 300 civilians had died. Normandy, they had discovered, was to be the sacrificial lamb for the liberation of France.

  9

  Gold and Juno

  In the ancient Norman city of Caen, people were awake much earlier than usual. After the reports of paratroop drops had been confirmed, the headquarters of the 716th Infanterie-Division on the Avenue de Bagatelle came to life. A young member of the Resistance who lived nearby watched dispatch riders come and go. He knew very well what was afoot. His mother, who had pretended not to know about his activities, looked at him questioningly: ‘Is this the landing?’12 Her son did not reply. She turned away and began to fill bottles of water and to cook some potatoes in case the water and gas were shut off.

  Neighbours emerging from apartments on to stairwells or calling to each other from their windows were confused.

  ‘Do you think this is it?’

  ‘Oh, not here.’

  ‘The poor people on the coast, what will they be going through?’

  ‘Don’t worry. They’ll be here this evening. The Fritzes are in a right panic.’

  Marianne Daure, woken by aircraft in the early hours, also asked her husband if this was the landing. Pierre Daure, the rector of the university, who had been secretly appointed the new préfet of Calvados by de Gaulle, replied drily, ‘Yes, it is indeed the landing.’ Marianne Daure was also the sister of François Coulet, whom de Gaulle had chosen to be the commissaire de la république for Normandy, yet she had been told nothing. Despite SHAEF’s fears, the Gaullists had kept the secret scrupulously.

  By 06.00 hours, the boulangeries in Caen were besieged by housewives buying baguettes. But then German soldiers, spotting the crowds, rushed up to take the bread for themselves. They also seized bottles of alcohol from cafés.

  In the excitement of the moment, some boys bicycled furiously north towards the be
aches to see what was happening. They had to avoid German troops moving into defensive positions. When they returned, word spread quickly. One cyclist rode south out of Caen, shouting along the way, ‘They’re landing! The sea is black with ships! The Boches are screwed!’

  Wild optimism became infectious. A newspaper seller climbed the tower of the Saint-Sauveur church and ran around afterwards claiming that he had seen the English advancing. It was not long before German loudspeaker vans toured the streets of Caen, telling the population to stay indoors. The military authorities gave the order that parts of the city were to be evacuated immediately. The inhabitants would not be allowed to take anything with them. Most, however, stayed put and did not answer the hammering on the door.

  Generalfeldmarschall Rommel, meanwhile, was woken at home in Herrlingen, near Ulm, where he had gone to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Generalleutnant Speidel rang him at 06.30 hours from La Roche-Guyon, as soon as reports of the huge invasion fleet anchored offshore were confirmed. Speidel told him of measures taken so far. Rommel rang the Berghof to cancel his visit to Hitler. His driver was waiting outside in the open Horch staff car and they drove back to France at top speed. Rommel would not reach his headquarters until nightfall.

  Army Group B staff officers in the operations room at La Roche-Guyon worked feverishly as they tried to assess the situation from reports coming in from the Seventh Army. Speidel also had to deal with higher command: ‘Continual telephone calls from OKW and OB West revealed the nervousness reigning at the highest levels.’

  Outside Paris at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the headquarters of OB West was in a similar state, with teleprinters chattering and telephones ringing constantly. Rundstedt’s chief of staff, General der Infanterie Günther Blumentritt, rang the OKW staff at the Berghof about the release of panzer divisions whose deployment Hitler had insisted on controlling. Shortly before 07.00 hours OKW rang back. It ‘objected violently to OB West’s arbitrary deployment of OKW reserves’. They were to be stopped immediately. Jodl then called Speidel to ensure that the order was carried out. Blumentritt also had to call the headquarters of the Luftwaffe Third Air Fleet, Naval Group West, even Otto Abetz, the German ambassador in Paris and the Vichy government, concerning pre-agreed proclamations, ‘urging the population to keep the peace, with warnings against revolt, sabotage and obstruction of German counter-measures’.

  Of the three British beaches, Gold in the west was the closest to Omaha. The landing there of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division was the one which took pressure off the Americans. Gold beach lay between Arromanches and La Rivière. H-Hour was at 07.30 hours, one hour after the Americans on their right, but the basic pattern remained the same, with bombing, shelling from the sea and then rocket ships firing close in. The cruisers HMS Ajax and Argonaut kept up a constant shelling of the German heavy coastal battery at Longues, which the bombers had failed to destroy.

  Rough seas and vomiting affected the assault troops, just as at Omaha. The two armoured regiments launching their DD tanks rightly decided to ignore the order ‘Floater five thousand’. The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry on the left launched their two squadrons of swimming Shermans at only 1,000 yards out, yet still lost eight tanks. Officers in the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards had to argue forcefully with the commanders of their tank landing craft. In the end they lost even fewer tanks than the Sherwood Rangers.

  The right-hand brigade group, led by the 1st Battalion of the Royal Hampshires and the 1st Dorsets, landed on the beach east of Le Hamel and the small seaside resort of Arromanches-les-Bains. The tanks of the Sherwood Rangers were delayed by the rough sea and the Hampshires suffered a bloody landing at Le Hamel. Their commanding officer and several of their headquarters officers became casualties almost immediately. But the battalion fought on, backed up by the 2nd Devons. It took most of the day before German resistance was finally eliminated.

  On the left the 69th Brigade group led by the 6th Battalion of the Green Howards wasted little time. Their huge second in command, Major George Young, had warned his men, ‘Once you stop on the beach, you are never going to get up again.’ As they pushed inland towards Mont Fleury, Germans emerged to surrender. The Green Howards simply turned to point towards the beach and said, ‘Zurück!’ (‘Back there!’), and the unescorted prisoners did as they were told.

  The 5th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment had a hard fight over on the extreme left-hand side of Gold beach at La Rivière, where the concrete defences had survived the shelling. After several armoured vehicles had been knocked out, an AVRE13 tank appeared. The fortypound petard bomb fired from its stubby barrel managed to destroy the emplacement containing the anti-tank gun which had inflicted so many losses. But the East Yorks, amid the dust and smoke from the bombardment, still needed several more hours to clear La Rivière, house by house. Flame-throwing Crocodile tanks of the Westminster Dragoons also helped, and their flail tanks soon cleared minefields. ‘Hobart’s funnies’ had proved their worth in the face of British, but also American scepticism.

  Under the direction of the Royal Navy beachmaster, the landing operation was soon in full swing. An American commander of an LST - a ‘landing ship tank’, known to its crew as a ‘large stationary target’ - described the traffic as ‘a sort of aquatic turnpike’, with ‘a whole line of ships going one direction, a whole lot of ships going the other direction’. Three regiments of self-propelled artillery landed soon afterwards and the 50th Division began to push inland, with the independent 56th Brigade in the second wave, heading south-west towards Bayeux.

  Having secured Le Hamel, the Hampshires advanced west along the coast towards Arromanches-les-Bains, where the Mulberry artificial harbour was to be sited. No. 47 Commando of the Royal Marines, which had lost three landing craft to mines, was to push even further west with the mission to take Port-en-Bessin. This was where the British right flank would join up with the American 1st Division spreading left from Omaha.

  The Green Howards moved rapidly on Mont Fleury, where they forced the German defenders, shaken by the naval bombardment, to surrender. Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis first showed his quite selfless courage there. Hollis’s company commander suddenly noticed that they had passed two pillboxes. He and Hollis went to investigate. A machine gun opened up on them. Hollis charged the pillbox, firing his Sten sub-machine gun, jumped on top to reload and threw grenades inside. Later, when the Green Howards advanced on the village of Crépon, his consistent bravery won him the only Victoria Cross awarded that day. In Crépon, his company encountered a German position with a field gun and MG42 machine guns. Hollis mounted an attack from a house on the flank. The field gun was traversed on to them. Hollis led his men out, but on finding that two had been left behind, he mounted a diversionary attack armed with a Bren gun and rescued them.

  In the centre, the advance continued along the ridge to Bazenville, where a furious battle was fought against Oberstleutnant Meyer’s Kampfgruppe of the 352nd Division. As already mentioned, Meyer was killed and his force almost entirely wiped out. Just to the right, 56th Brigade Group, led by the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment and the Sherwood Rangers, were given Bayeux as their objective. The Sherwood Rangers had already lost their commanding officer to a sniper, yet the tank commanders still kept their heads out of the turret (it was impossible to operate closed down). Major Stanley Christopherson, who commanded the squadron attached to the 2nd Essex, had not found their colonel at the rendezvous. Not wanting to go in search of him in his tank down narrow lanes encumbered with infantry, he left the squadron with his second in command, Keith Douglas, and decided to take a horse, which he found ready saddled outside a house. ‘Never in my wildest dreams,’ Christopherson wrote in his diary, ‘did I ever anticipate that D-Day would find me dashing along the lanes of Normandy endeavouring, not very successfully, to control a very frightened horse with one hand, gripping a map case in the other, and wearing a tin hat and black overalls! The Essex colonel was somewhat startled when I eventually found him and
reported that my Squadron was ready to support his battalion in the next phase of the attack.’

  The battlegroup advanced, meeting only the lightest opposition, but stopped just short of Bayeux. ‘Bayeux could have been attacked and captured that evening,’ wrote Christopherson, ‘as patrols reported that the town was very lightly held, but the commanding officer of the Essex preferred to remain on the outskirts for the night.’

  Juno beach, the central sector for the Second British Army, extended from La Rivière to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer. Juno was the objective of the 3rd Canadian Division. The Canadians were determined to take revenge for the Dieppe raid, the disastrous experiment from which fewer than half their men had returned. Dieppe had provided a cruel but vital lesson for the planning of D-Day: never attack a heavily defended port from the sea.

  The 3rd Canadian Division was commanded by Major General Rod Keller, a large man with a round, florid face and military moustache. He was known as a compulsive raconteur with a penchant for whisky. The Canadians, despite their battledress uniform and regimental system inherited from the British Army, in many ways felt closer to the Americans than to their mother country. They cultivated a certain scepticism towards British Army conventions and referred to Overlord as ‘Operation Overboard’, after being smothered in instructions from British staff officers at Second Army headquarters. The strength of the Canadians lay in the quality of their junior officers, many of whom were borrowed eagerly by a British Army short of manpower.

 
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