D day the battle for nor.., p.16
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.16

           Antony Beevor
 

  Task Force J, which supported their landing, opened fire at 05.27 hours. The cruiser HMS Belfast was the flagship. One naval officer described her ‘sitting like a broody hen with a swarm of landing craft round her’. This was an international squadron, with the cruiser HMS Diadem and five Royal Navy fleet destroyers, three Norwegian destroyers, the French destroyer La Combattante, which would bring de Gaulle to Normandy a week later, and two Canadian destroyers, HMCS Algonquin and Sioux.14

  Allied warships continued to fire over the heads of the landing craft and the DD tanks of the 1st Hussars and the Fort Garry Horse. The rocket ships also fired their screaming salvoes just as the landing craft approached the beach. Then there was an eerie silence. The Canadian assault troops, also seasick and their battledress soaked with spray, were surprised that the German artillery had not opened fire.

  Waiting until the landing craft dropped their ramps, the German defenders held their fire. As soon as the first men jumped down into the water at 07.49 hours, machine guns and field guns opened up on them. Canadian troops suffered a total of 961 casualties that day. Many ignored the order to leave those who had been hit and turned back to pull a comrade to safety.

  The 7th Canadian Brigade landed either side of the River Seulles at Courseulles-sur-Mer.The Royal Winnipeg Rifles cleared the west bank, then, with the Canadian Scottish Regiment, pushed in towards Vaux and Graye-sur-Mer. The main part of the town on the east bank proved a much harder task for the Regina Rifles, which had suffered heavy losses on landing. Courseulles-sur-Mer had been partitioned into numbered blocks to be dealt with by designated companies. ‘Nearly every foot of the town was known before it was ever entered,’ said the commanding officer of the Regina Rifles. He described the performance of the supporting tank crews of the 1st Hussars as ‘gallant rather than brilliant’, and they learned the hard way. Even with support from the few remaining DD Shermans, it took until the afternoon to clear the town fully. The Canadians found that having chased the German defenders from some fortified houses, they then returned via tunnels and began shooting at them from behind.

  Part of the 8th Canadian Brigade landing at Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer also faced fierce resistance. The North Shore Regiment suffered many losses from an extensive concrete bunker armed with an anti-tank gun, machine guns and 81 mm mortars. The squadron of DD tanks of the Fort Garry Horse, which had been delayed, finally arrived. In the confusion, as they charged around the beach, they ran over corpses and several of their own wounded soldiers. A sergeant in 48 Royal Marine Commando who witnessed this also saw a medical orderly in a state of complete shock, unable to face the wounded.

  Only the arrival of an AVRE tank, firing its hefty petards on to the bunker system, brought resistance there to an end at 11.30 hours. Meanwhile another company from the North Shore Regiment, which had entered the town after blowing gaps in the wire with Bangalore torpedoes, continued to fight from house to house, with grenades, rifles and Bren guns. They too faced the danger of Germans re-emerging from tunnels behind them to fight on.

  At Bernières-sur-Mer, the Queen’s Own Rifles were reinforced by another squadron of Fort Garry Horse tanks, which, after landing ‘dryshod’, then lined up on the beach to blast defended houses. An AVRE tank blew a gap in the sea wall, then engineers prepared ramps for the tanks. Infantry and ‘Priest’ self-propelled artillery were soon streaming through, followed by the Shermans. The German defenders fled and civilians emerged from their cellars. By 09.00 hours, a bar was open for celebratory drinks. Officers had warned their men not to accept any food or drink from the French in case they were poisoned, but few took the idea seriously. The suspicion in official circles that the Normans had been won over by their German occupiers was contrary to what the Resistance and other sources had told them. In fact, considering the suffering of the French along the coast and in the main towns, the vast majority showed great understanding.

  Although the leading infantry battalions pushed on inland, the advance was slowed by chaos on the beaches as the follow-up waves arrived. Tanks, self-propelled guns and Bren carriers became embroiled in traffic jams, to the intense frustration of beachmasters and the newly landed headquarter groups. Major General Keller was furious when he landed at Bernières accompanied by newspaper correspondents and photographers recording his arrival. On board, he had made a show in their presence of radioing through an optimistic report on progress to Lieutenant General Harry Crerar, the commander of Canadian troops in the invasion. The situation on the beach looked rather less encouraging.

  French-Canadians of the Régiment de la Chaudière received a rapturous welcome from locals as soon as they spoke to them in French. Many rushed down to their cellar to fetch a keg of cider for the soldiers. But when the farming families began to pull the boots off dead Germans, the Canadians were clearly shocked. They had no idea that the Germans had commandeered all supplies of leather for the Wehrmacht until the French said to them, ‘But what do you expect? It’s war and we have no footwear.’

  French civilians saw these ‘cousins’ from across the Atlantic as the next best thing to their own troops landing. They had no idea that one of the squadrons of Spitfires overhead covering the Canadians was piloted by Free French aviators. ‘Les Cigognes’ (‘the Storks’), as 329 Squadron called itself, had been told by their wing commander, Christian Martell, ‘I don’t want to see pilots watching the ground. Today you’ve got to scan the sky.’ But the heavens remained void of enemy fighters that day. The only danger was of collision with other aircraft.

  The Chaudières took over the lead in the advance on Bény-sur-Mer, which, despite its name, lay three miles inland. Although the road south was straight, it ran between wheatfields in which the Germans had sited machine guns. Outflanking them became an arduous business, with infantry crawling through the standing corn on what had turned into a sultry afternoon. After a battery of guns near Bény-sur-Mer had been knocked out by some very accurate gunfire from the destroyer HMCS Algonquin, the advance slowly continued.

  Delays on the beach, and surprisingly strong resistance from the underestimated 716th Infanterie-Division, meant that the advance battlegroup of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade had too little time to reach its main objective. Carpiquet airfield lay just south of the Caen- Bayeux road. The flat ground ahead sloped upwards and, through binoculars, its hangars were tantalizingly visible in the distance, but the supporting tanks were low on ammunition. Major General Keller was expecting a counter-attack by the 21st Panzer-Division and wanted his advance elements to be in defensive positions by nightfall.

  One certainly cannot criticize the Canadians for the way they went about it. The battlegroup of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders rightly used all the vehicles available - light Stuart tanks, Shermans, M10 tank destroyers, trucks and Bren gun carriers - to speed the advance. If Keller had known of the panic and chaos on the airfield, he might have pushed them on. The Third Luftflotte in Paris reported, ‘At Carpiquet at 19.20 hours on 6 June, everybody lost their heads badly . . . the station commandant gave orders for evacuation.’ The Luftwaffe’s hurried attempts to destroy installations proved remarkably inept, as the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend observed two days later: ‘Takeoff runway at Carpiquet inefficiently blown up. Rest of taxiing area hardly damaged at all. Most of the fuel could still be saved.’

  Over the next few weeks, the airfield and its surrounding area were to see some of the most bitter fighting of the whole battle for Normandy against the Hitler Jugend Division. It would take just over a month before Carpiquet was finally in Allied hands.

  10

  Sword

  The landings of the British 3rd Infantry Division at the eastern end on Sword beach, between Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer and the River Orne, had heavy guns in support. The battleships HMS Ramillies and Warspite, and the monitor HMS Roberts, were augmented by four cruisers, including the Polish ship Dragon, and thirteen destroyers. The Overlord planners had increased this naval support because of the many German batteries i
n the sector. Birds in the Orne estuary were driven wild by their gunfire. ‘Widgeon and teal fly low over the sea and look like black tracer,’ wrote an observer in his diary.

  The landing craft were lowered into the heavy sea at 05.30 hours and, after circling, made their way inshore, vainly attempting to maintain formation. One company commander in the 2nd Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment read extracts from Shakespeare’s Henry V to his men over the tannoy, but most of them were probably too seasick to pay much attention. Many regretted the tot of navy rum with breakfast.

  The DD tank crews of the 13th/18th Hussars and the Staffordshire Yeomanry felt a different form of nausea when they received the order ‘Floater, 5,000!’ The launch of the swimming tanks planned for 8,000 yards out had been reduced, but it was still a very long way to go in a sea with waves up to five feet high. Surprisingly, only six out of forty sank, two of them as a result of being rammed by landing craft out of control. At 06.50 hours, the self-propelled guns of the 3rd Infantry Division also opened fire from their landing craft at a range of 10,000 yards.

  Just before landing, an officer with the 41st Royal Marine Commando observed those around him on the landing craft: ‘Some were scared shitless, others fiercely proud just to be a part of it. Anticipation with nervous excitement showed everywhere.’ The first wave of infantry, the 1st Battalion the South Lancashire Regiment and the 2nd East Yorkshires, arrived to find that the first DD tanks were already ashore and firing at strongpoints. The South Lancs immediately attacked the German position codenamed ‘Cod’ opposite the beach. Their commanding officer died ten feet from the top of the beach with the battalion medical officer wounded beside him. A Bren-gun platoon, landing in carriers, charged straight up the beach and the defenders surrendered. The 2nd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, which followed, was astonished to be welcomed by a man in a brass fireman’s helmet ‘like a Napoleonic dragoon’. This was the mayor of Colleville. He was accompanied by a young woman who wasted no time in starting to care for the wounded.

  Other young Frenchwomen also showed extraordinary bravery, coming to the beaches to help. Purely by chance, a student nurse who had left her bathing dress in a beach hut the day before had arrived on a bicycle that morning to retrieve it. She ignored the wolf whistles of the amazed squaddies and set to work bandaging wounds. Her work lasted two days and during the course of it she met her future husband, a young English officer.

  Flail tanks from the 22nd Dragoons and the Westminster Dragoons cleared paths through minefields, and exits from the beach were opened more quickly than on any other sector. The Royal Engineers also wasted no time. ‘Every now and then there’s a big flash and clouds of smoke and a noise as some part of the beach is cleared by sappers,’ a naval officer noted in his diary.

  A young officer landing in the second wave noticed near the beachmaster’s post a fat German officer held prisoner with half a dozen of his men. They were crouching under the shelter of the sea wall as shells from their own artillery landed. The German officer suddenly protested to a sergeant with the beachmaster’s team that under the Geneva Convention they had the right to be taken to a place of safety. The sergeant threw a spade at him and yelled, ‘Well, dig yourself a fucking hole then!’

  The 2nd East Yorkshires pushed inland, turning left towards the River Orne to attack strongpoint ‘Sole’ and then take on ‘Daimler’, which had four 155 mm guns. A captain charged the bunker firing his Sten gun and entered. Unfortunately his batman, ‘with misjudged enthusiasm’, chose that moment to drop a grenade down the ventilation shaft. It was his gallant captain who received most of the blast. He emerged shaken but fortunately unwounded. The seventy defenders surrendered quickly. When soldiers of the East Yorks discovered a stock of beer and wine, their company sergeant major, concerned that discipline might collapse, threatened them with the penalty for looting. But then ‘he relented a little’, considering how agreeable some of it would be.

  Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade also landed near Colleville. His commandos had thrown away their helmets at the last moment and wore their green berets instead, with their own regimental cap badges. Lovat had his personal piper, Bill Millin, from the Cameron Highlanders, with him. Millin was glad that Lovat led the way off the landing craft, since he was more than six feet tall and would show how deep the water was. The man just behind Lovat received a bullet in the face and collapsed. Millin jumped in and was shocked by the cold as his kilt spread around him. By the time he strode up out of the surf he was playing ‘Highland Laddie’. Lovat turned round and gave him the thumbs up because it was a march of his old regiment, the Scots Guards. Amid the crump of mortars, shouting and small-arms fire, Millin could hardly believe it when Lovat then asked him if he would mind marching up and down playing ‘The Road to the Isles’ as the rest of the men disembarked. Most of the astonished soldiers on the beach loved it, but one or two almost lost their tempers at what they thought was insane behaviour.

  Later than planned, Lovat led his force inland on a forced march towards the two bridges at Bénouville captured by John Howard’s company early that morning. Lovat’s conspicuous bravery had prompted his men to refer to him as ‘the mad bastard’. Although a great fighter, he still retained, as 25th Chief of the Clan Fraser, a touch of the grand seigneur. As they advanced beside the Caen Canal towards Bénouville, a German rifleman shot at them from a tree. He then must have panicked. Jumping down to the ground, he tried to dash into a cornfield to hide. Lovat dropped to one knee and brought him down with a single shot from his deerstalking rifle. He sent off two men to retrieve the body, almost as if it were a stag.

  Lovat turned to Millin: ‘Right, Piper. Start the pipes again and keep playing as long as you can until we get to Bénouville. The Airborne are at the bridges there, and when they hear the pipes, they will know we are coming.’ Millin played ‘Blue Bonnets Over the Border’ as they approached their objective. Lovat, with a great sense of occasion, shook hands with Howard and remarked that they had made history that day. He was clearly unaware that Howard’s men had not only been relieved by Colonel Pine-Coffin’s parachute battalion, but even that some of his own men had beaten him to the bridges.

  Captain Alan Pyman, MC, had led 3 Troop of 6 Commando across half an hour earlier. This unit included Belgians, Dutch, Norwegians and Poles. Most striking of all was X Troop, which consisted almost entirely of German Jewish refugees. Most had transferred from the Pioneer Corps. They had all been given English names, with identity discs marking their religion as Church of England in case they were captured. As native German speakers, they were also extremely useful interrogating prisoners, as Lovat soon found. Pyman led his troop all the way to Bréville, which was still heavily defended. He was killed by a sniper and, without further support, his men were forced to pull back to Amfréville.

  No. 4 Commando, with two troops of French fusiliers marins under Commandant Philippe Kieffer, had landed at 07.55 hours. Kieffer and his men, the first regular French troops to land in Normandy, headed east to the resort of Riva Bella and the port of Ouistreham at the mouth of the Orne. The Germans had fortified the casino at Riva Bella. Kieffer’s commandos had a tough fight to reduce it and then silence the heavy gun battery, a massive concrete structure set among the seaside villas.

  Hitler had finally gone to bed at three in the morning, after chatting with Eva Braun and Goebbels about the cinema and the world situation until two. Reports of the Allied parachute drops had still not reached Berchtesgaden. Accounts disagree on when Hitler was woken the next morning. Albert Speer wrote that he arrived at the Berghof at about ten to find that Hitler had not been woken before because the OKW considered the landings a diversionary attack. His adjutants had not wanted to disturb him with inaccurate information. But Hitler’s personal adjutant, Hauptsturmführer Otto Günsche, stated that he entered the great hall of the Berghof at 08.00 hours. There he greeted Generalfeldmarschall Keitel and General Jodl with the words, ‘Gentlemen, this is the invasion. I have
said all along that this is where it would come.’

  It would have been typical of Hitler to claim he had always been right, even though his prediction had in fact switched from Normandy back to the Pas-de-Calais. But Günsche’s version must be treated with great caution. Others also testified to Hitler’s late rising, and in any case Günsche’s account still does not explain why Hitler would not allow the panzer divisions in the OKW reserve to be released until that afternoon if he really believed that Normandy was the main invasion area.15 Everyone, however, seems to agree that he reacted with glee to the news, convinced that the enemy would be smashed on the beaches. And in the next few days he looked forward to crushing London with his V-1 flying bombs.

  The closest armoured formation to the coast was the 21st Panzer-Division, distributed over a large area around Caen. Its commander, Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger, was an artilleryman with no experience of tank warfare. Described by his Canadian interrogator at the end of the war as ‘a tall wiry, well-built man with a slightly bent nose, which gave him the appearance of a somewhat elderly pugilist’, Feuchtinger did not arouse the admiration of his officers. He owed his appointment to his Nazi connections, and his dalliance in Paris on the night of 5 June, together with late arrival at his headquarters, added to the confusion already created by the complicated chain of command.

 
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll
Add comment

Add comment