D day the battle for nor.., p.17
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.17Antony Beevor
Generalmajor Richter of the 716th Infanterie-Division had tried as early as 01.20 hours to order part of the 21st Panzer to attack the parachute landings of the 6th Airborne Division east of the Orne. But the absence of Feuchtinger and his chief of staff delayed any orders until 06.30 hours, and the panzer regiment under Oberst Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski did not move out until 08.00 hours. The British airborne forces faced only Oberstleutnant Hans von Luck’s 125th Panzergrenadier-Regiment in the early hours of 6 June, and even then its attempts to counter-attack Bénouville betrayed a considerable uncertainty.
British paratroopers, hoping to prepare the Château de Bénouville for defence, discovered that it had been taken over as a maternity and paediatric hospital. An officer accompanied by a couple of men went in to warn them to take refuge. The woman in charge said that she must call the director. The paratroop officer, who was understandably tense, pointed his gun at her to stop her picking up the telephone. ‘Non téléphonique!’ he ordered. Fortunately, Madame Vion, the director, appeared very soon. She showed great sang-froid and wasted no time. While the mothers were moved from their beds upstairs, the children were dispatched rapidly into the basement via the linen chute.
The massive armoured counter-attack which the airborne expected never materialized. After Oppeln-Bronikowski had assembled his force and set off down the east bank of the Orne, he received an order at 09.30 hours to turn around, go back through Caen, then attack the British beachhead west of the river. This long diversion on open roads exposed his force to fighter-bomber attacks. Having set out with 104 Mark IV panzers, the two battalions were reduced to no more than sixty serviceable vehicles by the time they reached the Périers ridge late in the afternoon.
General Marcks, the corps commander, was dismayed by the long diversion of Oppeln-Bronikowski’s column of tanks. In a telephone call to Seventh Army headquarters at 09.25 hours, he attempted to obtain the immediate deployment of the much more formidable 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend. But every headquarters involved in the fighting in Normandy - Seventh Army, Panzer Group West, Army Group B and OB West - was thwarted by the refusal of the OKW staff at the Berghof to make a decision. When an officer at OB West, Rundstedt’s headquarters at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, protested, he was told that they were ‘in no position to judge’ and ‘The main landing was going to come at an entirely different place.’ OB West tried to argue that if that were the case ‘it was all the more logical to destroy one landing so as to be able to meet a possible second one with all available forces. Moreover, the enemy would certainly concentrate on the successful landing.’ Once again they were told that only the Führer could make the decision, and that did not happen until 15.00 hours.
This delay was doubly unfortunate for the Germans. Bad visibility persisted until late in the morning, which would have given the Hitler Jugend Division the opportunity to cover much of the ground between Lisieux and Caen without air attack. Apart from the reconnaissance battalion and the panzergrenadiers sent on ahead, the bulk of the division could not move until nightfall.
Although Sword beach, between Lion-sur-Mer and Ouistreham, was secured rapidly, the advance inland was unnecessarily sluggish. An astonishing number of soldiers, tired from wading in through the waves and relieved to have survived the landing, felt that they had earned the right to a cigarette and a mug of tea. Many started to brew up on the beach, even though it was still under fire. The naval staff yelled at them to get inland and chase the Germans off.
Both Canadians and Americans were bemused by the British Army’s apparent inability to complete a task without a tea break. They also noticed a widespread reluctance to help other arms. Infantry refused to help ‘fill a crater or get a vehicle out of difficulties’, and when not engaged on an engineering task, sappers failed to fire at the enemy. Whether this demarcation mentality arose out of the trade union movement or the regimental system - both of which cultivated an ideal of collective loyalty - the basic fault often came from a lack of confidence among young officers.
The failure of the British 3rdInfantry Divisionto seizetheir objective of Caen on the first day soon proved critical. A vast amount of effort and ingenuity had been invested in planning the assault on the coast, but little thought had been put into the immediate follow-up phase. If Montgomery had intended to seize the city, as he stated, then he failed to put in place the equipment and organization of his forces to carry out such a daring stroke. One could well argue that as soon as the presence of the 21st Panzer-Division was established, his stated objective became far too optimistic.
In any case, to reach Caen in a single day, the 3rd Infantry Division would have needed to send forward at least two battlegroups, each with an armoured regiment and an infantry battalion. The infantry should ideally have been mounted in armoured personnel carriers, vehicles which the British Army took another twenty years to acquire. With only a few honourable exceptions, the British Army was woefully unprepared for infantry-tank operations. Much of the problem stemmed from the regimental system and thus a reluctance to imitate the German panzergrenadier system, with closely knit armoured infantry and tank forces working together on a permanent basis.
The plan was for the 8th Infantry Brigade to seize the Périers ridge. Then the 185th Brigade, with three infantry battalions and only one armoured regiment, would pass through them and on to Caen. The 2nd Battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry had been supposed to mount the tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry in the assembly area near Hermanville, then lead the advance south to Caen. They were to be supported by the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on the right and the 1st Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment on the left.
The three infantry battalions were ready at Hermanville by 11.00 hours, but there was no sign of the Staffordshire Yeomanry. An unusually high tide had reduced the depth of the beach to little more than ten yards, leaving no space for tanks to manoeuvre. And as German artillery was still shelling the routes south, traffic jams tailed back all the way to the beaches when vehicles were set ablaze. Minefields prevented the tanks from going a cross country.Thebrigadecommander agonized over whether to launch the attack on foot and without tank support. After waiting an hour, he ordered the infantry to set off.
Meanwhile the 8th Brigade found the attack on the Périers ridge greatly hampered by two strongpoints codenamed ‘Hillman’ and ‘Morris’.Morris, whichhad four 105 mm guns,was takenquite quickly, its dispirited defenders surrendering after an hour, but Hillman proved a far more formidable complex. Spread out over 400 yards by 600 yards, it had ‘deep concrete pillboxes and steel cupolas with a complete system of connecting trenches’. Lacking the planned naval gunfire support, because the forward observation officer had been killed, the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment faced a terrible task crossing minefields and barbed wire covered by artillery and machine guns.
The Suffolks asked for tank support and a squadron of the badly needed Staffordshire Yeomanry was diverted to help them, reducing even more the weak armoured force assigned to the advance on Caen. With its wide fields of fire, the Hillman strongpoint made it hard for part of the 185th Brigade to bypass it on its advance, and the Norfolks lost 150 men. The Hillman strongpoint was also the headquarters of the 736th Grenadier Regiment. Its commander made sure that his men ‘fought with determination to the bitter end’. In certain cases, the defenders had to be ‘blown out of their emplacements by heavy explosive charges laid by the battalion pioneers’. The 3rd Infantry Division, although well aware of Hillman’s existence - it was accurately marked on all their maps - had gravely underestimated its strength.
Although the British were suffering many casualties around Hillman, the 60,000 citizens of Caen endured far worse. The heavy bombers of the RAF, as part of the strategy to slow German reinforcements, had begun to bomb the city systematically at 13.45 hours. The leaflets dropped that morning with the ‘Message Urgent du Commandement Suprême des Forces Expéditionnaires Alliées’ warning them
André Heintz, a young member of the Resistance, saw the formation of aircraft approach and the bombs drop, oscillating as they fell. Buildings shuddered with the explosions. Some seemed about to collapse and then settled back into place. Others crashed down, their façades falling into the narrow streets, blocking them. The smashed masonry produced huge clouds of dust, from which sometimes people emerged as if through a wall of smoke. Covered in a fine, pale powder, they had a spectral air, holding damaged arms or shoulders. Far more were buried in the rubble of their homes with their children, since school had been cancelled that morning. A doctor hurrying on his way to the hospital saw the main Monoprix department store in flames. Bombs severed the water mains, so the sapeurs pompiers of the fire service were extremely limited in what they could do.
Among the main buildings severely damaged or destroyed were the Abbaye aux Hommes, a huge, round-ended basilica with five spires, the Palais des Ducs, which dated back to the fourteenth century, a cloister dating from the period of William the Conqueror, the ornate Eglise Saint-Etienne, and the Gare Routière, a massive art deco terminus. Several bombers were shot down during the course of the operation. One, on fire, skimmed the roof of a manor house outside the city near Carpiquet and crashed in the park beyond. There was an immense fireball and ammunition began to explode. ‘One could see the silhouettes of terrorized cattle galloping in front of the flames,’ wrote a witness. ‘It was a hallucinating sight.’
The youth of the city rapidly revealed considerable courage and dedication. Many were already members of the Défense Passive, the volunteer aid service, and many more immediately joined to help. Ambulances could not get through blocked streets, so the badly injured had to be taken on stretchers to the main emergency hospital set up in the convent of the Bon Sauveur. A very large man being carried across the ruined city by stretcher bearers, sweating under their load, could not stop apologizing: ‘If only I was a little less fat,’ he kept saying. Other volunteers began to shift rubble in an attempt to search for people who might be buried alive. One young man from the Défense Passive found a looter at work and threatened to arrest him. The looter laughed in his face because he was unarmed. The infuriated volunteer swung his spade at him and its blade happened to sever the man’s jugular. In the looter’s pockets were found a quantity of jewels, and - it is said - the severed hand of a woman with rings on the fingers.
The refuge of the Bon Sauveur itself had also suffered. A nun who leaped for shelter into one bomb crater was buried by another bomb exploding next to it. An outbuilding of the convent housed an asylum for the insane. Some of the last bombs to be dropped struck it, killing several of the inmates and driving the rest wild with fear, screaming as they held on to the bars. Heintz’s sister was assisting one of the surgeons in the improvised operating theatre, so he decided to go there to help too. On seeing the pails of blood, he suddenly had the idea of soaking sheets in it and spreading them out on the lawn as a signal to the aircraft that this was a hospital. Once the blood dried, it was no longer scarlet, but another cross was improvised the next morning with red carpets and sheets dyed in mercurochrome.
Six surgical teams had been on standby since news of the invasion that morning. The Défense Passive organization for Caen had been based at the Bon Sauveur since the beginning of the year. The Lycée Malherbe was designated its subsidiary hospital, while on the other bank of the Orne, the Hospice des Petites Soeurs des Pauvres also acted as a casualty reception centre. The different organizations worked together with great effect. At the request of the surgeons, groups of police set out to seize supplies from pharmacies and clinics around the town. The medical profession in Caen was highly praised in an official report which recorded the ‘magnificent attitude of the town’s doctors who showed a boundless devotion’.
In the southern fringes of the city, some 15,000 people sought shelter in tunnels, recently rediscovered, which were part of the medieval stone quarries. They had packed suitcases with food and prayer books, not knowing that these damp, airless quarters were to be their squalid refuge for just over a month. With no sanitation or water, almost everyone suffered from lice, fleas and bedbugs.
A smaller but more intense tragedy had already taken place in Caen that morning. The Gestapo had gone to the Maison d’Arrêt, the city prison, and entered the section where French Resistance prisoners were held by German guards. The French warders on the civil side watched what happened through a hole in the canvas screen which had been erected to blank off the German military section. Altogether, eighty-seven members of the Resistance were taken out into the courtyard and shot that morning in batches of six. Victims of the massacre ranged across the political spectrum of the Resistance, from the ORA to Communists, and from a railway worker to the Marquis de Touchet. Another prisoner, who heard the shooting from a cell, recorded that none of them cried out except one man who, on entering the courtyard, perceived his fate. He began to shout, ‘Oh, no! No! My wife, my children . . . my children!’ He was silenced by the volley.
That night the German woman warder, who had previously behaved monstrously towards her charges, was ‘pale and evidently terrified’ by what had happened. She even returned to the surviving prisoners some of their possessions, insisting, ‘The German army is honest.’ Three weeks later, when the British had still not taken the city, the Gestapo came back and removed the bodies.16
The bitterness of many citizens over the destruction of Caen is not hard to imagine. ‘With a bestial frenzy,’ wrote one, ‘the bombs eviscerated the city without pity.’ Another described the bombing as ‘useless as well as criminal’. There had never been more than 300 Germans in the town, he wrote, and even if the purpose was to disrupt transport communications, the bombers failed to hit a single bridge. Altogether some 800 people died in Caen as a result of the bombing and naval bombardments of the first two days. Many thousands more were wounded.
A number of other towns astride main routes to the invasion area suffered a similar fate. As well as Saint-Lô, Caen and Falaise, Lisieux to the east received two major bombing raids. ‘The town is in flames and appears to be completely abandoned,’ a report to Paris stated. It also demanded that the Commissaire of Police be punished for having fled his post during the night while the town burned. So many firemen were killed and so much equipment was lost during the first raid that it became impossible to fight the flames when more bombers returned. To the south, both Argentan and Ecouché were described as ‘almost destroyed’. In Argentan ‘all the gendarmes [were] killed or injured’. The bombing caused terrible panic as well as widespread destruction of homes. Altogether, some 100,000 residents of Calvados would become refugees. Caen’s population of 60,000 was reduced to 17,000.
A curious contradiction lingers within this strategy of interdiction by bombing. If Montgomery really did intend to capture Caen on the first day, then why did he want the RAF to smash it so that its streets became impassable? That could help only the defender.
In London, meanwhile, everyone waited uncertainly for morenews after the King’s broadcast to the nation. Churchill later made a statement to a packed House of Commons. ‘This is the first of a series of landings,’ he said, bolstering Plan Fortitude, even if he was technically guilty of misleading the House of Commons. ‘So far the commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan - and what a plan!’
Outside, London’s streets and shops were empty, with taxis cruising about unable to find a customer. ‘In Westminster Abbey,’ wrote a woman journalist, ‘typists in summer dresses and the usual elderly visitors in country-looking clothes came in to pray beside the tomb of the last war’s Unknown Soldier, or to gaze rather vacantly at the tattered colours and the marble heroes of battles which no longer seemed remote.’ Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke was unable to get out of a lunch that day for the Maharajah of Kashmir with Mrs Churchill
Less than 200 miles to the south, the battle for Hillman was indeed still fierce. The unfortunate Suffolks were unfairly blamed for the delay and so was their brigadier. The main fault lay with the 3rd Division’s lack of foresight to provide sufficient support, such as AVREs, which could have knocked out bunkers with their petards. And nobody can blame the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, which had pushed ahead bravely towards Caen with insufficient armoured support. Even taking into account the unpredictably high tide that day, the responsibility rested at higher levels. Neither General Sir Miles Dempsey, the commander-in-chief of the British Second Army, nor General Montgomery had thought through this vital part of the operation and allotted priorities clearly enough.
The Canadians also lacked the American half-track, but they had shown the right approach in their advance on Carpiquet by mounting infantry on tanks and rounding up every available Bren-gun carrier. But the British attempt to take Caen was bound to fail, even if there had not been delays at the start and congestion on the beaches when the second wave arrived. The advance of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry to Lebisey, less than a couple of miles from the centre of Caen, was a courageous achievement. Its battered remnants had to withdraw, lacking that vital armoured support.
On the other hand, their fate would have been far worse if the 21st Panzer-Division had received the decisive leadership which Feuchtinger so conspicuously failed to provide. By the time Oppeln-Bronikowski’s panzer regiment had circumnavigated its way through Caen and was ready to attack the gap between the 3rd Division and the Canadians late in the afternoon, the British were ready to receive them. Lieutenant Colonel Eadie, the commanding officer of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, had predicted their move. He had concentrated three troops of ‘Firefly’ Shermans armed with the seventeen-pounder gun, a main armament almost as effective as the Tiger’s 88 mm, just west of Hermanville.17 With their greatly superior range, these tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry knocked out thirteen of Oppeln-Bronikowski’s Mark IV panzers in a matter of minutes. Only a small detachment of the 21st Panzer-Division slipped through to the coast, but they too withdrew rapidly.
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