D day the battle for nor.., p.18
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy,
By a happy coincidence for the British, the dramatic appearance at 20.30 hours of nearly 250 gliders bringing an air-landing brigade to reinforce the 6th Airborne Division, helped persuade Oppeln-Bronikowski to withdraw. The battlefield virtually froze as everyone stared in admiration at the sight. A subaltern in the 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles then overheard one of his soldiers comment on the arrival of their sister unit by air: ‘I suppose that’s what the 1st Battalion calls a fucking route march.’ Suddenly the flak detachments and machine guns of the 21st Panzer opened up, firing furiously. They brought down fewer than a dozen gliders, although they claimed twenty-six.
Hillman was finally subdued at 20.15 hours. The Suffolks began to dig in for the night and their supporting tank squadron pulled back to reammunition. All work stopped as they too watched the gliders arrive. ‘It equally impressed the German prisoners,’ their commanding officer noted, ‘but in a different way. They did not seem to think it was quite fair.’
A different sense of unreality still cocooned their supreme commander at the Berghof. Three hours before, General Günther Blumentritt, the chief of staff of OB West, had to tell Seventh Army headquarters that Hitler wanted ‘the enemy annihilated by the evening of 6 June since there exists a danger of additional sea and airborne landings. In accordance with an order from General Jodl, all units must be diverted to the point of penetration in Calvados. The beachhead there must be cleaned up by NOT later than tonight.’ The chief of staff Seventh Army replied that that would be impossible. Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, who was with him at the Berghof, saw that he had not yet accepted the true might of Allied air power: ‘He was still convinced that the ground forces could be thrown back.’
A striking example of Allied air supremacy took place that very evening. Together with the SS Hitler Jugend Division, Hitler was counting on another full-strength panzer division to drive the Allies back into the sea. Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division had been ordered to make all speed for the coast. But even before Panzer Lehr moved out during the afternoon of 6 June, its units were bombed in their assembly area. Bayerlein reported to Generaloberst Dollmann at his headquarters at Le Mans. He wanted to keep his tank troops under cover during the day to avoid the Allied fighter-bombers, but Dollmann ordered him to keep moving. Bayerlein, ‘a short, stocky, energetic man’, who had been Rommel’s chief of staff in North Africa, was almost speechless with rage at the long delay and then the stupid waste.
Rommel himself was not in a good mood when he returned to discover that the last remaining bridge over the lower Seine had been destroyed by Allied fighter-bombers. He went straight to the operations room in the Château de La Roche-Guyon and stared for a long time at the map. ‘What’s happened to our proud Luftwaffe?’ he asked cynically. The answer was predictable. ‘How goes the attack of the 21st Panzer-Division?’ No details had arrived. ‘Why were the Panzer Lehr Division and the 12th SS held up?’ In reply, Speidel explained the refusal of OKW to come to a decision. ‘Madness,’ said Rommel. ‘Of course, now they will arrive too late, but we must get them moving immediately.’
The Allies, although they had failed to secure key objectives, were at least ashore. Hitler’s beloved panzer divisions were incapable of dislodging them now. But the fighting ahead would make the Allied casualties suffered on D-Day appear light in comparison. Those British formations which felt that they had ‘done it all before’ in North Africa were about to receive a nasty shock when they came up against the Waffen-SS. Allied air power could do comparatively little to help them when it came to fighting skilled and determined defenders, village by village in the cornfields round Caen and field by field in the Normandy bocage.18
Securing the Beachheads
On the night following D-Day, few in the Omaha beachhead managed to sleep. In a quarry beside the Vierville draw, 29th Division staff officers bedded down on discarded lifebelts at their headquarters. Up on the bluffs and in apple orchards inland, farmhands and Pennsylvania coal miners from their division dug their foxholes with professional speed. They were to need them as protection from the indiscriminate firing that night. Nervous and exhausted men shot at any movement or silhouette, imagining it to be a German sniper. One young soldier shot a calf with his Thompson sub-machine gun.
Others tried to create an instant trench by exploding a charge of TNT in the ground, with the warning cry of ‘Fire in the hole!’ This only heightened the impression of fighting in all directions. Luftwaffe bombers arrived after nightfall to attack the ships at anchor, and the barrage of anti-aircraft tracer fire prompted many to compare it to a Fourth of July firework party. But the German air raid was too little and too late to help the defenders.
On 7 June, Oberstleutnant Ziegelmann of the 352nd Infanterie-Division looked out from the cliffs near Pointe et Raz de la Percée. He was less than 2,000 yards to the west of General Gerow’s command post on Omaha beach. ‘The sea was like the picture of “Kiel review of the fleet”,’ he noted angrily. ‘Ships of all sorts were close together on the beach and in the water broadly echeloned in depth. And the entire agglomeration remained there intact without any real interference from the German side. I clearly understood the mood of the German soldier abandoned by the Luftwaffe.’ The embittered cry of ‘Wo ist die Luftwaffe? ’ became a constant refrain of the German army’s experience in Normandy.
Fragments of German battalions still held on in the sector, especially on the cliffs round the Pointe du Hoc, where they had counter-attacked Colonel Rudder’sRangers. The Americans had finally cleared Colleville-sur-Mer and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer thatmorning. One soldier advancing through the village had turned to find a military policeman just a few yards behind him putting up ‘out of bounds’ signs. On the beach, the detritus of war defied description, with burnt-out vehicles, smashed landing craft, abandoned gas masks, Bangalore torpedoes and weapons. The scene did not stop that stickler for discipline General Gerhardt from yelling at a soldier for dropping orange peel on the ground.
Other isolated pockets of German resistance still had to be overcome. When a German soldier suddenly emerged from a hole to surrender, the troops who surrounded him found that he had ‘a regular hotel underground’ with a radio. They presumed that it was for calling down artillery fire on the beach. They summoned some military police. ‘The MP Sergeant was from Czechoslovakia, and apparently his parents had been killed by the Nazis, so he shot him on the spot as a spy.’
Houses in Vierville were also placed out of bounds to American troops. French civilians were equally forbidden on the beach, to keep them out of the way. They felt that their presence even in their own village was unwelcome. American soldiers ‘looked at us in a very suspicious way, those first days,’ a French woman wrote later. The suspicion was mutual. An engineer sergeant with two of his men went into Saint-Laurent and entered the church, having seen a German slip in throughthedoor.Theyfoundhimspread-eagled and mortally wounded in front of the altar. The sergeant then noticed that the two soldiers with him, both from Alabama, were taking the coins from the poor box near the entrance. ‘I guess they didn’t know what a poor box was,’ he said later. In fact, they just wanted a few coins as souvenirs, the obsession of almost all soldiers arriving in this very foreign land. But the priest entered at that moment and, taking in the scene, was scandalized. ‘Pour les pauvres!’ he shouted at them.
The beach remained a dangerous place, and not just for civilians. Odd artillery rounds still fell and men from the 6th Engineer Special Brigade were blowing up obstacles and mines. White tape marked the ‘deloused’ areas, but further on bodies could still be seen in minefields which had not yet been cleared. Bulldozer crews worked hard to open routes for the follow-up troops and vehicles landing. Bodies were stacked outside tented casualty clearing centres. A makeshift cemetery was cordoned off. Spare soldiers were assigned to grave registration. ‘We all seemed in a trance,’ noted one of them, ‘removing dog tags and other morbid duti
An almost constant stream of prisoners arrived under escort on the beach to be searched by the military police. Many of them were Poles or Soviet Hiwis in German uniform with their hands up. ‘Some were crying,’ recorded the same engineer sergeant. ‘They didn’t know what to expect from us. Well they were lucky to have been taken on this front instead of having been taken on the Russian front where they would have been shot immediately as traitors.’ The vast majority of them would be handed back by the Allies to the Soviet authorities later. Some were executed, but most were dispatched to slave labour camps. Many of the prisoners from Central Asia had such oriental features that American soldiers believed that they must be Japanese attached to the German army.
Just before dawn, General Gerhardt had received orders from his corps commander, General Gerow, to advance inland towards Isigny and the River Vire to link up with the 101st Airborne. Gerhardt wanted to use his reserve regiment, the 175th Infantry, which had not yet landed. Getting it ashore would take much of the day. A more urgent priority, however, was to relieve Colonel Rudder’s 2nd Rangers on the Pointe duHoc. Outnumberedby the German battalion ofthe 916thGrenadier-Regiment, they were also low on ammunition. Their only support came from the guns of the destroyer the USS Harding.
A mixed force of 116th Infantry and Rangers from the Omaha landing, strengthened with two Sherman tanks, attacked west along the coast towards Pointe du Hoc. But with a German strongpoint on the cliffs nearby (the one from which Ziegelmann observed the fleet), and other pockets of resistance, it took until the next day before they approached Rudder’s embattled force.
Rudder’s men, having run out of ammunition, were using captured German weapons. Their very distinctive noise confused the relief force and the Shermans from the 743rd Tank Battalion began firing on the Rangers, killing four and wounding another six. ‘Again Colonel Rudder,’ wrote an engineer with his group, ‘displayed his great courage and leadership as he helped the men in his command post hold up an American flag as high as they could, so the troops advancing would know that we were Americans.’ One report described their relief as a ‘stumble-footed action’, because another American force, coming in from the south-west, began firing at the original relief force approaching from the south-east.
Part of the 1st Infantry Division, the ‘Big Red One’, had meanwhile advanced east on 7 June along the coast road towards Port-en-Bessin, with infantry riding on the Shermans of the 745th Tank Battalion. There they met up with elements of the British 50th Division. Almost immediately bartering began, with English field gunners swapping eggs for American cigarettes.
Profiting from Allied air supremacy, American artillery had the great advantage of being able to use light spotter planes. That morning, an artillery officer with the 1st Division organized a makeshift runway on the bluffs overlooking Omaha beach. He went up to a bulldozer driver.
‘Hey, I need a hedgerow knocked out,’ he told him. ‘Can you help me?’
‘Sure,’ came the reply.
So the operator brought his bulldozer over, knocked out the hedgerow and made them a runway a little more than fifty yards long, which was all the Piper Cub needed to take off. As the sea was much calmer, artillery ammunition for their guns was soon coming ashore in relays on pre-loaded DUKWs, which no longer risked sinking.
An air service squadron started to construct a proper landing strip for transport planes above Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. Finished in record time, it was designated A-1. Soon olive drab C-47 Skytrains were landing ammunition in a constant stream, then taking off again filled with wounded strapped to litters. On her first trip, a flight nurse found that one of her patients had died. To prevent the others finding out, she pretended to check him every few minutes until they landed back in England.
While some things happened quickly, others seemed to take an interminable time. Nobody was more exasperated by the delays than the commander of the 29th Infantry Division, Major General Charles Hunter Gerhardt. Gerhardt was in some ways a miniature version of General Patton. A diminutive cavalryman with a large ego, he prided himself on his appearance, with highly polished riding boots and helmet correctly fastened under the chin. The 29th was a National Guard division and right from the start Gerhardt had intended to smarten it up in every way possible. He had no patience for paperwork and pushed his officers even harder than the men. In the process, he seems to have inspired admiration and loathing in equal quantities.
Gerhardt’s determination to capture the town of Isigny in record time was frustrated by the delays in sending the 175th Infantry Regiment ashore. Then, to his fury, he heard that the navy had landed his men a mile and a half to the east. By the time they reached the Vierville draw, they were shaken by the bodies they passed and the occasional firing from a few German positions which had still not yet been suppressed by the 115th Regiment.
Mopping up was slow, dangerous work, because of isolated riflemen and machine guns. A lieutenant desperate to exert his authority soon fell victim. He had deliberately said to his platoon sergeant in front of everyone, ‘Sergeant, I want you to understand that you have my permission to shoot any man who does not obey any order given from here on out.’ When they came under fire, he took the sergeant’s binoculars and rifle. Rejecting advice from his non-coms, he announced that he was going ‘to get those bastards’ and began to climb a prominent tree in a hedgerow. After firing a couple of rounds, he was hit, and fell mortally wounded on the far side of the hedge.
That evening, a German pioneer from the 352nd Infanterie-Division found a copy of the American operational plan on the body of a young officer from the 29th Division. He passed it to Oberst Ziegelmann, who could hardly believe his eyes. The key points were conveyed to General Marcks that night, but the documents did not reach Rommel and OB West for another two days. Rundstedt’s chief of staff, Blumentritt, wrote that the plan clearly showed that this was ‘Die Invasion’, but ‘the Führer personallystillexpectedasecondcross-Channel invasion against the Fifteenth Army at any time up to the beginning of August’. Plan Fortitude’s deception had proved more effective than the Allies had ever dared imagine.
On 8 June, the 115th Infantry, having secured the 29th Division’s beachhead, advanced due south to the partly inundated valley of the River Aure. They faced little opposition because Generalmajor Kraiss had pulled back the remaining troops during the night. But once across the marshes, the regiment faced ‘a tough learning period, with some successes and quite a few disasters’. With great bravery and skill, ‘Lieutenant Kermit Miller of E Company crossed the inundated area just north of Colombières with his platoon and killed 46 Germans, knocked out two armored cars and one staff car, wrecked an enemy headquarters and returned with 12 prisoners.’
Providing a grim foretaste of fighting in the hedgerows of the bocage, the worst of the disasters took place during the night of 10 June. The 2nd Battalion had been warned by some locals that there were about 100 Germans ahead. ‘It was nearly midnight now,’ a report stated afterwards, ‘and the men were so tired that they just fell down and started snoring where they lay. One of the men in O Company fell down, discharged his gun and killed the man ahead of him. The shot gave away their position and German machineguns opened up.’ The battalion had halted in a small field, unaware that they were surrounded by a detachment from the 352nd Infanterie-Division. The adjutant and the headquarters company commander were killed and the communications officer captured. ‘The assistant battalion surgeon went crazy and about 100 men were captured. Colonel Warfield was heard to say “I never thought my men would say Kamerad”. The remaining men of the battalion were very jittery after this.’ Lieutenant Colonel Warfield, the commanding officer, and Lieutenant Miller later died of their wounds. General Gerhardt exploded in anger when he heard that the battalion had not dug foxholes an
The 115th became even more unnerved when they had ‘trouble from those trigger happy [Texan] boys’ in the 2nd Infantry Division, coming up from behind shooting at everything to their front. ‘One battalion of the 115th Infantry attributed 3% of its casualties to the 2nd Division.’
Gerhardt, meanwhile, had been urging on his 175th Infantry Regiment towards Isigny, famous for its Normandy butter and Camembert cheese. Because radio communications had not improved, Gerhardt designated ‘post-riders’, who were officers in Jeeps, dashing back and forth, reporting on the progress and exact position of the leading troops. They needed to drive fast to avoid the fire of German stragglers. Gerhardt himself, wearing white gloves and a blue scarf round his neck (which matched the blue ribbon round the neck of his dog), wanted to be wherever there was action. And if there was no action, he wanted to know why. Gerhardt did not believe in making himself inconspicuous. He was driven around in a specially adapted Jeep named ‘Vixen Tor’, on which was mounted a red flashing light and siren.
Accompanied by Shermans of the 747th Tank Battalion, the 175th Infantry Regiment found the advance to be more of a fast route march. Norman farmers offered milk from churns to the thirsty men. There were a few delaying actions by German groups. More serious losses were then inflicted by a squadron of RAF Typhoons mistaking the lead battalion for retreating Germans. Six men were killed and eighteen wounded. ‘John Doughfoot looked very much like Hans Kraut from the air,’ wrote an artillery officer with them. The infantry were less forgiving. They promised in future to shoot at any aircraft of whatever nationality heading in their direction.
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes