D day the battle for nor.., p.19
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.19

           Antony Beevor

  The commander of the 175th was reluctant to advance further without more artillery support, but Gerhardt did not take kindly to such excuses. He ordered the regiment to continue the advance through the night of 8 June and by midnight it was outside Isigny. Most of the prisoners taken were Polish or Osttruppen. The anti-tank company was astonished when ‘an American on a white horse came down the road with about eleven prisoners’. He called out to them, “‘These are Polish, all but two. They’re Germans.” He then took out his pistol and shot both of them in the back of the head and we just stood there.’

  Isigny, having been heavily bombarded by Allied warships, was ablaze in many places. Gerhardt had been right. There was little resistance. When a lone German rifleman fired at the column from a church steeple, one of the Shermans traversed its 75 mm main armament on to the target and ‘that was the end of the German in the steeple’. Brigadier General Cota pushed the tanks up to the bridge over the River Aure. There, they came under fire from machine guns on the far side. The twelve tanks lined up and their weight of fire forced a rapid retreat. Infantrymen from the 175th, accompanied by Cota, dashed across the bridge. Cota could hardly believe that the Germans had failed to blow it up. It was one of the few structures untouched. ‘Rubble was everywhere,’ an officer reported. ‘The roads were all but impassable to motor traffic and I stood in the middle of what had been a church without realizing that there had even been a building on the site.’ Isigny appeared to be abandoned, but some Frenchwomen emerged from the ruins. They began to strip dead German soldiers of their boots, socks and shirts.

  On the Cotentin peninsula, meanwhile, the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions had received no respite, even though units from the 4th Infantry Division had begun to reinforce them from Utah beach. Generalleutnant von Schlieben mounted even stronger counter-attacks against Sainte-Mère-Eglise with the 709th Infanterie-Division and other detachments. His chief priority was to thwart any American attempt to advance on Cherbourg.

  The most serious attack reached the centre of Sainte-Mère-Eglise during the afternoon of 7 June.An artillery officer from the 4th. Division, arriving by Jeep, reported on what he saw: ‘17.00 hours went into Sainte-Mère-Eglise by Jeep from the south. Tank battle going on. Flame throwers. Saw a German soldier, a “human torch”, crawl to the center of the street from the side when a German [panzer] rolled right over him squashing him flat and extinguishing the flames at the same time. American tanks destroyed most of the German tanks, for the loss of three of their own. Fighting moved northwards. Saw a sunken road north of the town which the German tanks had used and also crushed some of their own dead. Part of 8th Infantry took this road and used it for their own defense that night. They had to pull the German bodies aside to dig their foxholes and several of them fell to pieces.’

  Another force under Generalleutnant Hellmich concentrated near Montebourg that day, ready to attack the Americans’ northern flank between Sainte-Mère-Eglise and the coast. A spotter aircraft and a naval fire-control party directed the guns of the battleship Nevada on to the target. Firing at a range of more than fifteen miles, the projected attack was broken up. But the town of Montebourg itself suffered badly on that Wednesday afternoon as the naval shells exploded, setting fire to a number of shops. In the main square, the statue of Jeanne d’Arc remained undamaged when all the buildings around were smashed. Since Montebourg sat astride the main road to Cherbourg, the Germans were busy fortifying the abbaye for a determined defence of the town. And at Valognes, to the north-west, one shell exploded in a dormitory of the convent and killed several nuns.

  The front lines were at least becoming clearer after the confused fighting of the previous day. Paratroopers and the 4th Infantry Division forced the surrender of the 795th Ost-Bataillon of Georgians surrounded at Turqueville. And further south, Oberstleutnant von der Heydte’s 6th Paratroop Regiment pulled back to Saint-Côme-du-Mont after one of its battalions was cut off and destroyed. Other pockets of resistance closer to Utah beach were also eliminated. At Saint-Martin-de-Varreville, the elaborate strongpoint included pillboxes linked by underground tunnels ‘and Jerry went from one to another at will often returning to one we thought had been captured’.

  The fighting on both sides remained just as vicious. An officer with the 4th Infantry Division stated that the bodies of four men from an airborne medical unit had been found: ‘Their throats had been cut almost from ear to ear.’ A trick frequently reported in the bocage fighting was for German soldiers to pretend to surrender. Then, as soon as Americans approached to take them prisoner, they would throw themselves to the ground as a hidden machine-gunner opened fire. The 4th Infantry first encountered this with German paratroopers from the 6th Paratroop Regiment, who apparently killed a lieutenant in this way.

  Lessreliable reportsclaimedthat Germanswereputting on American uniforms. This only became true later the following month, when German soldiers took combat jackets from American corpses when their own uniforms had started to disintegrate. A most unconvincing, although extraordinarily widespread belief developed among American, and sometimes British troops, that Frenchwomen, supposedly the lovers of German soldiers, acted as snipers. Near Saint-Marcouf on 7 June a sergeant reported on ‘sniping coming from a building in the town. When investigated, [we] found a French woman and a man with German rifles. Both denied sniping. Both were dead two seconds later.’ The possibility that French civilians might have collected German weapons to give to the Resistance did not seem to have occurred to Allied soldiers at the time.

  A number of American soldiers appear to have acquired a strong suspicion of the French before even setting foot in the country. ‘France was like enemy country,’ commented a captain in the 29th Infantry Division. Many had never been to another country where a foreign language was spoken and found it hard to see the difference between ‘enemy-occupied’ and just ‘enemy’. Others said openly that they

  ‘couldn’t trust them in Normandy’. There is a story, perhaps true, perhaps apocryphal, of an American tank platoon pulling into a Norman farmyard. The farmer emerges with cider and Calvados and all the soldiers have a drink. Afterwards the Norman farmer says to the young American lieutenant that the drinks come to 100 francs. The lieutenant protests that they have just liberated him. ‘But what are you complaining about?’ the farmer replies. ‘It’s no more than I charged the Germans.’

  The battlefield myth of female snipers spread with astonishing rapidity through ‘latrine rumours’, as they were known. But stories of young Frenchwomenstaying withtheir German boyfriendswere almost certainly true. Just inland from Omaha beach, a sergeant in the 6th Engineer Special Brigade recounted, ‘we saw in the ditches French girls lying alongside their German soldiers. These girls had gone along with the [German] army as they retreated and they were killed by our planes and they were found lying side by side.’

  On both sides, mercifully, there were also cases of unexpected humanity. On the northern flank near Sainte-Mère-Eglise, Sergeant Prybowski, a medical non-com, was searching hedgerows for wounded when he came across two injured paratroopers. As he sat there applying bandages to their wounds, one of them whispered to him, ‘You’d better get down. There’s an 88 back of you.’ The sergeant laughingly turned round, only to stare down the barrel of a field gun. In the hedgerow a group of German artillerymen were watching them. But they allowed Prybowski to finish bandaging the two men and take them away.

  To the west, at Chef du Pont and La Fière along the River Merderet, the 82nd Airborne could do little more than hang on to its positions until reinforced and resupplied with ammunition. To the west of the river, a force under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Shanley was surrounded on a small feature known as Hill 30. With great courage and endurance, Shanley and his men held out for four days with no food apart from their original emergency rations. Many were wounded and had to be carried to the shelter of ditches and hedgerows, but the paratroopers were so weak from hunger and fatigue that four of them foun
d it hard to carry one casualty. ‘There were so many wounded along the ditches, they had them head to toe,’ one soldier recounted. Shanley sent messengers to the main force east of the Merderet, begging for plasma. A small group of paratroopers tried to slip through with a supply, but they were all wounded.

  Surrounded by part of the 1057th Grenadier-Regiment, Shanley’s reduced force was heavily outnumbered. Then they found that the Germans were bringing up artillery. This development was spotted from across the river. A naval gunfire controller radioed back to the bombardment force offshore. Allied warships, at a range of more than twelve miles, proceeded to knock out the German artillery without inflicting serious casualties on the beleaguered paratroopers.

  Many of Shanley’s men kept going only with the help of Benzedrine. Lacking radio communications, they had no idea whether the invasion had succeeded or failed. But their prolonged resistance on Hill 30 greatly helped the establishment of a bridgehead over the Merderet by the time they were finally relieved. The newly landed 90th Infantry Division now had the task of increasing that bridgehead, prior to cutting off the peninsula for a general advance on Cherbourg. But due to a lack of leadership and discipline at many levels, the 90th started disastrously. Before the division reached the front, its point unit, on sighting a column of German prisoners being escorted back towards Utah, opened fire with every weapon available. Fighting the 91st Luftlande-Division among the hedgerows proved traumatic for these untested troops. Their performance was so lamentable that the divisional commander and two of his regimental commanders were sacked.

  American generals were ruthless with subordinate commanders who ‘could not get their troops to perform the task which a division or corps said had to be done’. Even that fire-eater General Patton felt the US Army resorted to sacking commanders before they had been given a properchance. The combat historian Forrest Pogue talked with a colonel who had just been relieved of his command. ‘He was sitting out a long the road with his belongings beside him, waiting for a jeep to take him to the rear. The day before he had held the destiny of three thousand or more men in his hands; now he looked almost like a mendicant. He was dazed and uncertain whether he could control his voice.’19

  For Overlord planners, one of the key items in their calculations had been the speed with which German reinforcements would reach the invasion front. Much depended on Allied efforts to seal off thebattlefield by the bombing programme of ‘Transportation’, by Allied fighter-bombers and by the sabotage and attacks of the French Resistance groups trained by SOE and the Jedburgh teams. From 7 June, Rundstedt’s headquarters finally had permission to bring up reinforcements from Brittany and south of the Loire.

  One of the first formations the Americans were to encounter in the battle for Carentan was the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen. This new division was named after an old warhorse of the sixteenth century who, after losing his right hand in combat, had a blacksmith make him an iron fist as a replacement. The iron fist became the divisional emblem. On 10 April, less than two months before D-Day, Himmler had inspected the division at Thouars, an event which had ended with them all singing together the SS anthem, the ‘Treuelied’. Although the division contained many young soldiers (60 per cent were under twenty), the 17th SS was not nearly as well trained and armed as the SS Hitler Jugend. It had no modern tanks, just a regiment of assault guns, and the morale of its soldiers was not nearly as fanatical as in other Waffen-SS formations. ‘Well, we don’t know what’s still ahead of us,’ a soldier wrote home before reaching the front. ‘There’s a lot of news I could write to you about but it’s better that I’m silent. One’s known for a long time that it had to come to this. Maybe we will envy those who have already died.’

  At dawn on 7 June, the first units of the 17th SS began to move out from their bases just south of the River Loire. They crossed the river at Montsoreau and motored on towards Saint-Lô, through small towns with advertisements on the walls for Castrol and aperitifs such as Byrrh and Dubonnet. By the evening of 8 June, advance elements of the reconnaissance battalion had reached the eastern edge of the Forêt de Cerisy, unaware that the American 1st Infantry Division from Omaha was heading in their direction.

  The next morning, SS-Untersturmführer Hoffmann of the division’s 38th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment was going forward west of Isigny to reconnoitre the positions his troops were to take up. A Kübelwagen, the German equivalent of the Jeep, came towards them at speed. There was an army major in the front and two dead soldiers in the back. ‘Turn round!’ he yelled. ‘Ahead everything’s lost. The Amis are just behind me.’

  Hoffmann continued up to the top of the hill, halted the vehicle and went forward on foot. He did not need binoculars. He could see American infantry advancing just 400 yards away. Behind them were some motorized units and, to the east, he could see a column of tanks on a road. Hoffmann’s driver shouted that they must turn back. He reversed at high speed, then swung round. Hoffmann had to leap behind a tree. The American soldiers had spotted him and opened fire. The two SS men drove back as quickly as possible. Hoffmann’s commander asked him why he had returned so soon. ‘Because our start-line is already occupied,’ he replied. ‘By the enemy.’ Most of the 17th SS Division, however, was held back near Saint-Lô because of fuel shortages, before being allocated to a counter-attack planned against the American paratroopers attacking Carentan.

  On 7 June at 11.00 hours, Generalleutnant Eugen Meindl of the II Paratroop Corps in Brittany ordered the 3rd Paratroop Division to move to the north-east of Saint-Lô‘and push the enemy to the north back into the sea in order to retake the coast’. Its commander, Generalleutnant Richard Schimpf, sent off his few motorized units that evening and two battalions in trucks via Avranches. The units on foot had to march twenty-five miles on each of the short June nights. They suffered ‘a general exhaustion among troops who were unaccustomed to marching in their new parachute boots’. Some were so footsore that officers commandeered farm carts drawn by huge Percheron horses. It took them ten days to reach the south-west end of the Forêt de Cerisy.

  Schimpf was given the remnants of the 352nd Infanterie-Division which had escaped from the Omaha front. He wanted to push forward into the forest along with the reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzergrenadiers, but his corps commander, Generalleutnant Meindl, refused. He told Schimpf to organize a front, but it was no more than ‘a mere line of combat outposts’, with his flak battalion as the only anti-tank defence. In fact, the order to hold back had come from Seventh Army headquarters, which felt that Schimpf had ‘insufficient forces’ and that they were ‘poorly trained for attacks’. The strength of the division ‘rested in defence’. But Schimpf was still convinced that ‘if the Americans at that time had launched an energetic attack from the Forêt de Cerisy, Saint-Lô would have fallen’.

  General Mahlmann’s 353rd Infanterie-Division had even less motorized transport. His most mobile units were two battalions on bicycles designated the Radfahrbeweglichemarschgruppe (the Mobile Bicycle March Group). The rest of the division, following on foot, was delayed by Resistance attacks which inflicted a number of casualties, including a severely wounded company commander. The Germans also suffered from Allied air attacks, forcing them to hide in barns and orchards during daylight hours. Another divisional commander described these approach marches as a ‘nocturnal game of hide-and-seek’. The journey, which cost the 353rd a tenth of its strength, took them eleven days.

  Most notorious of all movements to the Normandy front was that of the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich. Its commander, SS-Brigadeführer Heinz Lammerding, had been chief of staff to the infamous Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who would soon be brought in to destroy the Warsaw uprising. The Das Reich Division revelled in its brutality. It had taken part in Partisanenkrieg in the Soviet Union and the mass murder of Jews with Einsatzgruppe B in the region around Minsk. When they moved from the eastern front to the area of Toulouse in April, its officers saw no reason why the
y should behave any differently. On 21 May, in the Lot, they had massacred fifteen people, including several women, as reprisals for some shots fired at one of their detachments. On the same day, all the males in another village were deported to Germany.

  Inspired by Allied messages and de Gaulle’s broadcast, the over-hasty rising of the Resistance in many parts of France alarmed all German commanders, not just the SS. Many saw it as ‘the initiation of a Communist revolution’. There was an element of truth in this view. On 7 June, the Communist-led FTP took over Tulle, the departmental capital of Corrèze, and inflicted 122 casualties on the Germans, shooting a number of their prisoners and mutilating some corpses of the forty dead. Nothing could have been better calculated to provoke a violent reaction from the Waffen-SS.

  On 8 June, the Das Reich began its long journey north from Montauban. Some of its units reached Tulle the following day. They hanged ninety-nine citizens of the town from trees in the streets. Another 200 were deported to Germany. On 10 June, the 3rd Company of the division’s Führer Regiment surrounded the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, fourteen miles north-east of Limoges. Its officers and soldiers shot the male inhabitants and herded the women and children into the church, which they set on fire. The village also was burned to the ground. Altogether, 642 people died in this massacre. Some of the victims were not even locals, but refugee children from Paris and passengers from a train halted nearby. None of them were members of the Resistance.

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