D day the battle for nor.., p.20
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.20

           Antony Beevor
 

  The SS had even chosen the wrong Oradour. The company commander, whose death they were avenging, had in fact been killed in Oradour-sur-Vayres, fifteen miles away. The Führer Regiment was almost certainly responsible for another massacre of sixty-seven people at Argenton in the Indre département. The Vichy French authorities were also alarmed by reports of ‘regions where a hideous civil war is breaking out’, as some Resistance groups began a settling of accounts against political enemies. But even loyal Pétainists were appalled by the brutal reprisals of the Das Reich Division.

  General Koenig in London had ordered the FFI to hold German divisions south of the Loire. The achievement of the Resistance in delaying the Das Reich Division was one of its greatest contributions to the battle for Normandy. SOE networks had played a large part, destroying the Das Reich’s fuel dumps before they even started, sabotaging rolling stock, blowing railway lines and organizing sequences of small ambushes. In the Dordogne, twenty-eight members of the Resistance managed to hold up one column for forty-eight hours near Souillac. Almost all were killed in this utterly courageous act of self-sacrifice. The delays inflicted, combined with reports radioed back to London, gave the RAF the opportunity to attack the division on several occasions, most notably in Angoulême. Altogether it took the Das Reich Division seventeen days to reach the front, fourteen more than expected.

  While a detachment from the American 1st Infantry Division had advanced east along the coast to meet up with the British around Port-en-Bessin, the main part slowly advanced due south towards Caumont. The tanks supporting them provided ‘spray jobs’ with their machine guns on suspected sniper positions.

  The newly landed 2nd Infantry Division, on its right, meanwhile headed towards the Fôret de Cerisy, midway between Saint-Lô and Bayeux. Neither division realized that they ‘were in fact facing a gaping hole in the German lines more than ten miles broad’. Both the 17th SS and the 3rd Paratroop Division later argued that their opponents had missed the opportunity of capturing Saint-Lô in the first week of the invasion.

  Rommel, however, was less concerned about this gap in the line than by the threat to Carentan. That was where he decided to launch a counter-attack to prevent the two American beachheads from joining up. Leaving the 17th SS reconnaissance battalion to face the 1st Division, he ordered the main part of the Götz von Berlichingen to Carentan, which was held by nothing more than the remnants of Heydte’s 6th Paratroop Regiment.

  Heydte’s regiment, having lost a whole battalion near Côme-du-Mont, had been forced to retreat rapidly to avoid encirclement by the 101st Airborne. Many of his men had swum the River Douve to escape. By 10 June, Heydte was defending the northern edge of Carentan, an inland port with fine stone buildings. Lacking ammunition and out of touch with the LXXXIV Corps headquarters of General Marcks, Heydte gave the order for the 6th Paratroop Regiment to withdraw from Carentan during the night of 11 June. Their retreat was to be protected by a rearguard to hold back the American paratroopers until the next morning.

  That evening, as the withdrawal was under way, Brigadeführer Ostendorff, the commander of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlic hingen appeared at Heydte’s command post .He informed Heydte that he was now under his command. They were to hold Carentan at any price. Heydte told him that he had already given the order to evacuate the town, not knowing that the 17th SS was on its way. If he had known, he would not have taken the decision. Ostendorff was a heavily built, genial-looking thug with a shaven head, but this news did not put him in an amiable mood. A furious row ensued, although little could be done except prepare a counter-attack to retake Carentan the next day.

  On the following morning, 12 June, as the 101st Airborne moved into Carentan, General der Artillerie Marcks died in his vehicle after a low-flying attack by Allied fighters on a road north-west of Saint-Lô. Just before he set out, his chief of staff had asked him not to expose himself unnecessarily to danger. ‘You people are always worried about your little bit of life,’ Marcks replied. One or two of his colleagues suspected that the disillusioned Marcks wanted to die in battle, since two of his three sons had already been killed in the war. Marcks’s death and various delays led to the counter-attack being postponed until 13 June. This was fortunate for the Allies. Ultra intercepts, including requests to the Luftwaffe to support the 17th SS Division in the attack, had revealed Rommel’s plan. Bradley, forewarned, brought Brigadier General Maurice Rose’s combat command from the 2nd Armored Division across from the 1st Infantry Division’s Caumont sector.

  On the eve of battle, Brigadeführer Ostendorff tried to raise his men’s morale in a strange way. He warned of the enemy’s phosphorus shells, which caused terrible burns, and the 101st Airborne’s ‘sly, underhand way of fighting’, but then added that they had a ‘poor fighting spirit’.

  On 13 June at 05.30 hours, the 37th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment advanced in the misty dawn, supported by artillery fire. When they came close to the barrage, they fired red flares to tell the batteries to increase their range. The advance appeared to be going to plan, but as they neared the Carentan-Domville road, they came under very accurate sniper fire. The panzergrenadiers found that American paratroopers had concealed themselves in trees all over the place. The accompanying flak platoon began blasting the hedgerows and trees with their quadruple 20 mm anti-aircraft guns, but this took time. Having suffered ‘moderately high losses’, the Germans pushed on as the Americans slipped back towards Carentan.

  Ostendorff ’s men reached the south-west edge of Carentan at 09.00 hours, but soon his right wing was brought to a sudden halt. The commander called in vain for tank support. The Shermans of the 2nd Armored Division had appeared, commanded by Brigadier General Rose in his open half-track. The panzergrenadiers, lacking even light Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons, pulled back in confusion. Early in the afternoon, the Americans themselves attacked in full strength, with fighter-bomber support. The key position was a hill on the southern edge of Carentan. It had been occupied by Osttruppen, but they fled as soon as their German commander was killed. Ostendorff was furious that his new division had suffered a humiliating reverse. He blamed the Luftwaffe for failing to appear in any strength, and then Heydte for having given up Carentan in the first place.

  Oberstleutnant von der Heydte, with his aquiline nose and sharp intelligence, was far too independent, if not high-handed, in the view of senior German officers. He certainly showed little respect towards Ostendorff, and did little to conceal his opinion that the newly formed Götz von Berlichingen had been trained more in SS ideology than in sound military principles. Heydte claimed that during the battle he even had to order his paratroopers to round up at gunpoint some of their fleeing panzergrenadiers. Ostendorff summoned him to the 17th SS headquarters to be interviewed by a military judge attached to the division about responsibility for the loss of Carentan. Although accused by Ostendorff of cowardice, Heydte avoided a court martial mainly because he had just been awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross. Pemsel, the chief of staff of the Seventh Army, did not believe Heydte’s version of events, but General Meindl, the commander of II Paratroop Corps, ordered his release. In any case, German commanders had rather more serious matters to consider. The next day, American advances linked up the Utah and Omaha beachheads.

  12

  Failure at Caen

  At midnight on 6 June, Generalmajor Pemsel, the chief of staff of the Seventh Army, rang the commanders of the 21st Panzer-Division and 716th Infanterie-Division. He passed on the order from the OKW that the counter-attack next day must reach the coast ‘without fail’ to relieve those defenders of strongpoints still holding out. General Richter of the 716th told him that ‘communications between division, regimental and battalion command posts no longer exist’, so he had no idea which positions still held out and which had been taken. In fact, the 716th Infanterie-Division had virtually ceased to exist, and its 200 survivors were withdrawn two days later.

  Although the British 3rd Divi
sion had captured most of the defensive positions which had held them up on D-Day, the most powerful of all still held out on their right flank. This was the Luftwaffe radar station near Douvres-la-Délivrande, which had been turned into a veritable underground fortress. It also possessed a buried landline back to Caen, so its defenders could act as artillery observers. The Canadians who tried to reduce it faced a hard fight. They also had to clear the woods near the heavily defended radar station, which were ‘honeycombed with trenches, shelters and tunnels’.

  The 21st Panzer-Division, following its unsuccessful attack on the late afternoon of D-Day, was put under the 1st SS Panzer Corps. Its commander was Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich. Dietrich had been an apprentice butcher, then a front-line soldier in the First World War. In the chaos after the Armistice, when Germany was on the edge of civil war, Dietrich joined the Freikorps. An early member of the Nazi Party, he became commander of Hitler’s personal SS bodyguard in 1928. This later formed the basis for the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, which fought under Dietrich in France, the Balkans and on the eastern front. Goebbels deliberately portrayed him as a hero for ordinary people to counterbalance the aristocracy in the regular army. Although more honest than most of his senior Waffen-SS comrades, Dietrich was a brutal and unintelligent field commander. According to General der Panzertruppen Heinz Eberbach, who replaced Geyr von Schweppenburg later, ‘under his command the Leibstandarte killed thousands of Jews’.20

  Dietrich had been in Brussels with I SS Panzer Corps headquarters early on the morning of 6 June when news of the landings arrived. Rundstedt immediately summoned him to Paris. Dietrich was to take under his command the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend, the Panzer Lehr Division, the 21st Panzer-Division and the remains of the 716th Infanterie-Division. The corps was then to attack the British around Caen at dawn the next day and sweep them into the sea. But the effectiveness of Allied air attacks, together with the delayed start of both the Hitler Jugend and the Panzer Lehr Divisions, played havoc with the plan.

  Dietrich reached the headquarters of Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzer-Division at Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives that night. Feuchtinger was away at the command post of the 716th Infanterie-Division in a tunnel on the edge of Caen. Dietrich exploded when he heard that Feuchtinger had forgotten to take a radio with him. In his place, the divisional chief of staff, Oberst Freiherr von Berlichingen, a descendant of the knight with the iron fist, ventured to suggest that two panzer divisions were not enough to throw the British and Canadians back. Surely they should wait for the Panzer Lehr Division to join them. Dietrich replied in no uncertain terms that only the two formations were available and he should liaise immediately with the Hitler Jugend Division to plan their attack.

  Brigadeführer Fritz Witt, the commander of the Hitler Jugend, sent Standartenführer Kurt Meyer to see Feuchtinger and Richter in the headquarters tunnel on the edge of Caen. Meyer, the commander of the 25th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment, was an utterly devoted Nazi and a ruthless fighter. Tall, blue-eyed and good-looking, he was the beau ideal of a Waffen-SS leader. His men called him ‘Panzer Meyer’ in admiration. He finally found the 716th’s headquarters in the very early hours of 7 June. The entrance was crammed with wounded. He told Richter, ‘It has taken about eight hours to reach you here. I spent more than four hours in road ditches because of air attacks. The march columns of the division are suffering heavy losses.’ The Hitler Jugend referred to Allied fighter-bombers as ‘meatflies’.

  After studying the marked-up map during their briefing, Meyer arrogantly dismissed Feuchtinger’s concerns about enemy strength. ‘Littlefish!’hesaid.‘We’ ll throw them back into the sea in the morning.’ But the great counter-attack had to be postponed. The Panzer Lehr Division coming fromthesouth continued to suffer even more from air strikes than the Hitler Jugend. The disastrous loss of fuel to Allied air attack also meant that it needed to take almost all of Richter’s own reserves. In addition, Richter claimed that he had to move the division’s field hospital back to near Falaise because, despite being ‘clearly marked with red crosses’, it was bombed and strafed constantly by Allied aircraft.

  The complications of the German command structure added greatly to the confusion. The Seventh Army was responsible for the coast, yet I SS Panzer Corps became part of General Geyr von Schweppenburg’s Panzer Group West. Geyr himself wrote later, ‘At a moment when everything depended on rapid action, orders were issued to just two and three-quarter Panzer Divisions by the following headquarters: I SS Panzer Corps, Panzer Group West, Seventh Army at Le Mans, Army Group B, OB West and OKW.’

  Geyr, who believed like Guderian in the importance of a massive panzer counter-attack, was shaken to find how effective the Allied bombing of key towns had been in blocking approach routes. Having strongly opposed the idea of deploying panzer divisions close to the coast, he still refused to acknowledge that Rommel’s healthy respect for Allied air power had been more prescient. Geyr was to suffer for this hubris when Ultra intercepts identified the exact location of his headquarters a few days later.

  At the end of D-Day, British commanders in the Sword beachhead had played down their failure to take Caen with the misplaced optimism that ‘we can always take it tomorrow’. The repulse of the 21st Panzer-Division had raised exaggerated hopes. They had not yet come up against the Hitler Jugend and they also failed to appreciate that the most effective weapon in the 21st Panzer’s armoury was not its tanks, but its twenty-four 88 mm anti-tank guns.

  Whether it was the retreat of the 21st Panzer, the constant fighter-bomber attacks on the roads, or the naval guns taking on targets well inland, panic-stricken rumours that Caen had fallen spread among German rear troops. On 7 June, these ‘fright reports’, as the I SS Panzer Corps called them, prompted its chief of staff to send detachments of Feldgendarmerie to the roads leading into Falaise. Those fleeing in this ‘faint-hearted rabble who, in the West, had grown unaccustomed to war’ were rounded up. In any case, the I Panzer Corps despised the British for failing to strike while German forces were unable to bring up reinforcements quickly enough.

  Apart from the problems created by the prolonged defence of ‘Hillman’ and insufficient armoured units to fight through to Caen, the British I Corps commander, Lieutenant General John Crocker, had made a grave error. On the afternoon of D-Day, fearing a major counter-attack east of the River Orne, he took the 9th Infantry Brigade away from its task of attacking between Caen and Carpiquet, and switched it to support the airborne division. This transfer also contributed to the dangerous gap between the Canadians and the British 3rd Division.

  On 7 June, the attack towards Caen was renewed with fighting near its northern edge, around the village of Lebisey and its woods. But even with heavy artillery support, the 185th Brigade suffered heavy losses. The 21st Panzer-Division had sorted itself out and established effective positions on the higher ground in front of Caen and forward to Bénouville, where Major Hans von Luck’s panzergrenadiers were still launching counter-attacks against the 6th Airborne.

  Montgomery’soldregiment,the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwicks, formed part of the attack near Lebisey. On their brigadier’s orders, the anti-tank platoon, with six Bren-gun carriers towing their guns, charged up a sunken road with high banks. The firing went right over their heads and they could see little. Suddenly they found themselves in Lebisey in the middle of a 21st Panzer-Division grenadier regiment. They went past a Mark IV, drove right on through to their rear and halted in a wheatfield to deploy their anti-tank guns. ‘Action rear!’ the lieutenant yelled. His Birmingham lads swore merrily as they brought the guns to bear and fired. But then a shell blew up his carrier and the blast knocked them all flat.

  They tried to slip back to their own lines but were captured and marched back to Lebisey wood. The panzergrenadiers were very nonchalant and ‘elegant’. They asked their prisoners what they would like to drink, milk or wine. Then shells from HMS Warspite began roaring overhead. The German guarding them
said to the lieutenant, ‘I think we better dig a hole, don’t you?’ and the two of them began digging together. They sat in the trench side by side as the bombardment continued, both shrinking each time a shell came over. ‘You will be back in the sea in a few days,’ the German remarked. ‘No, I am sorry,’ Bannerman replied.‘We will be in Paris in a week.’Agreeing to disagree, the panzergrenadier showed a snapshot of his fiancée. The lieutenant repaid the compliment by producing a photograph of his wife. He could not help thinking that just half an hour before they had been trying to kill each other.

  General Crocker had then moved the 9th Brigade back to its original sector,justtotherightofthe 185th Brigade. This area, like the Canadian sector, consisted of gently rolling country with wheatfields, stone farmhouses surrounded by an orchard, and copses which hid anti-tank guns. Farmers had brought in their cows and horses, hoping that they would be better protected in barns and yards. Some watched the fighting from a loft, while their family sheltered in the cellar. Yet much of the fighting and shelling was concentrated on buildings. In the hamlet of Gruchy, near Buron, nine out of ten houses were destroyed or badly damaged. Germans looted cider and Calvados from their cellars, several drinking themselves into a stupor.

  The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles made a brave charge across open cornfields towards the village of Cambes. They fought their way in, but a newly arrived detachment of the 12th SS Hitler Jugend forced them to retreat. The Ulster Rifles had to leave their wounded from D Company in a ditch outside the village. They were certain that the young soldiers from the Hitler Jugend shot them all as they lay there afterwards.

  Further to the right of 9th Brigade, the Canadians also came up against detachments of the Hitler Jugend when they renewed their advance on Carpiquet airfield. After Standartenführer Meyer had set up his command post in the Abbaye d’Ardennes, his 25th Panzergrenadier-Regiment was due to attack at 16.00 hours to the west of the railway line from Caen to Saint-Luc-sur-Mer, while the 21st Panzer-Division were to advance on the east side. But the approach of the Canadians made him decide to attack immediately. The order was passed to the Hitler Jugend tank battalion: ‘Panzer, March!’ They took the Canadian armoured regiment, the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, unawares and rapidly recaptured the village of Authie. But in their triumphant rush forward, the Hitler Jugend tanks were surprised in their turn by well-sited Canadian anti-tank guns. Meyer soon sent the tanks which had withdrawn back into another firefight, this time concentrated on the village of Buron. The fighting that afternoon ended in a bloody draw, with British, Canadian and German attacks brought to a standstill.

 
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