D day the battle for nor.., p.21
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.21Antony Beevor
The British had a much better day on the Bayeux front to the west. Patrols during the night had established that the small city had been almost entirely evacuated by the German administration. So the Essex Regiment and the South Wales Borderers, supported by the Sherwood Rangers, were able to liberate Bayeux on 7 June with little damage. ‘We were the first troops into the town’, wrote Stanley Christopherson, who commanded A Squadron of the Sherwood Rangers, ‘and were most relieved to find that except for isolated strong-points in the town and the odd sniper no Germans were to be found, which prevented any damage to the beautiful and historic buildings. We were given a most enthusiastic and spontaneous receptionby the inhabitants who appeared genuinely delighted to welcome us and demonstrated their joy by throwing flowers at the tanks and distributing cider and food among the men.’
In the south of the town, one enemy machine-gun post held out in a house, which caught fire when a Sherwood Ranger tank shelled it. ‘After a very short time the clanging of a bell heralded the arrival of the Bayeux fire brigade, manned by a full team all wearing shiny helmets. Regardless of the machine gun fire, they held up the battle, entered the house, extinguished the fire and brought out the German machine gun section.’
The next day, 8 June, the Sherwood Rangers rejoined the 8th Armoured Brigade to advance south. Bypassing anti-tank guns, they occupied some high ground seven miles to the south-east of Bayeux known as Hill 103. It overlooked the villages of Tilly-sur-Seulles and Fontenay-le-Pesnel, which British squaddies dubbed ‘Piss in the Fountain’. The main danger on the way had been the odd rifleman shooting at the heads of tank commanders. But on the next day the Sherwood Rangers and the 6th Durham Light Infantry suddenly came under attack.
The Panzer Lehr Division had finally arrived at the front. Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, its commander, was still furious after Generaloberst Dollmann’s order to move during daylight hours. Rocket-firing Typhoonsfrom the RAF and American Lightning squadrons had appeared overhead almost immediately on the afternoon of 6 June and destroyed a number of vehicles. Bayerlein’s men pushed on through the cover of darkness, expecting to go into camouflaged positions before dawn, but General Dollmann ordered the division to keep going. The first air strike had hit them at 05.30 hours the next morning. Tanks and half-tracks, already camouflaged with leafy branches, sprinted for the cover of woods and orchards, but there were too many open spaces. According to Bayerlein, his men nicknamed the straight road north-east from Vire the ‘fighter-bomber racecourse’. He claimed that by the end of the day the division had lost five tanks, eighty-four half-tracks and self-propelled guns, and 130 trucks, but this was almost certainly a gross exaggeration.21
When the advance elements of the Panzer Lehr Division attacked northwards from Tilly-sur-Seulles on the morning of 8 June, the Sherwood Rangers and the Durham Light Infantry towards Lingèvres received the full force. ‘It was a terrible day for the regiment,’ wrote Christopherson in his diary. His squadron on Hill 103 lost four tanks. One of his troop leaders was killed and also his second in command, the poet Captain Keith Douglas. Douglas, who had been reconnoitring on foot, ‘was hit in the head by a piece of mortar shell as he was running along a ditch towards his tank’. He died instantly. Douglas had been the odd man out in this yeomanry regiment. He did not hunt, ride or show any interest in countryside pursuits. In his poem about the regiment, entitled ‘Aristocrats’, he had written:
How can I live among this gentle
obsolescent breed of heroes, and not weep?
Yet the regiment always remembered Douglas for his bravery as well as his awkwardness. In North Africa, he had abandoned his post back in Cairo, risking a charge of desertion, to rejoin his squadron when the fighting was at its fiercest. ‘I like you, sir,’ said his soldier servant. ‘You’re shit or bust, you are.’
Christopherson wrote in his diary, ‘In action he had undaunted courage and always showed initiative and complete disregard for his own personal safety. At times he appeared even to be somewhat foolhardy - maybe on account of his short-sightedness which compelled him to wear large thick-lensed glasses.’ The regimental padre, Leslie Skinner, who remembered their conversation on the Sunday before D-Day, when the young captain had talked of his imminent death, buried Douglas by the hedge where he had died.
Three days later, the Sherwood Rangers, again close to Hill 103, suffered another disaster. An artillery shell exploded beside the regimental headquarters tank, named ‘Robin Hood’, just as an orders group was being held. The commanding officer, Michael Laycock, the brother of the commando leader, Major General Robert Laycock, was killed along with his adjutant and signals officer. The adjutant, George Jones, was the son of the head woodsman on the Laycock estate. Their recce troop leader and the signals sergeant were also badly wounded. The Sherwood Rangers had lost two commanding officers in under a week. Christopherson, as senior squadron leader, then took over.
Padre Skinner, their Methodist minister, seldom rested during those days from burying the dead, having selflessly recovered the bodies himself. Skinner, a small, dark man with a strong Yorkshire accent, was much loved. He did not want his soldiers to suffer the horrible task of scraping the carbonized remains of comrades off the inside of a ‘brewed-up’ tank. Shermans, which ran on gasoline, not diesel, were notorious for catching fire. The Americans gave them the nickname ‘Ronsons’ (after the lighter) and the Germans called them ‘Tommy cookers’. For all tank troops, the thought of being trapped in a burning hull was their greatest fear. To conceal their anxiety, British tank commanders tended to assume a leisurely drawl over the radio.
The attack of the Panzer Lehr on 8 June was halted partly by the resistance north of Tilly-sur-Seulles, but also because, in mid-afternoon, Sepp Dietrich ordered the division to pull back and then advance north-west towards Bayeux instead. Confusion in the German command was fragmenting the immediate panzer counter-attack towards the coast which Geyr von Schweppenburg so wanted. He complained later that they ‘missed the psychological moment . . . to deal the British a severe blow’. But he was still determined to carry it out.
The British and Canadians west of the Orne continued to attack on 9 June, trying to force their way forward, one fortified village at a time. The same day, a full battalion assault on Cambes was planned, supported by artillery and the guns of the cruiser HMS Danae. The 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles moved forward to their start line for the attack. They looked at the huge stretch of undulating wheatfield ahead, across which they would have to attack. A young platoon commander recorded his men’s nervous jokes as they waited for the order to advance while the artillery and naval barrage went overhead.
‘Last time I was in a cornfield it was with my bird, all quiet and peaceful.’
‘Hope that bloody boat stops firing when we get there.’
‘It looks a long way, sir. Do we stop for a brew-up halfway?’
The thigh-high green wheat gave an impression of cover, but they soon found that it offered no protection at all when the advance began. ‘This became quite obvious,’ the lieutenant wrote, ‘as one saw the frightening number of men staggering and dropping into the corn.’ One company lost all three platoon commanders.
The Ulster Rifles were supported by the Shermans of the East Riding Yeomanry, which knocked out a Mark IV panzer, but then a concealed German 88 mm gun hit one British tank after another. With great courage in the face of the machine-gun positions, the Ulster Rifles pushed on to take Cambes and dug in. But when they counted their casualties, they found that they had lost eleven officers and 182 NCOs and soldiers.
The King’s Own Scottish Borderers came up at dusk to reinforce the depleted battalion just as a sudden mortar ‘stonk’ began. One of the Jocks, taking cover from the explosions, jumped down into the nearest trench, clapped the occupant on the back and said, ‘Well, Paddy, you old bastard, we never expected to see you again.’ He found that he had just greeted the Ulster Rifles’ commanding officer.
During the previous nigh
Most attacks on 9 June, however, were repulsed as the I Panzer Corps pushed more tanks into the front line to assist the panzergrenadiers in seizing a start line for the attack towards the coast. British and Canadian artillery, supplemented by naval guns, proved extremely effective in breaking up the panzer detachments. And once again the anti-tank guns of the Regina Rifles smashed another attack by a company of Panthers. The panzer commander described how his tank lurched to a halt. ‘When I looked to the left to check the situation, I happened to see the turret being torn off the panzer driving on the left flank. At the same moment, after another explosion, my vehicle began to burn. The machine-gun ammunition caught on fire and there was a crackling noise like dry wood burning.’ He just managed to escape from his tank with severe burns. Only five tanks out of twelve returned. A Hitler Jugend officer watching the scene wrote afterwards: ‘I could have cried for rage and sorrow.’
The Hitler Jugend were forced to recognize that these ‘surprise raids’ which had worked so well against the Red Army on the eastern front did not succeed in Normandy. Yet another frontal attack was made on Norrey before dawn on 10 June, this time with the Pioneer battalion thrown in with the panzergrenadiers. Again it was repulsed. The body of one Pioneer company commander, Otto Toll, was found afterwards. ‘He had tried to make a tourniquet using the ribbon of his Knight’s Cross and a flashlight, obviously to stop the bleeding from an artery.’
The fighting had been pitiless. Accusations of war crimes were made by both sides. At a tribunal after the war, officers from the 26th Panzergrenadier-Regiment of the Hitler Jugend claimed that they had shot three Canadian prisoners on 9 June in retaliation for an incident the day before. On 8 June south of Cristot, a detachment from the Inns of Court armoured reconnaissance regiment surprised a small party from a Panzer Lehr Division artillery regiment, including its commander. The British told their prisoners to climb on to the front of their vehicles as there was no room inside. The Germans refused, stating that it would make them a human shield. According to Hauptmann Graf Clary-Aldringen, two British officers beat up Oberst Luxenburger, a one-armed veteran of the First World War, and then tied him to one of their vehicles. As they left, they machine-gunned the others who still refused to mount. But the Inns of Court group ran into a German anti-tank position. Their two officers were killed and Oberst Luxenburger mortally wounded.
Apart from this incident, the Hitler Jugend also tried to justify its actions on the grounds that they had captured Canadian orders telling their soldiers not to take prisoners if it slowed down their advance. British and Canadian soldiers, especially those in armoured regiments who had no infantry to escort captives to the rear, did indeed shoot prisoners on occasion. But the Hitler Jugend argument sounds less than convincing, especially when a total of 187 Canadian soldiers are said to have been executed during the first days of the invasion, almost all by members of the 12th SS. And their first killings had taken place on 7 June, before the incident near Cristot. One Frenchwoman from Caen, who had walked to Authie to see if an old aunt was all right, discovered ‘about thirty Canadian soldiers massacred and mutilated by the Germans’. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles later found that the SS had shot eighteen of their men, who had been taken prisoner and interrogated at Meyer’s command post in the Abbaye d’Ardennes. One of them, Major Hodge, had apparently been decapitated.
The Hitler Jugend was probably the most indoctrinated of all Waffen-SS divisions. Many of its key commanders came from the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. They had been formed in the Rassenkrieg, or ‘race war’, of the eastern front. The worst appears to have been the reconnaissance battalion, whose commander, Bremer, was known within the division as a ‘dare-devil’. Panzer Meyer himself had shot fifty Jews near Modlin in Poland in 1939. Later, during the invasion of the Soviet Union, he had ordered a village near Kharkov to be burned to the ground. All its inhabitants were murdered. Nazi propaganda and fighting on the eastern front had brutalized them, and they saw the war in the west as no different. Killing Allied prisoners was considered their revenge for the ‘terror bombing’ of German cities. In any case, bitterness between Canadians and soldiers of the Hitler Jugend became a vicious circle throughout the battle for Normandy.
All German headquarters in Normandy soon found to their cost that they had to resort to the radio more and more. Bombing and shelling, to say nothing of the Resistance and airborne troops, had severed many of their landlines in the invasion area. This was the bonus which the decrypters at Bletchley Park had been anticipating. The head of the Secret Intelligence Service passed Churchill their first haul.22 They intercepted a report from General Marcks on 8 June stating that the 716th Infanterie-Division had lost at least two-thirds of its strength and that ‘the men show signs of nervous exhaustion’. There was also a warning, but received too late, of the Hitler Jugend attack on the night of 8 June. The next day, General Meindl of II Paratroop Corps complained that ‘most of the land-line links are interrupted. Operations are greatly impeded by the considerable delay in the passing on of orders.’ On 10 June, they intercepted a message saying that ‘by order of commander-in-chief West at 10.30 hours, thorough destruction of Cherbourg harbour to begin forthwith’. They also discovered that fear of another invasion in Brittany had prompted the Luftwaffe to destroy four airfields immediately. The greatest coup, however, came with two messages giving the location of Panzer Group West’s headquarters. To preserve the secret of Ultra, an aircraft was sent over the target area first.
Geyr von Schweppenburg was planning his major attack for dusk on 10 June. Soon after dawn that morning, he climbed the steeple of the Abbaye d’Ardennes on the west side of the city, which Meyer had established as the command post of the 25th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment. Geyr examined the ground ahead through powerful binoculars. He knew the area well from the late summer of 1940, when he had been training the XXIV Corps ready for the invasion of England. While he was up there he watched British aircraft bomb the panzer regiment of the Hitler Jugend and it confirmed him in his decision that only a night attack was possible.
That afternoon, Rommel came to see him at his command post in the grounds of the Château de La Caine near Thury-Harcourt. Geyr told him his plan, and although both men would have preferred to attack more towards Bayeux, this change would cause too great a delay. Rommel also wanted to know the next step. Geyr quoted the Napoleonic principle of ‘s’engager puis voir’. Rommel agreed and took his leave. Geyr warned him about the danger of Allied fighter-bombers. Yet his own headquarters offered the most tempting target. Just after Rommel’s departure reports came in from the Panzer Lehr Division that about sixty British tanks had broken through from Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse towards Tilly-sur-Seulles. Geyr claimed that because he had no reserves available, he felt obliged to cancel the night attack near Caen. In fact, a far more pressing reason arose for cancelling the offensive that night.
Rocket-firing RAF Typhoon squadrons came in low, their pilots well briefed on their target. They were then followed by waves of Mitchell medium bombers. Astonishingly, Geyr’s headquarters and its vehicles in the park of the château had not been properly camouflaged. The effect was devastating. His chief of staff died and ‘all personnel of the operations section as well as most of the officers of the forward echelon were killed,’ Geyr wrote later. His signals battalion was virtually wiped out. Geyr himself was wounded, but the psychological shock was far greater. He was incapable of resuming command of Panzer Group West before the end of the month.
There would be no more attempts to launch a major panzer counterattack against the British Second Army until the II SS Panzer Corps arrived from the eastern front.
Montgomery had to change his approach, although he refused to admit this later. On 10 June, accompanied by General Dempsey, he had a meeting with General Bradley in a field near Port-en-Bessin, where the British and American sectors had joined up. Using a map spread out on the bonnet of his Humber staff car, he explained his amended plan. Instead of a head-on assault on Caen, he would now create a pincer movement on the city. The 51st Highland Division and 4th Armoured Brigade would attack south out of the bridgehead east of the Orne to take Cagny. Meanwhile the 7th Armoured Division would launch a right-hook from inland of where they were standing to take Evrecy. They would start that very day.
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