D day the battle for nor.., p.22
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.22

           Antony Beevor
 

  The most daring part of his plan was to drop the 1st Airborne Division, his reserve back in England, around Evrecy. This idea ran into determined opposition from Leigh-Mallory. He said his transport aircraft could not risk a day drop because of German flak in the Caen area. A night drop was also out of the question because they would have to fly over the Allied ships offshore and the Royal Navy refused to provide a ceasefire because of the Luftwaffe attacks during darkness. An infuriated Montgomery wrote to Freddie de Guingand, his chief of staff at 21st Army Group rear headquarters back in England, declaring that Leigh-Mallory was ‘a gutless bugger’.

  This plan to envelop Caen was strikingly out of character. Montgomery was usually criticized for taking too long to mount an operation. Was he simply responding to the crisis with the best plan available in the circumstances? Or was there also an element of show, to divert attention from the way the Second Army had failed to achieve its objectives?23 On 11 June, the day after the meeting with Bradley, Montgomery wrote to de Guingand that his general objective was to ‘pull the Germans on to Second Army so that the [American] First Army can extend and expand’. This rather more modest assessment was hardly in keeping with his earlier pugnacious declarations. ‘Inaction and a defensive mentality are criminal in any officer - however senior,’ he had told senior officers two months before the invasion. ‘Every officer and man must be enthusiastic for the fight and have the light of battle in his eyes.’ They were ‘to assault to the west of the River Orne and to develop operations to the south and south-east, in order to secure airfield sites and to protect the eastern flank of First US Army while the latter is capturing Cherbourg’.

  The problem was that Montgomery, partly for reasons of morale and partly out of puerile pride, could not admit that any of his plans had gone wrong. He later created resentment and suspicion among his American colleagues by claiming that he still intended to break out towards Falaise, while insisting at the same time that he had always planned to pull the bulk of the German panzer divisions on to his front, to give the Americans the great chance of a breakout on theirs later. This, as his letter to de Guingand shows, was simply making a virtue out of a rather sore necessity.

  It was not, of course, Montgomery who determined this state of affairs but the Germans who sent their panzer divisions against the British. Both Rundstedt and Rommel regarded the Second Army as the chief threat. This was partly because they considered the British more experienced soldiers (they later admitted to underestimating the Americans), but also because a south-easterly breakthrough towards Falaise opened the possibility of an Allied dash for Paris. Such a disaster, if it came about, would cut off all German forces in Normandy and Brittany. Even Hitler agreed with this analysis, if only because of the symbolic value of Paris. His obsessive desire to hold on to foreign capitals was described as ‘a peevish imperialism’ by the intelligence chief at Montgomery’s 21st Army Group headquarters. Geyr was the only one who disagreed with the OKW’s determination ‘to block the enemy’s direct route to Paris’, because it led to the ‘unfortunate decision to employ on the inner flank the most powerful and mobile force’.

  Equally serious for the British, the failure to expand the beachhead left them with far too little room to bring in and deploy more divisions during the build-up of forces. The RAF was furious, especially when Montgomery pretended that everything had gone according to plan. All air preparations had been calculated on establishing forward airbases for Spitfires and Typhoons within a few days. Now, because of the shallow depth of the beachhead, any airfield they built would be within the range of German artillery. There was also little room left for fuel depots, supply dumps, repair workshops, base camps, field hospitals and vehicle parks. Almost every orchard and field in the rear area was crammed. ‘The British were so crowded that they overflowed into our area,’ Bradley said later, a tactful remark concealing the degree of frustration that he felt. The Americans were even less impressed by Montgomery’s grandiose statement that Caen was ‘the key to Cherbourg’. General Collins, whose task it was to take Cherbourg, observed drily to Bradley, ‘Why doesn’t he just send us the key?’

  German commanders were also dismayed by the way the battle had developed. ‘By premature commitment in driblets,’ the chief of staff of I Panzer Corps complained bitterly, ‘the Germans missed their opportunity to stake everything on one card - to lose or win all’. In fact, the inability to launch a major counter-attack at this stage determined the manner of German deployment throughout most of the campaign. It also set the pattern for British tactics, despite Montgomery’s great boast that he always made the enemy dance to his tune. To the despair of all panzer commanders, the constant pressure of Allied ground, air and artillery attack, while seldom adventurous, prevented Rommel from using his armoured divisions effectively. The emergency fire brigade approach, simply plugging gaps, led to their panzer divisions being divided up to reinforce infantry formations on the point of collapse.

  The Germans could thus never hope to win a major victory, even though they retained an extraordinary ability to thwart their opponents and inflict heavy casualties. British commanders soon began to fear that they would run out of manpower in this battle of attrition.

  13

  Villers-Bocage

  As the bloody stalemate in front of Caen became clear, Montgomery decided to send his two ‘best batsmen’ into play on 11 June. Both the 7th Armoured Division and the 51st Highland Division had distinguished themselves under his command in North Africa, but they were to receive a rude shock in Normandy. The 51st was diverted to the east of the River Orne to prepare the left-hook on Caen, while the Desert Rats of the 7th Armoured would mount a right-hook from the American flank near Tilly-sur-Seulles.

  The Scots of the 51st Highland Division did not believe in hiding their light under a bushel. Other formations called them the ‘Highway Decorators’, because almost every road junction had a prominently displayed ‘HD’ and an arrow. The 51st moved over the Orne into the 6th Airborne’s bridgehead. There, the heavily outnumbered and outgunned paratroopers had been forced back by relentless counter-attacks. With astonishing resilience, they faced Luck’s Kampfgruppe from the 21st Panzer-Division, the 711th Infanterie-Division and the newly arrived 346th Infanterie-Division.

  On 9 June, the paratroopers had fought off an attack by Luck’s tanks and panzergrenadiers on Escoville. Another attack took place the following day as the 51st Highland Division began to take position. And on 11 June, when the 5th Black Watch found themselves in action, some of their men were taken prisoner and executed. The Highland Division, which had been supposed to advance all the way south to Cagny as part of Montgomery’s pincer movement, made no headway at all. They seemed completely disorientated by the small, sharp actions and the sudden deadly mortar ‘stonks’ and artillery barrages at which the Germans were so efficient.

  ‘The fury of artillery is a cold, mechanical fury,’ wrote a Highlander, ‘but its intent is personal. When you are under its fire you are the sole target. All of that shrieking, whining venom is directed at you and at no one else. You hunch in your hole in the ground, reduce yourself into as small a thing as you can become, and you harden your muscles in a pitiful attempt at defying the jagged, burning teeth of the shrapnel. Involuntarily you curl up into the foetal position except that your hands go down to protect your genitalia. This instinct to defend the place of generation against the forces of annihilation was universal.’ Many resorted to a litany of repetitive swearing, a sort of profane mantra to dull their fear.

  The same soldier went on to describe the psychological collapse of the most warlike member of their company. It took place in the cellar of a farmhouse.This battle-shock casualty was curled upon the floor, howling and sobbing. ‘The smart, keen young soldier was now transformed into something that was at once pitiful and disgusting. The neatly-shaped, alert features had melted and blurred, the mouth was sagging and the whole face, dirty and stubbled, seemed swollen and was smeared with tears
and snot.’ He made bleating noises, crying for his mother. As well as a feeling of slightly sadistic contempt, the observer became ‘aware of a kind of envy of the boy’s shameless surrender to his terror’.

  Paratroopers were contemptuous of the Scottish regiments involved. ‘The thing that shocked me was 51st Highland Division,’ wrote a major in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. ‘Three different times our division restored a situation for them. If you could have seen our lads come up to help them out on one occasion and call them yellow bastards when the Scotties threw their weapons and equipment away and fled.’ On the left flank, Lieutenant Colonel Otway, who led the attack on the Merville battery, had to take a battalion of the Black Watch under command because its commanding officer ‘broke down’. They had lost 200 men in their first attack.

  General Gale, the 6th Airborne commander, realized that the village of Bréville had to be retaken at all costs. He sent in his own 12thBattalion of the Parachute Regiment. Suffering almost as many casualties as the Black Watch, the 12th Battalion took the heavily defended village and the perimeter east of the Orne was saved. With the demoralized Highland Division unable to take even Sainte-Honorine, Montgomery’s plan of striking through to Cagny, another five miles to the south, was quietly forgotten. In the circumstances, he should perhaps have been thankful that Leigh-Mallory had thwarted his plan. To have dropped the 1st Airborne Division on the Caen-Falaise plain and then failed to get to them would have achieved little more than a foretaste of the Arnhem disaster. General Bradley, although he said nothing at the time, clearly saw the danger of using airborne forces tactically and refused the opportunity later on during the great break-out.

  Montgomery had higher hopes of his right-hook from the American 1st Division’s flank. Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey, the commander-in-chief of the British Second Army, was more sanguine. Dempsey was in many ways the opposite of Montgomery in character. Although he had the unfortunate nickname of ‘Bimbo’, he was a modest, quiet man, with a weather-beaten face and conventional military moustache. Patton, after meeting him for the first time, was dismissive in his diary: ‘He is not very impressive looking, and I take him to be a yes-man.’ The truth was that Montgomery insisted on running the Second Army as well as the 21st Army Group. Unable to delegate, Monty often gave orders to corps commanders over Dempsey’s head. Dempsey had little choice but to accept his position as a glorified chief of staff. In many ways, the role suited him. He provided a steady pair of hands. His phenomenal memory combined effectively with an uncanny ability to visualize a landscape just from studying a map. In addition, he never complained when Montgomery took all the credit.

  Dempsey had been the chief planner of the double-hook on Caen and the parachute operation. Even before the invasion, he had clearly not been convinced that Caen would fall on the first day, and doubted that they could capture it head on. Yet he was well aware of the danger if the front stagnated. Dempsey’s plan was basically a sound one. Unfortunately, the 7th Armoured Division had landed later than expected because of bad weather. Then, the 50th Division and the 8th Armoured Brigade suffered a setback when advancing to secure the start line for the attack in the Seulles valley. A sudden advance by the Panzer Lehr Division blocked the route, but it also presented a better opening. The 7th Armoured could outflank the Panzer Lehr by crossing into the American sector as their 1st Division advanced on Caumont, and then swing left. This would take it through a gap behind the Panzer Lehr while it was kept occupied by the 50th Division.

  The commander of the 7th Armoured Division, Major General Erskine, expressed great confidence in the opportunity when Dempsey visited him at his headquarters on the morning of 12 June. ‘Bobby’ Erskine could not believe that anything would stop his division. The cavalry regiments of the famed ‘Desert Rats’ had brought their rather insouciant attitude with them to a very different battleground. Unlike the undulating cornfields of the Caen sector, this was bocage country, with sunken lanes and high hedges. ‘You’ll get a shock after the desert,’ a trooper in the Sherwood Rangers warned a newly arrived friend. ‘We could see the buggers in the desert and they could see us. Here they can see us, but I’ll be buggered if we can see them.’ Attacking through the leafy green tunnels, he added, ‘gives you the bloody creeps’. Despite all the months of training for the invasion, both the British and the Americans were totally unprepared for this beautiful but claustrophobic terrain. The Normandy hedgerows,enclosing small fields and bordering every road and track, were at least three times the height of their English equivalent, heavily banked and far too dense for even a tank to smash through.

  Dempsey told Erskine to push on to Villers-Bocage with the 11th Hussars, an armoured reconnaissance regiment, out in front. But Erskine switched them to the role of flank guards instead. This was to prove a very serious mistake. Erskine, who had wanted to attack twenty-four hours earlier, was impatient. He had good reason to be as things turned out. The delay was mainly the fault of his superior, Lieutenant General Gerard Bucknall, the commander of XXX Corps.

  Although he had impressed Montgomery in Sicily and Italy, Bucknall had little experience of armour. He had certainly not impressed Field Marshal Brooke, who two months before the invasion wrote in his diary, ‘Bucknall was very weak, and I am certain quite unfit to command a corps.’ His reputation had been boosted by the capture of Bayeux, but he was not highly rated by those who knew him. Dempsey also had his doubts, but did nothing. As the American airborne commander General Maxwell D. Taylor put it, British senior commanders never had the tradition of really pressing subordinates. American generals thought that their British counterparts were far too polite.

  Erskine’s failure to provide an armoured reconnaissance screen in front, rather than as a flank guard, led to one of the most devastating ambushes in British military history. The 22nd Armoured Brigade, led by its brave but eccentric commander, Brigadier ‘Loony’ Hinde, charged forward through the identified gap. By that evening his leading regiment, the 4th County of London Yeomanry (The Sharpshooters), had reached the Caumont road, just five miles short of Villers-Bocage. They leaguered for the night in all-round defence with their attached company of the 1st Battalion the Rifle Brigade.

  At dawn, the Sharpshooters and their infantry trundled down the road to their objective. They entered Villers-Bocage at 08.00 hours on 13 June to an ecstatic reception from the local population. Gendarmes in their best uniforms held back the crowds, who threw flowers on to the Cromwell tanks and offered presents of cider and butter. In the exhilaration of the moment, the capture of this strategic town seemed too easy. Villers-Bocage, above the Seulles valley and just a mile from the River Odon, was a key position. Less than a dozen miles to the south stood Mont Pinçon, the dominating feature of the whole region, while Caen lay eight miles to the east.

  The only enemy presence sighted had been a German eight-wheeled armoured car just before they entered the town, but it disappeared before the nearest Cromwell could traverse its turret. Brigadier Hinde, who accompanied them in a scout car, knew that to hold the town securely, they must occupy the feature on the north-east side known as Hill 213. The commanding officer of the Sharpshooters, Lieutenant Colonel the Viscount Cranley, wanted to carry out a thorough reconnaissance of the area, since more German armoured cars had been sighted, but ‘Loony’ Hinde would accept no delay. The reconnaissance troop of light Stuart tanks was not used. Cranley simply sent forward A Squadron and, leaving the rest of his tanks in the town, set off in a scout car to have a look himself at Hill 213.

  In a small wood close to the road up which the Cromwells advanced, five Tiger tanks from the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion lay hidden. They had just reached the front after a long and complicated journey from near Beauvais, north of Paris. Their commander was Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann, who was already famous as a ‘panzer ace’. Credited with 137 tank ‘kills’ on the eastern front, he had received the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. Wittmann, enraged by the Allied bombing of Germa
n cities, had told his men, ‘We have only one watchword and that is “revenge”!’

  Wittmann’s Tigers were the first reinforcements sent forward to fill the gap in the German line. Leading elements of the 2nd Panzer Division would also arrive in the area that day. In fact the 11th Hussars covering 22nd Armoured Brigade’s flank identified their arrival from their first captive. A sergeant and trooper from the 11th had been stalking a sniper when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by a company of panzergrenadiers in half-tracks. They were marched off under guard towards the rear, but once out of sight, they jumped their escort, grabbed his rifle and brought him back as their prisoner instead. His paybook revealed that he was from the 304th Panzergrenadier-Regiment. Although Ultra had warned of the 2nd Panzer-Division’s approach, this proof of its appearance on the southern flank seems to have come as a nasty shock for General Erskine.

  Wittmann, seeing the squadron of Cromwells halt on this high-banked stretch of road, immediately recognized the opportunity. Some of the Sharpshooter crews had unwisely dismounted. This apparently prompted Wittmann’s gunner to remark as he peered through his sight that they were behaving as if they had already won the war. Without waiting for his other Tigers to catch up, Wittmann emerged from the wood, swung parallel to the road and opened fire. The Tiger’s 88 mm gun destroyed one Cromwell after another. The Cromwells, badly designed, under-armoured and under-gunned, did not stand a chance. They even found it hard to back out of danger, since their reverse speed was little more than two miles per hour.

 

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