D day the battle for nor.., p.23
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.23Antony Beevor
Having caused havoc with A Squadron on the hill, Wittmann’s Tiger lumbered down into the town of Villers-Bocage. It rammed aside a Bren-gun carrier of the Rifle Brigade and began to descend the main street. He dealt first with the tanks of the Sharpshooters’ regimental headquarters, then attacked B Squadron. Many crews were dismounted and incapable of replying. But even those who managed to score direct hits on the Tiger found that their low-velocity 75 mm gun had little effect. Wittmann then returned to Hill 213 to finish the battle with A Squadron and the Rifle Brigade detachment.
That afternoon, Wittmann returned to Villers-Bocage with leading elements of the 2nd Panzer-Division. This time the Sharpshooters and the anti-tank guns of the Rifle Brigade were ready, and the attack was repulsed. But General Erskine, having failed to send forward sufficient support, was now worried that the 2nd Panzer-Division threatened his extended southern flank. He decided to withdraw the 22nd Armoured Brigade from its precarious position, rather than reinforce it. As they pulled out of the town that afternoon, British artillery fired a heavy barrage to cover the retreat. But many of the crews from knocked-out tanks had to escape on foot across country back to British lines.
Hinde withdrew the 22nd Armoured Brigade to a defensive position on Hill 174, between Tracy-Bocage and Amayé-sur-Seulles. Bucknall, the corps commander, agreed with the decision, but did little to help except order the 50th Division to continue their attacks on the Panzer Lehr Division. He failed to send infantry reinforcements to help the 22nd Armoured Brigade, isolated as it was between the Panzer Lehr and the 2nd Panzer.
On the afternoon of 14 June, Erskine felt compelled to withdraw his troops all the way back to the Caumont salient. Panzergrenadiers of the 2nd Panzer-Division attacked wherever they could. One British artillery regiment, finding itself in the front line, just managed to fight off an assault by firing airbursts with their twenty-five-pounders. The retreat of the 7th Armoured Division was greatly assisted by a devastating barrage from American artillery supporting their 1st Infantry Division. RAF bombers literally flattened Villers-Bocage that night. The townspeople who had welcomed the Sharpshooters so joyfully were now killed, injured or homeless. Most of the survivors sought shelter in the cellars of the nearby château, which belonged to local mayor, the Vicomte de Rugy.
Aunay-sur-Odon, an important crossroads four miles to the south, had also been smashed in a series of RAF bombing attacks. The first had taken place during Mass. The priest, the Abbé André Paul, recounted how the sound of aero engines overhead, rapidly followed by explosions which made the church shake, threw his congregation into panic. Many tried to crawl under an upturned prie-dieu for protection. As soon as it was over, the Abbé told them to leave quickly in small groups. As they emerged from the church, they were greeted by a vision of the Last Judgement. The bombs had disinterred many of the skeletons in the churchyard. Repeated raids killed 161 villagers and crushed the whole village to rubble. British troops were shocked by the scene when they finally reached the village just before the end of the battle for Normandy. The small town of Tilly-sur-Seulles had suffered almost as much. A local doctor tending the civilians said that even at Verdun he had not seen such terrible wounds.
On 15 June, the day after the British withdrawal, an Unteroffizier with the 2nd Panzer-Division found time to write home. ‘The fighting in the west has now begun. You can imagine how much we are needed and that little time is left for writing. It is all or nothing now, it is about the existence or the end of our beloved Fatherland. How each of us soldiers will come through this is pretty irrelevant - the main thing is and remains that we will achieve a just and lasting peace . . . we have learnt to do without everything regarding ourselves or the future and have often come to terms with our mortality. Yet repeatedly one catches oneself still having yearnings and they uphold our faith and our perseverance - but with the explosion of the next shell one’s entire life could be extinguished in an eternal void. We have stepped up to the highest battle.’
The British attempt to break the deadlock in Normandy had failed humiliatingly. One can indulge in many fruitless arguments on the Villers-Bocage fiasco. Would everything have been different if, without the initial delay, the Sharpshooters had been established on Hill 213 before Wittmann arrived? Why did Bucknall not send reinforcements? And why was there no reconnaissance screen in front? The important point is that the operation was not just a major tactical setback. It was a devastating blow to the morale of the 7th Armoured Division and the rest of the British armoured regiments. An intelligence officer with 7th Armoured wrote in his diary a few days later that ‘131 Brigade were having a lot of cases of battle neurosis. 7th Armoured Division has a big reputation but neither 22 nor 131 Armoured Brigades are first class and they had too easy a time in Italy.’
Dempsey was furious with Erskine’s performance and that of the division itself. The 7th Armoured, wrote Erskine’s successor in August, made ‘a very poor showing in Normandy’. But not all its regiments were going through a bad patch. ‘The famous Desert Rats,’ wrote the new commanding officer of the Sherwood Rangers, ‘landed in Normandy with an outstanding reputation which, it must be admitted, it found difficult to retain. I think it is true to say that the only unit which had fought with this Division continually from its inception was the 11th Hussars, the most famous of all armoured reconnaissance regiments, which made for itself an unparalleled reputation which it never lost. When the 11th was out in front, no enemy could approach within miles without being seen and reported.’
The devastating ambush due to the lack of reconnaissance was certainly a shock. But the most unsettling aspect of the battle was the inability of the Cromwell to knock out a Tiger tank, even at point-blank range. There had been mutterings about the uselessness of British tanks before the invasion. Colonel Lord Cranley had felt obliged to address the Sharpshooters on the subject. He was quite aware of the faults in the tanks, but ‘it was no good grousing as we would get no others so wemust makethebest ofthings’.The Cromwellwasfast goingforwards and had a low profile, but with its flat front it was vulnerable and it had an ineffective gun. Patton was dismissive of both the Churchill and the Cromwell, and even British generals were well aware of the Cromwell’s ‘design fault’.
Montgomery, in a letter to de Guingand on 12 June, hoped to stamp immediately on any idea of tank inferiority, however true. He did not want his armoured troops to develop ‘a Tiger and Panther complex’. And yet Montgomery himself had criticized British tank design the previous August, when he said, ‘We are outshot by the German tanks.’ But to try to suppress the problem nearly a year later was flying in the face of reality. The German 88 mm gun, both on the Tiger and the flak gun in a ground role, could pick off Allied tanks before they were able to get within range. The diary of a British officer in Hinde’s brigade was found in a shot-up tank near Tracy-Bocage. The penultimate entry on Sunday, 11 June, read, ‘The squadron left to try to take a position and had to return rapidly having lost four tanks. After four years of preparation for the invasion why are our machines inferior?’
The Americans, proud of their technological sophistication, were shaken to find that even German small arms, especially their light machine gun the MG 42, were manifestly superior. Eisenhower’s reaction on hearing how much better German tank guns were could not have been more different from Montgomery’s attempt to suppress the issue. He wrote immediately to General Marshall and sent a senior tank expert back to the States to discuss what could be done to improve their armour-piercing ammunition. Montgomery should have written to Churchill demanding a massive increase in the production of Firefly tanks with the excellent seventeen-pounder gun. Churchill, an old cavalryman, would have done everything in his power to help.
Just before the Villers-Bocage operation, Churchill was in an ebullient mood. He was finally off to France for his first visit to the invasion area and had received encouraging news from Stalin. ‘I have received the following from U.J. [Uncle Joe],’ he cabled Roosevelt. ‘I
On 12 June, Churchill, having spent the night on his personal train, boarded the destroyer HMS Kelvin at Portsmouth accompanied by Field Marshal Smuts and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke. As they crossed the Channel, Brooke recorded that they ‘passed convoys of landing craft, minesweepers, bits of floating breakwater (Phoenix) being towed out, parts of the floating piers (Whales) etc.’ They came in sight of the coast at Courseulles-sur-Mer by 11.00 hours. ‘The scene was beyond description,’ Brooke wrote. ‘Everywhere the sea was covered with ships of all sizes and shapes, and a continuous activity. We passed through rows of anchored LSTs and finally came to a “Gooseberry”, namely a row of ships sunk in a half crescent to form a sort of harbour.’
They were met by Admiral Vian in his barge and then transferred to a DUKW, which drove them out of the water and right up the beach. ‘It was a wonderful moment to find myself reentering France almost exactly 4 years after being thrown out,’ Brooke continued. ‘Floods of memories came back of my last trip of despair, and those long four years of work and anxiety.’ General Montgomery was waiting for them with a small column of Jeeps. The large party climbed in and were driven off along the Bayeux road to 21 st Army Group headquarters, in the grounds of the Château de Creully. After a typical Monty briefing, Churchill and his party set off to visit Dempsey at Second Army headquarters. Their route took them through countryside which had escaped destruction. Churchill turned to Brooke and said, ‘We are surrounded by fat cattle lying in luscious pastures with their paws crossed.’ But Brooke also noted that ‘the French population did not seem in any way pleased to see us’. Churchill also heard the stories of French women snipers. ‘There has been a recognizable amount of female sniping at us and the Americans by the women,’ he wrote to Eden on his return.
When they finally returned to Courseulles, they watched an unsuccessful raid by German bombers and then re-embarked on Admiral Vian’s barge for a trip along the coast. Churchill was entranced to see a monitor firing its fourteen-inch guns at targets inland. He announced that he had ‘never been on one of His Majesty’s ships engaging the enemy’ and insisted on going aboard. Fortunately, Brooke noted, it was too difficult to climb up and the over-excited Prime Minister was denied his ‘risky entertainment’. That did not stop Churchill from bragging mendaciously to Roosevelt, ‘We went and had a plug at the Hun from our destroyer, but although the range was 6,000 yards he did not honour us with a reply.’ However, Churchill was not entirely out of the firing line, even when they reached England. That night, on their return to London, the first V1 flying bombs landed.
Royal Navy warships did not slacken in their gunfire. On 13 June, the battleship HMS Ramillies had to steam back to Portsmouth to replenish. And the next day a shell from HMS Rodney killed Brigadeführer Fritz Witt, the commander of the 12th SS Hitler Jugend, and one of his junior officers at their command post. The dynamic Meyer took over in his stead.
On that morning, 14 June, General de Gaulle, accompanied by a large entourage, drove down to Portsmouth from the Connaught Hotel in London in a convoy of six cars. The commander-in-chief Portsmouth greeted him even though they had arrived early for embarkation at the King’s Stairs. The wait, with awkward small-talk - never de Gaulle’s strong suit - was protracted because their ship, the Free French destroyer La Combattante, was late. This, the British liaison officer noted, provoked ‘a slight display of ill-temper’ in the General. The commander-in-chief had provided the admiral’s barge, but it was not large enough to take all their luggage, an astonishing amount for what was supposed to be a one-day trip, so a picket boat had to be called up to ferry it all out. Clearly part of the retinue planned to stay on in France without informing the British. ‘General de Gaulle’s personal flag was broken at the main masthead as he went on board.’
As the French coast came in sight, one of the company said to their leader, ‘Has it occurred to you, mon Général, that it is four years ago to the day since the Germans marched into Paris?’
‘Well, they made a mistake,’ came the inimitable reply.
They were met at the beach by officers of Montgomery’s staff, who could not believe the size of the group and the quantity of luggage they were bringing ashore. Montgomery had asked that de Gaulle should bring no more than two people to lunch, but this request had been treated with monarchical disregard. In the event, only General de Gaulle, the French ambassador Viénot and Generals Koenig and Béthouart climbed into the Jeeps provided by 21st Army Group. The other fifteen members of the party and the luggage had to wait at the beach until transport could be found to send them on to Bayeux. De Gaulle even tried to insist at the last moment that the Jeeps should be driven by the French chauffeurs whom he had brought with him.
Montgomery’s dislike of cigarettes was famous, but apparently de Gaulle and his companions filled Montgomery’s caravan with smoke. This, according to the naval liaison officer accompanying the party, ‘did little to ingratiate them with its tenant’. The lunch may have been a diplomatic ordeal for Montgomery, but it clearly gave de Gaulle little pleasure too. His companions noticed that he began to relax only afterwards, when the 21st Army Group Jeeps drove them on towards Bayeux, where they were to join up with the rest of the party. News of de Gaulle’s appearance spread rapidly. The local curé, Father Paris, came cantering up on his horse. He reproved the General jovially for not having come to shake his hand. De Gaulle climbed out of the Jeep and, opening his seemingly endless arms, said, ‘Monsieur le curé, I do not shake your hand. I embrace you.’
In Bayeux, the General made his way to the Sous-Préfecture. There he was met by the sous-préfet standing self-importantly in his tricolore sash. The official then suddenly remembered to his horror that the portrait of Marshal Pétain still hung on the wall. De Gaulle, who was often so verythin-skinned, could also rise majestically above unintended insults. He continued talking to the embarrassed official as if nothing had happened. And also on that day he revealed his dry wit when an old woman in the crowd became confused in the cheering and cried out, ‘Vive le Maréchal!’ He is said to have muttered to a companion, ‘Another person who does not read the newspapers.’ On the other hand, she might have been from a farming family outside the town. The historian Sergeant Forrest Pogue constantly found that the Normans in the countryside ‘hated Laval, but not Pétain’, and they harboured a certain distrust for de Gaulle.
In any case, there could be little doubt about the warmth of de Gaulle’s reception in Bayeux itself. This was especially important, as he intended to install his own administration immediately. De Gaulle paid scant attention to Churchill’s condition of the visit that there should be no public meetings. He mounted an improvised platform in the square outside the Sous-Préfecture and addressed the crowd. He finished his speech with the declaration, ‘Le gouvernement français salue Bayeux - la première ville française libérée.’ There was no mention of the fact that the gouvernement was provisoire. He then led the crowd in singing the ‘Marseillaise’. The only cloud on his horizon was that, according to a report Churchill had just received, the population seemed perfectly happy to accept the military currency issued by his Allies and denounced by the General as ‘une fausse monnaie’.
De Gaulle carried on to Isigny and Grandcamp, but arrived too late at the embarkation point for La Combattante to set sail that night. Even though he had been warned that no ship could leave the anchorage during the hours of darkness, due to the threat of German E-boats, de Gaulle was exasperated that the British naval authorities refused the French captain permission to weigh anchor, but he was in a very good humour after his reception. As the British liaison officer remarked, perhaps the fact that he had managed to ‘post’ four members of his party
Roosevelt’s attitude to the leader of the provisional government had certainly not changed. On the same day, he signalled to Churchill, ‘In my opinion we should make full use of any organization of influence he may have in so far as is practicable without imposing him by force of our arms upon the French people as their government or giving recognition to his outfit as the Provisional Government of France.’
Churchill, who had been considering the recognition of de Gaulle as the leader of the provisional government, also remained in an unforgiving mood since the row about his refusal to send over French liaison officers. He had written to Eden just before his visit to France, ‘There is not a scrap of generosity about this man, who only wishes to pose as the saviour of France in this operation.’ The British press and most members of Parliament, on the other hand, strongly supported de Gaulle. The Times that morning had described Allied relations with the provisional government as ‘intolerable’25 - but for Churchill, relations with ‘this wrong-headed, ambitious and detestable Anglophobe’ had become a resigning matter. ‘If the policy of the Government hitherto is attacked, I will unfold the story to Parliament. This may lead to the formation of a new Government, because I have every intention of telling the whole story and Parliament can then dismiss me if it wishes.’
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