D day the battle for nor.., p.24
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.24

           Antony Beevor
 

  De Gaulle, however, was to achieve more by covert means. The officials he had managed to leave behind in France as a ‘Trojan horse’, together with others already gathered there, turned Bayeux into the capital of Free France. Allied officers soon found it more practical to work with them and discreetly ignore outdated instructions from the politicians in London.

  While Bayeux was a city of peace and plenty, Caen, the capital of Calvados, continued to suffer abominably from bombs and shelling. On the morning of 9 June, a favourite landmark, the bell tower of Saint-Pierre, was brought down by a shell from HMS Rodney. ‘Le panorama est tout changé,’ wrote one citizen sadly. Buildings burned from further air raids, and an impression of rain under a blue sky was in fact molten lead dripping from roofs.

  The surgeons and doctors at the Bon Sauveur were exhausted from their work. The arrival of casualties by ambulance, stretcher or, in one case, on the back of a German tank was announced by whistles. As in a field hospital, a doctor was on hand to carry out an immediate triage and decide who should be operated on first. The strain on the surgeons was immense. One said, ‘I simply cannot look at any more blood.’ Another muttered, ‘I’ve had it. I think if anyone brings me somebody who’s injured I just couldn’t operate.’ They had no idea which day of the week it was.

  In the first few days, three badly wounded Canadian paratroopers had been brought in from Troarn. One of them, a lieutenant, started yelling when he realized that the surgeon wanted to amputate his right arm. A translator was called for and the lieutenant explained that he was a painter. The surgeon agreed to do what he could to save the arm. The man nearly died during the operation, but he was saved by a nurse who offered herself in an arm-to-arm transfusion.

  Another event which shook everyone in the Bon Sauveur occurred after a café owner was brought in with a bullet wound in the thigh. It transpired that, when drunk, he had shot at some soldiers from the Hitler Jugend who had been pillaging his café, a common event. While a surgeon was operating on him, an SS officer appeared armed with a sub-machine gun. The SS officer began hitting him as he lay on the operating table, asking whether he had fired at the soldiers. The café owner was speechless and did not reply. The SS officer fired a burst from his gun into his chest, killing him right there in front of all the medical staff.

  Estimates of the number of people seeking shelter in the Bon Sauveur and the Abbaye aux Hommes vary greatly. There were well over 3,000. The Eglise Saint-Etienne was also crammed with refugees, sleeping on straw as if ‘in the Middle Ages’. Ancient wells were opened up as the only source of water. Young men and women acted as foragers, seeking food in the larders of ruined houses or going out into the countryside, evading German patrols. Livestock killed by shells and bombs were butchered for meat. Dairy products were easy to come by since farmers could not send anything to market. In the city’s main refuge south-east of the Orne, the convent of Les Petites Soeurs des Pauvres, the 500 refugees were tempted to complain that their bread was too thickly buttered. (In Paris, meanwhile, butter fetched astronomical prices on the black market.) Outside these havens, Caen was a sinister morgue. Rats grew fat on the corpses buried underground and stray dogs searched for an arm or leg sticking out of the rubble.

  The Vichy authorities in Paris made an effort to help Caen. Two trucks loaded with food and blankets and a field kitchen were sent off by Secours National under the direction of Monsieur Gouineau. It was a hazardous journey. German soldiers in Lisieux were obsessed with ‘terrorists’ of the Resistance. They shot a policeman in the street simply because he carried a service pistol on his belt. Monsieur Gouineau, knowing that all the banks in Caen had been destroyed, had the authority to draw 100 million francs in Lisieux. There was no time to count the money, so he signed the receipt with his eyes closed and they drove on to Caen. When Allied fighters appeared overhead they waved a white flag frantically and the aircraft veered off.

  After the money and supplies had been delivered, the return journey proved even more complicated. They obtained a laissez-passer from the German army Kommandantur in Caen, but were warned that the SS did not respect such pieces of paper. And beyond Lisieux a German patrol opened fire,suspecting that the trucks belongedto the Resistance. Monsieur Gouineau and several others were wounded. Nevertheless, a relay of supplies began and altogether some 250 tons were delivered.

  For those French behind Allied lines, life was at least a little easier. In Lion-sur-Mer a local wrote, ‘The English since their arrival distribute to left and right chocolate, sweets and cigarettes.’ But there was no electricity or water, except from wells, and for food, most survived off their kitchen gardens. Rumour ran riot. Some believed that the swimming tanks had crossed the Channel all on their own, and a few convinced themselves that they had crossed on the bottom of the sea like tracked submarines. Often the sweets and cigarettes were not given but bartered for milk, eggs and meat from fallen livestock. An unofficial rate of exchange - ‘le troc’ - rapidly established itself, with two eggs for a tin of corned beef.

  Barter extended to other commodities with an astonishing rapidity. A surgeon with the 2nd Field Dressing Station recorded that on 7 June ‘a senior officer of the Military Police arrived in a Jeep loaded with medical comforts - army-issue chocolate, sweets and cigarettes for the wounded. Earlier that morning the police had raided a brothel set up on the beach in a wrecked landing craft by three ladies on the evening of D-Day and had confiscated the trading currency.’ British sailors, sometimes drunk but still desperate for more alcohol, made a nuisance of themselves, going from house to house on the coast.

  One of the very first temporary airfields constructed by the British with wire-mesh runways was B-5, outside Le Fresne-Camilly. Teenage boys, fascinated by all the military hardware, congregated to watch and make friends with the airmen and soldiers. On 15 June, a wing of Typhoons arrived to prepare a raid on a German panzer headquarters in a château near Villers-Bocage. The pilots landed to find the airfield under shellfire and they had to dive into slit trenches. The Typhoon aircrews knew how much they were hated by the Germans, so a number of them wore khaki battledress to avoid being lynched in case they were shot down. Considering the rather patronizing attitude of RAF pilots towards ‘brown jobs’, as they called the army, it was ironic that they borrowed their uniform.

  Medical officers did all they could for wounded civilians. In a village near the fortified German radar station at La Délivrande, a shell had exploded in the schoolyard. The eighteen-year-old daughter of the schoolteacher lost her arm at the shoulder. There was no doctor available, but ‘during the morning, the English occupied the village and their first concern was to take care of the injured’. The battalion doctor with his two assistants tended her. She was evacuated first to a casualty clearing station at Hermanville and then back across the Channel, to be cared for at Northwood, where other wounded French civilians were taken.

  Dempsey’s fears that the front would coagulate proved accurate. The Royal Ulster Rifles, having captured Cambes, stayed there for more than a month. Lieutenant Cyril Rand, a platoon commander, described it as a life of ‘musical chairs’, with gunfire and slit trenches replacing the stopped music and the chairs. Their padre, Father John O’Brien, used to visit the forward positions, with rum scrounged from the quartermaster, to play the odd hand of poker with soldiers in their dugouts. O’Brien was kept busy tending to the dead as well as the living. At one of the brief funeral services by an open grave, a newly arrived officer half-fainted beside him, dropped to his knees and began to slide into the hole. The padre caught him by his battledress, saying, ‘Now there’s no need to be in a hurry. All in good time.’

  Black humour was just about the only amusement available. The Ulster Rifles had a forward observation officer from the Royal Artillery with them. He took a wicked pleasure in dropping a couple of shells on the German position whenever a Landser could be spied sneaking off to their latrine. The Ulsters, in their mud-encrusted battledress, longed for the chance t
o get clean. One day when in reserve, Lieutenant Rand slipped off to take an improvised bath in an abandoned house. He added a good measure of eau-de-Cologne from a bottle which he found there. On his return, he found the brigadier accompanied by the battalion second in command making an inspection. The brigadier moved on, apparently satisfied, but turned to give Rand a strange look. Rand’s platoon sergeant murmured in his ear, ‘I think they noticed, sir.’

  ‘Noticed what?’

  ‘Your smell, sir. You smell like a brothel.’

  Their food, usually cooked over a biscuit tin filled with earth which had been soaked in petrol, was also monotonous. Compo rations came in a fourteen-day pack, with hard tack biscuits, margarine, jam, mixed vegetables, steak and kidney pudding, tins of M&V (meat and vegetables), plum pudding, latrine paper, soup, sweets, cigarettes (seven per man per day), matches and tea ready-mixed with milk powder and sugar for an instant brew-up. Oatmeal blocks could be crumbled into water to make porridge for breakfast as a change from the tins of over-salted and glutinous bacon and powdered egg. It was not surprising that barter for fresh produce became such an obsession.

  Trench warfare and the quite arbitrary chance of death which went with it led to numerous superstitions. Few ever quite dared to risk fate by saying that they would do this or that ‘when I get home’. For all but the most dedicated of soldiers, the hope of ‘getting a Blighty one’ - a wound which required evacuation back to Britain, but would not disable you - was akin to dreams of winning the lottery. A medal was all very well, but they preferred somebody else to play the role of hero, ‘winning the war single-handed’. They just wanted to return home alive.

  In almost every infantry platoon in most conscript armies there were seldom more than a handful of men prepared to take risks and attack. At the other end of the scale, there were usually a similar number who would do everything possible to avoid danger. The majority in the middle just followed the brave ones, but, faced with sudden disaster, they could equally run with the shirkers. The first study of behaviour under fire had been made in Sicily in 1943. A horrified Montgomery suppressed the report, fearing its effects on morale, and the career of the officer who wrote it suffered. More evidence emerged later to support his thesis.26 Even in the Red Army officers were certain that six out of ten soldiers never fired their rifles in battle. This prompted one of their commanders to suggest that weapons should be inspected afterwards and anyone with a clean barrel should be treated as a deserter.

  This platoon profile was probably reflected in below-average German infantry divisions, but almost certainly not in elite panzergrenadier and paratroop units or the highly indoctrinated Waffen-SS. They were convinced of Germany’s rightful dominance and in ‘final victory’. It was their duty to save the Fatherland from annihilation. The difference between the soldiers of a democracy and those of a dictatorship could hardly have been clearer. Yet the morale of the German Landser in Normandy was vulnerable. So much had been promised by the propaganda ministry and their own officers. Many had welcomed the invasion as an opportunity to settle scores over the Allied bombing and, by crushing it, to bring the war to an end.

  ‘The whole world now anticipates the further course of the invasion,’ wrotean Untersturmführerofthe 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen on 6 June. ‘When I heard the news on the radio at noon today, I was honestly pleased, because by this measure we seem to be nearing the end of the war quite considerably.’ The SS Hohenstaufen was part of II SS Panzer Corps, and about to leave the eastern front for Normandy to counter-attack the British. Four days later, when it was clear that the Allies were safely ashore, the same Untersturmführer wrote, ‘If the repulse of the invasion is not happening as swiftly as some believe, one may have some hope because things are moving. And we still have the retaliatory strike in store.’

  Every time an assurance of the propaganda ministry proved false, another one quickly took its place. The Atlantic Wall was impregnable. The Allies would not dare to invade. The Luftwaffe and U-boats would smash the invasion fleet. A massive counter-attack would hurl the Allies back into the sea. The secret Vengeance weapons would bring Britain to her knees, begging for peace. New jet fighters would sweep the Allied aircraft from the sky. The more desperate the situation became, the more shameless the lie. The relentless inventions of Goebbels served as a form of morale-benzedrine for the soldier at the front, but when the effect wore off, he would be left truly exhausted. For SS soldiers especially, belief became nothing short of an addiction. Yet for many more ordinary German officers and soldiers, Normandy would prove the culmination of any private doubts they might have had about the outcome of the war.

  14

  The Americans on the Cotentin Peninsula

  Like the British during the last seven days, the American First Army had also feared a major counter-attack from the south. Allied intelligence had not appreciated the success of its air forces and the Resistance in slowing the arrival of German reinforcements. Nor did they foresee that the German high command would throw the vast majority of its panzer divisions against the British Second Army.

  Before the Villers-Bocage offensive, the American 1st Division, while establishing a deep salient around Caumont-l’Eventé, had feared an attack on its eastern flank. This was when the British 50th Division was fighting the Panzer Lehr Division round Tilly-sur-Seulles. General Huebner, the commander of the 1st Division, protested when Bradley took the tanks supporting them to smash the 17th SS Division’s attack on Carentan. But Bradley had reassured him that Montgomery would be bringing the 7th Armoured Division in on that side.

  The 2nd Division to the right, and the 29th Infantry Division now also forming part of the front advancing south towards Saint-Lô, had no idea how weak the German forces facing them were. By the time they did, the 275th Infanterie-Division and the German 3rd Paratroop Division had begun to arrive from Brittany. The American objective of Saint-Lô would not be taken for just over a month of bitter fighting through the hedgerows of the bocage.

  To their west, Heydte’s 6th Paratroop Regiment and the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen had established a defensive line on either side of the Carentan-Périers road. But the breakthrough the Germans feared there did not take place. The Allies had a much higher priority: the capture of the port of Cherbourg to speed their resupply.

  The build-up of forces was already proceeding apace. In a triumph of American organization and industry, Omaha beach had been transformed. ‘Within a week after D-Day,’ wrote a naval officer, ‘the beach resembled Coney Island on a hot Sunday. Thousands of men were at work, including Sea-Bees, Army engineers and French labourers. Big and little bulldozers were busy widening roads, levelling ground and hauling wreckage.’ Before the end of June, Omaha beach command had a total strength of just over 20,000 officers and men, the bulk of them in the 5th and 6th Engineer Special Brigades. DUKWs ferried back and forth through the water with supplies and personnel. Once the beach was out of range of German artillery, then the landing ship tanks beached at low tide to disgorge more vehicles. When they opened their bow doors and dropped their ramps, according to one eyewitness, the strange grey vessel looked like a whale shark. ‘Jeeps bearing staff officers were as common as yellow cabs in the heart of New York,’ wrote the same naval officer. And ‘large groups of German prisoners could be spotted here and there awaiting removal via LST’.

  On the beach, a sergeant in the 6th Engineer Special Brigade recounted how, when they were escorting some prisoners to a stockade, paratroopers from the 101st Airborne started to yell, ‘Turn those prisoners over to us. Turn them over to us! We know what to do with them!’ A member of a naval combat demolition unit saw the same or a similar incident. ‘Those wounded paratroopers were trying to do anything they could to get to those German prisoners. I guess they had been mistreated very badly in the rear or something. Bloody or not they were still ready to do more fighting if they could have gotten to those Germans.’

  Unfortunately, wounded
American airborne troops were evacuated on the same vessels as prisoners. An officer on LST 134 recorded, ‘We had an incident where we had some paratroop soldiers and prisoners aboard, and I don’t know what happened but I understand one or two Germans got killed.’ On LST 44, a pharmacist’s mate experienced a similarly tense encounter: ‘One of our ship’s officers started to herd these prisoners into the same area where I was helping tend some shell-shocked and wounded American soldiers. The immediate reaction of our troops was frightening and fierce. The situation was explosive. For the first and only time, I refused entry and demanded our officer stop sending the captured troops into this area. Our lieutenant looked surprised and extremely angry, but grudgingly complied.’

  The LSTs were specially equipped for bringing wounded back to base hospitals in England. ‘There were stretchers placed on brackets on the bulkheads of the tank deck,’ noted the same pharmacist’s mate, ‘and they were several tiers high.’ Some of the wounded prisoners of war were in a terrible state. ‘A German prisoner brought aboard on a stretcher had a body cast extending from his ankles to his chest. He was pleading with me and our ship’s doctor for help. He called us, “Comrade, comrade.” Our ship’s doctor, with my assistance, opened the cast, only to find this pitiful human being was being eaten by hordes of maggots. We removed the cast, cleaned him, bathed him, gave him pain killers. We were too late. He died peacefully that evening.’

  Both at Utah and at Omaha, rear troops and sailors were as desperate as front-line soldiers to get their hands on war souvenirs. According to a Coast Guard officer on the USS Bayfield, souvenir hunters bartered away furiously for German medals and badges of rank. Many prisoners of war, still fearing execution as their commanders had warned them, handed them over with little protest. On land, the most eagerly sought trophies were Luger pistols. If anyone wanted a Luger, one officer remarked, he had to ‘shoot the German himself and catch him before he fell’. Back at the beach sailors were paying $135 and there was talk of offers as high as $250, a great deal of money at the time. An enterprising sergeant from the 2nd Armored Division brought back to the beach a truck-load of captured weapons and bartered them for 100 pounds of instant coffee, a commodity which American tank troops regarded as body fuel.

 
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