D day the battle for nor.., p.25
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.25Antony Beevor
As the officer in charge of Omaha admitted, a ‘considerable laxity of discipline prevailed’ in the beach area. Brigadier General William Hoge of the beach engineers did everything he could to stop the looting of local property, which, he declared in a conference, ‘had been denounced by the French as worse now than when the Germans were there’. Many soldiers and beach personnel stole livestock to make a change from K-or C-Rations. Some frogmen with a naval combat demolition unit caught a pig, whom they nicknamed Hermann Göring. They tried to kill it with a sledgehammer, but it just screamed, so they shot it. They dug a pit in the sand and began to roast it. French civilians also looted, although paradoxically searching for US Army ration packs. This was, however, unsurprising, since the French ration was fixed at 720 grams ofmeat, 100 gramsofbutterand 50 grams of cheese per person per month.
Despite the looting, relations with the local population started to become a little more friendly. ‘The [French] attitude is one of shrewd and watchful waiting,’ a report stated. Many locals were still concerned that the Germans might return, although few would suffer as dramatically as the citizens of Villers-Bocage. The civil affairs department provided doctors with gasoline and the American medical corps did their best for injured civilians, especially since the hospital at Isigny was incapable of dealing with all the casualties.
Civil affairs officers were never short of work. Local farmers needed permits to travel to Bayeux to obtain veterinary supplies. They also asked for replacement fencing, because new military roads were bulldozed through their land, allowing their cattle to wander. The mayor of Saint-Laurent complained that American latrines were polluting the town’s water supply. Civil affairs officers also had to recruit local labour. The Americans were clearly surprised at French working hours, which ran from seven in the morning to seven in the evening, but with an hour’s break for lunch and two ten-minute breaks at nine and at four for a glass or two of wine. (Problems arose later in the eastern sector when news spread that the Americans paid far more than the cash-strapped British.) The wonderfully named Colonel Billion was responsible for requisitioning accommodation and had to negotiate with the Comtesse de Loy when taking over part of the Château de Vierville for senior officers.
The ingrained American suspicion of French collaborators assisting the Germans was also encouraged by the French themselves: ‘The Mayor of Colleville reported [to the Counter Intelligence Corps detachment at Omaha] the presence of suspect women in that town and a suspicion that they may be in touch with Germans left behind in that area.’ Stories of Frenchwomen acting as snipers continued to spread.
Even after the beachhead in the Cotentin peninsula increased to the point where Omaha was out of range of German artillery, nerves were still stretched, especially by German air raids at night. American sailors and beachpersonnel calledthe Luftwaffe‘Hermann’s vermin’in honour of its commander-in-chief. But the wildly over-enthusiastic response of ‘literally thousands’ of anti-aircraft gunners on the ships anchored offshore created considerable problems when Allied aircraft arrived to intercept the attackers. One report stated that on the evening of 9 June, while it was still light, ships off Utah beach shot down four Mustangs, fired at four Spitfires, then fired again at another patrol of Spitfires, bringing one down, damaged two Typhoons and engaged another two Spitfires, all in the course of less than two hours. It became clear that US Navy warships were far more at fault than the merchantmen, who altogether had 800 trained air observers between them.
Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory wrote that despite all the precautionary measures taken and ‘despite undisputed air supremacy, flagrant instances of naval attack on friendly aircraft have occurred. If this continues, the fighter cover will be forced to fly so high that it can offer no protection against low-flying enemy aircraft . . . There is no foundation whatsoever in the rumour that enemy aircraft are imitating our own special markings.’27 US warships did have a ‘trained aircraft recognition officer’ on board, ‘but apparently they were only good at American types of aircraft’. The following night was almost as bad. Anti-aircraft fire from ships was so intense in reaction to a small Luftwaffe raid that six Allied fighters coming to intercept them were shot down. One of the pilots retrieved from the water could not stop cursing for four hours afterwards.
On 9 June, General Bradley told Major General J. Lawton Collins, the commander of VII Corps, to prepare to attack right across the Cotentin peninsula in readiness for the advance on Cherbourg. Two days later, Bradley had to cancel a meeting with Montgomery. He had heard that General George C. Marshall, Eisenhower and Admiral King were coming to visit him the next morning. They landed at Omaha early on 12 June, when part of the artificial harbour was already in position.
Bradley took them on a tour to Isigny. They travelled in staff cars escorted by armoured cars and viewed the effect of naval gunfire on the town. Bradley, concerned about such an extraordinary concentration of senior commanders, remarked later that ‘an enemy sniper could have won immortality as a hero of the Reich’. After seeing the big guns of the USS Texas firing its shells inland at the 17th SS Division south of Carentan, they lunched on C-Rations in a tent at First Army headquarters. There, Bradley briefed his visitors on the operation by Collins’s VII Corps to take Cherbourg.
Major General Lawton Collins was only forty-eight years old. Quick and energetic, he was known as ‘Lightning Joe’, and had proved himself in the clearing of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. Bradley trusted him completely and the feeling was mutual.
The first attempt to expand the Merderet bridgehead by the 90th Division had been a disaster, as already mentioned. One of their soldiers acknowledged that men in the division were timid. They always wanted to check with a superior before they did anything, such as spotting a German observer and not shooting straight away. The 90th also learned the hard way that taking items from dead Germans was dangerous. A soldier from another division came across the body of a second lieutenant from the 90th with his hands tied behind his back, a German P-38 pistol thrust down his throat and the back of his head blown off. The second lieutenant was still wearing the German leather holster on his belt. ‘When I saw that,’ the soldier remarked, ‘I said no souvenirs for me. But, of course, we did it too when we caught them with American cigarettes on them, or American wristwatches they had on their arms.’
Collins, realizing that the 90th Division’s combat performance would not improve, brought in the newly arrived 9th Division to force its way across the Cotentin peninsula with the 82nd Airborne. They attacked on 14 June. Supported by Shermans and tank destroyers, the 9th Division forced aside the remnants of the 91st Luftlande-Division and reached the small seaside resort of Barneville four days later.
Hitler had given the strictest instruction that the maximum number of troops on the peninsula should fight in retreat towards Cherbourg. The commander of the 77th Infanterie-Division, however, decided to disobey the order. He saw no point in staying with the trapped and doomed forces, now under the command of General von Schlieben. He managed to slip through with part of his forces, just as the American 9th Division reached Barneville. The 91st Luftlande-Division also retreated to the south, having lost most of its equipment and nearly 3,000 men since 6 June.
‘I was ordered to the supply train to help restock as we had lost everything in just a few days,’ wrote an Obergefreiter in the 91st Luftlande. ‘We had nothing but the clothes we stood up in. The worst thing continues to be the planes so everything has to be done at night. Those bastards strafe individuals with the onboard machine guns; we should have anti-aircraft artillery and planes here but they’re nowhere in sight. You can imagine that this completely exhausts morale. Now we’ve been told that in the next few days there’ll be a major air offensive with a great number of planes standing by.’
The American southern flank of the corridor became the responsibility of the 82nd Airborne and the hapless 90th Division. To oversee this sector, Bradley appointed Major General Troy H. Middleton, one of
Opposing Middleton, the LXXXIV Corps finally received its new commanding general on 18 June. Generalleutnant Dietrich von Choltitz may have been ‘a pudgy man who looked like a night club comedian’, but he had learned his skills in the ruthless school of the eastern front, especially in the fighting for Sebastopol. Choltitz had come from Seventh Army headquarters at Le Mans, where Generaloberst Dollmann had briefed him. Choltitz was not impressed. ‘The commander-in-chief made a very tired, almost absent-minded impression,’ he wrote at the end of the war. Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein of the Panzer Lehr Division was even more contemptuous of Dollmann. He regarded him as a ‘Null’ and said that ‘he had lived a life of luxury and had grown soft’.
Choltitz also found the staff of LXXXIV Corps demoralized. After the failure of the first panzer counter-attack west of Caen, his predecessor, General Marcks, had said openly that ‘the war was lost’, a treasonable offence. The casualty rate among divisional commanders also had an effect. As well as Falley of the 91st Luftlande and Marcks himself, General Helmlich had been killed on 10 June, and Ostendorff of the 17th SS was seriously wounded on 16 June. To complicate matters even more, Choltitz found that with the American advance across the peninsula, his only contact with General von Schlieben was via the Channel Islands and Cherbourg.
Assoon asthe peninsulawas cutoff, Collinswanted togive the Germans no time to reorganize. General Manton Eddy, the commander of the 9th Division, had to turn his whole formation round in less than twenty-four hours to be ready to advance north up the west coast. Collins placed the 79th Infantry Division in the centre, while the 4th Division, still fighting hard round Montebourg and Valognes, would clear the eastern part and attack Cherbourg from the right. The 4th Division’s commander, Major General Raymond O. Barton, may have lacked the flamboyance of some colleagues, but Liddell Hart had been impressed. He described him as ‘refreshingly open-minded’.
Barton’s 4th Division advanced against the concentration of forces to their north. Bombardments of naval and ground artillery had been battering the German defences around Montebourg and Valognes, along with the towns themselves. Montgomery’s own reliance on artillery was revealed in a ghastly joke when he wrote to de Guingand, ‘Montebourg and Valognes have been “liberated” in the best 21st Army Group style, i.e. they are both completely destroyed!!!’
The three divisions advancing on Cherbourg also benefited from having their own air support party, ready to call in fighter-bomber attacks. At that stage, while this new liaison technique was being tried, most emergency requests took at least three hours to accomplish. But there were exceptions. On 16 June, ‘a Cub plane reported to division artillery that a column of troops was crossing a bridge. Artillery phoned it in. Corps contacted a squadron of fighter-bombers in the area and directed it onto the column. In 15 minutes they had a report they had strafed the column. Reports have come in that American prisoners being marched down the road by Germans escaped in the course of strafing by our planes.’ This early attempt at ground-air cooperation was an important start in what would become a devastatingly effective combination later in the campaign.
But just as Collins’s advance on Cherbourg was proceeding well, the Allies were hit by an unforeseeable disaster. On 19 June, the most violent storm for forty years began to blow up in the Channel, combined with a spring tide. Locals had never seen anything like it. The gale force winds along the coast were, in the Norman saying, enough ‘to take the horns off a cow’. Temperatures dropped to the equivalent of a cold November. The Mulberry artificial port at Omaha was destroyed beyond repair. One or two experts said that gaps in its construction had made it vulnerable, but it stood on the most exposed piece of coast. Its British counterpart at Arromanches was partly protected by a reef and rocks, and as a result could be rebuilt afterwards.
Landing craft were hurled by the waves high on to the beaches, smashing against each other. Flat Rhino ferries sliced into their sides. Even landing ship tanks were thrown ashore. ‘The only chance we had of keeping our landing craft from being beaten to bits,’ wrote a US Navy officer, ‘was to anchor a long way off the beach out in the Channel and hope we could ride the storm out.’ For ships en route to England, the crossing was unforgettable. ‘It took us about four days to do the 80 nautical miles in very rough seas to Southampton,’ wrote an officer on an LST. ‘The seas were so rough that the skipper was afraid that the ship would crack in two; therefore he ordered the mooring cables to be strung fore and aft and tightened up on the winches to give extra support to two of the deck plates. That ship was strung like a mountaineer’s fiddle.’
The storm continued until the evening of Thursday, 22 June. The destruction on the beaches defied belief. More ships and materiel had been lost than during the invasion itself. Yet those involved in the planning of D-Day could not help remembering with grateful relief the decision to go ahead taken on 5 June. If the invasion had been postponed for two weeks, as had been feared, the fleet would have sailed into one of the worst storms in Channel history. Eisenhower, after he had seen the damage on the beaches, took the time to write a note to Group Captain Stagg: ‘I thank the gods of war we went when we did.’
Recovering from the effects afterwards took longer than the storm itself. To refloat an LST thrown up on to the beach required bulldozers to dig huge trenches around it in the hope that another high tide might float it off. The Americans, who ‘never really believed in the Mulberry’, cleared what they could, then proved that they could land ‘an amazing tonnage with flat-bottomed barges and by beaching ships at low tide’.28
The storm badly delayed the build-up, hampered the return of casualties to England and forced the cancellation of air operations. This absence of Allied fighter-bombers from the sky allowed the Germans to accelerate their reinforcement of the Normandy front. At the same time, many Allied divisions, either already embarked for France or ready to cross, were delayed by a week or more. The most immediate effect was on supplies, especially artillery ammunition. General Bradley had a difficult choice, but decided to maintain full support for Collins’s attack on Cherbourg. His other two corps - Gerow’s V Corps to the south-east and Middleton’s VIII Corps on the south side of the peninsula - would receive only a minimum of artillery shells, even though Bradley knew that this would allow the Germans time to prepare defences south of the Douve marshes.
Despite the fury of the storm, Collins had urged on his three divisions to encircle the tip of the peninsula. General von Schlieben, knowing that his fragmented forces could not hold the Americans in the open, had begun to withdraw to the forts around Cherbourg. His own division had taken under command a wide variety of units, including a Georgian battalion and a mounted regiment of Cossacks with five squadrons. Their Russian colonel when drunk confessed to wanting ‘a bit of plunder’. ‘It was a war of fun and games,’ observed one of Schlieben’s colonels sarcastically.
Although resistance on the advance to Cherbourg was mainly one of isolated actions, it was a testing time for the newly arrived 79th Division in the centre. ‘The men were tired,’ wrote one platoon commander, ‘and the more tired they became the more they wanted to bunch, particularly during marching.’ This failure to keep a safe distance led to many unnecessary casualties in the early days. Sometimes they encountered stragglers who claimed that their company had been virtually wiped out, but it was never true. They were just disorientated by this first experience of hedgerow fighting. Platoon commanders felt vulnerable chasing around trying to find lost men or squads. Five miles east of Cherbourg, the 79th ran into an outpost line of scattered pillboxes and machine-gun nests: ‘K Company [of the 314th Infantry] lost almost a full platoon, because of inexperience and a certain amount of panic, when the troops bunched and formed very profitable targets for enemy gunners.’ But they found that if they encircled a pi
On 22 June, the Americans launched a massive air raid on Cherbourg late in the morning. The alarms rang in the flak positions manned by German teenagers from the Reichsarbeitsdienst, recruits engaged on construction projects who were not yet proper soldiers. They ran to their guns as the first waves of fighter-bombers came in. ‘We fired back like madmen,’ wrote one of them. Then came a rumbling drone over the Channel as formations of American heavy bombers appeared, glinting in the sun. ‘An inferno descended - roaring, shattering, shaking, crashing. Then quiet. Dust, ash and dirt made the sky gray. A horrific silence lay over our battery position.’ There had been several direct hits. The boys’ bodies were taken away in trucks later.
As the Americans closed in on Cherbourg they encountered a greater density of pillboxes and weapon pits, as well as major forts. Each position had to be dealt with individually. Colonel Bernard B. MacMahon’s 315th Infantry was faced with what seemed to be a major defence work at Les Ingoufs, with a garrison of several hundred. A Polish deserter led MacMahon and a reconnaissance party close to it. It looked as if the guns had been destroyed, either by air attack or by the Germans themselves. MacMahon ordered a newly arrived loudspeaker truck to be brought up. He then ordered forward some artillery and announced over the loudspeakers in German that a full divisional assault was about to be launched. They had ten minutes to surrender, then ‘any part of the garrison not surrendering would be blasted out of existence’.He kept repeating the message, ‘feeling rather foolish because his talking seemed to have produced no results’. Suddenly he heard yells: ‘Here they come!’ Large numbers of German soldiers could be seen advancing, some with white flags and the rest with their arms raised. But they represented only a portion of the garrison.
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