D day the battle for nor.., p.26
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.26Antony Beevor
A group of five German officers appeared next, as delegates sent by the garrison commander. They asked MacMahon to have his guns fire one phosphorus shell at the position so that their commander could feel he ‘had satisfied his obligation to the Führer and surrender’. MacMahon had to admit that he had no phosphorus shells. Would ‘German honor be satisfied’ if five phosphorus grenades were thrown? After discussion of this counter-proposal, the senior German officer agreed with more saluting. But only four grenades could be found in the whole company. There was more haggling, then these four grenades were thrown into a cornfield. The German officers inspected the results and agreed that they were indeed phosphorus, and returned to inform their commander that he could surrender the rest of the garrison and the field hospital attached.
MacMahon found that they had taken 2,000 prisoners. Later, when he and his divisional commander went to inspect the German field hospital, the senior officer there requested that they be allowed to keep eight rifles. Unless their Russian and Polish ‘voluntary’ helpers were held under guard, he explained, they would not work. The American divisional commander retorted that the Russians and Poles were now under American protection and the Germans could do the work themselves.
Cherbourg’s most formidable defences were the coastal batteries. Because the heavy bombers had failed to smash their ferro-concrete emplacements, Bradley asked Admiral Kirk to help speed the capture of the port. Kirk felt that Bradley was becoming rather too fond of naval gunfire support, but agreed. A squadron including the battleships Nevada, Texas and Warspite, as well as the battleship HMS Nelson and several cruisers, sailed round the cape towards Cherbourg. Many regarded the operation as a pleasant excursion. ‘At eight-thirty we went to General Quarters,’ wrote the sky control officer on the cruiser USS Quincy. ‘The sky was bright with a few pleasant flecks of cumulus. The air was like chilled wine.’ According to Rear Admiral Carleton F. Bryant on the USS Texas, ‘It was a beautiful sunny Sunday with just a bright ripple on the water and as we followed our mine-sweepers towards Cherbourg, we were lulled into a false sense of security.’ They took their bombardment positions at about 13.00 hours.
Suddenly a coastal battery which they had failed to see opened fire. A shell hit the conning tower of the Texas, severely damaging the captain’s bridge and the flag bridge. ‘Immediately we opened fire,’ wrote an officer on the Nelson, ‘we got salvos screaming over from [the coastal batteries] and the first salvo straddled us.’ The Nevada also received near misses, while apart from the Texas, HMS Glasgow and several other ships were hit. None were crippled, but Rear Admiral Bryant rightly decided that discretion was the better part of valour and withdrew his task force behind a smoke screen.
On land, some of the infantry encountered strongpoints which would not give in rapidly. Great bravery was shown on a number of occasions. Armoured bulldozers were needed to bring up supplies under fire. Engineers and infantry used satchel charges and other explosive devices to drop down ventilation shafts. Occasionally, a display of strength would persuade a garrison commander to surrender. According to one extraordinary report, Private Smith in the 79th Infantry Division, who ‘had drunk enough Calvados to make him reckless’, captured one strongpoint single-handed.
Smith, armed only with a .45 automatic pistol and accompanied by a similarly inebriated friend who had no weapon at all, ‘staggered up to the entrance of the fort’. Smith and his companion, on seeing that the steel doors were ajar, slipped inside and shot dead the German soldiers standing around in the entrance. Smith, ‘who was in truth stewed to the ears’, went from room to room, ‘shooting and shouting, and as he appeared at each door, the Germans inside, thinking the whole American army was in the fort, gave up’. He herded his prisoners together and marched them out into the open, where they were handed over to his battalion. Smith then returned to the fort and discovered another room in which there were wounded Germans. ‘Declaring to all and sundry that the only good German was a dead one, Smith made good Germans out of several of them before he could be stopped.’
After the main defence position, the Fort du Roule, had been taken, Generalleutnant von Schlieben knew that there was little point in continuing the agony. Virtually all his men were trapped below ground in their strongpoints, along with several thousand wounded. He decided to surrender after American engineers blew up the ventilation shafts to his subterranean headquarters. The wounded could hardly breathe, there was so little oxygen. One of his officers, Oberstleutnant Keil, who was lauded by the Nazi authorities for holding out until 30 June on the Jobourg peninsula, defended Schlieben’s ‘sound common sense’. Schlieben did not want to sacrifice his men’s lives for no purpose, despite the fact that, as the commander of ‘Fortress Cherbourg’, Hitler had made him take an oath that he would fight to the death.
On 25 June, at 19.32 hours, an officer on his staff sent a message by radio: ‘Final battle for Cherbourg has begun. General takes part in fighting. Long live the Führer and Germany.’ Schlieben was embarrassed afterwards when he heard of it. The next day he surrendered with the 800 men in his position. ‘Some of the boys,’ wrote an officer in the 4th Infantry Division, ‘could not understand why the Germans had given it up as quickly as they had.’ Schlieben, who seemed to be something of an epicure, was not impressed by the K-Rations he received. One of Bradley’s officers thought it highly amusing that he was about to face English cuisine as a prisoner when sent back across the Channel.
Cherbourg was a wreck, especially the port, which had been systematically destroyed by German engineers. American troops mopped up isolated pockets of resistance. Once again there were dubious reports of Frenchwomen with rifles. ‘We saw a few women snipers,’ stated a sergeant with the 4th Infantry Division, ‘who were dressed in ordinary clothes. One day we brought in twenty Germans, including one woman.’ Acts of revenge were also committed, especially after a US hospital had been hit by an artillery shell. American soldiers are said to have killed Organisation Todt workers who were non-combatants.
Over 600 German wounded were found in the Pasteur hospital. Captain Koehler, a battalion surgeon with the 22nd Infantry Regiment and a fluent German speaker, was put in charge. Although he had excellent cooperation from the German colonel and his medical staff, Koehler was appalled at the high death rate, largely due to the lack of preparation of patients before surgery. The unnecessary number of amputations also shocked him. ‘The Teutonic tendency to operate on a surgical case and disregard the outcome on the life of the patient was very apparent,’ he wrote.
Engineers from the 101st Airborne, who had been brought up to help with the reduction of strongpoints, joined in the general merriment of victory as the town returned to a version of normal life. ‘That was quite an experience,’ one of them wrote, ‘because the houses of prostitution were open, the taverns were open, MPs were in there, military government, rangers, paratroopers, dog leg infantry, artillery officers, and we had our first experience of using sidewalk urinals.’ The combat historian Sergeant Forrest Pogue saw nearly 100 soldiers queuing outside a former Wehrmacht brothel. A Frenchman warned him that they should be careful: ‘The Germans have left much disease.’
Along with all American troops, they were amazed by the stores which the Germans had accumulated in their concrete bunkers. Bradley wrote of their defences as ‘a massive underground wine cellar’. He ordered that the booty should be divided up among the front-line divisions, rather than allow it all to fall into the hands of rear troops and those working on reconstruction.
Hitler, when he heard of General von Schlieben’s surrender, was furious. He had summoned all commanders of coastal ports to Berchtesgaden in April to look them over and assess their belief in victory. He had relieved several on the spot for lacking what he perceived as sufficient determination to fight to the last man, but not Schlieben. Afterwards, Hitler harped on about how pathetic Schlieben had been. He was almost as outraged as he had been over Paulus’s capitulation at Stalingrad.
Shortly before the fall of Cherbourg, Hitler made his last visit to France. He was in an unforgiving mood. His orders to sweep the Allies back into the sea had not been carried out and he regarded his senior commanders in the west as defeatist. Hitler complained openly at OKW headquarters that ‘Field Marshal Rommel is a great and inspiring leader in victory, but as soon as there is the slightest difficulty, he becomes a complete pessimist.’
Rommel, on his side, did not conceal his dissatisfaction with the way Hitler interfered with his direction of the battle. Even senior officers at OKW were driven to distraction by Hitler’s obsession with detail. He insisted that every emplacement should be marked on 1:25,000 maps. One day, he noticed in a report that the number of anti-aircraft guns in the Channel Islands had apparently been reduced by two. He demanded that the officer responsible should be punished for reducing the defences, but in fact somebody had miscounted the first time round. Hitler, without ever having visited the area of Caen in his life, continually pestered the OKW staff about the positioning of two units of multi-barrelled mortars: the 7th and 8th Nebelwerfer Brigades. He insisted that they would decide the outcome in the British sector if they were placed at a specific spot east of the River Orne.
Despite their earlier disagreements on tactics, both Rommel and General Geyr von Schweppenburg wanted to withdraw behind the line of the Orne. Geyr recognized that to launch a major panzer counterattack within range of Allied naval guns was pointless. Instead, he wanted to adopt ‘Jungle Tiger Tactics’, with sudden armoured raids. This came just as the Hitler Jugend had started to have second thoughts after their battering at the hands of the Canadians. But Rommel’s demands for ‘flexibility of action’, which meant having the right to pull back without reference to Führer headquarters, and the proposal to withdraw behind the Orne constituted a direct contradiction of Hitler’s order that every inch of ground should be held.
Hitler, determined to have it out with both Rommel and Rundstedt, summoned them to a conference before the fall of Cherbourg. On 16 June, he flew from Berchtesgaden to Metz in his personal Focke-Wulf Condor. Accompanied by General Jodl and members of his military staff, he proceeded in convoy to Margival, near Soissons. The bunker complex at Margival had been prepared in 1940 as his headquarters for the invasion of Britain. It had been set into a deep railway cutting near a tunnel where the Führer’s special train could shelter.
The next morning, Rundstedt and Rommel arrived as instructed. ‘[Hitler] looked unhealthy and overtired,’ noted Speidel, Rommel’s chief of staff. ‘He played nervously with his spectacles and the coloured pencils he held between his fingers. He sat on his chair bent forward while the Field Marshals remained standing. His former suggestive power seemed to have disappeared. After brief and cool greetings, Hitler, speaking in a loud voice, sharply expressed his displeasure over the success of the Allied landings, tried to find fault with the local commanders and ordered the holding of Fortress Cherbourg at any price.’
Rundstedt made a few introductory remarks, then asked Rommel to make his report. Rommel spoke of the ‘hopelessness of fighting against tremendous enemy superiority in all three dimensions’. He spoke of the failure of air and naval reconnaissance, yet emphasized that his divisions along the coast had not been caught off guard and that ‘the performance of officers and men in this unequal struggle had been superhuman’. He predicted the fall of Cherbourg and attacked the whole of Hitler’s policy, which had designated some sixteen fortresses along the Channel and Brittany coasts to be held to the last. Altogether some 200,000 men and precious materiel were tied up in their defence and, in most cases, the Allies would simply bypass them. The Allies were landing two to three divisions a week, he continued, and even though they were slow and methodical, the three branches of the Wehrmacht simply would not be able to resist their overwhelming might. Rommel wanted to withdraw by six to ten miles east and south of the River Orne. This would enable him to pull out the panzer divisions to redeploy them for a major counter-attack. He also wanted to prepare the line of the River Seine for defence. Rundstedt supported these proposals. He wanted to pull back behind the Loire and the Seine, abandoning the whole of north-west France.
An outraged Hitler, refusing to face the facts, made ‘a long auto-suggestive speech’. He predicted that the V-1, which had been used in quantity for the first time the day before, would ‘have a decisive effect on the outcome of the war against England’. He then broke off the discussion to dictate an announcement about the V weapons to the representative of the Reich Press Chief. The two field marshals had to stand there listening to a frenzied Hitlerian monologue. Hitler refused to have the V weapons targeted at the beachheads or the south coast ports of Britain. He insisted that they must all be aimed at London, to bring the British to their knees. When Rommel criticized the lack of effective support from the Luftwaffe, Hitler acknowledged that he had been deceived by its leadership, but then claimed that ‘swarms’ of jet fighters would soon spell the end of Allied air superiority.
An increasingly angry Rommel demanded that representatives of the OKW should visit the front and discover the situation for themselves. ‘You demand that we should have confidence,’ he told Hitler, ‘but we are not trusted ourselves!’ Hitler apparently turned pale at this remark, but remained silent. As if to bear out Rommel’s arguments about Allied superiority, an air raid warning at this point forced them to descend into the bomb shelter.
Once down there, Rommel outlined the wider picture, with Germany isolated, the western front about to collapse and the Wehrmacht facing defeat in Italy as well as on the eastern front. He urged Hitler to bring the war to an end as soon as possible. Hitler was furious. His Luftwaffe adjutant later observed, ‘That was the last thing Hitler wanted to hear from the mouth of a field marshal.’ He retorted that the Allies would not negotiate. In this he was right and Rommel and the July plotters hopelessly optimistic. But Hitler went on to insist that the destruction of Germany had been agreed upon. So ‘everything would depend on a “fanatical resistance”’. As he dismissed Rommel, Hitler said, ‘Do not concern yourself with the conduct of the war, but concentrate on the invasion front.’
Rundstedt and Rommel left Margival, having been told by Hitler’s chief adjutant, General Schmundt, that the Führer would visit La Roche-Guyon to talk to field commanders himself in two days’ time. But on returning to their respective headquarters, they heard that a V-1 missile, whose gyros had gone wrong, had exploded above the bunker soon after their departure. Hitler returned rapidly to Berchtesgaden that night. He never left the Reich again.
The first V-1 rockets, or ‘Doodlebugs’ as British civilians soon called them, landed on the night of 12 June. Four of them hit London. ‘What principally bothers the southern English at this moment,’ wrote a journalist, ‘is a certain illogical, Wellsian creepiness about the idea of a robot skulking about overhead, in place of merely a young Nazi with his finger on the bomb button . . . Annoyance would seem to be the dominant public emotion, though lots of English might sneakingly admit that they don’t feel displeased to be in it with the boys in Normandy, even in such a relatively minor way.’ But the strain began to tell when the rhythm of attacks accelerated. The ‘eerie howl of sirens’ in London seemed to mark a revival of the Blitz. Thousands of people returned to sleeping in Underground stations.
Many discussions were held by the War Cabinet. On 16 June, Churchill and his ministers discussed whether to stop the anti-aircraft guns firing at night so that people could get some sleep. Fast fighter aircraft proved a better way of dealing with the threat of ‘Divers’, as they were codenamed. The most effective weapon of all on ‘anti-Diver’ operations was
‘would be tearing across at night making noises like asthmatic motorbikes with streams of flame out of the back.’ The Tempest was just faster than the V-1. Once, having run out of ammunition, Beamont flew alongside one. Applying the boundary layer of air over the wing of his Tempest on to the underside of the V-1’s wing, he managed to lift it without even touching it. This rolled the V-1 over and sent it crashing to earth. But in the vast majority of cases, pilots continued to use their cannon, although the explosion of a ton of amitol just a few hundred yards ahead of their aircraft produced a terrifying blast.
V-1s were indeed volatile, as Hitler had discovered at Margival. The Director General of Gendarmerie’s report to Vichy showed that many, up to five a day, crashed before even reaching the Channel. One came down north-east of Alençon, behind the lines of Panzer Group West. Yet despite their inaccuracy and the great achievement of Allied ‘anti-Diver’ squadrons, enough V-1s landed on London to cause great concern. One landed on the Guards Chapel, close to Buckingham Palace, during a Sunday service, killing 121 people. On 27 June, according to Field Marshal Brooke, a War Cabinet meeting finished ‘with a pathetic wail from Herbert Morrison [the Home Secretary] who appears to be a real white-livered specimen! He was in a flat spin about the flying bombs and their effects on the population. After five years of war we could not ask them to stand such a strain etc etc!’ Brooke noted in his diary that Morrison wanted the whole strategy in France to be changed. ‘Our one and only objective should be to clear the north coast of France. It was a pathetic performance. There were no signs of London not being able to stand it, and if there had been it would only have been necessary to tell them that for the first time in history they could share the dangers their sons were running in France and that what fell on London was at any rate not falling on them. Thank heaven Winston very soon dealt with him.’
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