D day the battle for nor.., p.27
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.27
 

           Antony Beevor

  Since most of the rockets were falling short of London, the Double-Cross committee was told to find a way to encourage the Germans to maintain their present targeting. Using one of their tame agents, ‘Lector’, a message was passed via Madrid to his controllers in Berlin, ‘Ludwig’ and ‘Herold’. ‘Destructive effect of new German weapon devastating,’ the signal stated. ‘In spite of soft pedalling counter propaganda, the bombardment has created a feeling of panic among the population such as has never before existed . . . The opinion had been expressed in governmental and military circles that if this and new weapons are intensively employed, they would find themselves sooner or later forced to come to a compromise peace with Germany . . . In highly placed and influentialcircles, apparently serious peace tendencies are perceptible, in which connection the name of Rudolf Hess in the role of intermediary is mentioned.’ This was perhaps a case of over-egging the pudding, since such news could only encourage the Germans to persist, but it was deemed justifiable in the circumstances. In any case, Hitler’s blind belief that his new Vengeance weapon would knock Britain out of the war undoubtedly strengthened his determination not to give up any territory in Normandy. This obsessive obstinacy would lead to yet another clash with Rommel and Rundstedt before the end of the month. The two field marshals predicted that this inflexibility would destroy the German army in Normandy and lose France.

  Montgomery, meanwhile, still tried to pretend that everything on his side was proceeding according to plan. On 14 June, the day after the disaster at Villers-Bocage, he wrote to Churchill, ‘Battle is going well at junction of the two armies in the general area Caumont- Villers-Bocage-Tilly.’ He also found it hard to acknowledge the true consequences of the great storm in the Channel which hit them less than a week later. The weather had not just halted the landing of supplies, it also put back the arrival of VIII Corps, the battering ram needed for a breakthrough. In the meantime, the Germans were reinforcing their front opposite the British with their most powerful panzer divisions. Ultra gave warning that the II SS Panzer Corps was on the way from the eastern front. For the moment only small attacks could be mounted because of the shortage of artillery ammunition. Although costly in lives and unrewarding in ground gained, they fitted Monty’s new plan of tying down the Germans while the Americans took Cherbourg.

  On 16 June, a battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, supported by a depleted squadron of Shermans, attacked Cristot: ‘We formed up in a lane near a farm with banks on either side.’ The men’s nostrils curled at the stench of rotting cows. They were to advance across another open cornfield. ‘Suddenly, out of nowhere appeared the Padre and we all knelt down and prayed.’ As they moved forward, their supporting artillery fired over their heads, but then the Germans played their trick of firing mortar shells into the leading troops to give the impression that their own artillery was falling short. Officers passed back orders for the barrage to stop and the German trick was revealed. But one soldier who had thrown himself flat during the mortar ‘stonk’ suffered a terrible fate. A piece of shrapnel ignited one of the phosphorus grenades in his pouch and ‘he died terribly in minutes’.

  Three days later, when the great storm was beginning, the rain was so heavy that fighting came to a halt. The infantry sat disconsolately in their trenches, the water dripping from their groundsheets worn as ponchos. Tank crews were luckier. They dug trenches to sleep in, then reversed their tank over the top to keep them dry.

  On 22 June, the third anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the first phase of Operation Bagration began. This was the massive Red Army attack in Belorussia to encircle the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Centre. Having drawn German attention to a possible offensive in the Ukraine, with a brilliant exercise in maskirovka comparable to Plan Fortitude, the Soviet armies achieved surprise. Within three weeks they would kill or capture 350,000 Germans. Bagration would take the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw by the first week in August.

  After several delays, mainly due to the weather, the major British offensive, Operation Epsom, was finally ready. Eisenhower was fuming with impatience, yet Montgomery refused to be hurried and 21st Army Group headquarters provided SHAEF with exasperatingly little information. Apparently Montgomery said to Dempsey on several occasions, ‘There’s no need to tell Ike.’ Monty liked to keep his objectives vague, often with Delphic cricketing metaphors, so that if there was a breakout he could claim credit for it and if the operation ran into the sand he could say that they had simply been tying down German forces to help the Americans.

  Altogether 60,000 men were to take part, mainly from VIII Corps, which included the 15th Scottish Division, the 43rd Wessex and the 11th Armoured Division. Most had never been in battle before, but they were determined to prove themselves alongside the Desert veterans. The plan was to attack to the west of Caen and establish a bridgehead south of the River Odon before advancing to the River Orne. This deep salient to the south-west of the city would then be used to threaten the whole German position. The key feature between the two rivers was Hill 112.

  On Sunday 25 June, XXX Corps on the right again attacked the Panzer Lehr Division. The 49th West Riding Division and the 8th Armoured Brigade forced them back, but although they inflicted heavy losses, the Germans held on to the village of Rauray. An armoured reconnaissance regiment was protecting their flank that day near Fontenay-le-Pesnel. ‘The German trick,’ wrote a Canadian officer with a British reconnaissance regiment, ‘was to abandon their weapon pits and go into the corn when we approached.’ Sometimes they crept back to their positions and opened fire again, but in most cases the ‘Huns still pop up out of the corn but are no potential danger’.

  The southern end of Fontenay was still held by the Panzer Lehr Division. The following morning, a Sherman of the Sherwood Rangers, ‘on turning a corner in the centre of the village came face to face with a German Tiger tank trundling along the road. Fortunately [the Sherman commander] had an armour piercing shell in the breech of his 75 mm. gun which he released at 30 yards’ range and then followed up with another six shells in quick succession, which brewed up the Tiger.’ The next day, the Sherwood Rangers cleared Rauray, after losing several of their tanks. Their greatest prize was an abandoned Tiger tank in perfect running order. They even painted their brigade sign of a fox’s mask on it, but orders came down from XXX Corps headquarters that it must be sent back to England. It was the first to be captured intact in Normandy.

  That day, 26 June, the SS began clearing the French inhabitants of villages behind the lines. Their concern was spying, not the safety of civilians. This was not mere paranoia. The British 7th Armoured Division and other formations had been receiving very useful intelligence from Frenchmen and women slipping through the lines.

  The fighting was also bitter round Tessel. There, a battalion from the ‘Polar Bears’, as the 49th Division was called from its shoulder badge, came up against the Panzer Lehr Division at close quarters. ‘The order came to us while we were at Tessel Wood, “No Prisoners”,’ claimed a member of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. ‘That is why we were called the Polar Bear butchers by Lord Haw-Haw.’29 An Ultra intercept picked up Panzer Lehr’s report that it had suffered ‘heavy losses’ on the first day of the battle.

  The main phase of what Montgomery called the ‘show-down’ began on 26 June, with a massive bombardment of field and naval artillery. After a night of heavy rain, the cloud was so low that few air sorties could be flown. The Scots of the 15th Division advanced rapidly. As men were shot down in the pale green wheat, comrades would mark their position for medical orderlies to find. They took the wounded man’s rifle with fixed bayonet, rammed it upright into the ground and placed his helmet on top. One observer remarked that these markers looked ‘like strange fungi sprouting up haphazardly through cornfields’.

  Fierce fighting took place in several villages, especially in Cheux, where the Glasgow Highlanders lost a quarter of their strength in a single day. In Saint-Manvi
eu on the left flank, the 43rd Wessex Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade fought off the Hitler Jugend.30 The Royal Scots Greys knocked out four Panthers as they emerged from a wood. The Greys, attached to a newly arrived brigade of the 43rd Division, ‘were much amused over our infantry. This was evidently their first battle and they were doing everything according to the book: their faces were blackened; they had cut off all badges of rank; and they talked in whispers. ’But the two fresh divisions were proving rather more effective than the veterans. By dusk, the 15th Scottish had almost reached the Odon in its thickly wooded valley. A Frenchman watching the battle that night from Fleury, on the southern edge of Caen, wrote, ‘It’s a vision out of Dante to see the whole horizon lighting up simultaneously.’

  Congested roads, heavy rain and confusion slowed the attack, but the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders seized a bridge over the Odon the following day. Showing unusual initiative, the Argylls infiltrated forward, rather than following conventional British infantry tactics. With great bravery, the 15th Scottish fought off a panzer counter-attack that day, and their capture of the bridge allowed the 11th Armoured to start crossing on the morning of 28 June. General O’Con-nor, the commander of VIII Corps, wanted to push forward to take a bridgehead over the River Orne beyond, but Dempsey, who knew from Ultra intercepts that the II SS Panzer Corps had just reached the front, became cautious. He preferred to establish a much firmer position south of the Odon before the next phase.

  Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich wanted to throw the two divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps straight into the battle against the British bridgehead, but Rommel was reluctant. He had hoped to keep the 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen and the 10th SS Panzer-Division Frundsberg back for the great armoured counter-attack which had so far failed to get off the ground. But on 28 June, Rommel was summoned to Berchtesgaden by Hitler, an extraordinary interruption in the middle of a battle. And a desperate Generaloberst Dollmann, just a few hours before he committed suicide, ordered the II SS Panzer Corps to attack north-westwards on either side of the River Odon to smash the western flank of the British salient. They were reinforced by a battlegroup from the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich. Meanwhile, because of Dollmann’s sudden demise, Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser, who commanded the II SS Panzer Corps, was told that afternoon to proceed immediately to Le Mans to take command of the Seventh Army. He handed the corps over to Gruppenführer Bittrich.

  The next day, 29 June, the 11th Armoured Division managed to get tanks on to the key position of Hill 112. They held off attacks by leading elements of the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, which was supported by the 7th Mortar Brigade with Nebelwerfer and a Kampfgruppe from the 21st Panzer-Division. At 11.00 hours, the unfortunate Bittrich, having taken command of the II SS Panzer Corps just the evening before, received orders to advance in one hour. Initially reluctant to mount such a hurried attack, he was then persuaded of the urgency. The 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen received a signal stating the importance of the mission. Without the commitment of both panzer corps, it said, ‘the enemy which has broken through to Baron could not be repulsed. They would break through to the Orne and Caen would be lost.’ The Panzer Lehr Division was ordered to support the left flank of Bittrich’s attack. But their opponents then had a great stroke of luck. The 15th Scottish captured an SS officer carrying the plan. Their forward battalions rapidly prepared defensive positions.

  The onslaught of the II SS Panzer Corps began in earnest shortly aftermidday.At 16.05 hours, its headquarters reported to Panzer Group West that they had destroyed eleven British tanks in front of Gavrus. Half an hour later they claimed to have taken Gavrus and knocked out twenty-three tanks. Geyr von Schweppenburg, who had returned the day before to assume command with his Panzer Group West headquarters, urged on the two SS divisions at dusk. He told them that this attack offered ‘die grosse Chance’. But that night, the 15th Scottish Division, heavily supported by artillery and naval gunfire, fought off the 9th and 10th SS Divisions with spectacular success. Thirty-eight panzers were knocked out and the SS Frundsberg was forced back to its start line. The effect on the morale of the two SS panzer divisions was even greater. Unfortunately, Dempsey apparently never knew of the intelligence which revealed that this was the main counter-attack.31 Fearing that a major assault would come on the other flank, he pulled back the 11th Armoured Division instead of reinforcing it. Hill 112 was then rapidly occupied by the Germans. It proved a disastrous mistake. To recapture Hill 112 would take far more time and lives than could ever have been saved by this withdrawal.

  Montgomery halted the offensive the following day, after a renewed attack by the II Panzer Corps was driven off. VIII Corps had lost just over 4,000 men in five days. Over half the losses had been suffered by the 15th Scottish Division, which had proved its bravery beyond all doubt. That Dempsey missed a great opportunity through his caution is almost unquestionable. The delays in launching Epsom meant that VIII Corps ended up fighting the greatest concentration of SS panzer divisions which had been assembled since the Battle of Kursk. Yet the impressive performance of the British troops involved was let down at the last minute by the hesitation of their army commander. The only consolation was that the Germans never again managed to launch a major counter-attack against the British sector.

  Eisenhower’s frustration with Montgomery over strategy is not hard to understand. The confident messages Montgomery had been sending out about a ‘show-down’ simply did not tally with what he said in private. An intelligence officer with the 7th Armoured Division had recorded with amazement in his diary on 22 June what he heard from Major General Erskine on his return from a conference at 21st Army Group headquarters prior to Epsom. ‘General talked about what Monty had said to him,’ he wrote. ‘Complete change so far as we are concerned as Monty doesn’t want us to make ground. Satisfied Second Army has drawn all enemy panzer divisions, now wants Caen only on this front and Americans to press on for Brittany ports. So VIII Corps attack goes in but we have very limited objective. Monty reckons he lost the battle of the build-up - five days behind on account of weather.’ So perhaps Dempsey’s caution was dictated by Montgomery.

  Rommel visited Geyr’s headquarters on 1 July, the day after the battle ended. Both men were shaken by the effect of shelling from warships at a range of nearly twenty miles. Geyr demanded figures from both divisions on the number of tanks knocked out by naval gunfire. Even Hitler was persuaded that they could do no more than hold their present line for the moment. But Geyr was furious that every available panzer division had been thrown at the British offensive. This had caused huge disruption to his plans.

  Above all, Geyr opposed the splitting of formations as an emergency measure, which also caused chaos in resupply. He told Rommel that the newly arrived infantry divisions should be used to hold the line while the panzer forces were withdrawn and reorganized for a proper blow. Rommel refused. ‘The infantry cannot do this any more and is not prepared to do it,’ was his reply. He did not believe that the newly arrived infantry divisions were capable of holding the British. This attitude happened to fit in with Hitler’s obsession of not yielding any ground. Geyr railed against ‘the armchair strategists of Berchtesgaden’ and their ‘lack of knowledge of panzer warfare’. He despised Jodl, an artilleryman: ‘The artillery developed the unfortunate characteristic of the Bourbons - neither to learn nor to forget - and was in many respects more backward than the infantry.’

  Geyr wrote a report in which he did not mince his words. He demanded a flexible defence and, as a result of Epsom, the withdrawal of panzer troops south of the Orne, out of the range of Allied naval gunfire. ‘Decisions are taken directly by OKW itself,’ he continued. ‘As that headquarters is not in possession of first hand or personal knowledge of the situation at the front and is usually thinking very optimistically, its decisions are always wrong and arrive too late.’ Rommel endorsed his conclusions and passed the report up to OKW. Hitler decided to relieve Geyr im
mediately. He replaced him with General der Panzertruppen Hans Eberbach.

  Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt as well as Rommel had been summoned back to the Berghof on 28 June, at the height of the battle for the Odon crossing. Rundstedt ‘returned in a vile humour’, according to his chief of staff. Having driven over 600 miles from Saint-Germain-en-Laye to Berchtesgaden, he was kept waiting from three in the morning until eight the next evening, ‘and then was given the opportunity to exchange only a few words with the Führer’. Just after his return, Rundstedt, with Blumentritt listening in, rang Keitel. He ‘told him bluntly that the whole German position in Normandy was impossible’. Allied power was such that their troops could ‘not withstand the Allied attacks, much less push them into the sea’.

  ‘What should we do?’

  ‘You should make an end to the whole war,’ the old field marshal retorted.

  Next day at noon, Keitel rang to say that he had reported their telephone conversation to the Führer. Another call from Jodl warned that Hitler was considering a change in command in the west. Rundstedt’s endorsement of Geyr’s report was a key factor. Hitler announced that Rundstedt was retiring for reasons of ill health and sent an officer to Paris to present him with a polite letter and the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. He would be replaced by Generalfeldmarschall Hans-Günter von Kluge.

 
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