D day the battle for nor.., p.28
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.28Antony Beevor
Rommel was also furious. Without informing him, Hitler had appointed Obergruppenführer Hausser to take over the Seventh Army because he preferred to trust Waffen-SS commanders. His favourite remained Sepp Dietrich, yet Hitler did not know that Dietrich also believed that hisinterference was leading them todisaster in Normandy. Hitler would have sacked Rommel as well, but as Geyr’s replacement Eberbach said, he was not relieved ‘because of the effect his dismissal would have had on morale at the front and in Germany, as well as the impression it would have made abroad’.
On 30 June, Eberbach received the order to fly next day with Field Marshal von Kluge to the west to take over command of Panzer Group West. Kluge told him that OKW wanted them to stabilize the front and launch a counter-attack. Kluge reached Saint-Germain-en-Laye convinced that the reports from Normandy must be excessively pessimistic. He had spent eight days at the Wolfsschanze during the Soviet attack on Army Group Centre - Operation Bagration - and during this period, according to Blumentritt, he had ‘become imbued with the unyielding spirit of the High Command’. As a result, he was not inclined to view the situation as hopeless when he assumed command in the west. Known as ‘clever Hans’ (a play on his family name, which means clever in German), he was not popular with his colleagues. Kluge, wrote Rommel’s chief of staff, was ‘energetic, quick-witted and unsparing toward himself. He was ruthless in his demands. The cold eyes in his sharply chiselled face concealed his suppressed emotions. He hated Hitler, but never ceased feeling bound to him, and this was due, perhaps, to his acceptance of the honors and favors bestowed on him.’ Kluge, like Rundstedt, had accepted 250,000 Reichsmarks from Hitler as a present.
Kluge visited Rommel’s headquarters at La Roche-Guyon on the afternoon of 5 July. ‘After a rather frosty exchange of courtesies’ with Rommel and Speidel, he addressed the Army Group staff in the salle des gardes of the château. He announced that the removal of Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt should be seen as an expression of the Führer’s dissatisfaction with the leadership in the west. Hitler also considered Generalfeldmarschall Rommel to be too easily impressed by the ‘allegedly overwhelming effect of enemy weapons’, and thus to suffer from an over-pessimistic view of the situation. Kluge even went on to say to Rommel’s face in front of the assembled staff officers that he had displayed an obstinate attitude and carried out Hitler’s orders only half-heartedly. ‘From now on,’ Kluge concluded, ‘you too, Generalfeldmarschall Rommel, will have to obey without reservations! I am giving you good advice.’
This provocation, not surprisingly, stirred Rommel into a sharp dispute, emphasizing the reality of the situation which they faced ‘and the necessity of drawing the proper conclusions from it’. The row became so heated that Kluge asked the other staff officers to leave the room. Rommel demanded that Kluge should withdraw his accusations orally and in writing. He also warned him to talk to the army and divisional commanders and visit the front himself before laying down the law. Rommel was particularly taken aback because he knew that Kluge had been in touch with resistance circles in the army. He had expected Kluge of all people to be less under Hitler’s sway.
Next day Kluge left La Roche-Guyon on a tour of the front. The reaction among all field commanders was so unanimous that he was converted to Rommel’s point of view and apologized. He realized that, as with the eastern front, Hitler was out of touch with reality and, when his dreams failed to materialize, he looked for scapegoats.
Eberbach, meanwhile, had taken over from Geyr. He found that Panzer Group West lacked a proper army headquarters and staff. In his handover report, Geyr made several points. ‘German tanks are superior to the English and American ones in armor and armament.’ The morale of German troops was still ‘comparatively good’, due to ‘efficient propaganda’. On the British sector, ‘the ratio of forces is sufficient for defence under normal conditions,’ and the terrain was favourable. They had ‘created a centre of gravity against a probable enemy attack’ by concentrating eight panzer divisions, a flak corps and two Nebelwerfer brigades. But an infantry division once committed was used up in two to four weeks. Even General Jodl admitted at the end of the war that ‘the British attacks were a continual hindrance to quick relief of the panzer divisions by infantry divisions and continually thwarted our plan to move more forces to the west wing. These attacks did then contribute substantially to making the American breakthrough easier.’
Although Geyr insisted that the French were ‘friendly’ and that there were very few partisan attacks in Normandy, German military authorities had started to become very nervous. In an effort to awe the population of Paris, they marched 600 British and American prisoners ofwarthroughthecity’sstreets.Some by standers whispered encouragement to the Allied soldiers, while some yelled insults at them, perhaps influenced by German propaganda emphasizing the bombing raids. An American paratrooper who was kicked and spat at by a small group of German sympathizers ‘jumped out of line to punch one’ and received a jab in the buttocks from the guard’s bayonet.
A far greater concern now for the Wehrmacht high command was coping with the Red Army’s offensive in Belorussia and the pressure in Normandy. ‘The effect of the major conflicts in the west and the east was reciprocal,’ stated Jodl, when he was interrogated with Keitel at the end of the war. ‘Each of the fronts felt itself neglected compared to the other.’ The concentration of SS panzer divisions in Normandy, especially the transfer of the II SS Panzer Corps back from the eastern front, had highlighted their inability to respond effectively to Operation Bagration. ‘The two-front war came into sight in all its rigour,’ Jodl observed.
A liaison officer from the Red Army, Colonel Vassilievsky, was brought on a visit to the headquarters of 7th Armoured Division. With true Soviet diplomacy, he expressed the view that the British advance was very slow. Apparently a British officer asked him to show on a map of the eastern front where his own division was fighting. It transpired that there were nine German divisions on that sector, which was over 600 miles long. The British pointed out that they were facing ten divisions, including six panzer divisions, along a front of only sixty-two miles.
Claims by Soviet propagandists that Germany’s best troops ‘are still on the Soviet-German front’ were simply untrue, as the presence of six SS armoured divisions, as well as the Panzer Lehr Division and the 2nd Panzer Division proved. ‘We know where young and strong Germans are now,’ wrote Ilya Ehrenburg in Pravda, decrying the quality of German formations in Normandy. ‘We have accommodated them in the earth, in sand, in clay - in the Kalmuk steppe, on the banks of the Volga, in the swamps near Volkhov, in the Ukrainian steppe, in the woods of the Crimea, in Moldavia, in Rzhev, in Veliki-Luki. Our allies are now seeing the Germans whom we have nicknamed “Totalnik” [totalmobilization], a prefabricated product that is destined for annihilation. ’ But even Ehrenburg was prepared to admit that ‘the French frying pan is starting to resemble the Russian fire’.
The Battle of the Bocage
After the fall of Cherbourg at the end of June, Bradley’s First US Army prepared to push south. In the west at the base of the peninsula, the 79th Infantry Division, the 82nd Airborne and the unhappy 90th Division stretched across marshland. They faced most of Choltitz’s LXXXIV Corps, by now well entrenched on the wooded hills to their south. The 4th and 83rd Infantry Divisions south of Carentan were also in low-lying marshland. There they faced the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen and the 353rd Infanterie-Division.
To the east on the Saint-Lô front were the 30th, the 35th and the 29th Infantry Divisions already in bocage country. So were the 2nd and 1st Infantry Divisions around Caumont, running up to the British sector. They faced Meindl’s II Paratroop Corps. Although Geyr and Guderian objected bitterly to the splitting of divisions, the Germans operated very effectively in defence, with their Kampfgruppen, or battlegroups of infantry, assault guns and engineers.
The American campaign began on 3 July, when VIII Corps, comm
Next day, on the eastern side of the marshes around the River Sèves, the American VII Corps sent the 83rd Division into the attack on the Sainteny sector. To celebrate the Fourth of July, an order went out that every field gun along the front should open fire exactly at midday. Some units also fired red, white and blue smoke signals. The recently arrived 83rd had relieved the 101st Airborne at the end of June. They had been sent out on night patrols ‘to gain experience and confidence’ and reduce the effect of ‘nervous and trigger happy’ troops. But soldiers returning to their own lines found themselves being fired at ‘promiscuously’ by anxious sentries. The paratroopers of the 101st had saturated the newcomers ‘with tall tales about the toughness and fighting ability of Jerry’. The fight for Sainteny proved a bloody baptism. The 83rd Infantry Division suffered 1,400 casualties. They had a lot to learn, as they heard from the few Germans they had taken. ‘The prisoners we captured,’ a sergeant reported, ‘told us we were green troops, because they knew every move we were going to make. They saw us light cigarettes and heard us clanking metal against metal. If we use basic principles, we will live longer.’ The Germans, on the other hand, were keen to take Allied prisoners if only to get hold of their excellent maps, which they themselves lacked.
Two days later, on 6 July, the 4th Infantry Division joined the attack south-westwards. After its hard fighting on the advance to Cherbourg, General Barton remarked, ‘We no longer have the Division we brought ashore.’ This was hardly an exaggeration. The division had suffered 5,400 casualties since coming ashore and had received 4,400 replacements. So many officers had fallen that divisional staff officers were sent back into combat units.
The American attack was hemmed in by the marshes along the River Sèves on the west and those along the River Taute to the east. This made it impossible to outflank German positions and much of the ground was too boggy for tanks. The 37th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment from the Götz von Berlichingen had a perfect bottleneck to defend. But even the SS panzergrenadiers complained that with the rain and the high water table they were getting foot-rot, with two feet of water in their foxholes.
The young SS panzergrenadiers were also unused to the food. There was plenty of milk, butter and steak, but no bread or noodles. Just over a week before the American attack started, they had received mail for the first time since the invasion. After the costly battle for Carentan, many letters had to be returned to families and sweethearts in Germany with the official stamp on the envelope: ‘Fallen for Greater Germany’. That day also saw the arrival of leading detachments from the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich, battered from its protracted trek north.
Although the attack in the far west went slowly at first, the Germans suffered a war of attrition under the relentless battering of American artillery. Even a surprise attack on 6 July by part of the SS Das Reich against the American advance into the Forêt de Mont Castre was rapidly smashed by artillery. With every priority awarded to the Caen front, the German LXXXIV Corps received little in the way of reinforcements and equipment to replace their losses. Wehrmacht losses in Normandy up to 25 June had reached 47,070 men, including six generals. Yet their effectiveness in defence provoked a bitter admiration among their opponents. ‘The Germans haven’t much left,’ one American officer said, ‘but they sure as hell know how to use it.’
The constant pressure maintained by the Americans meant that Choltitz had no opportunity to pull units back to rest and reorganize. His only reserve was a single battlegroup made up of elements from the Das Reich and the 15th Paratroop Regiment. Choltitz estimated that his corps lost up to a battalion and a half of men per day from American artillery fire and air attack. He regarded the order from OKW that there should be no withdrawal as grotesque. So, with Hausser’s agreement, he sent back false reports to conceal minor withdrawals. Hausser’s Seventh Army headquarters warned Rommel that a collapse on the far western flank was becoming a distinct possibility due to American artillery and air power. Constant attacks on rail and road links made it very hard for the Germans to resupply their own forces on the Atlantic side with artillery shells.
Choltitz’s men, most of whom had been in action for just over a month, were exhausted. ‘After having been without sleep for three days,’ an Obergefreiter with the 91st Luftlande-Division wrote home, ‘I could sleep through for 10 hours today. I am sitting in the ruins of a bombed-out farmhouse that must have been really large before it met its fate. It is a dreadful scene: cattle and poultry are lying about, killed by blast. The inhabitants have been buried next to it. Our Russians are sitting amidst the rubble, having found Schnapps, and are singing Es geht alles vorüber (“Everything will pass”) as well as they can. Oh, if only this could be over and done with and humanity would see reason. I cannot come to terms with this confusion and this cruel war. In the east it affected me less, but here in France it just won’t register. The only good thing here is that there is enough to eat and drink . . . The foul weather continues and is a real hindrance. Yet it doesn’t hinder the war, except for reducing the number of enemy aircraft. At last we now have flak so the Americans won’t see their flying as quite as much of a sport as they did in the first weeks of the invasion. That was just dreadful.’
The Germans expected the main American attack to come down the west coast, since it was clearly the most weakly defended sector. But Bradley saw the town of Saint-Lô as his main objective. He considered its capture as essential ‘to gain suitable terrain from which to launch Operation Cobra’. Cobra would be the massive attack southwards to break out of the bocage and sweep down into Brittany. But first they had to push the Germans south of the Bayeux-Saint-Lô road, and also clear the start-line for the operation along the road from Saint-Lô to Périers.
On the foggy and overcast morning of 7 July, the battle for Saint-Lô began with the attack of the 30th Infantry Division to clear the German defenders west of the River Vire. They had to cope with marshland and the hedgerows of the bocage as well as the steep banks of the Vire itself. Bradley, frustrated at the slowness of their advance, decided to send in the 3rd Armored Division in an attempt to speed things up.
It went into action that night, with forty-five vehicles an hour crossing the Vire to attack towards Saint-Gilles, west of Saint-Lô. But next day, the operation proved to be over-ambitious. The 30th Division had not cleared the area and the two divisions soon became mixed up, as their movements had not been coordinated in advance. The 3rd Armored Division’s three task forces found themselves advancing field by field, rather than sweeping through in the manner which Bradley had envisaged. They had received a bloody introduction when twelve Shermans had been knocked out almost as soon as they emerged through a gap in a hedgerow. American tank ammunition, besides having less penetrative power, also gave off much more smoke than the German, which put them at a severe disadvantage in hedgerow fighting. Yet there was often the odd German soldier desperate to surrender. A combat engineer with the 3rd Armored began to urinate into a thick bush on the edge of an orchard. To his alarm, a soaked German emerged. He grabbed his rifle, which he had leaned against a tree trunk, but the German was extracting from his wallet photos of his wife and children in an attempt to persuade him not to shoot him. He kept sa
Further German attacks from the west indicated that a Kampfgruppe of the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich had been diverted to the sector. Aerial reconnaissance also spotted a large armoured force approaching from Le Bény-Bocage, nearly twenty miles south-east of Saint-Lô. Ultra intercepts suggested that this was almost certainly part of the Panzer Lehr Division, transferred from the Caen front. Two squadrons of P-47 Thunderbolts were sent to intercept them.
On 9 July the intermittent rain continued, hampering air reconnaissance and fighter-bomber strikes. The hapless infantry was also soaked and covered in mud when it renewed the attack at 07.00 hours. It soon became clear, however, that the Germans were planning a counterattack with the arrival of the Panzer Lehr. That morning reports went back that ‘a lot of tanks’ were coming up round the west side of Saint-Lô. Bazookas and anti-tank guns were rushed up to the forward troops and the corps artillery made ready, but the Americans did not halt their advance.
Chaos followed when the leading Shermans of Combat Command B reached Pont-Hébert and misread their maps. Instead of turning south, they turned north back up the main road to Saint-Jean-de-Daye. This brought them up against the advancing 30th Division, which had been warned to expect an attack by enemy tanks. In fact it was the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion and some self-propelled anti-aircraft guns which sighted the lost column and engaged them immediately. The two leading Shermans were knocked out and a fierce firefight developed, which caused panic among the untested infantry of the 30th Division as rumours spread of a major breakthrough by German panzers. It took some time to sort out the ‘terrible mess’, turn the 3rd Armored Division tanks south and bring up fresh troops to stabilize the line either side of the Pont-Hébert road.
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