D day the battle for nor.., p.29
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.29

           Antony Beevor
 

  The day had not gone well for the right flank either. The 120th Infantry Regiment and the 743rd Tank Battalion ran into a well-prepared ambush of Panther tanks and panzergrenadiers from the Das Reich. Waffen-SS grenadiers attacked the American tanks at close quarters, some even trying to climb aboard, as the commanders fought them off with heavy machine guns mounted on top of the turrets. A battalion of the 120th Infantry was almost surrounded and nearly broke ‘because of the element of panic which began to sweep through relatively green troops’. The reserve and rear echelons gave way to their fear, which ‘precipitated a frantic retreat northward by all kinds of vehicles, armored and otherwise’.

  Only the energetic actions of officers and NCOs kept the front companies from running. The Americans had lost a total of thirteen Shermans. Their infantry had also suffered twice the losses of the Germans that day. Only prodigious support from their corps artillery, which had fired nearly 9,000 rounds since dawn, averted a complete disaster.

  On 10 July, VII Corps, between the marshes and the River Taute, made another effort to advance south-west astride the Carentan-Périers road. Some local successes were achieved, but it was still impossible to break through the bottleneck. The 83rd Division had taken four days of hard fighting to advance about a mile. An officer in the 4th Division described it as a ‘bitter week of pure grimness for the infantry’ as they fought in the marshes from island to island ‘in this abominable country’, sometimes ankle deep, sometimes wading through water with their rifles above their heads. The men were exhausted: ‘As soon as one of us sits down he falls asleep or drops into a stupor.’ German military professionalism also made it hard for the Americans to estimate enemy casualties. The Germans pulled back their dead at night and took them with them whenever they retreated.

  General Barton, the commander of the 4th Division, wrote, ‘The Germans are staying in there just by the guts of their soldiers. We outnumber them 10 to 1 in infantry, 50 to 1 in artillery and an infinite number in the air.’ He wanted unit commanders to convince their men ‘that we have got to fight for our country just as hard as the Germans are fighting for theirs’.32 One report on interviews with prisoners of war stated that the Germans ‘have no regard for the fighting qualities of the average American’. Rangers and airborne troops were respected. The Germans were deeply indoctrinated by propaganda. One prisoner, a nineteen-year-old Hitler Youth from the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division, was convinced that the Americans were in a desperate state, that German forces had retaken Cherbourg and that Germany would destroy the western Allies and then defeat the Red Army.

  To create hatred, the German equivalent of Soviet commissars, the National Socialist Leadership Officers, emphasized the destruction of German cities and the killing of German women and children by ‘terror attacks’. Their basic theme was that the Allies intended to wipe out ‘the German race’. Defeat would mean the annihilation of their Fatherland. Their propaganda leaflets addressed to Allied troops demanded, ‘What do you want to do in Europe? To defend America? . . . To die for Stalin - and Israel?’ This was all part of a basic Nazi theme that ‘Amerikanismus’ allied the ‘Jewish plutocrat’ of the United States with the ‘Jewish Bolshevik’ of the Soviet Union.

  Even German soldiers who wanted to give up were afraid to do so. Nazi propaganda persuaded them that they would not be safe in an England bombarded by the new secret weapons. ‘Captivity is also a tricky matter,’ wrote an Obergefreiter. ‘Some would go, but they fear the V2 and V3.’ Three days later he wrote home, still preoccupied by the dangers of surrender if Germany really were to win the war. ‘I spoke to a veteran of the eastern front today. He said that it was hard in the east, but it was never like it is here.’ If a German soldier ‘deserts to the enemy . . . The family receives no support and if we were to win the war, the Landser must be handed over and he will have to see what will happen to him.’

  As in all armies, the combat performance of American troops in every battalion varied greatly. During the bocage battles, some GIs began to get over their terror of German panzers. Private Hicks of the 22nd Infantry with the 4th Division managed to destroy three Panthers over three days with his bazooka. Although he was killed two days later, confidence in the bazooka as an anti-tank weapon continued to increase. Colonel Teague of the 22nd Infantry heard an account from one of his bazooka men: ‘Colonel, that was a great big son-of-a-bitch. It looked like a whole road full of tank. It kept coming on and it looked like it was going to destroy the whole world. I took three shots and the son-of-a-bitch didn’t stop.’ He paused, and Teague asked him what he did next. ‘I ran round behind and took one shot. He stopped.’ Some junior officers became so excited by the idea of panzer hunts that they had to be ordered to stop.

  In five days of marsh and bocage fighting, however, the 22nd Infantry suffered 729 casualties, including a battalion commander and five rifle company commanders. ‘Company G had only five non-coms left who had been with the company more than two weeks. Four of these, according to the First Sergeant, were battle exhaustion cases and would not have been tolerated as non-coms if there had been anyone else available. Due to the lack of effective non-coms, the company commander and the First Sergeant had to go around and boot every individual man out of his hole when under fire, only to have him hide again as soon as they had passed.’

  East of the Taute, the 9th and 30th Divisions of XIX Corps nervously awaited the coming of the Panzer Lehr Division. A lack of air reconnaissance on 10 July due to bad visibility had allowed the Panzer Lehr to move unhindered to its assembly areas that evening. The German plan was to force the two divisions back over the Vire Canal and then attack all the way up to Carentan. Panzer Lehr had started as the best equipped and most highly trained of all German formations in Normandy, but it had lost over two-thirds of its strength fighting the British on the Caen front.33

  Bayerlein’s men were also exhausted, having never been pulled out of the line for a rest. When he had protested to Seventh Army headquarters, he was told not to worry because the Americans were poor soldiers. Bayerlein then warned Choltitz that the Panzer Lehr ‘was not in a position to make a counterattack’. Choltitz apparently retorted that he was a liar, ‘like all panzer commanders’, and that he must attack anyway.

  Bayerlein was not exaggerating about the state of his division when it left the British sector. Geyr von Schweppenburg had written, ‘Because of its exhausted condition, the division was regarded by I SS Panzer Corps as being in a critical situation’. Bayerlein had no option but to divide his remaining tanks, panzergrenadiers and artillery into three battlegroups. The strongest would attack from Pont-Hébert, the second up the road from Coutances towards Le Dézert, and the third from the Bois du Hommet towards Le Mesnil-Véneron.

  During the night of 10 July, American infantry in forward positions reported the noise of tanks, and in the early hours of 11 July, Panzer Lehr units began to attack in the wooded hills south of Le Dézert and against a battalion of the 120th Infantry on Hill 90 near Le Rocher. Although individual Mark IV tanks broke into the American positions, bazooka teams dealt with them quite promptly in isolated actions.

  The German attack from Pont-Hébert along the west bank of the Vire was also beaten off with bazookas and the assistance of tank destroyers. A task force from the 3rd Armored Division arrived to help, but six of its tanks were hit by German assault guns firing from the east bank of the River Vire. On the other flank, the 9th Division brought in reinforcements and tank destroyers. At 09.00 hours on 11 July, American fighter-bombers were diverted from another mission to attack Panzer Lehr armoured vehicles advancing north-east on the Le Dézert road.

  A few miles to the west, other groups of tank destroyers managed to ambush Panthers as they approached. Even though several rounds were often needed to knock out a Panther completely, the tank destroyer crews fought with impressive self-control. Altogether, they destroyed twelve Panthers and one Mark IV. The Panzer Lehr offensive came to a complete halt after the central Kampfgru
ppe was sighted south of Le Dézert and then bombarded by 9th Division artillery and attacked by P-47 Thunderbolts and P-38 Lightnings. The Panzer Lehr had been badly mauled, losing twenty tanks and assault guns as well as nearly 700 men.

  Bayerlein blamed his men’s exhaustion and the unsuitability of the Panther Mark V among the hedgerows, which reduced its principal advantage of firing at long range. With its long barrel, the turret was also hard to traverse. Perhaps more to the point, the American troops involved had shown great courage and determination. There had been little sign of the panic which occurred two days earlier. At the same time, the weakened Panzer Lehr was nothing like the SS panzer divisions facing the British.

  This brief outline cannot convey the reality of fighting in the bocage. The Germans described it as a ‘schmutziger Buschkrieg’ - a ‘dirty bush war’ - but they acknowledged that the great advantage lay with them, the defenders. Fear aroused by fighting in the bocage produced a hatred which had never existed before the invasion. ‘The only good Jerry soldiers are the dead ones,’ a soldier in the 1st Infantry Division wrote home in a ‘Dear Folks’ letter to his family in Minnesota. ‘I’ve never really hated anything quite as much. And it’s not because of some blustery speech of a brass-hat. I guess I’m probably a little off my nut - but who isn’t? Probably that’s the best way to be.’ Yet there were unspoken limits to the savagery of the fighting. Neither side made dumdum bullets, knowing full well that the other would retaliate in kind.

  The Americans were unprepared for the density of the bocage, with the height of the trees in the hedgerows and the solid high banks in which they grew. They had assumed when training that the hedgerows were like those in southern England. General Collins of VII Corps told Bradley that the bocage was as bad as anything he had encountered on Guadalcanal. And Bradley himself called it ‘the damnedest country I’ve ever seen’. Even the British Army had failed to listen to Field Marshal Brooke’s warnings. He had had experience of this countryside during the retreat of 1940 and foresaw the difficulties for the attacker.

  Fresh troops especially were disorientated and spooked by the impossibility of sighting the enemy as they advanced across the small, enclosed fields. They forgot the basic lessons of infantry training. Their instinct, when bracketed by German artillery or mortar fire, was to throw themselves flat or run back to safety, rather than charge forwards, which was far less dangerous. A shot from a single German rifleman in a tree all too often prompted a whole platoon to drop to the ground, where they offered a much easier target. The Germans were adept at provoking this deliberately, then rapidly firing a barrage of mortar rounds on to them as they lay in the open. ‘Keep moving if you want to live’, was the slogan adopted by Bradley’s headquarters in a general instruction. Officers and non-coms were told that they must not throw themselves to the ground, because the rest of the platoon would follow their example. Aggressive action led to fewer casualties because the Germans were rattled if you kept coming at them. And the importance of ‘marching fire’ was continually emphasized. This meant firing constantly at likely hiding places as you advanced, rather than waiting for an identifiable target.

  Soldiers were advised to lie still if wounded by a sniper. He would not waste another round on a corpse, but would certainly fire again if they tried to crawl away. German snipers concealed in trees often tied themselves to the trunk so that they would not fall out if wounded. Quarter was never given to a sniper on either side. Another favourite hiding place in more open country was in a hayrick. That practice, however, was soon dropped when both American and British soldiers learned to fire tracer bullets to set the rick aflame, then gun down the hidden rifleman as he tried to escape.

  German marksmanship was seldom good, mainly due to lack of practice on the ranges while they were working on the Atlantic Wall. But the fear inspired in American soldiers was out of all proportion to the number of casualties inflicted. Three times as many wounds and deaths were caused by mortars as by rifle or machine-gun fire. Most German units had very few trained snipers with telescopic sights, but that did not stop the conviction of frightened infantrymen that every concealed rifleman was a ‘sniper’. ‘The sniper menace ought not to be exaggerated,’ the headquarters of the First US Army insisted in a circular. Snipers should be dealt with by snipers and not by ‘indiscriminate fire’. Similar fears turned every German tank into a Tiger and every German field gun into an 88 mm.

  Like the British on the Caen front, the Americans found that the Germans were brilliant at camouflage and concealment. Fresh branches were cut to hide guns and armoured vehicles from aircraft as well as on the ground. Their soldiers were made to cover up the tell-tale track marks of armoured vehicles, even by trying to make the flattened grass or corn stand up again. And the German infantry did not just dig foxholes. They dug themselves in like ‘moles in the ground’, with overhead cover against artillery treebursts and tunnels under the hedgerow. The small opening on to the field provided the ideal aperture from which to scythe down an advancing American platoon with the rapid fire of an MG 42.34

  On the eastern front the Germans had learned from Soviet bombardments how to minimize their losses in defence. They applied these lessons to good effect in Normandy. Their front line was no more than a light screen of machine-gun positions. Several hundred yards further back, a rather more substantial line of positions was prepared. Then a third line, even further back, would include a force ready to counterattack immediately.

  The Germans knew well that the best moment to catch British or American troops off guard was just after they had taken a position. More casualties were usually inflicted at this moment than during the original attack. Allied soldiers were slow to dig in afresh and often would just make use of the German foxholes or slit trenches. These would be booby-trapped in many cases, but always they would be pre-registered as targets by the supporting German artillery battalions, ready to fire the moment their own men pulled out. Time and again, Allied troops were caught out. Exhausted from the attack and complacent from success, soldiers did not find the idea of frantically digging a new foxhole very appealing. It took a long time and many unnecessary deaths for British and American infantry to learn to follow the German Army dictum that ‘sweat saves blood’.

  Fighting against the Red Army had taught German veterans of the eastern front almost every trick imaginable. If there were shell holes on the approach to one of their positions, they would place anti-personnel mines at the bottom. An attacker’s instinct would be to throw himself into it to take cover when under machine-gun or mortar fire. If the Germans abandoned a position, they not only prepared booby traps in their dugouts but left behind a box of grenades in which several had been tampered with to reduce the time delay to zero. They were also expert at concealing in a ditch beside a track an S-Mine, known to the Americans as a ‘Bouncing Betty’ or the ‘castrator’ mine, because it sprang up when released to explode shrapnel at crotch height. And wires were strung taut at neck height across roads used by Jeeps to behead their unwary occupants as they drove along. The Americans rapidly welded an inverted L-shaped rod to the front of their open vehicles to catch and cut these wires.

  Another German trick when the Americans launched a night attack was for one machine gun to fire high with tracer over their attackers’ heads. This encouraged them to remain upright, while the others fired low with ball ammunition. In all attacks, both British and American troops failed to follow their own artillery barrage closely enough. Newly arrived troops tended to hang back on the assumption that the enemy would be annihilated by the bombing or the shellfire, when in fact he was likely to be temporarily concussed or disorientated. The Germans recovered rapidly, so the moment needed to be seized.

  Tanks supporting an attack were used to put down a heavy curtain of machine-gun fire at all likely machine-gun positions, especially in the far corners of each field. But they also caused a number of casualties to their own infantry, especially with the bow machine gun firing from a lower lev
el. Infantry platoons often used to yell for tank support, but sometimes when their armour appeared uninvited, they were indignant. The presence of tanks almost always attracted German artillery or mortar fire.

  The Sherman was a noisy beast. Germans claimed that they always knew from the sound of tank engines when an American attack was coming. Both American and British tank crews had many dangers to fear. The 88 mm anti-aircraft gun used in a ground role was terrifyingly accurate, even from a mile away. The Germans camouflaged them on a hill to the rear so that they could fire down over the hedgerows below. In the close country of the bocage, German tank-hunting groups with the shoulder-launched Panzerfaust would hide and wait for a column of American tanks to pass, then fire at them from behind at their vulnerable rear. Generalleutnant Richard Schimpf of the 3rd Paratroop Division on the Saint-Lô front noted how his men began rapidly to gain confidence and lose their panzerschreck, or fear of tanks, after disabling Shermans at close quarters. Others would creep up on tanks andthrow asticky bomb,like theGammon grenadewhich the American paratroopers had used to such effect. Some would even climb on to the tank, if they could approach unseen, and try to drop a grenade into a hatch. Not surprisingly, companies of Shermans in the bocage did not like to move without a flank guard of infantry.

  Germans often sited an assault gun or a tank at the end of a long straight lane to ambush any Shermans which tried to use it. This forced tanks out into the small fields. Unable to see much through the periscopes, the tank commander had to stick his head out of the turret hatch to have a look, and thus presented a target for a rifleman or a stay-behind machine gun.

 

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