D day the battle for nor.., p.30
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.30

           Antony Beevor
 

  The other danger was a German panzer concealed in a sunken track between hedgerows. Survival depended on very quick reactions. German tank turrets traversed slowly, so there was always the chance of getting at least one round off first. If they did not have an armour-piercing round ready in the breech, a hit with a white phosphorus shell could either blind the enemy tank or even panic its crew into abandoning their vehicle.

  In the fields surrounded by hedgerows, tanks were at their most vulnerable when they entered or left a field by an obvious opening. Various methods were tried to avoid this. The accompanying infantry tried Bangalore torpedoes to make breaches in a hedgerow, but this was seldom effective because of the solidity of the mound and the time needed to dig the charge in. Engineers used explosive, but a huge quantity was required.

  The perfect solution was finally discovered by Sergeant Curtis G. Culin of the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance with the 2nd Armored Division. Another soldier came up with the suggestion that steel prongs should be fitted to the front of the tank, then it could dig up the hedgerow. Most of those present laughed, but Culin went away and developed the idea by welding a pair of short steel girders to the front of a Sherman. General Bradley saw a demonstration. He immediately gave orders that the steel from German beach obstacles should be cut up for use. The ‘rhino’ tank was born. With a good driver, it took less than two and a half minutes to clear a hole through the bank and hedgerow.

  One of the most important but least favourite pastimes in the bocage was patrolling at night. A sergeant usually led the patrol, whose task was either to try to capture a prisoner for interrogation, or simply to establish a presence out in front in case of surprise attacks. German paratroopers on the Saint-Lô front used to sneak up at night to lob grenades. Many stories were elaborated around night patrols. ‘I talked to enough men,’ wrote the combat historian Forrest Pogue, ‘to believe the tale of a German and an American patrol which spent several days under a gentleman’s agreement visiting a wine cellar in no-man’s land at discreet intervals.’ He also heard from one patrol leader that his group had ‘reported itself cut off by the enemy for three days while they enjoyed the favors of two buxom French girls in a farmhouse’. But even if true, these were exceptions. Very few men, especially those from the city, liked leaving the reassuring company of their platoon. American units also used patrolling to give newly arrived ‘replacements’ a taste of the front line. But for a sergeant in command of some terrified recruits ready to shoot at anything in the dark, a night patrol was the worst task of all.

  American military bureaucracy handled the whole ‘replacement’ system with a brutal lack of imagination. The word itself, which suggested the filling of dead men’s shoes, was ill-chosen. It took several months before the term was changed to ‘reinforcement’. But the basic problem remained. These new arrivals were poorly trained and totally unprepared for what lay ahead. ‘Ouryoungermen, especiallythereplacements who came up when I did,’ reported a lieutenant in the 35th Division, ‘were not real soldiers. They were too young to be killers and too soft to endure the hardships of battle.’

  ‘Practically all of the replacements,’ stated a report from the 4th Infantry Division, ‘had come direct from replacement training centers.’ They had received no unit or field training and, unlike those prepared in England for the invasion, they had never been put under overhead artillery fire. ‘A great many of those furnished as specialists had never been trained in their official speciality. A good many of the infantry replacements had not been trained as combat infantry . . . I have found men trained as mail orderlies, cooks, officers’ orderlies, truck drivers etc., for periods ranging from six months to a year, who had been sent over, assigned to a combat unit, and thrust into combat within 24 hours . . . These men were definitely inadequately prepared, both psychologically and militarily, for combat duty.’ The only chance that the division had to train them was during the much needed periods of rest: less than six days out of the forty since it had landed on Utah. It was an impossible task. Having suffered 7,876 casualties since landing, the 4th had received 6,663 replacements.35 The majority of suicides were committed by replacements. ‘Just before they went across to France,’ an American Red Cross woman recorded, ‘belts and ties were removed from some of these young men. They were very, very young.’

  Replacements joined their platoon usually at night, having no idea where they were. The old hands shunned them, partly because their arrival came just after they had lost buddies and they would not open up to newcomers. Also everyone knew that they would be the first to be killed and doomed men were seen as somehow contagious. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because replacements were often given the most dangerous tasks. A platoon did not want to waste experienced men.

  Many replacements went into shock as soon as they came under fire. Aid men found themselves having to act as counsellors to replacements curled in terror at the bottom of their foxholes. These boys were convinced that they were under direct fire because of the intense vibrations in the earth from shells landing some distance away. The aid men had to try to persuade them to stick their heads out of the hole to see that they were not in immediate danger.

  Whenever the company advanced, a guide sergeant was placed in the rear of the platoon to grab any of them who panicked. Replacements were also the most likely to try to escape the front line by resorting to a self-inflicted wound. They usually shot themselves in the left foot or left hand. The cleverer ones used a sandbag or other material to prevent tell-tale cordite burns around the entry point, but the pattern of left foot and left hand was so obvious, as General George Patton observed, that there was ‘a high probability that the wound was self-inflicted’. Those who took this way out were sectioned off in special wards in hospitals as if cowardice was infectious. As soon as they weredischarged, they faced a sentence of six months in the stockade.

  The real heroes of the bocage were the aid men. They had to tend the wounded in the open and try to evacuate them. Their only defence was a Red Cross brassard, which was usually respected, but often not by snipers. Aid men did not expect much help from the fighting soldiers, who were told to keep going even when a comrade was hit. ‘Riflemen must leave first aid assistance to the medics,’ stated an instruction from Bradley’s headquarters, giving an example of a particular incident. ‘Four replacements were killed and eight wounded in this company through attempting to render first aid to a fallen comrade.’

  An aid man with the 30th Infantry Division recorded his experiences: ‘To get down fast you needed to learn to buckle your knees and collapse rather than make a deliberate movement to the prone position.’ He wrote of the ‘light of hope’ in the eyes of wounded men when he appeared. It was easy to spot those about to die with ‘the grey-green color of death appearing beneath their eyes and fingernails. These we would only comfort. Those making the most noise were the lightest hit, and we would get them to bandage themselves using their own compresses and Sulfa [powder].’ He concentrated on those in shock or with severe wounds and heavy bleeding. He hardly ever had to use tourniquets, ‘since most wounds were puncture wounds and bled very little or were amputations or hits caused by hot and high velocity shell or mortar fragments which seared the wound shut’.

  His main tools were bandage scissors to cut through uniform, Sulfa powder, compresses and morphine. He soon learned not to carry extra water for the wounded but cigarettes, since that was usually the first thing they wanted. They were also lighter to carry. Shellbursts in oak trees killed many, so he searched around for wounded and corpses whenever he saw branches on the ground. Work parties took the bodies back to Graves Registration. They were usually stiff and swollen, and sometimes infected with maggots. A limb might come off when they were lifted. The stench was unbearable, especially at the collection point. ‘Here the smell was even worse, but most of the men working there were apparently so completely under the influence of alcohol that they no longer appeared to care.’

  He once had t
o fill out ‘Killed in Action’ tags for a whole squad wiped out by a single German machine gun. And he never forgot an old sergeant who had died with a smile on his face. He wondered why. Had the sergeant been smiling at that instant of death, or had he thought of something while dying? Tall big men were the most vulnerable, however strong they might be. ‘The combat men who really lasted were usually thin, smaller of stature and very quick in their movements.’ Real hatred of the enemy came to soldiers, he noticed, when a buddy was killed. ‘And this was often a total hatred; any German they encountered after that would be killed.’ He even noted how sentimental GIs from farming communities would cover the open eyes of dead cows with twists of straw.

  There was a marked divide between farm boys and city boys who had never been in the countryside. A soldier from a farm caught a cow, tied her to the hedgerow and began to milk her into his helmet. The city boys in his platoon came over and watched in amazement. They were also impressed when he put dried weed and branches out in front of their positions so that Germans could not creep up at night silently to throw grenades.

  US Army medical services in Normandy were almost overwhelmed at times by cases of combat exhaustion, otherwise known as battle shock. At first, nobody really knew how to deal with this massive problem. The neuro-psychiatrist of the 29th Infantry Division, Major David Weintrob, recorded with cynical amusement that he was sent into action with ‘a sphygmomanometer, a set of five tuning forks, a percussion hammer and an ophthalmoscope’.

  By 18 June, all his tents had been filled with soldiers suffering combat exhaustion. The flow eased in a quieter period from 21 June to 10 July, with an average of only eight cases a day. But from the morning of 11 July, with the offensive to seize Saint-Lô, ‘the rains came’, as Weintrob put it. There were anything between thirty-five and eighty-nine admissions a day. He had to listen to ‘visions of 88s to the right of him; 88s to the left of him; 88s on top of him’. Nearly half of the combat-exhaustion casualties were replacements who collapsed after less than forty-eight hours in the front line.

  Weintrob had so many cases that he had to pass most on to the First Army Exhaustion Center, which soon became overwhelmed itself and ‘bluntly refused to accept any but the very acute battle psychoneuroses’. This influx - ‘the great majority of cases were those of extreme physical exhaustion with mild anxiety states’ - enabled Weintrob to persuade their commander, General Gerhardt, to allow him to set up a new system. The diminutive but belligerent Gerhardt, who had invented the divisional battle-cry ‘Twenty-nine, let’s go!’, was won over by Weintrob’s argument that he could get many more men back into the firing line this way.

  Weintrob had fifteen medical assistants covering ten large ward tents and eight pyramidal tents. Patients arrived from the forward casualty clearing stations. They received twenty-four hours’ rest and light sedation. On the second day, they were cleaned up and given new uniforms. A psychiatric examination took place on the third. The most acute cases were evacuated rearwards. Weintrob divided the rest into three categories: fit for an immediate return to duty after a short rest, suitable for the new training programme, or to be classified as unfit for further combat duty. He recognized that there were some men who would never be able to cope with the stress of combat. They would simply be a danger and a hindrance to the rest.

  Weintrob first set up what became known as the ‘Hot Spot Spa’, which was basically an ‘out and out rest camp’, with movies shown daily and ball games. But this became much too attractive, and soon many men who felt in need of a break started to fake combat-exhaustion symptoms. So he instituted a new programme with weapon training, target practice and road marches to rebuild military confidence. This was run by non-coms recovering from light wounds. The programme also helped him assess borderline cases. Out of 1,822 cases (an eighth of the total non-fatal battle casualties), 775 men were returned to duty. Just over half, 396 men, were still in combat after fourteen weeks. Weintrob estimated that ‘a man who has broken down psychologically on two occasions is lost as an efficient combat soldier’.

  Quite clearly the vulnerability of replacements was the most urgent problem to tackle. Weintrob and Major G. B. Hankins, who ran the training programme, urged Gerhardt to change the system. Instead of sending replacements forward to a platoon during darkness on the day they arrived, they should be held back and put into the training programme until the regiment to which they were allotted came back into reserve. This would allow the opportunity to train them with machine-gun and artillery fire going overhead and explosions set off around them to simulate shellbursts. Replacements also needed to be integrated better. They should be given the division’s blue and grey patch to wear on their uniforms before they joined their platoons. Almost all of Weintrob’s innovations were later brought into general use by the US Army by that autumn.

  German officers, on the other hand, would have shaken their heads in amazement. Their hard-pressed divisions in Normandy never had the luxury of a few days’ training behind the lines. New soldiers arrived at the point of a boot. And if they shot themselves through the hand or foot, they were executed. The Obergefreiter with the 91st Luftlande-Division wrote home on 15 July to say that ‘Krammer, a capable and brave lad, stupidly shot himself through the hand. Now he is to be shot.’ Their only hope was for ‘a nice Heimatschuss’, a wound severe enough for them to be sent home. Both British and American psychiatrists were struck by the ‘apparently few cases of psychoneurosis’ among German prisoners of war. They wondered whether this was because the German military authorities refused to acknowledge the condition or whether eleven years of Nazi propaganda had prepared their soldiers better for battle.

  17

  Caen and the Hill of Calvary

  During the Epsom operation and after it, Montgomery continued his policy of telling Eisenhower as little as possible. ‘Ike is considerably less than exuberant these days,’ Eisenhower’s aide wrote in his diary. The ‘slowness of Monty’s attack’ was one his chief concerns, and Eisenhower had spoken to Churchill about it while the battle was in full swing.

  Eisenhower’s deputy, Air Chief Marshal Tedder, and Air Marshal Coningham even discussed the possibility of having Montgomery relieved. Coningham, who commanded the Tactical Air Force supporting 21st Army Group, had loathed Montgomery since the North African campaign. He had never been able to forgive Montgomery’s compulsion to take all the credit. Now he was infuriated by Montgomery’s pretence that his strategy was proceeding according to plan when he had manifestly failed to take the ground needed for airfields.

  Senior American officers were becoming scornful of what they saw as inexcusable caution on the British front. By 30 June, the British Second Army had suffered 24,698 casualties since the invasion began, while the Americans had lost 34,034 men, nearly half as many again. (German losses for the same period were 80,783.) Casualties on D-Day itself had been much lighter than expected, but since then the situation had deteriorated rapidly. British infantry casualties were 80 per cent higher than estimated and there were fewer and fewer replacements to bring units back up to strength.36

  On top of an instinctive abhorrence of heavy losses from his experience in the First World War, Montgomery felt he had an even stronger reason for caution in his attacks. Yet he did not discuss the manpower crisis with Eisenhower. The British feared losing face as well as power. Churchill was worried that such an admission of British weakness would reduce his influence with Roosevelt when it came to deciding the post-war future of Europe. It would not be long, however, before Montgomery’s 21st Army Group had to disband the 59th Division to reinforce other formations. And in November, to Churchill’s renewed dismay, the 50th Division would also be split up.

  Montgomery’s reluctance to incur losses in Normandy has long been a target for criticism. But the faults were perhaps more institutional than merely personal. The disappointing performance of his three veteran divisions from North Africa, the 7thArmoured,the 50thNorthumbrian and the 51st Highland Divis
ion, revealed a war-weariness in large parts of the British Army. An aversion to risk had become widespread and opportunities were seldom exploited. The repeated failures to crack the German front round Caen inevitably blunted an aggressive outlook. Increasingly, the Second Army in Normandy preferred to rely on the excellent support provided by the Royal Artillery and on Allied air power. The idea that high explosive saved British lives became almost addictive. But it certainly did not save French lives, as Montgomery’s next offensive showed in the most shocking way.

  The battle for Caen began on 4 July with Operation Windsor, a preliminary attack by the Canadian 8th Infantry Brigade to seize the village and airfield of Carpiquet to the west of the city. Carpiquet was defended by a small detachment of their most hated enemy, the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend. This battle, with the Régiment de la Chaudière, the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, the North Shore and the Winnipeg Rifles out for revenge, was to be one of the most vicious of the whole Normandy campaign.

  The village and the airfield were held by fewer than 200 members of the 26th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment and five Mark IV tanks brought up by night and hidden in the battered hangars at the southern end. But their most powerful weapons consisted of a battery of 88 mm guns sited to cover the eastern part of the airfield. They also had an artillery battalion and some Nebelwerfer batteries from the 7th Mortar Brigade.

  The Canadians attacked at 05.00 hours, supported by the heavy guns of HMS Rodney and the monitor HMS Roberts at a range of fifteen miles. The village was pounded to rubble. Many of the fifty-odd SS panzergrenadiers were buried alive. Coated in dust, some managed to struggle out from under the fallen beams and debris. They cleaned their weapons rapidly and fought back as the Régiment de la Chaudière attacked. Despite their small number, they inflicted heavy casualties on their attackers, but by 14.00 hours the remnants of the village were in Canadian hands. The few prisoners taken were treated roughly after the bitter fight.

 

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