D day the battle for nor.., p.31
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.31Antony Beevor
Canadian artillery and the warships had also pounded the airfield itself. The SS artillery observer died, skewered with ‘a twenty-five centimeter long fragment of a ship’s artillery shell sticking in his back’. The Queen’s Own Rifles, supported by the Shermans of the Fort Garry Horse, attacked the eastern end of the airfield, but the well-sited German 88s forced back the Canadian tanks. Those infantrymen who reached the hangars and the barracks faced a hard fight, since the fanatical young panzergrenadiers were installed in bunkers and tunnels. In many cases, Canadian infantry went past concealed positions without spotting them and were then shot in the back.
The Winnipeg Rifles advanced on the southern end of the airfield backed by another squadron and also some flame-throwing Crocodiles from the 79th Armoured Division. They too came under heavy fire. The Nebelwerfer ‘Moaning Minnies’ and the SS artillery battalion turned the airfield into a killing ground. The Winnipegs and their armour were forced to pull back to the cover of a small wood beyond the perimeter. They tried again in the afternoon, but by then the 12th SS had brought up more panzers. The Germans had been listening in to the Canadian radio net and knew their next move.
That night, after an unsuccessful attack by Allied fighter-bombers, the I SS Panzer Corps sent in the 1st SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment from the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler to recapture the village of Carpiquet. The survivors from the 12th SS on the airfield were meanwhile told to withdraw with their wounded. But the attack of the 1st Panzergrenadiers was hit initially by fire from their own artillery and then by a massive bombardment from Canadian guns and the warships. According to one Canadian source, the French Canadians of the Régiment de la Chaudière went berserk around dawn, cutting the throats of any SS men they could find, ‘wounded as well as dead’. Officers with drawn pistols eventually brought them back under control. An officer with the regiment wrote, ‘No prisoners are taken this day on either side.’
The Canadians never managed to take Carpiquet with Operation Windsor. They blamed their failure on the British 43rd Division, which lost the village of Verson, just south of the airfield, when attacked by part of the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. Verson was not retaken until four days later, when the major attack on Caen itself took place.
Montgomery, well aware of the exasperation building up against him in Whitehall, SHAEF and at Bradley’s First US Army headquarters, knew that he could not delay the capture of Caen any longer.37 He would have to attack the city head on. The offensive would be called Operation Charnwood. On 6 July, to reduce British casualties, he decided to request a massive bombing attack by the RAF to hammer a way through, a possibility which Leigh-Mallory had suggested three weeks earlier. And on 25 June, Eisenhower had written to him, ‘Please do not hesitate to make the maximum demands for any air assistance that can possibly be useful to you. Whenever there is any legitimate opportunity we must blast the enemy with everything we have.’ On the same day, he also wrote to Tedder asking him to ensure that air support ‘in maximum volume’ was delivered.
On 7 July, Eisenhower himself went to a conference at Bentley Priory called by Leigh-Mallory to consider the plan. Even Air Chief Marshal Harris, the head of Bomber Command, did not object for once. It was agreed that 467 Lancasters and Halifaxes would attack the northern fringe of Caen that evening with delayed-action bombs. The two main sceptics, neither of whom was present at the meeting, were Eisenhower’s deputy, Air Chief Marshal Tedder, and Montgomery’s foe Air Marshal Coningham. They feared that the Second Army would keep asking for Bomber Command every time it wanted to mount an offensive, but Eisenhower’s support for the plan made them hold their peace.
When the massed formations of Lancasters and Halifaxes appeared that evening at 20.30 hours, British and Canadian infantry jumped out of their slit trenches to cheer. Tank crews climbed on to their turrets to get a better view. ‘There was high cloud and the sun was reddening [the Lancasters] all across the sky,’ wrote an artillery officer in his diary. ‘An incredible barrage of flak’ went up from German anti-aircraft batteries. British and Canadian artillery immediately began firing on their positions to help the RAF.
‘We could see when the Lancasters released their bombs because they suddenly lifted several feet in the air,’ a medical officer wrote. ‘More and more bombers go in through the flak,’ wrote the same artillery officer. ‘A cloud of smoke starts to rise over the target, dirty grey white, blowing over to the north east.’ ‘Now and then, though pretty rarely, one of our planes comes down. A Lancaster spirals down to the north andcrashes apparently into the sea. A numberof parachutes open out and sail slowly down.’ Then yet another wave of bombers appeared. ‘The cloud over Caen covers the whole eastern and south eastern horizon. Now angry glows cover the same area as it gets dark. What could be more encouraging to our chaps?’
An officer in the Guards Armoured Division described the bombing of Caen as ‘a magnificent spectacle’. Most spectators evidently assumed that French civilians had been evacuated. ‘I sat smoking a cigarette beside a river watching 2,300 tons of bombs being dropped on Caen 6 or 7 miles away,’ wrote a major in the Canadian parachute battalion east of the Orne. ‘What an incredible sight it was - the poor bloody hun!’
While most cheered at the sight, a few had misgivings. ‘The awful thing was,’ wrote a captain in the Coldstream Guards,‘that as an infantryman one was thinking: Why on earth are they knocking it to bits because it will be so easy to defend?’ ‘The sight was frightening,’ wrote a member of the Somerset Light Infantry. ‘Yellow tongues leapt up as the bombs burst on the stricken city and the rising smoke - combined with the dust fromthedevastated buildings-formeda blackened cloud which spread rapidly across the evening sky.’ Throughout the raid some six miles away, they felt ‘the ground beneath their feet tremble like jelly’.
If the ground shook six miles away, the effect within the city itself can hardly be imagined. One elderly man was asked later what it had felt like during the bombing raid of 7 July. He thought for some time before answering, ‘Imagine a rat sewn up inside a football during an international match . . .’
The 15,000 inhabitants remaining in Caen despite German orders to leave could be forgiven for assuming that the bombers had targeted the centre of the city, rather than the northern outskirts. Many seemed to think that the ancient castle was the aiming point. Windows with any glass left in literally exploded from the concussion of the bombs. In the convent of Notre Dame de Bon Secours, the homeless seeking refuge there were blinded by dust and felt the bitter smoke in their throats: ‘We had the impression of being thrown around on a ship in distress, beaten by a horrible storm and about to founder.’ The only remaining candle was extinguished by shock waves. In a calm voice, the Mother Superior kept blessing them ‘with a relic of the True Cross’.
As buildings collapsed all around, the sick lying in cots reacted to the noise and tremors with dilated eyes. Nuns offered sips of water with one hand while fingering their rosaries and praying rapidly. The housekeeper of the priest of Saint-Jean-Eudes cried out to him a hurried confession as she was being carried away on a stretcher: ‘Monsieur le Curé, go into the garden. I buried for you a shirt and a dozen handkerchiefs. If I hadn’t you would have given them all away.’
When the bombing finished, young civil defence volunteers arrived at the convent, urging them to depart immediately. They left by the only door which could be opened. The Mother Superior led the way along the Fossés Saint-Julien, carrying the sacred ciborium, ‘a grandiose procession in an unforgettable setting under a magnificent sky dotted with stars, fires all around giving off a red glow, sparks falling all around and delayed action bombs still exploding’. They had to climb over great trees knocked down by the bombs as they made their way to the Bon Sauveur led by a member of the Défense Passive. One youth returned to the convent to guard it against looters and hide the large silver statue of Notre Dame de la Délivrande.
In Caen that evening, the university on the rue Pasteur was al
Inhabitants of Caen had feared the worst, having heard German officers declare that the city would be the ‘French Stalingrad’. Yet they were then encouraged by clear signs that the Wehrmacht was preparing to withdraw. On 26 June, rear troops began to pull out. The Gestapo returned to destroy evidence of their massacre of Resistance prisoners. And on 6 July, German engineers began to destroy the port installations in Caen along the ship canal. That day the Feldkommandantur also gave orders for the remaining civilians to evacuate the town, but once again that had little effect. Only a screen of SS Hitler Jugend panzergrenadiers was left in Caen itself.
The bombing was a double disaster. It had failed to destroy most of the German positions around the northern fringe of Caen and instead inflicted massive damage on the city. The RAF’s fear of hitting the British troops waiting to advance had shifted the bomb-line south towards the city centre, missing the German positions. The mistake was similar to the American failure to hit the beach defences at Omaha. Few except Montgomery ever believed that the bombing had been militarily effective. The only troops who appear to have been hit belonged to a detachment of the Luftwaffe 16th Feld-Division which had taken over from the 21st Panzer-Division near Lebisey, as well as two tanks and a mortar section of the Hitler Jugend in the villages just north of Caen. Worst of all, the attack, like the German bombing of Stalingrad, turnedmuch of thecity into amass of rubblewhich impeded the advance of vehicles and provided an ideal terrain for the defenders.39 General Eberbach described the city as ‘a heap of ruins which was hard to cross’.
The reason given for bombing on the evening which preceded the attack was said to have been a fear of bad weather the next day. But the meteorological reports for 8 July do not support this. And even allowing for the delayed-action bombs, the German defenders were given all the time they needed to reorganize. Losses suffered by British and Canadian units advancing into and around the city were far higher than expected, despite the heavy artillery bombardment. Lebisey wood was smashed to the point where it looked like something out of the First World War.
The Hitler Jugend emerged from their cellars and bunkers with Panzerfaust grenade launchers to take on the Shermans and Crocodile flame-throwers at close range. Riflemen climbed trees and tied themselves in. Their main target appears to have been the commanders of tanks which were‘shooting in’the infantry. The marksmanship of the SS panzergrenadiers was evidently far superior to that of ordinary German infantry divisions. On that day alone, the East Riding Yeomanry lost five crew commanders and a squadron leader from snipers.
Stretcher-bearers taking wounded to the rear became exhausted. ‘There were all sorts of casualties,’ recounted a member of 223rd Field Ambulance with the British 3rd Infantry Division. ‘There were legs without feet, there were knees without kneecaps, there were shoulders without arms. I remember one sergeant major brought in with half of his head blown away, yet he was still conscious, and the MO said to me: “Give him two grains of morphia: it’ll finish him quickly”. But it didn’t. And chest wounds, shocking chest wounds. On that one day we treated 466 British casualties and 40 Germans.’
In the advanced dressing station of 210th Field Ambulance, the doctors and staff also had to deal with a wide variety of battle casualties. They included ‘a group of terrified, disorientated lads - battle shocked, jittering and yelling in a corner’. ‘Several SS wounded came in - a tough and dirty bunch - some had been snipers up trees for days. One young Nazi had a broken jaw and was near death, but before he fainted he rolled his head over and murmured “Heil Hitler!”.’
In field dressing stations, those doomed to die were taken away to another tent and injected with morphine. Medical staff became worried about the shortage of blood left for transfusions. They were also horrified by the ignorance of troops on how best to handle the wounded. Soldiers did far more damage moving those with severe fractures rather than leaving them where they were until trained stretcher-bearers could splint them up. ‘All the lessons of the First World War seemed to have been forgotten,’ wrote the same doctor with 210th Field Ambulance. Like the rest of his exhausted colleagues, he was afraid that his judgement was impaired by lack of sleep.
The ‘Führer order’ that Caen was to be held at all costs was followed for all of 8 July. Only that night did General Eberbach agree to Kurt Meyer’s insistence that the mangled remains of his Hitler Jugend should pull back to the southern part of Caen across the Orne. Eberbach felt the withdrawal could be justified to OKW because they were virtually out of ammunition and it was impossible to send forward any more.
On 9 July, the city still lay under a pall of smoke and dust. André Heintz was woken at 05.30 hours by a companion in the Resistance. ‘The Germans are leaving!’ he told him. They watched the convoys pulling out through the town, yet no British guns fired. Their leader, Commandant Gilles, distributed the last few Sten guns and sent his members off northwards in pairs to act as guides for the Allied forces. Heintz put on his brassard, a tricolore with the Cross of Lorraine. Suddenly seeing a German soldier near what had been the university swimming pool, he snatched it off again. But the German was dead, frozen in position, having been killed by blast. The brassard was recognized by the first British soldiers he encountered, who gave him the thumbs-up sign.
So great was the destruction that, even with their maps, the British and Canadians found it impossible to work out where they were. Most routes were impassable and there were isolated snipers left behind. A column of Canadian armoured cars descended the rue Saint-Martin. The commander, whose orders were to cross the town as rapidly as possible to try to secure the bridges, asked a bystander, ‘Where is the River Orne?’ He climbed on to the armoured car to give directions, but a German defensive position further on opened up with machine-gun and anti-tank gun fire. The armoured car went into rapid reverse, and their French guide had to leap off and hide in a doorway.
The Hitler Jugend, having pulled back to the south of the Orne across the only bridge left standing, rapidly prepared it for demolition and established defensive positions. They forced locals at gunpoint to dig them trenches in the convent gardens of Les Petites Soeurs des Pauvres and cut down apple trees to improve the fields of fire for their machine guns. Cellar entrances were also sandbagged, ready for defence. The bridge was blown as soon as the leading Canadian platoon came into sight.
At the northern edge of Caen, the British civil affairs team under Lieutenant Colonel Usher had to abandon its vehicles. ‘At last,’ wrote one of his officers. ‘Entered Caen with party of officers. The north end seems utterly devastated. Pile after pile of rubble and a deathly silence punctuated only by occasional bursts of machine gun fire.’
An officer from civil affairs told André Heintz that they intended to set up their headquarters in the Hôtel d’Angleterre. Heintz guided them to it, knowing that the only evidence of its former identity was a remnant of the royal arms with ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’. He resisted the temptation to say that the British should not have destroyed it, but the officer himself recognized the black irony. He let Heintz lead him to the only area of the city where some buildings were relatively undamaged, but then asked if they would be able to have a bath. Heintz explained that Caen had been without water since the first bombing on 6 June. The liberators still seemed to have no idea what the city had suffered, despite the evidence around them. The following day, a Canadian captain asked for advice on a
Some Germans, who had been cut off, searched for civilian clothes in the ruins to help their escape. Others, especially some Osttruppen, began looting. Commandant Gilles and a couple of his men found two young SS soldiers trying to hide. They handed them over proudly to some Canadian troops on the rue de Bayeux. Care had to be taken in many places, as the SS had left behind booby-trapped grenades.
Civilians emerged, unable to believe that four years of German occupation was finally over and fearful that the SS might retake the town in a counter-attack. Some greeted the Allied soldiers with real warmth and joy, but far more were still numb from what they had been through. ‘Most of the women were crying bitterly,’ wrote a British sapper, ‘griefstricken and anguished. They lingered by their shattered dwellings, perhaps for a last look at their own personal treasures. A child’s book lay in the garden, its pages idly flipped by the wind. Inside the house, the doors hung creaking on their hinges, the tables lay where they had fallen from that first great concussion.’
Colonel Usher’s groups set to work rapidly, clearing routes with bulldozers and trying to set up an emergency water supply. Most basic services were not restored until September. A convoy of army trucks with food had been prepared ready for the entry into Caen. Mine clearance was a slow and arduous task, and so was the recovery of bodies from under the rubble of ruined buildings. The stench from decomposing corpses was terrible. In fact, many people in Caen, however hungry, could not face a ripe Camembert for a long time because of the horrible memories evoked by the smell.
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