D day the battle for nor.., p.32
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.32

           Antony Beevor
 

  On 10 July, a ceremony to raise the tricolore on the façade of the Eglise Saint-Etienne was held in the presence of Monsieur Daure, the new préfet appointed by de Gaulle’s provisional government. Tears ran down the cheeks of many of those present. Three days later, the British Second Army held what was supposed to be a victory parade in the Place Saint-Martin. A Scottish pipe band struck up, as another tricolore was raised. The bewilderment on the faces of the French crowd was plain. They had never heard the ‘Marseillaise’ played on bagpipes.

  Operation Charnwood had been a very partial success, taking just the northern part of Caen. The Second Army had failed to secure enough ground to permit the build-up to continue. The bulk of what was to become the Canadian First Army had to wait behind in England. Exasperation at Bradley’s headquarters and at SHAEF was now echoed loudly in Washington and in the American press. Many blamed Eisenhower for not adopting a firmer line with Montgomery.

  On 10 July, Montgomery held a conference in his command caravan with Dempsey and Bradley. There was much to discuss, with the British blocked round Caen and the First US Army bogged down in the marshes and the bocage to the west. Montgomery suggested that Bradley was trying to attack on too wide a front. What he needed was a concentrated punch. Montgomery, as a result, later convinced himself that he was the original architect of what became Operation Cobra. Dempsey, that morning, decided that he also needed to mount a major offensive, aiming at a breakthrough towards Falaise. Since this was what the Germans feared most, it would also keep German panzer forces on the British front, as Montgomery wanted. This outline plan would become known as Operation Goodwood.

  For the moment, however, another attempt was made to seize Hill 112, the key feature between the Odon and the Orne abandoned during Operation Epsom. The fighting for Hill 112 became pitiless. Germans of the 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen soon called the place ‘Kalvarienberg’, the hill of Calvary. The name came from the Croix des Filandriers, a shrine of the crucifixion, which seemed to take on a new significance.

  On 10 July, at 05.00 hours, the 43rd Wessex Division attacked from the Odon valley towards Hill 112 in Operation Jupiter. The divisional commander, Major General G. I. Thomas, was ‘a small, fiery, very determined and grim gunner, without a spark of humour’. Thomas, who had just taken over, was determined to shake up his new command. He seems to have been generally disliked. Behind his back, officers called him ‘von Thoma’. One brigade was to attack Hill 112, while the other on the left advanced on the village of Eterville.

  The 129th Brigade heading for Hill 112 had to advance again across open cornfields sprinkled with poppies. Nebelwerfer rocket launchers opened fire. Sergeant Partridge with the 4th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry described how, on hearing the scream of the ‘Moaning Minnies’, ‘eleven men dived into the corn for cover. Only one stood up again.’ Whenever they encountered wounded Germans in the corn, there was little they could do except remove the bolt from their Mauser rifle and fling it far away.

  After losing most of their men, they became pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire in the corn. The platoon commander ordered Partridge to hurl a smoke grenade so that they could advance again. Partridge thought it a stupid idea, but complied. As soon as he had thrown it, the platoon commander jumped to his feet before the smoke billowed and was shot. He gasped, ‘Sarn’t Partridge,’ then expired. Partridge rounded up the other four survivors and crawled back through the corn some way, dug a pit and made a cup of tea, which they shared between them.

  While the 129th Brigade struggled up Hill 112, the 130th Brigade on the left captured Eterville and then advanced towards the village of Maltot. The 7th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment and the 5th Battalion of the Dorsets, with their supporting tanks of the 44th Royal Tank Regiment, had little idea of the shock awaiting them. The 502nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion equipped with Mark VI Tiger tanks, the largest and most formidable fighting machine seen on the western front, was converging on the same spot. Unable to see what was ahead, the Tigers of one company smashed through the hedgerow in front and found themselves facing four Shermans. The Tigers’ 88 mm guns turned three of them into blazing wrecks in a moment. The fourth escaped using high reverse. The Dorsets, unaware that the other battalion had withdrawn, were soon engaged in house-to-house fighting in the village. They learned the hard way that when clearing a building you had to go straight for the top rooms. If they went through a farmhouse and into the courtyard at the back, it was too easy for the Germans upstairs to throw down grenades or fire from the windows.

  A mile and a half to the west, the British 129th Brigade almost reached the small road crossing the top of Hill 112, but the weight of German fire forced the battered 4th Somerset Light Infantry in the middle to go to ground again. At 17.00 hours, the 5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was sent on through the Somersets in another attempt to reach the top. Their advance just over the brow of the hill reached a small wood of chestnuts. There they were cut to pieces by machine-gun fire from the German positions on the reverse slope, then attacked by panzers. Part of the Cornwalls ran back in disorder. A wounded officer tried to halt this retreat: ‘He had been hit in the jaw, so that part of his face had dropped, and he was waving a pistol and trying to shout, making terrible sounds.’ Meanwhile the commanding officer of the Somersets and the brigade commander, trying to maintain an air of confidence in front of their men, sat on their shooting sticks in the open discussing the situation.

  Despite the mortar and sniper fire, the Somersets held on in ‘slit trenches scraped out of the bare open slope’. With Nebelwerfer mortar shells exploding continuously, the crews of their supporting armour remained closed down. But one officer was so desperate to relieve himself that he jumped out of his Sherman, grabbed a shovel off the back and raced across to a knocked-out tank nearby, where he proceeded to drop his trousers. Meanwhile, British artillery continued to hammer the summit. ‘Not a metre of ground escaped being ploughed up by shells,’ a member of the SS Hohenstaufen wrote. After nightfall, each company colour sergeant brought up hot food in containers and supplies of cigarettes for the infantry in the forward positions. For once there was more than enough to go around, because ‘no allowance had been made for casualties’. Their only complaint was that the tea tasted of petrol.

  Dawn on 11 July did not improve visibility because of a thick mist - ‘eine Milchsuppe’, as the Hohenstaufen described it. But high overhead a British artillery spotter plane appeared just as the 19th and 20th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiments were about to attack. The crews of the Tiger tanks with them feared the worst. They quickly realized that the safest place would be in among their enemy. They charged the British positions, rolling over trenches. With an ironic admiration, they saw British anti-tank crews trying to bring their ineffective guns to bear. ‘They’re brave, the Anglo-Saxons!’ one of them noted.

  The monster panzers suddenly emerged from the bank of mist. ‘We had a scene in front of us of which every Tiger dreams,’ a crew member wrote. Barely a hundred yards away was a forward replenishment point with ammunition trucks and other vehicles, including tanks. ‘Our commander called out: “Armour-piercing! Open fire!”.’ Two Churchill tanks in front of them were traversing their turrets towards them, but the Tigers blasted them at close range and they both exploded into flames.

  That day, General Eberbach told II SS Panzer Corps that Hill 112 must not be lost under any circumstances. It was a ‘Schlüsselstellung’ - a key position. Frantic telephone calls followed in an attempt to secure replacements of both men and materiel. The panzergrenadiers supported by the Tiger companies held the ridge all day.

  After dusk, D Company of the Somersets received orders to ‘infiltrate the enemy position’. ‘The despair I felt when this order reached me can be imagined,’ wrote Sergeant Partridge, who had taken over command of his platoon after the death of their lieutenant the day before. Weapons were cleaned and ammunition distributed. At 01.00 hours, they rose out of their slit trenches and advanced
silently. But as soon as they reached the barbed wire on the summit which the SS panzergrenadiers had erected, a murderous fire opened. The platoons threw themselves flat. ‘The tracer bullets,’ wrote Sergeant Partridge, ‘were arcing their way almost lazily through the air, winging their way to pre-selected targets chosen during daylight, and now being fired on “fixed lines”.’

  Any attempt to breach the wire ended when a section commander attempted to scramble through. A German bullet hit a phosphorus grenade in his ammunition pouch. ‘Struggling in desperation,’ wrote a corporal watching, ‘he became entangled in the barbed wire and hung there, a living screaming human beacon.’ Sergeant Partridge heard the man’s ‘anguished cries of “Shoot me, shoot me!”’. ‘A single well-aimed bullet from a compassionate but no doubt appalled officer,’ the corporal continued, ‘put the lad out of his blazing hell. Even in death the horror continued as the phosphorus burned into the now mercifully lifeless body.’ Everyone who witnessed the scene was determined never again to carry a phosphorus grenade in their webbing pouches.

  An order was given to pull back, but that was not the end of the horror. Some men became lost in the dark on their way down the hill and were shot as they reached the positions of other companies who did not know who they were. The corporal noted that 18 Platoon of D Company had only nine men left out of thirty-six. One of the survivors then shot himself in the foot, because he could not take any more.

  The nightmare of Hill 112 continued. The British recaptured it the next day, then the SS seized it back in another counter-attack with Tigers. After the rains of the week before, the temperature had now risen to thirty degrees centigrade and every explosion created clouds of dust. The small wood of chestnut trees was shredded by the British artillery firing airbursts. These were intended to rain splinters down on the defenders. Very soon the wood was reduced to smashed stumps and broken branches, a ‘moon landscape’ as one of the SS put it. On 15 July, the artillery fire was so intense that the panzergrenadiers were forced to withdraw, leaving the Tigers there alone.

  All this time, the artillery of the II SS Panzer Corps resorted to the German tactic of sudden intense barrages on the British positions on the north slope of the ridge. The SS gunners, being much further back, did not suffer the same privations as the panzergrenadiers. One battery of the 9th SS Artillerie-Regiment with the Hohenstaufen Division appears to have been adopted by a young Frenchwoman, whom they knew as ‘Mademoiselle Jeanette’. Each day, she used to bring food to the soldiers in the gun line.

  Further to the east, German artillery now bombarded the liberated capital of Caen. On 14 July, the Lycée Malherbe and the quarter of Saint-Etienne were hit. People who had refused the British offer of evacuation a few days earlier now rushed for the trucks. An ancient Benedictine nun, who had never stepped outside the convent since her novitiate at the beginning of the century, was astonished to see trucks for the first time in her life, and even more thrilled to ride in one. But civilians trapped behind German lines, who had been sheltering in the damp caves by the village of Fleury, were in a terrible state. SS troops would not allow them out. Their chance of rescue would not come until later in the month.

  In Caen, the French authorities and British civil affairs section became increasingly concerned about the danger of cholera. After the destruction of the city, the task of reconnecting the water supply was far harder than even the most pessimistic had imagined. Starving dogs had also become a menace and the préfet issued orders to shoot any found in the streets.

  Disturbed by the lack of progress, the Second Army had at last started to sack incompetent or unenergetic commanders. After Epsom, General ‘Pip’ Roberts, the commander of the 11th Armoured Division, replaced a brigade commander and two commanding officers.

  On 15 July, Montgomery wrote to Brooke about one of his favourite divisions from North Africa: ‘Regret to report it is considered opinion Crocker, Dempsey and myself that 51st [Highland] Division is at present not - NOT - battleworthy. It does not fight with determination and has failed in every operation it has been given to do.’ Montgomery sacked the commander for weakness and even considered ordering the whole division back to Britain for retraining. Word of their disgrace rapidly spread round the Second Army and soon a letter was sent out instructing officers ‘not to criticise the 51st Highland Division’. Fortunately the new commander, Major General T. G. Rennie, rapidly turned the 51st Highland Division round and restored its morale.

  Many more commanders had been battle casualties. The 50th Division had lost two brigadiers, twelve commanding officers and a very high proportion of company officers. Command of 4th Armoured Brigade was given to Brigadier Michael Carver at the age of only twenty-nine, after his predecessor was wounded. Officer casualties were very high. German snipers could identify them easily from their map boards, which gleamed in the sun. Their losses became a vicious circle. While most of the best NCOs had been promoted to command platoons, the rest often showed a lack of initiative. This forced officers to take extra risks to get their men to attack, or they had to stand up conspicuously to stop a panic.

  Perhaps the most extreme example of this pattern affected the 6th Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. In just over two weeks, the battalion had lost twenty-three officers and 350 NCOs and soldiers. The new commanding officer reported at the end of June that three-quarters of the battalion were ‘jumpy’ as a result of shelling, there were cases of self-inflicted wounds and a high number of shell-shock casualties. ‘The situation has got worse each day as more key personnel have become casualties . . . NCO leadership is weak in most cases and the newly drafted officers are in consequence having to expose themselves unduly to try and get anything done.’ Appalled by the report, Montgomery sacked the new commanding officer, who had been too honest, and disbanded the battalion.

  Normandy proved what had hitherto been suspected. Troops bogged down in beachhead and bridgehead battles of attrition suffer a far higher rate of psychological breakdown than in one of movement. Even the retreat of a defeated army seemed to produce fewer cases. On 13 July, 21st Light Field Ambulance reported to General Richard O’Connor, the commander of VIII Corps, that ‘during the 54 hours commencing 1800 hours 10 July 1944, 280 cases of exhaustion were transferred to this unit from the forward area, and it is felt that about 70% of them should not have been evacuated from their units.’ They were no more physically tired than other walking wounded, ‘while their anxiety was not above a normal apprehension of participating in battle’.

  Major General G. H. A. Macmillan, the commander of the 15th Scottish Division, reported to O’Connor shortly afterwards: ‘I have now organised a Divisional Exhaustion Centre.’ Altogether 151 had been admitted, of whom forty-one came from a single battalion, ‘which shows that something is wrong in that quarter’. His headquarters issued an instruction to medical officers warning them ‘to be very careful not to send men down the line unless they are absolutely satisfied that the cases are genuine’. He suspected that medical officers, ‘under pressure of work’, had been sending them back ‘merely to get them out of the way’. Any NCO sent back to an exhaustion centre was to be reduced to private soldier automatically. Commanders were also furious at the huge losses of equipment due to demoralized soldiers throwing away their weapons. Desertions and absence without leave increased. No fewer than 150 soldiers from the 50th (Northumberland) Division were convicted of desertion in Normandy, as many as in the whole of the rest of the Second Army.

  The formation worst affected by combat fatigue was the 43rd Wessex Division, commanded by Major General Thomas, which had been involved in the battles for Maltot and Hill 112. Tank crews, on the other hand, were much less likely to collapse. ‘The Corps psychiatrist and commander 21 Light Field Ambulance confirm that cases of feigned battle exhaustion by soldiers of Armd Divs are negligible. The main offenders are infantry units. The greatest number of cases come from 43 Division. During 3 or 4 days about 10 July some 360 cases came from that formatio
n. Units particularly affected were 4 Dorsets and 7 Hamps.’ General O’Connor wrote to Thomas about this ‘most serious offence’, ordering him to make it ‘quite clear that anyone found guilty of feigning illness under this heading will be tried by [Field General Court Martial] for desertion’.

  Infantrymen appear to have suffered the most because of the effects of German mortars and Nebelwerfer batteries firing concentrated salvoes at unexpected moments. A close miss sent many men into shock. At 129thInfantry Brigadeheadquarters, threemen, includinga sergeant major, suffered from battle shock from Nebelwerfer bombardments. ‘Two of them during an attack did not stay in their slit trenches, but just ran around wildly screaming “Get me out of here!”.’ Another contributing factor to the sense of helplessness and disorientation was the lack of information. In the words of one soldier, they suffered from ‘ignorance, stupefying, brutalizing ignorance. You never knew where you were or where the enemy was, or what you were supposed to be attempting to achieve.’

  Tank crews appear to have been much less susceptible to combat fatigue, not just because of the protection offered by their armoured vehicle, but also because they were part of closely knit groups. British infantry, just like their American counterparts, suffered from the vulnerability of their replacements. The British system was no more imaginative than the American. A subaltern sent as replacement to the Somerset Light Infantry after its mauling on Hill 112 described how a moustached major at their reinforcement camp near Bayeux addressed the new officers: ‘Gentlemen, your life expectancy from the day you join your battalion, will be precisely three weeks.’

  18

  The Final Battle for Saint-Lô

 
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