D day the battle for nor.., p.33
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.33

           Antony Beevor

  On 6 July, while the Americans were still bogged down in the general advance south towards Saint-Lô, General George S. Patton arrived in France. He was to command the Third US Army as soon as it was activated on Eisenhower’s order.

  Stuck in England for a month since the invasion, he had been ‘awfully restless’. ‘It is Hell to be on the side lines and see all the glory eluding me,’ he had written to his wife on D-Day. He started wearing his shoulder holster ‘so as to get myself into the spirit of the part’, then packed for France even though there was no immediate prospect of being called over. For the time being, he had to play his part as commander-in-chief of the fictitious First US Army Group, that vital part of Plan Fortitude. The Germans were still convinced that he would command a second invasion around the Pas-de-Calais.

  Patton was grateful to Eisenhower for having twice given him another chance. The first time was after he had slapped a soldier suffering from combat exhaustion in Sicily, the second being his gaffe in a speech in England, saying that the Americans and the British were destined to rule the world. But he never respected Ike ‘as a soldier’. When he accompanied the supreme commander on a tour of divisions in the south-west of England, he described his friendly manner with the troops as that of ‘an office seeker rather than that of a soldier’. ‘His theory is that by this method one gets on a level with the men. A commander cannot command and be on the same level. At least that is my opinion. I try to arouse fighting emotion - he tries for votes - for what? However he was very pleasant [to me].’

  Patton also despised Montgomery, whom he called ‘the little monkey’. But he had felt a certain gratitude on 1 June, just before the invasion, when Montgomery insisted twice to Bradley that ‘Patton should take over for the Brittany, and possibly the Rennes operation’. The next morning, he noted in his diary, ‘I have a better impression of Monty than I had.’ Patton, who followed events in Normandy with intense frustration, felt that Bradley’s attempt to advance on a broad front was wrong. Constant minor attacks to win ground, in his view, led to far more casualties in the long run than a concentrated offensive.

  German commanders agreed. ‘I cannot follow the reasoning,’ wrote Generalleutnant Schimpf of the 3rd Paratroop Division, ‘that these tactics were supposed to have helped avoid bloodshed, as I was told by captured American officers. For although losses on the day of attack could be kept comparatively low, on the other hand the total losses suffered through the continuous minor attacks launched over a long period, were surely much heavier than would have been the case if a forceful attack had been conducted.’ Elsewhere he wrote of American battalion attacks: ‘For our troops, this type of defence against continual assaults was an excellent training and acclimatisation to the fighting ways of the enemy.’ With impressive foresight, Patton wrote on 2 July that they should be attacking down the west coast towards Avranches with ‘one or two armored divisions abreast’, supported by air power.

  At last on 4 July, his Third Army headquarters began to embark. Patton himself flew over two days later in a C-47 to the landing strip above Omaha beach. His plane was escorted by four P-47 Thunderbolts, the fighter-bomber which would later support his astonishing advance across France. As soon as he reached French soil, Patton was on exuberant form. News of his arrival spread instantly among the soldiers and sailors of Omaha beach command. His presence was supposed to be a closely guarded secret, but they crowded around with cameras, taking photographs as if he were a movie star. Patton stood up in the Jeep sent for him and addressed them in his inimitable style: ‘I’m proud to be here to fight beside you. Now let’s cut the guts out of those Krauts and get the hell on to Berlin. And when we get to Berlin, I am going to personally shoot that paper-hanging son of a bitch, just like I would a snake.’ His audience loved it, cheering and whooping wildly. Patton and Eisenhower were indeed unalike.

  The next day he had lunch with Bradley, Montgomery and his chief of staff, the charming General Freddie de Guingand. ‘After lunch, Montgomery, Bradley and I went to the war tent,’ Patton wrote in his diary. ‘Here Montgomery went to great lengths explaining why the British had done nothing.’ Despite his earlier support for Patton, Montgomery now did not want the Third Army to become operational until after Avranches had been captured. This, the Americans suspected, was an attempt to keep Bradley under the command of his own 21st Army Group for longer. Bradley studiously refused to answer. As soon as Patton’s Third Army was activated, he would in practice become independent from Montgomery, since he would then command the US 12th Army Group, with Hodges and Patton as his two army commanders.

  Bradley and his staff were beginning to thrash out ideas for Operation Cobra, which became the great breakthrough towards Avranches and Brittany. But in the meantime Bradley insisted on continuing the general advance to take Saint-Lô and the road west to Périers. Lying beyond the Cotentin and Bessin marshlands and bocage, the Saint-Lô- Périers road would provide their start-line for Cobra. But there was still a long and bloody fight in front of them to get there.

  At the same time as the Panzer Lehr offensive in the early hours of 11 July, the German 5th and 9th Paratroop Regiments east of the River Vire had attacked the 29th Division and its neighbour, the 2nd Division. But while the Panzer Lehr assault against the 30th Division had disrupted its preparation for the general advance on Saint-Lô, the 35th, the 29th and the 2nd Infantry Divisions were still able to start their operation at 06.00 hours.

  The overall American plan consisted of an advance on a broad front. While XIX Corps attacked south with the 30th, the 35th and the 29th Divisions, V Corps to the east was to help by sending the 2nd Infantry Division to take Hill 192, the main feature along the long ridge overlooking the road from Saint-Lô to Bayeux. The topography of rolling countryside, with small fields and orchards, bordered by impenetrable hedgerows and sunkentracks, was horribly familiar to all except replacements and the newly operational 35th Division.

  For the graves registration teams it was a grisly business. A lieutenant reported that they had found seventy bodies along a single hedgerow. ‘I saw US troops who had been mined by the Germans,’ he went on.

  ‘They put boobytraps in the hollow part of a dead man’s back. We had to blow those cases and that mangled the bodies, but we could still identify them.’ Germans sometimes attached a concealed grenade to the dog-tag chain, so anyone who yanked at an identity disc would detonate it.

  Bodies became swollen in the heat. One of the 4th Division teams explained that you had ‘to relieve the body of the gas’ by rolling it on to its front, and apply pressure with a knee in the middle of the back. ‘One develops a strong stomach quickly,’ he remarked. Another observed that the ‘sickening stench’ of ‘human death’ was tough on the cooks, who were used to collect bodies and then had to go back to prepare meat. Perhaps the most gruesome job of all was to remove the unidentifiable remains of tank crews from the insides of a burnt-out turret. ‘As gruesome as it may sound, a mess kit cup and spoon were the tools of the trade.’

  The weather was equally familiar in that wet summer. It was overcast, with drizzle and intermittent showers, which once again prevented air support and hindered artillery observation. The 29th Division’s advance picked up after a slow start. Spearheaded by a battalion of the 116th Infantry supported by tanks, it found a gap in the line held by the German 9th Paratroop Regiment and reached Saint-André-de-l’Epine. But the 115th Infantry on its right, astride the Isigny road, was slow off the mark and then came up against well-defended positions, which it found hard to outflank. Major General Gerhardt, the divisional commander, warned General Corlett of XIX Corps that evening that ‘the stuff ahead is pretty stout’. But the 116th had reached part of the Martinville ridge, while the Texans of the neighbouring 2nd Division seized Hill 192 after heavy fighting. This was a great relief to the Americans. Hill 192 had given the Germans a clear view into the rear of the V Corps sector and all the way to the right flank of the British front.

  The 2nd Divi
sion had been planning this operation since 16 June. On 1 July, taking advantage of the German tendency to withdraw the bulk of its front-line strength at night to avoid casualties from an early-morning bombardment, one of its battalions slipped forward during darkness and occupied all the German trenches. This was a calculated risk, because the Germans always had their own front-line positions registered as mortar and artillery targets. But it proved well worthwhile. This sudden advance provided the division with a good line of departure for the operation which they had been forced to postpone on several occasions. Time had not been wasted during the long wait. Battalions were withdrawn from the line in rotation for intensive tank-infantry training with engineer groups attached. They knew that they needed all the expertise and help they could get. They were up against part of the German 3rd Paratroop Division, which had been honeycombing the hedgerows on the hillside with concealed fire positions, tunnels and earth bunkers. German 50 mm mortars were targeted on every approaching hedgerow and 20 mm anti-aircraft guns commanded the road below. Heavy artillery and tanks to the rear on the south side of the Bayeux road were always ready to provide support.

  The 2nd Division put the harsh lessons learned so far in the bocage to good use. Their supporting tanks all had telephones mounted on the rear of the vehicle so that infantry platoon commanders could indicate targets to the crew inside without having to climb on to the turret, exposing themselves dangerously. And the whole attacking force was divided into infantry-armour teams, each with its own engineer explosives group ready to blow holes in the hedgerows. The Shermans would bombard each hedgerow intersection with their 75 mm main armament, then spray the hedges in between with machine-gun fire, while the infantry advanced. All this was combined with a more flexible rolling barrage, which could be adapted to unexpected delays in the rate of advance. Each hedgerow when taken was to be treated as a new line of departure.

  Perhaps more than any previous bocage operation, the 2nd Division’s advance went according to plan, but it remained a ‘grim job’. Even when it seemed that a hedgerow system had been thoroughly cleared, German paratroops would again emerge from hidden entrances to shoot at their backs. The western shoulder of Hill 192 was the most fiercely defended and was dubbed ‘Kraut Corner’. It was finally outflanked after an hour and fifteen prisoners were taken. ‘Three enemy paratroopers who still held out were eliminated by a tank dozer which buried them under five feet of dirt.’

  Nearby,the hamlet of Cloville wasclearedby house-to-housefighting amid the ruins from the artillery bombardment which had failed to destroy an assault gun and a tank supporting the German paratroops. A Sherman managed to knock out the two armoured vehicles to secure the objective. The advance continued shortly before 1200 hours. To avoid being slowed down again, the hamlet of Le Soulaire, half a mile further on, was bypassed, and by 1700 hours the leading platoons began to leapfrog across the Bayeux road in tiny groups. Their tank support could not stay with them because of anti-tank guns still concealed in the rough woodland on the reverse side of Hill 192.

  While they were under fire, an unknown senior officer appeared, inspecting their positions. A GI called out to him to get down immediately or he would be killed. ‘Mind your Goddam business, soldier!’ the officer roared back. It was General George Patton, conducting a personal reconnaissance to familiarize himself with the terrain.

  In the centre, the Shermans kept up with the infantry. They were even able to enter the woods on the side of the crest because the saturation of white phosphorus shells in the opening bombardment had almost burned it to the ground. They met only ‘scattered opposition’ and advanced down the southern slope. Although unable to cross the Bayeux road by nightfall, they were firmly dug in just north of it.

  On the left flank of the attack, the 23rd Infantry had a very hard fight, sustaining many casualties near a re-entrant dubbed ‘Purple Heart Draw’ on the north-eastern slope of the feature. This had proved impassable for tanks, and far too exposed for infantry on their own, because German artillery and mortar batteries had registered every target in the area. Germans in houses a few hundred yards to the left, which should have been hit in the American bombardment, also contributed a withering automatic fire until two Shermans from the 741st Tank Battalion advanced to within thirty yards and blasted the foundations, causing the buildings to collapse on to the German machine-gun teams inside.

  Closer in towards the summit, the right-hand company of the battalion perfected a technique of firing fragmentation rifle grenades to explode as airbursts over German machine-gun pits. By the end of the day, the battalion had advanced 1,500 yards and had reached the ridge, but it was still 400 yards short of the Bayeux road. One of the most unexpected achievements of the day’s infantry-tank cooperation had been that not a single Sherman was lost. And on 12 July, the advance continued in the centre and east, so that the 2nd Division held all its objectives north of the Bayeux road. With the capture of Hill 192, the Americans now had observation posts with a clear view over Saint-Lô and its surrounding area.

  Just to the east on the 1st Division’s sector south of Caumont, an interesting contrast to the bitter fighting for the Bayeux road had just taken place. The Americans arranged a truce on 9 July with the 2nd Panzer-Division to hand over a second group of German nurses captured in Cherbourg. ‘This second transfer and the chivalrous treatment of these nurses,’ wrote their commander, Generalleutnant Freiherr von Lüttwitz, ‘made at that time a deepimpression upon the entire division.’ Lüttwitz informed Rommel, who then decided that this would be the place to make contact with the Americans to negotiate a ceasefire in Normandy should Hitler continue to refuse to end the war. Rommel’s discussions with his commanders on taking unilateral action against the regime was running in parallel, but separately from preparations for the assassination of Hitler at Rastenburg.

  The unblooded 35th Division on the east bank of the Vire had to begin the 11 July offensive with a complicated manoeuvre, because of the L-shaped line it was holding. Then, almost immediately, the commander of its leading regiment, the 137th Infantry, was wounded by machine-gun fire. The Germans had fortified both a château and a church near Saint-Gilles in that sector, which held out despite a heavy battering from the divisional artillery. Machine-gun emplacements in the cemetery walls and in the church itself pinned down the battalion trying to attack it. When it was finally stormed the next day after another bombardment, ‘only three prisoners, two of them wounded, were taken on this hotly contested ground’.

  Yet according to General Bayerlein, the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen was ‘in a poor state and had no will to fight’. Only the paratroopers and the Das Reich Kampfgruppe were dependable. This was perhaps helped by the way a Das Reich commander, Obersturmbahnführer Wisliczeny - ‘a giant, brutal man’, according to Bayerlein - stood behind the line with a stick and beat anyone who tried to run back.

  West of the Vire, the 30th Division, recovering from the Panzer Lehr attack, advanced with Combat Command B of the 3rd Armored Division, supported by the divisional and corps artillery firing 14,000 rounds. They reached the northern edge of Pont-Hébert and Hauts-Vents at the cost of another 367 casualties.

  Bradley’s general advance on 11 July extended along almost all of the First US Army front. Towards the Atlantic coast of the Cotentin, in the VIII Corps sector, the 79th Division, aided by heavy air attacks, pushed forward west of La Haye-du-Puits and took the high ground near Montgardon. The 8th Division captured Hill 92 and carried on another mile south.

  The 90th Division, having finally taken the Mont Castre ridge the day before, began to clear the forest on its reverse slopes. Its men were terrified of advancing against the well-camouflaged 15th Paratroop Regiment in thick underbrush with no more than ten yards’ visibility. Contact between platoons, even between individuals in the same squad, became very hard. Their officers described it as ‘more like jungle fighting’. The advance progressed only because of the courage of a few individuals outf
lanking machine-gun positions. The high proportion of dead to wounded showed how most engagements were fought at close quarters. The experience proved a considerable strain for a division which had not yet found its feet. By the next day, one battalion in the 358th Infantry had lost so many men that three companies had to be merged into one. Fortunately, the 90th then found that the German paratroops had slipped away in the night.

  German Seventh Army headquarters was already extremely concerned at the situation on that western sector, because General von Choltitz lacked any reserves and the Mahlmann defence line had now been outflanked. Oberstgruppenführer Hausser had spoken to Rommel on the evening of 10 July, insisting that he must shorten that part of the front. Army Group B only gave its agreement late in the afternoon of 11 July. Choltitz ordered a general withdrawal back to the line of the River Ay and the town of Lessay.

  ‘The population has to evacuate now and it’s a complete mass migration,’ wrote the Obergefreiter in the 91st Luftlande-Division. ‘The fat nuns sweat profusely as they push their carts. It is hard to watch this and to go along with this accursed war. To continue to believe in victory is very hard since the USA is gaining more and more of a foothold.’

  Allied fighter-bombers continued to attack not only front-line positions, but also any supply trucks coming up behind with food, ammunition and fuel. The almost total absence of the Luftwaffe to contest the enemy’s air supremacy continued to provoke anger among German troops, although they often resorted to black humour. ‘If you can see silver aircraft, they are American,’ went one joke. ‘If you can see khaki planes, they are British, and if you can’t see any planes, then they’re German.’ The other version of this went, ‘If British planes appear, we duck. If American planes come over, everyone ducks. And if the Luftwaffe appears, nobody ducks.’ American forces had a different problem. Their trigger-happy soldiers were always opening fire at aircraft despite orders not to because they were far more likely to be shooting at an Allied plane than an enemy one.


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