D day the battle for nor.., p.34
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.34
 

           Antony Beevor

  In the VII Corps sector, the 4th and 83rd Divisions pushed down either side of the Carentan-Périers road, but the 9th Division, severely disrupted by the Panzer Lehr attack, was unable to join in that day. One of their battalion command posts received a direct hit. Convinced that the only possible German observation post was in a church tower, their divisional artillery brought it down. Church towers and steeples were always suspect. A few days later, on the slow advance towards Périers, soldiers from the division claimed to have found a German artillery observation officer dressed as a priest in a church tower with a radio. He was shot. But even in the more experienced 9th Division, officers reported that unnecessary casualties were sustained because their soldiers failed to shoot when advancing. ‘The men said they held their fire because they could not see the enemy.’

  General Meindl of II Paratroop Corps was rightly convinced that the Americans would use the Martinville ridge east of Saint-Lô for their assault on the town, but he did not have the strength to retake Hill 192.

  With the 2nd Division firmly ensconced south of Hill 192, the main American effort was concentrated in the sector of the 29th Division towards the western part of the ridge. Another assault was launched that night, but it achieved little success in the face of German mortar and artillery fire, and was halted in the evening of 12 July. It was to take the 29th Division another five days at the cost of heavy casualties to clear the ridge and establish positions south of the Bayeux road. Thursday, 13 July, did not see much fighting and the medical staff finally had a rest. The surgeons of the 3rd Armored Division were able to enjoy ‘poker and mint juleps in the evening - until midnight’, as one of them noted in his diary. On 14 July, the weather was so bad that the American attack halted and for the first time the Germans found it ‘possible to relieve units during daylight’. But XIX Corps was planning an attack for the next day. General Corlett called it his ‘Sunday punch’.

  Corlett’s XIX Corps headquarters was made more colourful by its British liaison officer, Viscount Weymouth (soon to become the 6th Marquess of Bath), ‘a tall Britisher who had gained a reputation for eccentricity because of some of his trips through the German lines and his habit of leading two ducks around on a leash’.

  On 14 July, at nightfall, the funeral took place of Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, who sadly for him had died of a heart attack rather than in battle. Generals Bradley, Hodges, Collins, Patton, Barton and Huebner were the pall-bearers, an eloquent tribute in the middle of an offensive to Roosevelt’s extraordinary courage and popularity. Patton, who had a great taste for military ceremonial, was, however, rather disappointed by the occasion. The guard of honour was too far away and formed up in column, not in line. He was particularly irritated by ‘two preachers of uncertain denominations’, who ‘made orations which they concealed under the form of prayers’. In fact, the only fitting touch in his view came towards the end of the service, when ‘our antiaircraft guns opened on some German planes and gave an appropriate requiem to the funeral of a really gallant man’. Yet even such a solemn occasion could not rest untouched by military prima-donnaship. ‘Brad says he will put me in as soon as he can,’ Patton added in his diary. ‘He could do it now with much benefit to himself, if he had any backbone. Of course, Monty does not want me as he fears I will steal the show, which I will.’

  In the far western sector, the German withdrawal carried out secretly by Choltitz had permitted VIII Corps to advance all the way to the River Ay. Next to it, VII Corps found that its artillery was now finally in range of Périers. The heavy mortars of the chemical battalions concentrated on firing white phosphorus, and more and more German dead were found with terrible burns.

  Amid the high hedgerows of the bocage, observing the fall of mortar and artillery rounds was extremely difficult. The Americans learned to use high explosive when opening fire, as it threw up much more dirt. But their greatest advantage lay with their Piper Cub spotter planes and the bravery of their artillery observation pilots correcting bombardments. Airbursts proved very effective in an assault, for it forced the Germans to remain deep in their foxholes while infantry supported by tanks rushed a position. The 83rd Division reported how they trapped many Germans this way and then hauled them out. Occasionally a Landser would shoot himself, refusing to surrender. The spotter pilots could also drop red smoke canisters on a target less than 800 yards in front of their own troops, as a marker for fighter-bombers.

  French families who refused to leave their farms remained at great risk during these battles. ‘I remember one poignant scene that hurt all of us there,’ recorded an officer with a chemical battalion. ‘A family came through our position carrying a door on which was the body of a young boy. We did not know how he was killed. The pain on the faces of the innocent family affected each of us and made us feel for the people of the area and what they must be suffering.’

  Sometimes French farmers and their families, on finding a dead soldier, would lay the body by a roadside crucifix and place flowers on it, even though they were trapped in an increasingly pitiless battle. Near Périers, a small American patrol was captured. According to a battalion surgeon with the 4th Division, a German officer demanded to know the whereabouts of the nearest American signals unit. Receiving no answer, he shot one of the prisoners in the leg. ‘Then, he shot the commander of the patrol through the head when he refused to talk.’

  Occasionallyit seemsthat the Red Crosssymbol offeredno protection from reprisals. ‘I saw medical aid men and medical officers who had been killed outright by the Germans,’ reported a surgeon with the 2nd Armored Division. ‘One medical man was stripped and hung from rafters and bayoneted in the stomach.’ The Germans, on the other hand, complained that Allied fighters frequently attacked their ambulances despite the Red Cross markings.

  In field hospitals well behind the lines, the chief danger was stress. Inevitably some surgeons broke down under the physical and psychological pressure. The screams, the stench of gangrene, the blood, the severed limbs, the terrible burns of armoured troops were bound to have a cumulative effect. What is astonishingly impressive is how the vast majority stayed the course. A captain in the 100th Evacuation Hospital calculated that in three and a half months he performed over 6,000 operations: ‘I got so I can tell from the type of wound whether our troops are advancing, falling back or stationary. I can also detect self-inflicted wounds.’ Green troops were more likely to suffer from booby-traps and mines. ‘Self-inflicted wounds generally roll in just as a battle starts. On the advance it’s mortar, machinegun and small arms. After breakthrough or capture of a position we get mine and booby trap cases. When stationary, all claim it’s an 88 that hit them.’ Yet the chief of the X-Ray department of the 2nd Evacuation Hospital expressed amazement at how uncomplaining the wounded usually were: ‘It’s such a paradox, this war,’ he wrote, ‘which produces the worst in man, and also raises him to the summits of self-sacrifice, self-denial and altruism.’

  Psychological injury still constituted a large minority of their case-load. US Army medical services had to deal with 30,000 cases of combat exhaustion in Normandy. By late July, there were two 1,000-bed centres in operation. Doctors had initially been shocked by commanders talking of the need to get green troops ‘blooded’ in action, but a gradual introduction was clearly better than a sudden shock.

  Nothing, however, seemed to reduce the flow of cases where men under artillery fire would go ‘wide-eyed and jittery’, or ‘start running around in circles and crying’, or ‘curl up into little balls’, or even wander out in a trance in an open field and start picking flowers as the shells exploded. Others cracked under the strain of patrols, suddenly crying, ‘We’re going to get killed! We’re going to get killed!’ Young officers had to try to deal with ‘men suddenly whimpering, cringing, refusing to get up or get out of a foxhole and go forward under fire’. While some soldiers resorted to self-inflicted wounds, a smaller, unknown number committed suicide.

  Military doctors also had to co
pe with the mundane. Flea bites from farmyards and barns could become infected. Many needless accidents were caused by a combination of exhaustion and raw Calvados, which GIs called ‘applejack’ or sometimes ‘white lightning’ because of its strength. The number of cases of diarrhoea rose alarmingly, but constipation was also a problem, especially among armoured crews. The over-salted contents of K-Rations were hated. Even the lemonade powder with Vitamin C was used instead for cleaning and scouring. A running joke developed that German prisoners of war were claiming that forcing them to eat K-Rations was a breach of the Geneva Convention. Men dreamed of ice cream, hot dogs and milkshakes. Their only hope of such comforts came when they werein reserve and the American Red Cross doughnut wagon turned up, run by young women volunteers. Its appearance also added the promise of a chat with a girl from back home. But when resting, soldiers resorted to more masculine pursuits. Paydays would see every form of gambling, with dice or seven-card stud. And if they had no money, they played for cigarettes, like before when waiting for D-Day.

  Personal cleanliness in that humid summer was also hard to maintain when there were few opportunities for washing. Some French women clearly could not restrain their curiosity, to the discomfort of American modesty. ‘I find it a bit hard getting used to women here looking at the men taking a bath,’ wrote a medical officer in his diary. ‘There were scores of GIs bare as the day they were born washing and swimming in the water round the mill house - and two women sat around quite nonchalantly, at times standing, overlooking the scene.’

  To preserve anything from the rain that July required ingenuity. A sergeant in the 1st Infantry Division recounted that he always kept a dry pair of socks and some toilet paper in the top of his helmet liner. Soldiers also needed to hang on to their kit, because fascinated children were often trying to make off with their own souvenirs. Little French boys pestered them, requesting ‘cigarettes pour Papa’, only to go off and smoke them themselves. They were constantly hanging around the mess tents in rear areas, despite orders to clear them away. But American soldiers always indulged them: ‘French kids used to come around, with their little tin pails and stand at the mess line, and we always made sure we had extra food to give them.’

  A gendarme in Caumont, behind the 1st Division’s lines, was persuaded to try a piece of chewing gum. One of his main tasks was to cope with soldiers searching cellars for wine and Calvados. He and his men had the idea of scrawling ‘Mines’ on the walls by the entrance. But while he was ready to forgive soldiers who felt a desperate need for alcohol, he was deeply shocked, on finding his first dead Allied soldier, to see that someone had already stolen his boots. ‘I know we lack everything, but even so!’ he wrote. Looting by the townsfolk made him look at his fellow citizens afresh. ‘It was a great surprise to find it in all classes of society. The war has awakened atavistic instincts and transformed a number of law-abiding individuals into delinquents.’

  While the German Seventh Army feared that Périers would be the immediate focus of the next American offensive, Bradley was still determined to take Saint-Lô from the Martinville ridge, just to the north-east of the town.

  German commanders were concerned about the Martinville ridge sector because Schimpf’s 3rd Paratroop Division was being ground down. An Ultra intercept provided Bradley with the information that Meindl’s II Paratroop Corps had lost 6,000 men. Rommel had been left in no doubt about the gravity of the situation when he visited General Meindl at II Paratroop Corps headquarters on the evening of 14 July. (On that day of foul weather, Rommel had been able to drive around without fear of Allied fighters.) Meindl warned him that Hitler’s demand to hold the present front line at all costs could well prove disastrous. Less than a week later, Meindl complained to General Kurt Student, the commander-in-chief of the paratroop army, that two requests for reinforcements had not been answered. Those who arrived were often unfit for battle and became casualties immediately, as both the Americans and British had found. Some of these paratroop replacements had been trainee pilots unable to complete their flying courses back in Germany due to the critical shortage of fuel.

  Rommel was well aware of the dangers. He had been warned that the boundary between the Seventh Army and Panzer Group West (which corresponded with the British-American boundary) might well ‘burst a seam’. In fact, reserves were desperately needed all along the line, especially when a full-strength formation, such as the 353rd Infanterie-Division, was reduced to under 700 men after eleven days of fighting. And this had been during a period when the weather had grounded the US Air Force for most of the time.

  The Americans were also worried about heavy casualties, as well as the slowness of their advance. Along the east bank of the Vire, the 35th Division had attempted to push forward, while the 30th Division on the far side of the river had also tried to break through with little success. The earlier disruption to the 9th Division, slowing it down, had left the 30th with an exposed right flank. The 30th found that it was also facing groups from the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich.

  The situation only began to improve on 15 July, the day of Corlett’s ‘Sunday punch’. XIX Corps was at last able to profit from air support with P-47 Thunderbolts strafing and bombing German positions. Unfortunately, a pair of Thunderbolts misidentified a detachment of Combat Command B and knocked out an American tank and a half-track. But the 35th Division, using a well-prepared feint that morning, managed to break the German line and force a retreat. Pressure all along the XIX Corps front, with powerful counter-battery fire from its artillery, had forced the Germans to use up almost all their ammunition. The 30th Division’s commander described the day as a ‘slugfest’.40

  All eyes in the American command structure were on the 29th Division, responsible for the sector which was the key to Saint-Lô. Its flamboyant commander, General Gerhardt, was determined to make the most of the opportunity. Gerhardt did not attract universal respect. Bradley Holbrook, a war correspondent from the Baltimore Sun, attached to the 29th Division, had observed Gerhardt’s longing for publicity as the battle for Saint-Lô progressed. ‘I remember going up there one morning where he was standing,’ he recounted later. ‘The casualties were mounting and it just seemed useless as hell to me. And I asked him why are we taking so many casualties when we can just go around this place and go on. And he turned and looked at me and said, “Because that’s a name everybody is going to remember.” And I thought, “Oh, shit, what kind of a war are we fighting?”.’

  Gerhardt, like Patton, was also a stickler for correct turnout in the field. He could do little about the unkempt state of his men, because opportunities for shaving came only when a battalion was in reserve. But with more justification, he was exasperated that most soldiers fastened the strap of their steel helmet round the back and not under the chin. This came from the misplaced fear that a nearby explosion would pull their head off if the helmet was securely fastened. Gerhardt himself always wore his steel helmet correctly buckled, and was hardly ever seen in other headgear, apparently because he wished to hide his baldness.

  His division’s immediate objective was the hamlet of Martinville on top of the key ridge. It consisted of no more than a handful of Norman stone farmhouses, with walled yards either side of the unpaved road which ran from west to east along the ridge. The hedgerows were as thick and as high as elsewhere in the region, and the densely planted apple orchards provided complete cover for vehicles and enclosed gun pits from air observation. The German paratroops had again dug themselves in deeply and cleverly in bunkers covered with logs and earth, which would survive almost anything except a direct hit from a large-calibre shell or bomb. They had been reinforced with combat engineers as well as other companies from their division, plus remnants of the 30th Mobile Brigade with machine guns and mortars, some remnants of the 352nd Infantry Division and well-camouflaged assault guns sited to fire down hedgerows.

  The American attack was supported by thirteen battalions of artillery, together with P-47 Thunderbolts droppi
ng 500-pound bombs on 88 mm batteries.But on almost allaxes of advance, Germanfire inflicted heavy casualties. At 19.30 hours, General Gerhardt ordered another last push before dark, with the call, ‘Fix bayonets! Twenty-nine, let’s go!’ The 116th Infantry struck along the ridge from the east with three battalions almost abreast. After several hours of heavy losses, Gerhardt reluctantly halted them with instructions to dig in and hold the ground they had won. But the order took a long time to reach Major Bingham, commanding the 2nd Battalion. By the time it did and he had rushed forward on foot to catch up with his leading company, they had reached their objective of La Capelle on the Bayeux road. Bingham never considered retreat. He immediately ordered his battalion to dig foxholes in all-round defence. Martinville itself on the ridge above had been cleared, but German paratroops, following their practice, had infiltrated back in again so his force was out on a limb.

  Gerhardt was astonished to hear that the 2nd Battalion had got through. He did not want to pull them back, yet they were in a very exposed position with the ridge still partly in German hands. He ordered the 115th Infantry on the right to advance at dawn the next day, 16 July, as rapidly as possible down the road from Isigny to Saint-Lô. If they got through, then the Germans on the ridge would probably be forced to withdraw. But the 115th came up against such heavy fire from mortars, machine guns and assault guns that it was forced to go to ground.

  Bingham’s beleaguered force down by the Bayeux road managed to repel a counter-attack, but it was running short of ammunition and supplies. Water was not a problem, as there were two wells, but the battalion had thirty-five wounded and only three inexperienced aid men to tend them. An artillery spotter plane dropped plasma to them, but several men died who would have survived if they could have been evacuated. Bingham’s battalion was nevertheless extremely lucky. Bad communications on the German side meant that their position had not been clearly identified by German artillery, which during that day, to the delight of American observers, had been shelling their own troops almost as much as their enemy.

 
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