D day the battle for nor.., p.35
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.35Antony Beevor
The 1st Battalion up on the ridge, a quarter of a mile to the east of Martinville, suffered ferocious counter-attacks from German paratroops armed with flame-throwers and supported by three tanks. The American infantrymen emerged from their foxholes to make sure that they shot down the heavily laden flame-thrower teams before they came within range to use their devices. A Company of the 1st Battalion, which was on the right, had lost all its officers on the previous day. It was now commanded by Private Harold E. Peterson, because the survivors had elected him commander. A young lieutenant was sent across to take over, but since he was new to combat, he sensibly did what Peterson told him.
The Germans attacked yet again from Martinville. This sortie had a tank in support, which blasted the hedgerow in which Peterson’s men were concealed. The bazooka team was knocked out and others who took over the weapon were targeted. The survivors had to run for it, dragging wounded men behind them ‘like a sled’. But they rallied under the leadership of Peterson and another soldier, a full-blooded Native American ‘known simply as “Chief”’. Peterson then stalked the tank with rifle grenades, which were hardly armour-piercing. He scored six hits on the exterior, and the noise alone must have convinced the crew of the tank that it was better to turn around and scuttle back to Martinville. Peterson’s skeleton company then reoccupied their positions.
That night, Peterson gave the order that one soldier in each two-man foxhole should stay awake while the other slept. Early next morning, he crept off to check on the other foxholes. In some of those where both men had fallen asleep, he found that their throats had been cut. The enemy raiding party of paratroopers, some fifteen strong, was still nearby and Peterson attacked with grenades. He was forced back, but then managed to site two light machine guns and a bazooka to keep the German paratroops pinned down. In fact their fire cut the enemy, in some cases quite literally, to pieces. Every German was killed. During all of this time, battalion headquarters had no idea that Peterson was in command.
During the night of 15 July, General Gerhardt ordered his deputy, Brigadier General Norman Cota, to assemble a task force ‘on three hours’ notice to complete the occupation of Saint-Lô’. This was perhaps a little premature, considering the ferocious battle on the ridge and the division’s shortage of artillery ammunition. Also that night, 269 replacements arrived, and were instantly sent forward to strengthen the 1st Battalion of the 116th Infantry on the ridge. This was a brutally abrupt baptism of fire, contrary to the recommendations of the divisional psychiatrist, but Gerhardt did not want to lose the initiative.
The 3rd Battalion, commanded by Major Thomas D. Howie, was also seriously under-strength, but it received only a handful of new officers. Howie’s battalion was to attack westwards before dawn, along the southern slope of the ridge, to join up with Bingham’s men and then advance together into Saint-Lô. To maintain surprise, he ordered his men to rely on the bayonet. Only two men per platoon were authorized to shoot in an emergency.
Howie’s battalion ‘jumped off’ on 16 July when there was only a pre-dawn glimmer of light. It advanced rapidly in column of companies. They were lucky to be shrouded by an early-morning summer mist, but, presumably reacting to sound, German machine-gunners opened fire in their direction. As instructed, Howie’s soldiers did not fire back. Good discipline and rapid footworktook them through to their objective next to Bingham’s battalion by 06.00 hours. Howie reported to their regimental commander by radio. He was told that their task was to push on immediately to the edge of Saint-Lô, little more than half a mile to the west. ‘Will do,’ he answered. His men rapidly shared their rations with the famished 2nd Battalion, though they could not spare any ammunition. But just after Major Howie gave the order to advance on Saint-Lô, a German mortar shell exploded among his headquarters group. Howie was killed instantly. Captain H. Puntenney, the executive officer, took command and tried to push the attack forward. German artillery and mortar batteries, however, had finally identified their position and also began shelling that stretch of the Bayeux-Saint-Lô road.
The 3rd Battalion dug foxholes rapidly to shelter from the bombardment and prepared to receive a counter-attack. One eventually came in at the end of the afternoon, but they fought it off. German tanks could be heard in the distance, so an air strike was requested before dark fell. The 506th Fighter Bomber Squadron was scrambled and zeroed in on the armour concentration. The results were demoralizing for the Germans, but provided a great boost for American morale. Some of Puntenney’s men discovered a German ammunition dump nearby. This was a relief, as the force had only one bazooka round left. Teller mines were taken and planted along the Bayeux road and on the minor north- south route which crossed the highway at La Madeleine. It was an anxious night. Puntenney felt that they were only holding on through bluff. But the next morning, 17 July, they received a miraculous surprise. An Austrian doctor suddenly appeared, wanting to surrender. He was able to save the lives of several of the wounded by using the plasma dropped the day before.
On the ridge above them, the 1st Battalion continued its attack on Martinville, using a small force with an anti-tank gun and a tank destroyer to take up position on the eastern side of the hamlet. The 29th Division’s other two regiments, the 175th further up the Bayeux road and the 115th still trying to push down the road from Isigny, made little progress that day. One battalion of the 115th managed to veer off to attack the Martinville feature on the north side, but that afternoon it was hit heavily by a German mortar concentration, and many wounded men died that evening without medical attention. The shortage of aid men right along the front had become critical, mainly due to heavy casualties and a lack of trained replacements.
The battalion of the 115th, shaken by its casualties, had begun to dig in that night east of Martinville when the regimental commander arrived. To their disbelief, they were ordered to continue the advance without delay. ‘This order caused great consternation in the battalion,’ remarked their regimental commander. But once the grumbling was over, they moved on again at midnight. To their even greater surprise, they found themselves advancing forward along the western slope of the ridge towards Saint-Lô without encountering heavy resistance. The Germans seemed to have melted away in the night.41
The two battalions, Bingham’s and Puntenney’s, isolated at the bottom of the ridge near La Madeleine, could now be supplied by a lifeline over the saddle from the north. But this supply route remained a hazardous enterprise under the deadly fire from guns sited south of the Bayeux road. Private Peterson’s company was reinforced with eighty-five replacements and a new commander, Captain Rabbitt. New arrivals were mixed in with veterans so that they would not panic. This company then manned the lifeline down from the ridge, with small groups in every field armed with machine guns. To their astonishment, they suddenly sighted a column of German soldiers being marched down in the open past them. The machine guns opened up and they mowed them down.
During the night of 17 July, the Germans evacuated the ridge and the withdrawal proved even more widespread. Outflanked on the Bayeux road and the Martinville ridge, they had to pull back on the sector facing the 35th Division, even abandoning a considerable amount of equipment and weapons. General Corlett told Gerhardt on the morning of 18 July to take Saint-Lô, which American troops now called ‘Stilo’. Brigadier General Cota’s task force, with reconnaissance elements, Shermans, tank destroyers and engineers, was ready to move. ‘Looks like we’re all set,’ Gerhardt reported to Corps headquarters. At 14.30 hours, Cota sent the message, ‘Ready to roll.’ His column began to move down the Isigny road into Saint-Lô, where they were joined by a battalion of the 115th Infantry. After the heavy fighting of the last few weeks, German resistance seemed comparatively light. There was harassing fire from German artillery positions south of Saint-Lô and groups from the 30th Mobile Brigade fought a rearguard action in parts of the town.
Cota’s task force entered ‘a shell of a town’, smashed both by the original Allied bombing of 6 June
Saint-Lô’s capture provoked a measure of over-confidence. When the 25th Cavalry Squadron relieved the 29th’s reconnaissance troop the next day, they charged ahead, despite warnings of German anti-tank guns, and lost several Jeeps and armoured cars.
The general advance from 7 to 20 July had cost the Americans some 40,000 casualties. But in Bradley’s view, it had finally secured the left flank for Cobra and ground down the German forces to such a point that the breakthrough being planned stood a far greater chance of success. General Gerhardt wished to mark the 29th Division’s victory with a symbolic act. He ordered that the body of Major Howie, the battalion commander killed just before the final assault on the town, should be brought into the ruined city. The corpse, wrapped in an American flag, arrived on a Jeep. It was placed on a pile of rubble by the episcopal church of Notre Dame. Howie became known as the ‘Major of Saint-Lô’. His death came to represent the sacrifice of all those whom General Montgomery, in his tribute, called‘the magnificent American troops who took Saint-Lô’. Yet German commanders, even after the war, still regarded the huge American effort to take the town as unnecessary. Saint-Lô would have been outflanked immediately once the great American attack, Operation Cobra, opened to the west just over a week later.
After the costly battle for northern Caen, Montgomery was even more concerned about infantry shortages. British and Canadian losses had now risen to 37,563. The Adjutant-General, Sir Ronald Adam, had come over to Normandy to warn Montgomery and Dempsey that replacements would run out in the next few weeks.
Dempsey’s Second Army was not, however, short of tanks. He now had three armoured divisions, five independent armoured brigades and three tank brigades. While Montgomery remained wedded to his idea of holding down the German panzer formations on his front to allow the Americans to break out, Dempsey was determined to break the bloody stalemate. The bridgehead east of the Orne appeared to offer a good opportunity for a major armoured attack over open country south-east towards Falaise. Dempsey had been deeply impressed by the destructive power of the heavy bombers in their attack of 7 July. He seems, however, to have been strangely misguided about its lack of military effectiveness.
On 12 July, Dempsey persuaded Montgomery that he should mass the three armoured divisions into General Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps. Montgomery was extremely reluctant. He did not like the idea of tank formations ‘swanning about’ as they had in the Western Desert, occasionally with disastrous consequences. But he felt he had no option in the circumstances. He did not want to risk another major infantry battle, yet he had to do something to head off the criticism building in London and at SHAEF headquarters. The attack on Caen had failed to gain the territory needed for airfields and to deploy the Canadian First Army.
Most important of all, in Montgomery’s thinking, this offensive represented a major blow on the Caen front just before the Americans launched Operation Cobra in the west. If nothing else, this would prevent the Germans from transferring panzer divisions to face Bradley’s First Army. Yet Montgomery’s true feelings are still not clear. Either he had suddenly convinced himself that the operation must achieve a major breakthrough, or else he felt compelled to mislead his superiors to be sure of obtaining the heavy bombers to smash open the German lines. Politically, this was a very unwise course of action.
On 12 July, he sold Dempsey’s plan to Eisenhower on the basis that it offered the possibility of a decisive breakthrough. The supreme commander, who had despaired of Montgomery’s caution, replied exuberantly two days later, ‘I am viewing the prospects with the most tremendous optimism and enthusiasm. I would not be at all surprised to see you gaining a victory that will make some of the “old classics” look like a skirmish between patrols.’ Also on 14 July, Montgomery wrote to Field Marshal Brooke, saying that ‘the time has come to have a real “showdown” on the eastern flank’. Then, the very next day, Montgomery gave Dempsey and O’Connor a revised directive. This was more modest in its objectives. He wanted to advance only a third of the way to Falaise and then see how things stood. This may well have been a more realistic assessment of what was possible, yet Montgomery never told Eisenhower and he never even informed his own 21st Army Group headquarters. The consequences would be disastrous for Montgomery’s reputation and credibility.
The Guards Armoured Division, originally delayed by the great storm, was by now ready to take part. Its officers were urged to visit the different fronts in Jeeps to pick up what they could in battle knowledge. But the experience was not exactly encouraging. ‘I came upon a line of six or seven British Sherman tanks,’ wrote a member of the Irish Guards, ‘each of which had a neat hole in the side. Most had been burnt out. They had obviously been hit in quick succession, probably by the same gun.’ On their return, when briefed for Operation Goodwood, they were told that they were ‘going to break right through’. Goodwood, named like Epsom after a racecourse, prompted the joke that it would be a ‘day at the races’.
Montgomery, using his strategy of ‘alternate thrusts’ to throw the Germans off balance before the main offensive, persuaded Dempsey to begin with diversionary attacks further west. Shortly before midnight on 15 July, the British attacked near Esquay, Hill 112 and Maltot with flame-throwing Crocodile tanks. In the dark, they must have appeared like armoured dragons. Even further west, XXX Corps mounted a limited push. ‘There is a nice cool breeze now moving the ripening corn,’ wrote a captain near Fontenay-le-Pesnel. ‘Amongst the corn one can just see the tops of guns and tanks, the spurts of flame and clouds of dust as they fire ... another gloriously hot day. Dusty, hazy, with gunfire smoke hanging low over the corn like a November fog.’
Once again, Hill 112, the ‘hill of Calvary’, saw the most bitter fighting. The commander of the 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen recorded that, on the evening of 16 July, the British laid such a heavy smokescreen on this high ground that his defending troops felt sick and thought it was a gas attack. British tanks broke through at about 21.00 hours and took sixty of his panzergrenadiers prisoner. But Hohenstaufen Panthers on the reverse slope of the hill counter-attacked and claimed to have knocked out fifteen tanks.
The German 277th Infanterie-Division had just reached the front near Evrecy from Béziers on the Mediterranean coast. A young gunner with the division, Eberhard Beck, travelled with his artillery regiment to the Loire by train, then marched from there by night. Even the draught horses pulling their 150 mm howitzers and limbers had been half asleep. When the column halted, which was often, the horses trudged on, and the soldiers dozing on the back of the gun carriage in front found a horse’s muzzle in their face. The only high point of their journey had been the successful looting of a wine cellar in a château. Beck and his fellow soldiers had no idea what to expect in Normandy.
Closer to the front, they were joined by infantry, carrying Pa
Their battery commander, Oberleutnant Freiherr von Stenglin, directed them to their first fire position west of Evrecy. Almost immediately, shells began to explode. The head of a driver named Pommer was taken off by a piece of shrapnel. Horses reared in terror and a container of hot food brought up from the field kitchen went flying, spilling goulash on the ground. Beck had two preoccupations, one of which was to sleep after the exhaustion of the march. The other was that, like most young soldiers, he did not want to die a virgin.
Fire missions against British tank concentrations round Evrecy were few, because of the shortage of ammunition. Often their battery was rationed to three rounds per day. With time on their hands, Beck and the other gunners played chess or skat when not under fire. Allied air attacks on their supply lines also reduced their rations. Beck was so hungry that he had the ‘hare-brained idea’ of slipping forward to dig up potatoes by the front line. But, like the British troops on the other side, they almost all suffered from dysentery, which had spread from insects feeding off corpses.
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