D day the battle for nor.., p.36
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.36

           Antony Beevor
 

  They soon encountered very young SS panzergrenadiers in camouflage uniforms, ‘outstandingly well-equipped’ in comparison to their own infantry. ‘They were not, however, to be envied,’ he felt. ‘They were ambitious and were splendid soldiers. We all respected them.’ But ‘for us the war had been lost for some time. What counted was to survive.’ That was certainly the opinion of the older soldiers. ‘They were more mature, concerned, fatherly and humane. They did not want any heroics.’ Beck and his comrades sometimes had to go forwards with a two-wheeled handcart to collect the wounded, who told them that, as artillerymen, they were lucky not to be in the front line: ‘Up there it is hell.’ The young gunners, when sheltering in their trenches from a bombardment, also discussed the right sort of Heimatschuss which would be just serious enough to have you sent back to a hospital in Germany. ‘My thoughts,’ wrote Beck, ‘were wound, casualty clearing station, hospital, home, end of the war. I wanted only to get out of this misery.’ But the British bombardment, including naval guns which made craters thirteen feet across and six and a half feet deep, provoked psychological as well as physical wounds. When a senior sergeant was blown up by a shell, a seventeen-year-old signaller next to him went completely to pieces.

  German infantry losses were so great that a division was ground down within three weeks. Rommel’s headquarters noted that on 16 July the 277th Infanterie-Division near Evrecy had lost thirty-three officers and 800 men in the last few days. They were now reinforced by part of the 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen, but even they had lost so many men that they had to reorganize their two panzergrenadier regiments into three weak battalions.

  During the night of 16 July, Ultra intercepted a signal from Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle, the commander-in-chief of the Third Air Fleet. In it he predicted a major attack ‘decisive for the course of the war to take place south-eastwards from Caen about the night of 17-18th’. German air reconnaissance had for once penetrated Allied lines and overflown the Orne bridgehead to photograph preparations. In any case, the British knew that the Germans in the factory district of Colombelles, on the east bank of the Orne, would have observation posts on the top of tall chimneys and could see almost everything in the bridgehead. Yet this clear warning from Ultra that the Germans were well aware of the main British thrust did not make Dempsey re-examine his priorities. Without surprise, their only chance of success was to follow the bombing with a speedy and resolute attack.

  General Eberbach of Panzer Group West did not believe that his forces, with 150 tanks, would manage to hold back the 800 British tanks massing against them. When Hausser’s Seventh Army demanded the transfer of a panzer division from the Caen sector, because it had no reserves left to meet the American attack round Saint-Lô, Eberbach said it was ‘out of the question’. Rommel backed him up.

  On 17 July, Standartenführer Kurt Meyer, the commander of the SS Hitler Jugend Division, received an order to report to Generalfeldmarschall Rommel at the headquarters of Dietrich’s I SS Panzer Corps. Most of the division had been withdrawn to rest and refit near Livarot after its battering in Caen. Rommel asked Meyer for his assessment of the impending British attack. ‘The units will fight and the soldiers will continue to die in their positions,’ Meyer said, ‘but they will not prevent the British tanks from rolling over their bodies and marching on to Paris. The enemy’s overwhelming air supremacy makes tactical manoeuvre virtually impossible. The fighter-bombers even attack individual dispatch riders.’

  Rommel became impassioned on the subject. He vented his exasperation with the OKW, which still refused to listen to his warnings. ‘They don’t believe my reports any more. Something has to happen. The war in the West has to end . . . But what will happen in the East?’ As Rommel took his leave, Sepp Dietrich urged him to avoid the main road on his return to La Roche-Guyon. Rommel apparently waved away the idea with a smile.

  Less than an hour later, Rommel’s open Horch was attacked by two Spitfires on the road near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery. He was thrown from the car and badly injured. A Frenchwoman on her way to buy meat had been forced to duck in panic as the fighters came in. She recounted that the locals found it ironic that the attack should have taken place next to a village with a name so similar to that of his opposing commander. Rommel was taken first to a pharmacy in Livarot and then to a hospital at Bernay. He was out of the war.

  Eberbach, on receiving the news, set off immediately with an army doctor. At 21.30 hours, Speidel rang Panzer Group West to say that Hitler had ordered Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge to take command of Army Group B while continuing as Commander-in-Chief West. When Eberbach returned, a call came through from Kluge’s staff ordering the transfer of a panzer division to the Seventh Army to help stop the American breakthrough at Saint-Lô. Although his side of the conversation is not included in the log, General Eberbach evidently refused. Within a matter of minutes Kluge himself was on the telephone. Eberbach explained ‘that the Panzer Group was facing a major English attack’. He then went on to specify the threat. The only reserve available was the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend, which had just been removed from him. In what was clearly an ill-tempered conversation, Kluge rejected Eberbach’s demands for reinforcements as out of the question. The record then adds that Kluge reminded him of the situation on the eastern front, with the onslaught of the Red Army’s Operation Bagration. But Eberbach refused to be browbeaten. He returned to the charge over the threat facing his sector and the consequences of sending one of his panzer divisions to Saint-Lô.

  That night, the first bombardments began in preparation for Operation Goodwood and also Operation Atlantic. The idea was to cover the sound of tanks moving into position, but it only confirmed what the Germans already knew. Operation Atlantic was the simultaneous Canadian offensive aimed in part at taking Vaucelles, the southern part of Caen and its outskirts. Canadian artillery hit a large fuel and ammunition dump in Vaucelles, causing a huge explosion.

  Of all the offensives in Normandy, Operation Goodwood was the most obvious to the enemy. Attempts to conceal it with deception measures, including ‘pre-recorded wireless traffic’ to simulate an attack towards Caumont, were doomed to failure. Even if the Germans had not known in advance from photo-reconnaissance and their observation posts in Colombelles, the dust clouds in the unusually hot weather indicated the movement of tank formations. The signs by the side of the road warning that ‘Dust Kills’ (because it attracted German artillery fire) seemed no more than an ironic reminder as the military police in their white canvas gaiters and white gauntlets waved the vehicles on.

  Goodwood also represented a failure in military intelligence. Even with RAF Mustangs flying photo-reconnaissance missions, Dempsey’s staff assumed that Eberbach’s defences had a depth of less than three miles.In fact there were five lines going all the way back to the rear of the Bourguébus ridge, over six miles away. And despite the identification of the 16th Luftwaffe Feld-Division, they had no knowledge of the number of 88 mm guns brought forward with Generalleutnant Pickert’s Flak Corps. Cavalry regiments were later to curse the intelligence staff, whom they dubbed the ‘crystal-gazers’.

  The 11th Armoured Division led the way across the Orne bridges into the eastern bridgehead that night. Despite Montgomery’s revision to the plan, Dempsey’s headquarters had done nothing to cool the fever of expectation. ‘We’ll be moving into top gear!’ the commander of a brigade in the 7th Armoured Division told his officers. ‘We are undoubtedly on the eve of a battle much bigger than Alamein,’ wrote a squadron commander of the 13th/18th Hussars in his diary. ‘The crush east of the Orne has to be seen to be believed. There isn’t an orchard or a field empty.’ Memories of the North African victory were perhaps in their minds also because of the great heat, the terrible dust, ‘which we all agree is comparable to the desert’, and the unrelenting swarms of mosquitoes. Soldiers complained that the army-issue insect repellent seemed to attract them even more.

  Officers in the Guards Armoured Divisio
n were very conscious of the fact that they had not fought in North Africa and that this was their first battle. Rex Whistler, the painter and set designer, although fifteen years older than the other troop leaders in the armoured battalion of the Welsh Guards, had been determined to stay with his squadron. And just because they were at war, he saw no reason to stop painting. Back in England, Whistler had commissioned the local village blacksmith to make him a metal container to fix to the outside of his tank turret to take his paints, brushes and some small canvases. But as the senior subaltern, Whistler was made the battalion burial officer. His crew were unhappily superstitious about the twenty wooden crosses they had to carry on the tank.

  Like the poet Keith Douglas, Whistler seems to have foreseen his own death. He told a friend that he did not want to be buried in a large military cemetery, but just where he had fallen. Shortly before their divisional commander, Major General Adair, briefed the officers, he wrote a last letter to his mother from the orchard where they were leaguered. He enclosed ‘a bit of mistletoe from the tree above my bivvy’, the tarpaulin stretched sideways from the tank under which the crew slept. At dusk on 17 July, Francis Portal, a fellow officer, talked to Whistler, while the tank engines were being tested and checked a last time. ‘So we’ll probably meet tomorrow evening,’ Portal said as they parted. ‘I hope so,’ came the wistful answer.

  Every senior commander on the Allied side was praying for Montgomery to make a breakthrough at last. Even his foes in the RAF, including ‘Bomber’ Harris, made no objection to his request for heavy bomber support. The commander of the tactical air force, Air Marshal Coningham, who loathed Montgomery most of all, was desperate for success so as to have room to build the forward airfields. Air Chief Marshal Tedder, who had privately been discussing with Coningham the possibility of Montgomery’s dismissal, wrote to assure the commander-in-chief that all the air forces would be ‘full out to support your far-reaching and decisive plan’.

  At 05.30 hours on 18 July, the first wave of bombers flew in from the north to attack their targets. Over the next two and a half hours, 2,000 heavy and 600 medium bombers of the RAF and the USAAF dropped 7,567 tons of bombs on a frontage of 7,000 yards. It was the largest concentration of air power in support of a ground operation ever known. Warships of the Royal Navy off the coast also contributed a massive bombardment. The waiting tank crews climbed out to watch the spectacular dust clouds thrown up by the seemingly endless explosions. For those watching, it was unthinkable that anyone could survive such an onslaught.

  Germans who endured the man-inflicted earthquake were stunned and deafened. The wounded and those driven mad screamed and screamed. Some, unable to bear the noise, the shock waves and the vibration of the ground, shot themselves. Heavy Tiger tanks were flipped over by the blast or half buried in huge craters. But with the target areas obscured by dust and smoke, the British could not see that the bombing had been far from accurate. And they still had no idea that Eberbach had formed five lines of defence. The most important of them, along the Bourguébus ridge, had to be taken if the Second Army were to advance towards Falaise. But this line received hardly any bombs at all.42

  The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment moved forward to lead the 11th Armoured Division into battle. Ahead lay gently rolling country, mainly large fields full of ripening corn, dotted with hamlets of Norman stone farmhouses surrounded by orchards. The terrain sloped up towards the main objective, the Bourguébus ridge, rapidly dubbed Buggersbus by British soldiers.

  Very soon a major drawback in the plan became apparent. The 51st Highland Division had laid an ill-mapped minefield across its front. General O’Connor decided that they could not lift the whole minefield without alerting the Germans (by then an unnecessary concern) so only a dozen narrow channels had been cleared during the night. This slowed the whole advance, with disastrous consequences.

  There were also huge traffic jams behind while the Guards and 7th Armoured Division waited for 11th Armoured to clear the area so that they could cross the six Bailey bridges over the Orne. As the sun rose higher in the sky, tank crews ate or even stretched out to sleep at the edge of cornfields beside the road. Despite the dust and the petrol fumes, Rex Whistler and some fellow officers in the Welsh Guards passed the time playing piquet. Even when the columns began to move, the scene ahead was ‘like cars crawling back to London from the coast on a summer Sunday, stationary as far as one could see, then shrugging forward’. Air Marshal Coningham, who was with Dempsey next to O’Connor’s headquarters, was beside himself with frustration. The slow progress of the armoured brigades through the minefield meant that the shock effect of the bombing attack was going to waste.

  On the west side of O’Connor’s main thrust, the 3rd Canadian Division was advancing into Vaucelles, the southern part of Caen across the Orne. But heavy resistance halted the Régiment de la Chaudière at 10.30 hours. The Queen’s Own Regiment of Canada swung left round the obstruction to take Giberville, and then the Regina Rifles crossed the Orne in Caen and took Vaucelles. Meanwhile, the Nova Scotia Highlanders went on to take the adjoining suburb of Mondeville. The North Shore Regiment attacked the factory buildings of Colombelles, where weakened infantrymen from the Luftwaffe’s 16th Feld-Division were so shaken by the bombing that they were at first unable to walk. On the left side of the main advance, the British 3rd Infantry Division, supported by an armoured brigade, was advancing on Touffréville and then on towards Troarn.

  For the first two hours of the battle, the attackers saw many encouraging signs. The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment encountered dazed German infantry, rising out of the corn with their hands up to surrender. Their tank crews directed them to the rear. B Squadron of the 11th Hussars came across a German dugout in which the men appeared to be asleep. Their bodies were untouched, but they were in fact dead, killed by shock waves. The 13th/18th Hussars, advancing on the east flank towards Touffréville with the 3rd Infantry Division, machine-gunned trenches until prisoners emerged with their hands up. ‘Prisoners are streaming in past us, most of them paralysed by our bombing effort,’ wrote a major with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion back in the Orne bridgehead. Even the commander-in-chief of Panzer Group West, General Eberbach, wrote that ‘a breakthrough appeared unavoidable’.

  Most of the 16th Feld-Division had been smashed by the bombing and was ‘completely overrun’. The 21st Panzer-Division, reinforced by the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion with Tiger tanks, was the worst hit of the German armoured formations. ‘Some tanks had received direct hits, others had turned over or had fallen into bomb craters. The tank turrets had been immobilised by the dirt which had been whirled up, the gunsights and radios had been incapacitated.’ The 21st Panzer soon received orders from Eberbach to take part in a counter-attack with the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, but that was later postponed twice because of the state it was in. German artillery observers could still see little due to the dust and smoke and so their heavy batteries behind the Bourguébus ridge remained silent. ‘At 10.00 hours,’ wrote Eberbach, ‘came the terrible news that the enemy had broken through to a depth of ten kilometres.’

  The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment soon found, however, that Goodwood was not going to be ‘a day at the races’. As they headed for Le Mesnil-Frémentel, a tiny hamlet of stone farmhouses near Cagny, they came under fire from German anti-tank guns. ‘Suddenly a Sherman on my left rolled to a halt belching smoke,’ wrote the squadron leader at the front. All the guns traversed on to the point where the shell had come from. They knocked out the German guns, but then they came under fire from another quarter. More Shermans were hit and the corn around them began to blaze.

  The leading squadron of the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry on their left was hit by devastating fire from Cagny. This was where a battery of 88 mm guns from the 16th Feld-Division had escaped the bombing, along with two 105 mm assault guns. The squadron was almost entirely annihilated within minutes.

  The 3rd Tanks received orders to bypass Le Mesnil and head s
outh-west for Grentheville. Another major flaw in Dempsey’s plan was becoming apparent. O’Connor had wanted to send in infantry with the armoured regiments to clear the defended villages and hamlets, but because of the constrictions caused by the minefield, Dempsey told him to hold back the infantry. For the tank crews, all the talk of breaking out into ‘good tank country’ now sounded like a sick joke. The range and accuracy of the German 88s meant that they were at even more of a disadvantage than they had been when attacking in the bocage.

  There were anti-tank positions all round Grentheville and concealed assault guns. The 3rd Tanks had no option but to charge them like cavalry, and several tanks were set on fire. Burning crewmen rolled in agony on the ground, attempting to put out the flames. The regiment’s losses were so heavy that they had to pull back and call in fire support from the 13th Royal Horse Artillery. The 11th Armoured Division had suffered an unexpected blow early in the battle when their RAF liaison officer was hit. They could not call in the Typhoons circling above, ready to attack a target when requested.

  The Guards Armoured Division had meanwhile followed on to the rolling plain. Its officers, conscious of the fact that they were new to battle, tried to display an unnecessarily dangerous insouciance, such as not ducking inside the turret when under fire. The 2nd Armoured Battalion of the Grenadiers headed for Cagny, where the Fife and Forfar had received such a battering. They too lost nine Shermans to the 88s. This setback unaccountably held up the advance of the Guards Armoured, which should have pushed on to Vimont and not waited for their infantry to come up. General Eberbach could not believe his luck. With slight exaggeration, he wrote, ‘What happened was incomprehensible to an armoured soldier: the enemy tanks remained stationary during the decisive hours of 10.00 to 15.00!’

 

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