D day the battle for nor.., p.37
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.37

           Antony Beevor
 

  On the right flank, Rex Whistler’s squadron in their Cromwells were given the task of supporting the Canadian infantry moving into Giberville, two miles from the start-line. Whistler’s troop circled Giberville on the east side to cut off any retreat. The village seemed deserted. One of his Cromwells ground to a halt, its sprocket entangled with wire. Whistler dismounted and went over with pliers to help free it. He should never have left his own tank. They came under fire. Whistler ran to his troop sergeant’s tank to give him instructions to attack the village. But instead of staying in the lee of the sergeant’s Cromwell as it moved forward, he ran back across open ground to his own tank. A mortar bomb exploded near his feet, hurling him into the air and breaking his neck. Having been appointed battalion burial officer, Whistler was their first casualty.

  German anti-tank guns, not tanks, were mainly responsible for what was later called the ‘death ride’ of the British armoured divisions. The lack of infantry with the leading regiments had proved disastrous. Cagny was not taken until 16.00 hours, when the motorized 1st Battalion of the Grenadiers went in on foot. The 88s and the assault guns had no infantry protection and the Grenadiers overcame them rapidly.

  At midday, General Eberbach had ordered a counter-attack with the remaining tanks of the 21st Panzer-Division and those of the 1st SS Panzer-Division, which had been held in reserve well behind the Bourguébus ridge. They were ordered to Hubert-Folie to concentrate against the approaching spearhead of the 11th Armoured Division. But the 21st Panzer, which had only five Tiger tanks and eight Mark IVs serviceable after the bombing, was still unable to move two hours later. The Leibstandarte panzer group set off on its own.

  At 13.05 hours, Eberbach also demanded the remnants of the 12th SS Panzer-Division, which had been withdrawn on Hitler’s personal order to recover near Lisieux. On the grounds that he had ‘no more reserves’, Eberbach’s request was passed upwards from Army Group B at La Roche-Guyon to OB West in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and then to the OKW, now at Hitler’s Wolfsschanze headquarters in East Prussia. Just over two hours later, agreement was given.

  The 1st SS Panzer-Division, now organized in three battlegroups, reached the area of Soliers, near the west end of the Bourguébus ridge, around 15.00 hours. They were in position by the time the 3rd Tanks and the rest of the 29th Armoured Brigade - the Fife and Forfar and the 23rd Hussars - pushed on to the hamlet of Ifs-Bras. There the 3rd Tanks came up against the Leibstandarte Panther tanks, which only the Firefly Shermans could hope to take on. The other Shermans concentrated on the anti-tank guns. Meanwhile, the Northamptonshire Yeomanry in their Cromwells swung round to the west to attack from the flank, but lost a dozen tanks in the process. The squadron leader with the 3rd Tanks escaped from a knocked-out Sherman for the second time that day and transferred to a third one. It took courage to get back into a tank after having just been ‘brewed up’.

  The 11th Armoured Division should have been supported by the 7th Armoured Division, but the traffic jams and delays caused by the minefield on the start-line meant that the Desert Rats played almost no part. O’Connor, well aware that the whole offensive had faltered, asked for a renewed bombing of the Bourguébus ridge, but this was refused. Yet even after the Leibstandarte entered the battle, Montgomery, with catastrophic bad timing, claimed success.

  At 16.00 hours he signalled Field Marshal Brooke, ‘Operations this morning a complete success. The effect of the bombing was decisive and the spectacle terrific . . . situation very promising and it is difficult to see what the enemy can do just at present. Few enemy tanks met so far and no (repeat) no mines.’ He then went on to claim quite erroneously that the 11th Armoured had reached Tilly-la-Campagne, and that the Guards Armoured had taken Vimont. It was one thing to have misled Brooke, but he also issued a similar communiqué to the BBC and gave a press conference. According to one of Montgomery’s own brigadiers, he talked to the assembled journalists ‘like children’. This was to produce a bitter backlash.

  The British had lost nearly 200 tanks that day. Fortunately, they had nearly 500 replacements in reserve. Many of these were brought forward to the Orne bridgehead during the night. The 29th Armoured Brigade - the 3rd Tanks, Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and the 23rd Hussars - recieved top priority having lost so many armoured vehicles. Although the British losses in tanks had been horrific, most crews escaped comparatively unharmed. They were assembled back in the Orne bridgehead to be reassigned to new tanks. But, in a terrible irony, the Luftwaffe finally made a daring raid and many who had survived that day were now killed or wounded.

  German tank recovery teams, meanwhile, towed their damaged panzers back to workshops concealed in the Fôret de Cinglais. Knowing how few replacements they could expect, they worked with dedication and ingenuity, making as many vehicles serviceable as possible. ‘We were fighting a poor man’s war,’ wrote Eberbach.

  On the eastern flank, the British 3rd Infantry Division had been held up at Touffréville by a fiercer defence than they had expected because the bombers had missed the target. Yet part of the division pushed on through the southern edge of the Bois de Bavent to reach the edge of Troarn by nightfall. The German 346th Infanterie-Division had been so battered in the fighting that day that General Eberbach became deeply concerned. He was even more worried by the gap between Troarn and Emiéville, which, luckily for him, the British had not spotted: ‘The enemy needed only to march in that direction, then there would have been a breakthrough. This was a bad moment for us.’

  At 17.45 hours, he directed the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend to fill the gap in the line. But just fifteen minutes later, Eberbach heard that the Hitler Jugend had been attacked on their way by Allied fighter-bombers and lost ten tanks. Once darkness fell, according to Eberbach, ‘the British continued to stay immobile, as if a miracle had happened’. The Hitler Jugend filled the gap and Eberbach had a continuous line again, albeit very thinly held.

  On the following day, 19 July, the British divisions made more attacks, but none were in great strength. Rain began to fall and the sky was overcast, so there were no Typhoons overhead. A few more hamlets were taken, but most of the Bourguébus ridge remained in German hands. The 88 mm batteries positioned there continued to knock out tanks effortlessly. The Germans were bringing in rear troops to replace casualties and fresh divisions to reinforce the line. The 2nd Panzer-Division opposite the boundary between the British and American armies was brought eastwards to strengthen Panzer Group West’s left flank and the 116th Panzer-Division began to move from Amiens. The only major benefit from Operation Goodwood was that Eberbach and Kluge became even more convinced that the major attack in Normandy would still come on the British front and head for Paris. This was confirmed by Ultra intercepts a few days later.

  Field Marshal Brooke flew to France at midday, partly to sort out a ridiculous row with Churchill, who believed that Monty was trying to stop him visiting France. When he saw Montgomery after lunch, he ‘found him in grand form and delighted with his success east of Caen’. Perhaps Montgomery was simply putting on a brave front. The gulf between the claims made before the operation began and the reality of the situation revealed after his press conference was becoming a major embarrassment.

  On the eve of battle, war correspondents had been told of a ‘Russian style’ breakthrough, which might take the Second Army forward by 100 miles or more. Several of the journalists present pointed out that that meant all the way to Paris. When two days later the same colonel had to admit that the offensive had come to a halt, he faced tumultuous heckling.He triedtoexplainthat Tiger and Panther tankshadappeared, and that General Montgomery had received a formal order from above not to risk a failure. This statement was openly disbelieved.

  The next day Brigadier Alfred Neville from 21st Army Group was brought in to soothe the furious journalists. He tried to put a positive gloss on what had been achieved. The Second Army had taken the southern part of Caen and now controlled an important communications network. But then he claimed
that the objective had not been to break through the German positions, but simply to penetrate them. Journalists threw back at him what they had been told before the offensive. Next day, Dempsey’s chief of staff made another attempt to explain away the situation using impenetrable military jargon. An American correspondent caused roars of laughter by demanding a translation.

  The heat became oppressive on the morning of 20 July and then the rains came again. Under an almighty downpour, the dust turned to sludge and slit trenches filled with water. Tracks were eighteen inches deep in mud. The conditions were so terrible that they provided an excuse to call off Goodwood officially.

  For the troops who had taken part, the situation was a bitter disappointment after all the promises. An infantry officer with the 7th Armoured Division was bivouacked with his battalion near Démouville in ‘a field strewn with German dead’. ‘Countless flies swarmed over the corpses. Maggots seethed in open gash wounds. It was revolting, yet I could not take my eyes off a lad who could not have been much more than sixteen years of age; only fluff on his chin. His dead eyes seemingly stared into infinity, his teeth bared in the agony of death. He would not have hesitated to kill me, yet I was saddened.’

  For some the strain had been too great. The squadron leader with the 3rd Tanks recorded that three senior sergeants asked to be relieved from tank duties. ‘There comes a time when the bank of courage runs out,’ he observed. Tank crews in other formations were also shaken by the losses inflicted on 11th Armoured Division. ‘Either it was just gross bad handling on the part of senior commanders,’ Major Julius Neave in the 13th/18th Hussars wrote in his diary, ‘or else very bad “crystal gazing”. They may have thought there was only a thin crust and once through it they could bum on. However, I feel it is monstrous that a division trained for three years - very highly - should lose two thirds of its tanks in its second battle.’

  Their only consolation during the deluge of rain was to stay relatively dry inside their tank or under a bivvy alongside it. ‘Thank God I am not an infanteer who has to choose between keeping “dry” aboveground or dodging the mortars by jumping into a trench with three foot of water in it,’ noted Major Neave.

  The 3rd Infantry Division’s field ambulance was established in Escoville, next to the troublesome minefield. ‘It rained and there were mosquitoes, and you’d wake up in the morning with your face all puffy,’ wrote a medic with them. ‘It was here that we had a tremendous number of [combat] exhaustion cases. Some of our own men went down with it which was rather disturbing. Then at this point it seemed as though there was a jinx because casualties would arrive in quite good shape and then for no reason whatever they would begin to fail and flicker. And more died under our hand there than in any other place.’

  The British and Canadians had suffered 5,537 casualties during the brief operation. This took their losses in Normandy to a total of 52,165. Goodwood had failed for a combination of reasons. There had been a lack of clarity in the thinking behind the operation and a lack of frankness in the briefing. While Dempsey still dreamed of a breakthrough, Montgomery had put pressure on O’Connor to be cautious. But a half-hearted charge was almost bound to lose more tanks than an all-out attack. O’Connor’s biggest mistake was not to have accepted that they could never have hoped to hide the operation from the Germans. They should have cleared the whole minefield. Only then, with a greatly accelerated advance, could they have fully exploited the shock effect of the heavy bombers.

  The bombing itself, in spite of its intensity, was also far less effective than had been imagined. Army officers complained to the RAF afterwards that more bombs should have been dropped on the Bourguébus ridge and fewer on the nearer targets, but this failure in priorities was largely the responsibility of the army intelligence staff. The RAF,on the otherhand, wasincandescentwith rage.Tedder,Harris and Coningham felt that they had been badly misled by Montgomery. He had promised a dramatic breakthrough to secure the support of their heavy-bomber squadrons, yet secretly he was considering only a very limited offensive. The row continued long after the war was over. ‘General Montgomery was reminded,’ their version went, ‘that the Air Forces were relying on the early capture of terrain beyond Caen, but after a few days he appeared to be accepting the situation with something like complacency.’

  Liddell Hart, however, feared that the problem was more fundamental. He believed that there had been ‘a national decline in boldness and initiative’.War-weariness had encouraged an attitude of ‘let the machine win the battle’. The British were stubborn in defence, as the Germans acknowledged in their reports. But there was what Liddell Hart termed ‘a growing reluctance to make sacrifices in attack’. ‘When one goes deeply into the Normandy operations, it is disturbing and depressing to find how poor was the performance of the attacking force in many cases. Time after time they were checked or even induced to withdraw by boldly handled packets of Germans of greatly inferior strength. But for our air superiority, which hampered the Germans at every turn, the results would have been much worse. Our forces seem to have had too little initiative in infiltration, and also too little determination - with certain exceptions . . . Backing up was very poor and very slow.’

  Although Liddell Hart’s harsh criticisms contained important truths, they also revealed a lack of imagination. To put it mildly, it was dispiriting for tank crews to attack batteries of the dreaded 88 mm guns, knowing full well that they could be picked off long before their own inferior tanks could engage them. And once again, we should never forget that the essentially civilian soldiers of a democracy could not be expected to show the same level of self-sacrifice as indoctrinated members of the Waffen-SS, convinced that they were defending their country from annihilation.

  In the main base hospital near Bayeux, Colonel Ian Fraser recounted how he used to make his rounds of the wounded German prisoners. They all smiled back when he greeted them. Then one morning they all turned their backs on him. The chief nursing sister told him that a wounded SS soldier had been brought in and they were now afraid of showing any friendliness to their enemy. Fraser examined this SS soldier, who was in such a serious condition that he needed a blood transfusion. ‘But once the needle was in, the passionate young Nazi suddenly demanded: “Is this English blood?” When told that it was, he pulled it out, announcing: “I die for Hitler.” Which is what in fact he did.’ Fraser noted that the other German prisoners soon became friendly again.

  Badly wounded prisoners from the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend behaved in a similar way. Churchill’s aide, Jock Colville, serving as a Mustang photo-reconnaissance pilot, heard from a young British nurse about her experiences. ‘One boy of about sixteen had torn off the bandage with which she had dressed his serious wound, shouting that he only wanted to die for the Führer. Another had flung in her face the food she had brought him. She had quelled a third by threatening to arrange for him to have a transfusion of Jewish blood.’ One could hardly imagine a British or Canadian prisoner of war wanting to die for Churchill or King George VI. Their loyalty in battle was much more parochial. They did not want to let their comrades down.

  Whatever the serious flaws in Goodwood and Montgomery’s false claims at the time and later, there can be no doubt that the British and Canadians had kept the panzer divisions tied down at the crucial moment. The Canadians renewed the attack on 25 July to coincide with Operation Cobra, Bradley’s great offensive in the west. This again convinced the Germans that the major Allied attack towards Paris was coming down the Falaise road. A breakthrough here was their greatest fear, because it would cut off the whole of the Seventh Army facing the Americans. Kluge and his commanders did not recognize the true point of danger until itwas too late. So the ‘death ride’of the British armoured divisions was not entirely in vain.

  The Germans also were shaken by news of the assassination attempt on Hitler at the Wolfsschanze near Rastenburg on 20 July. In fact the threat of an Allied breakthrough in Normandy and Hitler’s refusal to face reality
had played a large part in the course of the plot.

  20

  The Plot against Hitler

  There is a Nazi conspiracy theory to explain their defeat in Normandy, which begins with D-Day itself. Hitler loyalists still accuse Rommel’s chief of staff, Generalleutnant Hans Speidel, of diverting panzer divisions from counter-attacking the British. This first ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend of 1944 pretends that Hitler had been awake early on 6 June,and that any delays in deploying the panzer divisions were not his fault. He was certain that Normandy was the site of the invasion from the first moment. But then Speidel, acting in Rommel’s absence, managed all by himself to sabotage the German response. This preposterous version, which attempts to switch the blame from Hitler to ‘treacherous’ officers of the German general staff, is riddled with countless holes and contradictions.

  There was indeed a long-standing conspiracy against Hitler within the army, but nothing was ready by 6 June. So to suggest that Speidel was trying to misdirect the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend and hold back the 2nd and 116th Panzer-Divisions ready for a coup d’état in France at that moment is sheer fantasy. Speidel was, however, a key figure in the plot which produced the unsuccessful bomb explosion in East Prussia over six weeks later.

  There was another level of opposition to Hitler, which did not believe in killing the dictator. This centred on Rommel himself, who wanted to force Hitler to make peace with the western Allies.43 If he refused, then they would bring him to trial. But the tyrannicides grouped round Generalmajor Henning von Tresckow and Colonel Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg rejected that course as doomed to failure. The SS and the Nazi Party would resist all the way. It would risk a civil war. Only the sudden decapitation of the Nazi regime in a coup d’état would allow them to form an administration which they hoped, with deeply misplaced optimism, that the western Allies might recognize.

 
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