D day the battle for nor.., p.39
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.39Antony Beevor
‘What do you know about the situation?’ Goebbels asked. Remer recounted what he had been told. Goebbels told him it was not true and put a call through to the Wolfsschanze. A few moments later, Remer found himself talking to Hitler. The voice was unmistakable.
‘Now we have the criminals and saboteurs of the eastern front,’ Hitler saidto him.‘Only afew officersare involvedand wewill eliminate them by the roots. You have been placed in a historic position. It is your responsibility to use your head. You are under my command until Himmler arrives to take over the Replacement Army. Do you understand me?’
Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had also arrived in the office and asked what Hitler had said. Remer told him. Göring said that they should call out the SS. Remer replied that it was an army matter and that they would finish the task. Remer went out to find that a panzer detachment, summoned by the conspirators from the tank training base at Döberitz, had arrived in the Berlinerplatz. He spoke to their officer and took them under his command. Remer lifted the cordon around the Wilhelmstrasse and moved his troops to the Bendlerstrasse. The conspiracy was now doomed in Berlin.
In France, meanwhile, Kluge had returned to La Roche-Guyon around 20.00 hours and immediately called a conference. Blumentritt suspected that Kluge was involved in the plot simply because there had been two anonymous calls for him from the Reich. One of them was from General Beck, who failed to win him over at the last moment. Kluge insisted privately to Blumentritt that he had known nothing about the ‘outrage’. He did, however, admit that the previous year he had been contacted twice by the plotters, but ‘in the end’ he had refused.
At 20.10 hours, Ultra intercept stations picked up a signal from Generalfeldmarschall von Witzleben, ironically marked with the ultimate priority of ‘Führer-Blitz’. It began, ‘The Führer is dead. I have been appointed commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, and also . . .’ At this point the text ceased. Thirty minutes later, Kluge received a signal from the OKW in East Prussia: ‘Today at midday, a despicable assassination attempt against the Führer was committed. The Führer is perfectly well.’ Kluge rapidly ordered Stülpnagel to release all the Gestapo and SS officers who had been arrested in Paris.
Confirmation that Hitler was alive made the waverers run for cover, even though it would not save them from the Gestapo later. News that Himmler had been appointed commander-in-chief of the Replacement Army was received with horror by army officers, who sometimes referred to him as the ‘Unterweltsmarschall’, the marshal of the underworld. An order was issued that the conventional army salute now had to be replaced by the ‘German salute’ of the Nazi Party.
Unaware that Kluge had already ordered Stülpnagel to release his prisoners, Himmler told the chief directorate of the SS to ring Sepp Dietrich. He was ordered to prepare to march on Paris with the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. Himmler seems to have been unaware that the division had just been involved in a major battle and could not possibly abandon the Bourguébus ridge at such a moment. He was also unaware that Hitler’s ‘loyal disciple’, Sepp Dietrich, had in Eberbach’s words, ‘almost turned revolutionary’.48
Back in Berlin, there was chaos in the Bendlerblock. Generaloberst Fromm, in a doomed attempt to save himself from suspicion, ordered the arrest and instant court martial of four of the other officers involved. He allowed Generaloberst Beck to keep his pistol, provided he used it immediately on himself. Presumably because his hand was shaking, Beck shot himself twice in the head. He grazed his scalp the first time, then inflicted a terrible wound with the second shot. An exasperated Fromm ordered a sergeant, some accounts say an officer, to finish him off.
The four, including Stauffenberg, who tried to take all the responsibility for the attempted assassination on himself, were executed in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock by the light of automobile headlights. A detachment of Remer’s men, who had just arrived, provided the firing squad. When it was Stauffenberg’s turn, illuminated by the headlights, he called out, ‘Long live holy Germany!’ Fromm, as desperate as ever to save himself, gave a grotesque speech over their bodies in praise of Hitler and ended with a triple ‘Sieg Heil!’
In France, Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge ordered the arrest of Stülpnagel at 01.25 hours on the morning of 21 July. That afternoon, Stülpnagel was put in a car to be taken back to Berlin for interrogation by the Gestapo. Because of his seniority, his escort had not taken away his pistol. When the car had stopped en route, presumably to give the occupants a chance to relieve themselves, Stülpnagel attempted to commit suicide, but managed only to shoot both his eyes out. He was taken to a hospital in Verdun to be patched up for the journey on to Berlin, where he would be tried and hanged. At 22.15 hours, it was announced that ‘the Military Commander of France, General von Stülpnagel, has been ambushed and wounded by terrorists’.
News of the assassination attempt ‘came like a bomb-shell’, in the words of Generalleutnant Bodo Zimmermann, one of Kluge’s senior staff officers. ‘As in the case of any sudden, unexpected event, a certain paralysis set in at first.’ For most officers the ‘burning question’ was, ‘What are the men at the front saying and doing? Would the front still hold?’ When word of the attempt reached a Kampfgruppe of the 21st Panzer-Division near Troarn,‘its pread like wild-fire down the column’. Yet ‘the front kept on fighting as though nothing had happened’. The ‘high emotional tension of battle’ meant that the news only touched the average soldier ‘on the fringe of his consciousness . . . the combat soldier was in another world’. General Eberbach, on the other hand, later said he was ‘amazed’ at the ‘indignation and anger’ that the attempted putsch had provoked ‘not only among the SS Divisions but also among some of the infantry Divisions’. Most officers were appalled that the plotters could have broken their oath to the Führer.
Eberhard Beck with the 277th Infanterie-Division, recorded what happened when the news reached his artillery battery. ‘Our signaller heard over the radio that an attempt at assassination had been made against Adolf Hitler. His death could have been a turning point for us and we hoped that this pointless war would find its end.’ Their battery commander, Oberleutnant Freiherr von Stenglin, came over and announced that the attempt had failed. Hitler was alive. The order had been given that from now on every soldier must make the ‘German greeting’ (the Nazi salute), instead of the military one. Stenglin made his own sympathies very clear by promptly bringing ‘his hand up to the peak of his cap in the military salute’. Beck recorded that all his comrades were disappointed at the unlucky outcome. A few days later, Allied aircraft came over the German lines dropping propaganda leaflets. These gave details of the bomb plot and also of the Nazis’ new Sippenhaft decree, ordering reprisals against the families of those involved.
The reaction of Stenglin and Beck was far from universal. Most junior officers were shaken and confused, yet preferred not to dwell on the subject. Staff officers like Zimmermann, on the other hand, suffered a ‘feeling of moral oppression and worry’. Some were curiously shocked that Stauffenberg had placed a bomb and then left the scene. An assassination by pistol, during which the assassin had been gunned down, seemed to them more in keeping with the honour of the German officer corps. What depressed them most, however, was that the failed attempt handed all power to the fanatics and eliminated any possibility of a compromise peace.49 ‘Those who were far-seeing,’ wrote Zimmermann, ‘thought this is the beginning of the end, a terrible signal. The die-hards thought: it is good that the treacherous reactionaries have been unmasked and that we can now make a clean sweep of them.’
In London, hopes were raised that the failed bomb plot ‘might well be the proverbial pebble which starts the avalanche’. But Hitler’s belief that providence had saved him made him even more convinced of his military genius, to the despair of his generals. He happened to be right, however, about one thing. He described the idea of a truce with the British and Americans, perhaps even persuading them to join the war against the Soviet Union, as
Conspiracy theories flourished in Nazi circles over the next few months, once the large numbers of officers involved in the plot and their sympathizers became clearer. Altogether some 5,000 were arrested. These theories extended beyond the idea that Speidel had deliberately misdirected the panzer divisions on 6 June. Once Plan Fortitude and the threat of a second landing in the Pas-de-Calais were finally seen to have been a brilliant hoax, the SS became convinced that there had been treason within Fremde Heere West, the military intelligence department dealing with the western Allies. The SS demanded how military intelligence could have swallowed a deception involving a whole army group which never existed. Staff officers were suspected of having inflated Allied strengths deliberately, and accused of the ‘falsification of the enemy situation’.
Tensions between Waffen-SS and the German Army also grew rapidly in the field in Normandy over the coming month. As rations were drastically reduced because of Allied air attacks on supply transport, SS foraging parties looted without compunction and threatened any army soldiers trying to do the same.
The one thing on which army and Waffen-SS seemed to agree in Normandy was their continued exasperation with the Luftwaffe. General Bülowius, the commander of II Air Corps, regarded this as very unfair. Allied air supremacy meant his aircraft were intercepted as soon as they took off, and bombers were forced to drop their loads long before they reached the target area. He suffered from the army’s ‘daily reports which even reached Führer headquarters that their own Luftwaffe and own aircraft were nowhere to be seen’. As a result he received ‘many unpleasant reproaches and accusations’ from the highest quarters.
Luftwaffe aircrew in Normandy consisted of a surviving handful of aces, while the vast majority were cannon fodder straight out of flying school. Major Hans-Ekkehard Bob, a fighter group commander with fifty-nine victories, often found himself being pursued by eight or ten Mustangs. He survived only by using all his flying skills, twisting and turning almost at ground level round small woods and church towers. He claims he was helped greatly by the intense competition between American pilots, each desperate to shoot him down and thus getting in each other’s way.
Since every known airfield was bombed and strafed by the Allied air forces on a regular basis, fighter squadrons deployed to woods close to a stretch of straight road, which they could use as a runway. They had to land and then turn off into the trees, where ground crews would be ready to cover the plane with camouflage nets. For this sort of work, the Focke-Wulf 190, with its wide undercarriage and robust construction, proved much more effective than the Messerschmitt 109.
As Rommel and Kluge had warned, the German forces in Normandy were close to breaking point. They had received only a very small number of men to replace their losses. ‘Alarm units’ of clerks and others known disparagingly as ‘half-soldiers’ were brought forward to fill some of the gaps in the front-line divisions. They were not just losing men to enemy action. The reduced rations due to Allied air attacks prompted desertions, both of Poles, Osttruppen,50 Alsatians and Volksdeutsche, but also of Germans born in the Reich.51
Some were soldiers who did not believe in the Nazi regime or who just hated the war. A British doctor was suspicious at the enthusiastic help of a young German soldier who had surrendered. Sensing this distrust, the boy pulled out a snapshot of his girlfriend and showed it to him. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘I play no tricks. I want to live to see her!’
Generalleutnant von Lüttwitz, the commander of the 2nd PanzerDivision , was shocked when three of his Austrians deserted to the enemy. He warned that the names of any deserters would be published in their home towns so that measures could be taken against their relatives. ‘If somebody betrays his own people,’ he announced, ‘then their family does not belong within the German national community.’ Lüttwitz may have supported the idea of resisting Hitler, but he was still prepared to adopt measures of a Nazi character.
Treatment of SS soldiers was even harsher. According to a Führer decree, SS soldiers could be accused of high treason if they were taken prisoner by the enemy unwounded. They had been forcefully reminded of this just before the invasion. It was hardly surprising that the British and Canadians captured so few SS alive.52 But perhaps the most horrific story of SS discipline came from an Alsatian drafted into the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. A fellow Alsatian in the 11th Company of the 1st SS Regiment of the Leibstandarte, who had also been forcibly recruited, deserted and tried to escape in a column of French refugees. He was spotted by members of their regiment and brought back. Their commander then ordered members of his own company to beat him to death. With every bone in his body broken, the corpse was thrown into a shell-hole. The captain declared that this was an example of ‘Kameradenerziehung’, an ‘education in comradeship’.
Operation Cobra - Breakthrough
On 21 July, the Germans intercepted a radio message summoning American commanders for an orders group. This confirmed their suspicions that the US First Army was preparing a large-scale offensive, but they still did not know where. After the heavy fighting for Saint-Lô, Oberstgruppenführer Hausser expected a thrust south-westwards down the Vire valley from Saint-Lô to Torigni. Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge, on the other hand, was convinced that the main attack in Normandy would again come from the British on the Caen front. In the shadow world of signal intercepts, the Allies enjoyed a vast advantage. General Bradley knew from Ultra that the overstretched German forces were close to collapse. The moment for the breakthrough had at last arrived.
Bradley’s forces had finally reached the long, straight road running from Lessay on the west coast via Périers to Saint-Lô, the line from which Operation Cobra was to be launched. The only problems were in the Lessay sector. On 22 July, the Germans had launched a sudden attack and the hapless American 90th Division, which had continued its downward spiral due to officer casualties, received the brunt of it. ‘One unit surrendered to the enemy,’ the report stated, ‘and most of the rest broke and withdrew in disorder.’ Patton wrote in his diary that ‘a battalion of the 90th Division behaved very shamefully today’, and the divisional commander would have to be relieved.
Operation Cobra was delayed for several days because of the heavy rain which began on 20 July, followed by low cloud which lingered. The downpours had been so intense that the K-Ration boxes which soldiers used to line their foxholes disintegrated into a soggy mess. Like the British and Canadians, they too were tormented by mosquitoes. The delays weighed heavily on many. An officer in the 3rd Armored Division was more philosophical. ‘War is about 90% waiting,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘which is not so bad as long as the reading material holds out.’ But Brigadier General Maurice Rose, who proved to be one of the very finest armoured commanders in the US Army, did not waste the days of bad weather. He used them instead for intensive training of his tank infantry teams.
Bradley needed good visibility. He was determined to smash open the front with heavy bombers, but he wanted to avoid the great mistake made during Goodwood, when the advance had not followed rapidly enough to exploit the shock effect. Bradley flew back to England on 19 July to discuss the bombing plan with the air force commanders. He wanted only light bombs, to avoid deep craters which might slow his armoured forces. The target area for saturation bombing was to be a rectangle along the south side of the Périers-Saint-Lô road.
The air chiefs agreed with Bradley’s requests, but they made it clear that they could not attack following the line of the road.53 They would have to come in from the north over the waiting army, rather as they had at Omaha. They also felt that withdrawing the front-line troops by only half a mile, as Bradley suggested to ensure rapid exploitation, would not provide a sufficient safety margin. The army and the air force haggled over this and settled on 1,200 yards. Meteorological reports indicated that
Air Marshal Leigh-Mallory had flown out to Normandy to observe the operation in person. The skies had not cleared by midday as predicted. Leigh-Mallory then decided that visibility was not good enough. He sent a signal back to England to postpone the attack until the next day, but the bombers were already on their way. An order went out to abort the mission, but most of the troops waiting to attack were not told. Journalists and officers from Allied armies, including the Red Army, had been invited to forward command posts to watch the show. ‘The observers hung around, fidgeted, cracked jokes, and waited,’ an officer with the 4th Infantry Division noted.
Most aircraft received the order in time and turned back. Some dropped their bombs south of the road as planned, but in the lead aircraft of one formation, a bombardier who had trouble with the release mechanism, accidentally dropped his load a mile north of the Périers- Saint-Lô road. The rest of the formation, taking this to be the signal, promptly released theirs as well. The soldiers of the 30th Division right below were not in foxholes. Standing around or sitting on vehicles, they had been watching the bombers overhead. Then they heard that ‘peculiar rustling in the sky’ which signified that large numbers of bombs had been released. They ran in all directions, trying to find cover. Twenty-five men were killed and 131 were wounded. General Bradley was furious. He had convinced himself that the air chiefs would come round to his demand that the attack should be along the line of the road, not perpendicular to the target. A rapid decision had to be made if Cobra was to be launched the following day. The air force commanders insisted that they had to follow the same approach, otherwise there would be a delay. Bradley felt he had no choice but to agree.
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