D day the battle for nor.., p.40
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.40

           Antony Beevor

  An even larger number of observers gathered at Collins’s VII Corps headquarters to watch ‘the big show’. Journalists jostled impatiently as they waited. The Soviet war correspondent Colonel Kraminov, who had a spiteful word for almost everyone, described Ernest Hemingway, looking over everyone’s head. ‘The flamboyant, red-headed Knickerbocker, ’ he added, ‘was recounting anecdotes as tedious as his numerous and superficial pieces.’ After General Bradley briefed the correspondents, staff officers went further: ‘This is no limited objective drive. This is it. This is the big breakthrough.’ There was no mention of the casualties from their own bombs.

  A Soviet military mission from London was also visiting the First US Army at this time. General Hodges arrived at Gerow’s V Corps with a group of Soviet officers in red striped trousers and gold shoulder-boards. The Red Army officers were interested in all that they saw and asked about the enemy soldiers captured. They ‘stiffened perceptibly’, however, when one of Gerow’s staff replied, ‘They weren’t very good; they were Poles and Russians.’ It was probably not so much the slight against their martial qualities which upset them, but this reminder of the fact that around a million former Red Army soldiers served in Wehrmacht uniform under varying degrees of duress.54

  Lieutenant General Leslie J. McNair, the commander of ground forces, was another observer. His visit to the front had been kept highly secret, because he was to take over from Patton as the commander-in-chief of the fictitious 1st US Army Group, threatening the Pas-de-Calais. 55 McNair was at the headquarters of the 30th Division, then decided to go forward to the 120th Infantry Regiment to watch the bombing from the front line.

  A sinister omen took place just before the attack. The Germans suddenly fired one of their short, sharp artillery salvoes. Two American soldiers in the 30th Division, who ran from different directions to leap into the same foxhole, bayoneted each other. An aid man rushed to help them and bandaged their wounds. Shortly afterwards, General McNair, who had heard of this freak accident, sought out the aid man to question him about the story. But this misfortune was about to be repeated on a far larger scale.

  On that morning of 25 July, with H-Hour now set for 11.00 hours, the bombing process was repeated. The first fighter-bombers screamed in at 09.40 hours, right on time. Over the next twenty minutes waves consisting of a squadron at a time hit their targets between the front line and the Saint-Lô-Périers road with great accuracy. The soldiers sitting and standing on their vehicles waved and cheered. Then, even before the sound of the Thunderbolts’ engines had died away, the steady roar of heavy bombers could be heard coming from behind, as more than a thousand B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators approached in formation.

  Nobody seemed to have imagined that things could go wrong a second time. General McNair had left his command car behind a tank and went forward on foot to see better. There was a breeze blowing from the south, whose effect had not been taken into account. The first bombs were dropped on target, but the wind blew the smoke and dust north across the Périers-Saint-Lô road, so subsequent waves began to drop their loads short. The forward companies, realizing the danger, threw orange smoke grenades as a warning, but the quantity of drifting smoke and dirt covered them. There was no radio link between the ground and heavy bombers.

  Tank crews jumped back into their vehicles and closed the hatches, but the infantry and General McNair were left in the open. In the forward infantry regiments a total of 101 men were killed and 463 wounded. One of the medics who went to help was astonished to find that ‘the faces of the dead were still pink’. This was presumably because they had been killed by blast rather than by shrapnel penetration.

  McNair was one of those killed. His body was taken back to a field hospital and all the personnel there sworn to secrecy. Apart from the casualties, the effect on the men about to attack was devastating. A lieutenant recorded how his men were buried in their foxholes: ‘Many of them only got an arm or leg up through the dirt and had to be dug out.’ The 4th Infantry Division reported that ‘all men and officers who were under the bombing testify to the terrific shock effect. A great number of the men were in a daze for a while, just staring blankly and unable to understand when spoken to.’ In the 30th Division, 164 men were evacuated suffering from combat exhaustion as a result.

  Companies hit by the bombing expected H-Hour to be postponed after what had happened, but Bradley insisted that the operation should start immediately. This was optimistic in the circumstances. Apart from the shock, the tanks due to accompany the advancing infantry had pulled back during the bombing and lost contact with them.

  The Germans, who had received the full force of the bombing, were in a far worse state. Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division and the 275th Infanterie-Division were at the centre of the storm. Panzer Lehr had been hit hard the day before, even by the limited bombing, and the German artillery had used up a large proportion of their reduced supply of ammunition, assuming it was the main attack. Bayerlein had pulled back the bulk of his forces, which placed them right in the target area for 25 July. Some German commanders even believed that they had managed to repel the aborted attack the day before, so the postponement by a day had in fact confused the Germans and not revealed the American plan. Kluge thought that the bombing on 24 July might have been a diversion to conceal a major British offensive. He immediately visited the front of Panzer Group West and discussed the situation with General Eberbach.

  His suspicions seemed to have been confirmed, because Montgomery, with perfect timing, launched Operation Spring the following dawn, just four hours before Cobra began in earnest. This was the attempt by II Canadian Corps to seize the Verrières ridge beside the Caen-Falaise road. Although the offensive failed dismally, the result could hardly have been better. Kluge became even more certain that Falaise was the key Allied objective. As a result, he did not agree to the transfer of two panzer divisions from the British to the American sector until over twenty-four hours after the launch of Cobra and they did not reach the front in strength for another two days.56 Goodwood and Spring had thus achieved Montgomery’s principal objective, even though they both failed to make a breakthrough.57

  The full bombing on 25 July had a devastating effect on both German soldiers and vehicles. ‘The whole place looked like a moon landscape; everything was burned and blasted,’ wrote Bayerlein. ‘It was impossible to bring up vehicles or recover the ones that were damaged. The survivors were like madmen and could not be used for anything. I don’t believe hell could be as bad as what we experienced.’ Bayerlein, who was prone to exaggeration, initially claimed that Panzer Lehr had lost thirty-five tanks, fifteen assault guns and 2,000 men. He later revised this to twenty-five tanks, ten assault guns and just under 1,000 men. A paratroop regiment in his sector was also annihilated. In any case, the shock effect cannot be doubted. An American doctor noted in his diary that ‘many of [the prisoners taken] were actually babbling, knocked silly’.

  An American infantry officer, advancing through the target area, observed, ‘At the end of this great bombing action the earth was as if it had been plowed. Within an area of many square miles, scarcely a human being or an animal was alive and all kinds of trucks, guns and machines of every type were in twisted disorder over the deeply-scarred soil.’ In some cases, Panther tanks had been flipped over on to their backs like turtles. Several days after the breakthrough, Patton flew over the Cobra sector at 300 feet in a spotter plane. Even at that altitude, he found the stench of dead cows overpowering.

  Not all resistance had been eliminated, however. The 4th Infantry Division advanced while still waiting for their tanks to come up. After the first 700 yards, they came up against German positions, supported by tanks concealed in a sunken track between hedgerows. Bazooka teams knocked out the tanks, which may have been disabled already, and they shot up a group of Germans that came along the hedgerow just in front of them. ‘The rest huddled in a corner of the hedgerow and yelled “Kamerad!”. One of the squad leaders steppe
d forward and motioned for them to come over. As he did so he was shot. The other squad leader stepped forward but they got him with a grenade. We could not see what part of the enemy position this fire was coming from and we couldn’t risk anyone else so we shot down the Germans who wanted to surrender.’

  The 4th Infantry Division did not manage to advance more than about a mile and a half. ‘The result for the first day hardly constituted a real breakthrough,’ its headquarters acknowledged. The 9th Division on their right and the 30th Division on their left did not achieve much more. A general feeling arose that the results of the bombing had been deeply disappointing. But both commanders and troops were being over-cautious, partly as a result of the weeks of bocage fighting. Their corps commander, General Collins, then made a bold decision. He decidedon 26 July to throw in the armoured divisions ahead of schedule.

  That day, the Germans sent their last remaining reserves towards La Chapelle-en-Juger, but they were hit by fighter-bomber attacks. Soon it became clear that the sector between the 4th and 9th Divisions lay virtually open. Choltitz and Hausser did not comprehend the full extent of the danger, mainly because the bombing had destroyed so many landlines.

  In the centre, the 4th Infantry Division now advanced well. ‘The effectiveness of the bombardment was still evident,’ the division reported. ‘Even though it was a day later many of the Germans still looked very shaky. A good many prisoners were taken and they looked beaten to a frazzle.’ In one case, three Panther tanks were surrounded by infantry and their crews surrendered. One platoon was amused to discover in a tank abandoned by the Panzer Lehr ‘quite a collection of women’s clothes including silk stockings and step-ins’. The 30th Division on the east flank, having recovered remarkably well from the accidental bombing, faced hard fighting round Hébécrevon just north-west of Saint-Lô. But then German resistance began to collapse rapidly.

  On that morning of 26 July, Collins had ordered the 1st Division with a combat command of the 3rd Armored Division to break through on the right. Meanwhile Brigadier General Rose’s combat command of the 2nd Armored Division was to attack on the left, first with the 30th Division, then pushing on alone due south towards Saint-Gilles. Rose’s intensive training beforehand to ‘marry up’ infantry and armour in combined tactics paid off. He had the 22nd Infantry from the 4th Division riding the tanks, eight men to a Sherman and four to a light tank. Their third battalion followed behind in trucks. Roads cratered by bombing and shelling held them up at times, and whenever they encountered resistance, the infantry dismounted. They would creep forward to locate any panzers, a task made easier by the German practice of keeping their engines running. The infantry would then indicate their position to their own tanks, which proceeded to engage them. Rose, well aware that the main problem would be resupply, had ordered extra rations, grenades and bandoliers of rifle ammunition for the infantry to be loaded on to the tanks.

  The 2nd Armored Division, proudly known as ‘Hell on Wheels’, had been shaped by General Patton himself. It prided itself as a hard-drinking, hard-fighting formation. These ‘tankers’ were patronizing towards the infantry, whom they called the ‘doughs’, and the Patton spirit of recklessness was also reflected in their taste for gambling. One officer acknowledged that they went in for ‘a lot of looting’. Tank troops in all armies tend to be the worst looters, if only because they are there first with the infantry, but have better opportunities to stow their booty. Another officer observed, however, that few of their men ran out of control in battle. ‘The number of kill-lusty people is fortunately, very small,’ he wrote. ‘They are treacherous, unskillful and dangerous to have around.’ In any case, the professionalism and the gung-ho attitude of the 2nd Armored were exactly what was needed in exploiting the opportunity provided by Operation Cobra.

  Slowed by hedgerows and craters, the tanks with infantry mounted averaged only a mile an hour, but it was still an incomparably faster advance than those made during the previous periods of bocage fighting. The 22nd Infantry Regiment dismounted to clear the small town of Saint-Gilles, on the Coutances-Saint-Lô road. As the tanks moved on south out of the town, they passed ‘Private De Castro, lying by the roadside badly wounded. His right foot had been nearly cut off above the ankle, and was just hanging by the tendon. He had a terrible gash on his right shoulder. As we passed, he tried to raise up a little, waved his good left arm, and said “Go get ’em, boys!”.’

  Once Rose’s armoured column was out of the bombed area and past Saint-Gilles, the rate of advance increased, even though night had fallen. Rose saw no reason to halt during the hours of darkness. His armour bypassed German positions. Some German vehicles, thinking that the column must be one of their own units retreating, joined it and were promptly captured. On the road south to Canisy, Rose’s Shermans blasted German half-tracks which had nothing heavier than a machine gun for defence.

  Canisy was in flames, having been bombed by P-47 Thunderbolts. The armoured column took time to get through the rubble. In the local château, they found a German field hospital, where they captured wounded soldiers, doctors and nurses. Rose did not want to waste time. He pushed his men on towards Le Mesnil-Herman, over seven miles south of Saint-Lô.

  On the right flank, the 1st Infantry Division and combat command A ofthe 3rd Armored Division, under Brigadier General Doyle O.Hickey, attacked south. They spotted an assault gun and a Mark IV tank at Montreuil-sur-Lozon. They radioed a squadron of P-47 Thunderbolts, which came in low and destroyed the assault gun. The crew of the tank leaped out and ran away.

  Each combat command had an air support party riding in tanks provided on Bradley’s orders for air force liaison officers. An exceptionally effective working relationship had been established with Lieutenant General Elwood R. Quesada, the chief of IX Tactical Air Command. The forty-year-old ‘Pete’ Quesada, unlike most airmen, had a real enthusiasm for the ground-attack role. This was to provide the basis for ‘armored column cover’, in which fighter-bomber squadrons, working in relays, were constantly on hand to provide support, like the cab-rank system of Typhoons operating with the British Second Army. That day, Quesada’s fighter-bombers were out in force. One German commander complained bitterly that they were ‘overhead like hawks watching for any movement on the ground then swooping into the attack’.

  Hickey’s combat command and the 1st Division pushed on south to Marigny, nearly four miles beyond the Périers-Saint-Lô road. At 13.00 hours on 26 July, a Piper Cub pilot reported ‘friendly tanks’ in Marigny. But the town did not fall immediately. Roads were blocked with rubble and the walls of burning houses collapsed. The Americans took nearly 200 German prisoners, many of them replacements who had just arrived from training battalions. ‘An old soldier,’ remarked Leutnant Schneider, who was taken with them, ‘is one who has been in this sector since Sunday.’ By nightfall, Marigny was completely secured. American casualties had been verylight.One battalion reported only a dozen wounded for the whole day.

  Fortunately for American tank units, the Germans had begun to run out of 88 mm shells, as an Ultra intercept early on 26 July revealed. Another Ultra intercept that day showed that the Germans still believed that the main thrust would come from the Caen front and not in the west down the Atlantic coast. Choltitz, rather closer to the crisis, began to pull back his forces between Périers and the coast. Only a light screen was left behind, but it could do little as the American 6th Armored Division entered Lessay. ‘We were riding along with people waving and throwing flowers at us,’ reported a tank platoon commander, when the Germans opened up with machine guns and machine pistols. The 6th Armored pushed on through down the coast road, leaving the infantry to clean up behind them.

  General Patton, waiting impatiently for his Third Army to become operational, received a call from Bradley, asking him to come to dinner wearing ‘good clothes’. Patton was slightly taken aback. ‘I always do,’ commented the stickler for turnout. In fact, Bradley had not wanted to tell him the true reason for the summons
over the telephone. They were to bury General McNair in total secrecy.

  The decisive American breakthrough had a marked effect on German morale. Soldiers began speaking among themselves in a way they would not have dared before. A senior medical Unteroffizier called Klein described the night of 26 July, when they were told to abandon their dressing station south of Saint-Lô with seventy-eight severely wounded men, and fall back towards Vire. He recorded the conversation of the walking wounded.

  A corporal with the German Cross in Gold for having destroyed five tanks on the eastern front said to him, ‘I tell you one thing, Sani, this is no longer a war here in Normandy. The enemy is superior in men and materiel. We are simply being sent to our deaths with insufficient weapons. Our Highest Command [Hitler and the OKW] doesn’t do anything to help us. No airplanes, not enough ammunition for the artillery . . . Well, for me the war is over.’

  An infantryman wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel said, ‘This piece of iron which hit me, should have hit the Führer’s head on 20 July, and the war would be over already.’ Another soldier who helped Klein carry the wounded said, ‘I am beyond caring. Two of my brothers were sacrificed in Stalingrad and it was quite useless. And here we have the same.’ Younger casualties asked ‘whether their wound was sufficient’. They wanted to know if they were to be sent home or simply transferred to the main dressing station. The lightly wounded, such as those who had lost a finger or been shot through the leg without breaking a bone, were sent back to the front within five days.

  At noon on 27 July, Bradley issued new orders. Cobra was going so well that he wanted a full-out advance to Avranches, the gateway to Brittany. The commander of British airborne forces, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning, had tried to sell Bradley the idea of a paratroop drop on Avranches in the German rear. But Bradley rejected the idea. An air drop would greatly reduce the flexibility he needed in this type of operation, because it would create a moral imperative to relieve the airborne force before anything else.


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