D day the battle for nor.., p.41
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.41

           Antony Beevor

  Bradley decided to give Patton unofficial command over VIII Corps in the west, even though the Third Army would not become operational until 1 August. ‘Felt much happier over the war,’ Patton noted in his diary. ‘May get in yet.’ Following firm Patton precepts, Wood’s 4th Armored Division and Grow’s 6th Armored Division became double spearheads for VIII Corps.

  German commanders suddenly comprehended the enormity of the disaster which they faced. Their reactions had been slow largely due to the American tactic of cutting all cables and telephone lines. In many places, German troops had no idea that a breakthrough had occurred. They were often astonished when they found American troops far behind what they thought was the front line. Some officers in a VW Kübelwagen nearly crashed into one column, and on several occasions German motorcyclists drove up to American vehicles to discover what was happening, only to be shot down.

  General Meindl signalled that II Paratroop Corps south of Saint-Lô in the Vire valley was now reduced to 3,400 men. ‘Because of heavy losses [they were] no longer able to stand up to serious Allied pressure.’ Kluge was finally forced to accept that the American offensive constituted the chief danger. He agreed to the panic-stricken request for panzer reinforcements from Hausser and ordered the transfer of the 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions from the British front.

  On the evening of 26 July, Lüttwitz went ahead to visit Meindl’s headquarters, where he found ‘a rather confused situation’. Meindl himself wrote that ‘the din of shell-fire and tank engines was so great that it was impossible to talk over the telephone at all’. His command post was concealed in heaps of rubble, which at least provided good camouflage from American fighter-bombers. Meindl, who was irritated to find that Lüttwitz was not under his direct command, said that it was madness to launch an attack, especially during daylight. Things were so bad that they could barely hold on as it was.

  ‘What are you thinking?’ Lüttwitz retorted. ‘All I want you to do is to see that my right flank is properly secured during the attack.’ Meindl replied that they would hold the flank, but they could not keep up with the panzers.

  Lüttwitz was then summoned to Hausser’s Seventh Army command post, ten miles south of Percy. There he was briefed by his new corps commander, General von Funck. He was to cross the Vire around Tessy, then advance north-westward to block the road from Saint-Lô down to Percy. This was the route down which Brigadier General Rose’s column was advancing. He would be followed by the 116th Panzer-Division as soon as it arrived.

  Meindl, who was still feeling put out, decided to talk to General von Funck himself. So, even though his corps was in the middle of a desperate battle, he climbed into his Kübelwagen, which he had nicknamed his ‘Jaboflitzer’, or ‘fighter-bomber dodger’, and followed Lüttwitz to the Seventh Army command post to protest that the 2nd Panzer-Division had not been placed under his orders. The visit did him little good. During the journey back, he had to halt on several occasions and throw himself in the ditch as American fighters attacked.

  On his return, he found Oberstleutnant von Kluge, the son of the field marshal, waiting impatiently at his headquarters along with Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the new chief of the general staff. Kluge sent his son ‘from staff to staff as what he called a “front traveller”,’ wrote Meindl, ‘but what we in our manner of speaking called a spy, to collect his impressions for the old man’. Meindl, in a black mood, told the younger Kluge to inform his father that it was no longer possible to hold on in Normandy and that the attack by the two panzer divisions would achieve nothing. Instead the panzers should be used to build up an anti-tank defence, ‘instead of throwing them away on imaginary goals as if in tank manoeuvres on a map’.

  Meindl did not hide his disdain for panzer commanders - ‘these superior people’. They never got out of their ‘gasoline wagons’ to reconnoitre on foot, because ‘it was not pleasant going into the firing zone. It was much safer to bob down and close the lid. Only a few of the tank commanders had the insight to see - or could be convinced in discussion - that the moment of the great tank battles for us was past! They now had to wake up from a beautiful dream!’

  Meindl went on, ‘Those up at the top were apparently still waiting for a miracle to happen. In addition our propaganda announced the attempt of 20 July and its consequences. So it was up to us as paratroopers to see that our honour was not besmirched! The world was set on our destruction. Good! We would hold on to our blunderbusses.’

  Although 27 July was overcast, which saved the 2nd Panzer-Division from air attack on their approach march to the Vire, they did not begin to cross the river at Tessy until that night, sixty hours after the start of Operation Cobra. By then they were far too late to stop the American advance.

  On the west coast, when the 6th Armored Division reached Coutances on 27 July, they found that their reconnaissance unit had already taken the town. They bivouacked there that night, then ‘just rushed on through’, heading for Granville. German infantry were hiding in the hedgerows either side, so 6th Armored’s light tanks advanced down the road at fifteen mph, spraying machine-gun fire right and left. Brigadier General Hickey’s column of the 3rd Armored Division was also heading for Coutances. But General Collins, as well as Colonel Luckett of the 12th Infantry attached to it, criticized the 3rd Armored for advancing too cautiously.

  The advance was more difficulton 27 July for the American formations in the centre of the breakthrough. Armoured divisions were delayed by the density of military traffic on the roads, with columns stretching back fifteen miles or so. The obstructions were usually due to knocked-out German vehicles blocking roads. Bradley, who had foreseen these problems, had assembled 15,000 engineers for Cobra. Their main task was ‘opening and maintaining main supply routes’ through the gap. This meant filling craters in roads, clearing wrecked German vehicles and even building bypasses round towns which had been destroyed.

  On 28 July, visibility was better, to the relief of American commanders. Lüttwitz’s attack with the 2nd Panzer-Division west of the River Vire was rapidly broken up by air attacks. The 116th Panzer-Division fared little better. In the west, Choltitz’s Corps was in danger of encirclement and Seventh Army headquarters ordered it to pull back towards the centre near Roncey. Obersturmbannführer Tychsen, the new commander of the Das Reich, was killed near his command post by a US reconnaissance unit. And that evening, Standartenführer Baum of the 17thSS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen took command of the remnants of both divisions.

  The American advance accelerated down the coast road. With the sea on their right, the 6th Armored Division advanced nearly thirty miles. Whenever they reached a road block, the air liaison officer in his tank or half-track simply called in a squadron of P-47 Thunderbolts and the defensive position would be destroyed, usually within fifteen minutes.

  The Germans suffered the downward spiral of sudden retreat and smashed communications. Few commanders knew where their troops were. Divisions were fragmented and there was chaos on the roads. Ammunition and fuel supplies could not get through, so panzers and vehicles had to be abandoned. Resistance was maintained only by small groups of soldiers, with an anti-tank gun or assault gun in support. Panzer Lehr Division reported that it had ‘no forces fit for battle’. Its remnants were sent back towards Percy. On the same day, the headquarters of II Paratroop Corps reported that ‘neither light nor medium field howitzer ammunition was available’.

  Heavy fighting continued near Cerisy-la-Salle in the centre, but this was really a desperate attempt by a trapped German force to fight its way out, not a last-ditch stand. American field artillery and anti-aircraft guns were ‘used to fire point-blank at the attackers’. P-47 Thunderbolts also screamed intothe attack, but an unexpectedsortie of Messerschmitt 109s also appeared, strafing American troops.

  Part of the Kampfgruppe Heintz made its way behind hedges and avoiding villages to find a gap in the encirclement. Some of the men suggested that they should surrender, but their officers refu
sed. ‘For five days,’ an Unteroffizier wrote, ‘we had nothing to eat but unripe fruit and the iron rations we took from our dead comrades. Once more the Army was sacrificed in order to save the SS units from being made prisoners . . . we had to leave behind 178 wounded.’ Surrendering was not always a safe option. An American officer with the 9th Division noted that‘when other elements of the enemy, such as Poles, tried to surrender, the SS shot them’. During the night marches to escape, morale began to deteriorate rapidly and tempers exploded. The paratroops blamed the SS for their predicament and the SS in turn blamed them. Some officers collapsed from nervous strain and exhaustion.

  On the eastern side of the breakthrough in the Vire valley, the 2nd Armored Division was beyond Villebaudon, level with Tessy. Rose’s combat command was heading for Saint-Sever-Calvados, on the Villedieu-Vire road. Seventh Army headquarters suddenly feared that Choltitz’s corps in the west would be completely isolated. Choltitz received an order from Generalmajor Pemsel, the chief of staff of Seventh Army, to counter-attack towards Percy to cut off the American spearhead. Choltitz knew that this would cause chaos and expose them to fighter-bomber attacks once dawn came. It would also leave the coastal route open all the way down to Avranches. But Hausser insisted that the order be obeyed.

  That evening, when Kluge at La Roche-Guyon heard of the Seventh Army’s decision to break out to the south-east, he lost his temper. He telephoned Oberstgruppenführer Hausser and ordered him to revoke the order immediately. Hausser replied that it was probably too late, but he would try. A message sent by an officer on a motorcycle finally reached Choltitz at midnight, but he had no communications with his divisions. They continued their attack towards the south-east, away from the coast.

  Kluge, fearing to sack Hausser for this mistake because he belonged to the Waffen-SS, ordered that Pemsel should be replaced. General von Choltitz, who was summoned back to take over as commander of the Parisian region, was to hand over LXXXIV Corps to General Elfeldt. Hitler was also furious to hear that the road to Avranches, and thus to Brittany, lay exposed. OKW issued orders for a counter-attack immediately. Kluge demanded urgent reinforcements. He asked for the 9th Panzer-Division in the south of France and more infantry divisions. OKW accepted this request with unusual speed.

  With many of the retreating German troops concentrated round Roncey, combat command B of the 2nd Armored Division started to establish blocking points along a line to the south. But during that night of 28 July, the US Army became a victim of its own profligate mechanization. Routes further north were so blocked in the breakthrough corridor that advance elements of the 4th Infantry Division’s headquarters were ‘on the road all night’. Bottlenecks were caused in each case by ‘a knocked out enemy vehicle standing partially across the road at a bad muddy spot’. Engineers could not find a way past to clear the obstacles. In one case, a staff officer commandeered a bulldozer and shifted a burnt-out vehicle himself. Some French, working furiously to help fill in craters, refused to accept any pay, insisting ‘that they did it to help us shoot more Boches’.

  Major General Huebner of 1st Infantry Division, the ‘Big Red One’, was determined not to allow anything to slow his advance. He insisted that ‘only one-way traffic would prevail’ along the narrow Norman roads. Not even ambulances would be allowed to return: ‘Casualties would haveto be cared foras best they couldalong the routeof advance.’ The armoured infantry of the 3rd Armored Division climbed on to the tanks so that their half-tracks could be filled with cans of gasoline, ammunition and other supplies. The 6th Armored Division on the coast had also decided that this was no time for supply dumps or distributing rations in bivouac areas. ‘Hell, within a couple of days,’ one officer remarked, ‘we were passing out rations like Santa Claus on his sleigh, with both giver and receiver on the move.’ The Sherman crews seldom halted to cook or relieve themselves. They kept going on boiled eggs and instant coffee. A medical officer said of their pudding-basin tank helmets, ‘they crapped in them and cooked in them’. Another medical officer with the 2nd Armored Division noted an additional advantage of the rapid advance. There were very few casualties from mines and booby-traps. The Germans had had little time to leave behind any of their nasty surprises.

  On 29 July, Rose’s combat command A from the 2nd Armored Division had a hard fight on the road south to Villebaudon. They came up against a Kampfgruppe of Lüttwitz’s 2nd Panzer-Division at the crossroads of La Denisière, with nearly twenty tanks and two companies of panzergrenadiers in half-tracks. Lüttwitz’s division and the newly arrived 116th Panzer-Division had been ordered to strike west to cut off the American advance, joining up with the amalgamated SS Division. But Lüttwitz perceived that this was impossible. He decided that it was more important to protect the flank along the River Vire, which was under pressure from the American 30th Infantry Division. American tank destroyers knocked out several panzers and forced the rest to withdraw eastwards to Moyon, where a much tougher battle took place.

  A column of tanks from Rose’s combat command, with their attached infantry from the 4th Infantry Division, advanced into the small town of Moyon, while Captain Reid led a patrol from his company round the east side. Reid’s men shot down an anti-tank gun crew, then found themselves being fired at by a German tank. Private Sharkey, a ‘bazooka hound’, stalked it from the far side of a hedgerow and knocked it out with their second-last round. Another tank appeared close to the first one and began firing its machine gun. Captain Reid crept back along the hedgerow, stood up and lobbed a white phosphorus grenade on to the top of the tank and another underneath it. The tank was soon ablaze.

  In Moyon itself, however, another German tank knocked out one of the Shermans. The tank battalion commander decided to pull out of the town and shell the place with high-explosive rounds. He told the infantry platoons in front to withdraw too. Just before they pulled back, Private Sharkey fired their last bazooka round at another German tank, the lead vehicle in a column with infantry approaching the town. He scored a direct hit on the turret ring. Captain Reid called out, ‘Let’s get out of here before they zero in on us!’ But Sharkey’s blood was clearly up. He remained standing at the hedgerow, firing with his carbine at the German infantry. A burst of machine-gun fire from one of the other tanks ripped off the side of his face, but Sharkey was able to retreat with the others, ‘the flesh hanging down over his chest’. He walked standing upright, while the others crawled back.

  They were cut off by another German column led by tanks. Reid had only two white phosphorus grenades left, but he managed to set the lead tank ablaze. The smoke acted as a screen and the patrol slipped back across the road. Sharkey collapsed from his terrible wound, but recovered after a rest and rejoined the rest of the company a little later, holding his two fingers up in a victory salute. ‘Sharkey made the greatest display of guts I’ve ever seen,’ Reid said later.

  The infantry battalion commander, Major Latimer, heard about the tank commander’s decision to pull out of the town too late to stop it. He was horrified for tactical reasons and also because of the effect on morale. It was one thing for tanks to pull back and have another go, but he believed that once infantry had moved in, they should hold what they had occupied. The German panzergrenadiers, who had been taken unawares by the initial assault, rapidly infiltrated back into the town. They brought up more tanks and artillery in addition to the column Reid’s men had seen.

  ‘A duel developed between the German tanks and ours with the infantry in between,’ stated the report on the action. ‘It was a terrible experience and losses were very high. Our forces were also under a great deal of artillery fire. In addition to the heavy physical casualties, both infantry and armor had a number of men who cracked up under the strain.’ The task force was relieved late in the day by part of the 30th Division. The only satisfaction as they withdrew was to see German bombers come in and attack their own ground forces by mistake.

  Further to the west, during that afternoon of 29 July, P-47 Thunderbol
ts of the 405th Fighter Group spotted a huge jam of German vehicles on the road east of Roncey. For six and a half hours they bombed and strafed in relays. The pilots claimed sixty-six tanks, 204 vehicles and eleven guns destroyed, as well as fifty-six tanks and fifty-five vehicles damaged. This was wildly optimistic, but the carnage was in any case considerable. The US Army also requested support from the RAF Typhoons of 121 Wing. They attacked another column south of Roncey and claimed seventeen tanks destroyed and another twenty-seven damaged. In fact operational research later showed that only four tanks and five half-tracks had been hit. Most vehicles had been abandoned and destroyed by their own crews. Nevertheless, the Typhoon’s lack of precision was more than compensated by the psychological effect it had on German panzer crews.

  Mean while combat command B of the 2nd Armored Divisionfinished preparing their roadblocks and ambushes in the area of Grimesnil. The Germans in the Roncey pocket, under heavy pressure from the 3rd Armored Division to the north, were bound to try to escape past them.

  Near Saint-Denis-le-Gast, a mile from Grimesnil, the 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion set up a block covered by anti-tank guns and the 92nd Field Artillery Battalion. They saw a column of vehicles approaching led by a couple of American armoured cars, but these had been captured and were being used as a ruse de guerre. As they passed, an anti-tank gunner spotted a German half-track immediately behind them and opened fire. The artillery also reacted quickly, firing over open sights, and the German column was destroyed.

  Soon afterwards, the command post of the 2nd Armored’s reserve was nearly overrun in a surprise attack, but the defenders, mostly clerks and rear-echelon personnel, held their nerve. With the help of a bright moon and the light from burning vehicles, they picked their targets at short range as the German infantry charged. This was clearly demonstrated later that morning when officers went out to examine the corpses of the attackers. The Germans had been killed ‘by single rifle shots rather than machinegun bursts’.

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