D day the battle for nor.., p.42
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.42

           Antony Beevor
 

  Another report cited the bravery of Sergeant Bishop, whose body was found with seven dead Germans around him, and Staff Sergeant Barnes, who cut the throats of three German attackers with a trench knife. ‘Action during the fight was so mixed up that an aid man looked up to find a German aid man sharing his slit trench. For a few minutes both men frantically pointed at their Red Cross armbands, then frisked each other for possible weapons.’

  The same night, a couple of miles to the south-east, two companies of armoured infantry in the process of setting up a roadblock were taken by surprise when the Germans rolled ‘their vehicles down the hill toward the Grimesnil road, with their engines off’. In the desperate fighting in the dark, the armoured infantry suffered heavy casualties not just from enemy fire, but also from their own artillery and tanks. When Lieutenant Colonel Crowley arrived at 07.00 hours on 30 July with the reserve company of his battalion, the battle was virtually over. The whole area was littered with burning vehicles. The roadblock itself had been overrun and Crowley could not contact one of the attacked companies by radio. But the Germans were exhausted and cowed by the artillery. His menpickedup 300 prisonersinthearea.Theworstpart of that morning was to be under consistent fire from the 4th Armored Division to their west: ‘Even the use of yellow smoke failed to stop them until Colonel Crowley established radio communication with them.’

  There were two main German columns trying to escape that night, one of which contained ninety-six vehicles, including ‘tanks, 150 mm and 170 mm guns - towed and self-propelled - half-tracks, staff cars, motorcycles and trucks’. The troops came from three divisions, the 275th Infanterie-Division, the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division and the reconnaissance battalion of the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich. ‘The mortars set the vehicles on fire, then the artillery of the 62nd and 78th [Armored Field Artillery] started firing at the crossroads, and without registering, continued to fire all the way down the road’.

  A badly damaged M-10 tank destroyer had come to a halt by the side of the road from Saint-Denis to Lengronne. The crew inside played possum as the German column passed, then, as soon as the last half-track had gone by, they brought their three-inch gun to bear and began knocking them out, one by one, firing twenty-eight rounds altogether.

  The main force at the crossroads had to pull back to higher ground, where infantry could protect the Shermans from German foot soldiers trying to stalk them with Panzerfaust launchers. The first vehicle in the German column, a Mark IV tank towing an 88 mm gun, advanced towards the defensive position and was destroyed by a tank shell. ‘Then the organized slaughter started,’ an officer reported. The mortar platoon began rapid fire down the line of the convoy, ‘a ratio of one white phosphorus to three high explosive’. The vehicles set ablaze by the white phosphorus lit up the scene, aiding the tank gunners and mortar crews, who dropped high-explosive rounds into the open backs of the German half-tracks. While their gunners continued to engage targets, tank commanders were having to fight off German infantry with the .50 machine gun mounted over their hatch.

  One officer recorded that ‘as daylight broke, about 300 German infantrymen tried to advance through a swamp to the north of the Grimesnil road . . . the tanks went after them and killed nearly all. Close to 300 bodies were found in and around this swamp.’ Another 600 dead were found along the road which had been shelled - ‘a bloody mass of arms and legs and heads, [and] cremated corpses . . . at least three German women were found in various stages of decapitation’. One of them had been driving a major general’s staff car.‘The major general was identified by his uniform, but when battalion officers returned later they found that souvenir hunters had taken all his clothes.’58

  The American graves registration service retrieved 1,150 German dead from the convoy of ninety-six vehicles. ‘The whole area was raw meat splattered on burned and ruined vehicles,’ observed one officer. Another report stated that ‘prisoners were coming in so fast that it became impossible to count them. Many stated that they had not eaten for two or three days.’ Meanwhile the 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion slipped south to seize bridges over the River Sienne.

  Brigadier General Hickey’s combat command from the 3rd Armored Division, following the German retreat, found in Roncey that ‘German equipment, abandoned and broken, cluttered the road to such an extent that progress through the main street was impossible, and the task force had to go through the back streets to get out of the town’. A tank dozer had to be brought up to clear the main road. So many German soldiers were surrendering that they had to send them to the rear without a guard. When the 3rd Armored reached the area of Grimesnil and Saint-Denis-le-Gast, a medical officer noted in his diary ‘Carnage gruesome. Includes enemy dead smashed flat by our tanks.’

  Generalmajor Rudolph-Christoff Freiherr von Gersdorff, the new chief of staff of the Seventh Army, who had reached their advanced command post three miles north-east of Avranches on the afternoon of 29 July, found a disastrous situation.59 Nobody had issued orders to blow any of the bridges and no landline communications existed. As a result of the German retreat away from the coast, which had so infuriated Kluge, the American 6th and 4th Armored Divisions were now virtually unopposed.

  In Granville, on the coast, the Germans began blowing up the port installations at 01.00 hours and it continued for five hours. The local commissariat de police reported that German soldiers were looting and stealing every vehicle they could find to make their escape south. One American tank platoon even passed within 100 yards of the Seventh Army command post without spotting it. At midnight, Oberstgruppenführer Hausser and his staff pulled out to withdraw east to Mortain.

  There was consternation at La Roche-Guyon and at the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia. General Warlimont at Führer headquarters recorded that Kluge was given ‘urgent orders to prevent any penetration into Avranches. Everybody saw that the whole front in Normandy was breaking up.’ Hitler was also concerned about the fate of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen, which appeared to have been ‘virtually swallowed up’ during the retreat. ‘Nobody ever knew or could figure out what happened to it, despite frantic enquiries. Naturally we were especially interested in this division because the subject of the fighting qualities of an SS division was a “hot iron” - something you could not touch. Hitler was inclined to believe everything which was favourable about his SS troops. He never permitted any reproach against his “black guards”.’

  The bulk of the German forces had withdrawn in the direction of Percy. An American reconnaissance troop, trying to find an undefended route to Percy, searched the side roads, but found they were all blocked. On one small country lane, the sergeant in the lead Jeep spotted some German soldiers creeping behind a hedgerow. ‘Pour it to them!’ he yelled to the soldier standing in the back, manning the .50 machine gun. The gunner swept the line, killing most of them with ‘incinerator’ (tracer) bullets. He joked afterwards that the bullets were humane, as they sterilized the wound going in and the one going out the other side. Many soldiers saw it as payback time after all the hard fighting in the bocage.

  The Germans had virtually no forces left to defend the coast road. A field replacement battalion on the south side of the River Sienne had rounded up stragglers who had managed to slip through the American screen. The 6th and 4th Armored Divisions, already under Patton’s direction, were well on their way to Avranches. Patton did not accept any excuse for delay. ‘The thing to do is to rush them off their feet before they get set,’ he wrote in his diary on 29 July. He was in an exuberant mood. Breakthrough had been achieved. The breakout, which he felt belonged to him by divine right, was about to begin.

  22

  Operation Cobra - Breakout

  On 30 July, when the 4th Armored Division was in striking distance of Avranches, Montgomery launched Operation Bluecoat. He did not usually mount an offensive in such a hurry. It seems that, once again, the initiative had come from Dempsey, but that did not stop Montgomery from implying that it was h
is plan. He sent a signal to Eisenhower: ‘I have ordered Dempsey to throw all caution overboard and to take any risks he likes, and to accept any casualties, and to step on the gas for Vire.’

  The 13th/18th Hussars were in reserve, carrying out some much needed maintenance work on their tanks, when their brigade commander ‘grinds to a halt in his jeep’ and tells one of their officers that the regiment is due to take part in a battle on Sunday morning. They were to move out at 06.00 hours the next morning. Their tank engines were all in bits and they had to start reassembling them frantically. Some units received only thirty-six hours’ warning.

  To move two corps from the Caen front to attack in the far west of the British sector in less than forty-eight hours was a nightmare with the narrow roads. Many units received their operational orders only as they were approaching their start-lines. One of the 13th/18th’s squadron leaders heard a rumour from headquarters and recorded it in his diary: ‘Monty is determined to make us catch up on the Yanks who are doing magnificently. The only difference between us is (a) that their army is twice as big and (b) that we have double the opposition against us.’ Although the proportions were a little exaggerated, British and Canadian troops felt with some justification that they had been fighting the war of attrition against the panzer divisions and now the Americans were getting all the glory in the newspapers.

  Bluecoat took place south of Caumont, where the British had taken over a part of the front from the Americans. One of the reasons for choosing this sector was that there were no SS panzer divisions there. O’Connor’s VIII Corps was to be led by the 15th (Scottish) Division and the Guards 6th Tank Brigade. The 11th Armoured and the Guards Armoured Divisions were behind them, ready to break through. On their left, Bucknall’s XXX Corps with the 7th Armoured Division was ordered to take Aunay-sur-Odon and then the Mont Pinçon massif. The idea was to seize the high ground there so as to control the roads to the south of the ridge, which the Germans would need for their retreat.

  Sunday, 30 July was such a sweltering day that the infantry were allowed to attack in shirt-sleeve order, but at least the skies were clear for air support. Bluecoat was preceded by another bombing attack and a heavy artillery bombardment. The 15th Scottish got off to a good start, attacking on a narrow front. When their advance was slowed by the German 326th Infanterie-Division, the supporting tanks of the 4th Coldstream and the 3rd Scots Guards pushed on through. Their commanders told the infantry to follow their tracks. This was against British Army doctrine, but the commanders of the 6th Guards Brigade and the 15th Scottish had agreed before the battle to do this if necessary.

  The steeply wooded slopes of the ridge would have defeated most tanks, but the Churchill, despite all its faults as a fighting machine, managed extraordinarily well. The Germans, not expecting British armour to get through, had no heavy anti-tank guns in their front line. They had kept their battalion of assault guns well back. As a result the Coldstream tanks reached their objective of Hill 309 by 16.00 hours. They had penetrated five miles behind the German lines. On their right the Scots Guards tanks had charged towards Hill 226 through hedgerows and orchards: ‘The crews were shaken and bruised, commanders struck by low branches and pelted with small, hard cider apples which accumulated on the floors of tank turrets.’ That evening, the Scottish battalions caught up with the two Guards tank battalions and prepared their hilltops for defence.

  The Germans were unusually slow to react. When Eberbach finally recognized the threat, he ordered the 21st Panzer-Division to cross the Orne and join the battle. In the meantime, the 326th Infanterie-Division mounted desperate counter-attacks on the two hills and their commander, Generalmajor von Drabich-Wächter, was killed. They pushed the Coldstream and the 2nd Glasgow Highlanders off the hill at one point, but the British retook it in a counter-attack soon afterwards.

  The failure of XXX Corps to advance on the left when blocked by a stream with steep banks left VIII Corps with a very exposed flank. This was what Eberbach wanted to attack, but by the time Oberst Oppeln-Bronikowski had assembled the 21st Panzer, their counterattack was too late. It went in at 06.00 hours on 1 August, with three panzergrenadier battalions, each down to 200 men, the last 14 Mark IV tanks of the 1st Battalion of its panzer regiment and the last eight Tigers of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion. The British counter-attacked, reaching the 21st Panzer’s divisional command post. The headquarters staff had to flee, abandoning all their vehicles. The 21st Panzer withdrew, having lost almost a third of its strength. A furious row ensued at their corps headquarters over the failure.

  British armour-infantry cooperation had improved greatly since Goodwood, but their Churchill and Cromwell tanks still stood little chance against the Tigers of the 503rd and the 502nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, as well as huge Ferdinand Jagdpanzer assault guns. One of the 3rd Scots Guards squadrons, having reached their objective after a wild ride across country, encountered three Ferdinands, which within moments knocked out twelve of their sixteen tanks. One of the Ferdinands passed close by a British artillery officer. He had a clear view of its commander, ‘wearing only a vest presumably because of the heat, and laughing’. The II SS Panzer Corps was also diverted to block the British advance.

  While the 15th Scottish and the 6th Guards Tank Brigade fought their battles, the Guards Armoured Division attacked Saint-Martindes-Besaces, a large village from which roads extended in all directions. But the Germans defended it furiously, supported by assault guns.

  On the right, the 11th Armoured Division had a stroke of luck, which it wasted no time in exploiting. On 31 July, an armoured car troop of the 2nd Household Cavalry Regiment managed to slip through German lines in the Forêt de l’Evêque. Six miles further on, they found that the bridge over the River Souleuvre was intact. They rapidly disposed of the only sentry. The bridge lay on the boundary between the German 326th Infanterie-Division and the 3rd Paratroop Division, which is probably why neither had taken proper responsibility for it. When they radioed through their discovery, the Household Cavalry commanding officer could hardly believe it and asked them to reconfirm their position. He immediately informed Major General ‘Pip’ Roberts of the 11th Armoured Division. Although the route lay to the west of their line of advance and in the American V Corps sector, Roberts sent the 29th Armoured Brigade at full speed, with infantry mounted on the tanks, to secure the crossing. It was already known as ‘Dickie’s Bridge’, after the troop leader, Lieutenant D. B. Powle, who had taken it. Roberts subsequently sought O’Connor’s approval to change his axis. This dramatic advance, which took 11th Armoured all the way to the high ground round Le Bény-Bocage, forced General Meindl to withdraw his 3rd Paratroop Division.

  Just over thirty miles to the south-west, the first tanks from Wood’s 4th Armored Division entered Avranches, the gateway to Brittany and central France, shortly before dusk on 30 July. The town was in chaos. On the west coast, the remaining German forces knew they were in a race to escape encirclement. The naval coastal battery near Granville had destroyed its guns and set off south behind the American spearhead. Oberst von Aulock and his Kampfgruppe were also trying to escape south through Avranches. Kluge was still hoping to hold on to this key position, but as the Americans advanced with four armoured divisions abreast - the 6th, 4th, 5th and 2nd - he had no reserves left to hold them.

  Although American tanks were already in Avranches, groups of German stragglers were still trying to get through the town. A small pioneer detachment from the 256th Infanterie-Division sat for a long moment on the cliffs in their Soviet truck, captured on the eastern front, gazing at the ‘unforgettable sight’. ‘Below us the tidal shallows with Mont Saint-Michel in moonlight and in front of us Avranches in flames,’ wrote Gefreiter Spiekerkötter. ‘The Americans were already there and wanted to prevent us from breaking out. How we got through and over the bridge, I still do not know. I remember only that two [German] officers with drawn pistols tried to seize our truck from us.’

  At 01.00 hours on 31 July, Feld
marschall von Kluge received a call from Generalleutnant Speidel, the chief of staff of Army Group B. Speidel warned the Commander-in-Chief West that the LXXXIV Corps had fallen back towards Villedieu, but they could not contact them: ‘The situation is extraordinarily serious. The fighting strength of the troops has declined considerably.’ The High Command, he added, should be informed that the left flank had collapsed. The threat to Brittany and the west coast ports was all too clear. Many officers and soldiers would have put it more strongly. They described the sense of disaster as ‘Weltuntergangsstimmung’ - a feeling that their whole world was collapsing. On the left flank of the breakthrough, American divisions were forcing the Germans back over the River Vire.

  Thirty-five minutes later, Kluge spoke to General Farmbacher, the commander of XXV Corps in the Brittany peninsula. Farmbacher told him of the scratch units he was trying to get together and requested ‘a most forceful order to the Navy, whose co-operation is insufficient’. Kluge also rang Eberbach to ask whether Panzer Group West was in a position to hand over any more formations to the Seventh Army. He replied that it was impossible. The British double attack on Vire and towards Aunay-sur-Odon had begun. If any more panzer divisions were transferred, the British would at last break through to Falaise and Argentan, thus cutting off the whole of the Seventh Army as well.

 
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