D day the battle for nor.., p.43
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.43

           Antony Beevor
 

  At 02.00 Kluge issued an order that ‘under all circumstances the Pontaubault bridge [south of Avranches] must remain in our hands. Avranches must be retaken.’ Kluge was still furious with Hausser because the ‘fatal decision of the Seventh Army to break out to the south-east has led to the collapse of the front’.

  Although the 3rd Armored Division was criticized for its slow advance, Task Force X, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leander L. Doane, made an extraordinary dash forward. His column left the high ground south of Gavray at 16.07 hours, heading for Villedieu-les-Poêles. The weather was ‘clear as a bell’, and the twenty P-47 Thunderbolts flying air support for the column took out any German columns flushed out by Doane’s rapid advance. Doane was in direct radio communication with them and could direct the pilots on to any target ahead. The soldiers in the armoured vehicles below were fascinated by the spray of empty cartridge cases as the Thunderbolts roared over them, strafing likely positions.

  At 18.00 hours, they reached the edge of Villedieu. Despite having advanced ten miles in under two hours, Colonel Doane received the order, ‘Do not stop on initial objective. Proceed to Sée river before halting for the night. Corps commander directs you to move with greater speed.’ The Sée was just beyond Brécey, another sixteen miles further south. Doane ordered his men to bypass Villedieu and carry on at top speed. He also asked the Thunderbolts overhead to reconnoitre the road ahead.

  The support from the P-47s was so close that one pilot radioed to Doane that he was going to bomb a German tank only fifty yards to his left and that he had better take cover. Air-tank cooperation could not have been closer. Another Thunderbolt pilot flying shotgun over Task Force Z ‘facetiously suggested’ to its commander ‘that he had better draw in his antenna’, because he was attacking right over their heads.

  As they came to the outskirts of Brécey, Doane, who was in the lead tank, told the Thunderbolts to hold off, since there seemed to be no enemy present. But as his Sherman turned the corner into the main street of the town he saw ‘crowds of German soldiers lounging along the curb’. Unable to fire at that moment because his radio operator was in the gunner’s seat, Doane began taking potshots at the German infantry with his Colt .45 pistol. It was ‘practically a Hollywood entry’, the report stated. The following tanks, however, traversed their turrets left and right, raking the street and houses with machine-gun fire.

  The main bridge over the Sée had been destroyed, so the column turned east to try another bridge just outside the town. They spotted a group of German infantry lying around in an orchard and sprayed them with machine-gun fire too. But when they reached the crossing, they found that the bridge there had also been destroyed. Doane radioed back and soon the engineer platoon came forward. Its commander decided that his men could construct a ford nearby, using one of the tank dozers. Crews dismounted to carry stones to give some sort of basis to the soft bed of the river, but only a few vehicles managed to get across before it became impassable.

  Meanwhile the rear part of the column was approaching Brécey, but the German infantry had reorganized and was providing strong opposition. Doane pushed on with his leading tanks and reached the northern side of Hill 242 as night fell. In Brécey, the fighting was extremely confused. Captain Carlton Parish Russell of the 36th Armored Infantry left his half-track to stride back down the column to find out what was going on. He saw some Jeeps with their camouflage netting on fire. Then he saw a soldier trying to rip the burning material away. He shouted at him that if he did not get out of that camouflage uniform, he would be taken for a German. The man turned and he saw that he really was part of the Waffen-SS. This German detachment, which had been cut off, was trying to seize the vehicles they had ambushed for their escape. The SS soldier knocked the pistol from his hand and was bringing up his rifle when Russell seized it from him and knocked him out. He used it in the ensuing firefight with the Germans in the middle of the village.

  Task Force Z, driving south from Gavray towards Avranches on 31 July, faced much more resistance, encountering roadblocks covered by tanks and anti-tank guns. But they also caught a German column in the open trying to escape across their route. They inflicted heavy damage on reconnaissance vehicles and half-tracks. General Doyle O. Hickey, in a command half-track near the front of the task force, saw one of his self-propelled 105 mm guns blast one of the half-tracks to pieces at a range of less than fifty yards.

  When another column of the 3rd Armored Division also reached Avranches, Ernest Hemingway was just behind the spearhead. His accompanying officer, Lieutenant Stevenson, remarked that staying close to Hemingway was ‘more dangerous than being [Brigadier General] Roosevelt’s aide’. Hemingway, who had attached himself to General Barton’s 4th Infantry Division, persuaded Stevenson to accompany him on risky trips in either a Mercedes convertible or a motorcycle with sidecar, both abandoned in the German retreat. He wrote to his next-in-line wife, Mary Welsh, describing ‘a very jolly and gay life full of deads, German loot, much shooting, much fighting, hedges, small hills, dusty roads, green country, wheatfields, dead cows, dead horses, tanks, 88s, Kraftwagens, dead US guys’. He was soon joined by Robert Capa and nearly got him killed as well when they lost their way and ran into a German anti-tank gun. Hemingway, who had to shelter in a ditch under fire, afterwards accused Capa of failing to help in a crisis so that he could ‘take the first picture of the famous writer’s dead body’.

  Behind the ill-defined lines of the front, the American breakthrough caused chaos of a different sort. In Granville, locals had begun to pillage the houses abandoned by the Germans. Even the most respectable of citizens were making off with furniture, from dining chairs to a cradle. A lynch mob of 300 to 400 people wanted to string up a collaborator. The police had a difficult time persuading them to calm down and hand over their prisoner for a proper trial. During the next few days, they also had to round up German stragglers attempting to hide, often dressed in civilian clothes which they had stolen. One woman on the Villedieu road had taken pity on a German soldier and hidden him herself. She was arrested and held at the local fire station, while her young children were handed over for safekeeping to Madame Roy, the keeper of the public gardens.

  An elderly German Unteroffizier was captured in civilian clothes, hiding in a farm near Avranches. ‘Ah, Monsieur,’ he said to the farmer who had called an American patrol to take him away, ‘it’s a great sadness for me. I am here and my son is a soldier in the American Army.’ The farmer, who had heard that many young German emigrants were serving in the US forces, was inclined to believe him.

  The 6th Armored Division was also pushing on ahead through the Avranches gap. In their first actions, the tank crews had been trigger-happy on spotting any group of Germans, however small. But when thirty Germans popped up from behind a hedge with their hands up, they had to take them with them, as they could not spare any men. They made them sit on the hoods of half-tracks and Jeeps. ‘Our boys got their souvenirs that day,’ an officer remarked. Their advance guard consisted of a company of tanks, a company of infantry in half-tracks, a battery of field artillery, a company of tank destroyers, a section of engineers in half-tracks ready to deal with mines, and a reconnaissance section. They moved at a steady fifteen mph and at times they would overtake ‘unsuspecting Jerries bicycling or walking’. The Sherman crews loaded everything that was not essential on the outside of the tank so that they could stow ‘150 rounds of 75s and 12,000 rounds of .30 calibre’, twice the normal load of ammunition.

  To compound their problems, the Germans were suffering from increasingly audacious attacks by the Resistance further south. A train with sixty-nine wagons bringing urgently needed artillery ammunition had just been blown up in the Landes, while an armoured train was derailed in a tunnel north of Souillac. The British intercepted a signal calling for a construction train ‘under strong military escort’.

  On the evening of 31 July, Patton drove to the VIII Corps command post to see Middleton. Middleton’s 4th Armored Div
ision had secured the line of the River Sélune south of Avranches, as ordered, but he could not get in touch with Bradley to see what he should do next. Patton, apparently controlling his exasperation, told him that ‘throughout history it had always been fatal not to cross a river’. Although he did not take over command officially until noon the next day, he made it very clear that VIII Corps was to cross immediately. Soon afterwards, a message came in to say that the bridge at Pontaubault had been captured. It was damaged but passable. Patton told Middleton to send the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions across as fast as possible.

  South of Pontaubault, the road divided. One route led south and west towards Rennes and Brest. The other headed east towards the Seine and Paris. Patton went to bed at one in the morning of 1 August knowing that, eleven hours later, the Third Army would be fully operational under his command with four army corps, Middleton’s VIII Corps, Haislip’s XV Corps, Walker’s XX Corps and Cook’s XII Corps. The XV Corps immediately issued to its three divisions a warning order which clearly revealed the Patton style: ‘As many troops as possible to be motorized and tanks to lead throughout.’ Also at midday on 1 August, Bradley became commander-in-chief of 12th Army Group, with General Hodges taking over the First Army, which would continue the attack towards the line of the Vire and then on to Mortain.

  On 1 August, Kluge was at Seventh Army forward headquarters with Hausser and his new chief of staff, Oberst von Gersdorff, when they heard of the American seizure of Avranches. According to his aide, Oberleutnant Tangermann, he said, ‘Gentlemen, this breakthrough means for us and the German people the beginning of a decisive and bitter end. I see no remaining possibility of halting this ongoing attack.’ Some of his colleagues felt that the effects of his serious car crash in Russia the year before had started to show. He was losing the determination he had shown when he took over from Rundstedt.

  As soon as the news reached the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia, Hitler issued an order to Kluge: ‘The enemy is not under any circumstances to break out into the open. Army Group B will prepare a counter-attack with all panzer units to thrust as far as Avranches, cut off the units that have broken through and destroy them. All available panzer forces are to be released from their present positions without replacement and employed for this purpose under the command of General der Panzertruppen Eberbach. The future of the campaign in France depends upon this counter-attack.’

  Kluge warned that the withdrawal of panzer divisions would lead to a collapse of the whole front, including the British sector. He proposed instead that German forces should be withdrawn behind the Seine, abandoning western France entirely. The panzer divisions could protect the retreat of the infantry divisions without motor transport. Hitler rejected this furiously and insisted that if his orders were carried out there would be ‘certain victory in the end’. Kluge sensed that this would be a catastrophic decision, but there was nothing he could do. Hitler, obsessed with his maps but with no idea of the reality on the ground, had begun to plan Operation Lüttich, the great counter-attack from Mortain towards Avranches. But the enemy was breaking out into the open. By noon, the American 4th Armored Division was across the Sélune and ‘round the corner into Brittany’.

  The Americans found German resistance much tougher on the left, with heavy fighting round Percy and Villedieu, which the 3rd Armored Division had bypassed. The 4th Infantry Division called up four battalions of artillery to deal with German positions. The 155 mm ‘Long Toms’ fired a total of three ‘serenades’, the most intense bombardment on offer, and finally the German guns fell silent. Late in the afternoon, the 4th Division’s reconnaissance squadron entered Villedieu.

  Tessy was also captured that day after heavy and bitter fighting. The Germans in retreat could resort to the brutality of the eastern front. According to Lieutenant Colonel Teague, commanding the 3rd Battalion of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, ‘One of our trucks (an ambulance) was sent up the road north from the aid station near La Tilandière toward Villebaudon. The Jerries, attacking toward the highway, captured the truck, shot six wounded men in it, and made a road block out of the truck.’

  Front-line troops adopted a very dismissive attitude towards the large numbers of prisoners they were taking. Middleton’s VIII Corps had taken 7,000 prisoners in just three days, out of the whole First Army’s bag of 20,000 in six days. When a battalion of the 8th Infantry Division captured a couple of hundred Germans, they sent them back with just one guard. Sometimes they returned weapons to Polish and Russian prisoners and told them to escort the Germans, which may well have led to several of the latter failing to reach the stockade alive. Empty supply trucks going back north were also used. ‘We passed columns of prisoners, on foot and in trucks, but all under guard,’ noted an officer with the 29th Infantry Division near Percy. ‘They seemed low-spirited as to the older ones. The only defiant ones were the young.’ Over-optimistic rumours had meanwhile begun to spread in German units that they were to be withdrawn behind the Seine.

  On 2 August, fighting continued in the southern part of Villedieu after most of the town was cleared. American tanks drove a group of German infantry armed with Panzerfaust launchers into the railway station. The Shermans fired at the building with their 75 mm main armament until they had demolished the whole structure on top of them.

  On the road towards the Forêt de Saint-Sever, where many German units were reorganizing, heavy fighting continued on the hills either side, especially Hill 213. Lieutenant Colonel Johnson was taking his battalion round the side of the ridge to outflank the Germans on the summit. ‘As we came over the crest and saw the road I rubbed my eyes,’ he wrote. ‘I thought we must have got our directions mixed. The whole road was jammed with traffic of the 3rd Armored Division bumper to bumper - tanks, trucks, Jeeps and ambulances. I looked across the road and saw a medical station.’ Nobody seemed to realize that a major battle was going on just 500 yards away. The 12th Infantry, one of their other officers observed, was ‘so tired they could hardly walk up the hill, let alone attack up it’. German artillery fire from the Forêt de Saint-Sever to their east was very heavy and caused many casualties. This, combined with Luftwaffe attacks at night, kept men ‘in a state of jitters’, resulting in an increased rate of combat fatigue.

  While some Germans fought ruthlessly in retreat, others respected the rules of war. Captain Ware, the battalion surgeon, reported that two men hit on patrol had not been found. Four medics, led by Corporal Baylor, set out in a Jeep with a large red crossflag tofind them.‘One man stood on the hood and held the flag open so it could not be overlooked. The jeep rounded the bend of the road [and] reached the first casualty. He was dead. As the aid man was examining him the Germans fired a machinegun which hit Cpl Baylor in the chest. The other three crawled back under fire dragging the wounded man and leaving the two bodies and the jeep.’ Captain Ware decided to abandon the attempt. ‘But just as this decision was reached a German wearing a Geneva [Red Cross] brassard and carrying a white flag came round the bend of the road walking toward them. He was promptly covered. All the American weapons present were pointed at him but fortunately no shot was fired. As the German came up we could see that he was sweating profusely. But he did not falter. He handed me the attached note which no one present could read. A German speaking soldier of the anti-tank platoon was sent for. The German told him that he had been sent by his lieutenant to apologize for his soldiers firing on the American medics. The German was still sweating [and] kept removing his helmet to mop his brow. He said he had volunteered for this mission. He also told us that both the American casualties were dead. The German said that the note from his Lieutenant assured us that we might return and remove our casualties as well as the jeep and that the Germans would not fire again. We asked the German if he would like to stay with us now that he was across the lines. He laughed and said he supposed it made no difference which side he stayed with, but he pointed out that if he did stay it would look bad for the Americans since the Germans would think he had been d
etained by force.’

  The American advance was still slowed by traffic jams on the narrow country roads and also by attacks from groups of German stragglers. ‘The small number of Germans are causing us difficulty out of all proportion to their numbers,’ the headquarters of the 4th Infantry Division recorded. ‘However it is probably part of the plan to leave the enemy in position on our left flank in the hope of an encirclement.’

  This assessment of Eisenhower’s and Bradley’s thinking was premature, but close to the mark. The original plan was to storm through the Avranches gap and seize ports in Brittany to speed the Allied supply lines for the advance to the Seine. But now a huge opening lay between the German Seventh Army and the Loire. On 3 August, Major General John Wood’s 4th Armored Division swung round the west side of Rennes to the south. He was low on fuel and ammunition, so could not seize the city, but he had now sealed off the whole of the Brittany peninsula. Facing east, he sensed that the Germans had no reserves to block a charge straight towards Paris and the Seine. Eisenhower and Bradley both came to a similar conclusion. It offered an opportunity rare in war. German generals saw the implications with horror. The news that an American armoured division had reached Rennes, wrote Bayerlein, ‘had a shattering effect, like a bomb-burst, upon us’.

  23

  Brittany and Operation Bluecoat

  Brittany, as the Allies knew well, was one of the great centres of resistance in France. This was why the first Allied troops to drop in France had been the 2ème Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes just before midnight on 5 June. By the end of June the Gaullist-led Resistance in the FFI and the Communist-led FTP mustered a total of 19,500 men. By the end of July they had 31,500, of whom 13,750 had weapons.

 
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