D day the battle for nor.., p.44
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.44Antony Beevor
On 4 July, General Koenig, who commanded the FFI from London, had summoned Colonel Eon to his offices in Upper Grosvenor Street. Eon was to command Resistance forces in Brittany. His second in command would be de Gaulle’s chief intelligence officer, André de Wavrin, always known by his codename of Colonel ‘Passy’. They would receive a staff of twenty officers and be supported by nine extra of the three-man Jed burgh teams to help train and direct their forces. Weapons would be provided for 30,000 men. But with the apparent stalemate on both the American and the British fronts at that time, the weapons drops did not receive a high priority.
The American capture of Avranches on 1 August took staffs in London by surprise. Two days later, at 18.00 hours, the BBC gave the coded message to launch guerrilla warfare throughout Brittany. On the morning of 4 August, Koenig took Eon on one side to ask if he would agree to his whole headquarters parachuting together en bloc, whether or not they had undergone parachute training. Eon, who had never made a parachute jump before, agreed and so did the other untrained officers and men. The British authorities, nevertheless, insisted that Eon, as he was being driven to the airfield, should sign ‘a written declaration accepting all responsibility for making a parachute jump without training’. Fortunately, only parachutes attached to arms containers failed to open and the party landed safely. One of the containers held nine million francs. When it was found two miles from the drop zone, one million was already missing.
General Bradley, in contact with Koenig at SHAEF headquarters still back in England, issued an order that all Resistance groups in Brittany now came under the orders of General Patton’s Third Army. They were to protect the railway along the north coast of the Brittany peninsula, to seize the high ground north of Vannes, to provide guides for US forces and to ‘intensify general guerrilla activity, short of open warfare, in all Brittany’. By the time Eon and his party landed, 6,000 members of the FFI had occupied the area north of Vannes and seized the railway line. And on the night of 4 August, a reinforced squadron of 150 French SAS from the 3rd Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes dropped behind German lines to protect the railway lines east of Brest on the north side of the peninsula. In fact, the FFI and FTP were to do much more than Bradley asked of them.
Patton’s charge into Brittany with the 6th and 4th Armored Divisions soon became confused, if not chaotic. This was due partly to bad communications. The radio sets were simply not good enough for the distances involved, while Patton and Middleton, the commander of VIII Corps, had utterly different approaches. Patton, the brash yet secretly thin-skinned cavalryman, believed in bold advance and the rapid exploitation of any opportunity. Middleton was an excellent corps commander, but he was an infantryman. Every advance in his book needed to be carefully planned. He was unprepared for Patton’s style of warfare.
Patton’s thinking was shared by General John Wood of the 4th Armored Division, ‘a second General Patton if I ever saw one,’ observed an officer in the 8th Infantry Division. Wood, ‘a brawny, jovial type’, was equally immune to indecision. From Pontaubault, he dashed south to the regional capital of Rennes. The city was too strongly held for him to take without infantry, so early on 3 August he circled it to the south, waiting for reinforcements and more fuel. His instinct was to head for Angers and then Paris, but he knew that that would alarm Middleton.
In Rennes itself, mixed groups of German troops, mainly remnants of the 91st Luftlande-Division, prepared their escape and destroyed equipment and files. Meanwhile the American 8th Infantry Division had arrived and began to bombard the city. Members of the French Resistance had slipped through the lines and told them of the exact position of Gestapo headquarters in Rennes. They did not say that it was just opposite the hospital where American and British prisoners of war were held, but fortunately there were few injuries. Other members of the Resistance, on spotting the hurried departure of the Gestapo, raided the headquarters and took the food there to feed the malnourished prisoners. That night, another FFI group blew up a German munitions dump just outside the town. A French doctor then reached the Americans outside the town with news of the prisoners and the 8th Division artillery ceased shelling.
The German troops slipped away during the night towards Saint-Nazaire, at the mouth of the Loire. The only ones who stayed behind were ‘a handful of drunks’. They were easily rounded up by the American infantry on 4 August, ‘but they had to be protected from the French’. The remaining population - some 60,000 out of 120,000 - surged on to the streets to welcome the Americans, who rushed medical units to the hospital. ‘One paratrooper patient with a bad face wound came up and shook my hands and cried,’ a captain reported. Soldiers immediately gave whatever they could, including their own combat kit, to those whose uniforms had fallen to pieces.
Middleton, back at VIII Corps headquarters, faced a difficult choice. He sympathized with Wood’s desire to strike east, but his instructions remained to capture the ports on the coast of Brittany and he was not in contact with Patton. Middleton drove to see Wood and sent the 4th Armored Division back south-westwards to take Vannes and then Lorient. Vannes fell rapidly, but Lorient appeared impregnable.
On 4 August, Patton himself, escorted by an armoured car, drove down into Brittany. He was following the advance of the 6th Armored Division commanded by Major General Grow, whom he had ordered to rush for Brest, the main port of Brittany, bypassing all resistance. Patton whooped with joy every time they ran off a map and had to open a new one. This was warfare as he loved it. But Patton had not told Middleton the objective he had given the 6th Armored. Grow then received a signal from Middleton, ordering him not to bypass Saint-Malo, on the north coast of the peninsula, and to attack it the next day. Grow requested that the order should be cancelled, but Middleton was firm.
Grow was about to sit down with a cup of coffee outside his tent in a wheatfield, when Patton suddenly appeared. ‘What in hell are you doing sitting here?’ he demanded. ‘I thought I told you to get to Brest.’ Grow explained his order from Middleton and his chief of staff produced the written order. Patton read it, then folded it up. ‘And he was a good doughboy, too,’ Patton murmured to himself. ‘I’ll see Middleton,’ he said to Grow. ‘You go ahead where I told you to go.’
The confusion continued, but Patton settled the problem of communicating with divisions spread out over hundreds of miles. He allocated the 6th Cavalry Group to report on the exact position of all his divisions and armoured columns as well as on the enemy. Its thirteen reconnaissance platoons, each with six armoured cars and six quarter-ton trucks, had high-powered radios which could also act as a back-up if the Signal Corps network failed. The 6th Cavalry was soon known as ‘General Patton’s Household Cavalry’.
The advance of the 6th Armored Division towards Brest was hardly unopposed. Groups of German stragglers and improvised combat groups fought delaying actions. During daylight hours, the columns had support from Mustangs of the 363rd Fighter Group, but ‘every night from 3 August to 6 August we had to fight for our bivouac areas,’ reported Captain Donley from the 6th Armored. On 5 August, the town of Huelgoat was reported to be clear, so General Grow rode in with a tank and an armoured car. He was greeted with ‘intense small arms fire from all directions’. Donley’s company of armoured infantry was sent to get him out, supported by tanks. The German paratroopers in the town were now trapped. The armoured infantry accounted for many of them, but the FFI begged to be allowed to finish the rest off. They claimed that ‘the paratroopers had cut off the hands of a woman’ and the FFI ‘was mighty anxious to mop them up’.
The 6th Armored put the FFI into reconnaissance Jeeps, known as ‘Peeps’, to lead the way. And the leading tank battalion placed sandbags on the front of their Shermans to absorb the blast of 50 mm anti-tank rounds. If a village was deserted, it usually meant that the Germans were there: ‘The first thing we did was to blow off the church steeple in order to get rid of possible [observation posts] and sniper fire.’
With German strag
Patton was faintly dismissive of the French Resistance. He later said that their help was ‘better than expected and less than advertised’. Yet their contribution in Brittany was indeed considerable. ‘They aided in loading heavy ammunition,’ an officer with the 6th Armored reported, ‘and they cleared snipers, while our columns kept going.’ They also secured bridges, provided intelligence and harassed Germans at every turn. On 6 August, a German report to Kluge’s headquarters complained that the American advance on Brest was carried out ‘with the help of terrorists’. General Koenig back in London was labelled the ‘Terroristenführer’, and the following day the Germans reported ‘battles with terrorists everywhere’. German reprisals became predictably violent, with two massacres on the Finisterre peninsula near Brest. Twenty-five civilians were shot in St Pol-de-Léon on 4 August, and forty-two men, women and children in Gouesnou were killed by sailors of the 3rd Marineflakbrigade on 7 August.
On 6 August, Colonel Eon’s force secured the surrender of a battalion of Osttruppen at Saint-Brieuc. But when Eon and Passy returned to their headquarters exhausted that evening, their camp was attacked by 250 Germans from the 2nd Paratroop Division. After six hours of fighting they managed to force them back. Passy and a small group were surrounded, but they eventually fought their way out. When they met up with the rest of the headquarters group they heard that their loss had been reported to London. But soon the FFI and FTP attacks forced the Germans to withdraw into coastal towns, which could be more easily defended. Further south, other FFI detachments helped Wood’s 4th Armored Division, even clearing a minefield by hand.
Grow’s leading troops approached Brest on 6 August. After some wildly excessive optimism that the city would surrender to a show of force, Grow soon had to accept that an armoured division was incapable of seizing a major fortified city. He did not know that the commander of ‘Fortress Brest’ was General der Fallschirmtruppen Hermann Ramcke, a ruthless paratroop veteran who had sworn to Hitler that he would defend the city to the last.60 Grow then found he was being attacked from behind by the German 266th Infanterie-Division, which had been trying to join the large garrison in Brest. His forces soon dealt with them, but Brest proved far too great an obstacle, as Patton rapidly appreciated.
The 8th Infantry Division came up to help the 6th Armored. Their tasks included night patrols to prevent large German foraging parties, sometimes up to 150 strong, from seizing food from French farmers. The FFI came begging for arms and gasoline, but they were also bringing in prisoners. The 8th had to set up a stockade to hold 600 of them. One of their officers was very pleased ‘to get a Hermann Goering ceremonial dagger off one of the paratroopers’. The 8th Infantry hardly knew what to expect in this very unconventional quarter of the war. At one moment a British special forces officer who had been dropped behind enemy lines turned up wanting fuel, the next they found themselves embroiled in French political rivalries. Two quite senior French officers turned up in uniform, offering their services, but the members of the Resistance who had been helping the Americans insisted angrily that they would never work with them. They were what they called ‘moth-balls’: those who had served under the Vichy regime and now brought their uniforms out of the closet as soon as the Allies appeared. The Americans ‘courteously got rid of the old officers’.
Liberation also presented its two faces. ‘The townspeople were so nice to us that I had a hell of a time keeping my men sober,’ a lieutenant reported. American troops found the civilians to be much more friendly in Brittany than in Normandy. But they also witnessed its much uglier side of vengeance against women accused of collaboration horizontale with the Germans. ‘We had a hair-cutting party,’ the lieutenant added. ‘Several girls were in addition kicked in the stomach and had to be hospitalized.’
For the Americans, especially the 6th Armored Division, the Brittany campaign ended in anticlimax. They were left besieging Brest, Saint-Nazaire and Lorient, where the 6th took over from Wood’s 4th Armored, but in fact there was little danger of a sally by any of the garrisons. The FFI battalions, with some American support, were quite capable of keeping the Germans bottled up. Meanwhile the 83rd Infantry Division, which had battered away at Saint-Malo because the force there threatened the rear of operations in Brittany, finally achieved its surrender.
Bradley was well aware of the frustrating situation, but the siege of Brest, although now pointless strategically, had become a matter of pride. ‘I would not say this to anyone but you,’ he confessed to Patton, ‘and [I] have given different excuses to my staff and higher echelons, but we must take Brest in order to maintain the illusion of the fact that the US Army cannot be beaten.’ Patton agreed strongly with this view. ‘Any time we put our hand to a job we must finish it,’ he noted in his diary. Yet both Patton and Bradley had their eyes on the open flank north of the River Loire which led all the way to Orléans and Paris.
Patton could see only too clearly that Brittany was going to be a backwater. He welcomed Bradley’s new order to send Haislip’s XV Corps south-east to Le Mans and Walker’s XX Corps down towards Angers on the Loire, ready to protect their right flank when they turned east. Glory lay towards the Seine.
One of the divisions destined for Haislip’s corps had only just landed on Utah beach. This was the French 2nd Armored Division, which would become famous in France as the Deuxième Division Blindée, or the 2ème DB. It was indeed an extraordinary formation commanded by a remarkable man.
General Comte Philippe de Hautecloque was better known by his nom de guerre of ‘Leclerc’ to avoid German reprisals against his family. He was a devout Catholic of the ancien régime. As chaplains, he had recruited a dozen members of the White Fathers, an order set up in the nineteenth century originally to take Christianity to the Tuaregs. Led by Père Houchet, they were dressed in white habits and wore flowing beards.
Leclerc, a tall, slim man, with crinkly eyes and a rectangular military moustache, was instantly recognizable to his men by the tank goggles round his kepi and the malacca cane he always carried. They revered him for his bravery, his determination and his skill in battle. An austere man, he was acutely patriotic. Like de Gaulle, he felt bitter that, since the disaster of 1940, the British had accumulated so much more power while France had declined dramatically. Both were inclined to suspect that the British took every opportunity to exploit this. In their resentment, they could not see that Britain, despite her apparent strength, had bankrupted herself, physically and economically, during five years of war. It was an unfortunate detail that part of the division had sailed to Britain from Mers-el-Kebir, where Admiral Somerville’s battle squadron had sunk the French fleet in 1940 to prevent it falling into German hands. ‘Even for us Gaullists,’ wrote a young officer, ‘it weighed heavily on our hearts.’
De Gaulle regarded Leclerc and his division as the incarnation of the spirit of Free France. Its ranks included officers and soldiers of every political opinion. Alongside arch-Catholics of la vieille France, Communists, monarchists, socialists, republicans and even some Spanish anarchists, all served well together. This encouraged de Gaulle to believe that somehow post-war France could achieve a similar solidarity, but he was to be sorely disappointed.
It was the Americans, with their military-industrial cornucopia, who had clothed, equipped, armed and trained the 2ème DB (Americans were later irritated when French civilians asked them why the US Army did not have ‘a uniform different from ours’.) Leclerc, despite his old-fashioned views, was no reactionary when it came to warfare. He felt an immediate affinity with Patton and Wood. Patt
For the soldiers of the division, the moment of landing in France on 1 August was intensely emotional. The sea had been rough and a few were sick into their helmets, like their American predecessors nearly two months before. British sailors, seeing the condoms on rifle muzzles, made predictable jokes about ‘Free French letters’. Almost all of those coming ashore had not seen their country for four years or more. Some scooped up handfuls of sand on Utah beach to preserve in jars. News of thearrival of French troopsspread quickly on the Cotentin peninsula, and soon 100 young men volunteered to serve in its ranks. In ten days, they would go into battle for the first time.
While Patton’s two armoured divisions were charging into Brittany, the British continued with Operation Bluecoat. Roberts’s 11th Armoured Division advanced brilliantly towards the town of Vire, with infantry mounted on tanks. Armoured cars of the 2nd Household Cavalry were halted at one village by the mayor running out, waving his arms. Ahead they saw the road covered with pieces of paper. The inhabitants had watched the Germans lay mines, then as soon as they left they had rushed out to mark each one.
The 11th Armoured still had to contend with the arrival of the II SS Panzer Corps on their left flank. As soon as enemy tanks were sighted, the infantry leaped off. Sergeant Kite of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment later described the moment of death for his tank when he was severely wounded. ‘Over in the next field the outlines of two Panthers appeared. The wheat had grown high and was almost ripe. Each time they fired the shells cut a narrow furrow through the ears of corn. One of [the Panthers] was knocked out. Suddenly the gun of the other turned and pointed in my direction. I saw the muzzle flash as it fired and the corn bending down along the line of flight of the shell that was about to hit us.’
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