D day the battle for nor.., p.45
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.45

           Antony Beevor

  On 2 August, 11th Armoured was poised to take Vire, when suddenly Montgomery ordered Roberts to turn his division east. Instead of taking Vire, he was to cut the road east from the town and occupy the Perrier ridge. The boundary between the British and American armies had been changed. Vire was to be an American objective. It is still not clear whether Montgomery feared that the division might be cut off by a German counter-attack or he was acceding to an American request.

  In any case Meindl, alarmed by the threat to Vire which was virtually undefended, quickly brought up a newly arrived division to fill the gap. Then, because it was untried, he stiffened it with his 9th Paratroop Regiment and 12th Artillery Battalion. He also brought forward two batteries of 88 mm flak guns to deal with the British tanks turning east. The tragedy of Montgomery’s decision, a subject which he tried to avoid after the war, was not just the lost opportunity. Meindl’s reinforcements were in place by the time the Americans put in their attack on the town four days later and they suffered heavy casualties.

  The American 5th Infantry Division, advancing just to the right of Roberts’s division, had begun to be squeezed into a narrower sector when Roberts seized the opportunity offered by the capture of ‘Dickie’s bridge’. Like the British, they too had encountered difficult hilly country and woods. It was a curious advance, with bouts of intense fighting, then moments of uneasy calm. The commander of one company described a strange experience as they advanced along a forest track. ‘The woods seemed to cast an eerie spell over us as though we were the subjects of a fairy enchantment,’ he wrote. He and his men suddenly heard a soft, gentle clapping. ‘As we came closer we could see the shadowy forms of French men and women and children, lining the roadway, not talking, some crying softly, but most just gently clapping, extending for several hundred feet on both sides of the road. A little girl came alongside me. She was blonde, pretty and maybe all of five years old. She trustingly put her hand in mine and walked a short way with me, then stopped and waved until we were out of sight.’ Even fifty years later he could still hear the sound of soft clapping in a wood.

  The 5thand 35th Infantry Divisions were then transferred to Patton’s Third Army, and Vire was left to the 29th Division from XIX Corps. The American attack did not begin until dusk on 6 August, four days after Montgomery turned Roberts’s 11th Armoured away from the town. Vire, an ancient town on a rocky hill, had already been partly destroyed by bombing on D-Day itself. Meindl’s reinforcements gave a menacing assurance to the civilians who remained: ‘We’ll defend your town house by house.’ The American 29th Division faced a hard fight through the ruins.

  While VIII Corps had advanced well on the right flank, Bucknall’s XXX Corps’s progress remained slow. Dempsey had warned Bucknall on the first evening of the offensive that he must push on faster for Aunay-sur-Odon. That section of the front was heavily mined, but this was not accepted as an excuse. On the following evening Dempsey sacked him, with Montgomery’s full support. To replace Bucknall, Montgomery summoned from England Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks, who had now recovered from wounds received in North Africa. Over the next two days, Dempsey also sacked Major General Erskine of the 7th Armoured Division and Brigadier ‘Loony’ Hinde. The 7th Armoured were shaken by the loss of their commander. ‘Everyone very depressed,’ a staff officer wrote in his diary. ‘It didn’t seem the way to treat the captor of Tripoli.’ But most senior officers felt that Dempsey should have wielded the axe after the Villers-Bocage fiasco in June. In any event, the arrival of Horrocks was widely welcomed.

  A large part of the problem with the XXX Corps attack lay with the 50th Northumbrian and the 43rd Wessex Divisions. Their men were exhausted. Many were weak from dysentery and suffering from boils. They were also suffering from dehydration, since water, brought up in bowsers at night, was severely rationed. When the British attacked across a ripe cornfield, the Germans would sometimes fire incendiary shells and ‘the wretched wounded would get burned alive’. But the Allies could hardly complain, considering their use of white phosphorus and flame-throwing tanks.

  Only a handful of experienced men were left in each platoon. The rest were all replacements. The padres were among the hardest-worked, evacuating the wounded and carrying out brief funeral services during the hours of darkness. ‘I could not help thinking of the line of poetry from the Burial of Sir John Moore,’ wrote the chaplain with the 4th Dorsets. “‘We buried him darkly, at the dead of night”.’

  Under pressure from their commanders, the infantry battalions of XXX Corps kept pushing forward, taking a flattened Villers-Bocage, Jurques and Ondefontaine. Those August days were not pleasant for tank crews either. ‘In the small fields of Normandy among the cider orchards,’wroteatankcommander, ‘every move during the hot summer brought showers of small hard sour apples cascading into the turrets through the open hatches. After a few days there might be enough to jam the turret. Five men in close proximity, three in the turret and two below in the driving compartment, all in a thick metal oven, soon produced a foul smell: humanity, apples, cordite and heat.’ Their heads throbbed with noise: ‘the perpetual “mush” through the earphones twenty-four hours each day, and through it the machinery noises, the engine as background, with the whine of the turret [mechanism] and the thud and rattle of the guns as an accompaniment’.

  Stanley Christopherson, commanding the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, was well aware of the strain on his men. ‘To be the leading tank of the leading troop of the leading squadron of the leading regiment of the leading brigade, with an axis of advance along a narrow lane leading into a village known to be held by enemy armour and infantry was then, as at all times, a most unattractive position. It almost invariably resulted in your tank being brewed up by an anti-tank gun or enemy tank which had seen you first. It must have been equally unpleasant for the leading infantry, but they could at least dive into a ditch and make themselves small, but not even the Almighty could diminish the size of a Sherman tank waddling down a narrow lane.’

  Yet often the Germans allowed the first tank through, or even several, before opening fire. ‘It was a lovely morning and the sun was just about to break through and scatter the mist which surrounded the countryside,’ Christopherson wrote of 3 August. ‘We passed through the village of Jurques without meeting opposition, but the trouble started in La Bigne, a tiny village a little further on, when my two following tanks were knocked out.’ A newly arrived troop leader was killed instantly in one of them. ‘One of the burning tanks completely blocked the road and prevented any movement either way. However Sergeant Guy Saunders, displaying his usual calm and utter disregard for his own safety, jumped into the tank and drove it into the ditch, thus clearing the way. It was a most gallant action, especially as the shells in the fighting compartment had started to explode.’

  Officers in the Guards Armoured Division did what they could to mitigate the discomforts of tank warfare, even if that meant taking a less than Guards-like attitude to dress regulations. With their pale brown tank suits, they began to wear silk scarves to mask their faces from the dust, and leather wellington boots from Gieves, ‘because they slip on and off easily’. A number of officers, disliking the army-issue sleeping bags, obtained a more comfortable version from Fortnum & Mason. The headquarters of the 6th Guards Tank Brigade also benefited from the foresight of their catering officer, Terence O’Neill, later prime minister for Northern Ireland. He had brought a flock of poultry and cages over from England ‘in the recesses of a LST’. His cousin, Jock Colville, who was Churchill’s private secretary, had dined with them just before Goodwood. ‘The Brigade of Guards,’ he noted in his diary, ‘as magnificent fighters as any in the world, saw no virtue in austerity on active service.’

  Since Goodwood, the Guards Armoured had also greatly improved its infantry-tank cooperation. This had been helped by the installation of a handset on the back of a tank. The telephone allowed an infantry officer to talk directly to the tank commander, without having to climb on to the t
urret under enemy fire to direct the troop on to an enemy position. But a captain in the 5th Coldstream, who cranked the telephone wildly while bullets whistled around him, did not appreciate the compulsive flippancy of his brother officer from the 1st Battalion inside the Sherman: ‘The tank commander would always say on picking up his handset: “Sloane 4929”. Funny for him, but not so bloody funny for me.’

  The Germans fought their deadly ambush battles with small combat teams, usually a scratch company of panzergrenadiers grouped around an assault gun. Yet German morale was suffering under the onslaught. Feldgendarmerie detachments at bridges seized stragglers and hanged them from trees nearby to act as a deterrent to others tempted by the idea of desertion.

  The chaplain attached to the 4th Dorsets spoke to one of their prisoners called Willi, ‘a little German stretcher-bearer, a studious looking lad with glasses’. He could not understand why the British did not break through with all their artillery and tanks. German soldiers, he said, were waiting for the chance to surrender, provided their officers and NCOs were not looking. ‘Then it is a pity,’ the chaplain replied, ‘that several of your comrades came out with their hands up and then threw grenades at our men.’ The young German’s lip trembled, ‘and he looked as if he were going break into childish tears at this betrayal by his fellow-countrymen’. Like other captured medical orderlies, Willi impressed British doctors with his skill and willingness, helping both British and German wounded while still under mortar fire. Yet despite the chaplain’s lecture about German soldiers breaking the rules of war, the British frequently killed SS soldiers out of hand. ‘Many of them probably deserve to be shot in any case and know it,’ a XXX Corps report stated baldly.

  While some parts of the countryside seemed to have been virtually untouched by war, in others the scenes of destruction were terrible. Almost everyone who saw the large village of Aunay-sur-Odon was shocked to the core. The place had been bombed several times from 11 June and was now smashed again by XXX Corps artillery. ‘Apart from the church spire and three shells of houses it is razed to the ground,’ a cavalry officer noted in his diary. An artillery officer was appalled by his own part in it. ‘You really had to disassociate yourself from that because there was no way you could carry out your military duties,’ he observed later. ‘The only thing you could do was to shell and hope to God the French had gone away.’

  The survival of civilians in towns ruined by bombing and shellfire always seemed a miracle. André Heintz, from the Resistance in Caen, had followed the mine-clearing teams to the ruins of Villers-Bocage. There he saw German and British tanks smashed into each other from the battle in June. He described them as an ‘imbroglio of steel’. At the Château de Villers on the edge of the town, he found that the local mayor, the Vicomte de Rugy, had sheltered 200 people in a tunnel-like cellar under the building. They were in a ‘pathetic’ state. In another small town, a soldier from the 4th Somerset Light Infantry went off to relieve himself. His hobnailed army boots slipped when crossing a pile of rubble. As he fell, his hand encountered something soft. It was the severed hand of a girl. Just then came the call from their patrol commander: ‘Fall in you lads, it’s time to move on.’ All he could do was scratch a cross on the slab and RIP.

  Soldiers, often sentimental about animals, were also touched by the plight of abandoned livestock. Unmilked cows were in agony. They stood still to avoid the pain of any movement which would make their udders swing. Those from farming backgrounds would milk them straight on to the ground to ease the pressure. A medical officer was also moved by a sad scene: ‘a little foal walking in a small circle round his recently killed mother. He had worn a path in the grass and refused to leave her.’

  While the 11th Armoured Division on the right continued to fight off the 10th SS Panzer-Division Frundsberg east of Vire on the Perrier ridge, and the Guards Armoured crushed in the shoulder of the German front, XXX Corps finally approached Mont Pinçon. The infantry mounted on tanks were nearly choked by the thick red dust which now coated the scrub.

  The attack was scheduled for Monday, 6 August. Many soldiers and NCOs remarked on the fact that it was Bank Holiday Monday back in England. The thought conjured up images of their families and the seaside, but they were given little time to daydream. The aggressive Major General Thomas of the 43rd Wessex Division continued to exert maximum pressure on his subordinates, as the commanding officer of one of their supporting armoured regiments noted: ‘Brigade and battalion commanders in the 43rd Division were somewhat fearful of Von Thoma, who at the same time infuriated them, as he insisted on “fighting their battles” and would not leave them alone after the final operational orders had been issued.’

  Julius Neave, commanding a squadron of the 13th/18th Hussars, was resigned to another hard battle: ‘Our intention is to capture M[ont].P[inçon] - the biggest feature in Normandy - with a very depleted infantry brigade and a tired armoured regiment.’ Even during their orders group at brigade headquarters they found themselves under a ‘fierce stonk’ from German mortars.

  The infantry were even more depressed by the prospect. ‘The nearer we got to our objective,’ wrote Corporal Proctor, ‘the more awesome our task appeared. The lower slopes were cultivated farmland divided into small fields by huge hedgerows. Higher up was woodland. The top appeared to be covered in gorse. Out of sight over the brow of the hill were German radar installations and these had to be destroyed. At the foot of the hill was a small stream we would have to cross.’ The day was oppressively hot.

  The artillery barrage began at 15.00 hours. The 4th Somersets advanced on the left and the 5th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment on the right. About 100 yards beyond the stream, they came under heavy machine-gun fire from the flanks and in front. All the leading companies were pinned down. Some broke back to seek shelter under the bank of the stream, but it became crowded. ‘It was soon obvious that too many people were seeking too little protection,’ wrote Sergeant Partridge with the Somersets. The Somersets and Wiltshires expected the Germans to run out of ammunition, but the rate of fire never seemed to slacken. The Wiltshires were hard hit and their commanding officer killed.

  Partridge’s company sergeant major had his nose shot off. As he staggered back holding a field dressing to his face, Partridge helped him to the regimental aid post near battalion headquarters. There he heard that Major Thomas, the commander of B Company, had been killed while single-handedly rushing a German machine gun. ‘Very gallant,’ observed Partridge, ‘but I had long since learned that dead soldiers do not win battles, and my prime duty was to stay alive and preserve the lives of as many others as possible.’

  A sharp order arrived from their commanding officer saying that there were too many NCOs back at the aid post. ‘Please rejoin your troops.’ Partridge acknowledged that it was a well-deserved rebuke. He returned to 17 Platoon to find ‘four fellows in an abandoned trench crying their eyes out’. These newcomers were not striplings, but men in their late thirties - ‘far too old to live our kind of life’. They came from a disbanded anti-aircraft unit and had been sent forward without infantry training as part of the desperate attempt to man front-line battalions.

  Shortly before dusk, a Sherman of the 13th/18th managed to cross the stream and give covering fire, but the German machine-gun positions were well camouflaged. A different plan was adopted. Once darkness fell, the companies were reorganized. They began to move forward behind a smokescreen in single file as silently as possible. Each man’s equipment was checked to make sure that nothing would rattle.

  Never believing that they would get through unobserved or unheard, they continued to move up the slope. They could hear German voices on eitherside, but fortunately never stumbled on to one of the machine-gun positions. The first two companies of the 4th Somersets made it to the plateau and were soon followed by the other two. They tried to dig in, ready for the inevitable German counter-attack, but found the ground was rock hard.

  Sergeant Partridge then heard what sounded like
a Panther or Tiger tank. He sent a whispered message to the anti-tank man to bring over the PIAT launcher, but the soldier was apologetic. The PIAT had been too heavy to carry up the hill and he had left it behind. Partridge showed great self-control by not strangling him on the spot. In fact, the tank which caused them such alarm in the dark almost certainly belonged to the 13th/18th Hussars, one of whose squadrons had found a route up the side of Mont Pinçon earlier in the night. In the confusion, they do not seem to have known that the infantry had already arrived, and they were radioing for support. Their commanding officer sent up another squadron, while urgently demanding infantry reinforcements.

  By the morning of 7 August, the most dominant feature in Normandy was finally in British hands. In fact, the Germans had melted away. Their withdrawal formed part of a desperately needed attempt to shorten their lines, partly to make up for the transfer of the 1st SS Panzer-Division for the counter-attack being prepared at Mortain.

  Bluecoat had been the climax to a bitter battle on both sides. The 4th Somersets had lost ‘more men in five weeks than in the following nine months’ up to the end of the war. Further west towards Vire, the 10th SS Panzer-Division Frundsberg had been ground down by the 11th Armoured and the Guards Armoured. Eberbach’s headquarters had reported the night before ‘heavy enemy attacks along almost the whole front’. In a final effort, the Frundsberg had counter-attacked the 11th Armoured south of Presles, hoping to close the gap between the Seventh Army and Panzer Group West.

  The next day, when on Hitler’s order Panzer Group West officially became the Fifth Panzer Army, Eberbach reported that there were just ‘three tanks still serviceable’ in the 10th SS Panzer-Division. He had to withdraw it from the line. The ‘fighting spirit’ of his army was ‘unsatisfactory’asaresultof‘losses, with drawals and exhaustion’. There was no question of the II Panzer Corps, or the 12th SS Hitler Jugend, or the 21st Panzer-Division being withdrawn for the counter-attack at Mortain. Even Kluge warned that ‘it was already a grave decision to take away the 1st SS Panzer-Division’. That day, Army Group B reported that since the invasion they had suffered 151,487 casualties, dead, wounded and missing. They had received fewer than 20,000 replacements.


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