D day the battle for nor.., p.46
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.46

           Antony Beevor
 

  24

  The Mortain Counter-attack

  Just before midnight on 2 August, General der Artillerie Warlimont reached the Château de la Roche-Guyon from East Prussia. He had flown to Strasbourg, where a staff car awaited him. His instructions were to assess the American breakthrough, but that day Panzer Group West had been far more concerned about the British drive on Vire, combined with the attack by XXX Corps. ‘Situation still more acute,’ Eberbach reported. ‘Allies trying to join up wedges of penetration on western flank and centre of front.’

  The night before Warlimont left the Wolfsschanze, he and Jodl had been summoned by Hitler. They discussed the option of withdrawal to the lower Seine, but its twists and turns made it a difficult line to defend. Hitler was in two minds. He was extremely reluctant to lose contact with Spain and Portugal, dreading the consequent interruption to supplies of raw materials. Pulling back would also mean the end for the submarine bases on the Atlantic coast. Hitler showed himself more realistic than Warlimont had expected, yet he gave him the strictest instructions not to discuss the matter with Kluge. ‘Whenever a line of defence is prepared to the rear of the front line,’ Hitler remarked, ‘my generals think of nothing but pulling back to that line.’

  After talks with Kluge, Warlimont then visited various headquarters in the field. He saw General Eberbach of Panzer Group West and Sepp Dietrich of I SS Panzer Corps on the Caen front. The rumbustious Meindl appears to have been the most outspoken, especially when Warlimont gave a dramatic account of near misses from Allied fighters on the road. Afterwards, he said of Warlimont, ‘He belonged to the set of toy soldiers into whose hands Fate had placed our fortune!’ All the officers to whom Warlimont spoke were ‘discouraged’ by the overwhelming effect of Allied air power.

  On the morning of 4 August, Warlimont returned to Kluge’s headquarters at La Roche-Guyon. An order had just been received from Hitler to concentrate all the panzer divisions and attack towards Avranches to cut off Patton’s lines of communication. It was to be called Operation Lüttich. Kluge had already considered a similar plan himself, but he feared that ‘he could not hold the line and at the same time launch the counterattack’. Yet Kluge, suspected of complicity in the bomb plot, was in no position to oppose the Führer’s will.

  Since his meeting with Jodl and Warlimont, Hitler’s mood had stiffened and he now rejected any idea of withdrawal. The gambler in him, combined with his taste for the dramatic, had inspired one of his map fantasies. He had been gazing at the divisional symbols on his map, while refusing to acknowledge that most were reduced to a fraction of their theoretical strength. For him, the idea of cutting off Patton’s Third Army proved irresistible. He also justified his idea of holding on in Normandy on the grounds that almost all the infantry divisions were without mechanized transport. Retreat would leave them at the mercy of the American armoured divisions and the Allied air forces. At the same time he refused to take Allied air power into consideration when planning Operation Lüttich. This was typical of his compulsion to see only what suited him.

  Time was against them, as Kluge knew better than Hitler. On the evening of 4 August, Patton returned from Brittany and conferred with Haislip, the commander of XV Corps. Bradley had issued orders for the Third Army to strike east along the Germans’ open flank. Patton told Haislip to take Mayenne and Laval the following day. Less than two hours later, Haislip was briefing his divisional commanders for an attack the next morning. The 79th Infantry Division was to take Laval, while the 90th Infantry Division was to seize the town of Mayenne to the north.

  Patton had been scathing about the 90th when he encountered them on the road east of Avranches just three days before. ‘The division is bad, the discipline poor, the men filthy and the officers apathetic, many of them removing their insignia and covering the markings on helmets. I saw one artillery lieutenant jump out of his Peep and hide in a ditch when one plane flew over at high altitude firing a little.’ But under its new commander, Major General Raymond McLain, the 90th rapidly showed how a formation with low morale could be turned round dramatically by good leadership and a change in circumstances. On 5 August, the 90th seized the town of Mayenne in just six hours. The main crossing over the river had been mined, but ‘a fifteen-year-old French boy went out onto the bridge, and cut the wires’. The 79th took Laval the next morning. The American attack into Brittany, even though it failed to seize a major port, had at any rate distracted the Germans from the real threat to their southern flank. They never expected the Third Army to advance east so rapidly.

  Patton also remained privately scornful of Bradley’s concern that the Germans might launch a major counter-attack to his north around Mortain. ‘Personally I do not give much credence to this,’ he had written in his diary on 1 August, when Bradley broached the subject. He was then irritated the next day when Bradley ordered the corner of the front near Fougères to be strengthened. Patton felt that Bradley was being as cautious as the British. Yet Bradley’s instinct was right, though at this point he had no intelligence to back up his hunch.61

  For Patton, the most pressing problem was logistical. His armoured divisions were running out of fuel and his supply dumps were still north of Avranches. The roads to the rear were jammed with supply trucks and troops. Military police were overwhelmed as they tried to control the traffic passing through the Avranches bottleneck twenty-four hours a day. Even divisional and corps commanders tried to sort out the chaos. ‘Approximately 13,000 trucks, tanks, jeeps, half-tracks and howitzers crossed over the Pontaubault bridge, averaging one vehicle every thirty seconds.’ The Luftwaffe, ordered to make any sacrifice to attack the Avranches route, launched raids by day as well as by night with bombers and fighter-bombers. But the Americans, having overestimated their needs for anti-aircraft artillery battalions in Normandy, were able to concentrate a formidable firepower around the key bridges south of Avranches.

  While Patton’s Third Army began its advance east, Hodges’s First Army continued to push back the Germans south of Vire. On the right, the American 1st Infantry Division was ordered to advance on Mortain and then forge a link with Patton’s forces to the south. Huebner’s 1st Division had an easier task than its neighbours to the north. By the morning of 4 August, the 1st Division had taken Mortain and secured the dominant feature above it, Hill 314, known as the Rochers de Montjoie. When his corps commander, General Collins, reminded him of its importance, Huebner was able to make the satisfying reply, ‘Joe, I already have it.’

  Mortain was a quiet town in dramatic countryside. Long and thin, it lay high on the west side of the Montjoie ridge, with the ravine of the River Cance below. At the north end of the town there were two waterfalls. Most houses had a magnificent view out over the ravine to the steep hills on the far side. Avranches lay less than twenty miles beyond as the crow flies.

  French refugees escaping the battles to the north had sought refuge there. Most arrived on foot as German soldiers had seized their bicycles and carts to get away. The refugees envied its citizens, because the town had suffered no damage. Those who could afford it had a very pleasant lunch at the Hôtel Saint-Michel, and dreamed of peace to come. The only signs of war were Allied aircraft overhead. The Germans in the neighbourhood were mostly invisible during the day, emerging only after dark.

  From behind curtains, others in the area watched the German retreat towards Domfront.‘Some of the troops held themselves well ,others were in a terrible state, men on horses, in pony-traps, pushing handcarts. It reminded us of our own exodus in 1940.’ When the Germans ordered villagers or townspeople to evacuate, the local mayor advised them simply to hide in barns out in the countryside. As the fighting came closer, mothers would check that their younger children had labels tied to their clothes with the address of a relative in case they themselves were killed.

  On the evening of 5 August, Major General Huebner received orders to move the 1st Infantry Division towards Mayenne. At the same time, the 30th Infantry Division in reserve near T
essy-sur-Vire was to move to Mortain immediately in trucks to relieve Huebner’s troops. But it took time to assemble the transport and then the roads were so packed that the 30th Division convoys averaged little more than three miles an hour. Their first troops did not reach Mortain until mid-morning on 6 August. Officers of the 1st Division briefed them on the situation. The sector was quiet, apart from a few artillery shells and some patrol activityon theflank of the Montjoie ridge. Theyadmittedtheir surprise, however, that the night before the Luftwaffe had attacked Mortain with bombs and incendiaries. It had not been very effective, so nobody considered it significant.

  When Colonel Hammond D. Birks, the commanding officer of the 120th Infantry Regiment, reached Mortain, he found that shops were open and the hotels full. To some of his men ‘it seemed like an excellent place for a little rest and relaxation,’ he noted. But suddenly the mood changed. ‘As we arrived there,’ an aid man with the 120th Infantry Regiment wrote later, ‘the few French people left in the town suddenly started to vanish. The word was passed to us that the French had been warned that the Germans were about to attack and they were taking refuge in some caves near the town. This report seemed completely implausible and we continued to lie lazily on the grass.’

  The 2nd Battalion of the 120th dismounted from their trucks in the main street of Mortain and trudged up the side of the rocky Montjoie ridge to take over the 1st Division’s positions around Hill 314. Their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hardaway, made the unfortunate decision to set up his command post in the Grand Hôtel down in the town, rather than with his battalion up on Hill 314. Other companies manned roadblocks leading into the town from north and south. A battalion was also sent south-east to secure the small town of Barenton.

  Most of the German divisions were already concealed in their assembly positions on the Sourdeval-Mortain sector. The Das Reich and the 116th Panzer-Division had withdrawn under cover of darkness on 3 August. The 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler also pulled out of the line south of Caen to join the attack, but it had far to go. The remnants of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen were sent to strengthen the Das Reich, whose task was to cover the southern flank of the offensive and attack Mortain. In the centre, the main force was to consist of the 2nd Panzer-Division, which was to head straight for Juvigny-le-Tertre, just another fifteen miles away. On the northern flank, the 116th Panzer-Division was to attack from near Mont Furgon, west of Sourdeval. The 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, once it arrived, would pass through the other divisions after they had broken the American line and race on to Avranches.

  Jodl warned Kluge that Hitler wanted the attack to be made with the maximum force and told him that he should delay the offensive until 8 August. But Kluge, having just heard that the Americans were advancing from the River Mayenne towards Le Mans, felt he could not wait. Beyond Le Mans lay the Seventh Army’s supply base at Alençon.

  Kluge, Hausser and his chief of staff, Gersdorff, discussed this threat. An American map had been captured showing a thrust from Le Mans on towards Paris, but not north to cut them off. This encouraged them to think that the Allies were not aiming for encirclement. The heavy British attacks ‘were the greatest obstacles in making the decision,’ Gersdorff noted. Hitler showed little concern about the advance of the Third Army. In his view, it simply meant that the counter-attack would cut off even more American troops.

  Kluge saw the Avranches offensive as a means of wrong-footing the Allies before withdrawing to the Loire in the south and the Seine in the east. Hitler, on the other hand, with his manic optimism, saw it as the first step towards re-establishing the front held in Normandy at the beginning of July. OKW promised 1,000 fighters in support of the operation, but none of the senior commanders believed this. ‘They had been deceived so many times in the past and they felt that they would be deceived again,’ Warlimont acknowledged after the war. Yet he himself had been one of Hitler’s deceivers, convincing generals that the situation was better than it really was.

  Operation Lüttich was to be led by General der Panzertruppen Hans Freiherr von Funck, the thoroughly disliked commander of XLVII Panzer Corps. Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin, the intellectually arrogant commander of the 116thPanzer-Division,hadalready had a series of furious rows with Funck over his handling of the counter-attack west of the Vire on 28 July. Funck had accused the 116th Panzer-Division of ‘passive resistance, cowardice and incompetence’. Schwerin was now involved in another bitter argument with Funck over the fighting to maintain the start-line for Operation Lüttich. The newlyarrived 84thInfanterie-Divisiononhisright,whichwassupposed to take over his sector, was buckling under renewed American attacks. Then Funck believed wrongly that Schwerin had failed to transfer a Panther battalion to the 2nd Panzer-Division as ordered. He demanded that Schwerin should be relieved of his command. Since the attack was just about to start, Oberstgruppenführer Hausser refused. All the senior commanders were clearly in a very agitated state.

  At 15.20 hours on 6 August, less than four hours before the offensive was due to begin, Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge received a signal which began in characteristic fashion: ‘The Führer has ordered . . .’ Operation Lüttich, it stated, was not to be led by General von Funck, but by General Eberbach. Hitler loathed Funck because he had been a personal staff officer of Generaloberst Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, whom Hitler had dismissed in 1938. In 1942, Funck had been destined to command the Afrika Korps, but Hitler appointed Rommel instead.

  Kluge was appalled by this decision. He immediately rang the OKW in East Prussia to protest that a change of command a few hours before the attack was ‘virtually impossible’. When told that the operation should be delayed as the Führer insisted, Kluge replied, ‘The attack must be carried out this evening. If we wait any longer, we would have to deal with a grave deterioration in our position. The postponement by a day creates the danger that the enemy air forces would strike our assembly areas.’

  Kluge managed to persuade OKW to postpone the transfer of command to Eberbach, but he had other worries. The advance elements of the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler had only just reached Flers. Kluge rang Seventh Army headquarters to say that he was doubtful whether they would arrive in time. Although the Leibstandarte had started to pull out on the evening of 4 August, its move to the area of Mortain had been delayed by a sudden Canadian attack, then by traffic jams and the odd air strike.

  In spite of Kluge’s fears of bombing raids on their assembly areas, the day saw ‘little air activity’. The 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich lay well hidden under the beech and oak trees of the ancient Forêt de Mortain, a long wooded ridge to the south-east of the town. On the right it had the Führer Panzergrenadier-Regiment, in the middle the battlegroup of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen, and on the left was the Deutschland-Regiment, supported by the 2nd SS Panzer-Regiment, ready to swing past Mortain to the south-west.

  The American 30th Infantry Division in and around Mortain still had little idea of what was afoot. The 4th Infantry Division, which was in reserve, noted in its daily operations log, ‘The war looks practically over.’ This optimism was stimulated by the news of Turkey breaking off relations with Germany, the attempts by Finland, Bulgaria ‘and possibly Hungary’ to get out of the war, the American advances to Brest and Mayenne, and the Red Army reaching the outskirts of Warsaw and the edge of East Prussia. On 6 August, the division’s 12th Infantry Regiment finally pulled back to rest in ‘a beautiful bivouac near the picturesque little town of Brécey. Arrangements for showers, shows, movies and Red Cross “doughnut” girls have hurriedly been made. For the first time since D-Day the hollow-eyed, gaunt-cheeked men of the 12th combat team could relax.’

  That afternoon and evening, the code-breakers at Bletchley Park began to work on a flurry of intercepts. The Luftwaffe was asked to provide night-fighter protection for the 2nd SS Panzer-Division for an attack on and beyond M
ortain. The 2nd and 116th Panzer-Divisions and the Leibstandarte were also identified for an attack whose start-line was between Mortain and Sourdeval. Bradley, although more sceptical of Ultra intelligence than most commanders, was left in no doubt about the seriousness of the attack. He made sure that every artillery battalion available was rushed forward to the threatened sector between the rivers Sée and Sélune. A message was sent to the 30th Infantry Division to reinforce the battalion on Hill 314 above Mortain, but this does not appear to have been received in time. To the north-west, the mayor of Le Mesnil-Tôve warned a company commander of the 117th Infantry of the 30th Division that German troops with tanks were concealed in woods near Bellefontaine, which was behind American lines. When the company commander reported this, he was told by divisional headquarters ‘to stop spreading rumours’.

  The start of the attack, originally scheduled for 18.00 hours, was delayed several times due to the SS Leibstandarte’s late arrival. Changes were also made to the formations at the last moment, mainly because other units to reinforce the operation failed to arrive as a result of Allied pressure on other parts of the front. Kluge, who wanted to make last-minute alterations to the plan, was persuaded to leave things as they were. Finally, at midnight, the advance began without any artillery preparation. The plan was to infiltrate as far as possible before daybreak.

 

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