D day the battle for nor.., p.47
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.47

           Antony Beevor
 

  The first clash took place on the northern flank even before Operation Lüttich officially began. At 22.30 hours on 6 August, two German half-track motorcycles charged through a roadblock of the 39th Infantry Regiment east of Chérencé-le-Roussel,but were knocked out by another company a little further down the road. Everything was then quiet, but around midnight tanks were heard on the road half a mile to their south which led from Bellefontaine to Le Mesnil-Tôve. Nobody made any connection with the mayor’s earlier warning. They assumed that the tanks were American.

  Twohours later,at 02.00 hourson themorning of Monday, 7 August, the battalion in the valley was attacked by German infantry coming from Mont Furgon, just to their north, and more infantry and tanks of the 116th Panzer-Division coming from the east. With the support of some Shermans from the 746th Tank Battalion, they fought them off. The Americans still assumed that this was just a local attack. But it soon became clear that the main German axis of advance lay on the smaller road to their south via Le Mesnil-Tôve. This was the northern column of the 2nd Panzer-Division and, by 05.00 hours, they had swarmed through the village and on to Le Mesnil-Adelée.

  The advance of the 2nd Panzer-Division’s southern column was delayed until 05.00 hours. Part of the 117th Infantry Regiment in Saint-Barthélemy could hear the ominous sound of panzers advancing, but the mist was so thick that visibility was reduced to little more than twenty yards. While some of the roadblocks outside the town were easily overrun, one anti-tank position managed to hold up a detachment of Panthers, knocking out two. Other groups of Panthers supported by infantry attacked from other directions, including an advance detachment from the 1st SS Panzer-Division. American infantrymen fought running battles, using bazookas. They resisted ‘extraordinarily well,’ as General von Lüttwitz of the 2nd Panzer-Division later acknowledged.

  Eight Panthers entered Saint-Barthélemy and halted in the main street, just outside the advance headquarters of Lieutenant Colonel Frankland of the 1st Battalion of the 117th Infantry. One of his officers looked out of the window to see a Panther just below. They then heard noises at the rear of the house. Frankland went to investigate and found two of his signallers being marched out with their hands above their heads. He shot down two of the SS troopers who had called them out and saw another Panther in the street at the back of the house. Astonishingly, Frankland’s command group managed to escape out of a window and rejoin one of the companies. Under the onslaught of the SS panzergrenadiers, most of Frankland’s battalion had to withdraw, jumping hedges and scuttling down ditches.

  Although Frankland’s battalion had been overrun, theirfierce defence of Saint-Barthélemy had inflicted a crucial delay on the 2nd Panzer-Division’s advance towards Juvigny-le-Tertre. The Panthers did not resume their advance until late in the morning. This gave the Americans time to rush in reinforcements, especially to block the northern column in Le Mesnil-Adelée, two miles west of Le Mesnil-Tôve.

  Soon after midnight, the three Kampfgruppen of the Das Reich and Götz von Berlichingen had advanced on Mortain and Hill 314. They too were helped by the heavy mist, which muffled the noise of their engines.

  At 01.25 hours on 7 August, the American battalion on Hill 314 stood to on hearing small-arms fire. The Germans had found a route past the roadblock down at the southern entry to the town. They were attacking up the hill and into Mortain itself. Colonel Hammond Birks, the commander of the 120th Infantry, sent a company into Mortain to clear it, but the Germans were already too well established. At 02.00 hours, the Germans also attacked Hill 314 from the north.

  Birks had no more reserves and Lieutenant Colonel Hardaway, trapped in the Grand Hôtel in the centre of the town, could not rejoin the bulk of his battalion on the hill above. He and his group, including three other officers, tried to make their way from the Grand Hôtel across the town towards the hill, but patrols of SS panzergrenadiers forced them to seek shelter in an abandoned house.

  While most of the roadblocks were quickly overrun, the defensive position near the Abbaye Blanche, just outside the northern edge of the town, inflicted heavy casualties on its SS Das Reich attackers. Lieutenant Springfield’s tank destroyer platoon with its three-inch guns fired at comparatively close range as each German half-track emerged from the fog. ‘A loud clang followed by a red glow announced each direct hit. As the occupants of the armored personnel carriers tumbled out of their stricken machines, they were sprayed with machinegun fire. Tracers ricocheted wildly off the road as well as the armored flanks of immobilized vehicles.’ Colonel Birks, aware of the importance of the Abbaye Blanche position, reinforced it with two platoons. One of their commanders, Lieutenant Tom Andrew, soon took over the direction of the defensive battle there.

  A company from Lieutenant Colonel Lockett’s battalion of the 117th Infantry had been sent with four tank destroyers into Romagny, a mile south-west of Mortain, to block the road junction there. They received a nasty shock on finding that the Germans had already taken the place. Lockett’s battalion was not only split into different detachments, they were facing in three directions and Germans were infiltrating their positions using captured American weapons. With the very distinctive sound that they made, American soldiers kept thinking that they were being fired on by their own side. Lockett had only about thirty men left under his direct control. Many of them were not riflemen, but they had to fight as such. The battalion aid station was almost overwhelmed by the number of casualties.

  Across the valley on Hill 314, the situation for the 2nd Battalion of the 120th was already desperate. They were surrounded by the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Kampfgruppe. Their wounded lay in the open, vulnerable to mortar rounds. Company positions were isolated and short of ammunition because they could not reach their dump, which was now covered by sniper fire. As a result of Hardaway’s absence, Captain Reynold C. Erichson was told to take command of the bulk of the 2nd Battalion on the hilltop position. Using boulders, foxholes and undergrowth for concealment, the ‘Lost Battalion’, as it became known, held out on Hill 314. Their greatest asset was a forward artillery observer who, once the mist began to lift, could call down fire and correct it from his commanding viewpoint.

  In need of rapid support to halt the German panzers, General Bradley and General Hodges contacted General Quesada’s headquarters. As soon as the mist lifted at around 11.00 hours, P-47 Thunderbolts went into action. But the Americans, accepting that the RAF’s rocket-firing Typhoons offered the most effective weapon against tanks, contacted Air Marshal Coningham’s 2nd Tactical Air Force. Coningham and Quesada agreed that the Typhoons ‘should deal exclusively with the enemy armoured columns’ while American fighters would provide a screen and American fighter-bombers would attack transport in the German rear areas.

  Although it was a damp, misty morning at the airstrip of Le Fresne-Camilly, north of Caen, two Typhoons had been sent out on a reconnaissance mission. They spotted German armour moving in the Mortain area. On landing, the two pilots ran to the intelligence tent. A Jeep was sent over towards the aircrew tents beyond a tall hedge, the driver sounding his horn in warning. Ground crews rushed to prepare the Typhoons for take-off, while the pilots assembled in the briefing tent.

  ‘This is the moment we have all been waiting for, Gentlemen,’ Wing Commander Charles Green told them, having had confirmation of the mission from Coningham’s headquarters a few moments before. ‘The chance of getting at Panzers in the open. And there’s lots of the bastards.’ They were to attack in pairs, not in squadron formation. Flight time to target was no more than fifteen minutes. This meant that the whole wing could create a ‘continuous cycle of Typhoon sorties’.

  The pilots ran to their aircraft. One of them, out of a personal superstition, insisted on his usual practice of urinating against the tailplane before climbing into the cockpit. Pilots in 123 Wing came from many nations. It was almost an aerial foreign legion, with British pilots, Belgians, French, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Norwegians, Poles, an Arge
ntinian and even a German Jew called Klaus Hugo Adam (later the film-maker, Sir Ken Adam).

  The sun was burning off the mist as the eighteen squadrons of 83 Group scrambled. In addition to their 20 mm cannon, the Typhoons had underwing rails which carried eight rockets, each with a sixty-pound high-explosive warhead. Some pilots claimed that their salvo was the equivalent of a broadside from a light cruiser. Trials, however, had shown that the average pilot firing all eight rockets had ‘roughly a four-per-cent chance of hitting a target the size of a German tank’. The plane at least had a ‘brute strength and ruggedness’ which stood up better than most aircraft to ground fire.

  The first wave went into action against the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler on the road running west from Saint-Barthélemy. Dun-coloured dust stirred up by the tracks of the armoured vehicles revealed their target as the Typhoons approached. New pilots tried to remember the training mantra ‘Diving point - release point - Scram!’, as well as the need to prevent the plane from sliding into a sideways ‘skid’. The first target was the lead vehicle. The second was the last vehicle in the column. They either fired their rockets in salvoes of eight, or they ‘rippled’ them, firing in a sequence of pairs. Once their rockets were used up, pilots tried to bounce 20 mm cannon rounds off the road just short of their target so that they would hit the weaker underbelly of a tank or half-track. Soon the black smoke billowing from blazing panzers made it hard to see clearly, and the dangers of mid-air collision increased.

  Within twenty minutes of take-off, the Typhoons were on their way back to rearm and refuel in a veritable production line. On the ground, the pilots sweated impatiently in the terrible heat of their cockpits under the bubble Perspex canopy. The propellers powered by the Typhoon’s Sabre engine blasted dust in clouds everywhere, so ground-crew and armourers, stripped to the waist in the August heat, had to wear handkerchiefs tied over their face like bandits. As soon as the pilot received the thumbs-up sign, he could taxi round ready for take-off again. And so the shuttle went on. The 2nd Panzer-Division’s advance on Juvigny-le-Tertre was also halted.

  American fighter squadrons played their part superbly. Very few of the Luftwaffe’s promised 300 fighters arrived within forty miles of Mortain. The Luftwaffe later rang Seventh Army headquarters to apologize: ‘Our fighters have been engaged in aerial combat from the time of take-off and were unable to reach their actual target area. They hope, however, that their aerial engagements helped just the same.’ The Seventh Army staff officer replied stiffly, ‘There was no noticeable relief.’ The main opposition to the Typhoons came from machine-gun fire. Three aircraft were lost and many damaged, but soon the Leibstandarte reported that their armoured vehicles were running low on ammunition.

  Round Mortain, where the opposing forces were more mixed up and harder to differentiate, there were a number of cases of Typhoons attacking American positions by mistake. They destroyed several American vehicles and inflicted some casualties. For example, at the Abbaye Blanche roadblock commanded by Lieutenant Andrew, they wounded two men from a tank destroyer crew. But ‘the British were soon forgiven,’ Lieutenant Andrew said afterwards, because ‘they did a wonderful job against the Germans’.

  American soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans in Mortain found it disorientating to shelter from Allied aircraft. An aid man hugging the ground during the attack found that he had to raise his chest from the earth to reduce the concussive effects from the explosions. After the Typhoons had left, their guards surveyed the burning vehicles, shook their heads and said, ‘Alles kaputt!’ This time, the first things the Germans had taken from them were water purification tablets, morphine and other medical supplies for their own wounded. Usually, German captors were more interested in grabbing cigarettes or any candy from their prisoners to relieve a craving which their own rations seldom satisfied.

  By 16.00 hours, smoke and dust over the target areas made further low-flying operations impossible. Most of the Typhoons were diverted to deal with a German counter-attack against the British 11th Armoured Division east of Vire. The eighteen Typhoon squadrons of 83 Group had flown 294 sorties. ‘As the day developed,’ Air Marshal Coningham wrote in his official report, ‘it was obvious that air history was being made.’ He then went on to record the score. ‘During this day the rocket-firing Typhoons of the Second Tactical Air Force claimed to have destroyed 89 tanks, probably destroyed another 56 tracked vehicles and saw 47 motor vehicles smoking. These claims do not include 56 enemy tanks damaged and 81 motor vehicles damaged.’

  Five months later Coningham was furious when he received the report of the Operational Research Section, which had examined the area immediately after the battle and studied the German vehicles left behind. In the Mortain area they found that out of seventy-eight German armoured vehicles destroyed, only nine were attributable to air attack. Clearly, some of the less seriously damaged had been recovered by the Germans before they retreated, but the general conclusion about the accuracy of the Typhoon came as a nasty shock to the Royal Air Force. Coningham seemed to consider the report somehow disloyal and rejected it, but a second report confirmed its findings.

  German generals, on the other hand, were quick to attribute their reversal to Allied air power. ‘Whether you realise it or not,’ Geyr von Schweppenburg tactlessly told his American interrogators at the end of the war, ‘it was British rocket-carrying planes that halted our counterattack at Avranches, not your 30th Infantry Division.’ In most cases their argument was based on sheer self-justification. And yet German sources are not alone in attributing their reversal at Mortain to these rocket attacks.

  In many instances, fear of the Typhoon prompted panzer crews to abandon their tank in terror, even though they would have been safer inside it than out. An American sergeant observed, ‘There is nothing but air attack that would make a crack panzer crew do that.’ And an abandoned tank was almost as effective as a destroyed tank in blocking a column on a narrow road. In any case, the Typhoon operation on 7 August forced the 2nd Panzer-Division and the Leibstandarte off the roads and into cover, thus halting their advance. This gave the First US Army the chance to bring in artillery and armour to strengthen the line.

  There were soon twelve and a half field artillery battalions firing in support of the 30th Infantry Division, including three battalions of 155 mm ‘Long Toms’. Air observers in the Cub spotter planes could direct and adjust their fire, so that every major route was made virtually impassable. But although the German offensive had been thwarted, the position of American units around Mortain remained perilous.

  Lieutenant Andrew’s roadblock at the Abbaye Blanche suffered frequent Nebelwerfer salvoes, although fortunately they had taken over well-built German foxholes with overhead protection. A hazardous supply route to the west via Le Neufbourg was also kept open. But there was little chance of sending help to the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry up on Hill 314. Captain Erichson’s force was split between three positions. They had many wounded and were very short on ammunition. Only American artillery fire, directed by Lieutenant Robert Weiss, the forward observer with the ‘Lost Battalion’, had prevented the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Kampfgruppe from overrunning them. He had pre-registered all the likely attack routes and assembly areas below them, so that their field artillery could support them even through the hours of darkness.

  At 19.00 hours, Lieutenant Colonel Lockett sent part of his battalion of the 117th Infantry (which had been attached to the 120th) into Le Neufbourg, the village at the north end of Mortain and next to the Abbaye Blanche. The idea was to clear Mortain, but as soon as the leading company entered the north-west edge of the town, German machine guns opened up from houses on both sides of the street and artillery and mortar shells soon began to rain down. They suffered seventy-three casualties in a very short time and the company was forced to withdraw. Colonel Lockett, realizing the impossibility of storming Mortain with such a reduced force and recognizing the importance of the Abbaye Blanche roadblock, to
ld the remnants of the company to join the force there. But a number were severely traumatized by the firefight that they had just been in and took little part in the rest of the battle.

  Meanwhile in Mortain itself, a group of about forty-five men from C Company of the 120th were trapped without food and water and with a number of wounded. They had inflicted heavy casualties on the SS panzergrenadiers trying to clear the town. Colonel Lockett wanted to get them out so that Mortain could be bombarded at will. A rescue patrol was assembled with several stragglers from the beleaguered company and a dozen litter-bearers to carry back the wounded. They were led by Sergeant Walter Stasko, who had reconnoitred the perilous route down into the gorge and up the far side. Covering fire was given by the mortar platoon, which had a clear view from its position on a hill west of the ravine. The patrol managed to reach most of the men and lead them out, but the steep descent was so difficult that they had to carry the wounded down the hill on their backs.

  On 8 August, the main concern of the 30th Division was to preserve the position of the ‘Lost Battalion’ on Hill 314. They tried to drop supplies by Piper Cub spotter planes, but the Das Reich had brought in anti-aircraft guns to thwart this. The Lost Battalion was ‘a thorn in the flesh’, a German corps commander acknowledged. ‘Its courageous commitment paralyzed all movements in the Mortain area.’ But without water, ammunition, food or medical supplies, their hopes of holding out seemed to be diminishing rapidly.

  That day, while fighting continued in and around Mortain, the Americans launched a counter-attack against Romagny, to the south-west of the town. Meanwhile Bradley brought in the 2nd Armored Division and a regiment from the 35th Infantry Division to attack the German southern flanks round Mortain. The 2nd Armored, advancing from Barenton, ran into the remnants of the 10th SS Panzer-Division Frundsberg, which Eberbach had been forced to withdraw after its battering by the British 11th Armoured Division east of Vire. The increased strength of the Americans around Barenton ensured that the Germans were not able to relaunch their offensive further to the south, as they had hoped.

 

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