D day the battle for nor.., p.48
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.48

           Antony Beevor
 

  With Operation Lüttich thwarted by a much more robust American response than expected, the strain on German troops and their commanders increased dramatically. An American private who had been taken prisoner recorded how German officers and soldiers were steadying their nerves during American artillery barrages with bottles of cognac. And front-line units had started to hear from their supply troops that the advance of the American Third Army to the south threatened to cut them off.

  In formation headquarters to the rear, the tension erupted in furious rows, most notably with General von Funck’s vendetta against General von Schwerin of the 116th Panzer-Division. In the suspicious atmosphere following the bomb plot, Schwerin was vulnerable after all his anti-Nazi quips. Funck, falsely accusing the 116th of failing to take part in the operation, finally persuaded Oberstgruppenführer Hausser to relieve Schwerin, even while the battle continued.

  Kluge was close to despair. The Canadian offensive, Operation Totalize, launched towards Falaise on the night of 7 August, meant that he could extract no more forces from the Fifth Panzer Army. He had also counted on the 9th Panzer-Division joining the attack on Avranches, but now found that it was desperately needed to their rear. The American Third Army had sent one of its corps north towards Alençon and the supply base of his own Seventh Army. ‘It was quite clear,’ wrote Gersdorff, Hausser’s chief of staff, ‘that this was to be the knockout blow and the end of the army and the whole of the western front.’

  Encirclement was now a real threat, yet Hitler insisted that the Avranches offensive should be renewed. On 9 August, General der Infanterie Walter Buhle from the OKW arrived at Seventh Army advance headquarters near Flers to ensure that this happened. ‘He insisted on seeing General Hausser personally,’ wrote Gersdorff, the chief of staff. ‘He asked Hausser in a direct question on Hitler’s orders whether he considered “that a continuation of the offensive could be of any success”. Hausser answered in the affirmative.’ He presumed that any other reply would lead to his instant dismissal. Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge, even though he knew that the operation was leading them to disaster, was also in no position to refuse. He ordered Hausser to relaunch the attack with what was now called Panzer Group Eberbach. Both men knew that even if their forces reached Avranches they would never have the strength to hold a position there.

  In Mortain itself, Lieutenant Colonel Hardaway, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion of the 120th, managed to slip out of the town on the east side, but was captured trying to climb Hill 314 to rejoin his men.

  At 18.20 hours, a Waffen-SS officer, accompanied by an SS trooper carrying a white flag, approached one of the battalion’s perimeters. ‘In formal manner’, he stated that he was offering the Americans on the hill the chance of an honourable surrender. They were surrounded and their position was hopeless. If they did not surrender before 22.00 hours, his forces would ‘blow them to bits’. The reply came back that they would not surrender as long as they possessed ‘ammunition to kill Germans with, or a bayonet left to stick in a Boche belly’. The SS attacked with panzers that night, apparently shouting ‘Surrender! Surrender! ’, but they were halted with anti-tank guns and bazookas. Only one tank broke through and took a single American soldier prisoner.

  The Abbaye Blanche roadblock also fought off numerous attacks, including one with flame-throwers. In an attempt to help its defenders and to control the road north out of Mortain, efforts were made to seize the road junction on Hill 278, halfway between Mortain and Saint-Barthélemy. Part of the 12th Infantry Regiment brought down from its rest area in Brécey tried to force back the northern Kampfgruppe of the SS Das Reich. They were then to turn south into Mortain to relieve the beleaguered outposts of the 30th Division. The 2nd Battalion of the 12th Infantry had nearly reached the key crossroads when it was struck ‘a stunning blow’ by Leibstandarte panzers. They pulled back west of a stream and tried to bring up tanks and tank destroyers across the boggy ground, but it proved impossible.

  On 9 August, the Germans attacked again in the early-morning mist south of Saint-Barthélemy. SS panzergrenadiers were seen wearing bits of American uniform and carrying American weapons. One group wore ‘American shoes, leggings, field jackets and helmets’. At times the fighting consisted of close-quarter combat, with panzergrenadiers throwing themselves at the 12th Infantry in their foxholes. German artillery fire was unusually intense. ‘For the first time we sustained heavier fire than we gave,’ an officer observed afterwards. The strain of four days of desperate fighting told after so many weeks of combat: ‘The Regiment had some 300 exhaustion cases during the period.’

  The frenzy of the fighting is indicated by this extraordinary report from the 12th Infantry. Private Burik of E Company, 2nd Battalion, heard a tank approaching from the north. ‘The tank he could see was coming down the road toward the orchard. Grabbing his bazooka he loaded it and stepped out onto the road. On his first attempt to fire the bazooka it did not go off. He found that the safety was stuck. While the tank continued to approach him, [Burik] released the safety and fired point-blank at the tank.’ The tank then fired directly at him, knocking him down and seriously injuring him. He arose, loaded the bazooka, took direct aim and fired again. The tank fired another round, knocking him down again. ‘Dragging himself up to a firing position, [Burik] loaded the bazooka a third time and from his shaky position fired at the tank. Jerry had had too much and withdrew up the hill. [Burik] with utter disregard for his own safety then tried to push another injured soldier into a foxhole.’ Burik turned and called for more bazooka ammunition, then fell unconscious along the side of the road. Later he died from his wounds.

  Another attempt to seize the road junction on Hill 278 was led by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel A. Hogan, with a battalion of the 119th Infantry riding on his tanks from the 3rd Armored Division. They took a circuitous route round to the west of Mortain and across the railway bridge near the Abbaye Blanche roadblock. Held up by the Der Führer Regiment of the Das Reich, they had to spend the night in all-round defence east of the road. Then, on 10 August, they were involved in furious fighting among high hedgerows which cost Hogan nine Shermans.

  There was a particular hedgerow which the Shermans had to break through to continue the advance. After a ‘rhino’ tank made an opening, Lieutenant Wray, who had acknowledged that it was a suicide mission, led the charge through the gap. As his Sherman broke out into a wheatfield, a concealed German Panther scored a direct hit. Several of the crew died instantly. Wray himself jumped from the blazing tank, his body badly burned. He fell to his hands and knees, while the supporting infantry platoon, commanded by Lieutenant Edward Arn, watched in horror. ‘Then he pulled himself to his feet,’ Arn recounted, ‘and started back towards the hedgerow he had just busted through. It seemed as if he remembered something because he went back to the tank. He helped get another man out and they both started to run, but the Jerries cut them down with a burst of machinegun fire.’

  Arn’s platoon had pulled back into the nearest hedgerow, but to their surprise they were able to exact a rapid revenge. A group of Germans walked up to inspect Wray’s burning tank. ‘They came out in a little bunch and stood around it,’ said Arn. ‘Curiosity, I guess.’ Arn and his men ‘mowed them down’.

  Hogan’s combat team was so short of men that Sergeant Kirkman went back to Le Neufbourg to fetch reinforcements. He returned with thirty-six inexperienced replacements through German artillery fire. Several were killed or wounded on the way. According to Kirkman, the man right next to him was hit with a splinter from a treeburst which entered the back of his head and came right out through his face. The new arrivals were severely shaken by the time they reached the combat team. Lieutenant Arn asked Kirkman where his replacements were.

  ‘There, under that tank,’ the sergeant replied.

  Most of these replacements, ‘suddenly placed under the heavy enemy artillery and machinegun fire, were frozen into immobility’. This, of course, made them doubly vulnerable. Arn recounted
that he ‘had to actually boot some of them in the tail to get them to move for their own protection. One man crouched in a foxhole with his hands clasped over his head and got a direct hit from an 88 that took his head clean off.’ Out of the thirty-six new men, only four survived.

  Hogan’s reduced force, almost within striking distance of its objective, was attacked in the flank by a panzergrenadier battalion. The Americans fought them off, then as soon as the Germans had disappeared into their foxholes, they bombarded them with white phosphorus. The shower of burning particles forced them to jump out. The Americans then switched to high explosive to cut them down. Soon after night fell, German aircraft arrived to attack the American positions, ‘but instead they bombed their own troops who frantically shot off green flares to stop this unexpected blow’. Colonel Hogan commented that the sight was ‘very enjoyable’.

  Before dawn on 10 August, the SS Kampfgruppe besieging the ‘Lost Battalion’ began the first of a series of attacks. Lieutenant Weiss again called down fire from their supporting artillery battalions. Communications, however, were becoming increasingly difficult as he could not recharge his radio batteries. Medical supplies were desperately needed. The battalion had no doctor and aid men cared for their wounded in deep slit trenches. All the soldiers felt weak from lack of food. Some of the more daring slipped out in foraging parties at night to fetch carrots, potatoes and radishes from allotment gardens down the hill. Two sergeants even managed to find some rabbits in cages being fattened for the pot by locals.

  That afternoon C-47 transport planes, escorted by P-47 Thunderbolts, dropped seventy-one containers on Hill 314, but due to the breeze only a few fell within the American perimeters. Ammunition and rations were recovered, but no batteries or medical supplies. The 230th Field Artillery Battalion then tried to fire packs containing blood plasma, morphine, sulfa and bandages on to the hilltop using 105 mm smoke shells hollowed out. Only three packages were recovered and none of the plasma survived its explosive journey.

  Although little could be done for the wounded on Hill 314, ambulances ferried casualties from the fighting elsewhere back for treatment. In addition to the usual battle injuries, there were many caused by rock fragments. The 128th Evacuation Hospital near Tessy-sur-Vire ran out of tentage. Ambulances waiting to unload were backed up for half a mile down the road.

  By the evening of 11 August, the Das Reich had been forced to withdraw from their positions west of Mortain. And although the American counter-attacks from the south with the 35th Infantry Division and the 2nd Armored Division had been badly coordinated with the 30th Infantry Division, they were finally within reach of Hill 314.

  That day, Kluge managed to persuade the OKW and Hitler that, as a temporary measure before resuming the Avranches offensive, part of Panzer Group Eberbach should counter-attack the American divisions threatening the supply base at Alençon. This was Kluge’s only way of starting a retreat before they were encircled. ‘Under cover of this operation, the Seventh Army was to withdraw,’ one of his corps commanders observed.

  That night, after firing off most of their artillery ammunition, German units began to pull back. They covered their traces well in most places, retiring behind an aggressive rearguard. The Americans were not sure of what was happening until after daylight on 12 August. The 1st Battalion of the 39th Infantry, as they advanced, found jocular thank-you notes from German panzergrenadiers for the chocolate, cigarettes and ammunition which had been dropped on them by mistake, instead of on Hill 314 above Mortain.

  The withdrawal did not escape the attention of Lieutenant Weiss up on the Rochers de Montjoie. He called down fire on the troops and vehicles heading east and soon five artillery battalions were bombarding their exit. The ‘Lost Battalion’ was finally relieved. Trucks with food and medical supplies followed the troops as they trudged up the hill. The 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry on Hill 314 had suffered nearly 300 casualties out of 700 men. The battalion received a presidential citation for its outstanding resilience and bravery. Its heroic defence had been an essential element in the victory.

  Colonel Birks, the commander of the 120th Infantry, had first hurried to the Abbaye Blanche roadblock, fearing to find only a few survivors. He was amazed to hear that just three men had been killed and twenty wounded out of this force. Birks walked up the different roads to survey all the burnt and smashed German vehicles. ‘It was the best sight I had seen in the war,’ he said afterwards. He proceeded down the hill and round the corner into Mortain.

  The main street was impassable to vehicles. The centre of the town was little more than a heap of ruins, with just some walls and chimneys still standing. Most of the destruction had been wrought on the eve of its liberation. Almost unbelievably, the chief of staff of the 30th Division said, ‘I want Mortain demolished . . . hammer that all night, burn it up so nothing can live in there.’ This innocent French town had been destroyed in a terrifying fit of pique. Birks, to his astonishment, found himself being embraced by a small group of his officers and men in an emotional state, having been trapped there for several days and during its bombardment the night before.

  Late on 13 August, the 12th Infantry Regiment and its ‘incredibly weary troops’ returned to the 4th Division to rest. It appears that their commander, Major General Barton, did not fully appreciate what his men had been through. He was more concerned about ‘the attitude of “silent mutiny” which recently appeared among some men who up to now had been good soldiers. These men have decided that they’re being pushed around, that nobody cares about them and they have decided that they are through and will quit trying.’ The officers, he implied, were partly to blame for not keeping their men ‘in fighting spirit’.

  When Warlimont reported on the failure of Operation Lüttich, Hitler listened to him for almost an hour in the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia. ‘Kluge did it deliberately,’ was all he said when Warlimont had finished. ‘He did it to prove that it was impossible to carry out my orders.’

  25

  Operation Totalize

  While the American 30th Division fought desperately to hold on to Mortain, the newly constituted First Canadian Army launched another major attack down the road to Falaise. This was Operation Totalize. Montgomery did not think much of its commander, Lieutenant General Henry Crerar, and made it abundantly clear. He saw him as a gunner of the First World War, uninspiring and ponderous. Crerar’s rigidity had not been admired by the Canadian 1st Infantry Division in Italy, who much preferred serving under experienced British commanders from the Eighth Army.

  There was also a political dimension. Crerar was determined to defend Canadian interests. Monty saw this as a challenge to his command. Senior Canadian officers detected a supercilious attitude towards them, which was not helped when Montgomery sent some of his staff officers to Crerar’s headquarters to supervise the operation. Montgomery also regarded Major General Rod Keller of the 3rd Canadian Division as ‘quite unfit to command a division’. On the other hand, he greatly admired Lieutenant General Guy Simonds of II Canadian Corps, who planned and commanded Totalize.

  Because of the shortage of Canadian troops, First Canadian Army was made up to strength with I British Corps and also the recently arrived 1st Polish Armoured Division. The attack was to begin just before midnight on 7 August. The 51st Highland Division, now returning to their earlier high standard, would advance down the east side of the Caen- Falaiseroad,whilethe 2nd Canadian Division advanced on the west side. General Crerar, aware that stories of the SS killing Canadian prisoners had spread to his newly arrived troops, issued a strong order against committing excesses ‘to avenge the death of our comrades’.

  Simonds had learned from earlier British mistakes, especially those made during Goodwood. He decided to launch a night attack to reduce losses from the Germans’ vastly superior 88 mm anti-tank guns. He also mounted leading infantry units in armoured vehicles. To obtain a sufficient quantity of carriers for them, the 105 mm artillery guns were removed from self-prope
lled ‘Priests’, which were dubbed ‘defrocked Priests’. This would help the attacking formations to move forward with infantry immediately the bombers had finished saturating the German front-line positions.

  Simonds, however, was misled by information gathered from a Yugoslav deserter who had slipped across the lines from the 89th Infanterie-Division to surrender. This man reported that his division had just replaced the 1st SS Panzer-Division. Simonds, not realizing that the Leibstandarte had been diverted to the Mortain counter-attack, assumed it had simply been withdrawn to stiffen the second line between Saint-Sylvainand Bretteville-sur-Laize.Thisinfluenced hisviewof thebattle. He decided that the second phase, led by the Polish and Canadian armoured divisions, should not begin until after another bombing attack at 13.00 hours the following day.

  The start-linefor Totalizewas alongthe Bourguébusridge. The Canadians had already lost many men hammering away at the villages of Verrières, Tilly-la-Campagne and La Hogue, where their attack had in fact delayed thedeparture of the SS Leibstandarte for Mortain. The tank crews of the British 33rd Armoured Brigade with the 51st Highland Division had a ‘last supper’ of bully beef and hard-tack ‘dog’ biscuits, mugs of tea made foul with over-chlorinated water and a rum ration out of a large stoneware bottle. It was a hot night, so tank crews wore little more than a pair of shorts under their denim coveralls. Mostfelttheusualchill up the spine and an empty feeling in the guts at the prospect of battle.

 
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