D day the battle for nor.., p.49
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.49

           Antony Beevor
 

  At 23.00 hours on 7 August, a bombing raid on the flanks of the advance began with 1,000 Lancasters and Halifaxes. Without waiting, the offensive started with seven mobile columns of tanks and Priests carrying the infantry. An artillery bombardment, advancing at ninety yards a minute, preceded them. Each column - three British on the east of the road and four Canadian on the west - proceeded with four tanks abreast. They had practised keeping formation at night. ‘Blimey! Square-bashing in tanks,’ commented a radio operator with the 1st Northants Yeomanry on the left.

  To help the tank drivers in the dark, ‘artificial moonlight’ was created by reflecting searchlights off the cloud above and Bofors guns fired green tracer over their heads to point the way. But the pall of dust thrown up by the shelling and bombing, and the craters in their way soon put paid to the column formation. A number of tanks toppled into craters in the dark. Over the uneven ground, the Shermans and Cromwells rolled and dipped like ships in a heavy sea. Flail tanks led the way to explode mines. There was much stopping and starting, with frequent hold-ups usually caused by hedgerows which had to be breached in the dark, with a dismounted crew member directing the driver with the glow of a cigarette tip.

  Asordered,the British columns forged on even though heavy fighting continued in their rear for La Hogue and Tilly-la-Campagne. The Canadians also had trouble finding their way in the dark and dust. On the right flank, the Calgary Highlanders encountered well-sited 88s as they advanced on May-sur-Orne, and the Black Watch of Canada also suffered in their attack on Fontenay-le-Marmion. The 2nd Canadian Division’s lack of battle experience contributed to its heavy casualties. The Germans resisted fiercely. They were already under pressure from the British 59th Division, which had just gained bridgeheads across the river to their rear in the Forêt de Grimbosq.

  One of the 59th Division’s infantry battalions, the 7th Norfolks, had crossed the Orne, following a very tall officer, Captain Jamieson, who had marched in to see if they could wade across. During the day of 7 August, the 26th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment from the Hitler Jugend had counter-attacked. Sergeant Courtman of the Norfolks managed to knock out two Panthers and a Mark III Panzer with his anti-tank gun, which had greatly boosted morale. That night in the forest the Norfolks could hear more tanks moving about ahead of them, so they called for artillery support. The rapid fire of twenty-five-pounder batteries convinced many German soldiers that the British had invented an artillery version of the machine gun.

  The next morning, the panzergrenadiers launched another counterattack on the Norfolks. Captain Jamieson, wounded in the right eye and left arm, won a Victoria Cross for leading the defence of D Company. As they were about to be overrun, he called down artillery fire on their own position. Fortunately, radio communications were working well and again their artillery support was excellent. It was also sympathetic. ‘The artillery has an awfully easy job compared with the infantry,’ a young gunner officer noted in his diary. A medical officer with the 59th Division described the battle from a hill west of the Orne:‘A magnificent view of the Orne valley running down to the small town of Thury-Harcourt. There were fires burning in the woods on the far side of the valley caused by shells or mortar bombs.’

  The Orne sector continued to be a heavy slog after the capture of Mont Pinçon. ‘Here on the British front,’ wrote Myles Hildyard at 7th Armoured Division headquarters, ‘[the Germans] are slowly being driven back but [they] fight very hard, naturally, or we should encircle them. It is tiring, unexhilarating fighting, but it pins down Germans and kills them.’ Throughout Operation Totalize, soldiers on field punishment from the 5th Wiltshires continued to bury their dead from the battle for Mont Pinçon. ‘During these days, I seemed to be doing nothing but burials,’ their padre wrote. But he was uplifted by the astonishing resilience of French civilians in the face of suffering. ‘The further on we go,’ he wrote, ‘the more wonderful the spirit of the French, for whom “liberation” usually means loss of everything.’

  Either side of the Falaise road, most of Simonds’s columns had reached theirobjectives bydawnon 8 August.Eastof theroad,the 1st Northants Yeomanry and the Black Watch had taken up positions in woods and orchards just south of Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil. They were very close to Gaumesnil, where Oberführer Kurt Meyer, the commander of the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend, had set up an observation post. This was the critical moment of the whole operation. Simonds, certain that the Germans had established a strong second line with the 1st SS Panzer-Division, had organized a second bombing raid for soon after midday. His two breakthrough armoured divisions were ready to move, but now had to wait for the bombers.

  ‘Panzer’ Meyer had driven forward, alarmed by inaccurate reports that the 89th Infanterie-Division had collapsed under the onslaught. Standing upright in his Kübelwagen, he was horrified to see soldiers from the 89th fleeing towards Falaise. He claims to have jumped out of his vehicle and stood alone on the road, armed with just a carbine to shame them into turning back to defend Cintheaux. General Eberbach, still commanding the Fifth Panzer Army before handing over to Sepp Dietrich, came forward to meet him. He promised to send in the 85th Infanterie-Division as soon as it arrived, but its leading elements were still a dozen miles away. Meyer had already received news of the 1st Polish Armoured Division on the east side of the road and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division to the west. They were halted in their assembly areas, waiting for a new phase of the offensive.

  Meyer said that their only hope was to confuse the enemy with a sudden counter-attack. Eberbach agreed. They both knew that if the Canadians and British broke through to Falaise, the Seventh Army, still trying to relaunch the Avranches counter-attack, would be cut off.Meyer decided that he must pull the panzergrenadiers of the Kampfgruppe Wünsche out of the Forêt de Grimbosq to face the Canadians.

  Meyerwent to Cintheaux to brief Waldmüller, his other Kampfgruppe commander for the counter-attack, and the panzer ace Wittmann, who was to support him with his Tiger company. Meyer claims that as they were discussing the plan, they saw a single American bomber appear overhead and drop a marker. Knowing what that signified, they ran for their vehicles. If they advanced immediately, they would miss the worst of the bombing to come. From the northern edge of Cintheaux, Meyer watched Wittmann’s Tigers roll forwards as fast as they could go towards Saint-Aignan, even though the Allied artillery had begun its bombardment. Waldmüller’s panzergrenadiers followed rapidly in their half-tracks. A machine-gunner yelled to Meyer, pointing to the north. The American bombing force was approaching. Meyer claims that one of his young SS soldiers, a Berliner, called out, ‘What an honour! Churchill is sending one bomber for each of us!’

  Four Shermans from the 1st Northants Yeomanry were well concealed behind hedgerows and in an orchard south of Saint-Aignan. Suddenly they heard their troop leader over the radio. ‘View Hallo! Three Tigers moving north, line ahead.’ The armoured monsters were following a small lane parallel to the main road. The troop leader ordered them to hold their fire. At that range the Sherman’s 75 mm gun against the armour of a fifty-six-ton Tiger ‘would be like a pea-shooter against a concrete wall’. The Shermans needed to wait until the Tigers were closer. The three with 75 mm guns would smother them with fire, while the one Firefly tank with the powerful seventeen-pounder, would try to pick them off.

  Knowing the oft-repeated statistic that a single Tiger usually accounted for three Shermans, the tank crews found their throats go dry in fearful anticipation. Each loader checked that they had an armour-piercing shell in the breech, not high explosive. The gunner, peering through the telescopic sight, traversed the motorized turret slowly, following their target which the troop leader had allocated. The first and last Tigers were the immediate priority.

  After an unbearable wait, their prey came to within 800 yards. The troop leader gave the order over the radio. Wittmann and his Tiger crews, unable to see their ambushers, were taken by surprise. As they came under fire, the Tigers shot back, but they could not ide
ntify the concealed Shermans clearly. The first two Tigers were set ablaze, the third, the one in which Michael Wittmann probably was, blew up completely. The Sharpshooters ambushed at Villers-Bocage had finally been avenged by a fellow yeomanry regiment.

  The Sherman tank crews from the Northants Yeomanry could hardly believe that they had managed to knock out three Tigers for no losses.62 But there was no time for jubilation. Mark IV tanks and panzergrenadiers from Kampfgruppe Waldmüller could be seen advancing through the cornfields ahead.

  Troops of the Polish Armoured Division, wearing their distinctive berets on the centre of the head, were over to the left of the Northants Yeomanry, awaiting their turn to advance. Similarly, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division had moved forward to the west of the Falaise road and halted. There then followed another ‘friendly fire’ disaster as the main American bombing force arrived.

  Formations of over 500 B-17 bombers began to attack six target areas across the front. German sources claim that their flak hit one of the lead bombers, which dropped its load short and that others followed suit. A British artillery officer watching also saw the flak break up the bomber formation. ‘Other aircraft could not find their target and dumped their bombs behind Allied lines causing many casualties,’ he wrote. A doctor who had to deal with the casualties recorded in his diary, ‘The American air force has a bad reputation. They are just as likely to mass bomb our own lines as the Jerries - numerous Canadian and Polish casualties as a result.’

  The Canadian and Polish troops which found themselves under attack from their own side rapidly threw yellow smoke grenades to mark their positions. But due to an appalling case of bad liaison between ground and air forces, the Americans were using yellow markers for their bombing. As a result, 315 Canadians and Poles were killed or wounded. The Poles, with considerable self-restraint, described the incident as ‘unfortunate support given by own aircraft’. But the blow to morale and the confusion were to slow the second phase of Simonds’s offensive, with fatal effect. The bombing itself had achieved nothing save to handicap the subsequent advance. With the benefit of hindsight, Simonds should haved one without it altogether so as to have maintained momentum. He should have sent in his two armoured divisions in the morning, while the Germans were still reeling from the night attack, rather than halting them to wait for the bombers.

  Despite the destruction of Wittmann’s group of Tigers, the counterattack by Meyer’s two Kampfgruppen took the two new Allied armoured divisions aback. Their subsequent performance was hesitant to say the least. After one disastrous cavalry charge in tanks, the Poles were cautious because they were very short of men. Most of their men had fought against the German invasion of Poland in 1939, then escaped across Europe in 1940 to defend France, and finally reached England to continue the battle. German soldiers called these exile volunteers ‘the Sikorski tourists’, after their commander-in-chief and their astonishing journeys.

  Polish recruiting teams had even been scouring prisoner of war camps to find Wehrmacht soldiers of Polish origin to make up their numbers. Quite a few served as a result on both sides during the Normandy campaign. The Canadians were also short of men, after their very heavy lossessouth of Caen, especiallyaround Verrièresand onthe Bourguébus ridge. Unlike the British, they could not produce reinforcements by disbanding a division.

  It became clear during the afternoon of 8 August that the immense possibilities opened up by Totalize were rapidly lost. The Canadians to the west of the Falaise road suffered from bad communications and bad map-reading. Simonds became frantic at the lack of drive shown by the 4th Armoured Division, yet despite all his urging, few columns obtained any momentum. He ordered them to continue the advance during the night, but many units simply retired to all-round defence positions to await the next dawn.

  The Germans, however, did not yet know how effective Meyer’s counter-attack had been. Eberbach had been out of touch with Meyer since noon. At 21.10 hours that evening, Kluge, already desperate about the failure at Mortain, stated that the situation on the Falaise front was ‘becoming very serious’. He thought that the 89th Infanterie-Division and the Hitler Jugend were ‘practically destroyed’ and that the bulk of the artillery was lost. He warned that a further Allied advance south towards Falaise would mean that their ‘own attack towards Avranches would lose its purpose’. Kluge promised to send a Panther battalion of the 9th Panzer-Division and one from the SS Hohenstaufen, but neither was able to disengage from their own battles.

  During the next day, 9 August, the panzergrenadiers of the Hitler Jugend continued to resist fiercely in small groups, holding off vastly superior Allied forces. But the greatest obstacle to the advance of the armoured divisions, as during Goodwood, remained the 88 mm guns, of both the SS and the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe’s III Flak Corps had just moved another forty of them forward to the Falaise front.63

  Before dawn, Simonds ordered one column, known as Worthington Force, to advance south beside the Falaise road and seize Hill 195, north-east of Fontaine-le-Pin. This column, consisting of the British Columbia armoured regiment and two companies from the Algonquins, became hopelessly lost. They crossed the Falaise road south of Cintheaux and, instead of switching back to the west side, carried on and occupied Hill 140 instead of their real objective, four miles to the south-west. Convinced that they had seized the right hill, they reported back and waited.

  Meyer’s new observation post was just three miles to the south on another hill at La Brèche-au-Diable. As soon as the SS spotted this isolated detachment, Kampfgruppe Waldmüller prepared an attack. Worthington Force was surrounded for the rest of the day. When they called for artillery support, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division presumed that they were on Hill 195, as they claimed, and provided heavy interdiction fire there, which did no good at all. Worthington’s ghastly mistake was discovered only in the afternoon. The Grenadier Guards of Canada, an armoured regiment, was sent to their aid, but they lost twenty-six Shermans in the open. Colonel Worthington was killed and his force virtually wiped out. Some of the survivors managed to slip through to join the Polish armoured division.

  On the Orne flank, the German 271st Infanterie-Division received permission that evening from General Eberbach to pull back into the Forêt de Cinglais. Their commander, Generalleutnant Paul Dannhauser, recorded that they had lost half their officers and NCOs. He also noted that because German aircraft were seen so rarely, his own men opened fire at them immediately, assuming them to be Allied.

  The British, now south of Mont Pinçon to the west of the River Orne, had encountered the new German defence line either side of Plessis Grimoult. British troops dubbed the place ‘Bloody Village - a second and even worse Stonkville’, because of the Nebelwerfer rockets raining down. Several tank commanders were killed by shellbursts in the crown of a tree.

  Despite the pressure on the Orne flank, Kluge received reassuring news during the afternoon of 9 August. The German line forward of Falaise had been re-established far more rapidly than he had dared hope only twenty-four hours before. After a discussion with the OKW, he agreed to relaunch Operation Lüttich, the counter-attack towards Avranches. Eberbach took command of the panzer group on the Mortain front, while Sepp Dietrich replaced him as head of the Fifth Panzer Army.

  This decision by the Germans to relaunch the Avranches offensive raises an intriguing but unanswerable question. Did the failure of Operation Totalize turn out to be an advantage for the Allies in the end? If the Canadians had reached Falaise and Kluge had decided to begin his withdrawal from Mortain on 9 August, would much more of the German Seventh Army, or much less, have managed to escape encirclement later?

  Simonds, sorely disappointed, still tried to force forward the advance the next day, 10 August. He wanted to break through the woods at Le Quesnay and on across the River Laizon. But although I SS Panzer Corps was reduced to only forty tanks, most of its 88 mm guns were still in action and formed a powerful screen round Potigny. The Poles particularly felt that the ‘
crystal-gazers’ had gravely underestimated German anti-tank defences. There was also little support from Typhoon squadrons, due to bad visibility, but the British and Canadians still do not appear to have improved ground-air cooperation to the degree which the Americans had achieved.

  That evening, the Hitler Jugend claimed that they had knocked out 192 Allied tanks in the last two days. The OKW communiqué increased the figure to 278 Allied tanks destroyed on both sides of the River Orne. The Allies had in any case lost well over 150 tanks and General Simonds felt obliged to call off the offensive that night. He could only reflect bitterly on the loss of momentum on 8 August. The need to wait for the bombers in the second phase of his plan had given the Germans their chance.

  The fight for the Falaise road appears to have been another savage battle. General Crerar’s warning against retaliation does not seem to have had much effect, considering that there were only eight prisoners from the hated Hitler Jugend in the 1,327 prisoners of war taken to the rear by the II Canadian Corps. Of course, the young SS fanatics were the least likely to surrender even when surrounded, but the figure is nevertheless striking.

  Unlike Simonds’s forces attacking Falaise, General George Patton’s Third Army, rampaging through the German rear seventy miles to the south, did not have to worry very much about 88 mm anti-tank guns. Patton’s main concern was keeping his army replenished. ‘The forces are so large,’ he wrote, ‘twelve divisions to me alone - that the supply system is colossal.’ According to General John C. H. Lee, the chief of SHAEF’s rear services, Patton tried to ‘appropriate the whole of fuel resupply for his own army’. He flattered the truck drivers, handing them Third US Army patches, and sometimes he even commandeered the trucks to shift his infantry rapidly. This provoked exasperation and admiration in his colleagues.

 
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