D day the battle for nor.., p.50
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.50
 

           Antony Beevor

  The United States Army was the most mechanized force that the world had ever seen, but that brought its own problems. A single tank on average consumed 8,000 gallons of fuel a week. The 3rd Armored Division estimated that just following the road, the division required 60,000 gallons a day. If the division had to go across country, the figure soared. (One 3rd Armored quartermaster calculated 125,000 gallons for the whole division to move 100 yards.) On top of the fuel, an armoured division required thirty-five tons of rations per day for 21,000 men, including all those attached to it, and, depending on the intensity of the fighting, a far greater tonnage of ammunition.

  The Americans met the challenge with ruthless prioritization. ‘Supply trains’ with fuel and oil received absolute priority. Each M-25 transporter carried 16,000 gallons. They even used ammunition trucks from the artillery to haul more gasoline. Military police and Piper Cubs were employed to monitor the progress of every convoy, and engineers worked round the clock to improve roads and bridges. At Le Mans, they built the biggest Bailey bridge so far in France and called it ‘Miss America’. It was hardly surprising that the Germans were enviously amazed by what they called ‘a rich man’s war’.

  On 8 August, while the battle for Mortain and Operation Totalize were at their height, Bradley became taken with the idea of trapping the Germans between Argentan and Falaise. Eisenhower, who was visiting his headquarters at the time, approved. Another visitor that day was Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury. Bradley, excitedly showing him the map, said, ‘This is an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We’re about to destroy an entire hostile army.’

  Bradley rang Montgomery to outline the plan. Montgomery agreed somewhat hesitantly. He preferred a longer envelopment just short of the Seine. (If Bradley’s idea had been proposed twenty-four hours later, once it was clear that Simonds’s attack had stalled, Montgomery might well have rejected it.) Patton, who also preferred to catch the retreating Germans on the Seine, was even more dubious, but he agreed to divert Haislip’s XV Corps north from Le Mans towards Alençon and Argentan, ready to meet up with the First Canadian Army coming south from Falaise. He felt that he could always set a second trap later.

  Meanwhile, Patton’s XX Corps was clearing his southern flank along the Loire valley. As they approached Angers, a company of Shermans cut off a small German convoy and found that they had captured ‘the pay of an entire division’. On 9 August, part of the corps attacked Angers with three battalions abreast. They were held up by a large anti-tank ditch. Engineers with bulldozers filled in sections so that the tanks could cross and soon they were into the town. The three bridges over the River Mayenne had been blown, but the engineers managed to make one useable. On the night of 10 August, the Americans began crossing to the east bank. The 5th Division’s 2nd Infantry Regiment set about clearing the town. ‘The French beat up the collaborators,’ reported one lieutenant, ‘and although we took them away they would take them back and beat them up some more.’

  German attempts to defend their southern flank seemed doomed to failure amid the chaos. The 9th Panzer-Division was badly mauled and the 708th Infanterie-Division completely smashed. Only sixty stragglers appeared later.64 The local commander at Le Mans was accused of having ‘lost his nerve’, and faced a court martial.

  Kluge and Eberbach had no clear idea where Patton’s spearheads had reached. But on 10 August, the Germans intercepted a radio message of the 5th Armored Division. This confirmed their fears that the left flank of Patton’s Third Army was swinging north towards Alençon,threatening boththeirrearand theirmainsupply base.Scratch units were made up in the town from ‘supply troops, maintenance platoons, and tanks under repair’ from the remnants of the Panzer Lehr Division. Panzerfaust launchers were distributed to mechanics and cooks alike. But Alençon was doomed.

  On 11 August at midday, Eberbach reached LXXXI Corps headquarters north-east of Alençon for a meeting with Kluge and Hausser. They heard that the 9th Panzer-Division had been badly battered and was retreating to the woods north of the town. The 9th Panzer, now reduced to little more than an infantry battalion, an artillery battalion and six tanks, would not be able to hold out much longer. The Americans would overrun the corps headquarters very soon. The senior officers present made preparations for a hurried departure to the east. There was now not even time for Eberbach’s counter-attack on the southern flank with the panzer divisions withdrawn from Mortain. As soon as they arrived, they could do nothing but try to form a defence line. The German military order in France was collapsing around their heads, yet Hitler was still insisting, ‘The counterattack against Avranches must be carried out!’ Eberbach was almost speechless with rage. ‘It was inconceivable that OKW could not see this trap, especially after Stalingrad, Tunis and the Crimea.’

  Suddenly, tank guns could be heard nearby. ‘Enemy shellfire began falling in the area,’ wrote Eberbach. ‘All around us smoke clouds were arising from burning cars. Not until darkness were we able to break camp. As we passed through Sées, I noticed a bakery company taking up defensive positions. All the streets were flooded with rear services streaming northwards.’ Feldgendarmerie and roving courts martial to deal with deserters were deployed round road junctions. Most of the stragglers were formed into improvised combat teams.

  Next day, on Eberbach’s orders, the 116th Panzer-Division, the first to arrive from the Mortain sector, moved towards Sées, but it blundered into the French 2ème DB, which had just joined Haislip’s corps. That evening, Eberbach heard that the division had been almost wiped out by artillery and tank fire and that the Americans were forcing their way towards Argentan. Eberbach’s small staff escaped again, but it took them six hours to move twenty miles. The narrow roads were jammed with Wehrmacht vehicles which moved at walking pace. The loss of the supply base near Alençon meant that both the Seventh Army and Panzer Group Eberbach had to be supplied by the Fifth Panzer Army, which was itself dangerously short of fuel and ammunition.

  News of the destruction of the 9th Panzer-Division had not yet spread among the divisions retreating east from the Mortain sector. They thought the southern flank was now protected. Allied fighter-bombers continued to target soft-skinned vehicles, especially supply trucks. It proved an effective tactic. The lack of fuel forced the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler to abandon and destroy a number of its own tanks. Their troops were retreating with any vehicles to hand, usually with an air observer lying back on one of the front mudguards to watch for Allied fighters. One company still had a Fiat bus, spoils of war from Italy, but the tyres were so punctured that they had to be packed with hay instead of air.

  Further south, Gefreiter Spiekerkötter and the small group of pioneers who had escaped through Avranches now headed east, just ahead of Patton’s columns. In the back of their Soviet six-wheeler, the soldiers had hidden a small barrel of Calvados among the mines. Their commander, Leutnant Nowack, who found his men again in a small village square, unfortunately also discovered their hidden barrel of spirits. It was not long before he was drunk and making the ironic toast, ‘Calvados still in German hands!’

  Using mortar bombs or any other explosive, the pioneers continued to prepare bridges for demolition. In one small town, they had just finished their work when an SS assault gun, acting as rearguard, trundled over the bridge and ripped up all the wires with its tracks. Before the damage could be repaired, a Sherman tank appeared and started to turn on to the bridge. The SS assault gun hit it with the first shot and it burst into flames. The SS commander, an Unteroffizier, urged the pioneers to leave the town. They needed no further encouragement when American artillery shells began to fall a few moments later. By then their Soviet truck had finally broken down, so they seized a Citroën for their escape towards Paris. This may well have helped them avoid the attentions of Allied pilots and the Resistance.

  Of the divisions withdrawing from the failed Avranches counter-attack, only General von Lüttwitz’s 2nd Panze
r-Division was in any sense battleworthy. It was given the task of holding the Ecouché sector, where it was to come up against the 2nd French Armoured Division - the 2ème DB - advancing north from Alençon, with the 5th US Armored Division on their right. Soon after dawn on 13 August, the 2ème DB received a shock when several Panthers, probably from the 116th Panzer-Division, blundered into their headquarters. French Shermans dealt with them at close range.

  Leclerc’s division continued that day to clear the Forêt d’Ecouves, nearly capturing General von Lüttwitz in the process. One detachment came across two ‘badly disguised’ civilians pushing a cart. On the cart were two sacks filled with their Wehrmacht uniforms. The French soldiers roared with laughter at their prisoners, who seemed to be relieved that the battle was over for them. ‘Guerre kaputt!’ they said.

  There was a considerable amount of confusion on the Allied side too as other divisions tried to fight their way north, only to find themselves blocked by a neighbour moving across their front. General Leclerc of the 2ème DB showed a lofty disregard of corps orders in the attack on the Forêt d’Ecouves. When he took over the main route to Argentan allotted to the 5th Armored Division, chaos ensued because it prevented the American division’s fuel trucks getting through.

  A deadly game of hide-and-seek developed in this forested area, with neither side clear where the enemy was. American recce groups would take up ambush positions round a crossroads and wait to see what turned up. On one occasion, a senior German officer who was clearly lost halted his staff car and climbed out with his map to study a signpost. The ambushers took great pleasure in making him jump by blowing up his staff car just behind him. When they ambushed a convoy and raked the trucks with fire, they would occasionally get a surprise themselves when one of the vehicles, carrying fuel and ammunition, went up in a massive explosion.

  In the confused situation, the FFI and ordinary French civilians helped whenever they could with information. A tank battalion of the 5th Armored was warned just in time by a small boy about an 88 mm anti-tank gun concealed in the village they were about to enter. But the French were also taken aback by the casual manner of some American troops when it came to killing. In one small town, a Frenchwoman asked what she should do about four Germans hiding in her house. ‘There was no one to take care of them,’ reported a lieutenant with the 10th Tank Battalion, ‘so we put them up against a wall and shot them.’

  The lead regiment of the newly arrived American 80th Division was held up both by the 2ème DB and then by the 90th Division of Haislip’s corps. Colonel McHugh, its commander, went up in a Piper Cub spotter plane to try to see what was happening. A destroyed bridge proved another obstacle, and he needed to search for an alternative route. ‘A Frenchman came up to me and in perfect English gave me proper directions to a bridge not far distant,’ McHugh reported. ‘I was so impressed that I took him along with me. Later, I found that he was an American serving in our Strategic Services [OSS] branch, and had been in that area for several months.’

  McHugh had the usual problems with a green formation in combat. ‘This was our first real fight and I had difficulty in getting the men to move forward. I had to literally kick the men up from the ground in order to get the attack started, and to encourage the men I walked across the road without any cover.’ Then German tanks appeared. ‘The commanding officer of my leading battalion panicked and the battalion took fright from him. It was necessary to replace his entire battalion to restore their nerve.’ The 80th also suffered from the same mistakes in the replacement system. One regiment ‘received seventeen cooks, when they had suffered no casualties in that department’. They could not send them back, so they had to send these unfortunate cooks into battle as infantrymen, despite their lack of training. Three days in action cost the regiment 523 casualties, of whom eighty-four were killed. On 13 August, McHugh, on hearing that part of the French 2ème DB was ‘having a great tank battle near Carrouges’, went up again in the Piper Cub to watch it from above. Armored Group D and the American 90th Division were fighting the 2nd Panzer-Division and part of the Leibstandarte.

  Another armoured group of the 2ème DB then attacked a detachment of the 116th Panzer-Division in Ecouché. As the French Shermans entered the town, a priest leaned out of a window and shouted, ‘Vive l’Amérique!’ ‘C’est la France!’ a captain bellowed back to him. The curé came rushing out with a tricolore and yelled, ‘Vive la France!’ The captain then insisted that he should also cry, ‘Vive de Gaulle!’

  The 2ème DB had already suffered close to 600 casualties, including 129 from a bombing attack on 8 August before they had even got to grips with the enemy. As a result, they wasted no opportunity to pick recruits from among the hundreds of young Frenchmen who rushed to enlist. At Ecouché the division even enrolled an Alsatian deserter from the Leibstandarte, who ten days later took part in the Liberation of Paris in French uniform.65

  On the afternoon of 13 August, a French fighting patrol entered Argentan, but was soon forced back. Another part of the 116th Panzer-Division had arrived, and the town’s defences were now stiffened with the remnants of the 24th Panzer-Regiment, a flak regiment with quadruple 20 mm cannon and some 88 mm guns. The 116th had orders to hold Argentan at all costs to prevent a thrust up the road to Falaise. The 2ème DB remained in place to the south of the town acting as a ‘solid cork’.

  The evening before, Patton had just issued orders to Haislip to continue the advance north. ‘Upon capture of Argentan push on slowly direction of Falaise . . . Upon arrival Falaise continue to push on slowly until you contact our Allies.’ He had then spoken to Bradley by telephone from his advance headquarters near Laval, begging to be allowed to close the gap, but Bradley refused. Soon after midday on 13 August, Patton tried again, but was told categorically by Bradley’s headquarters to halt Haislip’s XV Corps at Argentan. ‘This corps could easily advance to Falaise,’ he wrote in his diary on 13 August, ‘and completely close the gap, but we have been ordered to halt because the British sowed the area between with a large number of time bombs. I am sure that this halt is a great mistake as I am sure that the British [sic] will not close on Falaise.’ He later suspected it was due to ‘British jealousy of the Americans or to utter ignorance of the situation or a combination of the two’.

  An advance north might not have been quite as easy as Patton believed. The 5th Armored Division, like the 2ème DB, encountered well-sited 88 mm guns and lost many men and vehicles as it probed forward. But Bradley did not want to move his forces into an area allocated to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. Both he and Eisenhower were extremely concerned about American and Canadian forces bombarding or bombing each other as they advanced from opposite directions.

  Bradley also feared that XV Corps was too weak to hold the Falaise- Argentan gap against the German divisions desperate to escape. And he worried about its open left flank towards Hodges’s First Army, the one where Hitler expected Eberbach to launch his counter-attack. All one can say is that the decision to try for a short envelopment between Argentan and Falaise was a mistake. Yet Montgomery afterwards received far more criticism in many quarters for refusing to change the boundary between the British and American army groups to allow Patton to strike north.

  The failure of Operation Totalize to take Falaise has generated more debate than almost any other aspect of the battle for Normandy. Montgomery made a major miscalculation when he expected the Canadians to reach Argentan before the Americans. He had assumed that the Germans would switch more formations to defend their southern flank against Patton. He had also underestimated once again the difficulties of sending untried armoured divisions against a strong screen of 88 mm guns. The Allied obsession with Tigers and Panthers obscured the fact, unrecognized at the time, that they lost rather more Shermans and Cromwells to German anti-tank weapons and Jagdpanzer tank destroyers.

  Whatever the precise reasons which contributed to the failure to close the Falaise-Argentan gap, the fact remained that the Americans were fu
rious, and none more so than General Patton. A killing ground for the retreating German armies now had to be found further east.

  26

  The Hammer and Anvil

  On 12 August, Major Neave with the 13th/18th Hussars, still pushing forward in the Orne valley, noted in his diary, ‘Very hot - not good fighting weather however - the infantry stream with sweat and dust, and we just roast inside our tanks’. But they consoled themselves that it would soon be over. ‘The bigger picture is terrific, old “Blood and Guts” [Patton] is plugging on towards Paris and here in Normandy the Boche must be very nearly surrounded.’

  The Germans, however, were not nearly surrounded. A gap of some twenty miles still existed between Simonds’s Canadian corps north of Falaise and Haislip’s XV Corps round Argentan. Attempts that day by the 59th Division to increase its bridgehead over the Orne near Thury-Harcourt were frustrated by the German 271st Infanterie-Division and the steep wooded hills either side of the river.

  The next morning, 13 August, Simonds briefed his formation commanders for a fresh offensive, Operation Tractable. While the main Can-adianforces attackedagain towards Falaise on Montgomery’sinsistence, the Polish 1st Armoured Division on the left flank would head further east towards Trun. Montgomery does not appear to have discussed plans clearly with Bradley, despite a meeting with him that same day. He seems to have reverted to his earlier idea of encircling the Germans on the Seine. Instead of sending the 7th Armoured Division to reinforce the Canadian attack, he dispatched it east towards Lisieux. Montgomery was already starting to lobby Eisenhower to give him all the supplies and support, so that 21st Army Group could charge through to Berlin.

 
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