D day the battle for nor.., p.51
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.51Antony Beevor
Simonds launched Tractable just at 11.00 hours on the morning of 14 August. Instead of using darkness to avoid losses from the German anti-tank defences, he organized a heavy smokescreen fired by the artillery. Bombers were also used, despite the mishaps during Totalize. This time most of the medium bomber force of 811 aircraft were accurate, although seventy-seven of them dropped their loads on Canadian and Polish troops to the rear, causing 391 casualties.Unbelievably, the same mistake was made of using yellow target markers from the air and yellow smoke grenades on the ground to identify their own troops.
The Canadians soon found that the River Laizon represented a more serious anti-tank ditch than they had imagined. Some of their armoured regiments suffered heavy losses that day. The Poles to their left advanced with great élan, led by their reconnaissance regiment, the 10th Mounted Rifles.
On 14 August, Panzer Group Eberbach received an order from Hitler, passed on over the radio. ‘The attack ordered by me southward past Alençon is to be effected under all conditions immediately as a preparation for an attack on Avranches.’ Eberbach, furious with Hitler’s continuing fantasy, replied with the tank strengths of his divisions: the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler had thirty, the 2nd Panzer twenty-five, the 116th Panzer had fifteen and the 9th Panzer was down to a company of panzergrenadiers.
‘The fighting morale of the German troops had cracked,’ wrote Eberbach. ‘They were not just exhausted and weak from hunger. The propaganda promises had all proved false - the invincibility of the Atlantic Wall, the V weapons which would bring Britain to its knees, and the talk of new aircraft and submarines which assured final victory.’ Eberbach became aware of machine guns being thrown away and tanks being abandoned without cause, or even without being blown up. ‘Stragglers without arms were numerous. “Catch lines” to the rear of the front had to be inaugurated [to seize deserters and those fleeing without authorization]. Even the SS was no exception to this rule. The 1st SS Panzer-Division had never before fought so miserably as at that time.’ The Germans also feared an airborne landing in their rear, a plan which the Allies had considered but rejected.
That same day Patton, who had become completely exasperated with the enforced inaction of XV Corps at Argentan, flew to see Bradley. He wanted to drive for the Seine without any further delay. He would send XV Corps to Dreux, XX Corps to Chartres and XII Corps towards Orléans. He was in an exuberant mood by the time he saw Bradley. ‘It is really a great plan, wholly my own,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘and I made Bradley think he thought of it. I am very happy and elated. I got all the corps moving by 20.30 so that if Monty tries to be careful, it will be too late.’ Major General Cook, at his XII Corps command post near Le Mans, received a typically terse message from Patton, delivered by a senior Third Army staff officer: ‘Take Orléans at once.’ Within a few hours, combat command A of the 4th Armored Division had moved out on the road from Saint-Calais to Orléans - a ‘jump of 85 miles’.
Three of Haislip’s divisions, the newly arrived 80th Division, the 90th and the French 2ème DB, were to stay at Argentan while the rest forced east towards Dreux, which lay no more than thirty miles from the Seine. The rapid advance was a huge boost to morale, Patton noted the next day: ‘The number of cases of war-wearies (the new name for cowardice) and self-inflicted wounds have dropped materially since we got moving. People like to play on a winning team.’
The unshaven tank crews of the Third Army had become heroes to the supply troops and others in the rear. ‘A few of the enlisted men even tried to raise beards emulating the combat outfits,’ wrote a doctor with the 2nd Evacuation Hospital, ‘but our commanding officer soon put a stop to that.’
Some people became too carried away by the air of excitement at the apparently unstoppable advance. An American war correspondent, determined to beat his rivals, turned up in Chartres so as to witness the capture of the city. Unfortunately, he was two days early. The German 6th Security Regiment promptly took him prisoner.
Gefreiter Spiekerkötter, still with the pioneer group from the 256th Infanterie-Division which had escaped Avranches, reached Chartres in their battered Citroën. While the garrison troops were organized to defend the town against the approaching Americans, Spiekerkötter and his comrades discovered a Wehrmacht supply depot. It had been abandoned by its staff, but not yet looted. They wandered around, gazing in amazement at the shelves laden with every sort of food, wine, spirits, cigarettes, even electric razors, suede gauntlets and large bottles of eau-de-Cologne: luxuries which the front-line soldier had never seen. ‘We’d have been happy to stay here for the rest of the war,’ Spiekerkötter observed. They loaded the Citroën with tins of food, cigarettes, the suede gloves and a bottle of eau-de-Cologne, and set off to cross the Seine at Melun. They were fortunate not to have been stopped by Feldgendarmerie and forced into a scratch unit to defend the city.
On 15 August, while the Canadians had a tough fight advancing on Falaise, the Poles broke through on the left. Fortunately for them, most of the Luftwaffe 88 mm guns had been withdrawn, but their advance, which took them to the River Dives near Jort, was still an impressive feat. Meanwhile east of Caen, the British I Corps, now part of the First Canadian Army, forced the Germans back to the line of the lower Dives. But as is so often the case in mid-August, the hot weather suddenly ended with heavy thunderstorms and torrential rain. The hard dusty ground turned to ‘a slimy paste’.
Kluge’s headquarters, all too aware of the dangers, wrote that the supply situation was becoming ‘more critical by the hour’. Fifth Panzer Army described their ammunition shortages as ‘catastrophic’. The 85th Infantry Division was reduced to one and a half battalions and the Hitler Jugend had onlyfifteen tanks left. Yet that day, while the remnants of the German armies in northern France were seeking to escape from the total disaster of encirclement, the end of the Nazi occupation of France was being sealed in the south.
The invasion of southern France, Operation Anvil, had been key to American planning ever since August 1943. Churchill had fought the idea with relentless obstinacy. He did not want to divert troops from the Italian front, mainly because he dreamed of invading Austria and the Balkans to prevent a post-war Soviet frontier running all the way down to the Adriatic.
President Roosevelt, irritated by what he saw as Churchill’s excessive mistrust of Stalin, outmanoeuvred the British at the Teheran Conference in November 1943. Without warning Churchill, he told Stalin about the plan to invade southern France as well as Normandy. The British were appalled. Stalin approved the idea immediately. He even said that the Swiss were ‘swine’, and suggested that they ‘invade the country on [their] way up the Rhône valley’. A lack of shipping and landing craft stopped the invasion of southern France from coinciding with Overlord, as the Americans had wanted, but they would not be blocked from launching it later.
To the exasperation of Roosevelt, Marshall and Eisenhower, the British never stopped trying to divert Anvil, renamed Operation Dragoon, away from southern France. The heated arguments did more to strain the Anglo-American relationship than almost any other disagreement on strategy. Eisenhower also believed that Dragoon, making use of French divisions from Italy and North Africa, would justify the huge American investment and also bring the French in as partners.
Churchill suddenly suggested to Roosevelt on 4 August that Dragoon should be switched to Brittany, even though none of the ports were in operation and the Allied supply system in northern France was stretched to breaking point. ‘I cannot pretend to have worked out the details,’ Churchill added lamely. Roosevelt firmly rejected the idea. Churchill tried again on 5 August when visiting Eisenhower. ‘Ike said no,’ wrote his aide, ‘continued saying no all afternoon, and ended saying no in every form of the English language at his command.’ Eisenhower was ‘practically limp’ by the time Churchill left.
Events proved the Americans resoundingly right. The landings of 151,000 Allied troops along the Côte d’Azur from Nice to Marseilles were practically unopposed,
The Resistance, scenting victory, increased its attacks, and the Germans, especially the SS, responded with cruel and indiscriminate reprisals. Security police and the Gestapo in many places massacred their prisoners before pulling out. Altogether some 600 were shot, including almost all Jews in German custody. In some areas, the Resistance had tried to switch from guerrilla warfare to open insurrection, usually with catastrophic results.
In the Vercors, a high plateau between Grenoble and Valence, a large force of 3,200 maquisards had cleared the area of Germans by the end of June and raised the tricolore. General Cochet in Algiers had failed to tell them to wait for the landings in the south of France. Even so, their attempt to hold ground against regular troops was contrary to every rule of guerrilla warfare. The Americans dropped 1,000 containers of arms by parachute on 14 July, but by then the Germans had surrounded the plateau with 10,000 troops backed by artillery. A week later SS troops were landed by glider and soon the whole area was overrun. The Maquis should have dispersed to fight another day, but despite lacking heavy weapons they attempted to fight a conventional battle against overwhelming numbers. Their desperate heroism ended in a massacre. The reprisals were barbaric, as the British official history of SOE in France recorded: ‘One woman was raped by seventeen men in succession while a German doctor held her pulse, ready to stop the soldiers when she fainted. Another was eviscerated and left to die with her guts round her neck.’
The Resistance targeted the Gestapo and SS wherever they could. On 6 August, Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kepplinger of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division was ambushed at Villiers-Charlemagne, south of Laval. The next day, the head of the Gestapo in Châteauroux was gunned down. On the evening of 10 August, German authorities announced that ‘128 terrorists were eliminated in fighting on French territory’ that day. Three days later at Tourouvre in the Orne, eighteen men were executed and the main street was set on fire, almost certainly by members of the Hitler Jugend. The artillery regiment of the Hitler Jugend Division issued an order stating that ‘reprisals cannot be harsh enough’.
The massacres continued until almost the end of August, even after any hope of holding on to France had gone. Only a savage bitterness remained. InB uchères near Troyes (Aube), anSS unitkilled sixty-eight civilians, including women, children and infants. On 25 August, following an FFI attack on a Wehrmacht truck in which three German soldiers were wounded, the SS murdered 124 people, including forty-two women and forty-four children, at Maillé (Indre-et-Loire) and the village was destroyed. In the Aisne at Tavaux and Plomion, members of the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and the Hitler Jugend killed a total of thirty-four civilians, of whom only one was a member of the Resistance. In the twenty-six worst massacres in France during 1944, 1,904 civilians were murdered.66
The breakthrough in Normandy combined with the 15 August landings in the south of France triggered a hasty withdrawal not only by the Germans, but also by Vichy’s hated paramilitary force, the Milice. Over the next few days, Luftwaffe and naval personnel from ports in southern and western France, Organisation Todt officials, supply and clerical personnel from military depots, security police - in fact the whole apparatus of the German occupation built up over the last four years - pulled out. A running battle was fought across France against the Milice. Well aware of their fate if they stayed behind, these criminal paramilitaries sought safety in eastern France and then Germany. Vehicles, bicycles and horses were seized as well as food to help them on their way.
German forces in the south-west ordered their men to escape in ‘march groups’. Few got through. Most succumbed to hunger and exhaustion and were forced to surrender to the FFI or the Americans. The Resistance killed relatively few of their German military prisoners. They handed them over proudly to the Allies or to regular French forces. But hardly any Gestapo, SS or Security Police survived capture.
As part of a scorched-earth policy during the retreat, German detachments were ordered to destroy bridges, telephone systems, railways and ports, as well as any establishments which might help repair them. SOE liaison groups at 21st Army Group and SHAEF advance headquarters passed ‘counter-scorching’ requests to the Resistance, which meant thwarting German attempts to wreck communications behind them.
The collapse of the German occupying power also signalled the collapse of the Vichy regime. In Normandy, a senior Vichy official reported during the American breakthrough that, ‘military events having taken a new direction’, he would withdraw to ‘rejoin French territory according to the orders of the government’. He retreated with the local Feldkommandant, who provided him with fuel for his car. But every time he tried to set up a new préfecture, first at Gavray, then Saint-Pois and then Mortain, the rapidity of the American advance sent him hurrying on. Pierre Laval, Marshal Pétain’s prime minister, tried to persuade the old marshal to seek refuge at Eisenhower’s headquarters.67
The power vacuum in large areas of France, especially in the Dordogne, the Limousin, the Corrèze, the Massif Central and the south-west, meant that the different groups of the Maquis began to settle accounts. They took revenge on genuine collaborators, but also on those class enemies they considered collaborators. This was not hard to foresee once the invasion started. A Vichy report to Paris just after the invasion spoke of ‘regions where hideous civil war will reign’. In July, an agent reported back to London on the situation in the Limousin created by Resistance attacks and ferocious German reprisals: ‘In the face of these barbarous acts, the whole region trembles. The peasants hide in the woods and scouts signal the arrival of any German vehicles. The country experiences at one and the same time the violence of the enemy, of the Maquis, and of the Milice. There is no longer any legal authority.’
There was much to avenge, but the moral outrage of vengeance also concealed a degree of political and personal opportunism. Some private scores were settled and rivals for post-war power done away with. Resistance groups killed some 6,000 people before the German withdrawal. Then, in what became known as the épuration sauvage, or ‘unofficial purges’, at least 14,000 more were killed. A few British and American troops also killed French collaborators, but most preferred to look away, feeling that, having not experienced German occupation, they were in no position to judge. Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that in Brittany a third of those killed were women.
French people as well as Allied troops were sickened by the treatment meted out to women accused of ‘collaboration horizontale’ with German soldiers. Some of the victims were prostitutes who had plied their trade with Germans as well as Frenchmen. Some were silly young girls who had associated with German soldiers out of bravado or boredom. Many more were young mothers whose husbands were in German prisoner of war camps. They often had no means of support, and their only hope of obtaining food for themselves and their children in the hunger years had been to accept a liaison with a German soldier. As the German writer Ernst Jünger observed from the luxury of the Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris, ‘Food is power.’
After the humiliation of a public head-shaving, the tondues - ‘the shorn women’ - were usually paraded through the streets, occasionally to the sound of a drum, as if France was reliving the Revolution of 1789. Some were daubed with tar, some stripped half naked, some painted with swastikas. In Bayeux, Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Colville, recorded his reactions to one such scene: ‘I watched an open lorry drive past, to the accompaniment of boos and cat-calls from the French populace, with a dozen miserable women in the back, every hair on their heads shaved off. They w
It was indeed ‘an ugly carnival’, as one writer put it, but this had been the pattern since soon after D-Day. Once a city, town or even a village had been liberated by the Allies the shearers would get to work. In mid-June, on the market day following the 101st Airborne’s capture of Carentan, a dozen women were shorn publicly. In Cherbourg on 14 July, a truck-load of young women, most of them teenagers, were driven through the streets. In Villedieu, one of the victims was a woman who had simply been a cleaner in the Kommandantur. In the département of the Manche alone, 621 women were arrested for ‘collaboration sentimentale’. Elsewhere some men who had volunteered to work in German factories had their heads shaved, but that was an exception. Women almost always were the first targets. It was jealousy masquerading as moral outrage. The jealousy was mainly provoked by the food they had received as a result of their conduct.68 Quite simply, these young women were the easiest and most vulnerable scapegoats, particularly for men who wished to hide their own lack of Resistance credentials.
Moral confusion, if not outright hypocrisy, existed on the Allied side too. At his airfield near Bayeux, Jock Colville found it ironic when Montgomery ordered all brothels to be closed. ‘Military police were posted to ensure that the order was obeyed. Undeterred and unabashed, several of the deprived ladies presented themselves in a field adjoining our orchard. Lines of airmen, including, I regret to say, the worthy Roman Catholic French Canadians, queued for their services, clutching such articles as tins of sardines for payment.’ The French, meanwhile, were shocked by the attitude of American soldiers, who seemed to think that when it came to young French women ‘everything can be bought’. After an evening’s drinking, they would knock on farmhouse doors asking if there was a ‘Mademoiselle’ there for them. More enterprising soldiers had learned some French conversation from the language books produced by the army. Supposedly useful gambits were also provided in the daily lessons published by Stars and Stripes, such as the French for ‘My wife doesn’t understand me.’
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