D day the battle for nor.., p.52
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.52Antony Beevor
Mutual incomprehension and the clash of very different cultures affected Franco-American relations perhaps even more than the joy of liberation. A woman in a town south-east of Mortain described their ecstasy, waving flags and singing the ‘Marseillaise’ when a column of the American 2nd Armored Division arrived. The French were amused by the Creole accent of Cajuns from Louisiana, but in their turn were taken aback when they found that the Americans ‘clearly considered us to be backward. One of them asked me in English if I had ever seen a cinema.’ She replied that the cinema had been invented in France, and also the motorcar. ‘He was left stunned, and not entirely convinced.’
Many American soldiers, who already saw France as almost an enemy country because of the German occupation, found their prejudices strengthened because so many people reported ‘their neighbours as German sympathizers’. Even members of the OSS and the Counter Intelligence Corps had little grasp of French politics and the ‘guerre franco-française’, which had simmered away ever since the Revolution and had now boiled up again. There was a widespread view, rooted in American history, that the problems of the Old World stemmed from a corrupt aristocracy and the evils of European colonialism.
Such ideas were encouraged by left-wingers in the Resistance who provided them with intelligence, especially the militant Communist-led FTP. They had good reason to loathe the Vichy regime after the executions of Communist Party members as hostages during the Occupation. They also believed that this was the time for a new revolution. So they tried to persuade American officers, often with some success, that the French aristocracy and bourgeoisie were all collaborators. For their own political purposes, they deliberately made no distinction between those people from all classes of society who had supported Marshal Pétain after the débâcle of 1940 and those who had actively helped the Germans.
The task of filtering the tens of thousands of Frenchmen and women arrested for collaboration in the summer of 1944 proved overwhelming for the nascent administration of de Gaulle’s provisional government. That autumn, there were over 300,000 dossiers still outstanding. In Normandy, prisoners were brought to the camp at Sully near Bayeux by the sécurité militaire, the gendarmerie and sometimes by US military police. There were also large numbers of displaced foreigners, Russians, Italians and Spaniards, who were trying to survive by looting from farms.
The range of charges against French citizens was wide and often vague. They included ‘supplying the enemy’, ‘relations with the Germans’, denunciation of members of the Resistance or Allied paratroopers, ‘an anti-national attitude during the Occupation’, ‘pro-German activity’, ‘providing civilian clothes to a German soldier’, ‘pillaging’, even just ‘suspicion from a national point of view’. Almost anybody who had encountered the Germans at any stage could be denounced and arrested.
Tensions between liberators and liberated arose with incidents both large and small. A major source of resentment came with hundreds of road accidents, mainly the killing of livestock but also civilians, due to the constant stream of heavy trucks rushing south to supply the fighting troops. At the other end of the scale, a woman who saw a British soldier give an orange to a German prisoner was furious because French children had never even tasted one. Yet army cooks and others were kind to children, whose eyes opened wide at the slices of white bread cut for them, although they were not quite so keen when they received marmalade sandwiches.
The historian Claude Quétel, then a small boy in Bernières-sur-Mer, remembers the Canadian troops and his astonishment at seeing a black man for the first time in his life among them. The young Claude could not stop himself from asking why he was black. ‘It’s because I don’t wash enough,’ he joked. Claude took him literally. He wanted to repay the generosity he had received from the soldiers, so he dashed home and stole his mother’s precious cake of soap, then ran back to offer it to the black soldier just before they left for the front. On seeing the outstretched hand with the cake of soap, all the soldiers collapsed in laughter. As the column of trucks moved off, Claude was left there sobbing uncontrollably.
Allied troops, however, became exasperated with the constant pilfering of equipment. The French authorities delicately termed it ‘réquisitions irrégulières’. A black market based at first on American and British cigarettes then branched into stolen fuel and tyres. But Allied soldiers were far from innocent when it came to stealing. In Caen, an officer with the civil affairs team wrote that British troops ‘pillaging shops and premises pose quite a problem, but offenders are heavily punished when caught’. In the chaos of war, many soldiers who would never have stolen at home were tempted by what they thought were easy pickings. ‘Our soldiers have done some looting,’ noted Myles Hildyard at 7th Armoured Division headquarters, ‘including two military police of this division who held up two old countesses near here in a château.’ Even British officers pocketed objects when billeted in country houses, prompting an increasing number of French to observe that ‘the Germans were much more correct’.
Yet the greatest weight on Norman hearts was the terrible destruction wreaked upon their towns and countryside. An American doctor described the forests stripped of their leaves by artillery fire, livestock carcasses rotting in the fields and towns reduced to a mass of rubble, ‘with occasionally a cynical touch such as an advertisement for Singer sewing machines stuck to a wall which had not been demolished, or a house whose façade has been blown away in front of the dining room, exposing like a theatre set, with the table and the chairs carefully positioned round it’. When French refugees from the fighting returned to their wrecked homes, some were traumatized by the unrecognizable scene, while others were bitterly resigned to the futile waste. Sometimes a tiny detail brought home to Allied troops the suffering of the French. For one British soldier, it was seeing a little house called ‘Mon Repos’ destroyed by shellfire.
Mines and unexploded shells, despite work by Allied and French teams, would continue to maim farmers and children for several years to come. Any work of reconstruction concentrated on improving supply facilities for the Allied armies. In Caen, 15,000 troops were put to work reopening the inland port at the head of the canal, but few could be spared to re-establish essential services for civilians.
Normandy had indeed been martyred, but its sacrifice saved the rest of France. Paradoxically, as a leading French historian has pointed out, the slowness of the Allied advance in the first two months, grinding down the German army, worked in favour of the French, ‘whose liberation was more rapid and less destructive, outside the Normandy battlefields, than one might have feared’.
The battle for Normandy was reaching its climax. On 14 August, Kluge decided that his troops had to break out in a north-easterly direction, ‘otherwise they must expect the loss of all their forces’. Artillery units lined up their guns and fired off all their remaining shells before retreating. On 16 August, Kluge ordered an immediate withdrawal to the line of the River Orne and the crossing began that night. Flak units were brought in to guard the bridges, but Allied air activity appears to have presented little threat over the next two vital days. No troops were allowed to stop or rest in the area. Vehicles were pushed off the road if they broke down and the Feldgendarmerie exerted a strict traffic discipline. Nothing was allowed to slow the withdrawal. Panzer troops aroused anger among the Landser of the infantry by the way they simply drove over corpses, crushing them flat with their tracks.
On 16 August, the Canadians fought their way into the ruined city of Falaise, where William the Conqueror had been born in the great castle. Again they faced their fanatical opponents in the Hitler Jugend. Sixty of these battle-hardened teenagers held out for three days. The only two taken alive were wounded.69
To the east of Falaise, the Polish 10th Mounted Rifles reconnaissance regiment, supported by the 12th Dragoons in Cromwell tanks, had secured crossings over the Dives on 15 August. Their success was a fitting celebration on the anniversary of their victory over the Red Army in the
Ultra was still reporting that the Germans intended to counter-attack against the Americans in the south and break through between Argentan and Sées. This confirmed Montgomery in his view that they should revert to an envelopment on the Seine, rather than cut off the Germans south of Trun. As a result he made the mistake of failing to reinforce the Poles with the 7th Armoured Division, which he had ordered to advance on Lisieux. The critical lack of detailed liaison with the Americans at this stage was more Montgomery’s fault than Bradley’s. Between them they had failed to decide clearly where to cut off the Germans. It was only on 16 August that Montgomery decided to revert to sealing the pocket between Trun and Chambois. But by then part of Haislip’s corps had set off towards the Seine.
General Patton was far more interested in developments in that direction. On 16 August, Major General Kenner, SHAEF’s chief medical officer, was invited along for the ride to visit Haislip’s XV Corps, which had just taken Dreux. Patton was on exuberant form. He had just visited two evacuation hospitals that morning and found that ‘for the first time our wounded wanted to go back and fight’.
They set off in two Jeeps, one of which carried a heavy machine gun. Patton’s bodyguard Al had also brought a Browning automatic rifle. Kenner, clearly concerned for Patton’s safety in this dash across wooded country full of retreating Germans, suggested that he should go in front. ‘No, by God,’ came the reply. ‘No one rides in front of me.’ According to Kenner, ‘Haislip nearly had a fit’ when he heard how they had come. He insisted on providing an escort for the return journey, but Patton swore at the idea. In any case, he wanted to see how things were progressing with XX Corps at Chartres.
When they reached the command post of the 7th Armored Division, Patton asked when they were going to take the town.70 He was told that there were still Germans fighting in parts of it and it might take some time. According to Kenner, Patton retorted, ‘There are no Germans. It is now three o’clock. I want Chartres at five or there will be a new commander.’ Kenner was impressed by Patton’s ‘instinct about the enemy’, but Patton was wrong. American intelligence sources had estimated the defenders as only 1,000 strong, but another German security regiment had been rushed into the town the day before.General der Infanterie Kurt von der Chevallerie, the commander-in-chief of the First Army south of the Loire, had been holding a conference there when the 7th Armored’s tanks were sighted advancing on the city.
One task force had managed to clear most of the city three hours before Patton arrived, but the other task force had been compelled to withdraw as the Germans resisted strongly in the outer part of the town. The Americans had brought up artillery, but it was instructed to fire only on targets in direct sight: ‘All effort was made to spare the destruction of historic buildings.’ The battle was, however, completed the following day, when the second task force attacked the Germans who had withdrawn into the wheatfields outside. This unequal battle turned into a massacre. Mortar platoons dropped white phosphorus shells ‘all over the place and as the fields burned, the Germans started running out like rats. While this was going on the tanks were having a field day killing dismounted Germans all over the place,’ 7th Armored Division reported. ‘The entire operation was a huge success: this small force knocking out numerous anti-tank guns, capturing around 400 of the enemy, and killing several thousand of the enemy at a cost of four tanks and 62 casualties of their own.’
In any event Wednesday, 16 August had indeed been a memorable day for Patton. Divisions from his Third Army had entered or captured the major towns of Dreux, Chartres, Châteaudun and Orléans. He was also to have full credit for his exploits after all the secrecy created for Operation Fortitude had been lifted. This security restriction had exasperated the war correspondents, who longed to write about Patton’s exploits. Eisenhower had just publicly stated to a press conference that the drive to the Seine was led by the Third Army commanded by Patton himself. ‘Old blood and guts’ immediately became an international star. And finally on that day, Patton heard that he had been confirmed in the permanent rank of major general, backdated to the previous year.
While Patton’s Third Army raced towards the Seine, the Americans suffered a day’s delay from confusion when reorganizing their forces round Argentan. On the evening of 16 August, General Gerow, the commander of V Corps, received orders from General Hodges of the First US Army to take command of the three divisions - the 80th, the 90th and the 2ème DB - which Haislip had left round Argentan. The Ultra warning of a German counter-attack prompted him to drive through the night to Alençon, where he set up a temporary headquarters at the Hôtel de France. He could not find out where XV Corps headquarters were supposed to be. Finally, he heard from the commander of the 80th Division that Patton had sent his chief of staff, Major General Hugh Gaffey, to command the three divisions. He found Gaffey at a temporary command post north of Sées and the two senior officers hammered out an agreement. Gaffey would carry out the attack north ordered by General Patton for 17 August, then Gerow would take command that evening. But after confusing messages between Hodges and Patton, General Bradley stepped in and told Gerow to take over immediately.
Patton flew to see Bradley on 17 August to sort out the muddle. He had left his Third Army staff with the instructions that the attack north to seal the pocket was to go in straight away under Gerow’s command if he rang through with the phrase ‘Change horses’. At 12.30 hours, Patton called from 12th Army Group headquarters with these words. He then added that once the original objective was taken, the three divisions should continue ‘thence on’. His chief of staff asked what ‘thence on’ meant.
‘Another Dunkirk,’ Patton joked. This typically thoughtless remark was later picked up by war correspondents and reported far too freely as: ‘Let me continue, and I’ll drive the Limeys into the sea.’ In fact the changes of command at this crucial moment succeeded only in allowing the Germans another twenty-four hours to extricate more men and vehicles from the pocket.
By chance on that same day, Thursday, 17 August, stories of Eisenhower and Bedell Smith’s renewed irritation with Montgomery had filtered back to Downing Street and Buckingham Palace. Sir Alan Lascelles, King George VI’s private secretary, had a long talk with general ‘Pug’ Ismay, Churchill’s military adviser, and recorded his thoughts in his diary: ‘Ismay takes a sane and broad-minded view of the Americans - they have won their spurs, and the days are past when we could treat them as green and untried soldiers; in fact he went so far as to say that we might well have something to learn from them, and that maybe we have been a bit too “staff collegey” in our conduct of the war.’
Tensions were also building up with another ally as American troops approached Paris. After General Philippe Leclerc had heard that the 2ème DB was to stay at Argentan while the rest of XV Corps advanced towards the Seine, he went to protest to Patton. ‘Leclerc of the 2nd French Armored Division came in, very much excited,’ Patton wrote in his diary. ‘He said, among other things, that if he were not allowed to advance on Paris, he would resign. I told him in my best French that he was a baby, and I would not have division commanders tell me where they would fight, and that anyway I had left him in the most dangerous place. We parted friends.’
Leclerc, who got on well with Patton, was far from reassured. Both he and General de Gaulle, who was on his way to France, were deeply concerned that Bradley might want to bypass Paris. They both feared that a rising in the capital by the Resistance would be exploited by the Communists. And in the event of civil strife, the
The Killing Ground of the Falaise Pocket
While 16 August had been a great day for Patton, Hitler declared that ‘the 15th August was the worst day of my life’. He had become convinced that Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge was entering into secret negotiations with the Allies in Normandy. ‘Hitler suspected that Field Marshal von Kluge was guilty of such treachery,’ General Warlimont recorded. Hitler already regarded Kluge as an accomplice of the July plotters. Now he had become convinced that the stab-in-the-back of the Second World War was coming not from Jews and revolutionaries, as in 1918, but from the aristocrats of the German general staff.
On the afternoon of 14 August, Kluge had left La Roche-Guyon. He spent the night at Fifth Panzer Army rear headquarters in the small château of Fontaine l’Abbé, east of Bernay. Soon after dawn on 15 August, Kluge set off westwards into the Falaise pocket for a meeting with the two army commanders, Generals Hausser and Eberbach. Kluge rode in his Kübelwagen, accompanied by his aide, Oberleutnant Tangermann, another officer on a motorbicycle and a signals vehicle.
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