D day the battle for nor.., p.53
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.53

           Antony Beevor
 

  This small convoy was soon spotted by RAF Typhoons, which swooped into the attack. Their cannon fire destroyed the signals vehicle, seriously wounding its occupants, one of them mortally. The numbers of Allied fighter-bombers overhead made any further movement by road extremely dangerous. Kluge, already in a state of nervous exhaustion, seems to have suffered some sort of breakdown. He was settled in the shade of a tree to rest. One can only speculate about his state of mind, except to say that he found it hard to accept that his name would forever be associated with the collapse of the German armies in the West. Oberleutnant Tangermann even believed that his venture into the Kessel, or encirclement, was to seek death in the face of the enemy.

  When General Jodl telephoned that day from East Prussia to speak to Kluge and heard that he had been out of contact since the morning, Hitler’s distrust flared into open suspicion that he was negotiating surrender terms. Jodl ordered Army Group B and General Eberbach to make every effort to establish Kluge’s whereabouts and to report back every hour. At 21.00 hours, a KR-Blitz teleprinter message, the highest priority, arrived from East Prussia. It stated, ‘The Führer has ordered: so long as Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge cannot be found while away from his command post, I entrust Generaloberst Hausser with the leadership of both the Fifth Panzer Army and Panzer Group Eberbach.’

  Only after dark was it possible for Kluge and his surviving companions to continue. They finally reached Eberbach’s command post at 22.00 hours. The fifty-mile journey had taken sixteen hours. Generalfeldmarschall Keitel insisted on speaking to Kluge as soon as he heard of his arrival. It seems that OKW believed Kluge’s account of his movements, but Hitler, who had planned to replace Kluge in any case after the failure of the Avranches counter-attack, immediately ordered Generalfeldmarschall Model to fly to France and take over. Model, ‘one of the harshest and most feared army commanders’, was a devoted follower of Hitler, who had awarded him the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds. Rather like Kluge himself before taking command, Model had been convinced that the disaster in Normandy was entirely due to bad leadership.

  Leutnant Dankwart Graf von Arnim, a staff officer in Paris, was woken at 04.30 hours on 17 August to be told that Model had arrived. He was to go at once to the headquarters of Oberkommando West at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The first thing he heard was that Model, finding only a drunken army doctor there, went berserk and had him shot on the spot. Arnim was to accompany Model to La Roche-Guyon. There was an early morning mist as they set off up the Seine valley in a convoy, with an escort troop of self-propelled 20 mm flak guns provided on Hitler’s orders. Arnim was seated next to the driver in Model’s armoured staff car. Model reprimanded him severely for wearing a uniform cap instead of a helmet.

  When they drove up to the entrance of the château, Arnim spotted the faces of staff officers peering anxiously from windows. Speidel, the chief of staff, met them on the steps. Behind him was Kluge, who had received notice of his dismissal just an hour before by teleprinter. Model, according to Generalleutnant Bayerlein, who was present at the meeting, announced that the troops in Normandy ‘were a pack of cowards, that it was much easier to fight the western Allies than the Russians, and that he would see that things changed’.

  Kluge accepted his fate with dignity. Yet he clearly feared not only that he would be made responsible for all that had gone wrong but, in the atmosphere of suspicion, that he might also face trial and execution like the other senior generals involved in the July plot. He sat down to write a long letter to Hitler, which he asked Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich to deliver later. As well as an explanation of the impossibility of the task he had faced, he wrote, ‘I cannot bear the reproach that I have sealed the fate of the West through faulty strategy, and I have no means of defending myself. I draw a conclusion from that, and am dispatching myself where thousands of my comrades already are.’ The letter was respectful and avoided placing any blame on Hitler. No doubt Kluge wished to save his family from the Sippenhaft vengeance of the Nazis.

  He finally argued, like Rommel before him, that with little chance of victory the war should be ended: ‘The German people have borne such untold suffering that it is time to put an end to this frightfulness.’ Although Kluge had finally come to see the terrible folly of this vast conflict, there was still no thought of the suffering they had caused by their invasions. That consideration simply did not register in the German army Weltanschauung, with its fundamental confusion of cause and effect.

  A car and escort were sent to bring Kluge back to Berlin. They stopped for a midday break in the woods of the Argonne, just short of Verdun. It was not far from where General von Stülpnagel had so unsuccessfully shot himself. Kluge gave his aide another letter, this one for his brother, then went off behind some bushes where he swallowed a cyanide pill. After Kluge’s suicide, Hitler ordered another investigation into his ‘mysterious disappearance’ in Normandy, but again no evidence could be found of a meeting with American officers.

  The Falaise pocket was tightening on 16 August, but it was still far from closed as a result of the delay both by the Canadians and by Gerow’s V Corps round Argentan. Gersdorff, the chief of staff of the Seventh Army, was ‘able to drive by car in both directions that day’ through the gap between Trun and Chambois. One German general observed that the pocket, although much smaller, was disturbingly similar in shape to the battered lozenge at Stalingrad.

  The II Panzer Corps was sent into the Forêt de Gouffern north-east of Argentan to defend that corner of the pocket, even though it mustered fewer than forty tanks. The next day, after they were refuelled, the remnants of the two divisions were sent towards Vimoutiers. Oberstgruppenführer Hausser also sent the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich out of the pocket. He wanted a force ready to counter-attack from the rear when the Allied troops attempted to seal the gap. Army officers, however, suspected that this was purely an attempt to save the Waffen-SS. ‘In other words we were good enough to be left inside the encirclement, ’ was the reaction of General Meindl of II Paratroop Corps when he heard. ‘The SS look after their own.’

  Other panzer groups were moved to either side of the neck of the pocket to help keep it open, but with a greatly increased concentration of Allied fighter-bombers overhead, vehicles had to stay hidden during daylight hours in orchards and woods. Near Trun, a local inhabitant watched a small group of tanks concealed under fruit trees. A soldier emerged from his turret with a violin and played some Viennese waltzes. They seemed to sense that this was the calm before the storm.

  As the remains of the German Seventh Army pulled back across the River Orne, the British VIII and XXX Corps advanced rapidly west, liberating one town after another. ‘We have had a warm welcome all along the route,’ wrote a British officer, ‘although quite a number of the people still seem dazed and bewildered. The very young do not quite know what is going on. I saw one little boy proudly giving the Nazi salute as though it were the correct greeting and others looking at their mothers to see if it was right to wave.’

  In Putanges on the upper Orne, where many Germans had been cut off, the scenes were chaotic. ‘While I was talking to the Brigadier,’ wrote Major Neave in his diary, ‘a German half-track - driven by a Boche - and packed full of Boches passed by. Two civilian French - presumably Maquis - were sitting at the back with Sten guns, and a Frenchman on a motorcycle led the party. The Boche looked extremely unhappy and the French were shrieking with laughter.’

  Meanwhile Hodges’s First US Army was advancing from the south-west and the British XII Corps from the north-west. On 17 August, the Polish 1st Armoured Division received orders to push on to Chambois. But as the Poles were nearly five miles ahead of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division, they knew that they were in for a tough fight until support arrived. They reorganized rapidly. General Maczek sent the 24th Lancers and the 10th Dragoons towards Chambois, while the rest of the division took up positions around Mont Ormel. This was one of the dominant features along the high, wooded escarpment which o
verlooks the River Dives and seals the north-east end of the Falaise plain.

  That day, the American 90th Division at Bourg-Saint-Léonard, south of Chambois, received a nasty shock when the Das Reich division and the remnants of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division suddenly attacked, forcing them to withdraw rapidly. General Gerow sent them back that evening to recapture this vital high ground.

  Generalfeldmarschall Model called a conference for 09.00 hours on 18 August at Fontaine l’Abbé. Eberbach, who had set out at 03.00 hours, still arrived two hours late because of the blocked roads. Oberstgruppenführer Hausser of the Seventh Army could not get through, so he was represented by Gersdorff, his chief of staff. Model gave them instructionsfor withdrawaltotheline of the Seine. Thepanzerdivisions were to hold open the bottleneck. But halfway through the meeting news came in that the Canadians had indeed taken Trun. Eberbach left immediately to organize a counter-attack by II Panzer Corps, now outside the pocket, but another shortage of fuel would delay them.

  On the road to Vimoutiers, Eberbach’s staff car was strafed by Allied fighters and the general had to shelter in a ditch. The RAF and Quesada’s Ninth Tactical Air Force were out in strength on that day and the next. Flying conditions were almost perfect, and with the remains of two German armies packed into an area roughly twelve miles by five, there was no shortage of targets. Successful Typhoon rocket strikes on vehicles were marked by widening columns of oily smoke. ‘The black mushrooms kept appearing,’ wrote General Meindl, ‘a sign that the enemy planes were having good hunting.’ He felt dazed by what he called ‘the flail of a fabulous air superiority’. He was also furious with the drivers, whose desperate attempts to escape sent up more clouds of dust, attracting the attention of fighter-bomber pilots. ‘It was enough to make one tear one’s hair and ask oneself if the drivers had gone off their heads completely and were hastening to place themselves in the view of the enemy planes until they went up in a blaze.’ There was little anti-aircraft fire to deter the Allied aircrew. Few of the self-propelled flak vehicles had survived, and army units, unlike his paratroops, did not believe in using small arms against aircraft.

  There was little sense of pity among the Allied pilots. ‘We rippled the rockets,’ wrote an Australian Typhoon pilot, ‘then separately we did cannon attacks into the massed crowds of soldiers. We would commence firing, and then slowly pull the line of cannon fire through the crowd and then pull up and go around again and again until the ammunition ran out. After each run, which resulted in a large vacant path of chopped up soldiers, the space would be almost immediately filled with other escapees.’ General von Lüttwitz of the 2nd Panzer-Division surveyed the scene that day with horror: ‘On the road great heaps of vehicles, dead horses and dead soldiers were to be seen scattered everywhere, and their number increased from hour to hour.’ Gunner Eberhard Beck of the 277th Infantry Division saw a soldier sitting motionless on a rock. He pulled him by the shoulder to get him out of danger, but the man rolled over. He was dead already.

  On 18 August alone, the US Ninth Air Force estimated its tally at 400 vehicles, while the RAF claimed 1,159 vehicles destroyed and 1,700 damaged, as well as 124 tanks destroyed and 100 damaged. But these figures were preposterously high. Once again Air Marshal Coningham was furious when he received the Operational Research report later. Their teams had found only thirty-three armoured vehicles which had been destroyed by air attack. The report concluded that the random nature of the Allied air attacks had failed to achieve a decisive degree of destruction.71 On the other hand, the Allied air attacks had once again panicked German crews into abandoning their vehicles, and their destruction of fuel supplies had certainly contributed to the very high number of armoured vehicles which were left behind.

  With so many RAF and American squadrons attacking targets at will on the ground, there were countless cases of ‘friendly fire’. The ironic cry, ‘Take cover, boys, they may be ours!’ took on a new urgency. Bradley’s 12th Army Group headquarters acknowledged that ‘some British armored vehicles had been attacked inadvertently’, but pointed out that British tank crews carried so much kit on the outside that their identifying white stars were often ‘covered with paraphernalia’.

  Because of the random air attacks, the Canadian 4th Armoured Division held back from occupying Trun until the afternoon of 18 August. The division was also hampered by the lethargy and incompetence of its commander, Major General George Kitching, and by Simonds’s plan that its armoured brigade was about to break off to lead the advance to the Seine. On the evening of 18 August, a detachment from the division reached Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives, halfway between Trun and Chambois, but was too weak to take the village until reinforced.

  The Polish battlegroup heading for Chambois made a serious mistake in map-reading and ended up six miles to the north. It was also short on ammunition and running out of fuel. The 10th Mounted Rifles reconnaissance regiment had reached the edge of Chambois, but did not have the strength to take it. Meanwhile, from the south, the American 90th Division, supported by part of Leclerc’s 2ème DB, advanced to within a mile of Chambois. Both Montgomery and the American commanders seemed to think that the battle could be won with air power and artillery. Yet the screen of Canadian, Polish and American troops was far too thin both to hold back the waves of German forces fighting to escape the pocket, and to face the threat of a counter-attack from behind by remnants of the SS panzer formations.

  On 19 August, the Polish 10th Dragoons reinforced their reconnaissance regiment outside Trun and met up with the American 90th Division. Americans and Poles shook hands. ‘They were excellent fighters and very cold-blooded,’ an American lieutenant reported later. Chambois, soon known as ‘Shambles’, was in flames from the bombardment and filled with dead Germans and burnt-out vehicles. Reports of the scale of destruction certainly seem to have increased the sense of complacency among Allied commanders. Even the energetic Simonds, commanding the II Canadian Corps, spent the following morning ‘tidying up official correspondence’ instead of forcing forward his divisions.

  Conditions within the pocket were, according to German sources, impossible to imagine if you had not seen it. ‘The roads were blocked by two or three shot-up and burned-out vehicles standing side by side,’ an officer with the 21st Panzer Division wrote. ‘Ambulances packed with wounded were carbonized. Ammunition exploded, panzers blazed and horses lay on their backs kicking their legs in their death throes. The same chaos extended in the fields far and wide. Artillery and armour-piercing rounds came from either side into the milling crowd.’

  Gunner Beck with the 277th Infanterie-Division saw teenage infantrymen stumble past: ‘In their faces one could read the utter tragedy of this appalling experience, which they could not cope with.’ Many men went to pieces after days without sleep. Some began to hide in the woods, preferring to be captured than continue such a hellish existence. He could not help feeling sorry for the horses, of whom even more was expected: ‘The heads, backs and flanks of the horses were bathed in sweat, foaming white. We roamed around as if in a slaughter-house.’

  During the day, men and vehicles hid in woods and orchards from Allied aircraft. At night, exhausted and famished German soldiers stumbled along, cursing their leaders, who became lost in the dark. Many used French two-wheeled handcarts to carry their equipment or heavy weapons. They found themselves mixed up with soldiers from rear services, including cobbler and tailoring detachments, all trying to escape but without any idea of where they were headed. Magnesium flares and ‘Christmas tree’ illuminations, descending slowly on parachutes, lit up the horizon. They revealed the silhouettes of ruined buildings and trees. There was a continual rumble of heavy guns as American and French artillery battalions continued to target the roads with harassing fire.

  On 19 August, Oberstgruppenführer Hausser was urged by both General Meindl and Gersdorff to order a breakout that night east across the River Dives, which ran through Trun, Saint-Lambert and Chambois. The order was passed by radio and word
of mouth. Hausser also requested II SS Panzer Corps to attack the Poles and Canadians from behind to open the gap.

  At 22.00 hours, the remnants of the 277th Infantry Division received the order ‘Fertigmachen zum Abmarsch’ - ‘prepare to move out’. Hausser and the unwounded members of his staff joined the remains of the 3rd Paratroop Division to make the breakthrough on foot. Generalleutnant Schimpf, the commander of the division, who had been badly wounded, was put on the back of a tank along with other wounded. Breakout groups were led by the remaining Tiger and Panther tanks, which could push any vehicles blocking the track out of the way. Ordinary Landser and generals alike clambered on to half-tracks and other armoured vehicles, ready to jump off if needed to go into the attack. One officer claimed to have seen two generals whose divisions had been wiped out put on steel helmets and arm themselves with sub-machine guns.

  An attack on Saint-Lambert began soon after midnight. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada were forced back out of the village. Lacking explosives, they had not blown the bridge. German troops were still streaming across after dawn.

  General Meindl had assembled two groups of his paratroops during the night. He led them forward to the River Dives and they slipped into the water as silently as possible. The far bank was steep and covered in brambles. On the far side, when they reached the Trun-Chambois road, they could see the silhouettes of Allied tanks and hear the crews chatting. Every time a starshell was fired into the sky they threw themselves flat. They crept past the three tanks they had seen, but a fourth one spotted them and opened fire with its machine gun. Fortunately for them, it fired too high.

 

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