D day the battle for nor.., p.54
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.54Antony Beevor
Further on, they passed a team of dead draught horses which had been machine-gunned in their traces by Allied fighter-bombers as they towed a broken-down Wehrmacht vehicle. After several hot August days, the swollen bodies gave off a deathly stench. They could hear bursts of firing behind them as other groups tried to break through the cordon. By then, they could see the first glimmer of the false dawn. Another group of paratroops who had also slipped through joined them. They heard tanks coming from the north-east. Meindl felt a surge of hope that they were from II SS Panzer Corps coming ‘from outside’ - from Vimoutiers to break the encirclement. But the profile of turret and hull was unmistakable. They were British Cromwell tanks. Three of them stopped near the dry ditch in which the German paratroops lay hidden by tall weeds. They heard the tank crew talking. After a few moments they realized that they were speaking Polish. ‘So it was the Poles we had to thank!’ Meindl commented ruefully. They had to lie there for an hour and a half, ‘not daring to move a finger’ in case they disturbed the tall weeds. By then it was 07.30 hours on 20 August.
A further disappointment came with the sound of enemy gunfire in the direction they were headed, the heights of Coudehard, the steep escarpment which ran roughly north to south. The mist lifted, the sun came out and, in the ‘hothouse atmosphere’ of their ditch, they steamed gently in their damp, ragged uniforms.
To the despair of the Germans who had not yet managed to cross the Dives and the Trun-Chambois road, the morning of 20 August dawned as ‘clear and serene’ as the previous days. As soon as the morning mist lifted, American artillery opened up and the fighter-bombers appeared overhead, coming in just above tree height with the heart-stopping scream of aero-engines.
Gersdorff, who had been wounded in the leg, arrived at dawn on 20 August in the village of Saint-Lambert in the middle of a convoy which included every sort of vehicle. But those who did not get through in the early-morning mist were soon blocked by American artillery fire and knocked-out vehicles. Improvised working parties tried to clear a way through, although they were under fire from American artillery and from the Canadians who had withdrawn.
Many more, including the last fifteen tanks of the 2nd Panzer Division, tried to cross the Dives by a small bridge between Saint-Lambert and Chambois which also came under heavy fire. ‘People, horses, vehicles had fallen from the bridge into the depths of the Dives, and there formed a terrible heap,’ wrote General von Lüttwitz. ‘Without a break, columns of fire and smoke from burning tanks rose into the sky; ammunition exploded, horses lay all around on the ground, many of them severely wounded.’ Lüttwitz, who had been wounded in the neck and back, led groups out on foot north-eastwards with members of his staff.
Finally,twotanksofthe 2nd Panzer-Division knocked out the American tank destroyers covering the Trun-Chambois road and they managed to get across. ‘This was the signal for a general exploitation of the break ... and a large number of scout cars, tanks, assault guns etc. appeared from every sort of cover.’
The American account of this day’s action, viewed from the high ground to the south of Chambois, gives a slightly different picture. ‘It was a gunner’s dream from daylight to dark,’ the 90th Division artillery reported, ‘and we plastered the road, engaging targets as they appeared.’ ‘The Germans tried a desperate trick to cross this No Man’s Land,’ another American artillery report stated. ‘In an area that was defiladed from our observation they massed their vehicles about six abreast, five or six deep and at a signal moved this square of transport into the open, depending upon speed to carry them through to safety across the zone of fire. It didn’t work. The artillery had a prepared concentration that they could fire on call into the road that the Germans were trying to use. When the artillery observer saw the results of his call, he literally jumped up and down. Again and again the Huns attempted to send vehicles across this hell of fire, and again and again the artillery rained down on them . . . We fired single batteries. We fired battalion concentrations. And when targets looked particularly interesting we dumped the whole division artillery or even the whole corps artillery on them. When evening came, the road was impassable and the fields on both sides of the road were littered with the junk that once was German equipment. Few Huns escaped by this route.’
In fact far more Germans than they believed had already got through in the early hours of the morning. Many others continued to slip across during the day, especially on the Canadian sector, which had not been properly reinforced, despite constant calls for help from those near Saint-Lambert.The 4th Armoured Division was supposed to be preparing to advance towards the Seine, but had not yet been relieved by the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division. This major flaw in the conduct of the battle again stemmed largely from Montgomery’s indecision on whether to go for a long envelopment on the Seine or to seal the gap on the River Dives.
The main Polish force was by now established on the Mont Ormel escarpment to the north-east of Chambois. Short of fuel and ammunition, they received some supplies by parachute drop. The Poles, not surprisingly, saw the battle as an intensely symbolic contest between their white eagle and the black Nazi eagle. Poland’s proud and tragic history was constantly in their thoughts. The 1st Armoured Division’s insignia was the helmet and Husaria eagle wings worn upright on the shoulders of the Polish knights who saved Vienna from the Turks 300 years earlier. Their commander, General Maczek, declared with poignant pride, ‘The Polish soldier fights for the freedom of other nations, but dies only for Poland.’ Having heard of their compatriots’ uprising in Warsaw as the Red Army approached the city, the Poles were doubly determined to kill as many Germans as possible.
For Maczek, who had commanded the 10th Cavalry Brigade in the defence of Lwow against the German 2nd Panzer-Division in September 1939, it seemed a heaven-sent coincidence that ‘luck gave the 10th Cavalry Brigade the well-deserved revenge of surprising the same division’ in this battle. That day, the 10th Mounted Infantry near Chambois also captured Generalleutnant Otto Elfeldt, the commander of LXXXIV Corps, with twenty-nine staff officers. But the real threat to the main Polish positions around Mont Ormel, as Ultra intercepts had warned, was about to come from the rear, as well as from the improvised battlegroups in front.
The Poles,fighting a desperate battle, also requested support from the Canadian 4th Armoured Division. Kitching’s obstinate and unjustified refusal to help led to Simonds relieving him of his command the following day.
At 04.00 hours that morning, the remains of the Der Führer Regiment of 2nd SS Panzer-Division, which had been defending the line of the River Touques, was ordered south in their half-tracks towards Chambois to break open the pocket. At 10.00 hours, they sighted ten Allied tanks. All their guns were pointed in towards the pocket. Hauptmann Werner, who commanded the III Battalion, had just passed a broken-down Panther tank from another SS panzer division. He returned there rapidly. The soldier working on the tank implied that it could be moved, but added that its commander, an Untersturmführer, was in a house nearby. The Untersturmführer was reluctant to move, but Werner drew his pistol and forced him back to his tank. Werner climbed up on to the engine deck behind the turret and directed him back to where they had seen the Allied tanks. When they were close, Werner went forward on foot to reconnoitre the best firing position. By then the Untersturmführer was showing a good deal more enthusiasm. According to Werner, they took the enemy tanks entirely by surprise, knocking out five of them and damaging several others.72
Elements of the 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen also counter-attacked from the direction of Vimoutiers, as Eberbach had planned. But their advance did not start until 10.00 hours, because of fuel shortages. A junior staff officer, reconnoitring the way in a motorcycle combination, ran straight into a large detachment of Polish troops. His driver was shot, and the Poles, seeing his SS uniform, were about to execute him. His life was saved by the intervention of a Canadian liaison officer, apparently a White Russian who had escaped to Canada in 1919.
After a circuitous route, Meindl found the commander-in-chief of the Seventh Army sheltering in a bomb crater with men of the SS Der Führer Regiment. They collected other groups of infantry and two Panther tanks which appeared. Meindl, obsessively proud of his paratroops, was scathing about some of the army personnel who had joined them. Many had abandoned their weapons. He saw ‘fear in their eyes and cowardice in their hearts’ in the desperation to break out of the encirclement, rather than join in the battle to open the breach. ‘Here one saw the communication zone troops from France, who had not known what war was for the past three years. It was a pitiful sight. Dissolution and panic. And in between them my paratroops, with contempt in their eyes, fulfilling their duty in an exemplary way.’ His men, together with a handful from the SS and infantry, were prepared to make the sacrifice for the rest, while the ‘toe-rags’, as he called them, displayed nothing but ‘crass egoism and cowardliness’. ‘For the first time I now understood how war was the worst possible way of breeding the best type of human being . . . how the best blood was lost and the poorest retained.’
The improvised attack went forward, and, ‘as if by a miracle’, they seized the heights of Coudehard at 16.30 hours when the Waffen-SS panzers attacked from the other direction, thus breaking the encirclement and creating a gap nearly two miles wide. The few prisoners they took confirmed that they had been up against the 1st Polish Armoured Division.
In the meantime General Hausser, who had been badly wounded, was evacuated on the back of one of the very few tanks left. Meindl’s main concern that afternoon was to send through the rest of the wounded in a column of clearly marked ambulances. ‘Not a shot was fired at them,’ wrote Meindl, ‘and I recognised, with thankfulness in my heart, the chivalrous attitude of the enemy.’ He waited a full half-hour after the column had disappeared before sending through any fighting troops, ‘so that there should not be the slightest suspicion in the mind of the enemy that we had taken any unfair advantage’.
News had spread behind them that a gap had been opened at Coudehard and that night a mass of stragglers hurried forward to take advantage of the opportunity. Meindl, however, was disgusted to hear from a senior officer who joined him that many more, including officers, had considered escape a hopeless project. As it grew light on 21 August, Meindl decided that they would not be able to hold open the gap for another day. He went round waking his men. It was not an easy task. Having organizeda forceto cover theretreat, heset off onfoot eastwards towards the Seine. It began to rain steadily. That at least would help conceal the route of the long snaking column of exhausted men.
Although part of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division finally arrived to strengthen the cordon between Trun and Saint-Lambert, small groups of Germans had continued to slip through all day. Some of them joined the SS combat teams fighting to keep open the gap, but a US spotter plane circling above them continued to direct artillery fire on the retreating troops. On the southern shoulder of the gap, a combat team from Leclerc’s 2ème DB had taken up position on a hill, where they found themselves almost next to the main Polish force. And further round to the south-west, the Langlade battlegroup with the American 90th Division fought ‘German attempts, more or less disorganized, to break through between Chambois and the Forêt de Gouffern’.
That day was also a significant one for the citizens of Caen. The very final shell, fired from the line of the River Touques, fell on the city: ‘the sixty-sixth and last day of the martyrdom of Caen’.
On 21 August the Polish armoured division, cut off around Mont Ormel, was finally reinforced and resupplied by Canadian troops.73 The gap was sealed. General Eberbach, accepting that hardly any more men would now escape, ordered the remains of II SS Panzer Corps to pull back to the Seine. The badly wounded Oberstgruppenführer Hausser was taken to the provisional Seventh Army command post at Le Sap, where he told General von Funck to take over. (General Eberbach assumed command two days later.) Staff officers began to collect and reorganize troops. To their surprise, they found that in many cases over 2,000 men per division had escaped, but this figure still seems high.
Those German troops left behind showed little resistance. It was time to round up prisoners. ‘[The] Yanks say they collected hundreds all day,’ Major Julius Neave wrote in his diary. ‘The 6th Durham Light infantry have just reported that they are in a wonderful position and can see hundreds more walking towards them.’ Many units regarded flushing Germans out of the woods as a sport. But there were tragedies too. In Ecouché, the Germans had left hundreds of mines and boobytraps. ‘A boy of about ten years stepped out of the church to meet us,’ reported a young American officer with the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, ‘and was blown up by one of these anti-personnel mines.’ British sappers, who had just arrived, began to clear the town to try to prevent any more accidents. They dealt with 240 mines.
At first it was hard to enter the area of the pocket because the roads were blocked with burnt-out vehicles. Tanks and recovery vehicles had to work round the clock clearing a path. The scenes inside defied belief. ‘The roads were choked with wreckage and the swollen bodies of men and horses,’ wrote the commander of a Typhoon wing, interested in seeing the results of their work. He was clearly shaken. ‘Bits of uniform were plastered to shattered tanks and trunks and human remains hung in grotesque shapes on the blackened hedgerows. Corpses lay in pools of dried blood, staring into space as if their eyes were being forced from their sockets. Two grey-clad bodies, both minus their legs, leaned against a clay bank as if in prayer.’ Amid the skeletons of burnt trees, the detritus of war and of military bureaucracy lay all around, including typewriters and exploded mailbags. ‘I picked up a photograph of a smiling German recruit standing between his parents, two solemn peasants who stared back at me in accusation.’ It was a sharp reminder that ‘each grey-clad body was a mother’s son’.
The writer Kingsley Amis, who also witnessed the scene, was struck by the massive number of draught animals which the Germans had used in their attempts to escape: ‘The horses seemed almost more pitiful, rigid in the shafts with their upper lips drawn above their teeth as if in continuing pain.’
American soldiers were drawn by the prospect of souvenirs to send home. A group from the 6th Engineer Special Brigade came across a whole cossack squadron lying beside their horses, as one of their number described: ‘The Don cossacks, the Terek cossacks, all these wore their original cossack uniforms except for the German emblem on their breast, the eagle and swastika. They had the fur hats, and we found out later that the head of this squadron was named Captain Zagordny. His wife was killed right beside him. She rode along with him when they rode out. The French people I heard were terrified of the Russians.’ The party of engineers eagerly collected up the long Russian sabres, ‘which still had the hammer and sickle on them’. Some men even collected saddles as well as weapons, and they threw everything into the back of their trucks. They were later allowed to take all their booty home, but not the sabres, because they were marked with the Soviet symbol. American military authorities did not want to upset their great ally, who was so sensitive about all the former Red Army soldiers fighting on the German side.
As well as the large numbers of prisoners, there were also several thousand German wounded to look after. During the mopping up, a German field hospital with 250 wounded was discovered, hidden deep in the Forêt de Gouffer
British and American medical services were soon swamped. Their doctors were helped by hard-working German medical orderlies. ‘On the collapse of the Falaise pocket,’ wrote Lieutenant Colonel Snyder, ‘750 German wounded were brought in. Some of them were lightly wounded German officers, who complained that they had had to walk. One of the German orderlies, overhearing this, called back: “When I was in the German army, you officers told us we should march all day without grumbling”.’
Many Landser, however, were in a pitiful condition, including twenty-five cases of gas gangrene. Two surgical teams operated in separate tentsto prevent contamination.They did nothingbut amputate gangrenous limbs. They had to keep changing the teams round because the stench from the gas gangrene was so terrible. ‘Medical care during retreat is always difficult for any army,’ Colonel Snyder observed.
British doctors with 6 General Hospital also had to deal with gas gangrene. They were in addition concerned with an epidemic of enteritis and the threat of typhus, when they discovered how many German prisoners were covered in lice: ‘Their blankets have been segregated from the other patients and washed before being used on any other patient.’
The main fear of infection lay in the pocket itself. Dead horses and German corpses were covered in flies, and the plague of mosquitoes continued. The Americans brought in French workers to help deal with the problem. One of them recorded how he had to hold a handkerchief over his nose because of the pestilential stench as he surveyed the carbonized corpses and the grotesque grins of blackened skulls. They dragged bodies, both human and animal, to make funeral pyres, pouring gasoline over them. ‘The air became unbreathable,’ he wrote.
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