D day the battle for nor.., p.56
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.56Antony Beevor
The Swedishconsul-general, Raoul Nordling, then negotiateda truce with Choltitz. The German commander even agreed to recognize the FFI as regular troops and allow the Resistance to hold on to the public buildings in return for respecting German strongholds. The truce was endorsed at a meeting of the National Council for the Resistance, because only one of the Communist delegates was present. Rol-Tanguy was furious when he heard. In any case, sporadic fighting continued. Shirt-sleeved young men and women in summer dresses, some wearing old helmets from the First World War, continued to hold the barricades which had been constructed out of cobblestones, overturned vehicles, bedsteads, furniture and chopped-down trees. Many started to wear red, white and blue brassards with the initials FFI embroidered on them by wives and girlfriends.
On Monday, 21 August, the National Council met again. All of Chaban-Delmas’s arguments to maintain the truce were violently rejected by the Communists, who regarded it as an act of treason. Eventually, a compromise was reached. The truce would not be rejected until the following day. The Communists prepared posters ordering ‘Tous aux barricades!’ Skirmishes between the Germans and the FFI continued. In the Place de l’Odéon, just below the German strongpoint in the Palais de Luxembourg, a grenade was thrown into a German truck, setting it on fire. The Resistance in Paris was dismayed that the BBC still made no mention of the uprising.
That day, the British 11th Armoured Division relieved Leclerc’s 2ème DB near Argentan, allowing them to be ready ‘for new missions’. All the division’s thoughts lay ‘in the direction of Paris’. They heard over the radio that American reconnaissance patrols had already reached Rambouillet and the Forêt de Fontainebleau, while the 7th Armored Division was preparing to cross the Seine south of Paris at Melun, Montereau and Sens. ‘What are we doing here?’ was their dismayed reaction. ‘The honor of relieving Paris is surely ours. We have been given a specific promise.’
Leclerc’s troops knew that Paris was in a ferment, and their understandably impatient commander felt that ‘Paris cannot wait much longer for its solution’. As a Frenchman, and especially a conservative Catholic who feared some sort of Communist coup in the capital, he found it impossible to accept Eisenhower’s argument that Paris must wait to allow a rapid advance towards the Rhine.
Without seeking General Gerow’s permission, Leclerc ordered one of his officers, Jacques de Guillebon, with a squadron of light tanks and a platoon of infantry in half-tracks, to carry out a detailed reconnaissance towards Versailles and perhaps on to Paris. He also told Capitaine Alain de Boissieu (de Gaulle’s future son-in-law) to take the American liaison officers off on a sightseeing trip to keep them out of the way. But the next day, one of them discovered what was happening and tipped off V Corps headquarters. Gerow was furious. He immediately ordered that the patrols hould be called back, but Leclerc ignored his instruction. This marked the rapid deterioration of what had started as a good relationship. Gerow had previously acknowledged that Leclerc was not just the commander of a division, but the senior French officer with the Allied armies in Normandy. Now Gerow shared the suspicion of many senior American officers that the Gaullists were fighting their own war for France, not the Allies’ war against Germany. He would have been even angrier if he had known that the 2ème DB had been secretly stockpiling fuel, through over-indenting and even stealing from gasoline dumps. The French troops were acutely aware that if Leclerc disobeyed orders by making an unauthorized dash for Paris, the Americans would cut off their supplies.
While Patton’s divisions were crossing the Seine around Paris, the British and Canadians north of the Falaise gap slogged on eastwards towards Lisieux and the lower section of the river. Unlike the Americans to the south, they faced three unbroken infantry divisions which fought in retreat, from village to village and river to river. These small skirmishes cost a surprising number of lives. When a company from the Tyneside Scottish battalion with the 49th Infantry Division reached a village, a detachment of the 21st SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment which had just withdrawn promptly mortared the place. The British rapidly took shelter. A young soldier, Private Petrie, entered the house of a local scholar and climbed under a desk in the library. At that moment, a shell splinter from a mortar bomb came through the ceiling, through a book on top of the desk - it happened to be Kleist’s Prince of Homburg - and finally skewered the unfortunate soldier’s throat. He died rapidly and was buried by his comrades in a neighbouring garden as soon as the shelling ceased. The liberation of this one small village had cost eight dead and ten wounded.
In the woods and valleys of the Pays d’Auge, the Germans laid ambushes for tanks with their 88 mm flak guns. On 22 August, twenty-six Shermans were lost in a single attack. Disasters like this were even more of a shock when inflicted by a supposedly beaten enemy. The advance to the Seine was not very rapid as a result. A chaplain with the Wessex division wrote of the enemy, ‘We all know he’s lost the war, and feel all the more annoyed at any casualties.’
That same day near Lisieux, ‘the infantry captured a pair of villainous looking SS men,’ a gunner lieutenant noted in his diary, ‘and I watched as they were interviewed at battalion headquarters. They were pretty arrogant, and after they were led off I had to wonder whether they even got as far as the PoW cage.’
In many places ordinary German soldiers paid for the crimes of the SS. South of Lisieux, near Livarot, a last group of retreating SS soldiers stopped at a large farm and asked for milk. The milkmaids told them that there was none left. They carried on a couple of hundred yards and rested in a ditch. Soon afterwards, they watched some Canadian scouts appear. The young women dashed out to cut flowers for their liberators. As soon as the Canadians moved on, the SS soldiers returned to the farm and wreaked their revenge on the young women with sub-machine guns and grenades, killing six of them. ‘We took the same number of German prisoners as there had been victims at the farm at Le Mesnil-Bacley,’ a member of the local Resistance wrote later, ‘and made them dig their own graves ... And once they had finished they were publicly executed.’ He then added, ‘To celebrate the liberation a few days later at Livarot, we paraded all the women who had had relations with the occupiers, after having shorn their heads.’ Elsewhere, onewoman notedcynically thatwhen the Canadians arrived, the girls who had compromised themselves the most during the German occupation were the first to approach the victors, ‘smiles on their lips and their arms full of flowers’. She also observed that when Allied troops threw chocolate and cigarettes to young women as they drove by, they waited until the truck had disappeared, then knelt down a little shamefacedly to pick them up.
Many Normans were cynical about members of the Resistance. ‘The explosive growth of the FFI is incredible,’ observed a local lawyer. ‘All the village boys who chased girls and danced on Saturday nights appear with a brassard and a submachinegun.’ Yet Allied troops greatly appreciated the help of the true Resistance fighters. ‘The Maquis are doing an excellent job, we see more and more of them,’ a Canadian major wrote home. And Myles Hildyard at 7th Armoured Division noted in his diary that, during the advance to the Seine, ‘every 11th Hussar [armoured] car has a Maquis on it and they have been invaluable’.
Also near Livarot, a troop of the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards joined a company of the 1st/5th Queens soon after dawn. The company commander waved them to a halt. The troop leader, Lieutenant Woods, jumped down. ‘Would you like a Panzer Mark IV for breakfast?’ the infantry officer asked. He led him down a track to an orchard. ‘Moving hesitantly in open ground on the next ridge about 800 yards away was the quarry, which had clearly no idea that he was observed.’ Woods brought his tank through the apple orchard thick with foliage and fruit. They spent a seemingly endless time manoeuvring so that both the commander and the gunner could see the target, which drove Trooper Rose, the driver, to distraction as the tension mounted: ‘The minutes ticked by; the dialogue in the turret verged on the acrimonious.’ Finally, they had a clear shot. The first armour-piercing round hit
The Americans, having returned to the plan of a long envelopment of the Germans retreating to the Seine, sent first the 5th Armored Division and then Corlett’s XIX Corps to swing left up the west bank of the river. But they too found it hard going and had a tough fight at Elbeuf, where Generalfeldmarschall Model had ordered his fragmented divisions to hold them off to protect the crossing places further downstream.
This manoeuvre also led to another row between the Americans and the British. Bradley, at his meeting with Montgomery and Dempsey on 19 August, had offered the British enough trucks to move two divisions to make this right-flanking move themselves. Dempsey declined on the grounds that he could not extricate them quickly enough.
‘If you can’t do it, Bimbo,’ Bradley replied, ‘have you any objection to our giving it a try? It’ll mean cutting across your front.’
‘Why no, not at all,’ Dempsey said. ‘We’d be delighted to have you do it.’
But when Dempsey was later questioned by British newspaper correspondents about the advance to the Seine, he replied that it would have been faster if they had not been held up by US Army traffic across their front. Monty apologized to Bradley afterwards, saying that Dempsey must have been misquoted, but Bradley was unconvinced. He never forgave Dempsey for that remark. Some years later, he described it as ‘one of the greatest injustices ever done to the American army’.
On 21 August, the Canadian and British armies had reached a line running from Deauville on the coast to Lisieux and then Orbec. The Canadians were reinforced with the 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade, which took Deauville the next day, and the Royal Netherlands Brigade (Princess Irene’s), which advanced towards Honfleur on the Seine estuary. A Czech armoured brigade also arrived right at the end of the battle. The roads leading to the Seine crossings were frequently blocked by Germanvehicles, someabandoned becauseof lackof fuel,others burned out from fighter-bomber attacks.
Once again Typhoon pilots made wildly excessive claims. They estimated that they had destroyed 222 armoured vehicles, but out of 150 abandoned by the Germans, only thirteen were found to have been destroyed by air attack. But there can be no doubt that their cannon accounted for a large proportion of the 3,468 German vehicles and guns. The Typhoons of 123 Wing also suffered a nasty shock over the Seine, losing four aircraft when ‘bounced’ by Messerschmitt 109s, which hardly ever managed to penetrate the protective screen of Mustang and Spitfire squadrons patrolling inland.
The Germans still on the west bank of the lower Seine crossed by night, using boats and even a pontoon bridge, which was disassembled at dawn to avoid air attacks. ‘Ferry points for the Seine crossing were prepared and allotted to divisions,’ wrote General Bayerlein. ‘This allocation was not observed, and everyone crossed the river wherever he felt like it. Most of the ferries were confiscated by the SS, who generally did not allow members of other units to use them.’ Artillery units had held on to their horses and some of them swam their animals across. On 23 August, when bad weather kept away the Allied fighter-bombers, the 21st Panzer Pioneer Battalion began to build a bridge at Rouen to get their tanks across. But the next day was sunny and the bridge was destroyed two hours after it was finished. The steep wooded sides of the twisting valley at least allowed the Germans to hide during daylight.
Model’s headquarters at La Roche-Guyon had been abandoned on the approach of American forces. Fifth Panzer Army moved its command post first to Rouen and then to Amiens, where Eberbach and his chief of staff, Gersdorff, were later captured by the Guards Armoured Division, though Gersdorff managed to escape a few hours later.
South of Paris, the remains of the pioneer group from the 276th Infanterie-Division reached Melun on 22 August in their Citroën just before Patton’s spearhead arrived. Gefreiter Spiekerkötter and his comrades thought that they had reached safety and could carry on to Metz. But as soon as they were identified as pioneers by the Feldgendarmerie they were ordered into Paris to prepare bridges over the Seine for demolition. Reunited with other members of their battalion, they received new Opel-Blitz trucks, but when they drove into the Place de la Concorde, they became increasingly aware of the empty streets and the threatening silence. Barricades manned by the FFI could be seen in side streets.
They were led to a fort used in 1871 during the Siege of Paris which was a naval depot for torpedo warheads. Kriegsmarine sailors helped them load the explosive into the trucks. Later, driving down the Champs-Elysées, they heard a shot. In a panic, all the pioneers opened fire in all directions. They discovered, shamefacedly, that one of their tyres had exploded. Fortunately nobody was killed.
On 22 August, the FFI ended the truce and went on to a general offensive with the order ‘Tous aux barricades!’ On the same day, General von Choltitz received the clearest order from Hitler that Paris was to be destroyed. It was also the day on which Ralph Nordling, the brother of the Swedish consul-general in Paris, managed to reach Patton’s headquarters at Dreux to ask him to save Paris. (He had been preceded by Commandant Roger Gallois, Colonel Rol-Tanguy’s representative, with a similar plea.) Major General Gilbert Cook, the commander of XII Corps, was present and recorded the conversation.
‘Paris should be declared an open city and spared,’ Nordling said, having described conditions in the city in a perhaps over-apocalyptic manner.
‘I can open it wide and fold it back in 24 hours,’ Patton replied.
‘The Germans there are in too great a force.’
‘I am better informed’, said Patton, presumably as a result of what Gallois had told him in the early hours of that morning.
He agreed to send Nordling and his companions on to Bradley’s headquarters near Laval to plead their case there.
Both Nordling and Gallois, who had also been sent on to 12th Army Group, were assisted by urgent signals to Eisenhower from de Gaulle and General Koenig, who had learned of their arrival. Bradley, who was with Eisenhower at Granville, heard about their arguments from his chief of staff, Brigadier General Edwin L. Sibert. They had told him that ‘between 4,000 and 5,000 children and old people were dying each day from starvation’ and that the Metro and the sewage system had been mined.
Eisenhower had already been weakening in his resolve to bypass Paris. ‘Well, what the hell, Brad,’ he said, ‘I guess we’ll have to go in.’ Bradley agreed that they had no option. Eisenhower had to sell the decision to General Marshall back in Washington as a purely military one to aid the Resistance. Roosevelt would be furious if he thought that the change in plan was an attempt to install de Gaulle in power.79
At 19.30 hours, Leclerc was waiting anxiously beside the landing strip at 12th Army Group headquarters for Bradley’s return. Finally the Piper Cub appeared and taxied towards Leclerc’s Jeep. ‘Well, you win,’ Bradley said to him as he climbed out. ‘They’ve decided to send you to Paris.’ Leclerc returned as quickly as possible to his divisional command post. Even before his Jeep came to a halt, Leclerc shouted to one of his staff officers, ‘Mouvement immédiat sur Paris!’ The order brought tears of fierce joy. Even for those from the colonial army who had never seen Paris before, its freedom represented everything that they had fought for during the last few years.
General Gerow at V Corps had already been summoned to First US Army headquarters, where he was briefed on the uprising, the Resistance running out of ammunition and thousands supposedly dying each day from starvation. General Eisenhower, he was told, had given the order that a force of French, American and British troops start for Paris immediately.80 ‘The city was to be entered only if the resistance was such that it could be overcome with light forces. There was to be no severe fighting, air or artillery bombardment so as to avoid the destruction of the city.’ As soon as Pari
Just after midnight, V Corps issued its orders. The 2ème DB with B Troop of the 102nd Cavalry Squadron was to cross the line of departure at midday, to ‘gain control of Paris in coordination with the French Forces of the Interior, and be prepared to move east as ordered by the Corps Commander’. The American 4th Infantry Division, with the rest of 102nd Cavalry, was to take a more southerly route. But Leclerc had already issued his own orders before midnight. And as Gerow’s staff noted, the 2ème DB did not wait: ‘The march on Paris began that same night.’
On 23 August,the 2ème DB’s three groupementstactiques, the equivalent of the American combat command, headed south-east in heavy rain with their seemingly endless columns of Staghound armoured cars, Stuart light tanks, half-tracks, Shermans, tank destroyers, Jeeps and trucks. Leclerc, preceding the main force, reached the Château de Rambouillet, the official country residence of French presidents. He sent a message back to de Gaulle, who replied that he would join him there. Leclerc then began to interview members of the local Resistance and gendarmerie, hoping to discover the least-defended route into the capital. It appeared from their information and from Commandant de Guillebon, commanding the reconnaissance patrol, that he should avoid Versailles and swing further round to the south of Paris. The fact that this might get in the way of the US 4th Infantry Division did not concern him.
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