The landings of the British 3rd Infantry Division at the eastern end on Sword beach, between Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer and the River Orne, had heavy guns in support. The battleships HMS Ramillies and Warspite, and the monitor HMS Roberts, were augmented by four cruisers, including the Polish ship Dragon, and thirteen destroyers. The Overlord planners had increased this naval support because of the many German batteries in the sector. Birds in the Orne estuary were driven wild by their gunfire. ‘Widgeon and teal fly low over the sea and look like black tracer,’ wrote an observer in his diary.
The landing craft were lowered into the heavy sea at 05.30 hours and, after circling, made their way inshore, vainly attempting to maintain formation. One company commander in the 2nd Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment read extracts from Shakespeare’sHenry V to his men over the tannoy, but most of them were probably too seasick to pay much attention. Many regretted the tot of navy rum with breakfast.
The DD tank crews of the 13th/18th Hussars and the Staffordshire Yeomanry felt a different form of nausea when they received the order ‘Floater, 5,000!’ The launch of the swimming tanks planned for 8,000 yards out had been reduced, but it was still a very long way to go in a sea with waves up to five feet high. Surprisingly, only six out of forty sank, two of them as a result of being rammed by landing craft out of control. At 06.50 hours, the self-propelled guns of the 3rd Infantry Division also opened fire from their landing craft at a range of 10,000 yards.
Just before landing, an officer with the 41st Royal Marine Commando observed those around him on the landing craft: ‘Some were scared shitless, others fiercely proud just to be a part of it. Anticipation with nervous excitement showed everywhere.’ The first wave of infantry, the 1st Battalion the South Lancashire Regiment and the 2nd East Yorkshires, arrived to find that the first DD tanks were already ashore and firing at strongpoints. The South Lancs immediately attacked the German position codenamed ‘Cod’ opposite the beach. Their commanding officer died ten feet from the top of the beach with the battalion medical officer wounded beside him. A Bren-gun platoon, landing in carriers, charged straight up the beach and the defenders surrendered. The 2nd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, which followed, was astonished to be welcomed by a man in a brass fireman’s helmet ‘like a Napoleonic dragoon’. This was the mayor of Colleville. He was accompanied by a young woman who wasted no time in starting to care for the wounded.
Other young Frenchwomen also showed extraordinary bravery, coming to the beaches to help. Purely by chance, a student nurse who had left her bathing dress in a beach hut the day before had arrived on a bicycle that morning to retrieve it. She ignored the wolf whistles of the amazed squaddies and set to work bandaging wounds. Her work lasted two days and during the course of it she met her future husband, a young English officer.
Flail tanks from the 22nd Dragoons and the Westminster Dragoons cleared paths through minefields, and exits from the beach were opened more quickly than on any other sector. The Royal Engineers also wasted no time. ‘Every now and then there’s a big flash and clouds of smoke and a noise as some part of the beach is cleared by sappers,’ a naval officer noted in his diary.
A young officer landing in the second wave noticed near the beachmaster’s post a fat German officer held prisoner with half a dozen of his men. They were crouching under the shelter of the sea wall as shells from their own artillery landed. The German officer suddenly protested to a sergeant with the beachmaster’s team that under the Geneva Convention they had the right to be taken to a place of safety. The sergeant threw a spade at him and yelled, ‘Well, dig yourself a fucking hole then!’
The 2nd East Yorkshires pushed inland, turning left towards the River Orne to attack strongpoint ‘Sole’ and then take on ‘Daimler’, which had four 155 mm guns. A captain charged the bunker firing his Sten gun and entered. Unfortunately his batman, ‘with misjudged enthusiasm’, chose that moment to drop a grenade down the ventilation shaft. It was his gallant captain who received most of the blast. He emerged shaken but fortunately unwounded. The seventy defenders surrendered quickly. When soldiers of the East Yorks discovered a stock of beer and wine, their company sergeant major, concerned that discipline might collapse, threatened them with the penalty for looting. But then ‘he relented a little’, considering how agreeable some of it would be.
Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade also landed near Colleville. His commandos had thrown away their helmets at the last moment and wore their green berets instead, with their own regimental cap badges. Lovat had his personal piper, Bill Millin, from the Cameron Highlanders, with him. Millin was glad that Lovat led the way off the landing craft, since he was more than six feet tall and would show how deep the water was. The man just behind Lovat received a bullet in the face and collapsed. Millin jumped in and was shocked by the cold as his kilt spread around him. By the time he strode up out of the surf he was playing ‘Highland Laddie’. Lovat turned round and gave him the thumbs up because it was a march of his old regiment, the Scots Guards. Amid the crump of mortars, shouting and small-arms fire, Millin could hardly believe it when Lovat then asked him if he would mind marching up and down playing ‘The Road to the Isles’ as the rest of the men disembarked. Most of the astonished soldiers on the beach loved it, but one or two almost lost their tempers at what they thought was insane behaviour.
Later than planned, Lovat led his force inland on a forced march towards the two bridges at Bénouville captured by John Howard’s company early that morning. Lovat’s conspicuous bravery had prompted his men to refer to him as ‘the mad bastard’. Although a great fighter, he still retained, as 25th Chief of the Clan Fraser, a touch of the grand seigneur. As they advanced beside the Caen Canal towards Bénouville, a German rifleman shot at them from a tree. He then must have panicked. Jumping down to the ground, he tried to dash into a cornfield to hide. Lovat dropped to one knee and brought him down with a single shot from his deerstalking rifle. He sent off two men to retrieve the body, almost as if it were a stag.
Lovat turned to Millin: ‘Right, Piper. Start the pipes again and keep playing as long as you can until we get to Bénouville. The Airborne are at the bridges there, and when they hear the pipes, they will know we are coming.’ Millin played ‘Blue Bonnets Over the Border’ as they approached their objective. Lovat, with a great sense of occasion, shook hands with Howard and remarked that they had made history that day. He was clearly unaware that Howard’s men had not only been relieved by Colonel Pine-Coffin’s parachute battalion, but even that some of his own men had beaten him to the bridges.
Captain Alan Pyman, MC, had led 3 Troop of 6 Commando across half an hour earlier. This unit included Belgians, Dutch, Norwegians and Poles. Most striking of all was X Troop, which consisted almost entirely of German Jewish refugees. Most had transferred from the Pioneer Corps. They had all been given English names, with identity discs marking their religion as Church of England in case they were captured. As native German speakers, they were also extremely useful interrogating prisoners, as Lovat soon found. Pyman led his troop all the way to Bréville, which was still heavily defended. He was killed by a sniper and, without further support, his men were forced to pull back to Amfréville.
No. 4 Commando, with two troops of French fusiliers marins under Commandant Philippe Kieffer, had landed at 07.55 hours. Kieffer and his men, the first regular French troops to land in Normandy, headed east to the resort of Riva Bella and the port of Ouistreham at the mouth of the Orne. The Germans had fortified the casino at Riva Bella. Kieffer’s commandos had a tough fight to reduce it and then silence the heavy gun battery, a massive concrete structure set among the seaside villas.
Hitler had finally gone to bed at three in the morning, after chatting with Eva Braun and Goebbels about the cinema and the world situation until two. Reports of the Allied parachute drops had still not reached Berchtesgaden. Accounts disagree on when Hitler was woken the next morning. Albert Speer wrote that he arrived at the Berghof at about ten to find that Hitler had not been woken before because the OKW considered the landings a diversionary attack. His adjutants had not wanted to disturb him with inaccurate information. But Hitler’s personal adjutant, Hauptsturmführer Otto Günsche, stated that he entered the great hall of the Berghof at 08.00 hours. There he greeted Generalfeldmarschall Keitel and General Jodl with the words, ‘Gentlemen, this is the invasion. I have said all along that this is where it would come.’
It would have been typical of Hitler to claim he had always been right, even though his prediction had in fact switched from Normandy back to the Pas-de-Calais. But Günsche’s version must be treated with great caution. Others also testified to Hitler’s late rising, and in any case Günsche’s account still does not explain why Hitler would not allow the panzer divisions in the OKW reserve to be released until that afternoon if he really believed that Normandy was the main invasion area.15 Everyone, however, seems to agree that he reacted with glee to the news, convinced that the enemy would be smashed on the beaches. And in the next few days he looked forward to crushing London with his V-1 flying bombs.
The closest armoured formation to the coast was the 21st Panzer-Division, distributed over a large area around Caen. Its commander, Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger, was an artilleryman with no experience of tank warfare. Described by his Canadian interrogator at the end of the war as ‘a tall wiry, well-built man with a slightly bent nose, which gave him the appearance of a somewhat elderly pugilist’, Feuchtinger did not arouse the admiration of his officers. He owed his appointment to his Nazi connections, and his dalliance in Paris on the night of 5 June, together with late arrival at his headquarters, added to the confusion already created by the complicated chain of command.
Generalmajor Richter of the 716th Infanterie-Division had tried as early as 01.20 hours to order part of the 21st Panzer to attack the parachute landings of the 6th Airborne Division east of the Orne. But the absence of Feuchtinger and his chief of staff delayed any orders until 06.30 hours, and the panzer regiment under Oberst Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski did not move out until 08.00 hours. The British airborne forces faced only Oberstleutnant Hans von Luck’s 125th Panzergrenadier-Regiment in the early hours of 6 June, and even then its attempts to counter-attack Bénouville betrayed a considerable uncertainty.
British paratroopers, hoping to prepare the Château de Bénouville for defence, discovered that it had been taken over as a maternity and paediatric hospital. An officer accompanied by a couple of men went in to warn them to take refuge. The woman in charge said that she must call the director. The paratroop officer, who was understandably tense, pointed his gun at her to stop her picking up the telephone. ‘Non téléphonique!’ he ordered. Fortunately, Madame Vion, the director, appeared very soon. She showed great sang-froid and wasted no time. While the mothers were moved from their beds upstairs, the children were dispatched rapidly into the basement via the linen chute.
The massive armoured counter-attack which the airborne expected never materialized. After Oppeln-Bronikowski had assembled his force and set off down the east bank of the Orne, he received an order at 09.30 hours to turn around, go back through Caen, then attack the British beachhead west of the river. This long diversion on open roads exposed his force to fighter-bomber attacks. Having set out with 104 Mark IV panzers, the two battalions were reduced to no more than sixty serviceable vehicles by the time they reached the Périers ridge late in the afternoon.
General Marcks, the corps commander, was dismayed by the long diversion of Oppeln-Bronikowski’s column of tanks. In a telephone call to Seventh Army headquarters at 09.25 hours, he attempted to obtain the immediate deployment of the much more formidable 12th SS Panzer-DivisionHitler Jugend. But every headquarters involved in the fighting in Normandy - Seventh Army, Panzer Group West, Army Group B and OB West - was thwarted by the refusal of the OKW staff at the Berghof to make a decision. When an officer at OB West, Rundstedt’s headquarters at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, protested, he was told that they were ‘in no position to judge’ and ‘The main landing was going to come at an entirely different place.’ OB West tried to argue that if that were the case ‘it was all the more logical to destroy one landing so as to be able to meet a possible second one with all available forces. Moreover, the enemy would certainly concentrate on the successful landing.’ Once again they were told that only the Führer could make the decision, and that did not happen until 15.00 hours.
This delay was doubly unfortunate for the Germans. Bad visibility persisted until late in the morning, which would have given the Hitler Jugend Division the opportunity to cover much of the ground between Lisieux and Caen without air attack. Apart from the reconnaissance battalion and the panzergrenadiers sent on ahead, the bulk of the division could not move until nightfall.
Although Sword beach, between Lion-sur-Mer and Ouistreham, was secured rapidly, the advance inland was unnecessarily sluggish. An astonishing number of soldiers, tired from wading in through the waves and relieved to have survived the landing, felt that they had earned the right to a cigarette and a mug of tea. Many started to brew up on the beach, even though it was still under fire. The naval staff yelled at them to get inland and chase the Germans off.
Both Canadians and Americans were bemused by the British Army’s apparent inability to complete a task without a tea break. They also noticed a widespread reluctance to help other arms. Infantry refused to help ‘fill a crater or get a vehicle out of difficulties’, and when not engaged on an engineering task, sappers failed to fire at the enemy. Whether this demarcation mentality arose out of the trade union movement or the regimental system - both of which cultivated an ideal of collective loyalty - the basic fault often came from a lack of confidence among young officers.
The failure of the British 3rd Infantry Division to seize their objective of Caen on the first day soon proved critical. A vast amount of effort and ingenuity had been invested in planning the assault on the coast, but little thought had been put into the immediate follow-up phase. If Montgomery had intended to seize the city, as he stated, then he failed to put in place the equipment and organization of his forces to carry out such a daring stroke. One could well argue that as soon as the presence of the 21st Panzer-Division was established, his stated objective became far too optimistic.
In any case, to reach Caen in a single day, the 3rd Infantry Division would have needed to send forward at least two battlegroups, each with an armoured regiment and an infantry battalion. The infantry should ideally have been mounted in armoured personnel carriers, vehicles which the British Army took another twenty years to acquire. With only a few honourable exceptions, the British Army was woefully unprepared for infantry-tank operations. Much of the problem stemmed from the regimental system and thus a reluctance to imitate the German panzergrenadier system, with closely knit armoured infantry and tank forces working together on a permanent basis.
The plan was for the 8th Infantry Brigade to seize the Périers ridge. Then the 185th Brigade, with three infantry battalions and only one armoured regiment, would pass through them and on to Caen. The 2nd Battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry had been supposed to mount the tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry in the assembly area near Hermanville, then lead the advance south to Caen. They were to be supported by the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on the right and the 1st Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment on the left.
The three infantry battalions were ready at Hermanville by 11.00 hours, but there was no sign of the Staffordshire Yeomanry. An unusually high tide had reduced the depth of the beach to little more than ten yards, leaving no space for tanks to manoeuvre. And as German artillery was still shelling the routes south, traffic jams tailed back all the way to the beaches when vehicles were set ablaze. Minefields prevented the tanks from going a cross country. The brigade commander agonized over whether to launch the attack on foot and without tank support. After waiting an hour, he ordered the infantry to set off.
Meanwhile the 8th Brigade found the attack on the Périers ridge greatly hampered by two strongpoints codenamed ‘Hillman’ and ‘Morris’.Morris, which had four 105 mm guns, was taken quite quickly, its dispirited defenders surrendering after an hour, but Hillman proved a far more formidable complex. Spread out over 400 yards by 600 yards, it had ‘deep concrete pillboxes and steel cupolas with a complete system of connecting trenches’. Lacking the planned naval gunfire support, because the forward observation officer had been killed, the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment faced a terrible task crossing minefields and barbed wire covered by artillery and machine guns.
The Suffolks asked for tank support and a squadron of the badly needed Staffordshire Yeomanry was diverted to help them, reducing even more the weak armoured force assigned to the advance on Caen. With its wide fields of fire, the Hillman strongpoint made it hard for part of the 185th Brigade to bypass it on its advance, and the Norfolks lost 150 men. The Hillman strongpoint was also the headquarters of the 736th Grenadier Regiment. Its commander made sure that his men ‘fought with determination to the bitter end’. In certain cases, the defenders had to be ‘blown out of their emplacements by heavy explosive charges laid by the battalion pioneers’. The 3rd Infantry Division, although well aware of Hillman’s existence - it was accurately marked on all their maps - had gravely underestimated its strength.
Although the British were suffering many casualties around Hillman, the 60,000 citizens of Caen endured far worse. The heavy bombers of the RAF, as part of the strategy to slow German reinforcements, had begun to bomb the city systematically at 13.45 hours. The leaflets dropped that morning with the ‘Message Urgent du Commandement Suprême des Forces Expéditionnaires Alliées’ warning them to disperse immediately into the countryside had little effect. Only a few hundred citizens left before the bombers arrived.
André Heintz, a young member of the Resistance, saw the formation of aircraft approach and the bombs drop, oscillating as they fell. Buildings shuddered with the explosions. Some seemed about to collapse and then settled back into place. Others crashed down, their façades falling into the narrow streets, blocking them. The smashed masonry produced huge clouds of dust, from which sometimes people emerged as if through a wall of smoke. Covered in a fine, pale powder, they had a spectral air, holding damaged arms or shoulders. Far more were buried in the rubble of their homes with their children, since school had been cancelled that morning. A doctor hurrying on his way to the hospital saw the main Monoprix department store in flames. Bombs severed the water mains, so thesapeurs pompiers of the fire service were extremely limited in what they could do.
Among the main buildings severely damaged or destroyed were the Abbaye aux Hommes, a huge, round-ended basilica with five spires, the Palais des Ducs, which dated back to the fourteenth century, a cloister dating from the period of William the Conqueror, the ornate Eglise Saint-Etienne, and the Gare Routière, a massive art deco terminus. Several bombers were shot down during the course of the operation. One, on fire, skimmed the roof of a manor house outside the city near Carpiquet and crashed in the park beyond. There was an immense fireball and ammunition began to explode. ‘One could see the silhouettes of terrorized cattle galloping in front of the flames,’ wrote a witness. ‘It was a hallucinating sight.’
The youth of the city rapidly revealed considerable courage and dedication. Many were already members of the Défense Passive, the volunteer aid service, and many more immediately joined to help. Ambulances could not get through blocked streets, so the badly injured had to be taken on stretchers to the main emergency hospital set up in the convent of the Bon Sauveur. A very large man being carried across the ruined city by stretcher bearers, sweating under their load, could not stop apologizing: ‘If only I was a little less fat,’ he kept saying. Other volunteers began to shift rubble in an attempt to search for people who might be buried alive. One young man from the Défense Passive found a looter at work and threatened to arrest him. The looter laughed in his face because he was unarmed. The infuriated volunteer swung his spade at him and its blade happened to sever the man’s jugular. In the looter’s pockets were found a quantity of jewels, and - it is said - the severed hand of a woman with rings on the fingers.
The refuge of the Bon Sauveur itself had also suffered. A nun who leaped for shelter into one bomb crater was buried by another bomb exploding next to it. An outbuilding of the convent housed an asylum for the insane. Some of the last bombs to be dropped struck it, killing several of the inmates and driving the rest wild with fear, screaming as they held on to the bars. Heintz’s sister was assisting one of the surgeons in the improvised operating theatre, so he decided to go there to help too. On seeing the pails of blood, he suddenly had the idea of soaking sheets in it and spreading them out on the lawn as a signal to the aircraft that this was a hospital. Once the blood dried, it was no longer scarlet, but another cross was improvised the next morning with red carpets and sheets dyed in mercurochrome.
Six surgical teams had been on standby since news of the invasion that morning. The Défense Passive organization for Caen had been based at the Bon Sauveur since the beginning of the year. The Lycée Malherbe was designated its subsidiary hospital, while on the other bank of the Orne, the Hospice des Petites Soeurs des Pauvres also acted as a casualty reception centre. The different organizations worked together with great effect. At the request of the surgeons, groups of police set out to seize supplies from pharmacies and clinics around the town. The medical profession in Caen was highly praised in an official report which recorded the ‘magnificent attitude of the town’s doctors who showed a boundless devotion’.
In the southern fringes of the city, some 15,000 people sought shelter in tunnels, recently rediscovered, which were part of the medieval stone quarries. They had packed suitcases with food and prayer books, not knowing that these damp, airless quarters were to be their squalid refuge for just over a month. With no sanitation or water, almost everyone suffered from lice, fleas and bedbugs.
A smaller but more intense tragedy had already taken place in Caen that morning. The Gestapo had gone to the Maison d’Arrêt, the city prison, and entered the section where French Resistance prisoners were held by German guards. The French warders on the civil side watched what happened through a hole in the canvas screen which had been erected to blank off the German military section. Altogether, eighty-seven members of the Resistance were taken out into the courtyard and shot that morning in batches of six. Victims of the massacre ranged across the political spectrum of the Resistance, from the ORA to Communists, and from a railway worker to the Marquis de Touchet. Another prisoner, who heard the shooting from a cell, recorded that none of them cried out except one man who, on entering the courtyard, perceived his fate. He began to shout, ‘Oh, no! No! My wife, my children . . . my children!’ He was silenced by the volley.
That night the German woman warder, who had previously behaved monstrously towards her charges, was ‘pale and evidently terrified’ by what had happened. She even returned to the surviving prisoners some of their possessions, insisting, ‘The German army is honest.’ Three weeks later, when the British had still not taken the city, the Gestapo came back and removed the bodies.16
The bitterness of many citizens over the destruction of Caen is not hard to imagine. ‘With a bestial frenzy,’ wrote one, ‘the bombs eviscerated the city without pity.’ Another described the bombing as ‘useless as well as criminal’. There had never been more than 300 Germans in the town, he wrote, and even if the purpose was to disrupt transport communications, the bombers failed to hit a single bridge. Altogether some 800 people died in Caen as a result of the bombing and naval bombardments of the first two days. Many thousands more were wounded.
A number of other towns astride main routes to the invasion area suffered a similar fate. As well as Saint-Lô, Caen and Falaise, Lisieux to the east received two major bombing raids. ‘The town is in flames and appears to be completely abandoned,’ a report to Paris stated. It also demanded that the Commissaire of Police be punished for having fled his post during the night while the town burned. So many firemen were killed and so much equipment was lost during the first raid that it became impossible to fight the flames when more bombers returned. To the south, both Argentan and Ecouché were described as ‘almost destroyed’. In Argentan ‘all the gendarmes [were] killed or injured’. The bombing caused terrible panic as well as widespread destruction of homes. Altogether, some 100,000 residents of Calvados would become refugees. Caen’s population of 60,000 was reduced to 17,000.
A curious contradiction lingers within this strategy of interdiction by bombing. If Montgomery really did intend to capture Caen on the first day, then why did he want the RAF to smash it so that its streets became impassable? That could help only the defender.
In London, meanwhile, everyone waited uncertainly for more news after the King’s broadcast to the nation. Churchill later made a statement to a packed House of Commons. ‘This is the first of a series of landings,’ he said, bolstering Plan Fortitude, even if he was technically guilty of misleading the House of Commons. ‘So far the commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan - and what a plan!’
Outside, London’s streets and shops were empty, with taxis cruising about unable to find a customer. ‘In Westminster Abbey,’ wrote a woman journalist, ‘typists in summer dresses and the usual elderly visitors in country-looking clothes came in to pray beside the tomb of the last war’s Unknown Soldier, or to gaze rather vacantly at the tattered colours and the marble heroes of battles which no longer seemed remote.’ Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke was unable to get out of a lunch that day for the Maharajah of Kashmir with Mrs Churchill. ‘It has been very hard to realize all day,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘that whilst London went on calmly with its job, a fierce conflict was being fought at a close distance on the French coast!’
Less than 200 miles to the south, the battle for Hillman was indeed still fierce. The unfortunate Suffolks were unfairly blamed for the delay and so was their brigadier. The main fault lay with the 3rd Division’s lack of foresight to provide sufficient support, such as AVREs, which could have knocked out bunkers with their petards. And nobody can blame the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, which had pushed ahead bravely towards Caen with insufficient armoured support. Even taking into account the unpredictably high tide that day, the responsibility rested at higher levels. Neither General Sir Miles Dempsey, the commander-in-chief of the British Second Army, nor General Montgomery had thought through this vital part of the operation and allotted priorities clearly enough.
The Canadians also lacked the American half-track, but they had shown the right approach in their advance on Carpiquet by mounting infantry on tanks and rounding up every available Bren-gun carrier. But the British attempt to take Caen was bound to fail, even if there had not been delays at the start and congestion on the beaches when the second wave arrived. The advance of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry to Lebisey, less than a couple of miles from the centre of Caen, was a courageous achievement. Its battered remnants had to withdraw, lacking that vital armoured support.
On the other hand, their fate would have been far worse if the 21st Panzer-Division had received the decisive leadership which Feuchtinger so conspicuously failed to provide. By the time Oppeln-Bronikowski’s panzer regiment had circumnavigated its way through Caen and was ready to attack the gap between the 3rd Division and the Canadians late in the afternoon, the British were ready to receive them. Lieutenant Colonel Eadie, the commanding officer of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, had predicted their move. He had concentrated three troops of ‘Firefly’ Shermans armed with the seventeen-pounder gun, a main armament almost as effective as the Tiger’s 88 mm, just west of Hermanville.17 With their greatly superior range, these tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry knocked out thirteen of Oppeln-Bronikowski’s Mark IV panzers in a matter of minutes. Only a small detachment of the 21st Panzer-Division slipped through to the coast, but they too withdrew rapidly.
By a happy coincidence for the British, the dramatic appearance at 20.30 hours of nearly 250 gliders bringing an air-landing brigade to reinforce the 6th Airborne Division, helped persuade Oppeln-Bronikowski to withdraw. The battlefield virtually froze as everyone stared in admiration at the sight. A subaltern in the 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles then overheard one of his soldiers comment on the arrival of their sister unit by air: ‘I suppose that’s what the 1st Battalion calls a fucking route march.’ Suddenly the flak detachments and machine guns of the 21st Panzer opened up, firing furiously. They brought down fewer than a dozen gliders, although they claimed twenty-six.
Hillman was finally subdued at 20.15 hours. The Suffolks began to dig in for the night and their supporting tank squadron pulled back to reammunition. All work stopped as they too watched the gliders arrive. ‘It equally impressed the German prisoners,’ their commanding officer noted, ‘but in a different way. They did not seem to think it was quite fair.’
A different sense of unreality still cocooned their supreme commander at the Berghof. Three hours before, General Günther Blumentritt, the chief of staff of OB West, had to tell Seventh Army headquarters that Hitler wanted ‘the enemy annihilated by the evening of 6 June since there exists a danger of additional sea and airborne landings. In accordance with an order from General Jodl, all units must be diverted to the point of penetration in Calvados. The beachhead there must be cleaned up by NOT later than tonight.’ The chief of staff Seventh Army replied that that would be impossible. Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, who was with him at the Berghof, saw that he had not yet accepted the true might of Allied air power: ‘He was still convinced that the ground forces could be thrown back.’
A striking example of Allied air supremacy took place that very evening. Together with the SS Hitler Jugend Division, Hitler was counting on another full-strength panzer division to drive the Allies back into the sea. Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division had been ordered to make all speed for the coast. But even before Panzer Lehr moved out during the afternoon of 6 June, its units were bombed in their assembly area. Bayerlein reported to Generaloberst Dollmann at his headquarters at Le Mans. He wanted to keep his tank troops under cover during the day to avoid the Allied fighter-bombers, but Dollmann ordered him to keep moving. Bayerlein, ‘a short, stocky, energetic man’, who had been Rommel’s chief of staff in North Africa, was almost speechless with rage at the long delay and then the stupid waste.
Rommel himself was not in a good mood when he returned to discover that the last remaining bridge over the lower Seine had been destroyed by Allied fighter-bombers. He went straight to the operations room in the Château de La Roche-Guyon and stared for a long time at the map. ‘What’s happened to our proud Luftwaffe?’ he asked cynically. The answer was predictable. ‘How goes the attack of the 21st Panzer-Division?’ No details had arrived. ‘Why were the Panzer Lehr Division and the 12th SS held up?’ In reply, Speidel explained the refusal of OKW to come to a decision. ‘Madness,’ said Rommel. ‘Of course, now they will arrive too late, but we must get them moving immediately.’
The Allies, although they had failed to secure key objectives, were at least ashore. Hitler’s beloved panzer divisions were incapable of dislodging them now. But the fighting ahead would make the Allied casualties suffered on D-Day appear light in comparison. Those British formations which felt that they had ‘done it all before’ in North Africa were about to receive a nasty shock when they came up against the Waffen-SS. Allied air power could do comparatively little to help them when it came to fighting skilled and determined defenders, village by village in the cornfields round Caen and field by field in the Normandy bocage.18