On the night following D-Day, few in the Omaha beachhead managed to sleep. In a quarry beside the Vierville draw, 29th Division staff officers bedded down on discarded lifebelts at their headquarters. Up on the bluffs and in apple orchards inland, farmhands and Pennsylvania coal miners from their division dug their foxholes with professional speed. They were to need them as protection from the indiscriminate firing that night. Nervous and exhausted men shot at any movement or silhouette, imagining it to be a German sniper. One young soldier shot a calf with his Thompson sub-machine gun.
Others tried to create an instant trench by exploding a charge of TNT in the ground, with the warning cry of ‘Fire in the hole!’ This only heightened the impression of fighting in all directions. Luftwaffe bombers arrived after nightfall to attack the ships at anchor, and the barrage of anti-aircraft tracer fire prompted many to compare it to a Fourth of July firework party. But the German air raid was too little and too late to help the defenders.
On 7 June, Oberstleutnant Ziegelmann of the 352nd Infanterie-Division looked out from the cliffs near Pointe et Raz de la Percée. He was less than 2,000 yards to the west of General Gerow’s command post on Omaha beach. ‘The sea was like the picture of “Kiel review of the fleet”,’ he noted angrily. ‘Ships of all sorts were close together on the beach and in the water broadly echeloned in depth. And the entire agglomeration remained there intact without any real interference from the German side. I clearly understood the mood of the German soldier abandoned by the Luftwaffe.’ The embittered cry of ‘Wo ist die Luftwaffe? ’ became a constant refrain of the German army’s experience in Normandy.
Fragments of German battalions still held on in the sector, especially on the cliffs round the Pointe du Hoc, where they had counter-attacked Colonel Rudder’sRangers. The Americans had finally cleared Colleville-sur-Mer and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer that morning. One soldier advancing through the village had turned to find a military policeman just a few yards behind him putting up ‘out of bounds’ signs. On the beach, the detritus of war defied description, with burnt-out vehicles, smashed landing craft, abandoned gas masks, Bangalore torpedoes and weapons. The scene did not stop that stickler for discipline General Gerhardt from yelling at a soldier for dropping orange peel on the ground.
Other isolated pockets of German resistance still had to be overcome. When a German soldier suddenly emerged from a hole to surrender, the troops who surrounded him found that he had ‘a regular hotel underground’ with a radio. They presumed that it was for calling down artillery fire on the beach. They summoned some military police. ‘The MP Sergeant was from Czechoslovakia, and apparently his parents had been killed by the Nazis, so he shot him on the spot as a spy.’
Houses in Vierville were also placed out of bounds to American troops. French civilians were equally forbidden on the beach, to keep them out of the way. They felt that their presence even in their own village was unwelcome. American soldiers ‘looked at us in a very suspicious way, those first days,’ a French woman wrote later. The suspicion was mutual. An engineer sergeant with two of his men went into Saint-Laurent and entered the church, having seen a German slip in through the door. They found him spread-eagled and mortally wounded in front of the altar. The sergeant then noticed that the two soldiers with him, both from Alabama, were taking the coins from the poor box near the entrance. ‘I guess they didn’t know what a poor box was,’ he said later. In fact, they just wanted a few coins as souvenirs, the obsession of almost all soldiers arriving in this very foreign land. But the priest entered at that moment and, taking in the scene, was scandalized. ‘Pour les pauvres!’ he shouted at them.
The beach remained a dangerous place, and not just for civilians. Odd artillery rounds still fell and men from the 6th Engineer Special Brigade were blowing up obstacles and mines. White tape marked the ‘deloused’ areas, but further on bodies could still be seen in minefields which had not yet been cleared. Bulldozer crews worked hard to open routes for the follow-up troops and vehicles landing. Bodies were stacked outside tented casualty clearing centres. A makeshift cemetery was cordoned off. Spare soldiers were assigned to grave registration. ‘We all seemed in a trance,’ noted one of them, ‘removing dog tags and other morbid duties.’ To speed the work, German prisoners were offered double rations if they volunteered to dig graves. Most shrugged and agreed. Later this harrowing work was passed to quartermaster companies of black soldiers.
An almost constant stream of prisoners arrived under escort on the beach to be searched by the military police. Many of them were Poles or Soviet Hiwis in German uniform with their hands up. ‘Some were crying,’ recorded the same engineer sergeant. ‘They didn’t know what to expect from us. Well they were lucky to have been taken on this front instead of having been taken on the Russian front where they would have been shot immediately as traitors.’ The vast majority of them would be handed back by the Allies to the Soviet authorities later. Some were executed, but most were dispatched to slave labour camps. Many of the prisoners from Central Asia had such oriental features that American soldiers believed that they must be Japanese attached to the German army.
Just before dawn, General Gerhardt had received orders from his corps commander, General Gerow, to advance inland towards Isigny and the River Vire to link up with the 101st Airborne. Gerhardt wanted to use his reserve regiment, the 175th Infantry, which had not yet landed. Getting it ashore would take much of the day. A more urgent priority, however, was to relieve Colonel Rudder’s 2nd Rangers on the Pointe du Hoc. Out numbered by the German battalion of the 916th Grenadier-Regiment, they were also low on ammunition. Their only support came from the guns of the destroyer the USS Harding.
A mixed force of 116th Infantry and Rangers from the Omaha landing, strengthened with two Sherman tanks, attacked west along the coast towards Pointe du Hoc. But with a German strongpoint on the cliffs nearby (the one from which Ziegelmann observed the fleet), and other pockets of resistance, it took until the next day before they approached Rudder’s embattled force.
Rudder’s men, having run out of ammunition, were using captured German weapons. Their very distinctive noise confused the relief force and the Shermans from the 743rd Tank Battalion began firing on the Rangers, killing four and wounding another six. ‘Again Colonel Rudder,’ wrote an engineer with his group, ‘displayed his great courage and leadership as he helped the men in his command post hold up an American flag as high as they could, so the troops advancing would know that we were Americans.’ One report described their relief as a ‘stumble-footed action’, because another American force, coming in from the south-west, began firing at the original relief force approaching from the south-east.
Part of the 1st Infantry Division, the ‘Big Red One’, had meanwhile advanced east on 7 June along the coast road towards Port-en-Bessin, with infantry riding on the Shermans of the 745th Tank Battalion. There they met up with elements of the British 50th Division. Almost immediately bartering began, with English field gunners swapping eggs for American cigarettes.
Profiting from Allied air supremacy, American artillery had the great advantage of being able to use light spotter planes. That morning, an artillery officer with the 1st Division organized a makeshift runway on the bluffs overlooking Omaha beach. He went up to a bulldozer driver.
‘Hey, I need a hedgerow knocked out,’ he told him. ‘Can you help me?’
‘Sure,’ came the reply.
So the operator brought his bulldozer over, knocked out the hedgerow and made them a runway a little more than fifty yards long, which was all the Piper Cub needed to take off. As the sea was much calmer, artillery ammunition for their guns was soon coming ashore in relays on pre-loaded DUKWs, which no longer risked sinking.
An air service squadron started to construct a proper landing strip for transport planes above Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. Finished in record time, it was designated A-1. Soon olive drab C-47 Skytrains were landing ammunition in a constant stream, then taking off again filled with wounded strapped to litters. On her first trip, a flight nurse found that one of her patients had died. To prevent the others finding out, she pretended to check him every few minutes until they landed back in England.
While some things happened quickly, others seemed to take an interminable time. Nobody was more exasperated by the delays than the commander of the 29th Infantry Division, Major General Charles Hunter Gerhardt. Gerhardt was in some ways a miniature version of General Patton. A diminutive cavalryman with a large ego, he prided himself on his appearance, with highly polished riding boots and helmet correctly fastened under the chin. The 29th was a National Guard division and right from the start Gerhardt had intended to smarten it up in every way possible. He had no patience for paperwork and pushed his officers even harder than the men. In the process, he seems to have inspired admiration and loathing in equal quantities.
Gerhardt’s determination to capture the town of Isigny in record time was frustrated by the delays in sending the 175th Infantry Regiment ashore. Then, to his fury, he heard that the navy had landed his men a mile and a half to the east. By the time they reached the Vierville draw, they were shaken by the bodies they passed and the occasional firing from a few German positions which had still not yet been suppressed by the 115th Regiment.
Mopping up was slow, dangerous work, because of isolated riflemen and machine guns. A lieutenant desperate to exert his authority soon fell victim. He had deliberately said to his platoon sergeant in front of everyone, ‘Sergeant, I want you to understand that you have my permission to shoot any man who does not obey any order given from here on out.’ When they came under fire, he took the sergeant’s binoculars and rifle. Rejecting advice from his non-coms, he announced that he was going ‘to get those bastards’ and began to climb a prominent tree in a hedgerow. After firing a couple of rounds, he was hit, and fell mortally wounded on the far side of the hedge.
That evening, a German pioneer from the 352nd Infanterie-Division found a copy of the American operational plan on the body of a young officer from the 29th Division. He passed it to Oberst Ziegelmann, who could hardly believe his eyes. The key points were conveyed to General Marcks that night, but the documents did not reach Rommel and OB West for another two days. Rundstedt’s chief of staff, Blumentritt, wrote that the plan clearly showed that this was ‘Die Invasion’, but ‘the Führer personally still expected a second cross-Channel invasion against the Fifteenth Army at any time up to the beginning of August’. Plan Fortitude’s deception had proved more effective than the Allies had ever dared imagine.
On 8 June, the 115th Infantry, having secured the 29th Division’s beachhead, advanced due south to the partly inundated valley of the River Aure. They faced little opposition because Generalmajor Kraiss had pulled back the remaining troops during the night. But once across the marshes, the regiment faced ‘a tough learning period, with some successes and quite a few disasters’. With great bravery and skill, ‘Lieutenant Kermit Miller of E Company crossed the inundated area just north of Colombières with his platoon and killed 46 Germans, knocked out two armored cars and one staff car, wrecked an enemy headquarters and returned with 12 prisoners.’
Providing a grim foretaste of fighting in the hedgerows of the bocage, the worst of the disasters took place during the night of 10 June. The 2nd Battalion had been warned by some locals that there were about 100 Germans ahead. ‘It was nearly midnight now,’ a report stated afterwards, ‘and the men were so tired that they just fell down and started snoring where they lay. One of the men in O Company fell down, discharged his gun and killed the man ahead of him. The shot gave away their position and German machineguns opened up.’ The battalion had halted in a small field, unaware that they were surrounded by a detachment from the 352nd Infanterie-Division. The adjutant and the headquarters company commander were killed and the communications officer captured. ‘The assistant battalion surgeon went crazy and about 100 men were captured. Colonel Warfield was heard to say “I never thought my men would say Kamerad”. The remaining men of the battalion were very jittery after this.’ Lieutenant Colonel Warfield, the commanding officer, and Lieutenant Miller later died of their wounds. General Gerhardt exploded in anger when he heard that the battalion had not dug foxholes and simply dropped down to sleep.
The 115th became even more unnerved when they had ‘trouble from those trigger happy [Texan] boys’ in the 2nd Infantry Division, coming up from behind shooting at everything to their front. ‘One battalion of the 115th Infantry attributed 3% of its casualties to the 2nd Division.’
Gerhardt, meanwhile, had been urging on his 175th Infantry Regiment towards Isigny, famous for its Normandy butter and Camembert cheese. Because radio communications had not improved, Gerhardt designated ‘post-riders’, who were officers in Jeeps, dashing back and forth, reporting on the progress and exact position of the leading troops. They needed to drive fast to avoid the fire of German stragglers. Gerhardt himself, wearing white gloves and a blue scarf round his neck (which matched the blue ribbon round the neck of his dog), wanted to be wherever there was action. And if there was no action, he wanted to know why. Gerhardt did not believe in making himself inconspicuous. He was driven around in a specially adapted Jeep named ‘Vixen Tor’, on which was mounted a red flashing light and siren.
Accompanied by Shermans of the 747th Tank Battalion, the 175th Infantry Regiment found the advance to be more of a fast route march. Norman farmers offered milk from churns to the thirsty men. There were a few delaying actions by German groups. More serious losses were then inflicted by a squadron of RAF Typhoons mistaking the lead battalion for retreating Germans. Six men were killed and eighteen wounded. ‘John Doughfoot looked very much like Hans Kraut from the air,’ wrote an artillery officer with them. The infantry were less forgiving. They promised in future to shoot at any aircraft of whatever nationality heading in their direction.
The commander of the 175th was reluctant to advance further without more artillery support, but Gerhardt did not take kindly to such excuses. He ordered the regiment to continue the advance through the night of 8 June and by midnight it was outside Isigny. Most of the prisoners taken were Polish or Osttruppen. The anti-tank company was astonished when ‘an American on a white horse came down the road with about eleven prisoners’. He called out to them, “‘These are Polish, all but two. They’re Germans.” He then took out his pistol and shot both of them in the back of the head and we just stood there.’
Isigny, having been heavily bombarded by Allied warships, was ablaze in many places. Gerhardt had been right. There was little resistance. When a lone German rifleman fired at the column from a church steeple, one of the Shermans traversed its 75 mm main armament on to the target and ‘that was the end of the German in the steeple’. Brigadier General Cota pushed the tanks up to the bridge over the River Aure. There, they came under fire from machine guns on the far side. The twelve tanks lined up and their weight of fire forced a rapid retreat. Infantrymen from the 175th, accompanied by Cota, dashed across the bridge. Cota could hardly believe that the Germans had failed to blow it up. It was one of the few structures untouched. ‘Rubble was everywhere,’ an officer reported. ‘The roads were all but impassable to motor traffic and I stood in the middle of what had been a church without realizing that there had even been a building on the site.’ Isigny appeared to be abandoned, but some Frenchwomen emerged from the ruins. They began to strip dead German soldiers of their boots, socks and shirts.
On the Cotentin peninsula, meanwhile, the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions had received no respite, even though units from the 4th Infantry Division had begun to reinforce them from Utah beach. Generalleutnant von Schlieben mounted even stronger counter-attacks against Sainte-Mère-Eglise with the 709th Infanterie-Division and other detachments. His chief priority was to thwart any American attempt to advance on Cherbourg.
The most serious attack reached the centre of Sainte-Mère-Eglise during the afternoon of 7 June. An artillery officer from the 4th. Division, arriving by Jeep, reported on what he saw: ‘17.00 hours went into Sainte-Mère-Eglise by Jeep from the south. Tank battle going on. Flame throwers. Saw a German soldier, a “human torch”, crawl to the center of the street from the side when a German [panzer] rolled right over him squashing him flat and extinguishing the flames at the same time. American tanks destroyed most of the German tanks, for the loss of three of their own. Fighting moved northwards. Saw a sunken road north of the town which the German tanks had used and also crushed some of their own dead. Part of 8th Infantry took this road and used it for their own defense that night. They had to pull the German bodies aside to dig their foxholes and several of them fell to pieces.’
Another force under Generalleutnant Hellmich concentrated near Montebourg that day, ready to attack the Americans’ northern flank between Sainte-Mère-Eglise and the coast. A spotter aircraft and a naval fire-control party directed the guns of the battleshipNevada on to the target. Firing at a range of more than fifteen miles, the projected attack was broken up. But the town of Montebourg itself suffered badly on that Wednesday afternoon as the naval shells exploded, setting fire to a number of shops. In the main square, the statue of Jeanne d’Arc remained undamaged when all the buildings around were smashed. Since Montebourg sat astride the main road to Cherbourg, the Germans were busy fortifying the abbaye for a determined defence of the town. And at Valognes, to the north-west, one shell exploded in a dormitory of the convent and killed several nuns.
The front lines were at least becoming clearer after the confused fighting of the previous day. Paratroopers and the 4th Infantry Division forced the surrender of the 795th Ost-Bataillon of Georgians surrounded at Turqueville. And further south, Oberstleutnant von der Heydte’s 6th Paratroop Regiment pulled back to Saint-Côme-du-Mont after one of its battalions was cut off and destroyed. Other pockets of resistance closer to Utah beach were also eliminated. At Saint-Martin-de-Varreville, the elaborate strongpoint included pillboxes linked by underground tunnels ‘and Jerry went from one to another at will often returning to one we thought had been captured’.
The fighting on both sides remained just as vicious. An officer with the 4th Infantry Division stated that the bodies of four men from an airborne medical unit had been found: ‘Their throats had been cut almost from ear to ear.’ A trick frequently reported in thebocage fighting was for German soldiers to pretend to surrender. Then, as soon as Americans approached to take them prisoner, they would throw themselves to the ground as a hidden machine-gunner opened fire. The 4th Infantry first encountered this with German paratroopers from the 6th Paratroop Regiment, who apparently killed a lieutenant in this way.
Less reliable reports claimed that Germans were putting on American uniforms. This only became true later the following month, when German soldiers took combat jackets from American corpses when their own uniforms had started to disintegrate. A most unconvincing, although extraordinarily widespread belief developed among American, and sometimes British troops, that Frenchwomen, supposedly the lovers of German soldiers, acted as snipers. Near Saint-Marcouf on 7 June a sergeant reported on ‘sniping coming from a building in the town. When investigated, [we] found a French woman and a man with German rifles. Both denied sniping. Both were dead two seconds later.’ The possibility that French civilians might have collected German weapons to give to the Resistance did not seem to have occurred to Allied soldiers at the time.
A number of American soldiers appear to have acquired a strong suspicion of the French before even setting foot in the country. ‘France was like enemy country,’ commented a captain in the 29th Infantry Division. Many had never been to another country where a foreign language was spoken and found it hard to see the difference between ‘enemy-occupied’ and just ‘enemy’. Others said openly that they
‘couldn’t trust them in Normandy’. There is a story, perhaps true, perhaps apocryphal, of an American tank platoon pulling into a Norman farmyard. The farmer emerges with cider and Calvados and all the soldiers have a drink. Afterwards the Norman farmer says to the young American lieutenant that the drinks come to 100 francs. The lieutenant protests that they have just liberated him. ‘But what are you complaining about?’ the farmer replies. ‘It’s no more than I charged the Germans.’
The battlefield myth of female snipers spread with astonishing rapidity through ‘latrine rumours’, as they were known. But stories of young Frenchwomen staying with their German boyfriends were almost certainly true. Just inland from Omaha beach, a sergeant in the 6th Engineer Special Brigade recounted, ‘we saw in the ditches French girls lying alongside their German soldiers. These girls had gone along with the [German] army as they retreated and they were killed by our planes and they were found lying side by side.’
On both sides, mercifully, there were also cases of unexpected humanity. On the northern flank near Sainte-Mère-Eglise, Sergeant Prybowski, a medical non-com, was searching hedgerows for wounded when he came across two injured paratroopers. As he sat there applying bandages to their wounds, one of them whispered to him, ‘You’d better get down. There’s an 88 back of you.’ The sergeant laughingly turned round, only to stare down the barrel of a field gun. In the hedgerow a group of German artillerymen were watching them. But they allowed Prybowski to finish bandaging the two men and take them away.
To the west, at Chef du Pont and La Fière along the River Merderet, the 82nd Airborne could do little more than hang on to its positions until reinforced and resupplied with ammunition. To the west of the river, a force under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Shanley was surrounded on a small feature known as Hill 30. With great courage and endurance, Shanley and his men held out for four days with no food apart from their original emergency rations. Many were wounded and had to be carried to the shelter of ditches and hedgerows, but the paratroopers were so weak from hunger and fatigue that four of them found it hard to carry one casualty. ‘There were so many wounded along the ditches, they had them head to toe,’ one soldier recounted. Shanley sent messengers to the main force east of the Merderet, begging for plasma. A small group of paratroopers tried to slip through with a supply, but they were all wounded.
Surrounded by part of the 1057th Grenadier-Regiment, Shanley’s reduced force was heavily outnumbered. Then they found that the Germans were bringing up artillery. This development was spotted from across the river. A naval gunfire controller radioed back to the bombardment force offshore. Allied warships, at a range of more than twelve miles, proceeded to knock out the German artillery without inflicting serious casualties on the beleaguered paratroopers.
Many of Shanley’s men kept going only with the help of Benzedrine. Lacking radio communications, they had no idea whether the invasion had succeeded or failed. But their prolonged resistance on Hill 30 greatly helped the establishment of a bridgehead over the Merderet by the time they were finally relieved. The newly landed 90th Infantry Division now had the task of increasing that bridgehead, prior to cutting off the peninsula for a general advance on Cherbourg. But due to a lack of leadership and discipline at many levels, the 90th started disastrously. Before the division reached the front, its point unit, on sighting a column of German prisoners being escorted back towards Utah, opened fire with every weapon available. Fighting the 91st Luftlande-Division among the hedgerows proved traumatic for these untested troops. Their performance was so lamentable that the divisional commander and two of his regimental commanders were sacked.
American generals were ruthless with subordinate commanders who ‘could not get their troops to perform the task which a division or corps said had to be done’. Even that fire-eater General Patton felt the US Army resorted to sacking commanders before they had been given a proper chance. The combat historian Forrest Pogue talked with a colonel who had just been relieved of his command. ‘He was sitting out a long the road with his belongings beside him, waiting for a jeep to take him to the rear. The day before he had held the destiny of three thousand or more men in his hands; now he looked almost like a mendicant. He was dazed and uncertain whether he could control his voice.’19
For Overlord planners, one of the key items in their calculations had been the speed with which German reinforcements would reach the invasion front. Much depended on Allied efforts to seal off the battlefield by the bombing programme of ‘Transportation’, by Allied fighter-bombers and by the sabotage and attacks of the French Resistance groups trained by SOE and the Jedburgh teams. From 7 June, Rundstedt’s headquarters finally had permission to bring up reinforcements from Brittany and south of the Loire.
One of the first formations the Americans were to encounter in the battle for Carentan was the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen. This new division was named after an old warhorse of the sixteenth century who, after losing his right hand in combat, had a blacksmith make him an iron fist as a replacement. The iron fist became the divisional emblem. On 10 April, less than two months before D-Day, Himmler had inspected the division at Thouars, an event which had ended with them all singing together the SS anthem, the ‘Treuelied’. Although the division contained many young soldiers (60 per cent were under twenty), the 17th SS was not nearly as well trained and armed as the SS Hitler Jugend. It had no modern tanks, just a regiment of assault guns, and the morale of its soldiers was not nearly as fanatical as in other Waffen-SS formations. ‘Well, we don’t know what’s still ahead of us,’ a soldier wrote home before reaching the front. ‘There’s a lot of news I could write to you about but it’s better that I’m silent. One’s known for a long time that it had to come to this. Maybe we will envy those who have already died.’
At dawn on 7 June, the first units of the 17th SS began to move out from their bases just south of the River Loire. They crossed the river at Montsoreau and motored on towards Saint-Lô, through small towns with advertisements on the walls for Castrol and aperitifs such as Byrrh and Dubonnet. By the evening of 8 June, advance elements of the reconnaissance battalion had reached the eastern edge of the Forêt de Cerisy, unaware that the American 1st Infantry Division from Omaha was heading in their direction.
The next morning, SS-Untersturmführer Hoffmann of the division’s 38th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment was going forward west of Isigny to reconnoitre the positions his troops were to take up. A Kübelwagen, the German equivalent of the Jeep, came towards them at speed. There was an army major in the front and two dead soldiers in the back. ‘Turn round!’ he yelled. ‘Ahead everything’s lost. The Amis are just behind me.’
Hoffmann continued up to the top of the hill, halted the vehicle and went forward on foot. He did not need binoculars. He could see American infantry advancing just 400 yards away. Behind them were some motorized units and, to the east, he could see a column of tanks on a road. Hoffmann’s driver shouted that they must turn back. He reversed at high speed, then swung round. Hoffmann had to leap behind a tree. The American soldiers had spotted him and opened fire. The two SS men drove back as quickly as possible. Hoffmann’s commander asked him why he had returned so soon. ‘Because our start-line is already occupied,’ he replied. ‘By the enemy.’ Most of the 17th SS Division, however, was held back near Saint-Lô because of fuel shortages, before being allocated to a counter-attack planned against the American paratroopers attacking Carentan.
On 7 June at 11.00 hours, Generalleutnant Eugen Meindl of the II Paratroop Corps in Brittany ordered the 3rd Paratroop Division to move to the north-east of Saint-Lô‘and push the enemy to the north back into the sea in order to retake the coast’. Its commander, Generalleutnant Richard Schimpf, sent off his few motorized units that evening and two battalions in trucks via Avranches. The units on foot had to march twenty-five miles on each of the short June nights. They suffered ‘a general exhaustion among troops who were unaccustomed to marching in their new parachute boots’. Some were so footsore that officers commandeered farm carts drawn by huge Percheron horses. It took them ten days to reach the south-west end of the Forêt de Cerisy.
Schimpf was given the remnants of the 352nd Infanterie-Division which had escaped from the Omaha front. He wanted to push forward into the forest along with the reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzergrenadiers, but his corps commander, Generalleutnant Meindl, refused. He told Schimpf to organize a front, but it was no more than ‘a mere line of combat outposts’, with his flak battalion as the only anti-tank defence. In fact, the order to hold back had come from Seventh Army headquarters, which felt that Schimpf had ‘insufficient forces’ and that they were ‘poorly trained for attacks’. The strength of the division ‘rested in defence’. But Schimpf was still convinced that ‘if the Americans at that time had launched an energetic attack from the Forêt de Cerisy, Saint-Lô would have fallen’.
General Mahlmann’s 353rd Infanterie-Division had even less motorized transport. His most mobile units were two battalions on bicycles designated the Radfahrbeweglichemarschgruppe (the Mobile Bicycle March Group). The rest of the division, following on foot, was delayed by Resistance attacks which inflicted a number of casualties, including a severely wounded company commander. The Germans also suffered from Allied air attacks, forcing them to hide in barns and orchards during daylight hours. Another divisional commander described these approach marches as a ‘nocturnal game of hide-and-seek’. The journey, which cost the 353rd a tenth of its strength, took them eleven days.
Most notorious of all movements to the Normandy front was that of the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich. Its commander, SS-Brigadeführer Heinz Lammerding, had been chief of staff to the infamous Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who would soon be brought in to destroy the Warsaw uprising. The Das Reich Division revelled in its brutality. It had taken part in Partisanenkrieg in the Soviet Union and the mass murder of Jews with Einsatzgruppe B in the region around Minsk. When they moved from the eastern front to the area of Toulouse in April, its officers saw no reason why they should behave any differently. On 21 May, in the Lot, they had massacred fifteen people, including several women, as reprisals for some shots fired at one of their detachments. On the same day, all the males in another village were deported to Germany.
Inspired by Allied messages and de Gaulle’s broadcast, the over-hasty rising of the Resistance in many parts of France alarmed all German commanders, not just the SS. Many saw it as ‘the initiation of a Communist revolution’. There was an element of truth in this view. On 7 June, the Communist-led FTP took over Tulle, the departmental capital of Corrèze, and inflicted 122 casualties on the Germans, shooting a number of their prisoners and mutilating some corpses of the forty dead. Nothing could have been better calculated to provoke a violent reaction from the Waffen-SS.
On 8 June, the Das Reich began its long journey north from Montauban. Some of its units reached Tulle the following day. They hanged ninety-nine citizens of the town from trees in the streets. Another 200 were deported to Germany. On 10 June, the 3rd Company of the division’s FührerRegiment surrounded the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, fourteen miles north-east of Limoges. Its officers and soldiers shot the male inhabitants and herded the women and children into the church, which they set on fire. The village also was burned to the ground. Altogether, 642 people died in this massacre. Some of the victims were not even locals, but refugee children from Paris and passengers from a train halted nearby. None of them were members of the Resistance.
The SS had even chosen the wrong Oradour. The company commander, whose death they were avenging, had in fact been killed in Oradour-sur-Vayres, fifteen miles away. The Führer Regiment was almost certainly responsible for another massacre of sixty-seven people at Argenton in the Indre département. The Vichy French authorities were also alarmed by reports of ‘regions where a hideous civil war is breaking out’, as some Resistance groups began a settling of accounts against political enemies. But even loyal Pétainists were appalled by the brutal reprisals of the Das ReichDivision.
General Koenig in London had ordered the FFI to hold German divisions south of the Loire. The achievement of the Resistance in delaying the Das Reich Division was one of its greatest contributions to the battle for Normandy. SOE networks had played a large part, destroying the Das Reich’s fuel dumps before they even started, sabotaging rolling stock, blowing railway lines and organizing sequences of small ambushes. In the Dordogne, twenty-eight members of the Resistance managed to hold up one column for forty-eight hours near Souillac. Almost all were killed in this utterly courageous act of self-sacrifice. The delays inflicted, combined with reports radioed back to London, gave the RAF the opportunity to attack the division on several occasions, most notably in Angoulême. Altogether it took the Das Reich Division seventeen days to reach the front, fourteen more than expected.
While a detachment from the American 1st Infantry Division had advanced east along the coast to meet up with the British around Port-en-Bessin, the main part slowly advanced due south towards Caumont. The tanks supporting them provided ‘spray jobs’ with their machine guns on suspected sniper positions.
The newly landed 2nd Infantry Division, on its right, meanwhile headed towards the Fôret de Cerisy, midway between Saint-Lô and Bayeux. Neither division realized that they ‘were in fact facing a gaping hole in the German lines more than ten miles broad’. Both the 17th SS and the 3rd Paratroop Division later argued that their opponents had missed the opportunity of capturing Saint-Lô in the first week of the invasion.
Rommel, however, was less concerned about this gap in the line than by the threat to Carentan. That was where he decided to launch a counter-attack to prevent the two American beachheads from joining up. Leaving the 17th SS reconnaissance battalion to face the 1st Division, he ordered the main part of the Götz von Berlichingen to Carentan, which was held by nothing more than the remnants of Heydte’s 6th Paratroop Regiment.
Heydte’s regiment, having lost a whole battalion near Côme-du-Mont, had been forced to retreat rapidly to avoid encirclement by the 101st Airborne. Many of his men had swum the River Douve to escape. By 10 June, Heydte was defending the northern edge of Carentan, an inland port with fine stone buildings. Lacking ammunition and out of touch with the LXXXIV Corps headquarters of General Marcks, Heydte gave the order for the 6th Paratroop Regiment to withdraw from Carentan during the night of 11 June. Their retreat was to be protected by a rearguard to hold back the American paratroopers until the next morning.
That evening, as the withdrawal was under way, Brigadeführer Ostendorff, the commander of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlic hingen appeared at Heydte’s command post . He informed Heydte that he was now under his command. They were to hold Carentan at any price. Heydte told him that he had already given the order to evacuate the town, not knowing that the 17th SS was on its way. If he had known, he would not have taken the decision. Ostendorff was a heavily built, genial-looking thug with a shaven head, but this news did not put him in an amiable mood. A furious row ensued, although little could be done except prepare a counter-attack to retake Carentan the next day.
On the following morning, 12 June, as the 101st Airborne moved into Carentan, General der Artillerie Marcks died in his vehicle after a low-flying attack by Allied fighters on a road north-west of Saint-Lô. Just before he set out, his chief of staff had asked him not to expose himself unnecessarily to danger. ‘You people are always worried about your little bit of life,’ Marcks replied. One or two of his colleagues suspected that the disillusioned Marcks wanted to die in battle, since two of his three sons had already been killed in the war. Marcks’s death and various delays led to the counter-attack being postponed until 13 June. This was fortunate for the Allies. Ultra intercepts, including requests to the Luftwaffe to support the 17th SS Division in the attack, had revealed Rommel’s plan. Bradley, forewarned, brought Brigadier General Maurice Rose’s combat command from the 2nd Armored Division across from the 1st Infantry Division’s Caumont sector.
On the eve of battle, Brigadeführer Ostendorff tried to raise his men’s morale in a strange way. He warned of the enemy’s phosphorus shells, which caused terrible burns, and the 101st Airborne’s ‘sly, underhand way of fighting’, but then added that they had a ‘poor fighting spirit’.
On 13 June at 05.30 hours, the 37th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment advanced in the misty dawn, supported by artillery fire. When they came close to the barrage, they fired red flares to tell the batteries to increase their range. The advance appeared to be going to plan, but as they neared the Carentan-Domville road, they came under very accurate sniper fire. The panzergrenadiers found that American paratroopers had concealed themselves in trees all over the place. The accompanying flak platoon began blasting the hedgerows and trees with their quadruple 20 mm anti-aircraft guns, but this took time. Having suffered ‘moderately high losses’, the Germans pushed on as the Americans slipped back towards Carentan.
Ostendorff ’s men reached the south-west edge of Carentan at 09.00 hours, but soon his right wing was brought to a sudden halt. The commander called in vain for tank support. The Shermans of the 2nd Armored Division had appeared, commanded by Brigadier General Rose in his open half-track. The panzergrenadiers, lacking even light Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons, pulled back in confusion. Early in the afternoon, the Americans themselves attacked in full strength, with fighter-bomber support. The key position was a hill on the southern edge of Carentan. It had been occupied by Osttruppen, but they fled as soon as their German commander was killed. Ostendorff was furious that his new division had suffered a humiliating reverse. He blamed the Luftwaffe for failing to appear in any strength, and then Heydte for having given up Carentan in the first place.
Oberstleutnant von der Heydte, with his aquiline nose and sharp intelligence, was far too independent, if not high-handed, in the view of senior German officers. He certainly showed little respect towards Ostendorff, and did little to conceal his opinion that the newly formed Götz von Berlichingen had been trained more in SS ideology than in sound military principles. Heydte claimed that during the battle he even had to order his paratroopers to round up at gunpoint some of their fleeing panzergrenadiers. Ostendorff summoned him to the 17th SS headquarters to be interviewed by a military judge attached to the division about responsibility for the loss of Carentan. Although accused by Ostendorff of cowardice, Heydte avoided a court martial mainly because he had just been awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross. Pemsel, the chief of staff of the Seventh Army, did not believe Heydte’s version of events, but General Meindl, the commander of II Paratroop Corps, ordered his release. In any case, German commanders had rather more serious matters to consider. The next day, American advances linked up the Utah and Omaha beachheads.