12

Failure at Caen

At midnight on 6 June, Generalmajor Pemsel, the chief of staff of the Seventh Army, rang the commanders of the 21st Panzer-Division and 716th Infanterie-Division. He passed on the order from the OKW that the counter-attack next day must reach the coast ‘without fail’ to relieve those defenders of strongpoints still holding out. General Richter of the 716th told him that ‘communications between division, regimental and battalion command posts no longer exist’, so he had no idea which positions still held out and which had been taken. In fact, the 716th Infanterie-Division had virtually ceased to exist, and its 200 survivors were withdrawn two days later.

Although the British 3rd Division had captured most of the defensive positions which had held them up on D-Day, the most powerful of all still held out on their right flank. This was the Luftwaffe radar station near Douvres-la-Délivrande, which had been turned into a veritable underground fortress. It also possessed a buried landline back to Caen, so its defenders could act as artillery observers. The Canadians who tried to reduce it faced a hard fight. They also had to clear the woods near the heavily defended radar station, which were ‘honeycombed with trenches, shelters and tunnels’.

The 21st Panzer-Division, following its unsuccessful attack on the late afternoon of D-Day, was put under the 1st SS Panzer Corps. Its commander was Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich. Dietrich had been an apprentice butcher, then a front-line soldier in the First World War. In the chaos after the Armistice, when Germany was on the edge of civil war, Dietrich joined the Freikorps. An early member of the Nazi Party, he became commander of Hitler’s personal SS bodyguard in 1928. This later formed the basis for the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, which fought under Dietrich in France, the Balkans and on the eastern front. Goebbels deliberately portrayed him as a hero for ordinary people to counterbalance the aristocracy in the regular army. Although more honest than most of his senior Waffen-SS comrades, Dietrich was a brutal and unintelligent field commander. According to General der Panzertruppen Heinz Eberbach, who replaced Geyr von Schweppenburg later, ‘under his command the Leibstandarte killed thousands of Jews’.20

Dietrich had been in Brussels with I SS Panzer Corps headquarters early on the morning of 6 June when news of the landings arrived. Rundstedt immediately summoned him to Paris. Dietrich was to take under his command the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend, the Panzer Lehr Division, the 21st Panzer-Division and the remains of the 716th Infanterie-Division. The corps was then to attack the British around Caen at dawn the next day and sweep them into the sea. But the effectiveness of Allied air attacks, together with the delayed start of both the Hitler Jugend and the Panzer Lehr Divisions, played havoc with the plan.

Dietrich reached the headquarters of Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzer-Division at Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives that night. Feuchtinger was away at the command post of the 716th Infanterie-Division in a tunnel on the edge of Caen. Dietrich exploded when he heard that Feuchtinger had forgotten to take a radio with him. In his place, the divisional chief of staff, Oberst Freiherr von Berlichingen, a descendant of the knight with the iron fist, ventured to suggest that two panzer divisions were not enough to throw the British and Canadians back. Surely they should wait for the Panzer Lehr Division to join them. Dietrich replied in no uncertain terms that only the two formations were available and he should liaise immediately with the Hitler Jugend Division to plan their attack.

Brigadeführer Fritz Witt, the commander of the Hitler Jugend, sent Standartenführer Kurt Meyer to see Feuchtinger and Richter in the headquarters tunnel on the edge of Caen. Meyer, the commander of the 25th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment, was an utterly devoted Nazi and a ruthless fighter. Tall, blue-eyed and good-looking, he was the beau ideal of a Waffen-SS leader. His men called him ‘Panzer Meyer’ in admiration. He finally found the 716th’s headquarters in the very early hours of 7 June. The entrance was crammed with wounded. He told Richter, ‘It has taken about eight hours to reach you here. I spent more than four hours in road ditches because of air attacks. The march columns of the division are suffering heavy losses.’ The Hitler Jugend referred to Allied fighter-bombers as ‘meatflies’.

After studying the marked-up map during their briefing, Meyer arrogantly dismissed Feuchtinger’s concerns about enemy strength. ‘Little fish!’ he said. ‘We’ll throw them back into the sea in the morning.’ But the great counter-attack had to be postponed. The Panzer Lehr Division coming from the south continued to suffer even more from air strikes than the Hitler Jugend. The disastrous loss of fuel to Allied air attack also meant that it needed to take almost all of Richter’s own reserves. In addition, Richter claimed that he had to move the division’s field hospital back to near Falaise because, despite being ‘clearly marked with red crosses’, it was bombed and strafed constantly by Allied aircraft.

The complications of the German command structure added greatly to the confusion. The Seventh Army was responsible for the coast, yet I SS Panzer Corps became part of General Geyr von Schweppenburg’s Panzer Group West. Geyr himself wrote later, ‘At a moment when everything depended on rapid action, orders were issued to just two and three-quarter Panzer Divisions by the following headquarters: I SS Panzer Corps, Panzer Group West, Seventh Army at Le Mans, Army Group B, OB West and OKW.’

Geyr, who believed like Guderian in the importance of a massive panzer counter-attack, was shaken to find how effective the Allied bombing of key towns had been in blocking approach routes. Having strongly opposed the idea of deploying panzer divisions close to the coast, he still refused to acknowledge that Rommel’s healthy respect for Allied air power had been more prescient. Geyr was to suffer for this hubris when Ultra intercepts identified the exact location of his headquarters a few days later.

011

At the end of D-Day, British commanders in the Sword beachhead had played down their failure to take Caen with the misplaced optimism that ‘we can always take it tomorrow’. The repulse of the 21st Panzer-Division had raised exaggerated hopes. They had not yet come up against the Hitler Jugend and they also failed to appreciate that the most effective weapon in the 21st Panzer’s armoury was not its tanks, but its twenty-four 88 mm anti-tank guns.

Whether it was the retreat of the 21st Panzer, the constant fighter-bomber attacks on the roads, or the naval guns taking on targets well inland, panic-stricken rumours that Caen had fallen spread among German rear troops. On 7 June, these ‘fright reports’, as the I SS Panzer Corps called them, prompted its chief of staff to send detachments of Feldgendarmerie to the roads leading into Falaise. Those fleeing in this ‘faint-hearted rabble who, in the West, had grown unaccustomed to war’ were rounded up. In any case, the I Panzer Corps despised the British for failing to strike while German forces were unable to bring up reinforcements quickly enough.

Apart from the problems created by the prolonged defence of ‘Hillman’ and insufficient armoured units to fight through to Caen, the British I Corps commander, Lieutenant General John Crocker, had made a grave error. On the afternoon of D-Day, fearing a major counter-attack east of the River Orne, he took the 9th Infantry Brigade away from its task of attacking between Caen and Carpiquet, and switched it to support the airborne division. This transfer also contributed to the dangerous gap between the Canadians and the British 3rd Division.

On 7 June, the attack towards Caen was renewed with fighting near its northern edge, around the village of Lebisey and its woods. But even with heavy artillery support, the 185th Brigade suffered heavy losses. The 21st Panzer-Division had sorted itself out and established effective positions on the higher ground in front of Caen and forward to Bénouville, where Major Hans von Luck’s panzergrenadiers were still launching counter-attacks against the 6th Airborne.

Montgomery’s old regiment, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwicks, formed part of the attack near Lebisey. On their brigadier’s orders, the anti-tank platoon, with six Bren-gun carriers towing their guns, charged up a sunken road with high banks. The firing went right over their heads and they could see little. Suddenly they found themselves in Lebisey in the middle of a 21st Panzer-Division grenadier regiment. They went past a Mark IV, drove right on through to their rear and halted in a wheatfield to deploy their anti-tank guns. ‘Action rear!’ the lieutenant yelled. His Birmingham lads swore merrily as they brought the guns to bear and fired. But then a shell blew up his carrier and the blast knocked them all flat.

They tried to slip back to their own lines but were captured and marched back to Lebisey wood. The panzergrenadiers were very nonchalant and ‘elegant’. They asked their prisoners what they would like to drink, milk or wine. Then shells from HMS Warspitebegan roaring overhead. The German guarding them said to the lieutenant, ‘I think we better dig a hole, don’t you?’ and the two of them began digging together. They sat in the trench side by side as the bombardment continued, both shrinking each time a shell came over. ‘You will be back in the sea in a few days,’ the German remarked. ‘No, I am sorry,’ Bannerman replied. ‘We will be in Paris in a week.’ Agreeing to disagree, the panzergrenadier showed a snapshot of his fiancée. The lieutenant repaid the compliment by producing a photograph of his wife. He could not help thinking that just half an hour before they had been trying to kill each other.

General Crocker had then moved the 9th Brigade back to its original sector, just to the right of the 185th Brigade. This area, like the Canadian sector, consisted of gently rolling country with wheatfields, stone farmhouses surrounded by an orchard, and copses which hid anti-tank guns. Farmers had brought in their cows and horses, hoping that they would be better protected in barns and yards. Some watched the fighting from a loft, while their family sheltered in the cellar. Yet much of the fighting and shelling was concentrated on buildings. In the hamlet of Gruchy, near Buron, nine out of ten houses were destroyed or badly damaged. Germans looted cider and Calvados from their cellars, several drinking themselves into a stupor.

The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles made a brave charge across open cornfields towards the village of Cambes. They fought their way in, but a newly arrived detachment of the 12th SS Hitler Jugend forced them to retreat. The Ulster Rifles had to leave their wounded from D Company in a ditch outside the village. They were certain that the young soldiers from the Hitler Jugend shot them all as they lay there afterwards.

Further to the right of 9th Brigade, the Canadians also came up against detachments of the Hitler Jugend when they renewed their advance on Carpiquet airfield. After Standartenführer Meyer had set up his command post in the Abbaye d’Ardennes, his 25th Panzergrenadier-Regiment was due to attack at 16.00 hours to the west of the railway line from Caen to Saint-Luc-sur-Mer, while the 21st Panzer-Division were to advance on the east side. But the approach of the Canadians made him decide to attack immediately. The order was passed to the Hitler Jugend tank battalion: ‘Panzer, March!’ They took the Canadian armoured regiment, the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, unawares and rapidly recaptured the village of Authie. But in their triumphant rush forward, the Hitler Jugend tanks were surprised in their turn by well-sited Canadian anti-tank guns. Meyer soon sent the tanks which had withdrawn back into another firefight, this time concentrated on the village of Buron. The fighting that afternoon ended in a bloody draw, with British, Canadian and German attacks brought to a standstill.

The British had a much better day on the Bayeux front to the west. Patrols during the night had established that the small city had been almost entirely evacuated by the German administration. So the Essex Regiment and the South Wales Borderers, supported by the Sherwood Rangers, were able to liberate Bayeux on 7 June with little damage. ‘We were the first troops into the town’, wrote Stanley Christopherson, who commanded A Squadron of the Sherwood Rangers, ‘and were most relieved to find that except for isolated strong-points in the town and the odd sniper no Germans were to be found, which prevented any damage to the beautiful and historic buildings. We were given a most enthusiastic and spontaneous reception by the inhabitants who appeared genuinely delighted to welcome us and demonstrated their joy by throwing flowers at the tanks and distributing cider and food among the men.’

In the south of the town, one enemy machine-gun post held out in a house, which caught fire when a Sherwood Ranger tank shelled it. ‘After a very short time the clanging of a bell heralded the arrival of the Bayeux fire brigade, manned by a full team all wearing shiny helmets. Regardless of the machine gun fire, they held up the battle, entered the house, extinguished the fire and brought out the German machine gun section.’

The next day, 8 June, the Sherwood Rangers rejoined the 8th Armoured Brigade to advance south. Bypassing anti-tank guns, they occupied some high ground seven miles to the south-east of Bayeux known as Hill 103. It overlooked the villages of Tilly-sur-Seulles and Fontenay-le-Pesnel, which British squaddies dubbed ‘Piss in the Fountain’. The main danger on the way had been the odd rifleman shooting at the heads of tank commanders. But on the next day the Sherwood Rangers and the 6th Durham Light Infantry suddenly came under attack.

The Panzer Lehr Division had finally arrived at the front. Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, its commander, was still furious after Generaloberst Dollmann’s order to move during daylight hours. Rocket-firing Typhoons from the RAF and American Lightning squadrons had appeared overhead almost immediately on the afternoon of 6 June and destroyed a number of vehicles. Bayerlein’s men pushed on through the cover of darkness, expecting to go into camouflaged positions before dawn, but General Dollmann ordered the division to keep going. The first air strike had hit them at 05.30 hours the next morning. Tanks and half-tracks, already camouflaged with leafy branches, sprinted for the cover of woods and orchards, but there were too many open spaces. According to Bayerlein, his men nicknamed the straight road north-east from Vire the ‘fighter-bomber racecourse’. He claimed that by the end of the day the division had lost five tanks, eighty-four half-tracks and self-propelled guns, and 130 trucks, but this was almost certainly a gross exaggeration.21

When the advance elements of the Panzer Lehr Division attacked northwards from Tilly-sur-Seulles on the morning of 8 June, the Sherwood Rangers and the Durham Light Infantry towards Lingèvres received the full force. ‘It was a terrible day for the regiment,’ wrote Christopherson in his diary. His squadron on Hill 103 lost four tanks. One of his troop leaders was killed and also his second in command, the poet Captain Keith Douglas. Douglas, who had been reconnoitring on foot, ‘was hit in the head by a piece of mortar shell as he was running along a ditch towards his tank’. He died instantly. Douglas had been the odd man out in this yeomanry regiment. He did not hunt, ride or show any interest in countryside pursuits. In his poem about the regiment, entitled ‘Aristocrats’, he had written:

How can I live among this gentle
obsolescent breed of heroes, and not weep?

Yet the regiment always remembered Douglas for his bravery as well as his awkwardness. In North Africa, he had abandoned his post back in Cairo, risking a charge of desertion, to rejoin his squadron when the fighting was at its fiercest. ‘I like you, sir,’ said his soldier servant. ‘You’re shit or bust, you are.’

Christopherson wrote in his diary, ‘In action he had undaunted courage and always showed initiative and complete disregard for his own personal safety. At times he appeared even to be somewhat foolhardy - maybe on account of his short-sightedness which compelled him to wear large thick-lensed glasses.’ The regimental padre, Leslie Skinner, who remembered their conversation on the Sunday before D-Day, when the young captain had talked of his imminent death, buried Douglas by the hedge where he had died.

Three days later, the Sherwood Rangers, again close to Hill 103, suffered another disaster. An artillery shell exploded beside the regimental headquarters tank, named ‘Robin Hood’, just as an orders group was being held. The commanding officer, Michael Laycock, the brother of the commando leader, Major General Robert Laycock, was killed along with his adjutant and signals officer. The adjutant, George Jones, was the son of the head woodsman on the Laycock estate. Their recce troop leader and the signals sergeant were also badly wounded. The Sherwood Rangers had lost two commanding officers in under a week. Christopherson, as senior squadron leader, then took over.

Padre Skinner, their Methodist minister, seldom rested during those days from burying the dead, having selflessly recovered the bodies himself. Skinner, a small, dark man with a strong Yorkshire accent, was much loved. He did not want his soldiers to suffer the horrible task of scraping the carbonized remains of comrades off the inside of a ‘brewed-up’ tank. Shermans, which ran on gasoline, not diesel, were notorious for catching fire. The Americans gave them the nickname ‘Ronsons’ (after the lighter) and the Germans called them ‘Tommy cookers’. For all tank troops, the thought of being trapped in a burning hull was their greatest fear. To conceal their anxiety, British tank commanders tended to assume a leisurely drawl over the radio.

The attack of the Panzer Lehr on 8 June was halted partly by the resistance north of Tilly-sur-Seulles, but also because, in mid-afternoon, Sepp Dietrich ordered the division to pull back and then advance north-west towards Bayeux instead. Confusion in the German command was fragmenting the immediate panzer counter-attack towards the coast which Geyr von Schweppenburg so wanted. He complained later that they ‘missed the psychological moment . . . to deal the British a severe blow’. But he was still determined to carry it out.

The British and Canadians west of the Orne continued to attack on 9 June, trying to force their way forward, one fortified village at a time. The same day, a full battalion assault on Cambes was planned, supported by artillery and the guns of the cruiser HMSDanae. The 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles moved forward to their start line for the attack. They looked at the huge stretch of undulating wheatfield ahead, across which they would have to attack. A young platoon commander recorded his men’s nervous jokes as they waited for the order to advance while the artillery and naval barrage went overhead.

‘Last time I was in a cornfield it was with my bird, all quiet and peaceful.’

‘Hope that bloody boat stops firing when we get there.’

‘It looks a long way, sir. Do we stop for a brew-up halfway?’

The thigh-high green wheat gave an impression of cover, but they soon found that it offered no protection at all when the advance began. ‘This became quite obvious,’ the lieutenant wrote, ‘as one saw the frightening number of men staggering and dropping into the corn.’ One company lost all three platoon commanders.

The Ulster Rifles were supported by the Shermans of the East Riding Yeomanry, which knocked out a Mark IV panzer, but then a concealed German 88 mm gun hit one British tank after another. With great courage in the face of the machine-gun positions, the Ulster Rifles pushed on to take Cambes and dug in. But when they counted their casualties, they found that they had lost eleven officers and 182 NCOs and soldiers.

The King’s Own Scottish Borderers came up at dusk to reinforce the depleted battalion just as a sudden mortar ‘stonk’ began. One of the Jocks, taking cover from the explosions, jumped down into the nearest trench, clapped the occupant on the back and said, ‘Well, Paddy, you old bastard, we never expected to see you again.’ He found that he had just greeted the Ulster Rifles’ commanding officer.

During the previous night, the Hitler Jugend, led by Panzer Meyer on a motorcycle, attacked Norrey and Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse with Panther tanks, reconnaissance troops and panzergrenadiers. The Regina Rifles were ready for them. By the dead light of magnesium parachute flares, their anti-tank guns had inflicted heavy casualties. The SS troops had been forced to withdraw.

Most attacks on 9 June, however, were repulsed as the I Panzer Corps pushed more tanks into the front line to assist the panzergrenadiers in seizing a start line for the attack towards the coast. British and Canadian artillery, supplemented by naval guns, proved extremely effective in breaking up the panzer detachments. And once again the anti-tank guns of the Regina Rifles smashed another attack by a company of Panthers. The panzer commander described how his tank lurched to a halt. ‘When I looked to the left to check the situation, I happened to see the turret being torn off the panzer driving on the left flank. At the same moment, after another explosion, my vehicle began to burn. The machine-gun ammunition caught on fire and there was a crackling noise like dry wood burning.’ He just managed to escape from his tank with severe burns. Only five tanks out of twelve returned. A Hitler Jugend officer watching the scene wrote afterwards: ‘I could have cried for rage and sorrow.’

The Hitler Jugend were forced to recognize that these ‘surprise raids’ which had worked so well against the Red Army on the eastern front did not succeed in Normandy. Yet another frontal attack was made on Norrey before dawn on 10 June, this time with the Pioneer battalion thrown in with the panzergrenadiers. Again it was repulsed. The body of one Pioneer company commander, Otto Toll, was found afterwards. ‘He had tried to make a tourniquet using the ribbon of his Knight’s Cross and a flashlight, obviously to stop the bleeding from an artery.’

The fighting had been pitiless. Accusations of war crimes were made by both sides. At a tribunal after the war, officers from the 26th Panzergrenadier-Regiment of the Hitler Jugend claimed that they had shot three Canadian prisoners on 9 June in retaliation for an incident the day before. On 8 June south of Cristot, a detachment from the Inns of Court armoured reconnaissance regiment surprised a small party from a Panzer Lehr Division artillery regiment, including its commander. The British told their prisoners to climb on to the front of their vehicles as there was no room inside. The Germans refused, stating that it would make them a human shield. According to Hauptmann Graf Clary-Aldringen, two British officers beat up Oberst Luxenburger, a one-armed veteran of the First World War, and then tied him to one of their vehicles. As they left, they machine-gunned the others who still refused to mount. But the Inns of Court group ran into a German anti-tank position. Their two officers were killed and Oberst Luxenburger mortally wounded.

Apart from this incident, the Hitler Jugend also tried to justify its actions on the grounds that they had captured Canadian orders telling their soldiers not to take prisoners if it slowed down their advance. British and Canadian soldiers, especially those in armoured regiments who had no infantry to escort captives to the rear, did indeed shoot prisoners on occasion. But the Hitler Jugend argument sounds less than convincing, especially when a total of 187 Canadian soldiers are said to have been executed during the first days of the invasion, almost all by members of the 12th SS. And their first killings had taken place on 7 June, before the incident near Cristot. One Frenchwoman from Caen, who had walked to Authie to see if an old aunt was all right, discovered ‘about thirty Canadian soldiers massacred and mutilated by the Germans’. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles later found that the SS had shot eighteen of their men, who had been taken prisoner and interrogated at Meyer’s command post in the Abbaye d’Ardennes. One of them, Major Hodge, had apparently been decapitated.

The Hitler Jugend was probably the most indoctrinated of all Waffen-SS divisions. Many of its key commanders came from the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. They had been formed in the Rassenkrieg, or ‘race war’, of the eastern front. The worst appears to have been the reconnaissance battalion, whose commander, Bremer, was known within the division as a ‘dare-devil’. Panzer Meyer himself had shot fifty Jews near Modlin in Poland in 1939. Later, during the invasion of the Soviet Union, he had ordered a village near Kharkov to be burned to the ground. All its inhabitants were murdered. Nazi propaganda and fighting on the eastern front had brutalized them, and they saw the war in the west as no different. Killing Allied prisoners was considered their revenge for the ‘terror bombing’ of German cities. In any case, bitterness between Canadians and soldiers of the Hitler Jugend became a vicious circle throughout the battle for Normandy.

All German headquarters in Normandy soon found to their cost that they had to resort to the radio more and more. Bombing and shelling, to say nothing of the Resistance and airborne troops, had severed many of their landlines in the invasion area. This was the bonus which the decrypters at Bletchley Park had been anticipating. The head of the Secret Intelligence Service passed Churchill their first haul.22 They intercepted a report from General Marcks on 8 June stating that the 716th Infanterie-Division had lost at least two-thirds of its strength and that ‘the men show signs of nervous exhaustion’. There was also a warning, but received too late, of the Hitler Jugend attack on the night of 8 June. The next day, General Meindl of II Paratroop Corps complained that ‘most of the land-line links are interrupted. Operations are greatly impeded by the considerable delay in the passing on of orders.’ On 10 June, they intercepted a message saying that ‘by order of commander-in-chief West at 10.30 hours, thorough destruction of Cherbourg harbour to begin forthwith’. They also discovered that fear of another invasion in Brittany had prompted the Luftwaffe to destroy four airfields immediately. The greatest coup, however, came with two messages giving the location of Panzer Group West’s headquarters. To preserve the secret of Ultra, an aircraft was sent over the target area first.

Geyr von Schweppenburg was planning his major attack for dusk on 10 June. Soon after dawn that morning, he climbed the steeple of the Abbaye d’Ardennes on the west side of the city, which Meyer had established as the command post of the 25th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment. Geyr examined the ground ahead through powerful binoculars. He knew the area well from the late summer of 1940, when he had been training the XXIV Corps ready for the invasion of England. While he was up there he watched British aircraft bomb the panzer regiment of the Hitler Jugend and it confirmed him in his decision that only a night attack was possible.

That afternoon, Rommel came to see him at his command post in the grounds of the Château de La Caine near Thury-Harcourt. Geyr told him his plan, and although both men would have preferred to attack more towards Bayeux, this change would cause too great a delay. Rommel also wanted to know the next step. Geyr quoted the Napoleonic principle of ‘s’engager puis voir’. Rommel agreed and took his leave. Geyr warned him about the danger of Allied fighter-bombers. Yet his own headquarters offered the most tempting target. Just after Rommel’s departure reports came in from the Panzer Lehr Division that about sixty British tanks had broken through from Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse towards Tilly-sur-Seulles. Geyr claimed that because he had no reserves available, he felt obliged to cancel the night attack near Caen. In fact, a far more pressing reason arose for cancelling the offensive that night.

Rocket-firing RAF Typhoon squadrons came in low, their pilots well briefed on their target. They were then followed by waves of Mitchell medium bombers. Astonishingly, Geyr’s headquarters and its vehicles in the park of the château had not been properly camouflaged. The effect was devastating. His chief of staff died and ‘all personnel of the operations section as well as most of the officers of the forward echelon were killed,’ Geyr wrote later. His signals battalion was virtually wiped out. Geyr himself was wounded, but the psychological shock was far greater. He was incapable of resuming command of Panzer Group West before the end of the month.

There would be no more attempts to launch a major panzer counterattack against the British Second Army until the II SS Panzer Corps arrived from the eastern front. The lack of infantry reinforcements, because of the time it took to march by night to the battlefront, meant that the panzer divisions had to be broken up into Kampfgruppen, or battlegroups, to hold the line. This completely disrupted German plans to concentrate its armoured forces to throw the Allies back into the sea. All they could do now was secure a front, especially against the British, to prevent a breakout towards Paris. British hopes of enlarging their beachhead were therefore dashed. The open country south-east of Caen remained beyond their reach, and any thought of pivoting on Caen, as Montgomery had claimed, had become impossible. Thus, in the first few days, the pattern of a battle of attrition became established.

Montgomery had to change his approach, although he refused to admit this later. On 10 June, accompanied by General Dempsey, he had a meeting with General Bradley in a field near Port-en-Bessin, where the British and American sectors had joined up. Using a map spread out on the bonnet of his Humber staff car, he explained his amended plan. Instead of a head-on assault on Caen, he would now create a pincer movement on the city. The 51st Highland Division and 4th Armoured Brigade would attack south out of the bridgehead east of the Orne to take Cagny. Meanwhile the 7th Armoured Division would launch a right-hook from inland of where they were standing to take Evrecy. They would start that very day.

The most daring part of his plan was to drop the 1st Airborne Division, his reserve back in England, around Evrecy. This idea ran into determined opposition from Leigh-Mallory. He said his transport aircraft could not risk a day drop because of German flak in the Caen area. A night drop was also out of the question because they would have to fly over the Allied ships offshore and the Royal Navy refused to provide a ceasefire because of the Luftwaffe attacks during darkness. An infuriated Montgomery wrote to Freddie de Guingand, his chief of staff at 21st Army Group rear headquarters back in England, declaring that Leigh-Mallory was ‘a gutless bugger’.

This plan to envelop Caen was strikingly out of character. Montgomery was usually criticized for taking too long to mount an operation. Was he simply responding to the crisis with the best plan available in the circumstances? Or was there also an element of show, to divert attention from the way the Second Army had failed to achieve its objectives?23 On 11 June, the day after the meeting with Bradley, Montgomery wrote to de Guingand that his general objective was to ‘pull the Germans on to Second Army so that the [American] First Army can extend and expand’. This rather more modest assessment was hardly in keeping with his earlier pugnacious declarations. ‘Inaction and a defensive mentality are criminal in any officer - however senior,’ he had told senior officers two months before the invasion. ‘Every officer and man must be enthusiastic for the fight and have the light of battle in his eyes.’ They were ‘to assault to the west of the River Orne and to develop operations to the south and south-east, in order to secure airfield sites and to protect the eastern flank of First US Army while the latter is capturing Cherbourg’.

The problem was that Montgomery, partly for reasons of morale and partly out of puerile pride, could not admit that any of his plans had gone wrong. He later created resentment and suspicion among his American colleagues by claiming that he still intended to break out towards Falaise, while insisting at the same time that he had always planned to pull the bulk of the German panzer divisions on to his front, to give the Americans the great chance of a breakout on theirs later. This, as his letter to de Guingand shows, was simply making a virtue out of a rather sore necessity.

It was not, of course, Montgomery who determined this state of affairs but the Germans who sent their panzer divisions against the British. Both Rundstedt and Rommel regarded the Second Army as the chief threat. This was partly because they considered the British more experienced soldiers (they later admitted to underestimating the Americans), but also because a south-easterly breakthrough towards Falaise opened the possibility of an Allied dash for Paris. Such a disaster, if it came about, would cut off all German forces in Normandy and Brittany. Even Hitler agreed with this analysis, if only because of the symbolic value of Paris. His obsessive desire to hold on to foreign capitals was described as ‘a peevish imperialism’ by the intelligence chief at Montgomery’s 21st Army Group headquarters. Geyr was the only one who disagreed with the OKW’s determination ‘to block the enemy’s direct route to Paris’, because it led to the ‘unfortunate decision to employ on the inner flank the most powerful and mobile force’.

Equally serious for the British, the failure to expand the beachhead left them with far too little room to bring in and deploy more divisions during the build-up of forces. The RAF was furious, especially when Montgomery pretended that everything had gone according to plan. All air preparations had been calculated on establishing forward airbases for Spitfires and Typhoons within a few days. Now, because of the shallow depth of the beachhead, any airfield they built would be within the range of German artillery. There was also little room left for fuel depots, supply dumps, repair workshops, base camps, field hospitals and vehicle parks. Almost every orchard and field in the rear area was crammed. ‘The British were so crowded that they overflowed into our area,’ Bradley said later, a tactful remark concealing the degree of frustration that he felt. The Americans were even less impressed by Montgomery’s grandiose statement that Caen was ‘the key to Cherbourg’. General Collins, whose task it was to take Cherbourg, observed drily to Bradley, ‘Why doesn’t he just send us the key?’

German commanders were also dismayed by the way the battle had developed. ‘By premature commitment in driblets,’ the chief of staff of I Panzer Corps complained bitterly, ‘the Germans missed their opportunity to stake everything on one card - to lose or win all’. In fact, the inability to launch a major counter-attack at this stage determined the manner of German deployment throughout most of the campaign. It also set the pattern for British tactics, despite Montgomery’s great boast that he always made the enemy dance to his tune. To the despair of all panzer commanders, the constant pressure of Allied ground, air and artillery attack, while seldom adventurous, prevented Rommel from using his armoured divisions effectively. The emergency fire brigade approach, simply plugging gaps, led to their panzer divisions being divided up to reinforce infantry formations on the point of collapse.

The Germans could thus never hope to win a major victory, even though they retained an extraordinary ability to thwart their opponents and inflict heavy casualties. British commanders soon began to fear that they would run out of manpower in this battle of attrition.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!