As the bloody stalemate in front of Caen became clear, Montgomery decided to send his two ‘best batsmen’ into play on 11 June. Both the 7th Armoured Division and the 51st Highland Division had distinguished themselves under his command in North Africa, but they were to receive a rude shock in Normandy. The 51st was diverted to the east of the River Orne to prepare the left-hook on Caen, while the Desert Rats of the 7th Armoured would mount a right-hook from the American flank near Tilly-sur-Seulles.
The Scots of the 51st Highland Division did not believe in hiding their light under a bushel. Other formations called them the ‘Highway Decorators’, because almost every road junction had a prominently displayed ‘HD’ and an arrow. The 51st moved over the Orne into the 6th Airborne’s bridgehead. There, the heavily outnumbered and outgunned paratroopers had been forced back by relentless counter-attacks. With astonishing resilience, they faced Luck’s Kampfgruppe from the 21st Panzer-Division, the 711th Infanterie-Division and the newly arrived 346th Infanterie-Division.
On 9 June, the paratroopers had fought off an attack by Luck’s tanks and panzergrenadiers on Escoville. Another attack took place the following day as the 51st Highland Division began to take position. And on 11 June, when the 5th Black Watch found themselves in action, some of their men were taken prisoner and executed. The Highland Division, which had been supposed to advance all the way south to Cagny as part of Montgomery’s pincer movement, made no headway at all. They seemed completely disorientated by the small, sharp actions and the sudden deadly mortar ‘stonks’ and artillery barrages at which the Germans were so efficient.
‘The fury of artillery is a cold, mechanical fury,’ wrote a Highlander, ‘but its intent is personal. When you are under its fire you are the sole target. All of that shrieking, whining venom is directed at you and at no one else. You hunch in your hole in the ground, reduce yourself into as small a thing as you can become, and you harden your muscles in a pitiful attempt at defying the jagged, burning teeth of the shrapnel. Involuntarily you curl up into the foetal position except that your hands go down to protect your genitalia. This instinct to defend the place of generation against the forces of annihilation was universal.’ Many resorted to a litany of repetitive swearing, a sort of profane mantra to dull their fear.
The same soldier went on to describe the psychological collapse of the most warlike member of their company. It took place in the cellar of a farmhouse.This battle-shock casualty was curled upon the floor, howling and sobbing. ‘The smart, keen young soldier was now transformed into something that was at once pitiful and disgusting. The neatly-shaped, alert features had melted and blurred, the mouth was sagging and the whole face, dirty and stubbled, seemed swollen and was smeared with tears and snot.’ He made bleating noises, crying for his mother. As well as a feeling of slightly sadistic contempt, the observer became ‘aware of a kind of envy of the boy’s shameless surrender to his terror’.
Paratroopers were contemptuous of the Scottish regiments involved. ‘The thing that shocked me was 51st Highland Division,’ wrote a major in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. ‘Three different times our division restored a situation for them. If you could have seen our lads come up to help them out on one occasion and call them yellow bastards when the Scotties threw their weapons and equipment away and fled.’ On the left flank, Lieutenant Colonel Otway, who led the attack on the Merville battery, had to take a battalion of the Black Watch under command because its commanding officer ‘broke down’. They had lost 200 men in their first attack.
General Gale, the 6th Airborne commander, realized that the village of Bréville had to be retaken at all costs. He sent in his own 12th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. Suffering almost as many casualties as the Black Watch, the 12th Battalion took the heavily defended village and the perimeter east of the Orne was saved. With the demoralized Highland Division unable to take even Sainte-Honorine, Montgomery’s plan of striking through to Cagny, another five miles to the south, was quietly forgotten. In the circumstances, he should perhaps have been thankful that Leigh-Mallory had thwarted his plan. To have dropped the 1st Airborne Division on the Caen-Falaise plain and then failed to get to them would have achieved little more than a foretaste of the Arnhem disaster. General Bradley, although he said nothing at the time, clearly saw the danger of using airborne forces tactically and refused the opportunity later on during the great break-out.
Montgomery had higher hopes of his right-hook from the American 1st Division’s flank. Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey, the commander-in-chief of the British Second Army, was more sanguine. Dempsey was in many ways the opposite of Montgomery in character. Although he had the unfortunate nickname of ‘Bimbo’, he was a modest, quiet man, with a weather-beaten face and conventional military moustache. Patton, after meeting him for the first time, was dismissive in his diary: ‘He is not very impressive looking, and I take him to be a yes-man.’ The truth was that Montgomery insisted on running the Second Army as well as the 21st Army Group. Unable to delegate, Monty often gave orders to corps commanders over Dempsey’s head. Dempsey had little choice but to accept his position as a glorified chief of staff. In many ways, the role suited him. He provided a steady pair of hands. His phenomenal memory combined effectively with an uncanny ability to visualize a landscape just from studying a map. In addition, he never complained when Montgomery took all the credit.
Dempsey had been the chief planner of the double-hook on Caen and the parachute operation. Even before the invasion, he had clearly not been convinced that Caen would fall on the first day, and doubted that they could capture it head on. Yet he was well aware of the danger if the front stagnated. Dempsey’s plan was basically a sound one. Unfortunately, the 7th Armoured Division had landed later than expected because of bad weather. Then, the 50th Division and the 8th Armoured Brigade suffered a setback when advancing to secure the start line for the attack in the Seulles valley. A sudden advance by the Panzer Lehr Division blocked the route, but it also presented a better opening. The 7th Armoured could outflank the Panzer Lehr by crossing into the American sector as their 1st Division advanced on Caumont, and then swing left. This would take it through a gap behind the Panzer Lehr while it was kept occupied by the 50th Division.
The commander of the 7th Armoured Division, Major General Erskine, expressed great confidence in the opportunity when Dempsey visited him at his headquarters on the morning of 12 June. ‘Bobby’ Erskine could not believe that anything would stop his division. The cavalry regiments of the famed ‘Desert Rats’ had brought their rather insouciant attitude with them to a very different battleground. Unlike the undulating cornfields of the Caen sector, this was bocage country, with sunken lanes and high hedges. ‘You’ll get a shock after the desert,’ a trooper in the Sherwood Rangers warned a newly arrived friend. ‘We could see the buggers in the desert and they could see us. Here they can see us, but I’ll be buggered if we can see them.’ Attacking through the leafy green tunnels, he added, ‘gives you the bloody creeps’. Despite all the months of training for the invasion, both the British and the Americans were totally unprepared for this beautiful but claustrophobic terrain. The Normandy hedgerows,enclosing small fields and bordering every road and track, were at least three times the height of their English equivalent, heavily banked and far too dense for even a tank to smash through.
Dempsey told Erskine to push on to Villers-Bocage with the 11th Hussars, an armoured reconnaissance regiment, out in front. But Erskine switched them to the role of flank guards instead. This was to prove a very serious mistake. Erskine, who had wanted to attack twenty-four hours earlier, was impatient. He had good reason to be as things turned out. The delay was mainly the fault of his superior, Lieutenant General Gerard Bucknall, the commander of XXX Corps.
Although he had impressed Montgomery in Sicily and Italy, Bucknall had little experience of armour. He had certainly not impressed Field Marshal Brooke, who two months before the invasion wrote in his diary, ‘Bucknall was very weak, and I am certain quite unfit to command a corps.’ His reputation had been boosted by the capture of Bayeux, but he was not highly rated by those who knew him. Dempsey also had his doubts, but did nothing. As the American airborne commander General Maxwell D. Taylor put it, British senior commanders never had the tradition of really pressing subordinates. American generals thought that their British counterparts were far too polite.
Erskine’s failure to provide an armoured reconnaissance screen in front, rather than as a flank guard, led to one of the most devastating ambushes in British military history. The 22nd Armoured Brigade, led by its brave but eccentric commander, Brigadier ‘Loony’ Hinde, charged forward through the identified gap. By that evening his leading regiment, the 4th County of London Yeomanry (The Sharpshooters), had reached the Caumont road, just five miles short of Villers-Bocage. They leaguered for the night in all-round defence with their attached company of the 1st Battalion the Rifle Brigade.
At dawn, the Sharpshooters and their infantry trundled down the road to their objective. They entered Villers-Bocage at 08.00 hours on 13 June to an ecstatic reception from the local population. Gendarmes in their best uniforms held back the crowds, who threw flowers on to the Cromwell tanks and offered presents of cider and butter. In the exhilaration of the moment, the capture of this strategic town seemed too easy. Villers-Bocage, above the Seulles valley and just a mile from the River Odon, was a key position. Less than a dozen miles to the south stood Mont Pinçon, the dominating feature of the whole region, while Caen lay eight miles to the east.
The only enemy presence sighted had been a German eight-wheeled armoured car just before they entered the town, but it disappeared before the nearest Cromwell could traverse its turret. Brigadier Hinde, who accompanied them in a scout car, knew that to hold the town securely, they must occupy the feature on the north-east side known as Hill 213. The commanding officer of the Sharpshooters, Lieutenant Colonel the Viscount Cranley, wanted to carry out a thorough reconnaissance of the area, since more German armoured cars had been sighted, but ‘Loony’ Hinde would accept no delay. The reconnaissance troop of light Stuart tanks was not used. Cranley simply sent forward A Squadron and, leaving the rest of his tanks in the town, set off in a scout car to have a look himself at Hill 213.
In a small wood close to the road up which the Cromwells advanced, five Tiger tanks from the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion lay hidden. They had just reached the front after a long and complicated journey from near Beauvais, north of Paris. Their commander was Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann, who was already famous as a ‘panzer ace’. Credited with 137 tank ‘kills’ on the eastern front, he had received the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. Wittmann, enraged by the Allied bombing of German cities, had told his men, ‘We have only one watchword and that is “revenge”!’
Wittmann’s Tigers were the first reinforcements sent forward to fill the gap in the German line. Leading elements of the 2nd Panzer Division would also arrive in the area that day. In fact the 11th Hussars covering 22nd Armoured Brigade’s flank identified their arrival from their first captive. A sergeant and trooper from the 11th had been stalking a sniper when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by a company of panzergrenadiers in half-tracks. They were marched off under guard towards the rear, but once out of sight, they jumped their escort, grabbed his rifle and brought him back as their prisoner instead. His paybook revealed that he was from the 304th Panzergrenadier-Regiment. Although Ultra had warned of the 2nd Panzer-Division’s approach, this proof of its appearance on the southern flank seems to have come as a nasty shock for General Erskine.
Wittmann, seeing the squadron of Cromwells halt on this high-banked stretch of road, immediately recognized the opportunity. Some of the Sharpshooter crews had unwisely dismounted. This apparently prompted Wittmann’s gunner to remark as he peered through his sight that they were behaving as if they had already won the war. Without waiting for his other Tigers to catch up, Wittmann emerged from the wood, swung parallel to the road and opened fire. The Tiger’s 88 mm gun destroyed one Cromwell after another. The Cromwells, badly designed, under-armoured and under-gunned, did not stand a chance. They even found it hard to back out of danger, since their reverse speed was little more than two miles per hour.
Having caused havoc with A Squadron on the hill, Wittmann’s Tiger lumbered down into the town of Villers-Bocage. It rammed aside a Bren-gun carrier of the Rifle Brigade and began to descend the main street. He dealt first with the tanks of the Sharpshooters’ regimental headquarters, then attacked B Squadron. Many crews were dismounted and incapable of replying. But even those who managed to score direct hits on the Tiger found that their low-velocity 75 mm gun had little effect. Wittmann then returned to Hill 213 to finish the battle with A Squadron and the Rifle Brigade detachment.
That afternoon, Wittmann returned to Villers-Bocage with leading elements of the 2nd Panzer-Division. This time the Sharpshooters and the anti-tank guns of the Rifle Brigade were ready, and the attack was repulsed. But General Erskine, having failed to send forward sufficient support, was now worried that the 2nd Panzer-Division threatened his extended southern flank. He decided to withdraw the 22nd Armoured Brigade from its precarious position, rather than reinforce it. As they pulled out of the town that afternoon, British artillery fired a heavy barrage to cover the retreat. But many of the crews from knocked-out tanks had to escape on foot across country back to British lines.
Hinde withdrew the 22nd Armoured Brigade to a defensive position on Hill 174, between Tracy-Bocage and Amayé-sur-Seulles. Bucknall, the corps commander, agreed with the decision, but did little to help except order the 50th Division to continue their attacks on the Panzer Lehr Division. He failed to send infantry reinforcements to help the 22nd Armoured Brigade, isolated as it was between the Panzer Lehr and the 2nd Panzer.
On the afternoon of 14 June, Erskine felt compelled to withdraw his troops all the way back to the Caumont salient. Panzergrenadiers of the 2nd Panzer-Division attacked wherever they could. One British artillery regiment, finding itself in the front line, just managed to fight off an assault by firing airbursts with their twenty-five-pounders. The retreat of the 7th Armoured Division was greatly assisted by a devastating barrage from American artillery supporting their 1st Infantry Division. RAF bombers literally flattened Villers-Bocage that night. The townspeople who had welcomed the Sharpshooters so joyfully were now killed, injured or homeless. Most of the survivors sought shelter in the cellars of the nearby château, which belonged to local mayor, the Vicomte de Rugy.
Aunay-sur-Odon, an important crossroads four miles to the south, had also been smashed in a series of RAF bombing attacks. The first had taken place during Mass. The priest, the Abbé André Paul, recounted how the sound of aero engines overhead, rapidly followed by explosions which made the church shake, threw his congregation into panic. Many tried to crawl under an upturned prie-dieu for protection. As soon as it was over, the Abbé told them to leave quickly in small groups. As they emerged from the church, they were greeted by a vision of the Last Judgement. The bombs had disinterred many of the skeletons in the churchyard. Repeated raids killed 161 villagers and crushed the whole village to rubble. British troops were shocked by the scene when they finally reached the village just before the end of the battle for Normandy. The small town of Tilly-sur-Seulles had suffered almost as much. A local doctor tending the civilians said that even at Verdun he had not seen such terrible wounds.
On 15 June, the day after the British withdrawal, an Unteroffizier with the 2nd Panzer-Division found time to write home. ‘The fighting in the west has now begun. You can imagine how much we are needed and that little time is left for writing. It is all or nothing now, it is about the existence or the end of our beloved Fatherland. How each of us soldiers will come through this is pretty irrelevant - the main thing is and remains that we will achieve a just and lasting peace . . . we have learnt to do without everything regarding ourselves or the future and have often come to terms with our mortality. Yet repeatedly one catches oneself still having yearnings and they uphold our faith and our perseverance - but with the explosion of the next shell one’s entire life could be extinguished in an eternal void. We have stepped up to the highest battle.’
The British attempt to break the deadlock in Normandy had failed humiliatingly. One can indulge in many fruitless arguments on the Villers-Bocage fiasco. Would everything have been different if, without the initial delay, the Sharpshooters had been established on Hill 213 before Wittmann arrived? Why did Bucknall not send reinforcements? And why was there no reconnaissance screen in front? The important point is that the operation was not just a major tactical setback. It was a devastating blow to the morale of the 7th Armoured Division and the rest of the British armoured regiments. An intelligence officer with 7th Armoured wrote in his diary a few days later that ‘131 Brigade were having a lot of cases of battle neurosis. 7th Armoured Division has a big reputation but neither 22 nor 131 Armoured Brigades are first class and they had too easy a time in Italy.’
Dempsey was furious with Erskine’s performance and that of the division itself. The 7th Armoured, wrote Erskine’s successor in August, made ‘a very poor showing in Normandy’. But not all its regiments were going through a bad patch. ‘The famous Desert Rats,’ wrote the new commanding officer of the Sherwood Rangers, ‘landed in Normandy with an outstanding reputation which, it must be admitted, it found difficult to retain. I think it is true to say that the only unit which had fought with this Division continually from its inception was the 11th Hussars, the most famous of all armoured reconnaissance regiments, which made for itself an unparalleled reputation which it never lost. When the 11th was out in front, no enemy could approach within miles without being seen and reported.’
The devastating ambush due to the lack of reconnaissance was certainly a shock. But the most unsettling aspect of the battle was the inability of the Cromwell to knock out a Tiger tank, even at point-blank range. There had been mutterings about the uselessness of British tanks before the invasion. Colonel Lord Cranley had felt obliged to address the Sharpshooters on the subject. He was quite aware of the faults in the tanks, but ‘it was no good grousing as we would get no others so we must make the best of things’. The Cromwell was fast going forwards and had a low profile, but with its flat front it was vulnerable and it had an ineffective gun. Patton was dismissive of both the Churchill and the Cromwell, and even British generals were well aware of the Cromwell’s ‘design fault’.
Montgomery, in a letter to de Guingand on 12 June, hoped to stamp immediately on any idea of tank inferiority, however true. He did not want his armoured troops to develop ‘a Tiger and Panther complex’. And yet Montgomery himself had criticized British tank design the previous August, when he said, ‘We are outshot by the German tanks.’ But to try to suppress the problem nearly a year later was flying in the face of reality. The German 88 mm gun, both on the Tiger and the flak gun in a ground role, could pick off Allied tanks before they were able to get within range. The diary of a British officer in Hinde’s brigade was found in a shot-up tank near Tracy-Bocage. The penultimate entry on Sunday, 11 June, read, ‘The squadron left to try to take a position and had to return rapidly having lost four tanks. After four years of preparation for the invasion why are our machines inferior?’
The Americans, proud of their technological sophistication, were shaken to find that even German small arms, especially their light machine gun the MG 42, were manifestly superior. Eisenhower’s reaction on hearing how much better German tank guns were could not have been more different from Montgomery’s attempt to suppress the issue. He wrote immediately to General Marshall and sent a senior tank expert back to the States to discuss what could be done to improve their armour-piercing ammunition. Montgomery should have written to Churchill demanding a massive increase in the production of Firefly tanks with the excellent seventeen-pounder gun. Churchill, an old cavalryman, would have done everything in his power to help.
Just before the Villers-Bocage operation, Churchill was in an ebullient mood. He was finally off to France for his first visit to the invasion area and had received encouraging news from Stalin. ‘I have received the following from U.J. [Uncle Joe],’ he cabled Roosevelt. ‘It looks good. “The summer offensive of the Soviet forces, organised in accordance with the agreement at the Teheran conference, will begin towards the middle of June on one of the important sectors of the front”.’ This was confirmation of Operation Bagration, perhaps the most effective offensive of the whole war.
On 12 June, Churchill, having spent the night on his personal train, boarded the destroyer HMS Kelvin at Portsmouth accompanied by Field Marshal Smuts and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke. As they crossed the Channel, Brooke recorded that they ‘passed convoys of landing craft, minesweepers, bits of floating breakwater (Phoenix) being towed out, parts of the floating piers (Whales) etc.’ They came in sight of the coast at Courseulles-sur-Mer by 11.00 hours. ‘The scene was beyond description,’ Brooke wrote. ‘Everywhere the sea was covered with ships of all sizes and shapes, and a continuous activity. We passed through rows of anchored LSTs and finally came to a “Gooseberry”, namely a row of ships sunk in a half crescent to form a sort of harbour.’
They were met by Admiral Vian in his barge and then transferred to a DUKW, which drove them out of the water and right up the beach. ‘It was a wonderful moment to find myself reentering France almost exactly 4 years after being thrown out,’ Brooke continued. ‘Floods of memories came back of my last trip of despair, and those long four years of work and anxiety.’ General Montgomery was waiting for them with a small column of Jeeps. The large party climbed in and were driven off along the Bayeux road to 21 st Army Group headquarters, in the grounds of the Château de Creully. After a typical Monty briefing, Churchill and his party set off to visit Dempsey at Second Army headquarters. Their route took them through countryside which had escaped destruction. Churchill turned to Brooke and said, ‘We are surrounded by fat cattle lying in luscious pastures with their paws crossed.’ But Brooke also noted that ‘the French population did not seem in any way pleased to see us’. Churchill also heard the stories of French women snipers. ‘There has been a recognizable amount of female sniping at us and the Americans by the women,’ he wrote to Eden on his return.
When they finally returned to Courseulles, they watched an unsuccessful raid by German bombers and then re-embarked on Admiral Vian’s barge for a trip along the coast. Churchill was entranced to see a monitor firing its fourteen-inch guns at targets inland. He announced that he had ‘never been on one of His Majesty’s ships engaging the enemy’ and insisted on going aboard. Fortunately, Brooke noted, it was too difficult to climb up and the over-excited Prime Minister was denied his ‘risky entertainment’. That did not stop Churchill from bragging mendaciously to Roosevelt, ‘We went and had a plug at the Hun from our destroyer, but although the range was 6,000 yards he did not honour us with a reply.’ However, Churchill was not entirely out of the firing line, even when they reached England. That night, on their return to London, the first V1 flying bombs landed.
Royal Navy warships did not slacken in their gunfire. On 13 June, the battleship HMS Ramillies had to steam back to Portsmouth to replenish. And the next day a shell from HMS Rodney killed Brigadeführer Fritz Witt, the commander of the 12th SS Hitler Jugend, and one of his junior officers at their command post. The dynamic Meyer took over in his stead.
On that morning, 14 June, General de Gaulle, accompanied by a large entourage, drove down to Portsmouth from the Connaught Hotel in London in a convoy of six cars. The commander-in-chief Portsmouth greeted him even though they had arrived early for embarkation at the King’s Stairs. The wait, with awkward small-talk - never de Gaulle’s strong suit - was protracted because their ship, the Free French destroyer La Combattante, was late. This, the British liaison officer noted, provoked ‘a slight display of ill-temper’ in the General. The commander-in-chief had provided the admiral’s barge, but it was not large enough to take all their luggage, an astonishing amount for what was supposed to be a one-day trip, so a picket boat had to be called up to ferry it all out. Clearly part of the retinue planned to stay on in France without informing the British. ‘General de Gaulle’s personal flag was broken at the main masthead as he went on board.’
As the French coast came in sight, one of the company said to their leader, ‘Has it occurred to you, mon Général, that it is four years ago to the day since the Germans marched into Paris?’
‘Well, they made a mistake,’ came the inimitable reply.
They were met at the beach by officers of Montgomery’s staff, who could not believe the size of the group and the quantity of luggage they were bringing ashore. Montgomery had asked that de Gaulle should bring no more than two people to lunch, but this request had been treated with monarchical disregard. In the event, only General de Gaulle, the French ambassador Viénot and Generals Koenig and Béthouart climbed into the Jeeps provided by 21st Army Group. The other fifteen members of the party and the luggage had to wait at the beach until transport could be found to send them on to Bayeux. De Gaulle even tried to insist at the last moment that the Jeeps should be driven by the French chauffeurs whom he had brought with him.
Montgomery’s dislike of cigarettes was famous, but apparently de Gaulle and his companions filled Montgomery’s caravan with smoke. This, according to the naval liaison officer accompanying the party, ‘did little to ingratiate them with its tenant’. The lunch may have been a diplomatic ordeal for Montgomery, but it clearly gave de Gaulle little pleasure too. His companions noticed that he began to relax only afterwards, when the 21st Army Group Jeeps drove them on towards Bayeux, where they were to join up with the rest of the party. News of de Gaulle’s appearance spread rapidly. The local curé, Father Paris, came cantering up on his horse. He reproved the General jovially for not having come to shake his hand. De Gaulle climbed out of the Jeep and, opening his seemingly endless arms, said, ‘Monsieur le curé, I do not shake your hand. I embrace you.’
In Bayeux, the General made his way to the Sous-Préfecture. There he was met by the sous-préfet standing self-importantly in his tricolore sash. The official then suddenly remembered to his horror that the portrait of Marshal Pétain still hung on the wall. De Gaulle, who was often so very thin-skinned, could also rise majestically above unintended insults. He continued talking to the embarrassed official as if nothing had happened. And also on that day he revealed his dry wit when an old woman in the crowd became confused in the cheering and cried out, ‘Vive le Maréchal!’ He is said to have muttered to a companion, ‘Another person who does not read the newspapers.’ On the other hand, she might have been from a farming family outside the town. The historian Sergeant Forrest Pogue constantly found that the Normans in the countryside ‘hated Laval, but not Pétain’, and they harboured a certain distrust for de Gaulle.
In any case, there could be little doubt about the warmth of de Gaulle’s reception in Bayeux itself. This was especially important, as he intended to install his own administration immediately. De Gaulle paid scant attention to Churchill’s condition of the visit that there should be no public meetings. He mounted an improvised platform in the square outside the Sous-Préfecture and addressed the crowd. He finished his speech with the declaration, ‘Le gouvernement français salue Bayeux - la première ville française libérée.’ There was no mention of the fact that the gouvernementwas provisoire. He then led the crowd in singing the ‘Marseillaise’. The only cloud on his horizon was that, according to a report Churchill had just received, the population seemed perfectly happy to accept the military currency issued by his Allies and denounced by the General as ‘une fausse monnaie’.
De Gaulle carried on to Isigny and Grandcamp, but arrived too late at the embarkation point for La Combattante to set sail that night. Even though he had been warned that no ship could leave the anchorage during the hours of darkness, due to the threat of German E-boats, de Gaulle was exasperated that the British naval authorities refused the French captain permission to weigh anchor, but he was in a very good humour after his reception. As the British liaison officer remarked, perhaps the fact that he had managed to ‘post’ four members of his party in France ‘contributed to this feeling of satisfaction’. Montgomery, however, sent two signals to Churchill, the first saying that de Gaulle’s visit to his headquarters ‘was a great success’, then another claiming without evidence that de Gaulle’s reception in Bayeux and elsewhere had been ‘definitely lukewarm’. He added that de Gaulle ‘has left behind in Bayeux one civilian administrative officer and three colonels, but I have no idea what is their function’.24
Roosevelt’s attitude to the leader of the provisional government had certainly not changed. On the same day, he signalled to Churchill, ‘In my opinion we should make full use of any organization of influence he may have in so far as is practicable without imposing him by force of our arms upon the French people as their government or giving recognition to his outfit as the Provisional Government of France.’
Churchill, who had been considering the recognition of de Gaulle as the leader of the provisional government, also remained in an unforgiving mood since the row about his refusal to send over French liaison officers. He had written to Eden just before his visit to France, ‘There is not a scrap of generosity about this man, who only wishes to pose as the saviour of France in this operation.’ The British press and most members of Parliament, on the other hand, strongly supported de Gaulle. The Times that morning had described Allied relations with the provisional government as ‘intolerable’25 - but for Churchill, relations with ‘this wrong-headed, ambitious and detestable Anglophobe’ had become a resigning matter. ‘If the policy of the Government hitherto is attacked, I will unfold the story to Parliament. This may lead to the formation of a new Government, because I have every intention of telling the whole story and Parliament can then dismiss me if it wishes.’
De Gaulle, however, was to achieve more by covert means. The officials he had managed to leave behind in France as a ‘Trojan horse’, together with others already gathered there, turned Bayeux into the capital of Free France. Allied officers soon found it more practical to work with them and discreetly ignore outdated instructions from the politicians in London.
While Bayeux was a city of peace and plenty, Caen, the capital of Calvados, continued to suffer abominably from bombs and shelling. On the morning of 9 June, a favourite landmark, the bell tower of Saint-Pierre, was brought down by a shell from HMS Rodney. ‘Le panorama est tout changé,’ wrote one citizen sadly. Buildings burned from further air raids, and an impression of rain under a blue sky was in fact molten lead dripping from roofs.
The surgeons and doctors at the Bon Sauveur were exhausted from their work. The arrival of casualties by ambulance, stretcher or, in one case, on the back of a German tank was announced by whistles. As in a field hospital, a doctor was on hand to carry out an immediate triage and decide who should be operated on first. The strain on the surgeons was immense. One said, ‘I simply cannot look at any more blood.’ Another muttered, ‘I’ve had it. I think if anyone brings me somebody who’s injured I just couldn’t operate.’ They had no idea which day of the week it was.
In the first few days, three badly wounded Canadian paratroopers had been brought in from Troarn. One of them, a lieutenant, started yelling when he realized that the surgeon wanted to amputate his right arm. A translator was called for and the lieutenant explained that he was a painter. The surgeon agreed to do what he could to save the arm. The man nearly died during the operation, but he was saved by a nurse who offered herself in an arm-to-arm transfusion.
Another event which shook everyone in the Bon Sauveur occurred after a café owner was brought in with a bullet wound in the thigh. It transpired that, when drunk, he had shot at some soldiers from the Hitler Jugend who had been pillaging his café, a common event. While a surgeon was operating on him, an SS officer appeared armed with a sub-machine gun. The SS officer began hitting him as he lay on the operating table, asking whether he had fired at the soldiers. The café owner was speechless and did not reply. The SS officer fired a burst from his gun into his chest, killing him right there in front of all the medical staff.
Estimates of the number of people seeking shelter in the Bon Sauveur and the Abbaye aux Hommes vary greatly. There were well over 3,000. The Eglise Saint-Etienne was also crammed with refugees, sleeping on straw as if ‘in the Middle Ages’. Ancient wells were opened up as the only source of water. Young men and women acted as foragers, seeking food in the larders of ruined houses or going out into the countryside, evading German patrols. Livestock killed by shells and bombs were butchered for meat. Dairy products were easy to come by since farmers could not send anything to market. In the city’s main refuge south-east of the Orne, the convent of Les Petites Soeurs des Pauvres, the 500 refugees were tempted to complain that their bread was too thickly buttered. (In Paris, meanwhile, butter fetched astronomical prices on the black market.) Outside these havens, Caen was a sinister morgue. Rats grew fat on the corpses buried underground and stray dogs searched for an arm or leg sticking out of the rubble.
The Vichy authorities in Paris made an effort to help Caen. Two trucks loaded with food and blankets and a field kitchen were sent off by Secours National under the direction of Monsieur Gouineau. It was a hazardous journey. German soldiers in Lisieux were obsessed with ‘terrorists’ of the Resistance. They shot a policeman in the street simply because he carried a service pistol on his belt. Monsieur Gouineau, knowing that all the banks in Caen had been destroyed, had the authority to draw 100 million francs in Lisieux. There was no time to count the money, so he signed the receipt with his eyes closed and they drove on to Caen. When Allied fighters appeared overhead they waved a white flag frantically and the aircraft veered off.
After the money and supplies had been delivered, the return journey proved even more complicated. They obtained a laissez-passer from the German army Kommandantur in Caen, but were warned that the SS did not respect such pieces of paper. And beyond Lisieux a German patrol opened fire, suspecting that the trucks belonged to the Resistance. Monsieur Gouineau and several others were wounded. Nevertheless, a relay of supplies began and altogether some 250 tons were delivered.
For those French behind Allied lines, life was at least a little easier. In Lion-sur-Mer a local wrote, ‘The English since their arrival distribute to left and right chocolate, sweets and cigarettes.’ But there was no electricity or water, except from wells, and for food, most survived off their kitchen gardens. Rumour ran riot. Some believed that the swimming tanks had crossed the Channel all on their own, and a few convinced themselves that they had crossed on the bottom of the sea like tracked submarines. Often the sweets and cigarettes were not given but bartered for milk, eggs and meat from fallen livestock. An unofficial rate of exchange - ‘le troc’ - rapidly established itself, with two eggs for a tin of corned beef.
Barter extended to other commodities with an astonishing rapidity. A surgeon with the 2nd Field Dressing Station recorded that on 7 June ‘a senior officer of the Military Police arrived in a Jeep loaded with medical comforts - army-issue chocolate, sweets and cigarettes for the wounded. Earlier that morning the police had raided a brothel set up on the beach in a wrecked landing craft by three ladies on the evening of D-Day and had confiscated the trading currency.’ British sailors, sometimes drunk but still desperate for more alcohol, made a nuisance of themselves, going from house to house on the coast.
One of the very first temporary airfields constructed by the British with wire-mesh runways was B-5, outside Le Fresne-Camilly. Teenage boys, fascinated by all the military hardware, congregated to watch and make friends with the airmen and soldiers. On 15 June, a wing of Typhoons arrived to prepare a raid on a German panzer headquarters in a château near Villers-Bocage. The pilots landed to find the airfield under shellfire and they had to dive into slit trenches. The Typhoon aircrews knew how much they were hated by the Germans, so a number of them wore khaki battledress to avoid being lynched in case they were shot down. Considering the rather patronizing attitude of RAF pilots towards ‘brown jobs’, as they called the army, it was ironic that they borrowed their uniform.
Medical officers did all they could for wounded civilians. In a village near the fortified German radar station at La Délivrande, a shell had exploded in the schoolyard. The eighteen-year-old daughter of the schoolteacher lost her arm at the shoulder. There was no doctor available, but ‘during the morning, the English occupied the village and their first concern was to take care of the injured’. The battalion doctor with his two assistants tended her. She was evacuated first to a casualty clearing station at Hermanville and then back across the Channel, to be cared for at Northwood, where other wounded French civilians were taken.
Dempsey’s fears that the front would coagulate proved accurate. The Royal Ulster Rifles, having captured Cambes, stayed there for more than a month. Lieutenant Cyril Rand, a platoon commander, described it as a life of ‘musical chairs’, with gunfire and slit trenches replacing the stopped music and the chairs. Their padre, Father John O’Brien, used to visit the forward positions, with rum scrounged from the quartermaster, to play the odd hand of poker with soldiers in their dugouts. O’Brien was kept busy tending to the dead as well as the living. At one of the brief funeral services by an open grave, a newly arrived officer half-fainted beside him, dropped to his knees and began to slide into the hole. The padre caught him by his battledress, saying, ‘Now there’s no need to be in a hurry. All in good time.’
Black humour was just about the only amusement available. The Ulster Rifles had a forward observation officer from the Royal Artillery with them. He took a wicked pleasure in dropping a couple of shells on the German position whenever a Landser could be spied sneaking off to their latrine. The Ulsters, in their mud-encrusted battledress, longed for the chance to get clean. One day when in reserve, Lieutenant Rand slipped off to take an improvised bath in an abandoned house. He added a good measure of eau-de-Cologne from a bottle which he found there. On his return, he found the brigadier accompanied by the battalion second in command making an inspection. The brigadier moved on, apparently satisfied, but turned to give Rand a strange look. Rand’s platoon sergeant murmured in his ear, ‘I think they noticed, sir.’
‘Your smell, sir. You smell like a brothel.’
Their food, usually cooked over a biscuit tin filled with earth which had been soaked in petrol, was also monotonous. Compo rations came in a fourteen-day pack, with hard tack biscuits, margarine, jam, mixed vegetables, steak and kidney pudding, tins of M&V (meat and vegetables), plum pudding, latrine paper, soup, sweets, cigarettes (seven per man per day), matches and tea ready-mixed with milk powder and sugar for an instant brew-up. Oatmeal blocks could be crumbled into water to make porridge for breakfast as a change from the tins of over-salted and glutinous bacon and powdered egg. It was not surprising that barter for fresh produce became such an obsession.
Trench warfare and the quite arbitrary chance of death which went with it led to numerous superstitions. Few ever quite dared to risk fate by saying that they would do this or that ‘when I get home’. For all but the most dedicated of soldiers, the hope of ‘getting a Blighty one’ - a wound which required evacuation back to Britain, but would not disable you - was akin to dreams of winning the lottery. A medal was all very well, but they preferred somebody else to play the role of hero, ‘winning the war single-handed’. They just wanted to return home alive.
In almost every infantry platoon in most conscript armies there were seldom more than a handful of men prepared to take risks and attack. At the other end of the scale, there were usually a similar number who would do everything possible to avoid danger. The majority in the middle just followed the brave ones, but, faced with sudden disaster, they could equally run with the shirkers. The first study of behaviour under fire had been made in Sicily in 1943. A horrified Montgomery suppressed the report, fearing its effects on morale, and the career of the officer who wrote it suffered. More evidence emerged later to support his thesis.26 Even in the Red Army officers were certain that six out of ten soldiers never fired their rifles in battle. This prompted one of their commanders to suggest that weapons should be inspected afterwards and anyone with a clean barrel should be treated as a deserter.
This platoon profile was probably reflected in below-average German infantry divisions, but almost certainly not in elite panzergrenadier and paratroop units or the highly indoctrinated Waffen-SS. They were convinced of Germany’s rightful dominance and in ‘final victory’. It was their duty to save the Fatherland from annihilation. The difference between the soldiers of a democracy and those of a dictatorship could hardly have been clearer. Yet the morale of the German Landser in Normandy was vulnerable. So much had been promised by the propaganda ministry and their own officers. Many had welcomed the invasion as an opportunity to settle scores over the Allied bombing and, by crushing it, to bring the war to an end.
‘The whole world now anticipates the further course of the invasion,’ wrotean Untersturmführerofthe 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen on 6 June. ‘When I heard the news on the radio at noon today, I was honestly pleased, because by this measure we seem to be nearing the end of the war quite considerably.’ The SS Hohenstaufen was part of II SS Panzer Corps, and about to leave the eastern front for Normandy to counter-attack the British. Four days later, when it was clear that the Allies were safely ashore, the same Untersturmführer wrote, ‘If the repulse of the invasion is not happening as swiftly as some believe, one may have some hope because things are moving. And we still have the retaliatory strike in store.’
Every time an assurance of the propaganda ministry proved false, another one quickly took its place. The Atlantic Wall was impregnable. The Allies would not dare to invade. The Luftwaffe and U-boats would smash the invasion fleet. A massive counter-attack would hurl the Allies back into the sea. The secret Vengeance weapons would bring Britain to her knees, begging for peace. New jet fighters would sweep the Allied aircraft from the sky. The more desperate the situation became, the more shameless the lie. The relentless inventions of Goebbels served as a form of morale-benzedrine for the soldier at the front, but when the effect wore off, he would be left truly exhausted. For SS soldiers especially, belief became nothing short of an addiction. Yet for many more ordinary German officers and soldiers, Normandy would prove the culmination of any private doubts they might have had about the outcome of the war.