15

Operation Epsom

Shortly before the fall of Cherbourg, Hitler made his last visit to France. He was in an unforgiving mood. His orders to sweep the Allies back into the sea had not been carried out and he regarded his senior commanders in the west as defeatist. Hitler complained openly at OKW headquarters that ‘Field Marshal Rommel is a great and inspiring leader in victory, but as soon as there is the slightest difficulty, he becomes a complete pessimist.’

Rommel, on his side, did not conceal his dissatisfaction with the way Hitler interfered with his direction of the battle. Even senior officers at OKW were driven to distraction by Hitler’s obsession with detail. He insisted that every emplacement should be marked on 1:25,000 maps. One day, he noticed in a report that the number of anti-aircraft guns in the Channel Islands had apparently been reduced by two. He demanded that the officer responsible should be punished for reducing the defences, but in fact somebody had miscounted the first time round. Hitler, without ever having visited the area of Caen in his life, continually pestered the OKW staff about the positioning of two units of multi-barrelled mortars: the 7th and 8th Nebelwerfer Brigades. He insisted that they would decide the outcome in the British sector if they were placed at a specific spot east of the River Orne.

Despite their earlier disagreements on tactics, both Rommel and General Geyr von Schweppenburg wanted to withdraw behind the line of the Orne. Geyr recognized that to launch a major panzer counterattack within range of Allied naval guns was pointless. Instead, he wanted to adopt ‘Jungle Tiger Tactics’, with sudden armoured raids. This came just as the Hitler Jugend had started to have second thoughts after their battering at the hands of the Canadians. But Rommel’s demands for ‘flexibility of action’, which meant having the right to pull back without reference to Führer headquarters, and the proposal to withdraw behind the Orne constituted a direct contradiction of Hitler’s order that every inch of ground should be held.

Hitler, determined to have it out with both Rommel and Rundstedt, summoned them to a conference before the fall of Cherbourg. On 16 June, he flew from Berchtesgaden to Metz in his personal Focke-Wulf Condor. Accompanied by General Jodl and members of his military staff, he proceeded in convoy to Margival, near Soissons. The bunker complex at Margival had been prepared in 1940 as his headquarters for the invasion of Britain. It had been set into a deep railway cutting near a tunnel where the Führer’s special train could shelter.

The next morning, Rundstedt and Rommel arrived as instructed. ‘[Hitler] looked unhealthy and overtired,’ noted Speidel, Rommel’s chief of staff. ‘He played nervously with his spectacles and the coloured pencils he held between his fingers. He sat on his chair bent forward while the Field Marshals remained standing. His former suggestive power seemed to have disappeared. After brief and cool greetings, Hitler, speaking in a loud voice, sharply expressed his displeasure over the success of the Allied landings, tried to find fault with the local commanders and ordered the holding of Fortress Cherbourg at any price.’

Rundstedt made a few introductory remarks, then asked Rommel to make his report. Rommel spoke of the ‘hopelessness of fighting against tremendous enemy superiority in all three dimensions’. He spoke of the failure of air and naval reconnaissance, yet emphasized that his divisions along the coast had not been caught off guard and that ‘the performance of officers and men in this unequal struggle had been superhuman’. He predicted the fall of Cherbourg and attacked the whole of Hitler’s policy, which had designated some sixteen fortresses along the Channel and Brittany coasts to be held to the last. Altogether some 200,000 men and precious materiel were tied up in their defence and, in most cases, the Allies would simply bypass them. The Allies were landing two to three divisions a week, he continued, and even though they were slow and methodical, the three branches of the Wehrmacht simply would not be able to resist their overwhelming might. Rommel wanted to withdraw by six to ten miles east and south of the River Orne. This would enable him to pull out the panzer divisions to redeploy them for a major counter-attack. He also wanted to prepare the line of the River Seine for defence. Rundstedt supported these proposals. He wanted to pull back behind the Loire and the Seine, abandoning the whole of north-west France.

An outraged Hitler, refusing to face the facts, made ‘a long auto-suggestive speech’. He predicted that the V-1, which had been used in quantity for the first time the day before, would ‘have a decisive effect on the outcome of the war against England’. He then broke off the discussion to dictate an announcement about the V weapons to the representative of the Reich Press Chief. The two field marshals had to stand there listening to a frenzied Hitlerian monologue. Hitler refused to have the V weapons targeted at the beachheads or the south coast ports of Britain. He insisted that they must all be aimed at London, to bring the British to their knees. When Rommel criticized the lack of effective support from the Luftwaffe, Hitler acknowledged that he had been deceived by its leadership, but then claimed that ‘swarms’ of jet fighters would soon spell the end of Allied air superiority.

An increasingly angry Rommel demanded that representatives of the OKW should visit the front and discover the situation for themselves. ‘You demand that we should have confidence,’ he told Hitler, ‘but we are not trusted ourselves!’ Hitler apparently turned pale at this remark, but remained silent. As if to bear out Rommel’s arguments about Allied superiority, an air raid warning at this point forced them to descend into the bomb shelter.

Once down there, Rommel outlined the wider picture, with Germany isolated, the western front about to collapse and the Wehrmacht facing defeat in Italy as well as on the eastern front. He urged Hitler to bring the war to an end as soon as possible. Hitler was furious. His Luftwaffe adjutant later observed, ‘That was the last thing Hitler wanted to hear from the mouth of a field marshal.’ He retorted that the Allies would not negotiate. In this he was right and Rommel and the July plotters hopelessly optimistic. But Hitler went on to insist that the destruction of Germany had been agreed upon. So ‘everything would depend on a “fanatical resistance”’. As he dismissed Rommel, Hitler said, ‘Do not concern yourself with the conduct of the war, but concentrate on the invasion front.’

Rundstedt and Rommel left Margival, having been told by Hitler’s chief adjutant, General Schmundt, that the Führer would visit La Roche-Guyon to talk to field commanders himself in two days’ time. But on returning to their respective headquarters, they heard that a V-1 missile, whose gyros had gone wrong, had exploded above the bunker soon after their departure. Hitler returned rapidly to Berchtesgaden that night. He never left the Reich again.

The first V-1 rockets, or ‘Doodlebugs’ as British civilians soon called them, landed on the night of 12 June. Four of them hit London. ‘What principally bothers the southern English at this moment,’ wrote a journalist, ‘is a certain illogical, Wellsian creepiness about the idea of a robot skulking about overhead, in place of merely a young Nazi with his finger on the bomb button . . . Annoyance would seem to be the dominant public emotion, though lots of English might sneakingly admit that they don’t feel displeased to be in it with the boys in Normandy, even in such a relatively minor way.’ But the strain began to tell when the rhythm of attacks accelerated. The ‘eerie howl of sirens’ in London seemed to mark a revival of the Blitz. Thousands of people returned to sleeping in Underground stations.

Many discussions were held by the War Cabinet. On 16 June, Churchill and his ministers discussed whether to stop the anti-aircraft guns firing at night so that people could get some sleep. Fast fighter aircraft proved a better way of dealing with the threat of ‘Divers’, as they were codenamed. The most effective weapon of all on ‘anti-Diver’ operations was the wing of Tempests based at Dungeness. Brought to readiness on 16 June, they shot down 632 V-1s with their 20 mm cannon, more than a third of the total destroyed by Allied fighters during the next three months. A Belgian pilot, René van Learde, shot down forty-two. ‘These things,’ wrote their leader, Wing Commander R. Beamont,

‘would be tearing across at night making noises like asthmatic motorbikes with streams of flame out of the back.’ The Tempest was just faster than the V-1. Once, having run out of ammunition, Beamont flew alongside one. Applying the boundary layer of air over the wing of his Tempest on to the underside of the V-1’s wing, he managed to lift it without even touching it. This rolled the V-1 over and sent it crashing to earth. But in the vast majority of cases, pilots continued to use their cannon, although the explosion of a ton of amitol just a few hundred yards ahead of their aircraft produced a terrifying blast.

V-1s were indeed volatile, as Hitler had discovered at Margival. The Director General of Gendarmerie’s report to Vichy showed that many, up to five a day, crashed before even reaching the Channel. One came down north-east of Alençon, behind the lines of Panzer Group West. Yet despite their inaccuracy and the great achievement of Allied ‘anti-Diver’ squadrons, enough V-1s landed on London to cause great concern. One landed on the Guards Chapel, close to Buckingham Palace, during a Sunday service, killing 121 people. On 27 June, according to Field Marshal Brooke, a War Cabinet meeting finished ‘with a pathetic wail from Herbert Morrison [the Home Secretary] who appears to be a real white-livered specimen! He was in a flat spin about the flying bombs and their effects on the population. After five years of war we could not ask them to stand such a strain etc etc!’ Brooke noted in his diary that Morrison wanted the whole strategy in France to be changed. ‘Our one and only objective should be to clear the north coast of France. It was a pathetic performance. There were no signs of London not being able to stand it, and if there had been it would only have been necessary to tell them that for the first time in history they could share the dangers their sons were running in France and that what fell on London was at any rate not falling on them. Thank heaven Winston very soon dealt with him.’

Since most of the rockets were falling short of London, the Double-Cross committee was told to find a way to encourage the Germans to maintain their present targeting. Using one of their tame agents, ‘Lector’, a message was passed via Madrid to his controllers in Berlin, ‘Ludwig’ and ‘Herold’. ‘Destructive effect of new German weapon devastating,’ the signal stated. ‘In spite of soft pedalling counter propaganda, the bombardment has created a feeling of panic among the population such as has never before existed . . . The opinion had been expressed in governmental and military circles that if this and new weapons are intensively employed, they would find themselves sooner or later forced to come to a compromise peace with Germany . . . In highly placed and influential circles, apparently serious peace tendencies are perceptible, in which connection the name of Rudolf Hess in the role of intermediary is mentioned.’ This was perhaps a case of over-egging the pudding, since such news could only encourage the Germans to persist, but it was deemed justifiable in the circumstances. In any case, Hitler’s blind belief that his new Vengeance weapon would knock Britain out of the war undoubtedly strengthened his determination not to give up any territory in Normandy. This obsessive obstinacy would lead to yet another clash with Rommel and Rundstedt before the end of the month. The two field marshals predicted that this inflexibility would destroy the German army in Normandy and lose France.

Montgomery, meanwhile, still tried to pretend that everything on his side was proceeding according to plan. On 14 June, the day after the disaster at Villers-Bocage, he wrote to Churchill, ‘Battle is going well at junction of the two armies in the general area Caumont- Villers-Bocage-Tilly.’ He also found it hard to acknowledge the true consequences of the great storm in the Channel which hit them less than a week later. The weather had not just halted the landing of supplies, it also put back the arrival of VIII Corps, the battering ram needed for a breakthrough. In the meantime, the Germans were reinforcing their front opposite the British with their most powerful panzer divisions. Ultra gave warning that the II SS Panzer Corps was on the way from the eastern front. For the moment only small attacks could be mounted because of the shortage of artillery ammunition. Although costly in lives and unrewarding in ground gained, they fitted Monty’s new plan of tying down the Germans while the Americans took Cherbourg.

On 16 June, a battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, supported by a depleted squadron of Shermans, attacked Cristot: ‘We formed up in a lane near a farm with banks on either side.’ The men’s nostrils curled at the stench of rotting cows. They were to advance across another open cornfield. ‘Suddenly, out of nowhere appeared the Padre and we all knelt down and prayed.’ As they moved forward, their supporting artillery fired over their heads, but then the Germans played their trick of firing mortar shells into the leading troops to give the impression that their own artillery was falling short. Officers passed back orders for the barrage to stop and the German trick was revealed. But one soldier who had thrown himself flat during the mortar ‘stonk’ suffered a terrible fate. A piece of shrapnel ignited one of the phosphorus grenades in his pouch and ‘he died terribly in minutes’.

Three days later, when the great storm was beginning, the rain was so heavy that fighting came to a halt. The infantry sat disconsolately in their trenches, the water dripping from their groundsheets worn as ponchos. Tank crews were luckier. They dug trenches to sleep in, then reversed their tank over the top to keep them dry.

On 22 June, the third anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the first phase of Operation Bagration began. This was the massive Red Army attack in Belorussia to encircle the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Centre. Having drawn German attention to a possible offensive in the Ukraine, with a brilliant exercise in maskirovka comparable to Plan Fortitude, the Soviet armies achieved surprise. Within three weeks they would kill or capture 350,000 Germans. Bagration would take the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw by the first week in August.

After several delays, mainly due to the weather, the major British offensive, Operation Epsom, was finally ready. Eisenhower was fuming with impatience, yet Montgomery refused to be hurried and 21st Army Group headquarters provided SHAEF with exasperatingly little information. Apparently Montgomery said to Dempsey on several occasions, ‘There’s no need to tell Ike.’ Monty liked to keep his objectives vague, often with Delphic cricketing metaphors, so that if there was a breakout he could claim credit for it and if the operation ran into the sand he could say that they had simply been tying down German forces to help the Americans.

Altogether 60,000 men were to take part, mainly from VIII Corps, which included the 15th Scottish Division, the 43rd Wessex and the 11th Armoured Division. Most had never been in battle before, but they were determined to prove themselves alongside the Desert veterans. The plan was to attack to the west of Caen and establish a bridgehead south of the River Odon before advancing to the River Orne. This deep salient to the south-west of the city would then be used to threaten the whole German position. The key feature between the two rivers was Hill 112.

014

On Sunday 25 June, XXX Corps on the right again attacked the Panzer Lehr Division. The 49th West Riding Division and the 8th Armoured Brigade forced them back, but although they inflicted heavy losses, the Germans held on to the village of Rauray. An armoured reconnaissance regiment was protecting their flank that day near Fontenay-le-Pesnel. ‘The German trick,’ wrote a Canadian officer with a British reconnaissance regiment, ‘was to abandon their weapon pits and go into the corn when we approached.’ Sometimes they crept back to their positions and opened fire again, but in most cases the ‘Huns still pop up out of the corn but are no potential danger’.

The southern end of Fontenay was still held by the Panzer Lehr Division. The following morning, a Sherman of the Sherwood Rangers, ‘on turning a corner in the centre of the village came face to face with a German Tiger tank trundling along the road. Fortunately [the Sherman commander] had an armour piercing shell in the breech of his 75 mm. gun which he released at 30 yards’ range and then followed up with another six shells in quick succession, which brewed up the Tiger.’ The next day, the Sherwood Rangers cleared Rauray, after losing several of their tanks. Their greatest prize was an abandoned Tiger tank in perfect running order. They even painted their brigade sign of a fox’s mask on it, but orders came down from XXX Corps headquarters that it must be sent back to England. It was the first to be captured intact in Normandy.

That day, 26 June, the SS began clearing the French inhabitants of villages behind the lines. Their concern was spying, not the safety of civilians. This was not mere paranoia. The British 7th Armoured Division and other formations had been receiving very useful intelligence from Frenchmen and women slipping through the lines.

The fighting was also bitter round Tessel. There, a battalion from the ‘Polar Bears’, as the 49th Division was called from its shoulder badge, came up against the Panzer Lehr Division at close quarters. ‘The order came to us while we were at Tessel Wood, “No Prisoners”,’ claimed a member of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. ‘That is why we were called the Polar Bear butchers by Lord Haw-Haw.’29 An Ultra intercept picked up Panzer Lehr’s report that it had suffered ‘heavy losses’ on the first day of the battle.

The main phase of what Montgomery called the ‘show-down’ began on 26 June, with a massive bombardment of field and naval artillery. After a night of heavy rain, the cloud was so low that few air sorties could be flown. The Scots of the 15th Division advanced rapidly. As men were shot down in the pale green wheat, comrades would mark their position for medical orderlies to find. They took the wounded man’s rifle with fixed bayonet, rammed it upright into the ground and placed his helmet on top. One observer remarked that these markers looked ‘like strange fungi sprouting up haphazardly through cornfields’.

Fierce fighting took place in several villages, especially in Cheux, where the Glasgow Highlanders lost a quarter of their strength in a single day. In Saint-Manvieu on the left flank, the 43rd Wessex Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade fought off the Hitler Jugend.30 The Royal Scots Greys knocked out four Panthers as they emerged from a wood. The Greys, attached to a newly arrived brigade of the 43rd Division, ‘were much amused over our infantry. This was evidently their first battle and they were doing everything according to the book: their faces were blackened; they had cut off all badges of rank; and they talked in whispers. ’But the two fresh divisions were proving rather more effective than the veterans. By dusk, the 15th Scottish had almost reached the Odon in its thickly wooded valley. A Frenchman watching the battle that night from Fleury, on the southern edge of Caen, wrote, ‘It’s a vision out of Dante to see the whole horizon lighting up simultaneously.’

Congested roads, heavy rain and confusion slowed the attack, but the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders seized a bridge over the Odon the following day. Showing unusual initiative, the Argylls infiltrated forward, rather than following conventional British infantry tactics. With great bravery, the 15th Scottish fought off a panzer counter-attack that day, and their capture of the bridge allowed the 11th Armoured to start crossing on the morning of 28 June. General O’Con-nor, the commander of VIII Corps, wanted to push forward to take a bridgehead over the River Orne beyond, but Dempsey, who knew from Ultra intercepts that the II SS Panzer Corps had just reached the front, became cautious. He preferred to establish a much firmer position south of the Odon before the next phase.

Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich wanted to throw the two divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps straight into the battle against the British bridgehead, but Rommel was reluctant. He had hoped to keep the 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen and the 10th SS Panzer-Division Frundsberg back for the great armoured counter-attack which had so far failed to get off the ground. But on 28 June, Rommel was summoned to Berchtesgaden by Hitler, an extraordinary interruption in the middle of a battle. And a desperate Generaloberst Dollmann, just a few hours before he committed suicide, ordered the II SS Panzer Corps to attack north-westwards on either side of the River Odon to smash the western flank of the British salient. They were reinforced by a battlegroup from the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich. Meanwhile, because of Dollmann’s sudden demise, Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser, who commanded the II SS Panzer Corps, was told that afternoon to proceed immediately to Le Mans to take command of the Seventh Army. He handed the corps over to Gruppenführer Bittrich.

The next day, 29 June, the 11th Armoured Division managed to get tanks on to the key position of Hill 112. They held off attacks by leading elements of the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, which was supported by the 7th Mortar Brigade with Nebelwerfer and a Kampfgruppefrom the 21st Panzer-Division. At 11.00 hours, the unfortunate Bittrich, having taken command of the II SS Panzer Corps just the evening before, received orders to advance in one hour. Initially reluctant to mount such a hurried attack, he was then persuaded of the urgency. The 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen received a signal stating the importance of the mission. Without the commitment of both panzer corps, it said, ‘the enemy which has broken through to Baron could not be repulsed. They would break through to the Orne and Caen would be lost.’ The Panzer Lehr Division was ordered to support the left flank of Bittrich’s attack. But their opponents then had a great stroke of luck. The 15th Scottish captured an SS officer carrying the plan. Their forward battalions rapidly prepared defensive positions.

The onslaught of the II SS Panzer Corps began in earnest shortly aftermidday.At 16.05 hours, its headquarters reported to Panzer Group West that they had destroyed eleven British tanks in front of Gavrus. Half an hour later they claimed to have taken Gavrus and knocked out twenty-three tanks. Geyr von Schweppenburg, who had returned the day before to assume command with his Panzer Group West headquarters, urged on the two SS divisions at dusk. He told them that this attack offered ‘die grosse Chance’. But that night, the 15th Scottish Division, heavily supported by artillery and naval gunfire, fought off the 9th and 10th SS Divisions with spectacular success. Thirty-eight panzers were knocked out and the SS Frundsberg was forced back to its start line. The effect on the morale of the two SS panzer divisions was even greater. Unfortunately, Dempsey apparently never knew of the intelligence which revealed that this was the main counter-attack.31 Fearing that a major assault would come on the other flank, he pulled back the 11th Armoured Division instead of reinforcing it. Hill 112 was then rapidly occupied by the Germans. It proved a disastrous mistake. To recapture Hill 112 would take far more time and lives than could ever have been saved by this withdrawal.

Montgomery halted the offensive the following day, after a renewed attack by the II Panzer Corps was driven off. VIII Corps had lost just over 4,000 men in five days. Over half the losses had been suffered by the 15th Scottish Division, which had proved its bravery beyond all doubt. That Dempsey missed a great opportunity through his caution is almost unquestionable. The delays in launching Epsom meant that VIII Corps ended up fighting the greatest concentration of SS panzer divisions which had been assembled since the Battle of Kursk. Yet the impressive performance of the British troops involved was let down at the last minute by the hesitation of their army commander. The only consolation was that the Germans never again managed to launch a major counter-attack against the British sector.

Eisenhower’s frustration with Montgomery over strategy is not hard to understand. The confident messages Montgomery had been sending out about a ‘show-down’ simply did not tally with what he said in private. An intelligence officer with the 7th Armoured Division had recorded with amazement in his diary on 22 June what he heard from Major General Erskine on his return from a conference at 21st Army Group headquarters prior to Epsom. ‘General talked about what Monty had said to him,’ he wrote. ‘Complete change so far as we are concerned as Monty doesn’t want us to make ground. Satisfied Second Army has drawn all enemy panzer divisions, now wants Caen only on this front and Americans to press on for Brittany ports. So VIII Corps attack goes in but we have very limited objective. Monty reckons he lost the battle of the build-up - five days behind on account of weather.’ So perhaps Dempsey’s caution was dictated by Montgomery.

Rommel visited Geyr’s headquarters on 1 July, the day after the battle ended. Both men were shaken by the effect of shelling from warships at a range of nearly twenty miles. Geyr demanded figures from both divisions on the number of tanks knocked out by naval gunfire. Even Hitler was persuaded that they could do no more than hold their present line for the moment. But Geyr was furious that every available panzer division had been thrown at the British offensive. This had caused huge disruption to his plans.

Above all, Geyr opposed the splitting of formations as an emergency measure, which also caused chaos in resupply. He told Rommel that the newly arrived infantry divisions should be used to hold the line while the panzer forces were withdrawn and reorganized for a proper blow. Rommel refused. ‘The infantry cannot do this any more and is not prepared to do it,’ was his reply. He did not believe that the newly arrived infantry divisions were capable of holding the British. This attitude happened to fit in with Hitler’s obsession of not yielding any ground. Geyr railed against ‘the armchair strategists of Berchtesgaden’ and their ‘lack of knowledge of panzer warfare’. He despised Jodl, an artilleryman: ‘The artillery developed the unfortunate characteristic of the Bourbons - neither to learn nor to forget - and was in many respects more backward than the infantry.’

Geyr wrote a report in which he did not mince his words. He demanded a flexible defence and, as a result of Epsom, the withdrawal of panzer troops south of the Orne, out of the range of Allied naval gunfire. ‘Decisions are taken directly by OKW itself,’ he continued. ‘As that headquarters is not in possession of first hand or personal knowledge of the situation at the front and is usually thinking very optimistically, its decisions are always wrong and arrive too late.’ Rommel endorsed his conclusions and passed the report up to OKW. Hitler decided to relieve Geyr immediately. He replaced him with General der Panzertruppen Hans Eberbach.

Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt as well as Rommel had been summoned back to the Berghof on 28 June, at the height of the battle for the Odon crossing. Rundstedt ‘returned in a vile humour’, according to his chief of staff. Having driven over 600 miles from Saint-Germain-en-Laye to Berchtesgaden, he was kept waiting from three in the morning until eight the next evening, ‘and then was given the opportunity to exchange only a few words with the Führer’. Just after his return, Rundstedt, with Blumentritt listening in, rang Keitel. He ‘told him bluntly that the whole German position in Normandy was impossible’. Allied power was such that their troops could ‘not withstand the Allied attacks, much less push them into the sea’.

‘What should we do?’

‘You should make an end to the whole war,’ the old field marshal retorted.

Next day at noon, Keitel rang to say that he had reported their telephone conversation to the Führer. Another call from Jodl warned that Hitler was considering a change in command in the west. Rundstedt’s endorsement of Geyr’s report was a key factor. Hitler announced that Rundstedt was retiring for reasons of ill health and sent an officer to Paris to present him with a polite letter and the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. He would be replaced by Generalfeldmarschall Hans-Günter von Kluge.

Rommel was also furious. Without informing him, Hitler had appointed Obergruppenführer Hausser to take over the Seventh Army because he preferred to trust Waffen-SS commanders. His favourite remained Sepp Dietrich, yet Hitler did not know that Dietrich also believed that his interference was leading them to disaster in Normandy. Hitler would have sacked Rommel as well, but as Geyr’s replacement Eberbach said, he was not relieved ‘because of the effect his dismissal would have had on morale at the front and in Germany, as well as the impression it would have made abroad’.

On 30 June, Eberbach received the order to fly next day with Field Marshal von Kluge to the west to take over command of Panzer Group West. Kluge told him that OKW wanted them to stabilize the front and launch a counter-attack. Kluge reached Saint-Germain-en-Laye convinced that the reports from Normandy must be excessively pessimistic. He had spent eight days at the Wolfsschanze during the Soviet attack on Army Group Centre - Operation Bagration - and during this period, according to Blumentritt, he had ‘become imbued with the unyielding spirit of the High Command’. As a result, he was not inclined to view the situation as hopeless when he assumed command in the west. Known as ‘clever Hans’ (a play on his family name, which means clever in German), he was not popular with his colleagues. Kluge, wrote Rommel’s chief of staff, was ‘energetic, quick-witted and unsparing toward himself. He was ruthless in his demands. The cold eyes in his sharply chiselled face concealed his suppressed emotions. He hated Hitler, but never ceased feeling bound to him, and this was due, perhaps, to his acceptance of the honors and favors bestowed on him.’ Kluge, like Rundstedt, had accepted 250,000 Reichsmarks from Hitler as a present.

Kluge visited Rommel’s headquarters at La Roche-Guyon on the afternoon of 5 July. ‘After a rather frosty exchange of courtesies’ with Rommel and Speidel, he addressed the Army Group staff in the salle des gardes of the château. He announced that the removal of Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt should be seen as an expression of the Führer’s dissatisfaction with the leadership in the west. Hitler also considered Generalfeldmarschall Rommel to be too easily impressed by the ‘allegedly overwhelming effect of enemy weapons’, and thus to suffer from an over-pessimistic view of the situation. Kluge even went on to say to Rommel’s face in front of the assembled staff officers that he had displayed an obstinate attitude and carried out Hitler’s orders only half-heartedly. ‘From now on,’ Kluge concluded, ‘you too, Generalfeldmarschall Rommel, will have to obey without reservations! I am giving you good advice.’

This provocation, not surprisingly, stirred Rommel into a sharp dispute, emphasizing the reality of the situation which they faced ‘and the necessity of drawing the proper conclusions from it’. The row became so heated that Kluge asked the other staff officers to leave the room. Rommel demanded that Kluge should withdraw his accusations orally and in writing. He also warned him to talk to the army and divisional commanders and visit the front himself before laying down the law. Rommel was particularly taken aback because he knew that Kluge had been in touch with resistance circles in the army. He had expected Kluge of all people to be less under Hitler’s sway.

Next day Kluge left La Roche-Guyon on a tour of the front. The reaction among all field commanders was so unanimous that he was converted to Rommel’s point of view and apologized. He realized that, as with the eastern front, Hitler was out of touch with reality and, when his dreams failed to materialize, he looked for scapegoats.

Eberbach, meanwhile, had taken over from Geyr. He found that Panzer Group West lacked a proper army headquarters and staff. In his handover report, Geyr made several points. ‘German tanks are superior to the English and American ones in armor and armament.’ The morale of German troops was still ‘comparatively good’, due to ‘efficient propaganda’. On the British sector, ‘the ratio of forces is sufficient for defence under normal conditions,’ and the terrain was favourable. They had ‘created a centre of gravity against a probable enemy attack’ by concentrating eight panzer divisions, a flak corps and two Nebelwerfer brigades. But an infantry division once committed was used up in two to four weeks. Even General Jodl admitted at the end of the war that ‘the British attacks were a continual hindrance to quick relief of the panzer divisions by infantry divisions and continually thwarted our plan to move more forces to the west wing. These attacks did then contribute substantially to making the American breakthrough easier.’

Although Geyr insisted that the French were ‘friendly’ and that there were very few partisan attacks in Normandy, German military authorities had started to become very nervous. In an effort to awe the population of Paris, they marched 600 British and American prisoners of war through the city’s streets. Some bystanders whispered encouragement to the Allied soldiers, while some yelled insults at them, perhaps influenced by German propaganda emphasizing the bombing raids. An American paratrooper who was kicked and spat at by a small group of German sympathizers ‘jumped out of line to punch one’ and received a jab in the buttocks from the guard’s bayonet.

015

A far greater concern now for the Wehrmacht high command was coping with the Red Army’s offensive in Belorussia and the pressure in Normandy. ‘The effect of the major conflicts in the west and the east was reciprocal,’ stated Jodl, when he was interrogated with Keitel at the end of the war. ‘Each of the fronts felt itself neglected compared to the other.’ The concentration of SS panzer divisions in Normandy, especially the transfer of the II SS Panzer Corps back from the eastern front, had highlighted their inability to respond effectively to Operation Bagration. ‘The two-front war came into sight in all its rigour,’ Jodl observed.

A liaison officer from the Red Army, Colonel Vassilievsky, was brought on a visit to the headquarters of 7th Armoured Division. With true Soviet diplomacy, he expressed the view that the British advance was very slow. Apparently a British officer asked him to show on a map of the eastern front where his own division was fighting. It transpired that there were nine German divisions on that sector, which was over 600 miles long. The British pointed out that they were facing ten divisions, including six panzer divisions, along a front of only sixty-two miles.

Claims by Soviet propagandists that Germany’s best troops ‘are still on the Soviet-German front’ were simply untrue, as the presence of six SS armoured divisions, as well as the Panzer Lehr Division and the 2nd Panzer Division proved. ‘We know where young and strong Germans are now,’ wrote Ilya Ehrenburg in Pravda, decrying the quality of German formations in Normandy. ‘We have accommodated them in the earth, in sand, in clay - in the Kalmuk steppe, on the banks of the Volga, in the swamps near Volkhov, in the Ukrainian steppe, in the woods of the Crimea, in Moldavia, in Rzhev, in Veliki-Luki. Our allies are now seeing the Germans whom we have nicknamed “Totalnik” [total mobilization], a prefabricated product that is destined for annihilation. ’ But even Ehrenburg was prepared to admit that ‘the French frying pan is starting to resemble the Russian fire’.

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