Military history


Hitler’s appointments for the morning of 6 June were not altered by the news of the Allied landings. He himself was in the Berghof at Berchtesgaden. OKW’s Chief of Operations, Jodl, was in the little Reichchancellerie. For their usual midday conference that day, both men, along with their principal staff officers, were compelled to drive for an hour to Klessheim Castle, where they were officially receiving a Hungarian state visit. In a room beside the great entrance hall of the castle, Hitler was briefed on the first reports of the invasion. He approached the map of France on the wall, gazed at it for a moment, chuckled and declared in unusually broad Austrian tones: ‘So, we’re off.’1 Then, after a few moments’ further conversation with Jodl, he departed to meet the new Hungarian Prime Minister. A junior officer from Jodl’s staff was dispatched to von Rundstedt to emphasize that there must be vigorous local counter-attacks against the beachhead.

Corporal Werner Kortenhaus and the rest of his company of 21st Panzer had begun to move up the Falaise–Caen road at 8.00 a.m. They were deeply unhappy, for the road ran perfectly straight and open. Moving in column in broad daylight, they felt utterly vulnerable – as indeed they were. The company was frequently halted to allow other units to speed past them. On the distant horizon, they glimpsed the smoke of the battlefield. Just south of Caen, they spotted an odd little tableau of two British soldiers standing alone in the corn by the road with their hands up, almost certainly men of 6th Airborne who had been dropped hopelessly wide. The panzers had no time to take prisoners, and hastened on. Then they learned that three companies of the regiment had been ordered to swing north-west, to move against the seaborne landings. They themselves were to head up the east bank of the Orne to engage the British airborne troops. As they moved forward, they were repeatedly compelled to pull in by the roadside and scramble beneath their tanks as Allied aircraft roared low overhead. They suffered their first casualty, a very young, half-trained replacement named Rammelkampf, who was killed by a machine-gun bullet from a strafing Typhoon. It remains one of the minor mysteries of D-Day that throughout their long drive up the road to the battlefield that morning, even after the lifting of the cloud that hampered air operations for part of the morning, 21st Panzer suffered little material damage from Allied fighter-bombers. Yet Kortenhaus and his comrades cursed the absence of the Luftwaffe as they watched the enemy overfly them with impunity. Where, they asked, were the thousands of German aircraft that they had been promised would be in the sky to support them on ‘The Day’?

All that morning and well into the afternoon, 21st Panzer’s powerful armoured regiments – 127 Mk IV tanks and 40 assault guns – moved northwards, hampered by checks, delays and changes of orders imposed more as a result of failures of intelligence and the indecision of their own command than by Allied interference. Feuchtinger was impatient to move against the 6th Airborne bridgehead, but was frustrated by the British possession of the only bridge north of Caen by which his troops could cross the Orne. His panzergrenadiers were thus obliged to move through the city itself. The 2nd Battalion of 22nd Panzer Regiment, 40 tanks strong, with which Kortenhaus was driving, was already approaching the paratroopers’ perimeter when it was halted by orders from General Marcks at LXXXIV Corps. Marcks believed this to be a wasteful use of armour. One company only, the 4th, was left to support operations east of the Orne. The remainder were diverted to join the counter-attack west of Caen. The 1st Battalion, 80 tanks under Captain von Gottberg, was making its best speed to the start-line near Lebisey, where the regimental commander, Colonel von Oppeln-Bronikowski, was already waiting with General Marcks. The corps commander had driven in person to oversee the battle. It was around 4.30 in the afternoon before this, the first major German armoured counter-attack upon OVERLORD, was ready to jump off against the British 3rd Division.

The Panzer IV was the most numerously-produced German tank of the war, equipping half the German tank units in Normandy. By 1944, it was obsolescent, but in its upgunned version – which the Allies called the Mk IV Special – was still a formidable enough opponent. Weighing 25 tons and moving at up to 25 mph, it carried 80 mm of frontal armour and 30 mm of side armour. Its 75-mm KwK 40 gun could penetrate 99 mm of armour at 100 yards, 92 mm at 500 yards, 84 mm at 1,000 yards. The ‘skirts’ shown surrounding the hull in this version were designed to absorb the impact of hollow-charge projectiles, but all German armoured units in Normandy were exasperated by the manner in which these were torn off during movements among the dense hedges and orchards.

At 11.00 a.m. on the morning of 6 June, the three infantry battalions of Brigadier K. Pearce Smith’s 185th Brigade were assembled exactly as planned near the village of Hermanville, ready to begin one of the most vital British movements of the day – the advance to and seizure of Caen. The 2nd King’s Own Shropshire Light Infantry, who were to lead the advance on the tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, had landed in better order than they did in most exercises. They warmed themselves with self-heating cocoa in an orchard near Lion, and with satisfaction discarded their first sets of maps covering the beach area, turning now to the ones covering the ground ahead, marked, like those of all the invading force, with every known German position. They marched down the road into Hermanville amid the cheers of excited local civilians, and the encouraging spectacle of clusters of German prisoners being herded in the opposite direction. Yet already the brigadier and his unit commanders were deeply concerned by the non-appearance of the tanks that were to provide vital mobility and fire support. The Staffordshires had become embroiled in the vast traffic jam on Sword beach, which was to create critical delays for the next phase of the assault. The strong onshore winds had caused an unprecedentedly high tide. Instead of a normal width of 30 yards of sand, that morning the incoming mass of armour and soft-skinned vehicles was attempting to manoeuvre towards the beach exits across a mere 30 feet of beach. The Staffordshires found themselves immobile for an hour before they could even reach the road. Thereafter, their progress was agonizingly slow, nose to tail on the narrow road bordered on either side by uncleared minefields. It is arguable that, if there was a serious flaw in all the Allied landing schedules, it lay in allowing too many nonessential vehicles to clog the path inland in the first hours. Inevitably, among the wreckage and under continuing German shelling, the beach-masters were unable to direct the unloading operations with precision. All along the Normandy shore by the later stages of that morning, the difficulties of getting the spearhead units off the beaches and on their way inland were snowballing into serious delays for the follow-up brigades coming ashore. There was a lull, a period of reorganization, when men were brewing up at their rendezvous, locating their units and checking vehicles and equipment, from which the momentum of the advance never recovered that day. Lieutenant-Colonel F. J. Maurice, commanding the 2nd KSLI, bicycled back to the beach to investigate the plight of the Staffordshires, then pedalled forward once more to report to Brigadier Smith at Hermanville. 185th Brigade was ordered to start its move towards Caen on foot, to be followed by the tanks as speedily as possible. It was now noon.

Meanwhile ahead of them, 8th Brigade was attempting to clear the way by destroying the two key German strongpoints, ‘Morris’ and ‘Hillman’. ‘Morris’s’ 65-strong garrison surrendered to B Company of the 1st Suffolks at 1.00 p.m. after a heavy bombardment. But when the battalion’s A Company then attempted to seize ‘Hillman’, a network of strongpoints some 600 by 400 yards, they were met by furious fire which caused heavy casualties. The covering wire was breached, but the infantry could not get through under the intense machine-gun fire. A tank of the Staffordshires which sought to silence the position could make no impact with its 75 mm gun. Arthur Heal, the sapper officer attached to the Suffolks, recalled afterwards that the tanks declined to mount a direct assault unless the mines had been cleared in their path. The attackers possessed no heavy artillery support, for the gunnery forward observer had been killed earlier. Heal and a lance-corporal named Bolton crawled forward under cover of smoke, each clutching a mine detector. When the sapper found the first mine, scrabbling bare-handed to uncover it, he could not recognize any known German pattern. After gazing at it apprehensively for a few moments, he pulled it out and identified an aged British Mark II, booty from Dunkirk. He returned to report that there was no threat to the tanks, and late that evening the Suffolks, led by two squadrons of Shermans, successfully closed on ‘Hillman’ and stormed the position, using 30-pound Beehive charges to blow open the bunkers. In Chester Wilmot’s account of this battle, he is severely critical of the Suffolks for their sluggishness in taking a position that it was vital to seize quickly, at almost any cost. The battalion lost only seven killed that day. More recently, Carlo D’Este has argued that it was the fault of the planners, rather than of the infantry, who failed to assess the seriousness of the threat ‘Hillman’ represented. But there also seem to be grounds for believing that the tanks were reluctant to force the issue. Whatever the cause, the delay in seizing the position enabled its defenders to inflict 150 casualties on the 1st Norfolks as they advanced southwards past ‘Hillman’, following the KSLI towards Caen. The stubbornness of a handful of positions behind the coast was remorselessly reducing the strength of the British push inland.

Meanwhile the KSLI had been pressing on alone down the road to Caen, fighting a brisk battle for possession of Hill 61, whence Major Hof had telephoned Schaaf and asked him to bring his self-propelled guns to the aid of regimental HQ. Schaaf duly advanced across the cornfields. He saw the heads of the Shropshires peering at him over the standing corn, rapidly disappearing again when he opened fire. But by now, a squadron of the Staffordshire’s Shermans had caught up. When Schaaf spotted these, he determined that for self-propelled guns to engage tanks was beyond the call of duty. He beat a hasty retreat. When he next found a telephone line and tried to contact regimental HQ an English voice – presumably one of the victorious KSLI – answered the call.

The Shropshires approached Biéville later in the afternoon, having fought a succession of tough little battles against moderate German opposition. They encouraged strong enemy fire from the village. ‘The civilians refused to evacuate themselves,’ one of their company commanders, Captain Robert Rylands, wrote later, ‘and at that early stage we were too soft-hearted to shell their homes – a proceeding which might have facilitated our advance considerably.’ W Company’s commander, Major Slatter, was hit in the shoulder by a sniper, but walked decisively forward to the house from which the shot had come and lobbed a grenade through its window before returning, grinning broadly, to have his wound dressed. The battalion now attacked from the flanks, sending one company forward east of the village, another west. After a fierce firefight in which they suffered heavy casualties, the Shropshires’ leading Y Company approached the commanding feature of Lebisey wood. They were told that there was little more opposition ahead. They were just three miles short of Caen.

Yet it was here that the KSLI first met panzergrenadiers of 21st Panzer Division, and here, late on the evening of 6 June, that Allied hopes of reaching Caen finally vanished. Y Company’s advance was stopped in its tracks, the company commander killed. At 6.00 p.m., the battalion halted under fierce German fire and the rear companies dug in for the night. Under cover of darkness, Y Company disengaged and retired into the battalion position. ‘We were not unpleased with ourselves,’ wrote Captain Rylands of W Company,2 and indeed, at a cost of 113 men killed and wounded, their achievement had been remarkable. But a single infantry battalion with limited tank and artillery support had not the slightest hope of generating sufficient violence to gain a foothold in Caen.

From the outset, the British 3rd Division’s objectives for D-Day were the most ambitious, and their achievement would have had the most far-reaching consequences. 6th Airborne, east of the Orne, was expected to gain and hold a perimeter. This it did with immense courage and determination, for in addition to the static German units in their area, they found themselves facing heavy counter-attacks from elements of the 125th and 192nd panzergrenadiers of 21st Panzer. West of the Orne, however, lay the road to Caen, where, above all, Montgomery had demanded dash and determination from his commanders to carry them to the city. The first of 3rd Division’s three brigades, the 8th, expended much of its strength and energy in the early operations beyond the beaches, the seizure of ‘Morris’ and ‘Hillman’, and the securing of Hermanville, Coleville and Ouistreham. Among 185th Brigade, which was to play such a critical role in the dash for Caen, the KSLI’s advance has already been described. The 1st Norfolks and 2nd Warwicks began to move south only at around 3.00 p.m., on the left of the KSLI, and the Norfolks were severely mauled in their movement past ‘Hillman’. By nightfall on 6 June, they were between Beuville and Bénouville. 9th Brigade, in reserve, came ashore and assembled too slowly to be sent immediately forward with the 185th. By the time they were ready to move Rennie, their divisional commander, concluded that the most urgent priority was to reinforce the bridges across the Orne and Caen canal, which were under heavy German pressure. It is no great exaggeration to say that the sole determined thrust made by 3rd Division against Caen that day was that of the KSLI, with energetic support from the self-propelled guns of 7th Field Regiment RA, and some tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry.

The obvious absentees from this roll-call of British units are the remaining units of 27th Armoured Brigade. Each independent armoured brigade contained 190 Shermans and 33 light tanks, giving it a greater tank striking power than many German armoured divisions. It was never realistic to imagine that the British infantry battalions could march through Caen on their feet on the same day they had landed. The only possibility of dramatic success lay in a concentrated, racing armoured thrust by 27th Brigade. Crocker had written before D-Day: ‘As soon as the beach defences have been penetrated, not a moment must be lost in beginning the advance inland. Armour should be used boldly from the start.’3 Yet two-thirds of 27th Brigade’s strength – the tanks of the 13/18th Royal Hussars and the 1st East Riding Yeomanry – were too deeply entangled in the fighting on the beaches and immediately inland to be available for the movement south. The entire burden of the push for Caen therefore lay with the Staffordshire Yeomanry, whose tanks were rapidly dispersed to support British infantry in difficulty against objectives inland. The unit concentrated only towards evening, in the face of the sudden threat from 21st Panzer. If it is true that the British plan underestimated the difficulty of overcoming ‘Hillman’, and failed to take sufficient account of the known presence of panzergrenadier elements north of Caen; neither of these factors alone explains the failure to reach the city. Had the KSLI, by some miracle, reached Caen on D-Day with their few supporting tanks, they would have been crushed within hours by 21st Panzer. There was nothing like enough hitting power in the vanguard of 3rd Division to occupy and organize the defence of a city against strong enemy armour, especially with 12th SS Panzer Division already on its way to reinforce. Once any hope had vanished of spearheading the British advance with strong tank forces, any British infantry who somehow made their way forward must have been pushed back with crippling loss. It is possible to criticize the lack of drive by Rennie and his brigade commanders, and a certain loss of urgency by some units after the landing. But the failure to gain Caen on D-Day was chiefly the fault of over-optimism and sloppy thinking by the planners, together with the immense difficulty of organizing a major all-arms attack in the wake of an amphibious landing.

The last important action on the British left on 6 June was the battle against 21st Panzer’s armoured thrust, an action which went entirely the way of the invaders. General Marcks, on his hill above Lebisey, told 22nd Panzer Regiment’s commander: ‘Oppeln, if you don’t succeed in throwing the British into the sea, we shall have lost the war.’4 The armoured officer, a former Olympic equestrian champion, saluted and mounted his vehicle. Marcks himself drove forward from the startline with the command group of 1st/192nd Panzergrenadiers. The tanks raced north towards the sea across the open ground, driving headlong into the gap between the British and Canadian perimeters.

British troops reported several tank formations advancing towards their positions. The Germans recoiled westwards on meeting fierce fire. When at last they encountered the heavily-gunned Sherman Fireflies of the Staffordshires on Hill 61, the consequences for the Germans were devastating. 13 tanks were immediately destroyed. Only a handful of 21st Panzer’s tanks and infantry reached the surviving strongpoints of the 716th Division around Lion-sur-Mer. By a dramatic coincidence, only minutes after they did so, the fly-in began of 250 gliders of 6th Airborne Division to a landing zone eastwards, around St Aubin, near the Orne bridge. This was too much for the Germans. 21st Panzer was a sound enough formation, but lacked the ruthless driving force of an SS armoured division. Arguing that the glider landings threatened them with encirclement, they withdrew up the hill towards Caen. By nightfall, they were strongly emplaced around the city with the support of their 24 88 mm guns. But they had lost 70 of the 124 tanks with which they had begun the day. For all the dash with which Marcks and von Oppeln urged 22nd Panzer Regiment into action, its belated attack had been pushed home without determination or subtlety. A gesture had been made, no more.

The leading elements of the Canadian assault force on the right of the British 3rd Division almost reached Carpiquet on the evening of D-Day. Two troops of the 1st Hussars, leaving their infantry far behind, pressed on through Bretteville along the Bayeux–Caen road until they found their loneliness too alarming and turned back. They were two miles ahead of the rest of their formation. The Canadians suffered the universal problems of congestion on their beaches, and the need to fight hard to clear isolated strongpoints. But by the night of D-Day, they had established themselves strongly up to five miles inland. Upon the Canadians, in the days that followed, would fall the principal weight of 12th SS Panzer, perhaps the most formidable of all the German units now on their way to Normandy. Having set out from Lisieux, 65 miles from Caen, late in the afternoon, its leading elements were across the Odon, south of Caen, by nightfall, and moving to take up position on the left of 21st Panzer.

50th Division, moving inland from Gold beach, had fought a succession of hard battles against elements of the 352nd Division. By evening, troops of the British 151st Brigade had reached the Bayeux–Caen road, and tanks of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards were reporting little in front of them. Though the 50th was also short of most of its D-Day objectives, it was solidly established in the Norman hedges and fields, with only limited German forces on its front. Among fields and villages all along the coast, British and American soldiers were settling into positions for the night, mopping up stragglers, herding prisoners to the rear, pausing for the first time to absorb their surroundings. Private John Price of the 2nd Ox & Bucks was one of the men who had landed by glider to join the 6th Airborne that evening. His aircraft bucked and bumped across a field until it came to a stop in high-standing corn within reach of the sea. Price jumped down from the fuselage, and was at once confronted by three ineffectual-looking Germans, who rose at his feet and put up their hands. One had thick pebble glasses, the others looked very young and frightened. He felt somehow disappointed. These men did not look in the least like specimens of the master race. He handed them over to a nearby group of Devonshires, and walked away towards the Orne bridge in search of his own unit, past a dead German lying alone at a crossroads, and a frightened-looking French family craning out of a cottage window.

Private Len Ainslie of the 5th King’s had been one of thousands of awed spectators of the airborne landing. He, and the others who had been compelled to swim the last yards to the beach, were now dug in around their anti-tank guns, seeking to dry their boots. Just beyond their position near Hermanville, they found the body of a large German officer. The platoon sergeant said off-handedly: ‘Just get him out of the way,’ and having had no previous dealings with corpses, they threw him over a nearby hedge. One man had already been injured seeking to clean his gun. It exploded beside his face, blackening and scorching him. As darkness came, all of them began to curse the plague of mosquitoes. It was the first time that he and many other men had set foot on foreign soil. They found it very strange.

James Phillips, one of the American crew of an LCVP which had been shuttling men to and from the fleet off Utah beach all day, was chiefly preoccupied by exhaustion and hunger. Most of the landing craft ran out of rations on D-Day, and their crews had to survive by scrounging and begging from bigger ships. A British minesweeper gave Phillips’s craft some stew and a canteen of brandy around midday. But at nightfall, when they closed alongside the vast battleship Texas, they were brusquely ordered to get back about their business. For the landing-craft crews, there was less glory, more discomfort and more acute danger than for any other men in the seaborne task forces. Even when the battle moved on, the weather and chronic collisions gave them little respite for many weeks.

Private John Hein of the American 1st Division was deeply impressed to find himself bivouacked for the night in the very orchard, by a crossroads above St Laurent-sur-Mer, where he had been briefed to expect to be. Following an afternoon of alarming shelling on Omaha, he moved up the dirt track through the village with his unit, and at last begun to dig in around the divisional CP. The darkness was interrupted by German bombing activity and some shelling of the beach. Hein reassured himself by digging his own foxhole next door to that of the chaplain, where he felt that nothing very serious could happen to him. Whatever acute alarm the events on Omaha had caused to his commanders, Private Hein felt that the plan had worked out pretty well in the end.

Other men endured a much more disturbed night. Major Frank Colacicco of the 3rd/18th Infantry was in the battalion command post when it suffered a sudden night attack by the Germans, in the course of which he was taken prisoner. After a few minutes, he managed to take advantage of the confusion to leap a gully and make his escape. Back among his unit’s riflemen, he began to move among them, urging the confused soldiers to bring down fire on the Germans. After 45 minutes the enemy withdrew, taking some American prisoners with them. Some manner of quiet returned to the positions.

The German battalion commander of the 3rd/716th infantry told Lieutenant Schaaf that he had been told to pull back to Caen with his 30 or so surviving men. Without orders since the fall of his regimental headquarters, Schaaf decided to do likewise. Driving south-eastwards, he lost one gun, which threw a track and became bogged down in a ditch. The drive continued without incident, until he glimpsed ahead a crude roadblock of farm implements manned by British soldiers. He ordered his men to take off their helmets, and laid a tarpaulin over the side of the hull to conceal the German black cross. As they roared past the roadblock, they could see that the British had identified them but were too surprised to intervene. They saw no more troops of any nationality until three miles on, at the outskirts of Caen, where they encountered German infantry. A stream of stragglers and survivors, men and vehicles, were making their way back into the perimeter from the coast. When Schaaf reported to the divisional artillery headquarters, he was told that his was the only battery, among 11 in the regiment, to make contact since morning. They pressed him for information about the situation forward, about which there was still terrible confusion. Then he was ordered to take up position near Épron, just north of the city. They remained in action there until, weeks later, ceaseless use had reduced their guns to wrecks.

Along 60 miles of front, men lay over their weapons peering out into the darkness lit up by occasonal flares and tracer, then slept the sleep of utter exhaustion in their foxholes or ruined cottages. Some soldiers of the British and American airborne divisions were still probing warily through the darkness miles from their own lines, wading streams and swamps on the long march from their ill-aimed dropping points. A few thousand men lay dead, others wounded in the field dressing stations or positions from which they could not be evacuated. There were already Allied stragglers and deserters, who had slipped away from their units, skulking in villages the length of the invasion coast.

In England and America, the newspapers were being printed. The Times for 7 June carried the headlines: ‘The Great Assault going well; Allies several miles inland; Battle for town of Caen; Mass attacks by airborne troops’. A leading article proclaimed: ‘Four years after the rescue at Dunkirk of that gallant defeated army without which as a nucleus the forces of liberation could never have been rebuilt, the United Nations returned today with power to the soil of France.’ D-Day provoked The Times, along with many politicians, to a breathless torrent of verbosity. On the Letters page, a Mr R. B. D. Blakeney reminded readers that William the Conqueror had embarked for England from Dives. The Daily Express, characteristically, plunged into sensation: there were tales of Allied paratroopers treacherously shot in mid-air, of the glider pilot who cried as he shot up a German staff car: ‘Remember Dunkirk when you drove me off!’ There was a photograph of a triumphant glider pilot carrying a German helmet with the words HE’S DEAD chalked upon it.

Corporal Adolf Hohenstein of the 276th Infantry Division, billeted at Bayonne, many miles from the battlefield, wrote in his diary: ‘A beautiful day. In the evening we hear the long-expected but still surprising news that the invasion has come. The civilians will have to pay the most dearly, and the French around here have suddenly become very quiet. They will become even quieter when this country has been devastated by Allied bombs and German shells, when they experience the full horror of war.’5

No disappointment or setback could mask the absolute Allied triumph of establishing themselves ashore on D-Day. But the failure to gain Caen was a substantial strategic misfortune. Bradley wrote: ‘In subsequent days, after I had had an opportunity to study Dempsey’s D-Day operation, I was keenly disappointed.’6 There is overwhelming evidence that with greater drive and energy Second Army could have ‘staked out claims’ deeper inland on 6 June. But with 21st Panzer solidly established around Caen, it is impossible to believe that the British could have reached the city without running into deep trouble. The German coastal defenders may not have been the cream of the Wehrmacht, but they fought extraordinarily well in many places, given their isolation, the poverty of their manpower and the paucity of their equipment. Too little credit has been granted to German garrisons for their struggle with the best that the Allies could throw against them. They achieved all that Rommel could reasonably have expected – a delaying action which deprived the British advance of the momentum that it needed to reach Caen. The city was only a realistic objective for Dempsey’s army if the coastal crust crumbled immediately the Allies landed. It did not. Whatever the sluggishness of some British units, Bradley was to discover ample difficulties of this kind among his own divisions in the days to come.

The Allied command of the air was plainly decisive on 6 June: ‘The Anglo-American air forces did more than facilitate the historic invasion,’ wrote the American official historians, ‘they made it possible.’7 The Luftwaffe put less than a hundred fighters into the sky on D-Day, and mounted only 22 sorties against shipping late that evening. Given the difficulties that the invaders suffered against the Atlantic Wall, it is difficult to imagine that they could have pierced it at all had their assault been subject to serious air attack. As it was, they were ashore. But they were still gasping to regain breath after the vast strain of getting there.

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