Military history

Chapter 6 » THE GERMAN ARMY: STEMMING THE TIDE

Soldiers

For every soldier of imagination in the German army, the battle for Normandy was the last struggle of the war which offered a frail chance of final victory. From all over Europe through the month of June, hundreds of thousands of men, thousands of tanks and vehicles, crawled painfully by the devastated rail network, and finally along roads lined with slit trenches to provide ready refuges from the inevitable fighter-bomber attacks, to bolster the precarious German line in Normandy. A 21st Army Group intelligence report of 22 June, based upon captured correspondence, found in Rommel’s soldiers:

. . . the same mixture of brash arrogance (chiefly SS), forlorn hope and outright despair that has appeared in similar collections in the past. The reprisal weapon is still the white hope and the German Air Force the main disappointment. The insistence that, despite his heavy equipment, ‘Tommy is no soldier’ is still common.1

Corporal Wilhelm Schickner of the reconnaissance battalion of 2nd Panzer Division was a 25-year-old stonemason’s son who had been an apprentice printer in Stuttgart when he was conscripted in March 1939 first for work service and then, a year later, for the infantry. Plunged immediately into the battle for France, like so many others he spent the next four years marching the length of Europe – with the German spearhead into Athens, to the gates of Moscow, where he was wounded in September 1942, back to Russia, to be wounded again in July 1943, and at last to join 2nd Panzer at Cambrai when he was once more fit for duty that December. On the night of 5 June, they were alerted in their positions around Amiens, and then stood down, only to be alerted again on 6 June. They moved at last on the afternoon of the 9th, reached Paris at nightfall, and drove through the empty and darkened streets to cross the Seine. Thereafter, they leaguered all day in woodlands by the line of march, and drove only in darkness to reach Caumont around noon on 12 June. The reconnaissance battalion was immediately deployed to relieve the thin screen of defending troops covering the town. Schickner himself was ordered to take two machine-guns and one section to take over a position commanding the road 200 yards northwards. When his little party reached the spot, they found two men with a weary NCO, who said: ‘Thank God you’re here – we’re getting the hell out of it.’ There was no other German position to their right for some 600 yards, and little enough on their left. For half an hour, they lay patiently in the mist and waited. Then a jeep appeared in front of them, full of Americans. It stopped hesitantly, and retired abruptly when a 2nd Panzer gun crew behind them fired a 37 mm Pak round in its direction. Shermans appeared in the distance – Schickner counted 18 of them, and sent a runner back to report. The American tanks stopped, and began to fire HE towards the Germans. A lone GI rounded the corner of the road, helmet tilted back on his head. Behind him, Schickner could see long files of other enemy infantrymen. He sent his runner back again, and told Briese, the machine-gunner beside him, to link his belts for longer continuous fire. Then Jupp, the other gunner, called: ‘They’re coming now,’ and the Americans moved confidently up the road towards them.

Schickner marvelled, because if the enemy had advanced through the fields on their flanks rather than along the road, ‘they could have walked into Caumont’. Instead, ‘it was as if they were out for a Sunday stroll’. Jupp asked: ‘Do I start now?’ and settled over the butt of his MG 42. The hail of German fire scythed through the files of approaching men. It stopped, quite simply, when the two guns had fired all their available ammunition, and Schickner himself had emptied five magazines from his Schmeisser. In the silence that followed, the defenders could hear wounded Americans screaming for help from the roadside and the ditches. One of their own men, Gross, had been hit in the stomach. He could still walk, and they gave him cover while he stumbled back towards the houses. A young lieutenant appeared, who inspected the situation and declared: ‘You must launch a counter-attack.’ ‘What, with six men?’ demanded Schickner. ‘Then what do you suggest?’ asked the officer less confidently. ‘Stay put here,’ said the corporal. The officer disappeared, and for half an hour there was silence. The Germans lay on their weapons and smoked.

Darkness fell, and they could see the flash of firing all around them, but there was no movement on their own front. At last they received the order to pull back into the town, where they found the rest of the battalion, along with 75 mm guns of the Panzerjäger battalion, locked in a house-to-house struggle against American attacks already well inside Caumont. Their own company commander, Captain Schultz, ran from position to position telling his men, ‘We’ve got to hold the town – it’s a Führer-order.’ After a huge effort, supported by the 50 mm guns of their big Puma halftracks, they captured some of the lost ground in a counter-attack in the early hours of the morning. But a few hours later, American armour began pressing them relentlessly. The Germans pulled back down the hill south of the town, having suffered appalling casualties. Schickner said: ‘We were never told to push forward again.’2 The American official history recorded: ‘The 26th Infantry at the same time got one battalion to the edge of Caumont but there ran into determined resistance from an estimated two companies of Germans, giving the Americans the impression at some points that counter-attacks were in progress. Actions, however, though sometimes sharp were all local and involved few troops. The town was not cleared until the following morning.’3

For the German soldier in the first weeks of the Normandy battle, actions such as that of 2nd Panzer’s Aufklärungsabteilung at Caumont were commonplace: a rush to the threatened sector; a fierce and expert defence against clumsy Allied tactics; growing casualties as the enemy’s massed firepower was brought to bear; and at last, a retreat of a few hundred yards to the next line to be equally doggedly held with fewer men, fewer weapons, a slowly dwindling supply of hope. ‘Let’s enjoy the war,’ ran a Wehrmacht catchphrase of the period, ‘because the peace will be terrible.’4

On 6 June, the Allies had inflicted a crushing tactical surprise upon the Germans. In the weeks that followed, they maintained the greatest of all strategic deceptions by the FORTITUDE operation, which imprisoned almost the entire Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais until late July. Rommel’s efforts were dedicated to stemming the Allied tide, throwing into the line every new unit as it reached the battlefront. Above all, he was compelled to employ his armoured forces as links of steel in the sagging chain around the perimeter, and was thus unable to concentrate them in the rear for a major counter-attack. The armoured divisions reached Normandy first, because they possessed far greater mobility than the infantry, many of whom travelled the last 50 or 100 miles to the front on foot. Tanks made immensely effective strongpoints, but were almost invariably lost wherever the Allies gained ground. They could not be replaced. If the Allies were restricted in Normandy by their perceived shortage of infantry, the Germans were much more desperately frustrated by theirs. A report by 2nd Panzer in July discussed at length the tactics the division had found it necessary to employ in holding their sector of the line against the British. It concluded bleakly: ‘The fact that a modern panzer division with 2 tank battalions and 2 infantry battalions with armoured half-tracks is not necessary for such fighting is another matter . . .’5 As Bradley accurately observed, ‘When the tank is employed in lieu of infantry simply to hold a defensive position, it becomes a wasted and uneconomic weapon.’6

If it is arguable that the British wasted precious time in the first days following the invasion, the Germans did no better. Rommel reached his château headquarters after his dash across France at 10.00 p.m. on 6 June, to spend most of the night trying to get a grip on his command, to learn precisely what was happening across the battle area in spite of a tangle of jammed wireless wavelengths and severed telephone links. His order for an immediate counter-attack on the 7th by 21st Panzer and 12th SS Panzer came to nothing, for Sepp Dietrich’s I SS Panzer Corps were quite unable to concentrate the tanks in time. Rommel issued a prompt and formal protest to Hitler’s headquarters about the lack of air and naval support for his battle, and warned Jodl that he was still convinced that the main Allied effort was to come elsewhere. It is interesting that Jodl, often a shrewd judge of strategic situation, never shared this view. But at this stage, both Berlin and Rommel were full of optimism about the prospects of throwing the Allies into the sea. Rommel’s adjutant Hellmuth Lang wrote home: ‘There’s a marvellous tranquillity shown by all concerned, particularly our chief of staff Speidel.’7 The field-marshal himself began to fight his battle with the same remorseless, restless energy that he had displayed in Africa, spending each day in headlong drives from formation to formation, inquiring, urging, demanding, galvanizing, and only returning to his headquarters at night to plan and to issue orders. It was a divisional, at most a corps commander’s, style of direction.

On the afternoon of 8 June, when Rommel arrived at Panzer Group West’s headquarters to find 21st Panzer and 12th SS Panzer’s counter-attack against the British in serious trouble, he at once ordered Geyr von Schweppenburg to divert a powerful battle-group north-west to try to recapture Bayeux, a thrust which was broken up by massive artillery and naval gunfire. At von Rund-stedt’s headquarters in Paris, there was deep dismay that all the available German armour was now committed to piecemeal action, and not embarked upon a concentrated thrust. These complaints reflected sound tactical theory but ignored the desperate practical need on the battlefield to halt the enemy wherever he was pushing forward. That night, Colonel Bodo Zimmerman of Rundstedt’s staff telephoned Speidel: ‘Rommel has got to decide whether he’s going to get a big success tonight with the forces he already has. Rundstedt does not think he will, he thinks we’re going to have to strip other fronts ruthlessly to provide further strength.’8 Jodl also telephoned, reasserting his conviction that the landings were indeed the sole Allied effort. ‘There’s not going to be any second invasion.’9 Rommel dissented, declared that he was concentrating all his efforts upon preventing the link-up of the British and American beachheads, and declined to demand any weakening of Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais.

In the days that followed, some of his most serious losses were among corps and divisional commanders. On 12 June, the formidable old General Marcks of LXXXIV Corps set out to drive for the Carentan front when he heard that the town had fallen, and died in a strafing attack when his wooden leg prevented him from leaping from his car quickly enough to take cover. Fritz Witt of 12th SS Panzer died the same day, to be replaced by Kurt Meyer. The commander of the 243rd Infantry was killed on the 17th, that of the 77th mortally wounded on the 18th.

As Rommel strove to gain a grip of the battle, he could draw some satisfaction from the effectiveness with which the Allied thrusts southwards were being checked and even thrown back. But strategically, this was not enough. If he was frustrating the hopes of Montgomery, his own forces were nowhere within sight of the vital breakthrough to the sea. Even the fanatics of 12th SS Panzer expressed their belief that the Allied line could not be broken after their own attempts to smash through the Canadians had failed on 7 and 8 June. On 11 June, Sepp Dietrich of I SS Panzer Corps asserted that the line could be held for only three weeks. On the 14th, he told Rommel: ‘I am being bled and getting nowhere.’ Told that he must attack, he demanded: ‘With what? We need another eight or ten divisions in a day or two, or we are finished.’10 Wehrmacht staff officers were astonished to see Dietrich, the hoary veteran Nazi whose relationship with Hitler had alone thrust him into high command, openly derisive about their hopes of victory. ‘He was no soldier, but he was a realist,’ said one.11

Rommel found every counter-attack that he contemplated rendered impossible by local tactical difficulties, fuel shortages or enemy fighter-bomber attacks. Each effort to move troops west to meet the threat to Cherbourg was prevented by more urgent needs closer at hand. A sense of desperation began to overcome him. ‘The invasion is quite likely to start at other places too, soon,’ he wrote to his wife. ‘There’s simply no answer to it. I reported to the Führer yesterday. Rundstedt is doing the same. It’s time for politics to come into play. It will all be over very quickly.’12Rommel determined on 13 June that any attempt to reinforce the divisions fighting in the Cotentin would fatally weaken the critical front opposite the British Second Army. Despite furious orders from the Berghof to defend every yard of the road to Cherbourg, he successfully extricated useful elements of the 77th Division before the Americans sealed the peninsula. ‘It appears dubious whether the gravity of the situation is realized up above,’ he wrote to Frau Rommel on 14 June, ‘and whether the proper conclusions are being drawn.’13

Hitler’s visit to Soissons on the 17th enabled him to work his customary magnetic spell upon his field-marshal, momentarily arresting the relentless workings of reason. Rommel ‘cannot escape the Führer’s influence,’ wrote Hellmuth Lang.14 The Commander-in-Chief of Army Group B allowed himself to be encouraged by news of the V-I offensive on England, and lifted by the promise of yet more dramatic new weapons to follow. He saw the German front stiffening and holding around Caen and Caumont, the panzer formations inflicting heavy casualties upon the Allies and parrying their attacks. Defeat was still some way off. But Rommel scornfully rejected demands from Berlin for counter-attacks in the Cotentin, pointing out that he scarcely possessed the forces to hold a line. The fall of Cherbourg made little impact upon him, for he and von Rundstedt had privately written off the port from the moment Carentan was lost. He was dismayed only by the absurd orders continuing to stream forth from Hitler’s headquarters, demanding that Cherbourg should be held ‘to the last round’. The principal achievement of Operation EPSOM on the 26th was to forestall a planned counter-attack by 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, newly arrived from the east, and to inflict serious losses upon them when they were belatedly thrown into the battle.

On the 28th, at the height of the struggle around the Odon, Rommel once again saw Hitler in Berlin, at the Führer’s behest. Hitler’s intention, plainly, was to strengthen the resolve of his commander. He was enraged when Rommel persistently attempted to bring home to him the terrible reality of the situation in Normandy. At last, Rommel said: ‘Mein Führer, I must speak bluntly. I cannot leave here without speaking on the subject of Germany.’ Hitler said abruptly: ‘Field-Marshal, be so good as to leave the room. I think it would be better like that.’15 It was their last meeting. Yet once again, the encounter had served to harden Rommel’s faltering determination. He returned to Normandy to find that Geyr von Schweppenburg had persuaded Speidel of the vital importance of withdrawing from the Caen bridgehead, out of range of the Allied naval guns. In the early hours of 1 July, Rommel ordered Geyr to continue to hold his ground instead. Yet von Rundstedt had already received Geyr’s report, arguing the need to pull back, and had forwarded it to Berlin with his own endorsement. Von Rundstedt had never troubled to conceal his own despair: ‘If you doubt what we are doing, get up here and take over this shambles yourself,’ he told Keitel witheringly when the OKW Chief of Staff sought to challenge his judgement by telephone from Germany.16 Before midnight on 1 July, Hitler’s order for Geyr’s dismissal had reached the front. He was succeeded in command of Panzer Group West by General Hans Eberbach. Rundstedt himself resigned his command the following morning, after a peremptory hint from Berlin that his health was plainly no longer adequate to his task.

Von Rundstedt was succeeded by Field-Marshal von Kluge, a leathery Prussian veteran of the eastern front, who immediately sought to assert his own authority over Rommel and to reestablish his command’s confidence in their own ability to defend Normandy. Yet by the evening of 12 July, von Kluge was telephoning Jodl in Berlin. ‘I want to stress once again,’ he said, ‘that I am no pessimist. But in my view, the situation could not be grimmer.’17 Even after the removal of every open sceptic, the utmost exercise of the Führer’s personal magic and force, and the commitment to battle of some of the most powerful elements of the German army, there was now no senior officer in the entire German high command in France who believed that the battle for Normandy could be won. ‘The tragedy of our position is this,’ Rommel told Admiral Ruge on 13 July: ‘We are obliged to fight on to the very end, but all the time we’re convinced that it’s far more vital to stop the Russians than the Anglo-Americans from breaking into Germany.’18 He judged, with remarkable accuracy, that the German front in Normandy must collapse within a month. At that point, the relentless attrition of men and weapons would have become intolerable. Since D-Day, he had lost 2,360 officers and over 94,000 men, while receiving only 6,000 replacements. He had lost 225 tanks and received 17, in addition to the new formations arriving at the front. The ammunition position remained critical. Yet every Allied tank and aircraft lost was replaced within a few hours. ‘Everywhere our troops are fighting heroically,’ he reported to von Kluge on 15 July, ‘but the unequal struggle is drawing to its close.’19

It was at about this date that, for the first time, Rommel began to put out feelers to his commanders – notably Eberbach and Sepp Dietrich – about the possibility of their support should it prove feasible to open some form of negotiations with the Allies. Hellmuth Lang was witness to one conversation at which Dietrich – Hitler’s old chauffeur and devoted follower in the Munich days of Nazism – shook Rommel’s hand and declared: ‘You’re the boss, Herr Feldmarschall. I obey only you – whatever it is you’re planning.’20 Then Rommel and his aide climbed back into the big Horch staff car, a corporal in the back acting as the inevitable ‘looky-looky’ for Allied aircraft, and raced away towards his headquarters. On the N179 short of Vimoutiers, at around 6.00 p.m., a British Typhoon caught them, wounding Rommel’s driver and sending the car careering into a tree, throwing its passengers into the road. Rommel, terribly injured in the head, had ended his career as a battlefield commander, and would be forced to suicide three months later on the evidence of the 20 July conspirators. The field-marshal had never been party to their plans, but the evidence that they had considered him a suitable figurehead to lead negotiations with the Allies was sufficient to ensure his death sentence. Von Kluge succeeded him, remaining Commander-in-Chief West while also assuming command of Army Group B. He merely moved his own desk from Paris to Rommel’s headquarters at La Roche Guyon.

Throughout his tenure of command in Normandy, Rommel directed the defence of the German front to formidable effect, filling the critical gaps and rushing forward units to stem dangerous Allied attacks. But there was no evidence in his handling of the battle of a great commander making brilliant strokes to confound the enemy. ‘In Normandy, there was no particular sign of Rommel’s presence,’ said Montgomery’s intelligence officer Brigadier Williams,21 who had also watched the German general through the desert campaign. In the summer of 1944, Rommel played the part of the firefighter with all the energy at his command. It is difficult to see how any other commander could have achieved more, given the limitations of his resources and orders. His absence from Normandy on D-Day was unfortunate, but it is hard to believe that it was decisive. 21st Panzer might have intervened earlier had Rommel been present, but unsupported it could not have threatened the survival of Second Army’s beach-head. At no stage in the battle did the division show anything like the determination in action of Panzer Lehr or 12th SS Panzer. It remains just possible that Rommel’s personal influence would have sufficed to get Meyer and his tanks onto the battlefield on the afternoon of 6 June, in which case the British and Canadians would have been in serious trouble. But the balance of probability remains that Second Army could have established itself ashore against any available German defence. By mid-afternoon of D-Day, the excellent British anti-tank guns were already inland and deployed in strength. Just as the Allied commanders on D-Day were at the mercy of their subordinates’ efficiency in executing their plan, so the German Seventh Army could achieve no more than the quality of its forces on the ground and the strength of the Atlantic Wall allowed. With or without Rommel, it lacked the mobility to concentrate for quick counter-attacks. Only the panzer divisions could execute these, and they could arrive no faster than their road speed and the Allied air forces would permit. ‘You know that it was my phrase – “The Longest Day”?’ said Rommel’s adjutant Hellmuth Lang. ‘After that day, after June 6, there was no hope of counter-attacks being decisive.’22

Once the Allies were firmly established ashore, the only sane strategic course open to the Germans was precisely that which Hitler’s madness would not allow – a progressive, carefully ordered retirement forcing the Allies to fight hard for every gain. The Germans would have been relieved of one immense handicap if they could have fought beyond the range of Allied naval gunfire. Southern France could have been abandoned, releasing the forces of Army Group G to support the decisive battle in Normandy. Some writers have sought to suggest that if the Allied FORTITUDE deception plan had been less successful, and if powerful elements of Fifteenth Army had been freed early in the campaign to fight for Normandy, the Germans might even have emerged victorious.23 It is impossible to accept this. With stronger forces the battles would have been much harder, and Allied losses and delays even more severe. But while much has been said above about the shortcomings of British and American forces in attack, there was no doubt of their fighting prowess in defence. Then, all the terrain factors working for the Germans would operate for Montgomery’s divisions, and the British army especially would fight in circumstances in which it always excelled. Overwhelming Allied air and firepower would have disposed of even the strongest German counter-attack in Normandy long before it reached the sea, although a thrust in bad weather, of the kind that crippled Allied air support in the Ardennes, could have caused the Allied high command serious concern.

Much speculation has been lavished upon the extent to which the activities of the anti-Hitler plotters, most notably Rommel’s Chief of Staff, General Hans Speidel, contributed to the difficulties of the German defence. It is suggested that certain key divisions, including 116th Panzer, were kept back from the battle in the Pas de Calais to support the conspiracy. This debate was clouded by the self-serving post-war testimony of Speidel and others when they were seeking to establish their credentials as anti-Nazis. There can be no doubt of Rommel’s sincerity in expecting a second Allied invasion. He devoted precious days to visiting formations of Fifteenth Army, checking their state of readiness, adjusting their deployments. 116th Panzer was edged nearer the coast in two separate moves following visits by Rommel, which bewildered officers of the unit who expected to be ordered to Normandy, but seem most unlikely to have been related to the machinations of the 20 July plotters. Much more serious than any tampering of this kind was the vacuum in German intelligence. The second most important factor in the German defeat in Normandy, after inferiority of resources, was the blindness of the high command. Almost totally devoid of air reconnaissance, with every agent in Britain under British control, lacking any breakthrough in Allied codes and aided only by the fruits of low-grade wireless interception and prisoner interrogation on the battlefield, Rommel, von Rundstedt and von Kluge knew pathetically little of their enemies’ potential strength or plans. Ignorance, plain ignorance, contributed much more to their failure than any possible acts of deliberate deceit by conspirators among the intelligence staffs. A critical contributory factor to this, as to so much else, was the dead hand of Hitler. More than any other aspect of military operations, intelligence must be conducted in an atmosphere unhampered by preconceptions. Yet Hitler’s generals, above all in the latter half of the war, were never permitted to assess their predicament freely, and to act in accordance with their findings. Every act of military planning was conducted within the straitjacket of Hitler’s manic instructions, which consistently ran counter to reality and logic. In such a climate, in absolute contrast to that surrounding the brilliantly conducted intelligence operations of the Allies, it becomes far less surprising that Rommel and so many of his colleagues were deluded by the fantasy of FUSAG’s threat to the Pas de Calais. Their confidence, their flair and imagination, their belief in themselves, were sapped and corroded by years of serving a lunatic who lacked the military ability which served the other great dictator, Stalin, so well. The German generals were conducting a campaign in which, after the first days, they had no faith, by methods wholly inimical to all their instincts and training. It is difficult to believe that anything they might have done, in these circumstances, would significantly have altered the course of events.

The glory of German arms in Normandy – and it was glory, in however evil a cause – was won by the officers and men at divisional level and below who held the line against the Allies under intolerable conditions for more than two months. Colonel Kurt Kauffmann, operations officer of Panzer Lehr, believed that in the first few days a really determined thrust against the Americans could have driven them into the sea. Thereafter, ‘I realized that the situation was hopeless, with more than 40 per cent of our infantry gone and the tremendous Allied shelling and air activity.’24Yet it was Kauffmann who led the dramatically successful counter-attack into Villers-Bocage on 13 June, and Panzer Lehr which remained one of the formations most respected by their Allied opponents even after it had suffered crippling losses. ‘Should we win this war, Kruger,’ the senior signals officer of 12th SS Panzer Division remarked acidly to one of his lieutenants, ‘I shall write a book about why we should have lost it.’25 Yet no division fought with more fanatical tenacity than the Hitler Jugend, whose soldiers had an average age of 18½. ‘It was a situation for despair, but there was no alternative but to keep one’s nerve,’ said Colonel Heinz-Gunther Guderian, son of the great panzer leader and senior staff officer of 116th Panzer Division. ‘One had to hold before one’s eyes the memory of Frederick the Great, and perhaps also to think of the words of the American general who said that the man who wins a battle is he who can remain standing until the last five minutes.’26 Brigadier Williams said: ‘The Germans adjusted much better to new conditions than we did. By and large they were better soldiers than we were. The Germans likedsoldiering. We didn’t.’27 General Quesada of the American IXth Air Force found afterwards that, ‘One’s imagination boggled at what the German army might have done to us without Hitler working so effectively for our side.’28

Fritz Langangke’s Panzer V Abteilung of 2nd SS Panzer Division was posted at St Sauveur-Lendelin in corps reserve early in July, when it was suddenly ordered forward in a crisis move to meet a new American breakthrough. He himself was directed to take his platoon to a point on the road near St Denis, and block any enemy advance along it. He asked for the position of the HKL – the main battle line – and was told that this was unknown. Late in the evening, he led his five Panthers cautiously forward, each commander straining his eyes and ears above the roar of his engine and squealing of the track for a hint of the enemy. At last there was a rattle of small-arms fire against the hull of Langangke’s tank, and he concluded that he had come far enough. The platoon pulled back to deploy on each side of the road, hull down behind a hedge. ‘It was a pretty tight night,’ said the German. The crews sat absolutely silent in their tanks, whispering when it was necessary to report by radio, listening constantly for movement in front of them. At dawn, despite their careful camouflage, one of the ubiquitous American Piper Cubs pinpointed them, and artillery fire began to fall around the position. Towards noon, men of the division’s 3rd Der Führer Panzergrenadiers belatedly arrived and began to dig in around them, while the 6th Parachute Regiment deployed on their left. Conventional wisdom demanded that the tanks should fall back at nightfall and leave the infantry to hold the positions. But Langangke understood that there could be no such refinements here, where the tanks were being employed as strong-points, and their moral support was essential to the infantry, even of an SS division.

The tank platoon held its positions for two weeks, under constant artillery fire, protected by its very proximity to the Americans, which caused the enemy gunners to fire consistently beyond the German line. At night, when the crews risked crawling out of the vehicles for an hour or two of merciful release, they could hear the American convoys moving up with supplies, and hear American voices across the still summer air. Once, the enemy attempted an infantry attack in a fashion which astonished the German veterans. They marched forward in long, leisurely files towards the Panthers,’ ‘as if they were going to a carnival’. The SS opened a withering fire, and the attack crumpled.

Langangke remembered the next attack well, for it came on his birthday, 15 July. For a time amid the shooting, he himself could see nothing from his position closed down in his tank on the left-hand side of the road. At first, he could not understand why the Americans were not attacking in his sector, but he later found that the ground in front was too soft for armour. Then one of his commanders jumped on the hull and shouted: ‘We’ve had it – hit in the turret!’ Langangke ordered him to pull back, and ran across the road to see for himself. Five Shermans were approaching. He dashed back to his own tank, and told the crew: ‘We’ve got to get across that road.’ They felt that there was only the slimmest chance of survival once they moved from their closely camouflaged position into the open. But they had to try. At full speed, the tank roared from cover and crashed across the road in front of the Americans – ‘the longest forty metres I travelled in the war,’ said Langangke. Then the driver was braking the left track to swing to face the enemy. Still undamaged despite some shellfire, they began to engage the Shermans at point-blank range. They glimpsed dead and wounded German infantry around them, and survivors running from their foxholes to shelter in the lee of the Panther. It was obvious that the foot soldiers were close to panic. The crew urged Langangke to fire on the move, but he knew that if they did so, there was little chance of a hit. Most of the Shermans had fired one or even two rounds before the Panther began to shoot, but it was the German tank which now demonstrated its legendary killing power. A few moments later, four Shermans were burning in front of them. The fifth roared backwards into the thick brush. ‘A thing like that puts you on an unbelievable emotional level,’ said Langangke. ‘You feel like Siegfried, that you can dare to do anything.’

The lieutenant jumped down from his tank, to be joined by one of his other commanders, and they ran forward up the ditch by the roadside to discover what the Americans were now doing. It was common practice among tank officers of all the armies in Normandy to resort frequently to their feet, for it was too hazardous to take a tank forward among the hedges without the kind of forewarning that only ground reconnaissance could provide. The Germans found the surviving Sherman still struggling to reverse over a hedge; engine revving, it staggered backwards and forwards on the rim of the obstacle. They retired to their tanks, Langangke cursing when he tripped over an abandoned infantry Panzerfaust that he could have used to good effect had he noticed it on the way forward. Back in the Panther, they fired a few rounds of HE and a long burst of machine-gun fire to clear the foliage obscuring the gunner’s view of the Sherman. Then they hit it once in the turret with an armour-piercing shell. The American tank brewed up in the inevitable pillar of oily black smoke and flame. The surviving German infantry regrouped. The Americans continued shelling the area, but launched no further major attack. Langangke’s platoon had fought one among a thousand similar actions in those weeks in Normandy, demonstrating the remarkable tenacity and skill of the panzer crews and, above all, the superiority of their tanks.

Yet it would be absurd to give the impression that the German soldier found Normandy an easy, or even a tolerable battle. While many men said later that it was a less terrible experience than the war in the east, from which most of them had come, even veterans were deeply shaken by the experience of hurling themselves again and again into action against the great steamroller of Allied resources. 2nd Panzer Division reported in July on the difficulties they faced:

The incredibly heavy artillery and mortar fire of the enemy is something new for seasoned veterans as much as for the new arrivals from reinforcement units. The assembly of troops is spotted immediately by enemy reconnaissance aircraft and smashed by bombs and artillery directed from the air; and if, nevertheless, the attacking troops go forward, they become involved in such dense artillery and mortar fire that heavy casualties ensue and the attack peters out within the first few hundred metres. The losses suffered by the infantry are then so heavy that the impetus necessary to renew the attack is spent.

Our soldiers enter the battle in low spirits at the thought of the enemy’s enormous superiority of matériel. The feeling of helplessness against enemy aircraft operating without hindrance has a paralysing effect; and during the barrage the effect on the inexperienced men is literally soul-shattering. The best results have been obtained by platoon and section commanders leaping forward uttering a good old-fashioned yell. We have also revived the practice of bugle calls.29

Hitler’s armies had always adopted the policy of fashioning some elite divisions to provide the smashing combat power at the tip of their spear, while others – including most of the infantry formations – were equipped and manned principally to hold defensive positions between major battles. The 276th Infantry Division was a typical, moderate line formation, stationed at Bayonne on 6 June, made up to strength by combing Germany for over-age men – including many miners, who had hitherto been excused military service. Corporal Adolf Hohenstein had spent much of the war building bridges with a labour unit in Russia until he was transferred to the 276th. A 22-year-old former student mining engineer, he was much younger than most of the men around him. He found the division ‘already pretty weak. We spent too much time doing old Prussian exercises rather than field training.’ On 16 June, they entrained for Le Mans, where they offloaded in pouring rain on the 19th. Thereafter, they marched by night to the front, advancing some 20 miles at a time, passing the days feeding the horses – upon whom they were overwhelmingly dependent for transport – among the cornfields where they halted. They loved their horses, and later were deeply depressed by the terrible casualties the animals suffered.

On 2 July, they took over a sector of the front near Villers-Bocage from 12th SS Panzer, and spent their first days in the line laying mines and attempting to clear up the appalling wreckage of battle around them – dead men of every nationality, abandoned equipment, shattered vehicles. Harassing fire from British artillery taught them very quickly about the Wehrmacht’s desperate shortage of medical supplies. Hohenstein watched his friend Heinz Alles bleed to death when an artery was severed by a bullet in the leg: ‘A man was lucky if he could get an injection. The doctors could only try to do something for those with a chance of life.’ Some men’s nerve cracked very quickly. After 20 July, they convinced themselves that the shortages of supplies and ammunition and the breakdowns of administration were the fruits of treachery within their own army. In reality, of course, the entire creaking logistical machinery sustaining the German forces in Normandy was collapsing under the strain of air attack and attrition. Morale among the soldiers of the 276th ebbed steadily: ‘The lack of any success at all affected the men very badly. You could feel the sheer fear growing. We would throw ourselves to the ground at the slightest sound, and many men were saying that we should never leave Normandy alive.’

It is important to cite the example of formations such as the 276th Infantry, indifferent soldiers, to emphasize that by no means the entire German front in France was in the hands of elite formations. Many German infantrymen were happy to seize an opportunity to be taken prisoner. They developed what they themselves called sardonically ‘the German look’, ever craning upwards into the sky, watchful for fighter-bombers. While the Tommies played brag in their slit trenches, the Germans played ‘skat’ in their foxholes a few hundred yards away, and listened to Lili Marleen on Radio Belgrade. They were as grateful as their Allied counterparts when, for a few days or even weeks, their sector of the. front was quiet, and they endured nothing worse than harassing fire and patrols. They prayed for rain and cloud to keep the Jabos – the Jagdbombers – away from them. Their greatest luxury was the capture of a few American soup cubes or tins of coffee. They pored earnestly over the English cooking instructions, and were jealously scornful of the Allies’ material riches. Few German soldiers, even of moderate units, felt great respect for the fighting qualities of their enemies. Sergeant Heinz Hickmann of the Luftwaffe Parachute Division said: ‘We had no respect whatever for the American soldier.’ Colonel Kauffmann of Panzer Lehr remarked wryly that, ‘the Americans started not too early in the morning, they liked a little bit too much comfort.’ Corporal Hohenstein reported that his men were constantly puzzled by the reluctance of the Americans to exploit their successes: ‘We felt that they always overestimated us. We could not understand why they did not break through. The Allied soldier never seemed to be trained as we were, always to try to do more than had been asked of us.’ Here was one of the keys to German tactical success on the battlefield. Colonel Brian Wyldbore-Smith, GSO I of the British 11th Armoured Division, said: ‘The Germans were great opportunists. They were prepared to act – always.’

It is striking to contrast the manner in which Allied units which suffered 40 or 50 per cent losses expected to be pulled out of the line, even disbanded, with their German counterparts, who were merely reassembled into improvised battlegroups – the Kampfgruppen – which were an essential ingredient of so many of the German army’s victories, and of its very survival for so many weeks in Normandy. Cooks, signallers, isolated tank platoons, stray Luftwaffe flak units, were all grist to the mill of the Kampfgruppen, which proved astonishingly cohesive and effective in action. When Sergeant Hans Stober of 17th SS Panzergrenadiers found the Flakabteilung in which he served destroyed by air attack, he saw nothing remarkable in being transferred, with his surviving men, to Kampfgruppe Ullrich. A few weeks later, after the collapse at Falaise, he was serving with the remnants of 116th Panzer in Kampfgruppe Fick. In the middle of the Normandy battle, 116th Panzer’s engineer battalion was drafted to fight as infantry and called upon to mount major ground attacks. The US First Army were surprised to discover that one of their German prisoners in mid-July was a pay corps clerk, who had been given a week’s infantry training and thrust into the line. No one could suggest that this manner of organizing an army or fighting a battle was a proper substitute for the maintenance of balanced and fully-equipped formations. But it was a critical factor in the German army’s ability to avoid utter collapse even when most of its armoured and infantry formations had been battered into ruin.

The American Colonel Trevor Dupuy has conducted a detailed statistical study of German actions in the Second World War. Some of his explanations as to why Hitler’s armies performed so much more impressively than their enemies seem fanciful. But no critic has challenged his essential finding that on almost every battlefield of the war, including Normandy, the German soldier performed more impressively than his opponents:

On a man for man basis, the German ground soldier consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50% higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. [emphasis in original] This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had a local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, they were outnumbered, when they had air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost.30

It is undoubtedly true that the Germans were much more efficient than the Americans in making use of available manpower. An American army corps staff contained 55 per cent more officers and 44 per cent fewer other ranks than its German equivalent. In a panzergrenadier division in 1944–45, 89.4 per cent of the men were fighting soldiers, against only 65.56 per cent in an American division. In June 1944, 54.35 per cent of the German army consisted of fighting soldiers, against 38 per cent of the American army. 44.9 per cent of the German army was employed in combat divisions, against 20.8 per cent of the American. While the US army became a huge industrial organization, whose purpose sometimes seemed to be forgotten by those who administered it, the German army was designed solely as a machine for waging war. Even the British, who possessed nothing like the reserves of manpower of the Americans, traditionally employed officers on a far more lavish scale than the German army, which laid particular emphasis upon NCO leadership.

Events on the Normandy battlefield demonstrated that most British or American troops continued a given operation for as long as reasonable men could. Then – when they had fought for many hours, suffered many casualties, or were running low on fuel or ammunition – they disengaged. The story of German operations, however, is landmarked with repeated examples of what could be achieved by soldiers prepared to attempt more than reasonable men could. German troops did not fight uniformly well. But Corporal Hohenstein’s assertion that they were trained always to try to do more than had been asked of them is borne out by history. Again and again, a single tank, a handful of infantry with an 88 mm gun, a hastily-mounted counter-attack, stopped a thoroughly-organized Allied advance dead in its tracks. German leadership at corps level and above was often little better than that of the Allies, and sometimes markedly worse. But at regimental level and below, it was superb. The German army appeared to have access to a bottomless reservoir of brave, able and quick-thinking colonels commanding battle-groups, and of NCOs capable of directing the defence of an entire sector of the front. The fanatical performance of the SS may partly explain the stubborn German defence of Europe in 1944–45. But it cannot wholly do so, any more than the quality of the Allied armies can be measured by the achievements of their airborne forces. The defence of Normandy was sustained for 10 weeks in the face of overwhelming odds by the professionalism and stubborn skills of the entire Wehrmacht, from General of Pioneers Meise, who somehow kept just sufficient road and rail links operational to maintain a thin stream of supplies to the front, to Corporal Hohenstein and his admittedly half-hearted comrades of 276th Infantry.

The German soldier was denied the sustaining force granted to the Allied armies – the certainty of final victory. But Hohenstein claimed that he and others were motivated above all by ‘two words – “unconditional surrender”. If for the rest of my life I was to chop wood in Canada or Siberia, then I would sooner die in Normandy.’ There is no doubt that President Roosevelt’s insistence upon a public declaration of the unconditional surrender doctrine, despite Churchill’s deep misgivings, was of immense value to the Nazi propaganda machine: it stifled many Germans’ private hopes of some honourable escape from the war. They believed that defeat in Normandy, and beyond that defeat in Europe, would inaugurate a new dark age for Germany, a ghastly destiny for the German people. Their very sense of community with their American and British opponents, coupled with their view of the Russians as barbarians from another planet, compounded their self-delusions. To the bitter end, many German soldiers harboured a sincere belief that they could make common cause with the western Allies against the Russians. To this end, they told themselves that it was essential to sustain a front until some agreement could be achieved.

There is also little doubt of the validity of the traditional view of the German soldier as naturally obedient and dedicated, far more so than most men of the Allied armies. He was a soldier, and therefore he fought. The British had come to terms with this reality over many years, but Americans were still astonished to discover the strength of this apparently unreasoning approach.

Several times during the European campaign, [wrote Bradley] I wondered why German commanders in the field did not give up their senseless resistance. Prolonged resistance could do nothing but aggravate the disaster that had already claimed the Reich. George Patton offered an answer when he visited Army Group early in August just as we tightened our noose around the German Seventh Army. ‘The Germans are either crazy or they don’t know what’s going on,’ I said, ‘surely the professionals must know by now that the jig is up.’ George answered by telling the story of a German general that Third Army had captured several days before. He had been asked by G-2 why he had not surrendered before, if only to spare Germany further destruction. ‘I am a professional,’ he replied without emotion, ‘and I obey my orders.’31

Most of the German army in Normandy followed his example.

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