Military history


There was a brutally self-evident hierarchy of risk among the armies: naturally this was lowest among lines-of-communication troops and heavy artillery, rising through field artillery and armoured units and engineers, to reach a pinnacle among infantry. Of the British forces in Normandy by August 1944, 56 per cent were classified as fighting troops rather than service elements. Just 14 per cent were infantrymen, against 18 per cent gunners, 13 per cent engineers, 6 per cent tank crews, 5 per cent signallers. Even within an infantry battalion, a man serving heavy weapons with the support company possessed a markedly greater chance of survival than his counterpart in a rifle company. It was here that the losses, turnover of officers and men, became appalling, far more serious than the planners had allowed for, and eventually reached crisis proportions in Normandy for the American, German and British armies. Before D-Day, the American logisticians had expected 70.3 per cent of their casualties to be among infantry. Yet in the event, of 100,000 American casualties in June and July, 85 per cent were infantry, 63 per cent riflemen. The British forecast casualties on the basis of staff tables known as the Evetts’ Rates, which categorized levels of action as ‘Intense’, ‘Normal’ and ‘Quiet’. After the army’s early experiences in Normandy, it was found necessary to introduce a new scale to cover heavy fighting: ‘Double Intense’. Vision, for the men in the front line, narrowed to encompass only the immediate experience of life and death. ‘One was emotionally absorbed by the question: “Am I going to get through tomorrow?” ’ said Lieutenant Andrew Wilson of The Buffs. ‘I really believed each time I went into action that I was going to get killed.’ For all his fear, Wilson was one of those young Englishmen who found the experience of war deeply fulfilling:

I had the delayed adolescence of so many English public schoolboys. Everything I learned about things such as how not to get a girl pregnant, I learned from my tank crew. In the truest sense, I developed a love of other men such as is not possible in Anglo-saxon society in peacetime. In some ways, our emotional capability developed beyond our years at this time. But in others, in our knowledge of life outside the battlefield, we were retarded.25

A close friend of Wilson’s, commanding another flamethrowing tank troop, was shot along with his crew when he was captured because the Germans considered that the Crocodile somehow transcended the legitimate horrors of battle. Much has been made of the shooting of prisoners – most notoriously, Canadian prisoners – by 12th SS Panzer and other German units in Normandy. Yet it must be said that propaganda has distorted the balance of guilt. Among scores of Allied witnesses interviewed for this narrative, almost every one had direct knowledge or even experience of the shooting of German prisoners during the campaign. In the heat of battle, in the wake of seeing comrades die, many men found it intolerable to send prisoners to the rear knowing that they would thus survive the war, while they themselves seemed to have little prospect of doing so. Many British and American units shot SS prisoners routinely, which explained, as much as the fanatical resistance that the SS so often offered, why so few appeared in POW cages. The 6th KOSB never forgave or forgot the action of a wounded SS soldier to whom Major John Ogilvie leaned down to give water. The German drank, then shot the British officer.

German treatment of prisoners was as erratic as that of the Allies. Sergeant Heinz Hickmann of the Luftwaffe Parachute Division was holding a crossroads with a 12-man rearguard early one morning, when he was nudged out of a doze by an urgent whisper: ‘Tommy’s here!’ They shot up the lead jeep of a convoy of 12 lorries, from which a procession of rudely-awakened British supply personnel tumbled out with their hands up. Embarrassed by the burden of 34 prisoners, Hickmann had them locked in a nearby barn, and left them there when his squad pulled out: ‘In Russia, we would have shot them.’ Some men had special reasons for fearing capture: Private Abraham Arditti of the US 101st Airborne could never forget the H for Hebrew imprinted on his dogtags. But although there were well-documented instances of SS units murdering their captives, overall it seems doubtful whether this was done on a greater scale by one side than the other. Lieutenant Philip Reisler of the US 2nd Armored watched infantrymen of the 4th Division carelessly shoot three wounded Germans. One of his fellow officers echoed a common sentiment in the unit: ‘Anything you do to the kraut is okay because they should have given up in Africa. All of this is just wasted motion.’ Patton described how a German soldier blew a bridge, killing several GIs after their leading elements had passed: ‘He then put up his hands . . . The Americans took him prisoner, which I considered the height of folly.’ Lindley Higgins of the US 4th saw a lieutenant shout impatiently to a soldier moving off with a prisoner: ‘You going to take that man to the rear?’, and simply pull out his pistol to shoot the German in the head. Once a definable atrocity had been discovered – as with the bodies of the Canadians killed by 12th SS Panzer – and the conscious decision taken to respond in kind, it is difficult with hindsight to draw a meaningful moral distinction between the behaviour of one side and the other on the battlefield.

Corporal Topper Brown of the 5th RTR never even knew where his tank was hit when his squadron commander in the turret said quietly: ‘Bale out.’ He found himself alone in a ditch with his mate Dodger Smith, the gunner. They could hear the Germans digging in quite close to hand, and saw some tracer overhead. But they felt desperately tired, and after lying listening for a time, fell asleep. They woke in bright sunshine to hear only birdsong around them. Cautiously they explored, and found an abandoned Cromwell. They climbed onto the hull to find its commander dead inside, and tried in vain to use the radio to contact their own unit. Then they began to walk up the road until they heard voices, and found themselves face to face with a file of Germans. They put up their hands: ‘We couldn’t have got them no higher.’ Even when shells began to land nearby and the Germans took cover, the frightened young Londoners remained standing in the road with their hands in the air.

At last they were stripped of their revolvers and watches and marched to a farmhouse, where they marvelled at the superbly-camouflaged Tiger tank dug in outside. They were led down to a cellar where they were sharply questioned by an English-speaking German who said finally: ‘You aren’t very intelligent for a British NCO, are you? You know you’re not going to win, don’t you?’ Then they were marched round a hedge in front of their escort. Brown said nervously, ‘They’re going to shoot us, Dodge.’ A moment later, overcome with relief, they saw a lorry filled with men of the Queen’s and the DCLI, shouting cheerfully: ‘Come on, you silly buggers!’ and they were driven away into captivity. Brown thought a little about escaping, but he did not feel inclined to try it alone. Most of the others seemed to take the view: ‘Well, that’s me f——, ing finished, then’, without great remorse. He remained in a POW camp until 1945.

Beyond those who left the battlefield as prisoners, or never left it alive at all, hundreds of thousands of men were more or less seriously wounded. Indeed, it became an exceptional achievement for an infantryman who had landed on D-Day to remain with his unit uninjured until July. The doctors and medical teams, who handled hundreds of cases each day – aided by facilities of unprecedented quality, and above all by the miracle of penicillin – found that many lightly-wounded men were deeply relieved to have escaped the battlefield with honour. ‘No Heim ins Reich for you, Langangke,’ sympathized the German doctor who patched up an SS panzer lieutenant after a shell fragment had hit him in the forearm – the wound was not sufficiently serious to give him the coveted ticket home. When Corporal Bill Preston was evacuated with serious wounds, his principal sensation was relief that he had done his job without disgracing himself. For most men, the need to continue the job, to sustain their own self-respect, was the principal motive force upon the battlefield.

John Price, a medical orderly with the British 2nd Ox & Bucks, was moved to discover how desperately men wished to be reassured that they would survive, how much words meant to them even when they were suffering the most terrible injuries. For all the wealth of facilities that the Allies possessed, there was seldom a short-cut from pain. One day in the farmyard in the Orne bridgehead where he was based, Price was appalled to see a young lieutenant drive up in a jeep, shouting with the pain of terrible bowel wounds. They laid him on a stretcher on the bonnet, and Price sat beside him as they drove for the casualty clearing station, holding his hand until he died. When Robin Hastings, CO of the Green Howards, was at last wounded by mortar fragments on 27 June, Padre Lovegrove was touched that a man of such courage and forcefulness suddenly showed fearful shock at his own vulnerability, and begged the orderlies who were tending him: ‘Don’t hurt me.’ Hastings’s temper was not improved when he met his detested brigadier as he was being driven to the rear by jeep. The senior officer demanded furiously: ‘What are you doing back here? I think you’re perfectly fit,’ which, as Hastings remarked acidly afterwards, ‘showed what a bloody old fool he was’.

In the field hospitals, doctors and nurses toiled over the procession of ruined men laid before them in the tents, cutting away mudstained battledress and bloody boots to reveal the interminable tragedies beneath.

Stepping over splinted limbs and stretcher handles [wrote Sister Brenda McBryde] we moved to the next man, a penetrating wound of the chest, needing a large firm dressing to contain those ominous sucking noises and another pillow to keep him upright. Lieutenant-Colonel Harding, one stretcher ahead with Audrey Dare, kept up a running commentary. ‘Stomach here. Put him number one. Quarter of morphia, Sister. Straight away. Two pints of blood, one of plasma . . .’ Gunshot, mortar blasts, mines, incendaries. Limbs, eyes, abdomen, chest. He chewed his pencil. Who had priority? Of all these desperately wounded men, whose need was the most urgent?

. . . Men brought to Resus were always in a serious condition, some of them in extremis, past meaningful speech or any sustained communication. Each man was an island in his own desperation, unaware of other men on other stretchers, but their utterances were all the same. There were no impassioned calls to God, no harking back to mother, only an infinitely sad ‘Oh dear’, from colonels and corporals alike. Strangely and mercifully, I have forgotten the deaths, although one bright face I do remember. He was brought into our tent with eyes wide open, looking about him, still remembering to be polite. ‘I’ve often wondered what you sisters got up to,’ he said, with a brave, cheeky smile. Then a sudden look of surprise opened his eyes very wide, and he was dead, still with the smile on his lips. A captain of the Coldstream Guards, the same age as myself, he was caught unawares by death. With part of a shell buried in his back, he had suddenly tweaked his spinal cord and, in one astonished moment, he was gone.1

The family of a wounded British soldier received a simple roneoed sheet from the Army Records Office at Ashford. For example, a Mr Griffin of 28 Dean Drive, Stanmore, Middlesex, was addressed:


I am directed to inform you, with regret, that a report has been received from the War Office stating that No . . . 6216504 . . . Private George Edward Griffin, the Middlesex Regiment . . . was wounded in the north west Europe theatre of War on 3rd August 1944. The report also states that he sustained . . . shrapnel wound right buttock . . . Please accept my sympathy in your anxiety, I am, Sir,

Your obedient servant

Major, for officer i/c Infantry Records2

It is a measure of the relative severity of the Normandy fighting, compared with later battles, that hospital admissions as a result of enemy action comprised 9.7 per cent of British soldiers engaged in the first three months following the invasion, falling to 2.6 per cent in the autumn quarter. Accidental injuries attained a remarkable 13.2 per cent in the wake of D-Day, although many of these were very slight. Psychiatric casualties reached a high of 14 per 1,000 among the British in the same period, falling to 11 per 1,000 by winter. Although ‘battle fatigue’ never reached epidemic proportions in the British army, every unit in Normandy suffered its share of men who found themselves utterly unwilling to endure more. One morning, as Charles Mundy and his fellow troop commanders of the 22nd Dragoon Guards stood in their turrets on the start-line before an attack, they were startled by a brief burst of sten-gun fire. A man had simply shot himself in the foot rather than endure the assault. An American company commander in Major Randall Bryant’s battalion reported to him to declare flatly: ‘I’ve had it. You can do anything you want, but I won’t go back.’ Men seldom despised or scorned those who were driven to these acts – they merely pitied them, and prayed that they themselves might not be reduced to such extremities. Major Bryant was only roused to real anger years later, when the ex-company commander showed himself at a veterans’ reunion.

One morning, Captain Anthony Babington of the Dorsets heard the call ‘Stretcher bearer!’ in the midst of an incoming barrage, and was surprised to see no reaction from the medical orderly’s slit trench, for the man had hitherto been uncommonly quick to reach any wounded soldier. Running across, he found the orderly lying in the bottom of the trench, crying and shaking. He asked if the man was wounded, and received no reply. When the shelling stopped, he told his CO about the stretcher bearer. ‘Oh, send him back with an NCO and we’ll find him a job in the rear,’ said the colonel. All of them understood, in the Second War, something which had not been contemplated in the First – that each man possessed a limit beyond which he could not be forced. It was merely vital to ensure that such problems did not become epidemic.

A few men deliberately recoiled in disgust from the labour of destruction upon which they were engaged. Lieutenant William Douglas-Home, who was to become a distinguished British playwright and was the brother of a future Prime Minister, had told his fellow-officers for years that if he disapproved of something that was done on the battlefield, he would say so. They did not believe him. Now, in France as a Crocodile troop commander, he was appalled by the impending massed air bombardment of a town to induce its garrison to surrender. He set out on his own initiative to attempt to parley the Germans into giving up, declining to have anything to do with the attack himself. He was stopped, court-martialled, and served a term of imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs. When it was learned that he had been threatening for months to make a gesture of this sort, his commanding officer was also sacked.

Each night, one of the most painful tasks for the commanding officer of every unit was to write to the families of his men who had died. Most widows and mothers bore the news with pathetic resignation. A few were bitter. On the way home from the Mediterranean, Padre Lovegrove of the Green Howards had listened for hours to an officer talking about the little daughter he looked forward so much to seeing. When they docked, he learnt that she had died while he was on passage. In the following months the officer suffered great strain comforting his wife. In Normandy, he too was killed. Lovegrove received a tragic, savage letter from the man’s wife, demanding to know how the padre could pretend that there could be a loving God, who allowed such unspeakable miseries to occur.

That summer, there was no more pitiful measure of the enormity of what was taking place in Normandy than the death announcements in the newspapers of Britain and America: ‘Died of wounds’, ‘Killed while leading his wing over Normandy’, ‘Killed in action June 1944, aged 23’. The London Times for 2 July reported on its news pages that ‘General Eisenhower may . . . look forward to the early use of a port of entry into France following the capture of Cherbourg,’ while ‘the time may be approaching when General Montgomery will be strong enough to march boldly inland.’ But among the columns of announcements on the front page, there were scores like this:

HORLEY – Killed in action in June 1944, Lt. Montague Bernard Horley, RTR Notts Yeomanry, elder son of the Rev. C. M. Horley, The Rectory, Bisley, Surrey, and brother of Sgt. John Midwood Horley, RAFVR, missing presumed killed in January 1942.

On the battlefield, men were reluctantly fascinated by the look of the dead. Lieutenant Wilson of The Buffs gazed down on a cluster of SS infantry, and was impressed by their physical splendour even as they lay lifeless. He was struck by the contrast between these young Nazi supermen and the usual British infantry platoon, ‘with all its mixtures which were a sergeant-major’s nightmare – the tall and short, bandy-legged and lanky, heavy-limbed countrymen and scruffy, swarthy Brummagem boys with eternally undone gaiters.’3 How can we defeat men like these? he wondered, gazing down at the German bodies. ‘To me, Normandy will always mean death,’ said Lindley Higgins, ‘that yellow-green, waxy look of corpses’ hands. Anything that personalized death was upsetting, like seeing a 4th Division flash on a body’s helmet.’4

Keith Douglas, who was killed in Normandy, wrote:


Remember me when I am dead

and simplify me when I’m dead.

As the processes of earth

strip off the colour and the skin

take the brown hair and blue eye

and leave me simpler than at birth,

when hairless I came howling in

as the moon entered the cold sky.

Of my skeleton perhaps,

so stripped, a learned man will say

‘He was of such a type and intelligence’,

no more.


Some soldiers were supersititious about picking up a dead man’s weapon, although few were above looting a German Luger pistol if they found one. Almost every man had his private equivalent of touching wood, his secret luck charm. Trooper Steve Dyson of the 107th RAC, a Catholic, carried a little statuette of the Virgin in his tank, wedged between the smoke bombs. Philip Reisler’s 2nd Armored tank gunner, a Polish boy from Michigan, convinced himself that he would be hit if he failed to write up his diary each night. Three times in the war when he did not do so, he was wounded. Coming out of action, the whole crew invariably sang over the intercom:

I’m going home where I came from,

where the mocking bird’s sitting

on the lilac tree . . .

Men were frequently shocked by the speed at which an entire unit could be transformed into a ruin on the battlefield. One morning in mid-July, the 2nd KRRC were waiting in their half-tracks, on the reverse slope of a hill in the approved manner, to follow up the 43rd Wessex Division in an operation towards Evrecy. Lieutenant Edwin Bramall had just joined the other platoon commanders for a company Orders Group when they came under devastating fire from German self-propelled guns which had worked around to overlook them from high ground on their flank. Bramall dived under a half-track and found himself lying next to his friend Bernard Jackson, a slightly-built Old Harrovian who was senior platoon commander. ‘Do you think we’ve had it?’ Jackson asked him. A moment later there was a fierce explosion as a shell hit the half-track, and Jackson lay blackened and dead. Bramall emerged from cover to find ‘quite a götterdämmerung situation, with vehicles and motor-cycles on fire everywhere’. He suddenly felt a burning sensation in his side, and threw himself to the ground to extinguish flames on his clothing – he had also been hit by a shell fragment. Somehow Bramall and the other surviving platoon commander managed to shepherd the remaining half-tracks into dead ground before he was evacuated to the Regimental Aid Post. When he returned to his unit just a month later, ‘I found a very different battalion. There had been no dramatic heavy fighting – just a lot of casualties and a lot of shell-shock cases.’5

The Scots Guards Tank Battalion – which numbered among its officers a future British Home Secretary, a Moderator of the Church of Scotland and an Archbishop of Canterbury – went into its first action, in support of 43rd Wessex Division in July, with all the enthusiasm of novices. They gained their objective with the loss only of Major Whitelaw’s tank blown up by a mine. But as they stood deployed on a ridge in the midst of virgin country they found, characteristically of many British armoured units, that they had far outstripped their infantry. The officers were assembling for an Orders Group in a wood when they heard a huge explosion and saw a pillar of smoke in the distance. The second-in-command, Major Sidney Cuthbert, said: ‘I’ll go and see what’s happening,’ and dashed across the ridge in his tank, followed by Whitelaw in a second. Suddenly, Whitelaw saw the turret of Cuthbert’s Churchill lifted bodily into the air. In the flash of bewilderment so common to men in war, he thought: How odd that the turret should do that. In a few ruthless minutes of fire, a single German self-propelled 88 mm gun, which had stalked unseen behind the Guards’ positions, destroyed six of their tanks and killed 15 men.6

Every infantryman feared falling victim to a TOT – Time On Target, an artillery shoot carefully synchronized to concentrate the fire of an entire battery or regiment at a precise moment. Major Randall Bryant of the US 9th Division was walking across an orchard near St Lô to a battalion Orders Group, his closest friend, Captain Charles Minton, beside him: ‘Suddenly everything was exploding. There was blood all over me, and a helmet on the ground with a head inside it. It was Minton’s. Three young 2nd lieutenants had just joined us, straight from the beach and Fort Benning. I had told them to sit down and wait to be assigned to companies. They were dead, along with six others killed and 33 wounded in a shoot that lasted only a matter of seconds.’

The ambitions of most men in Normandy were pathetically simple: to survive, to finish the job, and to go home. ‘Everything is okay here,’ wrote Private Verrier to his parents in Stoke Newington on 24 July:

and I hope the war news continues to be good. I wonder if anything very serious will come of this stir inside Germany. It may be the beginning of their collapse. I hope so. I would very much like to see this war finish much sooner than the critics estimate. I read so much in the papers, and I begin to think that Jerry is in a tough position, although he has many occupied countries in his hands. I’m quite content to sit and patiently wait for Jerry to collapse. I don’t think it will be as easy as the newspapers try to make believe. Dead Germans are the best Germans, especially these fanatical Nazis about 18 to 20.

I also think it is time we were given a break considering the Allies’ so-called overwhelming masses of men. Many rumours go round about being sent to a rest camp, letters from Monty congratulating the division on doing such a fine job, which you have probably read in the papers, all of which are hardly worth taking any notice of as we still sit in the front line, wet dugouts, dirty clothes, no bath and very little comfort, and I’m beginning to wonder if once again we have been forgotten. I suppose one day, certain people will realise that we are human beings and not machines of war.

Sam mentioned that he has applied to try to get posted to France. Gosh – if I had his opportunity now to stop in England, I know what I would do with voluntary applications. He would be crazy to come out here, with Lily expecting a baby so soon, and the flying bomb raids at home. Surely he will not be upgraded to A1. If he does come I sincerely hope he gets a job with a GHQ well behind the line . . .7

Early in August, John Hein of the US 1st Division came upon three unposted letters written by German soldiers in Normandy. He never knew which unit their authors came from, what rank they held, what fate overtook them. But the densely penned scrawls seem to reflect the equally simple, troubled emotions of all but the fanatical SS, now losing ground in Normandy against appalling odds.

My Irmi-love,

. . . It doesn’t look very good, that would be saying too much, but nonetheless there is no reason to paint too black a picture. You know the high spirits with which I face things, which allow me to stroll through difficult situations with some optimism and a lot of luck. Above all there are so many good and elite divisions in our near-encirclement that we must get through somehow. The most difficult thing has been and remains the enemy air force . . . it is there at dawn, all day, at night, dominating the roads. Sadly my dog was pinched yesterday by soldiers passing through. I should so like to have taken him back to Germany, but it was not to be. The last three days we have had the most wonderful summer weather – sun, warmth, blue skies – so utterly in contrast to everything else around us. Ah well, it must turn out alright in the end. Don’t lose heart, I’ll get through this somehow as I always do. A thousand loving kisses to you and the children, your FERD.

My darling wife,

Yet another day. Nowadays I am grateful to the good Lord for every dawn he lets me wake. When I listen to the guns at night, my thoughts wander back home to you, my dearest, and I wonder whether I shall ever see you again. You will have to be prepared not to receive any letters from me for some time. I shall have to cope with great difficulties. May the good Lord be always with me as he has been! I long for you all! How much I would now like to look at your dear pictures, but my kit is far away and I am unlikely to get it back. Should I not return home then you, my treasure, will have to bear this lot too with courage. I leave you our dear boys, in them you will have me too. Your dear little Ortwin and our little Wilfried will be your dear Karl to you. I would so like to go with you after our victory into a lovely and happy future. Many thousands of loving greetings and kisses to you, my dear, good, loyal little wife and to my dear children from your dear Daddy! Farewell! God bless you! KARL

My dear Heather-love,

Do my letters still reach you? Nonetheless I will talk to you rather than mourn to you. One day the light of truth and clarity will shine over this time of humiliation. I just went for a walk in the hot sun to Bagnoles. I did not get there. On the way, I picked a sprig of heather and wore it on my breast. All nature’s creatures were out – how high and low the bees, bumblebees, insects hummed, just like in 1926. Today there is another accompaniment as well, spreading death and destruction. I am constantly surprised how calmly I take it all. Is it because of the rocklike certainty of your love? I have written a letter which you should open later, if I don’t return. I don’t know if it will reach you. But you know what I have to say to you and the children. I have left my affairs in order. What love can express I have already done. The children are on their way, already independent, and will find a path through whatever befalls them. It will not be easy in this chaos, but life is never handed to us on a plate.

Last night we had a little ‘soldier’s hour’ and sang our soldiers’ and folk songs into the night. What would a German be without a song? The evening sky glowed with fire and explosions. One always thinks the earth brings forth new life, but now it is death. What new order will emerge from this devil’s symphony? Can a vision, strong in faith, be born into a new world? The social order rooted in National Socialism cannot be delayed for ever.

Enough of that . . . What remains is great love and loyalty, the acknowledgement of the eternal source of life. I take you and the girls in my arms in gratitude for all you have given me, your FRITZ.

‘It was quite against logic to suppose that you were destined to survive the war,’ wrote Andrew Wilson. ‘All the appearance of things was against it. You saw a pair of boots sticking out from a blanket, and they looked exactly like your own; there was no ground for thinking that the thing that had come to the owner of these boots was not going to come just as casually to you . . . So before going into action he would utter a phrase articulately beneath his breath: “Today I may die.” It was a kind of propitiation; and yet he could never quite believe in it, because that would have defeated its purpose . . .’8

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