Military history

Chapter 8 » CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE

The fall of Caen

By early July, the struggle for Normandy was inflicting almost equal misery upon the German, British and American armies – the first having by far greater cause for it. The defenders knew that their forces were being inexorably ground down, and that they could not hope for tolerable replacements. Many of their difficulties of manpower, armour, supplies and ammunition were known to the Allies through Ultra. Yet it was small comfort to read the Germans’ gloomy signals about their predicament when, on the battlefield, the force and effectiveness of their resistance seemed quite undiminished. Meanwhile, the men of the invading army were growing weary. The summer was slipping away, and the disturbing prospect of autumn weather in the Channel lay ahead. The safe refuge of the Brittany ports still seemed many miles and many battles away. What if FORTITUDE abruptly collapsed, and Rommel brought down powerful reinforcements from Fifteenth Army? What if the German flying bomb campaign, already causing so much alarm in England, intensified and gave way to new and more deadly secret weapons? The problem of infantry casualties, a matter of concern to the Americans, had become a crisis for the British. Sir Ronald Adam, the Adjutant-General, paid a personal visit to Montgomery to warn him about the shortage of replacements. Already battalions had been broken up to fill the ranks of others in the line; now came the possibility that entire divisions might have to be disbanded.

After the excitement of the capture of Cherbourg and the northern Cotentin, on 3 July the American VIII Corps, along with a division from VII Corps, began a new southward offensive in driving rain, mist and low cloud. Within the first days, it became bogged down in the mire of now-familiar difficulties: green formations, and stubborn defensive tactics which destroyed momentum. If British commanders were too slow to sack incompetent subordinates, their American counterparts were almost too swift. Now, there was a new spate of dismissals of divisional and regimental commanders in Bradley’s army. The Americans were to discover in north-west Europe that it was easier to remove officers than to find more effective newcomers to replace them. As the months went by, their enthusiasm for purges declined, and they concluded that it was more profitable to give commanders time to settle down and learn their business than to remove them immediately after their formation’s first failure. Eisenhower wrote to Marshall about the stagnation of First Army’s push south: ‘The going is extremely tough, with three main causes responsible. The first of these, as always, is the fighting quality of the German soldier.’1 The others he identified as the terrain and the weather, which was hampering air support.

Meanwhile, on the eastern flank, Second Army was fighting the tough, slow-moving battle that at last gained its men a large part of the ruins of Caen. For almost a month since the landings, the British and Canadian 3rd Divisions had endured the frustrations of static warfare around Cambes wood, Carpiquet and other landmarks that they first beheld on 6 or 7 June. On the night of 7 July, 450 heavy aircraft of Bomber Command attacked Caen, principally with delayed-action bombs, in an operation designed to clear the way for an assault by I Corps the following morning. Hundreds of thousands of men of Second Army watched in awe as the waves of bombers droned steadily over the city, letting loose their loads and turning away, some bleeding smoke and flame as they slipped from the sky. Amid the rumble of constant explosions from the city, a great pall of smoke and dust rose upwards, shrouding the houses and factories. The use of the heavy bombers reflected the belief of Montgomery and the Allied high command that they must now resort to desperate measures to pave the way for a ground assault. Afterwards, this action came to be regarded as one of the most futile air attacks of the war. Through no fault of their own, the airmen bombed well back from the forward line to avoid the risk of hitting British troops, and inflicted negligible damage upon the German defences. Only the old city of Caen paid the full price.

About a quarter of the citizens of Caen had departed before the bombers came, urged by both the Germans and the local prefect. Many more remained, fearful for their homes and possessions, and arguing that ‘to evacuate is only to escape Germans to meet other Germans, to avoid bombs and shells to meet other bombs and shells.’2 Nothing had prepared them to expect the devastating rain of explosives from the massed air attack. As the sound of the bombers faded, ‘a great silence fell over the town, broken only by the cries of the wounded and the sound of falling masonry from burning buildings.’3 The Palais de I’Université was in flames, the initial fires in its chemistry department having spread in minutes to other parts of the building. Hopeless little groups of firemen struggled to draw water from the Odon, since the mains had been blasted in a hundred places. 38 civilians died in one cellar, 50 were killed and wounded in a single street. The survivors were so terrorized by the destruction around them that, even as the Germans at last began to withdraw through the streets, most inhabitants clung to the shelter of their cellars.

When I Corps jumped off on Operation CHARNWOOD the next morning, the troops were heartened by the memory of the air attack. But they quickly discovered that the Germans were resisting as tenaciously as ever. Meyer’s men of 12th SS Panzer remained the core of the defence, apparently indestructible even though their ranks had been decimated by weeks of heavy fighting without replacements. Two days of desperate battle cost some British infantry battalions 25 per cent of their strength. They won through to the northern bank of the Orne, in the middle of the utterly desolated city, but could go no further. The Germans still held the critical high ground of the Bourguébus Ridge to the south and, nearer at hand, the steelworks of Colombelles, from which their observation posts could mark every British movement. Too much blood had been shed and too many weeks had elapsed for possession of the shattered ruins to offer any more to most thoughtful British commanders than a ghastly echo of other ruins, other empty victories, almost 30 years before. From CHARNWOOD, there was not even the compensation of having ‘written down’ significant German forces.

While the British and Canadian 3rd Divisions painfully battered their way into Caen, further west 43rd Wessex and its supporting armour suffered 2,000 casualties in two days of renewed fighting for Hill 112, the commanding position beyond the Odon which had been lost in the last stages of EPSOM. Once again, the formidable fighting power of 12th SS Panzer forced Thomas’s men into bloody difficulties. Like so many other British assaults, that of 10 July began well in the wake of the huge bombardment, with the leading units reaching Eterville and well up the slopes of 112 by 8.00 a.m. Corporal Chris Portway was a 21-year-old section commander in the 4th Dorsets: ‘They plod along and do the job – not death or glory boys like the paratroops,’ the sort of comment which might be made about many solidly dependable British county regiments. Urged on by their colonel’s hunting horn, they reached Eterville without serious casualties. Portway fought a fierce little private battle in its churchyard, pursuing two Germans between the gravestones until he reached them with a grenade in the church itself. He was dismayed to meet his commanding officer among the ruins, asking helplessly: ‘What’s happening, corporal?’ The colonel appeared to have lost all grip on events. But the day’s work had been done at tolerable cost. They were digging in around Eterville, pleased to find themselves alongside a château painted with huge red crosses, ‘because the Germans were usually quite good about trying not to hit hospitals,’4 when they were suddenly summoned to a new Orders Group and told that they must press on to the next village, Maltot.

Without enthusiasm, but also without knowledge of what lay ahead except that a battalion of the Hampshires was in trouble, they advanced in extended line through the cornfields towards the village. They reached an orchard, and suddenly found themselves under intense German DF5 fire. With flame and smoke all around them, they pressed on, to meet machine-gun and tank fire from a screen of Tigers dug into pits covering Maltot. ‘They knocked us down in lines . . .’ Portway and other survivors took shelter for a moment in an empty tank pit, and saw a German glance over the rim and reach back to throw a grenade down on them before a quick-thinking Dorset shot him. They ran from the hole to a house in which they hastily cleared a field of fire. The corporal felt a moment of revulsion about bringing the battle into some unknown family’s home: ‘There we were, wrecking this house, and I suddenly thought – “How would I feel if this was mine?” ’ Then a more pressing problem intervened. A noise upstairs showed that they were not alone. There was a fierce exchange of grenades and small-arms fire with the Germans above. They fought from house to house for some time until, without warning, a devastating artillery barrage began to fall among them. Portway learned later that it came from British guns. The order had been given for the brigade to withdraw from Maltot, but it never reached the survivors of the Dorsets. Portway threw himself into a ditch, and a handful of others fell in on top of him. When the guns at last stopped, he wondered why nobody rose. He heard German voices, and lay motionless until he found one of the men above him being moved, and looked up into the face of the enemy. All the others on top of him in the ditch were dead. He felt a sense of unreality: ‘You imagine being wounded, being killed. But you never think of being captured. You think that when you’ve had a chat, they’ll let you go home. I couldn’t believe that I’d never see the unit again.’ The SS treated Portway unusually well, ‘much better than we did German prisoners. It was when one got further back that the nastiness started.’

Portway’s experience was almost precisely mirrored by that of Private Zimmer of 12th SS Panzer who was in Eterville the same day. Zimmer, as his narrative makes clear, was cast in a somewhat less heroic mould than some of his colleagues:

The 88 mm dual-purpose gun was the decisive force in the German destruction of many Allied tank attacks in Normandy, above all in the open country on the British flank, where its long reach could be exploited to best effect. It was, quite simply, the best gun produced by any combatant nation in the war, with a formidable killing power against all Allied tanks.

From 6.30 to 8.00 a.m. again heavy machine-gun fire. Then Tommy attacks with great masses of infantry and many tanks. We fight as long as possible but we realize we are in a losing position. By the time the survivors try to pull back, we realize that we are surrounded. In our sector, we had driven back the British infantry attack, but they had bypassed us to left and right. I moved back as fast as I could under the continuous firing. Others who tried to do the same failed. When the small-arms fire stopped our own guns got going. I lay there in the midst of it all. I still cannot understand how I escaped, with shelling falling two or three metres away, splinters tearing around my ears. By now I had worked my way to within 200 metres of our own lines. It was hard work, always on my stomach, only occasionally up on hands and knees. The small-arms fire began again, and the English infantry renewed their attack. My hopes dwindled. The advancing Tommies passed five or six paces away without noticing me in the high corn. I was almost at the end of the my tether, my feet and elbows in agony, my throat parched. Suddenly the cover thinned out and I had to cross an open field. In the midst of this, wounded Englishmen passed within ten metres without seeing me. Now I had to hurry. There were only ten metres to go to the next belt of corn. Suddenly three Tommies appeared and took me prisoner. Immediately I was given a drink and a cigarette. At the concentration point for prisoners I met my Unterscharführer and other comrades of my company . . .6

It was a battle of shattering intensity even by the standards of Normandy. Brigadier Michael Carver, who had taken over 4th Armoured Brigade at half an hour’s notice a few days earlier, found himself compelled to draw his revolver to halt fleeing infantrymen, including an officer. Amid the blackened, leafless trees on the slopes of Hill 112 itself, the 5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry attacked, two companies up, after the Somersets failed to gain the summit. Lieutenant David Priest’s company commander had been killed shortly before, and he found himself leading his company forward. Their vehicles drove to the start-line over the bodies of British infantry spreadeagled across the road. They took a wrong turning and came under fire. The men dismounted and shook out for the advance. Priest had put his own platoon in the rear, but quickly found himself compelled to pass it forward when the point platoons were ravaged by mortar and machine-gun fire. Then he felt a blow. At first, it made him imagine that he had been struck with a pickaxe. Only after a few moments lying shocked on the grass did he understand that he had been hit in the chest by a machine-gun bullet. He felt somebody undoing his pouches and taking out his grenades. Then he heard the acting battalion commander shouting, before he died, that he could not breathe. Priest lay gazing upwards, watching each side’s mortar bombs soar unhurriedly across the sky. There was more fierce small-arms fire, and he was frightened of being hit again. When darkness came he felt a little better. He managed to drag himself back towards the British line until he was challenged by a Somersets sentry.

Yet still the nightmare was not ended. That night, 12th SS Panzer counter-attacked. Priest was waiting at the rendezvous where the carriers picked up casualties, when a German tank suddenly crashed through the trees almost on top of him. Wounded men screamed as they were crushed beneath its tracks, and flares began to burst overhead as the defenders struggled to pinpoint the threat. The tank blundered away into the darkness, and the stretcher-bearers came. Priest learned that he had a clean entry and exit wound. He felt deeply grateful that he was not maimed or disfigured. Like every rifle company officer, he had long ago accepted the inevitability of being hit somewhere, at some time. It was six weeks before he walked again, and 1945 before he returned to his battalion.

The self-propelled 17-pounder M10s of E Troop, 129th Battery, left the start-line with the Hampshires and the supporting Churchill infantry tanks at 5.30 a.m. They had landed in France ten days before, and this was their first action of the war. German mortar and artillery fire began to fall amongst them soon after they set off, and the infantrymen of the Hampshires huddled behind the Churchills and E Troop’s tank destroyers as they crawled forward through the barrage. Sergeant Burnell’s gun was hit a few yards beyond Eterville by a mortar bomb which landed directly in its open turret; just two of the crew escaped wounded. The troop commander’s gun received a direct hit from an 88 mm shell a few yards short of Maltot. Only he himself and an NCO were able to leap down and escape alive. A third gun’s turret was jammed by fire and its aerial shot away. The crew baled out, expecting it to ‘brew up’. When it failed to do so they remounted, with the exception of the wireless operator, who declined to leave the slit trench in which he had taken refuge. Then it became obvious that the attack had failed. The two surviving guns withdrew, bringing back the survivors of the other ruined M10. Of 20 men in the guns which had gone forward, six were dead, four wounded, one missing. Sergeant Jim Stephens, who had served with the battery since 1939, was heartbroken to have been left behind with the echelon, when the troop of which he was so proud went forward for the first time. Now, he looked appalled at the return of the survivors, and the blank and shocked face of the young troop commander, Lieutenant Wimpey. The adjutant had recovered the gun whose turret had received a direct hit. Wimpey told Sergeant Stephens that they must bury its crew. Stephens never forgot the experience.

The explosion of the mortar in that confined space had devastated everything inside. The 17 pdr and .50 calibre ammunition had gone up. Lying on the floor of the turret was what was left of the crew, burnt to a cinder with their teeth bared in some kind of grin. I cried, having known them all for so long – Jimmy Burrell, a cockney whose wife had presented him with a baby a few weeks before D-Day, who used to hang a pair of bootees in the turret every time he went out; Dick Greenwood, no more than 5’ 2”, a Devonian from Newton Abbot who used to be E troop’s storekeeper, but insisted on getting aboard an M10 as a gunner; Phillips, only 18, hardly knew what it was all about. I remember him being sick on one occasion after drinking too much, and me making him clear it all up. With some reverence Lt. Wimpey and I began to lift them out and place them in blankets. In some cases we had to use a shovel to get them off the floor, for so intense was the heat that they had become fused to it. We buried them at Marcelet, by the side of the Bayeux–Caen road. The regimental padre said a few words, the battery carpenter constructed wooden crosses, a few shots were fired, and so we left them.7

It was a little scene played out a hundred times daily on both sides of the Normandy line. Hill 112 was held briefly by Priest’s shattered battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, only to be lost to a German counter-attack.

Montgomery was now compelled to endure a crisis of confidence in his leadership which would have cracked the nerve of a more sensitive man. He had always been the object of animosity within the huge headquarters staff at SHAEF in England, and unloved by many of Bradley’s Americans. The tensions now broke into open criticism. Commander Butcher, the embodiment of all gossip-ridden staff officers, wrote after his first visit to France on 1 July: ‘Some of the people I talked to venture that Monty has been too slow to attack and thus permitted the Germans to get set in fixed positions and to bring up reserves.’8 Patton, an unconcealed enemy, wrote venomously in his diary after a trip to Montgomery’s Tactical Headquarters on 7 July: ‘Montgomery went to great lengths explaining why the British had done nothing.’ Eisenhower, himself under intense pressure from Washington and his own staff, frustrated by his own inability directly to influence the events for which he bore the huge responsibility, wrote an unhappy letter to the Commander-in-Chief of 21st Army Group that day expressing his concern about the German build-up: ‘It appears to me that we must use all possible energy in a determined effort to prevent the risk of a stalemate or of facing the necessity of fighting a major defensive battle with the slight depth we now have in the bridgehead . . . We have not yet attempted a major full-dress attack on the left flank supported by everything we could bring to bear . . .’9

The American press had become openly impatient with the lack of progress in France, causing a degree of concern in Washington that, as always, far outweighed the worry the British press could cause any British government. It was being suggested that the western Allies were content to mark time while the Russians did the hard fighting to defeat Hitler’s armies. Even more dangerous to Montgomery’s position was Churchill’s growing impatience. The Prime Minister was at pains to remind Eisenhower, a few days after the landings, that the Supreme Commander had only to express his dissatisfaction with any British officer, ‘no matter what his rank’, for him to be removed. Churchill had convinced himself that if there was no rapid breakthrough after D-Day, it might be a year or more before the Allies reached the Seine. His memory of Flanders haunted all his visions of the battle for France in 1944, especially as he read the infantry casualty lists. On the night of 6 July, Churchill furiously denounced Montgomery to Brooke. He had never warmed to his cold, awkward commander: now, remembering Montgomery’s bold declarations at the St Paul’s briefing about rapid armoured thrusts and the urgent need to ‘peg out claims inland’, he felt that these intentions had been betrayed. Brooke was driven to defend his protégé with equal anger: ‘I flared up and asked him if he could not trust his generals for five minutes instead of continuously abusing them and belittling them.’10

The air chiefs divided their ill-will between Montgomery and the hapless Leigh-Mallory. Tedder felt a persistent lack of confidence in the Commander-in-Chief of 21st Army Group, which he displayed with all the force of his personality. ‘It seemed clear to me that Montgomery did not attach sufficient importance to the pressing time factor. Few weeks of summer remained. Our urgent need was to get across the Seine.’11 Tedder was a man of genuine stature, and it is impossible to saddle him with the personal malice and small-mindedness that afflicted some of his subordinates. He sincerely believed that he possessed an understanding of the priorities of the land campaign which Montgomery lacked. But as Deputy Supreme Commander, he suffered all the handicaps and frustrations that are the lot of a second-in-command in any military organization: he was privy to all debate but lacked executive power. If Leigh-Mallory was not permitted to exercise executive authority, Tedder showed a marked reluctance to do so. He was invariably consulted and frequently intervened in the air debate, but he never accepted full responsibility for air operations. His intelligence and force of personality were not in doubt, but it is questionable whether he was able to employ these to best effect as Eisenhower’s deputy, and whether his understanding of the ground campaign was sufficient to justify his chronic disloyalty to Montgomery, and his promise to Eisenhower of personal support if the Supreme Commander saw fit to sack his ground-force commander.

With all these dangerous currents swirling in his rear, Montgomery sat in the camouflaged caravans of his Tactical Headquarters, surrounded by his pet puppies and canaries, and pondered the course of the battle. One of his biographers, the war correspondent Alan Moorehead, wrote of his supposed conceit and gracelessness, then added that ‘these vices, if they existed in him, had also distilled a virtue which was regrettably lacking at times among the officers struggling up to a high command: he was nobody’s sycophant, he could not be wined and dined into an amenable frame of mind, he could not be impressed by a show of authority nor were his wits clouded by ceremony.’12 Montgomery changed his plans in Normandy, but it cannot be proved that he did so because of the pressure of his enemies and rivals. If anything, the charge against him is that he became too isolated from the political and politico-military realities, too ready to absorb himself exclusively in the battle within the monastic loneliness of his Tactical Headquarters. His Chief of Staff talked freely to the Commander-in-Chief when he saw him, but there is no evidence that Montgomery unburdened himself of his innermost thoughts and hopes to de Guingand or any other man. Yet he possessed the great virtue of accepting the battlefield as he found it, and adjusting to its exigencies without complaint. He was seen to considerable advantage at a meeting of his commanders on 10 July, at which Bradley frankly admitted that the American attack southwards had failed.

Monty quietly replied: ‘Never mind. Take all the time you need, Brad.’ [Dempsey related later] Then he went on tactfully to say: ‘If I were you I think I should concentrate my forces a little more’ – putting two fingers together on the map in his characteristic way. Then Monty turned to me and said: ‘Go on hitting: drawing the German strength, especially some of the armour, onto yourself – so as to ease the way for Brad.’13

it seems significant that while Eisenhower became restless and unsympathetic to Montgomery as the Normandy battle developed – or rather, in the Supreme Commander’s view, failed sufficiently to do so – Bradley did not complain about 21st Army Group’s commander. Later, he would become one of Montgomery’s most bitter critics. But ‘during these operations in the lodgement,’ Bradley wrote, ‘where Montgomery bossed the US First Army as part of his 21st Army Group, he exercised his Allied authority with wisdom, forbearance, and restraint. At no time did he probe into First Army with the indulgent manner he sometimes displayed among those subordinates who were also his own countrymen.’14 Harmony between the two men at this stage may also have been assisted by Bradley’s consciousness of the shortcomings of some of his own formations. It was only afterwards, when the Americans had carried out their sweeping dash through Brittany and across to Argentan, that exhilaration about their own achievement and British sensitivity about Second Army’s painful march to Falaise fostered jealousies and resentments that persisted through the campaign.

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