The Allied invasion of Northern France was the greatest combined operation in the history of warfare. Up until now it has been recorded from the attackers' point of view whereas the defenders' angle has been largely ignored.
While the Germans knew an invasion was inevitable, no-one knew where or when it would fall. Those manning Hitler's mighty Atlantic Wall may have felt secure in their bunkers but they had no conception of the fury and fire that was about to break.
After the initial assaults of June established an Allied bridgehead, a state of stale-mate prevailed. The Germans fought with great courage hindered by lack of supplies and overwhelming Allied control of the air.
When the Allies finally broke out the collapse was catastrophic with Patton's army in the East sweeping round and Monty's in the West putting remorseless pressure on the hard pressed defenders. The Falaise Gap became a graveyard of German men and equipment.
To read the war from the losing side is a sobering and informative experience.
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About the Author
Richard Hargreaves is a journalist, working in regional newspapers. Prior to taking up his present job with Navy News, he was an official war correspondent with the Portsmouth Evening News. He lives at Southsea, near Portsmouth.
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Every Night We Wait for Tommy
Day after day nothing. Nothing happened but the waves coming and going, coming and going.
Hauptmann Joachim Lindner
In the tiny village of Mollière d'Aval on the southern bank of the Somme estuary, Gefreiter Heinrich Böll penned a letter to his wife. Böll was a prodigious writer. Daily, almost without fail, he would write to his beloved Annemarie, a schoolteacher. Only writing and the arrival of the post alleviated the boredom for Böll, a reluctant soldier at best. Up at midday, the soldier and his comrades would eat, exercise, work on their bunker and surrounding positions and from 10 p.m. take it in turns to stand watch over the Atlantic in four-hour shifts. Böll had spent three years on and off in France, first standing watch in a bunker on the Cap Gris Nez at the narrowest point on the English Channel, now on the Somme estuary. It was monotonous, tedious. The tension gnawed at the men's nerves. 'If just once we could come face to face with the English it would be something different from this waiting, eternal waiting,' twenty-five year old Böll wrote to his wife Annemarie in August 1943. 'If the English tried to attack here on the Channel and suffered a defeat, it might perhaps bring about a decisive change in this war. Given the state of our fortifications right here they probably won't dare. But who knows how everything will turn out.'
For almost four years, soldiers like Heinrich Böll 'lived like a god in France'. France was a backwater, far from the horrors of the Eastern Front, the sands of Africa, the mountains of Italy and snows of Finland. But by the spring of 1944, the ordinary German soldier, the Landser, knew that the days of his comparatively idyllic existence were drawing to a close.
There was evidence along the French coastline. In less than six months 500,000 obstacles, wooden and metal crosses, had been installed on the beaches, plus more than six million mines. Overlooking them on the cliffs the coast was peppered with machine-gun nests, linked by trenches and hundreds of miles of barbed wire, interspersed with mighty concrete bunkers housing artillery pieces and heavy machine guns. And beyond them, a belt of mines 1,000 yards wide, low-lying land flooded to restrict movements, concrete anti-tank obstacles – dragon's teeth – fields covered with booby traps; stakes and other obstacles fitted with obsolete shells on the tip to prevent airborne landings.
There was evidence far beyond the coast; in the railway stations and junctions, bridges, marshalling yards, supply depots and ammunition dumps, gun emplacements and batteries, radar and radio sites. In the opening months of 1944, the infrastructure of the German Army in France was subjected to systematic destruction by the Allied air forces. And not just the infrastructure. In sweeps of up to 750 aircraft at a time, low-flying Jabos – Jagdbomber, fighter-bombers – ranged across northwest France seemingly at will, attacking trucks, trains and carriages. By the time June arrived, more than 76,000 tons of bombs had been dropped, almost cutting off western France from the rest of the Third Reich.
There was less tangible evidence; a soldier's natural instinct. Near Bayeux, artillery commander Major Werner Pluskat gathered his men for one of his regular pep talks. But this one, machine gunner Hein Severloh remembered, was different, darker, more fatalistic:
Pluskat ... talked about fulfilling our duty and used the usual phrases to motivate us, but his words suggested an imminent attack. Usually, such addresses finished with the phrase 'to the last drop of blood', indicating to soldiers that they should not surrender, but Pluskat used a phrase he had never uttered before at the end of his speech: A rotting German corpse can no longer save its Fatherland.
A few miles to the west near the small Norman coastal town of Colleville, eighteen year old Franz Gockel gazed across the English Channel. Home to Gockel was a cramped bunker, its ceiling reinforced by more than six feet of concrete, completed as May drew to a close. 'Only once or twice a week would two German aircraft be seen flying along the coast,' Gockel recalled bitterly, then added with the Landser's typical black sense of humour: 'We named them Max and Moritz.' But there was a growing sense of urgency along the Normandy coastline. New gun positions were going up, real and dummy. The alert status was raised. Veterans not much older than Gockel were certain. 'Something's in the air,' they muttered.
In the balmy days of the summer of 1940 there had been no thought of an invasion in the minds of Germany's soldiers basking in the glory of victory over their traditional foe. The German Army in the west settled down to the task of occupation. At its moment of triumph, it stood just short of 100 divisions strong, ten of them armoured. There was an 'aura of invincibility' about the Wehrmacht; and an air of finality. The German Army's command declared confidently: 'With the decisive success in the west the tasks assigned to the Army here are completed for the time being.'
Campaigns in the Balkans, North Africa and Russia soon drained the reservoir of forces in the west. When the Wehrmacht advanced into the Soviet Union in June 1941, just thirty-seven second-rate divisions, not a single armoured one among them, guarded the western shores. By the following spring, the number had dropped to a mere two dozen, holding the coast and interior of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, from the German border to the Spanish frontier. Quantity wasn't the only problem facing Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefehlshaber West – Supreme Commander, West – known simply as OB West. Quality was also lacking: his divisions were second-rate, units exhausted by the fighting in Russia re-forming, or new formations as yet unfit for battle.
Gerd von Rundstedt had arrived in France in March 1942 to take over command of the German Army in the West. Aristocratic, irascible, aged – he was now sixty-six – Rundstedt was the doyen of Germany's Officer Corps, a soldier for fifty-two years. He had led groups of armies to victory across Poland and France, then into the Ukraine, until he was sacked for retreating with his men at the gateway to the Caucasus in November 1941.
His unemployment had been brief. Never a Nazi – the field marshal frequently referred to Hitler as 'the Bohemian lance corporal' Rundstedt would also never act against the regime. And that made him reliable – and employable. When called upon to safeguard the west against the invader Adolf Hitler knew would come across the Channel, von Rundstedt gushed: 'Mein Führer, whatever you order, I shall do to my last breath.'
Rundstedt took up his post as OB West, at his headquarters buried beneath a slope under a school in the suburb of St Germain-en-Laye in the north-west quarter of the French capital. The marshal himself lived in a nearby home commandeered from its owner. He enjoyed the lifestyle of his command in France. Rundstedt lacked the drive of many of his fellow marshals; he rose in mid-morning and never worked beyond 8 p.m., but he also lived a modest life beyond his fondness for cigars and alcohol. As a commander, the marshal rarely made a decision on the battlefield – and never acted without consulting his staff – yet by all accounts Rundstedt was sharp, had an excellent grasp of strategy and a photographic memory. His staff were unusually fond of the veteran marshal they dubbed 'the last knight'. They were convinced his name alone 'influenced the morale and behaviour of his troops as did no other'.
The elderly field marshal quickly found his time in France frustrating; 'waiting for the "others"' gnawed at his nerves. Worse still, Rundstedt found he had no authority, despite his grandiose title. Hitler and his closest advisers on the Wehrmacht High Command, Oberkommando des Wehrmacht or OKW, oversaw operations in the west, while command of the air and naval units in his domain remained firmly in the hands of the Luftwaffe and German Navy, the Kriegsmarine. 'You see the guard posted outside,' Rundstedt once complained. 'If I want to post him on the other side of the house, I must first ask permission of Berchtesgaden.'
With victories seemingly being won daily in Russia during the summer of 1941 and 1942, occupation troops left behind in France settled into a routine which was relaxed – 'a carefree life' by comparison with the rest of the Reich. 'There was entertainment,' one sailor stationed in Cherbourg recalled. 'Theatre tickets at the ready. Numerous soldiers' billets and convalescence homes had a holiday atmosphere.' It was hardly surprising, then, that Landsers in Russia, Italy and North Africa often accused their counterparts of 'Leben wie Gott in Frankreich' – living like a god in France. But the German soldier billeted in the west did not live like a god. Visits to Paris, for example, were severely restricted, not merely because the city offered so many temptations; Nazi leaders didn't want German soldiers 'overrunning' the French capital, upsetting French sensibilities. Contact with the French was limited, such that one infantryman complained: 'We didn't sample the culture of France.' Slowly but surely, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels observed, life in France was eating at the soul of the German soldier. 'Not once has living in France been good for troops on occupation duties. What I hear about our occupation forces there is anything but flattering.' A 'long rest period in a rich land', one division's war diarist complained, was not good for the discipline of the German soldier. As the occupation dragged on, inactivity, alcohol – which invariably played 'a key role' – and the temptations of French girls, led to a worrying rise in attacks, rapes, assaults and misdemeanours. Duties were monotonous; the endless Wacht am Kanal – guard over the Channel. Lethargy permeated every command, every army, every corps, division, regiment and battalion. Hauptmann Joachim Lindner, of 302nd Infantry Division holding the coast around Dieppe, captured the mood perfectly. 'Day after day nothing,' he complained. 'We had a problem with the men guarding the coast, the poor man walking with his rifle along the cliffs. Nothing happened but the waves coming and going, coming and going.' Heinrich Böll wrote home in a similar vein: 'We wait, every night we wait for Tommy, but he doesn't seem to want to come yet. I am really curious to see if he will come in the end.'
Only once did 'Tommy' come in any strength. He came at Dieppe. His aim was not to invade, at least not permanently. His aim was to see if he could forge a bridgehead, if he could seize a port in occupied territory. The raid on 19 August 1942 failed almost entirely, especially around the port itself. Tanks trundled on to the beach, but got no further. They could not get around the high sea wall and, under murderous German fire, engineers could not blow a hole in the barrier. By mid-morning it was clear the landing had failed, and by 2 p.m. it was all over. An army major watched as the Allied warships laid down a thick smokescreen and turned to head back to Britain, then he ventured down to the water's edge to begin rounding up prisoners. 'In my battalion's sector alone prisoners were brought in in their thousands,' the major wrote. 'All Canadians, young, well-built chaps.' On the beach were shot-up tanks and landing craft. 'Between them hundreds of dead and the badly wounded,' the major observed. 'I have not witnessed images more terrible. In one landing craft the entire crew of about forty men had been wiped out by a direct hit. On the water we could see bits of wrecks, ships in ruins, corpses floating and soldiers wrestling with death. In Paris there was jubilation. The enemy's operation was smashed in just over nine hours!' OB West gloated. Shortly before 6 p.m., Hitler's headquarters was told: 'No armed Englishman remains on the Continent.'
The Allies had lost thirty-three landing craft, 106 aircraft, every one of the twenty-eight tanks which put ashore, plus one destroyer sunk offshore. Of the 5,000 Canadians who set foot on French soil on 19 August 1942, barely 2,200 returned to Britain. All the Allies had to show for the raid were a smashed coastal battery, forty-eight downed Luftwaffe aircraft and around 600 German casualties. The day after the raid Rundstedt's chief-of-staff, Kurt Zeitzler, found dead Englishmen 'everywhere – mountains of bodies'. Dieppe, Zeitzler observed, 'presents a picture like Dunkirk.'
Even before the Allied raid on Dieppe, an idea had begun to crystallize in the mind of Adolf Hitler: to build an impregnable shield along the coast of Europe – a great wall; an Atlantic Wall. A wall 'built with fanatical zeal' which would stand firm 'under all circumstances'. The Führer had been struck by the remarks of a construction worker during a tour of his defences in the west. 'Mein Führer,' the man told him. 'I hope we're never going away from here. After all this tremendous work, that would be a pity.' Not merely would the wall defend the western shores, but it would inspire the German soldier to fight. On 13 August 1942, Hitler summoned his military and political leaders to explain his grand scheme for the west. 'The Führer wants to prevent the opening of a Second Front at all costs,' noted Alfred Jacob, the German Army's head of engineers and fortifications. 'The British might cause us difficulties at critical moments. The Führer has decided to build an impregnable wall along the Atlantic and Channel Coast.' Within this impregnable wall of 15,000 fortifications and bunkers – 10,000 of them in France – the German soldier would eat, sleep and fight. Fight and be protected. 'The most precious thing of all is German life,' Hitler declared. 'The blood spared in building this fortress is worth the billions spent on it.'
Dieppe had been a warning, a portent of what was to come, as the Führer explained at length to a select group of his Western commanders and political leaders on the penultimate day of September 1942. The British would go away and lick their wounds, but they would be back. Hitler continued:
The enemy will not abandon attempts to form a Second Front, for he knows that it is the only chance he can still achieve total victory. Therefore, I regard it as my mission to do everything humanly possible to improve the defensive capability of the coast immediately.
Building an Atlantic Wall would be the 'most decisive factor' in determining the war in the Reich's favour, the Führer told his audience:
I cannot sleep securely at night if I think that the Americans and English have landed in France before I've brought the war in Russia and Africa to a victorious conclusion. I will not give up one foot of ground which is soaked in the blood of German soldiers. I will take root in France like scabies.
It would, of course, take time to build this great bulwark – until the spring of 1943, Hitler estimated. After that 'nothing more can happen to us'.
The dream was eclipsed by reality. The Atlantic Wall as Adolf Hitler envisioned it in the summer of 1942 was beyond the means of the Third Reich. May 1943 was an impossible deadline for completing 15,000 new fortifications. The Organisation Todt, responsible for major construction projects in the Reich, believed that at best it could build just 6,000 of the positions the Führer expected of it. When building the West Wall, the line of fortifications hastily erected to protect the Reich on its border with France before 1940, one construction worker had been allocated to each metre of the wall; on the Atlantic, there would be one worker for every seven metres.
Despite its misgivings and shortages, the Organisation Todt set to work. There were already almost 5,000 bunkers, gun positions, trenches and other fortifications in the west. By the middle of 1943, there were more than 8,000, as a workforce 250,000 strong toiled. The Atlantic Wall was centred around hundreds of strong points – sizeable fortifications housing artillery positions, machine-gun nests, bunkers and shelters, surrounded by a network of trenches, barbed wire and anti-tank barriers.
The press described the Atlantic Wall as 'the greatest and strongest line of fortifications military history has seen'. It was regarded as a 'shield of steel and concrete and a safeguard of the values of Europe'. Gerd von Rundstedt was less impressed. The Atlantic Wall, he later declared, was 'sheer humbug'. Adolf Hitler expected his coastal bulwark to hold out for a month or more. Von Rundstedt believed at best it could delay the enemy for just twenty-four hours.
Fortunately for von Rundstedt and his men, the Allied landings in 1943 were concentrated in the Mediterranean, first in Sicily, then in mainland Italy. But the asset stripping of France to feed the mincing machine of the Eastern Front now extended to feeding Italy as well. Work on the Atlantic Wall slowed, too, as the Reich's labour force was called upon to make good the effects of the enemy's air offensive against the Fatherland. It could not go on. 'The limit of what is possible and bearable has been reached and in some places has been surpassed,' Rundstedt complained to Berlin.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Germans in Normandy"
Copyright © 2006 Richard Hargreaves.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Every Night We Wait for Tommy 1
Chapter 2 The Last Opportunity to Turn the Tide 20
Chapter 3 My God, it's the Invasion 33
Chapter 4 Up Against an Irresistible Force 41
Chapter 5 Approaching a Catastrophe 65
Chapter 6 Further Sacrifices Cannot Change Anything 86
Chapter 7 The Unequal Struggle 105
Chapter 8 The Blackest Day in German History 138
Chapter 9 Only the Dead Can Now Hold the Line 164
Chapter 10 Death has Reaped a Terrible Harvest 189
Chapter 11 Out-Generalled and Out-Fought 223
Chapter 12 This Cannot be the End 243
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