Part 2, The Allies Return

THE PANZERS STRIKE

As new of the invasion broke, senior German officers scrambled to deploy their armored reserves which were scattered around central and southern France. At 9 am, nearly two hours after the beach landings, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt of Oberbefehlshaber West (OB West) decided to commit two panzer divisions into action. Every instinct told him that the real invasion would take place at Calais, but the veteran general, a student of the old Prussian school, decided nonetheless to unleashed two reserve armored divisions within Panzer-Group West on this “diversionary landing.”

 

Orders were cut for the 12th SS “Hitler Youth” Panzer Division and the highly trained Panzer Lehr Division to advance into the invasion zone. But then these ordered were cancelled by Field Marshal Alfred Jodl, the German Chief of Operations Staff in Berlin, who argued that only Hitler had the authority to move these units.

Hitler, a habitual late riser, was still asleep and would not awake before noon. When he did, he was inexplicably cool. “The news couldn’t be better. As long as they were in Britain, we couldn’t get at them. Now we have them where we can destroy them,” he said.

adolf hitler glasses meeting hungarian d

On Wednesday, 7 June 1944, Chief of Operations Staff of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), Alfred Jodl, details the Allied landings to Hitler at the Schloss Klessheim, Salzburg. Watching on are other senior German Nazis and Hungarian officials.

Nevertheless, it was 4 pm by when the reserves received orders to move north. Also ordered to move to battle was a recalcitrant armored division, resting south of Caen, albeit after a further delay of around two to three hours because the whereabouts of the divisional commander could not be ascertained.

This was the 21st Panzer Division, once a fabled stalwart of the North African war but now a toothless tiger, replete with misfits and recruits — although 2,000 original members, having been hospitalized for wounds in North Africa two years ago, had returned to swell its ranks.

Later in 1944, a military court looked into Feuchtinger's conspicuous absence on the night of June 6, 1944. Among findings of ineptitude, it also established that Feuchtinger had been passing on Wehrmacht issue rations to his mistress. Orders were cut for his arrest. On 24 December 1944, when troops from Ob West went to pick him up at his apartment, at Celle in Germany, they found a massive stash of food and drink. Despite having won the Ritterkreuz in August 1944, Feuchtinger was arrested, imprisoned at Torgau. Sentenced to death in January 1945, he was reprieved but demoted to the rank of gunner. As a final humiliation, he was assigned to 20th Panzergrenadier Division on the Eastern front. However, he fled and was taken prisoner by the British at Celle. He was released in 1945. He died in 1960.

Evidence of its diminished standing was borne out by the fact that it had until recently, been equipped with old French tanks captured in 1940. By D-Day, however, it had been outfitted with Panzer IVs, a medium tank which was an even match for the Allied Sherman. Even its commander, Major-General Edgar Feuchtinger, behaved as though the running of this division was something of a chore, if not punishment. Accordingly, Feuchtinger spent more time lavishing attention on his Franco-African mistress, an actress in Paris, than working to get his division to full operational status.

 

If the division resembled a Frankenstein's monster, made up of disparate parts, it was because of Germany's strained coffers and Feuchtinger's lack of interest. Major Hans von Luck would write later that: "Owing to lack of sufficient supplies, the division had mainly French war materiel, which had been found after the French campaign of 1940. This was allowed to be used, with the approval of High Command West, in order to hasten its reestablishment...Here Major Becker, a reserve officer and the owner of a small factory in western Germany, played a decisive part. A highly gifted engineer, with excellent links with armaments industry, and a personal friend of Feuchtinger, he had a free hand to improvise and, with the French materiel, put some of his own designs into effect."

In four years of war, the old French designs had aged badly. Puny 37mm and 40mm guns which were once cutting edge were now now no match for the evolution of  gun calibers in the intervening years. Yet, the division needed filling out and so the Germans went to work. Becker had discovered a large number tank chassis at the Hotchkiss factory near Paris, which he set about adapting as an "assault gun" battalion for the division. Meantime, he ordered modern guns and heavy armor to refit the chassis, while also summoning rocket-launchers. Becker’s excellent connections in Germany meant that this battalion also received the latest radio equipment, Luck wrote.

"At first, we laughed at the monstrous looking assault-guns, but we soon came to know better," Luck added. He would be less charitable about his boss, Feuchtinger.

Most of Feuchtinger's fellow officers knew his temperament, but his Nazi Party connections had insulated him from punitive action. Von Luck would recall later that as an artilleryman, Feuchtinger had no experience at all in armored combat or even combat. "He had become known in Germany as the organizer of the military part of the so-called Reichsparteitage, the national Party rallies, and through that was very familiar with Hitler and his Party apparatus," he wrote in his post-war memoires.

In fact, Feuchtinger was once again philandering in Paris when the invasion materialized as was his chief operations officer, OberstLt. von Berlinchingen.

 

Lt-General Hans Speidel, the Chief of Staff of Army Group B was livid to hear of Feuchtinger's absence from his post. It was 2 am when Feuchtinger was told, while in Paris, that paratroopers had landed on the east bank of the Orne River. After being subject to a telephonic dressing down by Spiedel, Feuchtinger had rung up Oberst Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski, commander of the 22nd Panzer Regiment, to place the regiment on readiness. As the regiment began to stir from the slumber of night, Feuchtinger had jumped in his staff car and hastened for Normandy. It was 5.20 am by the time he arrived at the divisional headquarters at Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives.

Order of battle of the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy

A tank commander in the 4th Company of the 22nd Panzer Regiment, Werner Kortnehaus, said that despite being alerted about the invasion at 1 pm, the tank element of the division had “had done nothing for some six or seven hours, while the situation was obscure and the commanders argued. Now, the seaborne troops were landing, and the situation was clarifying.”

It was 8 am by when the 1st Battalion of the 22nd Panzer Regiment, equipped with Panzer Mk IVs under Captain von Gottberg, had moved out to be followed an hour later by a mixed force of StuG tank destroyers and captured French Somuas under Major Vierzig.

Map of the dispositons of the 21st Panzer Division on June 5, 1944, D-Day

t took almost all day for them to move to the area north of Caen that made up the “Sword” beach sector. "Most of the units, from the area east of Caen and the Orne, had to squeeze through the eye of the needle at Caen and over the only bridges available in this sector. Caen was under virtually constant bombardment from the navy and the fighter bombers of the RAF," von Luck said.

 

Although little material damage was inflicted while on the move, its men cursed the absence of the Luftwaffe as they watched the allies fly overhead with impunity. Reichsmarshal Hermann Goring, commander of the Luftwaffe had promised a thousand aircraft to support them on the day of the invasion. Now there was not a single German aircraft in the sky.

Tank Panzer IVH.jpg

This was because the Luftwaffe was simply fighting to survive. A shortage of combat machines and men prohibited the airmen from engaging the numerically superior allies on an equal scale, but they did manage to get off 319 sorties, shooting down a total of 26 allied aircraft. This included six Bomber Command aircraft that were downed by nightfighters before daylight. The only serious attack against the allied invasion fleet was mounted in the darkening hours of D-Day, when 22 German bombers attacked ships off Omaha beach. Only one bomb landed anywhere near allied forces when a bomb from a Ju88 landed 32 meters (35 yards) from the USS Arkansas. Intense naval anti-aircraft fire in return, brought down three of the raiders.

In stark contrast, allied air forces flew thousands of sorties on D-Day. The four-engine heavies of the US 8th Air Force carried out three major raids on the morning of D-Day just before the assault. One involved some 1,264 heavies, pummeling traffic chokepoints behind the assault areas from Brittany to the Seine. St. Lô, Vire and Coustances were all hit.

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Allied bombers pummel Caen on D-Day. The time was about 1 pm. US National Archives

Meanwhile, the American 9th Air Force dispatched some 1,011 bombers to destroy strong German defensive posts. At the same time, 2,065 fighter-bombers from the 9th Air Force attacked enemy targets wherever found, but they also flew 11 important missions on the request by the ground forces. This included dealing with enemy coastal batteries between Isigny and Bayeux as well as deal with the guns near Maisy and Gefosse-Fontenay. British squadrons of the AEAF meantime flew 2,489 sorties on D-Day. Unsurprisingly, in such a vast realm of allied air superiority, the Luftwaffe was swamped.

North of Caen, British tanks and infantry of the 8th Brigade were advancing on the city. As they reached Periers Ridge, a stretch of high ground before the villages of Periers-sur-le-Dan and Bieville, heavy fire from German 88 mm guns of Panzerjager-Abteilung 200 began landing all around the advance force.

The British should have charged the guns. Instead, the infantry of the 1st South Lancashire Regiment and the tanks of the 13/18th Royal Hussars dug in. Aside from a smattering of German infantry and strung-out screens of antitank guns from the 21st Panzer Division, there was virtually nothing between them and the city. They could have been in Caen by mid-afternoon. But their leader, Brigadier Edward Cass, preferring to wait for reinforcements. It would prove a fateful decision.

Soon, the KSLI and the tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry of the 185th Brigade had arrived and passed the dug-in troops and pushed on towards Bieville. They started to come under heavy fire from a German howitzer on the Periers ridge.

 

A fierce battle erupted and there appeared to be no way through until a Polish “volunteer” deserter told Major Wheelock of Z Company, KSLI, of a way through the German lines, past a wire leading to the rear of the German battery. At 3 pm, a large raiding party of British infantry slipped through the gap into the German lines and attacked the battery from behind. As this position was being mopped up, the rest of the KSLI and the Staffordshire entered Bieville by 4 pm. However, about 25 minutes, forward recce forces were reporting the appearance of German tanks. Alarming signals followed from scouts reporting upwards of 40 German tanks amassing north of Lebisey woods.

Shermans of the 27th Brigade advance

A 21-year-old officer, Lt Harry Jones of the KSLI was pouring over a map with his platoon commander when an explosion shattered nearby. “1 looked towards the enemy and could not believe my eyes. There advancing round the corner of a wood about five hundred yards away, were five or six German tanks,” he said.

 

Jones and the men around him scattered for dear life. It was the long-feared German counterattack.

Shermans of the 27th Armored Brigade advance towards Caen.

The panzers had been mobilizing for hours having been badly scattered by the chaos of the day. Some units had already gone into haphazard action and were disorganized. Von Luck’s battlegroup which had been in action on the eastern bank of the Orne against the British 6th Airborne Division with orders recapture the Ranville bridge, had its orders rescinded at 10.30 am. It was now obligated to come to the west bank to attack Lion-sur-Mer. This mean a circuitous journey back down to Colombelles and through Caen, where the battlegroup was badly impeded by refugees streaming through the bombed streets of Caen, plus air attacks. As von Luck’s battlegroup exited the city at 1.30 am, it was struck by more rocket-firing Typhoons. Six tanks were soon on fire.

Caen 12th SS D-Day.jpg

Meantime, at 1 pm, Feuchtinger had split Colonel Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski’s 22nd Panzer Regiment into three battlegroups (kampfgruppen), to push Allied forces back into the “Sword” beachhead. The regiment, which had eight companies divided into two battalions, was strewn all over northern Caen.

As von Oppeln-Bronikowski’s 22nd Panzer Regiment prepared his battered tank force for action, the commander of LXXXIV Corps, General Marcks, arrived and delineated his forces into two distinct battlegroups: Kampfgruppe Rauch (with two panzergrenadier battalion and several tank companies), and Kampfgruppe Oppeln (with the balance of the two tank battalions).

 

Kampfgruppe Rauch had orders to advance along the western flank of the invasion, while Oppeln’s battleground was to attack from Lebisey woods

The vanguard 12th SS Panzer Division navigate their way through the rubble of Caen.

"We saw Caen at the horizon as a burning, smoking town”, said Werner Kortenhaus of 4th Company, Panzer Regiment 22, as the tanks moved off at 0800. “The march was slow and difficult, the roads choked by other units moving up and by refugees fleeing from Caen.”

At 4.20 pm, the order to advance was issued. “The future of Germany may very well rest on your shoulders,” Marcks told von Oppeln-Bronikowski. “If you don’t push the British back, we’ve lost the war.”

Shortly after, the forward scouts at Bieville reported incoming German tanks. Twenty-five tanks led by Hauptmann Herr of the 5th Company trundled up the heights. The KSLI scrambled to deploy their 6-pounder antitank platoon, plus a troop of 41st Anti-Tank Battery with formidable 17-pounder anti-tank guns. Simultaneously, “A” Squadron of the Staffordshire Yeomanry moved up. As 25 German tanks under Herr reached the heights, so too did the British. A third Yeomanry squadron with more Shermans raced to reinforce the others.

A Panzer IV of the 21st Division navigates through a French village.

“At first, these tanks received no opposition,” a German account went. “Then, as they moved up the hill, the English opened heavy defensive fire from both tanks and anti-tank guns. Their position was tactically well-chosen and their fire both heavy and accurate. The first Mark IV was blazing before a single German tank had the chance to fire a shot.”

The remainder moved forward, firing at where the enemy were thought to be, but soon, one more panzer had been knocked out by the Shermans. Shocked, the remaining panzers swung and the Shermans roared off in pursuit. Shells made a mess out of two more panzers while the antitank guns of No 4 Gun, 41st Battery destroyed another two.

At the same time, a second pincer of 35 tanks (of the combined 2nd and 3rd Companies) led by Major Wilhelm von Gottberg, commander of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Panzers, roared in from around the left of Periers Ridge where, at 4.45 pm, they came across a knoll known to the British as Point 61. Here, a single squadron of Staffordshire Shermans ("B" Squadron) was waiting, in hull-down positions.

Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski. Bundesarchiv

“The position was the same,” a German account from the 21st Panzer’s unofficial history reads. Murderous fire, from well-sited defensive positions set up by the British raked the Germans. von Gottberg’s battlegroup was soon in disarray. Ten panzers were destroyed. One German veteran would say later: “The long wait in the morning, plus the diversion by Colombelles, had consumed fourteen hours and given the enemy time to build up a strong line of defense. The one and only chance on D-Day had been lost. Never again was there to be such a chance.”

However, further west, the armored cars and infantry of 1st Battalion, Panzer Grenadier Regiment 192, plus 14 Panzer Mark IVs of the 2nd Battalion pressed on towards the coast. This force roared past Douvres-la-Deliverande and six panzers actually reached the beach at Luc-sur-Mer at 8 pm - only to be halted antitank fire, airstrikes and Allied tanks. Then, to cap it off, before 9 pm, the Germans were stunned to see a swarm of Allied transport aircraft tugging gliders headed towards them – the evening supply reinforcements for paratroop forces still fighting along the flanks. Some of these gliders began to land near Saint-Aubin-d’Arquenay. Others landed made for the eastern bank of the Orne.

Werner Kortenhaus, who was with the 4th Company on the other side of the Orne, attacking the paratroopers, was stunned. “No one who saw it will ever forget it. Suddenly, the hollow roaring of countless aeroplanes, and then we saw them, hundreds of them, towing great gliders, filling the sky,” he said.

The gliders started coming down in various landing zones, and on both sides of the Orne, some passing directly over a troop of German anti-tank guns, still holding at Bénouville.

“An uncanny silence seemed to descend upon everything and everyone,” Kortenhaus said. “We all looked up, and there they were just above us. Noiselessly, those giant wooden boxes sailed in over our heads to land, where men and equipment came pouring out of them. We lay on our backs and fired, and fired, and fired into those gliders, until we could not work the bolts of our rifles anymore. Our 2 cm flak troop shot some down and damaged many more, but with such masses, it seemed to make little difference.”

Fearing that he would be cut off, von Oppeln-Bronikowski called the retreat. The counterattack was over. The Germans withdrew to Caen.    

The 21st Panzer was the only armored unit to go into action on D-Day, partly in testament to the brilliance of Fortitude and other allied deceptions. If Hitler had given the order in the morning, and if the Panzer divisions had advanced on the beachheads, heavier losses for all sides would have likely ensued.

The Allied Forward Air Control (FAC) system of directing fighter-bombers to designated targets by means of radio communications, was not in proper operation on June 6, which would have meant that the ground forces could not have been adequately supported. However, it is not be inconceivable to think that the Panzers would have also suffered terribly in the face of Allied naval firepower, and amphibious Sherman DD tanks – a substantial number of which had arrived onshore.

German S35.jpg

German troops with a 1940-era French Somua S35 tank in German service in Normandy. These tanks were used by the 21st Panzer Division until D-Day, after which, they were traded in for Panzer IVs.

If the panzers had appeared in the beaches on strength, a repeat of the Sicilian invasion of July 1943 would likely have taken place. On that occasion, 56-ton Tiger tanks of the Herman Göring Panzer Division had assaulted the beaches in force only to be beaten back by naval fire and by the combined might of infantry-held bazookas and artillery, of which one battalion had just landed.

As night fell, the leading elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division and Kurt “Panzer” Meyer reached the forward headquarters of Lt-General Wilhelm Richter of the 716th Infantry Division. The headquarters was deep underground and the corridors and halls were crowded with German wounded. What Meyer heard was discomfiting. None of the forward strongpoints, barring “Hillman” were reporting in, Richter said. Dispatch riders were unable to get through. But then, Obert Krug, of the 736th Grenadier Regiment who was holed up at Hillman with his troops came on the radio.

“The enemy are on top of my bunker. I have no means of resisting them and no communications with me men. What shall I do?” he asked.

Both Meyer and Feuchtinger were both in the room when General Richter took the call. Every man could see that Richter was composing himself. Finally, he said into the telephone: “I can give you no more orders. You must make your own decision. Goodbye.” He hung up.

At 6.45 am on June 7, Krug went up to the surface with a white flag to meet the British. He and three officers, plus 70 men were all that were left out of the Hillman garrison.

A Royal Artillery command post, probably from a 105mm SP M7 Priest Field Regiment, beds down for the night at Hermanville-sur-Mer on June 6, 1944. The Sherman OP (observation post) tank in the background has a small "GD" tactical marking on the side of its hull, indicating its the vehicle of the GPO (Gun Position Officer) of B Troop, 2nd Battery. IWM B 5033

In the darkness of that first night back on the continent, the Allies consolidated their gains. But the firefights had not yet died away. At 2 am in the Canadian sector, the “A” Company of the Regiment de la Chaudiere which was deployed between Fontaine-Henry and Pierrepont, heard an armored column approaching their position. The column stopped on the road and men emerged. The Canadians assumed these were Allied reinforcements from the beach which had become lost. But then some of the men heard the new arrivals speaking German.

At that moment, the stillness of night was blasted open by bursts of gunfire. A haystack nearby caught fire and by its orange light, the Canadians could see their quarry: a company of German panzergrenadiers with halftracks. The German commander initially ordered a pull-back but then changed his mind and attacked. Two Canadian six-pounder guns were ready. They blasted the German armored vehicles until they themselves were killed. The German column ran straight through the Canadian company, triggering brutal close-quartered fighting.

As dawn came, the maelstrom of battle could be counted: 17 armored cars destroyed, and a trail of German bodies leading south. The Canadians had not come away unscathed. Many were dead or wounded and 15 were missing.

It was last major battle of D-Day. Overall, the Allies had won a major victory. They had secured all five landing beaches and were already stockpiling supplies for the push inland.

TWILIGHT COMES

The Canadians had landed 21,400 men but had suffered the loss of 1,328 (335 killed, 946 wounded, 47 captured.*

 

*The exact losses were: 143 casualties in the Queen’s own Rifles (including 61 killed), 128 casualties in the Royal Winnipegs (including 55 killed), 125 casualties in the North Shore Regiment (including 33 men killed), 108 casualties in the Regina Rifles (including 42 killed) and 105 casualties in the regiment de la Chaudiere (including 16 killed). The rest of the casualties were among the 2nd Armored Brigade, the Navy and Royal Marine landing craft crews, 48 Commando and the assault troops of 79th Armored Division and, plus 103 Beach Group and assorted troops of the British 51st Highland Division.

The Canadian casualties which comprised the second highest rate in the totality of D-Day, was  surpassed only by the Americans at Omaha, where 2,400 men had become casualties. The lion’s share was borne by the 1st Infantry Division which had suffered 1,346 casualties, including 971 men in the 16th Infantry Regiment. The opposing German 352nd Division had lost 1,200 men or 20 percent of its fighting force. 

At Utah Beach, 21,000 troops were landed, at the cost of 197 killed, 332 wounded and 60 missing. At Pointe du Hoc, the Rangers would endure two days of fierce German counterattacks. Reinforcements arrived on June 8, by which time the Rangers had been reduced to 90 men fit for combat. However, they had been the first amphibious-landed Americans to gain their objectives on D-Day.

 

The US airborne forces had suffered 2,499 casualties out of which 238 were killed. An August tabulation by the US Army found the 1,240 casualties were in the combat-green 101st Airborne Division (182 killed, 557 wounded, and 501 missing) while the more battle-hardened 82nd Airborne counted 156 killed, 347 wounded and 756 missing on D-Day. The British 6th Parachute Division had lost 630 men killed or wounded.

Curiously the British did not record their casualties among the amphibious forces on D-Day. What is known, however, is that on Gold Beach, the 50th Division had landed 25,000 men, had penetrated six miles inland while linking up with the Canadians at Juno and the Americans at Omaha. What was more, they had accomplished all this for just 400 casualties – notwithstanding their failure to capture their primary objective, the city of Bayeux. At “Sword” meantime, British had managed to land some 29,000 men but had suffered 630 casualties in the fighting. German casualties on D-Day are less well-known, but numbered between 4,000 and 9,000 killed.

Altogether, the Allies had landed almost 130,000 men for the loss of 4,390 men dead, wounded or captured. The figures were much lower than what the Allied leadership had expected. The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had expected a catastrophe, telling his wife that 10,000 would be killed on that first day. Some Allied commanders had feared that half of the invasion would be lost. At the same time, the day had not been a complete victory. D-Day’s primary objectives: Caen and the nearby concrete airbase at Carpiquet remained in German hands.

But back in Britain, the press believed otherwise. “Allied invasion troops, surging into France in non-stop waves, have fought their way into Caen, a town ten miles from the coast. Heavy street fighting is going on,” reported the Daily Express.

In the United States, President Roosevelt had announced the victory of the great endeavor and stated: “Only two US destroyers and one LCT have been sunk, according to a noon dispatch from General Eisenhower.”

In Germany, the press also had its blood up. “At last it is over; they are here at last! But the German soldier was alert, the entire coast awake. Death reaped a terrifying harvest. Inferno belched from German weapons, manned by men who felt that they had a special debt to square with the enemy for his criminal air warfare. Mountains of dead lay on the beaches, where criminal madness had sacrificed them for the conquest of the European continent.”

The victory of D-Day was only the beginning. Caen would remain a thorn in the British side for the next five weeks. The Allies had arrived, but the battle for Normandy was just beginning. 

GERMANY REINFORCES

The German response to the Allied landings was immediate. Units received orders to rush to the coast. The II Parachute Corps, with the 77th, 265th, 275th infantry and the 3rd Fallschrimjäger Divisions was dispatched to the western side of the landings. The 346th Infantry Division from the Fifteenth Army reserve – the only unit to be transferred from Fifteenth Army – was sent to the extreme eastern side of the landing area to engage the British. The armored divisions – 12th SS Panzer, 2nd Panzer and the 130th Panzer Lehr – with their appropriate Corps as well as the Headquarters of Panzer Group West, LXXXI Army Corps and III Flak Corps were placed on standby, although they were not released for action until much later.

Much of these delays can be traced back to a series of arguments that had been raging long before the invasion. The chief proponents of these arguments were Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt of OB West and Erwin Rommel of the subordinate Army Group G. Both men differed with each other over how best to repel an Allied invasion. Rundstedt placed faith in the mechanized reserves which he believed could respond quickly and flexibly to an enemy thrust. As a result, he stationed the newly created armored command, Panzer Group West, near Paris.

From there, the force could move, as circumstances required, toward the site of an enemy assault in either Pas de Calais or Normandy. In any case, Rundstedt secretly believed that to resist the invasion on the beaches was futile and the only way to handle the enemy was draw him inland, before unleashing the panzers.

Field Marshal Rundstedt and senior SS officers.

I wonder what von Rundstedt, as an officer of the old Prussian school of the German military thought of the bonafide Nazis around him. Distaste maybe or perhaps even acceptance.

A vertibale constellation of German and Nazi superstars observe a 12th SS Division military exercise in the spring of 1944. From right to left: Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt, SS-Sturmbannführer Hubert Meyer, SS-Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, SS-Oberführer Fritz Witt and SS-Standartenführer Kurt Meyer. Alamy Stock Photo

Rommel on the other hand, understood the potential of allied air power to disrupt movement. He advocated holding the panzers right behind the beaches to repel the invaders. If Eisenhower’s forces gained even the barest foothold on the continent, he reasoned, they would win the battle.

But each of these viewpoints had one significant drawback. For one, as Rommel realized, Rundstedt had failed to reckon with allied air power, which could hinder the advance of mechanized units. But Rommel’s himself downplayed the fact that once the panzers were deployed in one particular sector of France, then they might not have enough time to react to the landings if they took place in another sector. However, the “Desert Fox” was determined not be cowed and applied personally to Hitler, over Rundstedt’s head, for control of the panzer divisions.

Hitler initially agreed to Rommel’s request but subsequently returned control of the reserves to Rundstedt when the latter objected. Finally settling on a compromise, the Führer transferred three of Panzer Group West’s divisions to Rommel, but OB West maintained to hold control over four others that were to operate as a central reserve. This compromise would deprive both Field Marshals of the authority needed to pit these formations into battle – a critical error.

Meanwhile, the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was released from south of the Loire, and at the same time, the Fifteenth Army received two divisions – one from Norway (the 89th) and one from Denmark (the 363rd), as well as having two new divisions created in its area, the 6th Parachute and 136th Infantry. In turn, the Germans ended up losing the 19th Panzer Division to Army Group Center in Russia and the 19th Luftwaffe Field Division to Army Group C in Italy. Remarkably, this amount of movement was performed in spite of a seemingly devastated French railway system.

Just how well had the air forces accomplished their mission? The airmen had themselves warned against expecting too much from their efforts. Attempting to precisely knock out fortified or highly mobile targets were still beyond their abilities, or any else for that matter during the war. Their warnings had been ignored by the ground commanders, who believed that air and naval power would cleanse their sectors of the enemy even before they arrived. Such was their subsequent disappointment, that only the later successes of allied fighter-bombers over the battlefield would see a revival of tactical air support confidence. 

On the other side, the Germans on the receiving end of all their bombardments experienced mixed results. Their rail-units were sometimes invariable delayed, while those traveling by road were almost on the whole met by Allied fighter-bombers. But here again anomalies plague research. For instance, German infantry sent from Brittany which were in any case, not mechanically mobile, managed to arrive on the battlefront within two or three days, except for minor casualties. The panzer divisions also fared no worse.

The 21st Panzer Division, for example, lost almost no tanks to allied aircraft during its move towards Sword Beach from the south of Caen.

But when it reached the front at around 4.30 in the afternoon, it had been delayed only by wreckage and road blockages rather than aerial action. But several other units in the area reported heavy losses. The Panzer Lehr Division, for instance apparently suffered the loss of 80 vehicles on June 7 alone. Ordered north to confront the invasion, the armored division was mobilized on the afternoon of June 6 and at 5.30 am on the next day, it experienced its first allied air attack, somewhere near Falaise. Blasted bridges and bombed road intersections hindered movement, particularly for the support vehicles, and so intense were the aerial attacks along the Vire-Beny Bocage road that its commander, Fritz Bayerlein, described the route as a “Jabo Rennstrecke” (fighter-bomber racecourse).

 

However, in stark incongruity, another divisional report, written by the division’s maintenance company on June 10, indicates that few casualties were inflicted on the march. Nevertheless, Allied pilots claimed the destruction of no less than 400 armored vehicles in a 48-hour period between D-Day and June 7.

The 2nd SS Panzer Division also suffered. Based in Montauban, near Toulouse in Southern France on D-Day, the division was ordered to Normandy two days later. The 2nd SS “Das Reich” was an elite formation, veterans of the Blitzkreig in 1940 and the Russian front, but it would soon meet its match in 1944. Hindered en-route by the French resistance determined on delaying reinforcements to Normandy, the division vented its rage by killing 120 civilians at Tulle.

 

This atrocity, however, would pale in comparison to what they did further north. On June 9, the commander of one of the SS battalions was captured by the resistance and killed near Limoges –this triggered a wave of searches and harassment of the civilians in the nearby areas. One of these – Oradour-sur-Glane caught the attention of 120 panzer grenadiers under Major Otto Dickmann. The men were herded into barns and shot, while the women and children were killed in the church. Around 642 people were killed on June 10 and the village was set afire and left to burn. The village was never rebuilt;

It was only when the 2nd SS crossed the Loire that the real war caught up with them. Squadron after squadron of Allied fighter-bombers fell upon the SS. All daylight movement ceased after Samur and Tours, and the division crawled forward during the hours of night. When the division tried again to advance by day, the fighter-bombers returned again, firing rockets and cannons. Sixteen trucks and half-tracks were set ablaze.

Soon, every man in the division grew accustomed to the “German Look” – craning upwards, always on the lookout for the hated “Jabos.” Tankmen also grew accustomed to leaping out of their vehicles and seek out shelter in the adjoining ditches or underneath the hulls of their machines whenever the fighter-bombers attacked. Their only hope for protection was rains or the night. Ultimately the unit arrived in Normandy at the end of June, intact in terms of tanks but depleted in terms of trucks and other wheeled or semi-wheeled vehicles. 

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SS Major Otto Dickmann of the 2nd SS Panzer Division who was instrumental in the murder of the villagers of Oradour-sur-Glane. Here, he is pictured with his two-year-old son, Adolf, who as an adult struggled to come to terms with atrocities committed by his father.

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SS troops review the effects of an attack by Allied fighter-bombers on their column. Bundesarchiv

On June 30, soon after his arrival in Normandy, Major Dickmann was killed in combat, and after the war, two NCOs from his unit were sentenced to death at Nuremberg for their part in the Oradour massacre. The sentences were later commuted.

But the experiences of another unit belie the effectiveness of air power. The 12th SS Hitler Jugend Panzer Division was held up largely because it took time advancing around Caen, because the roads through the city were piled with rubble and debris, caused by the bombing. By the following day, the 25th SS Panzer-Grenadier Regiment, supported by some tanks launched a series of attacks on the advanced regiments of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, followed into action on the next day by the second Panzer Grenadier Regiment, the 26th SS.

The experiences of the various divisions ordered to the front, therefore, appear to have varied greatly and this situation continued throughout June and much of July, until new procedures and tactics helped the allied air forces to improve air support. In any case, even if the allied fighter-bombers failed to weaken the enemy’s divisions, a certain amount of comfort can be gained by the fact that they delayed the course of these units by the obstructing roads with wreckage.

At the same time as the ground forces, Luftwaffe reinforcements also began to stream into Normandy, their arrival prompted by an urgent message of warning by Hugo Sperrle: ‘Dr. Gustav West’ to Berlin.

The letter ‘G’ was the required key required. When decoded in Berlin, it read: Dr efhar West (“Imminent danger in the West”). Within minutes, Berlin had implemented pre-planned measure to reinforce the two existing fighter wings in France, JG2 and JG26, with reinforcements from Germany. This involved the transfer of 19 day-fighter groups to airfields near the front – almost 800 fighter aircraft. In addition, a further eight groups with night fighters, two with ground attack aircraft, five bomber groups and two reconnaissance squadrons were to be transferred to France.

Their destination was 100 airfields positioned across western Europe, stretching for a 1,000 km (625 miles) from Holland to the Mediterranean Sea. Some of these were “group airfields,” comprising two or three airfields located in close proximity with each other, each airfield consisting of at least two to four well-camouflaged runways. These group airbases were given a specific codename, and were capable of housing one group or even an entire Geschwader (wing). As matters transpired, it was only this well-conceived system of deployments that the Luftwaffe was able to avoid complete destruction in the first few weeks after the invasion.

Fighter-bomber units were deployed near the beachhead and in between the Seine and Loire rivers. Eight other dedicated fighter groups were deployed to bases further inland, east of Paris, while the three Gruppen of JG27 were based about 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of the French capital.

 

One of the first Luftwaffe units to receive movement orders was II Gruppe/JG1. It, like the rest, received the coded message: “Einsatz West-Einsatzort Flers” (Operations West-Operational Base Flers) on the morning of June 6 at their airfield near Störmede in Germany.

At 4.25 pm, 32 Fw190A-8s took off under the command of Lt Georg-Peter Eder, and headed for Normandy. By late evening of June 6, the unit had successfully landed at Montidier, France for refueling, but this took longer than anticipated and the gruppe was forced to remain there overnight. The next morning after a dawn take-off, Eder was informed that their intended airfield had been bombed out and instead diverted to the automobile racetrack at Le Mans, some 110 km (70 miles) south of Caen. Although, II/JG1 arrived intact at Le Mans, many others were not so lucky.

Some units had decided to fly to Le Mans independently. One unit, the 7th Staffel of JG 51 was flying at 300 meters when it was attacked by Mustangs near Le Mans and was forced into a defensive circle, where each aircraft guarded the tail of the aircraft in front.

One of the pilots, Lt. Johann Brünnler foolishly left the circle and attacked the Allied formation. He was quickly shot down and fatally crashed near Châteaudun. Meanwhile, the chaotic landing grounds at Le Mans were milling with German fighters as both I/JG1 and II/JG53 had flown in earlier that day, augmenting the existing Luftwaffe in France with approximately 100 Fw190s and Me109s. Most of these new arrivals went into action immediately, but suffered in the face of allied numerical superiority. Hauptmann Karl-Heinz Weber, the new ace commander of III/JG1, was shot down and killed by Polish-flown Mustangs on his very first combat sortie over Normandy. The bad weather, allied air superiority and the lack of experience among the majority of the pilots created a disaster out of the Luftwaffe’s reinforcement plans. In the first 72 hours after the invasion, the Germans lost 60 of the fighter reinforcements.

For example, II/JG3, equipped with Me109’s, took from Sachau, Germany for Evreux on June 7 and was led by the gruppe adjutant, Lt Max-Bruno Fischer. The unit managed to land at Frankfurt-Eschborn for refueling, but from then on, the going turned for the worst. In bad weather, ten fighters were lost, and the rest were so exhausted by the ordeal that they were forced to turn back. Only Fischer arrived in Normandy. Another unit that experienced similar problems was I/JG27, which left Fels am Wagram in Austria for Vertus in the morning of June 6, but by the time it arrived at St. Dizier in France a few days later, some 15 Me109’s had been lost.

 

Even pilot transfers were meeting tough opposition. Attempting to dispatch its pilots from Frankfurt to France by using Ju-52 transports, II/JG53 lost four of its transports and two fighters to American P-47’s at 7.45 am on June 7, just moments after landing at Le Mans. In a further attack that afternoon at Vannes airfields, the Americans succeeded in destroying three other Ju-52’s as well as damaging a wide number of fighters.

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An Me109G-6 of Stab I./JG3, piloted by Oberleutnant Max Bruno Fischer at Évreux France. This image was apparently taken before Fischer flew an attack sortie attacking Allied troops in Normandy.

Attempts at reinforcement were steadily deteriorating as time passed – a fact not appreciated by the Luftwaffe high command. The last dispatch of fighter reinforcements to France occurred on June 20, when 53 heavily armed Me109G-6’s left Germany for Evreux, west of the river Seine. The Messerschmitts was led in by two twin-engined Me110’s serving as guides, but such was inexperience of the Me109 pilots, that two crashed (both pilots died), nine made forced landings, 39 landed in the wrong places and only three arrived at Evreux. This fiasco was the last straw for Berlin, which decided to court-martial all the officers involved in the operation.

By June 9, 15 of the 19 fighter groups had arrived in Normandy, but even before the battle for the beaches had finished, the aerial battle had been all but lost. To illustrate the scale of allied air activity after D-Day, the operations of June 8 are illustrative.

On that day, 262 American B-26 Marauders and A-20s dropped 422 tons of bombs on tactical targets. In the meantime, some 735 Eighth Air Force heavies hit bridges and traffic junctions from Brittany to Orleans with 1,200 of bombs. Some 129 Ninth Air Force heavies also successfully bombed railway yards and bridges near the invasion and the Seine with 245 tons of bombs, while 492 heavy bombers from RAF Bomber Command hit German communication centers at Rennes and Alençon with 1851 tons of bombs in a night attack.

Also, in the air that day were 1,797 attack airplanes of the British 2nd Tactical Force (TAF), as well as the 1,335 fighter-bombers from the 8th and 9th Air Forces. These massed fighter-bomber fleets were pitted against German communication lines and against tactical targets. Between 7 and 8 June, seven bridges in Carentan area were attacked by fighter-bombers of the Ninth Air Force, who were credited with breaking three of them. Two medium bomber groups of the Ninth also attacked Isigny on June 8, with the intention of blocking the highway that ran through the town. That same day also saw the marshalling yard St. Lô destroyed with all rail connections at the junction being severed. In return for such a concentrated stream of attacks, the Luftwaffe could mount just 130 sorties.

On June 10, Jagdkorps II (the overall Luftwaffe fighter command organization in France, Belgium and Holland) managed to carry out 326 missions (double that of D-Day), but Luftwaffe pilots found that they faced allied fighters on a scale of 20:1.

 

That same day, the British also established the first landing ground in Normandy at St. Croix-sur-Mer. The airfield, known only as B3, would become busy within the next two weeks. By D+14, the Allies were mounting over six thousands operations per day. As they slowly expanded their beachhead and built more landing grounds, the Luftwaffe found itself slowly being squeezed out of its airbases. Allied medium bombers carpet-bombed the airfields, while bands of fighter-bomber searched out German aircraft hidden beneath a canopy of trees in wooded areas.

Luftwaffe losses were frightful. Said one pilot, Lt Hans Grunberg, the leader of 5/JG 3: “In the first few days after arriving in Evreux each squadron had to prepare one flight for dropping bombs as fighter-bombers. The targets were the Allied fleets, which gave such effective artillery protection for the landed troops, and the landing craft. There were no successes we could report. It was almost impossible that we would be able to drop bombs in the landing zone. The enemy fighters controlled the airspace and the larger ships carried barrage balloons for extra protection. Losses to the units of II/JG 3 were continuous. On our airfields we were constantly subjected to strafing and bombing.”

Nevertheless, some German pilots managed to achieve good results. The commanders of JG and JG 26, Major Kurt Bühlingen and Lt Colonel Josef Priller both reached their 100th victories during the first week of the invasion, and at least four other pilots managed to down ten more aircraft each during the course of the Normandy campaign. Captain Emil “Bully” Lang of III/JG54 was the highest with 14 kills, but the most in a single engagement went to the nightfighter pilots of NJG2, who destroyed 10 Lancasters during the early morning hours of June 25, when over 700 RAF bombers attacked V-1 launching sites in northern France.

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A Mistel (Mistel-2), which fell into the hands of the Allies at Bernburg, Germany in 1945. The construct consists of a bomb-packed Junkers Ju-88 bomber and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter control aircraft.

The Germans also resorted to brilliantly improvised weapons in try to hurt the enemy. One was the German Mistel (Mistletoe). A composite aircraft consisting of a Ju-88 packed with explosives, coupled to a single-engine fighter which carried the pilot. As the pilot approached the target in a glide, he was to release the Ju88 at an appropriate distance and climb away, leaving the Ju88 to carry on towards its target in a straight line, guided by its autopilot.

 

On the night of 14 June, Mosquito nightfighter from 410 Squadron (Royal Canadian Air Force), flown by Flight Lt Walter Dinsdale with his observer, Flying Officer John Dunn, happened to stumble upon of these strange contraptions of war.

Scrambled from the fighter pool at St. Criox-sur-Mer, Dinsdale was vectored southeast up to the Seine to intercept bandits that were engaged in dropping radar chaff in their wake. Turning westwards, he picked up several contacts immediately but was intrigued by an unusual radar signature at 11,000 ft. With the help of special night glasses, the two men were stunned to see what they later discovered was a Mistel.

“It was a very awkward thing and it lumbered along like an old hippo at about 150 mph,” Dinsdale later told reporters. “I recognized it as a Ju 88, but couldn’t figure out what the thing on top was. I thought it was one of their glider bombs mounted in a new way. It was on top, mounted between the rudder and the main wing.”

Dinsdale closed astern of the cumbersome aircraft and fired a short burst with the Mosquito’s devastating armament. The burst hit the starboard wing and cockpit of the Junkers. The Canadians though they killed the pilot. “But of course, there was no pilot as the whole thing is controlled from the fighter on top,” Dinsdale said.

Flames from the Ju88s cockpit area and the wing root, streamed to enclose the fuselage. Slowly banking right, the Mistel went into a steep dive. Like a meteor flaming across the sky, it plunged into the earth behind German lines, the massive resulting detonation lighting up the Norman countryside.

On the night of June 23/24, the Germans tried again, sending five Mistels to attack allied ships in the Bay of the Seine. The Royal Navy frigate HMS Nith, serving as a brigade headquarters ship for the British 231st Infantry Brigade, was lying at anchor off Gold Beach when one Mistel crashed into starboard amidships, scattering pieces of debris everywhere on the ship. Ten men were killed and 26 wounded, but Nith remained afloat.

Also making its entry into Normandy was the turbo-jet powered Messerschmitt Me262 Schwalbe (Swallow). A small number were deployed to Juvincourt at the end of July, to carry out fighter-bomber operations. But the operations amounted to practically nothing, and the presence of the formidable fighter in Normandy seemingly went unnoticed by the allies. 

By the end of June, the registers of Jagdkorps II showed that some 537 allied aircraft had been destroyed, but in turn, in 25 days of combat (between June 6 and 30), they had lost 900 aircraft – the equivalent of a fighter group a day. The statistics also showed that for every experienced Luftwaffe pilot killed, 40 lesser-experienced pilots had also met their end. It was the end of the Luftwaffe on the Western Front.

Canadian troops examine a German Messerschmitt Me109G-6 which came down near Creully sur Seulles area after being shot up by American P-47 Thunderbolts. Its pilot, Sgt. Rudolf Strosetzki was captured. The date of this image is hazy. It may have been taken on June 7.

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