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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.