This is a continuation of the article focusing on the D-Day landings in Normandy. You can check it here
6th June 1944, Allied troops from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, invaded Nazi-occupied France with the biggest amphibious force ever, known as Operation Neptune, or D-Day. But World War II was far from over. The gained beach footholds were small, and the German battle strength intact. Operation Overlord, of which Neptune was the initial stage, aimed at liberating Northern France, and destroy the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) in Western Europe.
#1 The day after the Normandy landings
Although the D-Day had seen the Allies lodged in the continent, vital goals of the operation had failed to materialise. Key cities like Carentan or Caen were in German hands. Furthermore, fearsome Panzer Waffen-SS divisions like the 1st SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, or the 12th SS Hitlerjugend, were rushed to the front, although critically delayed by Hitler’s belief that the Allies still planned to disembark in Pas-de-Calais, and the railway destruction caused by the French Resistance.
Aware of the vulnerability the isolated beaches presented to determined German counter-attacks, the British 2nd Army (including Canadian Divisions), focused to join the footholds gained during D-Day, whereas the 1st US Army aimed at capturing Cherbourg, on the Cotentin Peninsula. It was the only deep water port, and its capture would speed up the supplies shipped from England.
Meanwhile the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne captured Carentan, the key to join Utah and Omaha beachheads. Soon were welcomed to the French neighbourhood by the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division. The boys of the 82nd Airborne were to hold Sainte-Mère-Église to cover the flank of the 4th and 90th divisions in their push towards Cherbourg. But soon resistance proved bigger than expected by Bradley, the commander of the 1st US Army.
#2 The Mulberry Harbours and Cherbourg
The 90th performance was disappointing, many of the men, having never experienced real fire, collapsed and wouldn’t response or move. Soon were replaced by the more experienced 9th Division, who pushed towards the west coast and cut the peninsula. Full of strongholds and commanded by Hitler to resist until the end, Cotentin and Cherbourg weren’t surrendered until the 26th June. Sabotaged by the Germans, it would take a month for the harbour in Cherbourg to be operational, and would eventually become the world’s busiest harbour until the end of the war.
Meanwhile, two portable harbours were assembled in both Omaha and Gold. However, on the 19th of June, one of the most violent storms of the 20th century battered the Channel, wiping out Omaha’s harbour. The Mulberry harbour at Gold resisted, and was brought to service. Had Eisenhower postponed the D-Day for two weeks, as it was considered earlier, the storm would have totally swallowed the Allied armada, and changed the course of history.
#3 The Panzer SS divisions
Meanwhile the Brits and Canadians faced fanatics who didn’t like opposition one bit, the brain-washed Waffen-SS troops. Those Hitler enthusiasts, unlike their regular colleagues in the Wehrmacht, gladly swallowed every lie spoken by Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, and their equipment and training was outstanding. Nazi lies were their vice, and they truly believed the Allies intended to exterminate Germany. For them it was a fight to the end, and few allowed themselves to be captured alive.
The situation couldn’t be more different on the Allied side, where combat fatigue was sapping the ranks. Unlike the D-Day troops, reinforcements hadn’t received training under real artillery. When the first shells rained, the newbies cuddled and gave up to fear, and had to be kicked to action by veterans and officers. The Wehrmacht didn’t acknowledge combat fatigue as a real phenomenon, and interestingly, few captured German prisoners presented symptoms. The Landser (German veteran) was better prepared for war.
Both German commanders in France, Rundsted and Rommel, considered the 2nd British Army to be the chief threat. Firstly, they were considered more experienced soldiers than the Yankees, and secondly, a breakthrough in the British sector would leave Paris vulnerable, and therefore, all the German armies in Normandy would be trapped. As a result, the Fifth Panzer Army (Panzer Group West) who faced the 2nd British Army, had ten Panzer divisions (combining mechanized infantry and tanks), as opposite to two Panzer divisions in the Seventh Army, facing the Americans. It was the biggest assembly of panzer divisions since the battle of Kursk in 1943.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the Germans made the most of what resources they had. Especially effective was their 88mm Flak gun, who could take any Allied tank before the later could even place itself within its range of fire. The fight in the Eastern Front had taught the Landser a few tricks: placing anti-personnel mines in the craters (the Allied soldier would seek shelter there when under fire), attaching bobby traps to the dog-tag chains of dead soldiers, and also mining their abandoned foxholes. The Allies learnt to dig their own foxholes the hard way: ‘sweat saves blood’.
#4 The battle for Caen
Delayed by the capture of strongholds protecting the north of Caen, British and Canadians had to dig out, and wait for armoured reinforcements, while the Germans did the same. The 51st Highland Division and the 7th Armoured Division, failed later in their pincer movement around Caen, Operation Perch, repulsed by the 21st Panzer division.
Subsequent operations, Epsom, Windsor and Charnwood, brought the 2nd British Army to capture the north of Caen. The strategic Carpiquet airfield, west of the city, was captured by the 3rd Canadian Division in an epic clash against the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. Both would show little mercy, and few prisoners were captured. South Caen would only be captured on 18th July, during operation Charnwood.
The exasperating slow advance and Montgomery and Dempsey’s (commanders of the 21st British Army Group and 2nd British Army respectively) and their cautious attitude, revealed a British war-weariness, having developed an extreme aversion to risk taking when opportunities presented. Officers were disdainful to adopt the effective German tank-infantry-aircraft doctrines, unlike their American colleagues. However, their commitment to press against Caen forced Hitler to keep his best armoured formations to pin them, allowing the 1st US Army to steal the show.
#5 The Normandy hedgerows. The bocage
Meanwhile, the Americans aimed at Saint-Lô, or Stilo, as they called it. Bradley, commander of the 1st US Army, considered Stilo the start point of the secret operation that would overwhelm German positions in Normandy. But an enemy as equally fearful as the Waffen-SS blocked their way: a hedgerow. Yes, the bocage, the typical hedgerow of Normandy.
Bordering every road, path and field, the Bocage was described as a claustrophobic labyrinth of leafy green tunnels. Not even the Sherman tanks could smash them, and platoons of Germans awaited on the exits of the hedgerow to ambush the G.I.s (US soldiers) with Panzerfausts and 88mm Flak guns. Unaccustomed to such war, the new reinforcements collapsed in less than 48 hours in the front due to combat stress. Under fire, their basic instinct to run overwhelmed them, and frantic retreats took place, only stopped by energetic NCOs and veterans.
The sly Landser took advantage of it. Terrified and inexperienced US infantry jumped flat on their bellies, when even under light fire, instead of charging forward, which was safer. And on the ground were easily picked by German artillery and snipers. Still, the 29th, the 35th and the 30th US divisions, pushed bravely and captured Saint-Lô by the 19th of July, at the cost of 40.000 casualties, and a wrecked city.
#6 General Patton. The poster boy in Normandy
George S. Patton disembarked in Omaha by mid-July. He was still commanding a ghost army made of empty tents and dummy aircraft, above Pas-de-Calais, to pin down further German divisions, and prevent them to reinforce Normandy. However, Eisenhower had promised Patton the 3rd US Army, and a chance to roll down his tanks in a jolly, wild ride across France.
I’m proud to be here to fight beside you. Now let’s cut the guts out of those Krauts and get the hell on to Berlin. And when we get to Berlin, I am going to personally shoot that paper-hanging son of a bitch, just like I would a snake.
Patton in Omaha after disembarking
The soldiers loved it, cheering and whooping the ‘Old Blood and Guts’ general. He was revered in the Wehrmacht as the best Allied general, and his motto was speed, speed and speed. Often unforgiving and refusing excuses (he slapped two soldiers suffering combat fatigue), Patton cared for his men and provided them with the best supplies. He was amongst the first commanders to mix, and promote Afro-Americans in his combat teams. In Normandy he eagerly awaited his command, surveying the front-line amidst whistling German bullets. To the astonishment of G.I.s around, he wouldn’t duck, and when told to do so, he replied: ‘Mind your Goddam business, soldier!’
On 25th July, Bradley launched Operation Cobra, aiming to capture Avranches, and then break through Brittany. After a clumsy initial bombing upon their own ranks, Operation Cobra, spearheaded by the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Armoured Divisions, and supported by the 1st, 22nd and 30th Infantry Divisions, quickly cut through the German Seventh Army. The offensive gained momentum, and the German retreat snowballed. The Sherman tank crews barely paused, cooking, peeing and crapping in their basin-shaped helmets. Infantry rode on top of the Shermans, only dismounting when encountering resistance.
Patton was given a foretaste of command with the 6th and 4th Armoured Divisions. Immediately he spurred them to Avranches, which fell on 30th July. Kluge, who replaced Rundstedt as commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht in France (OB), was furious. On the 1st of August, the 3rd US Army was activated and Patton was put in charge. He kept penetrating into Brittany, avoiding the strongholds and running almost unopposed. The Americans had refined their infantry-air communication, and radioed their targets to the P-47s overflying them. In addition to, cases of combat fatigue were now virtually non-existent. Like Patton said: “People like to play on a winning team.”
#7 The Falaise pocket
With the Red Army unleashing Operation Bagration on the Eastern Front, Kluge knew reinforcements wouldn’t come. He was suspected of having participated on the 20th of July Plot to assassinate Hitler, and he committed suicide to avoid the shame of betrayal. He was replaced by Model. But Kluge was right, France was lost. Now rolling south-eastwards, Patton aimed to trap the Seventh and Fifth Panzer armies between his army, and the British and Canadian advancing from Caen-Falaise.
Over 50.000 Germans were trapped and captured, 350 tanks lost and thousands of vehicles abandoned because of lack of fuel. But even under constant strafing and Allied bombing, SS Panzergrenadiers managed to break a two miles wide gap through Canadian and Polish units, holding a tiny corridor to escape. Montgomery, commander of the 21st British Army Group was blamed for refusing Americans to go in his sector to reinforce the badly beaten Canadians. As many as 100.000 Germans escaped. Montgomery’s vanity would extend the war for months to come.
#8 The road to Paris
Impatient in their armoured vehicles, the Frenchmen of the 2nd Division Blindée (2ème DB) waited, commanded by Philip Leclerc, and supplied and dressed by Patton’s 3rd US Army. Their members had been battle-hardened in early campaigns in North Africa, and now had been promised by Allied commanders, the honour of liberating Paris.
Owing loyalty to Charles de Gaulle, head of the French government in exile, the 2ème DB received the long-awaited orders on the 23rd August. Immediately, they marched in columns, riding on Staghound armoured cars, Stuart light tanks, half-tracks, Shermans and jeeps. Three days earlier, the French Resistance (FFI) had begun an uprising in Paris, spurred by the general German collapse, and another Allied invasion in Southern France, Operation Dragoon.
Led by the communist militant Colonel Rol-Tanguy, barricades were raised in the streets, and the poorly armed partisans gave a good fight to the German garrison commanded by Dietrich von Choltitz. Hitler ordered him to blow up Paris, and turn it into a Stalingrad for the Allies. But for once, Hitler’s stupid and violent ideas were disobeyed.
On the night of the 24th, the vanguard of the 2ème DB arrived in Paris centre, hindered by a crowd of exalted Parisians, kissing, dancing, and eventually dispersed by German snipers fire. The 2ème DB was spearheaded by ‘La Nueve’, a Spanish company formed of Spanish exiled republicans and commanded by the French Raymond Dronne, who took the capitulation of Paris by Choltitz, on 25th August, 1944.
Meanwhile the 4th US Army entered Paris and helped clearing the last pockets of resistance. The FFI, eager of revenge after four years of reprisals, shot some of the unarmed prisoners, and everyone accused of ‘horizontal collaboration’ or befriending the Vichy authorities, were executed without trial, with women publicly shaved and mocked.
#9 The casualties in Normandy
The liberation of Paris forced the overstretched Allied supply system to divert resources to feed the city, bringing the swift advance to a halt, and giving time to the Germans to reorganize and solidify lines in northeast France. De Gaulle took credit for France’s and Paris liberation, overlooking the fact that the 2ème DB would never have reached France without American help, or the Allied soldiers’ sacrifice.
The liberation of Paris costed the lives of 2,873 citizens and seventy-one men of the 2ème DB, plus 225 wounded. Since the Allied landings on 6th June, the Wehrmacht had suffered 240,000 casualties, plus 200,000 prisoners captured by the Allies. British, Canadian and Poles, suffered 83,405 casualties, and the Americans another 125,847. But France paid a huge cost too. Over 70.000 civilians were killed by Allied operations and air-raids during the war, exceeding the 40.000 caused by German bombs in Great Britain. Half of them were Normans. Normandy’s martyrdom saved the rest of France from bitter fight, and accelerated the downfall of the Nazi Reich.