Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel had little sleep on the night of 6 June. He had spent the day in his staff car, urging his driver to keep his foot on the accelerator as they drove the 500 miles between his home in Herrlingen, south-west Germany, and his HQ in La Roche-Guyon.
But before dawn had broken on 7 June, Rommel was already in conference with General Geyr von Schweppenburg, commander of Panzer Group West. The Allied landings the previous day had caught the German military unawares; the führer’s unshakeable certainty that the invasion would be in the Calais region had been shattered. Rommel blamed Hitler and his equally inept chief of operations, Colonel-General Alfred Jodl, for their failure to release the two reserve Panzer divisions that, if they had been sent straight to the beachhead, might well have pushed the invaders back into the chill waters of the English Channel.
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Not that Rommel was in a position to berate his superiors; he was embarrassed at having left France on 5 June to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Such a miscalculation would be difficult to live down among his growing number of detractors within Hitler’s inner circle.
But 7 June was not the time for recriminations. Only action would suffice and Rommel had already identified from the map of the invasion zone what he believed was the Allies’ most vulnerable point. He had considered attacking the Omaha beachhead, which the American V Corps had secured at such a terrible price, but instead settled on launching his counterattack around Caen. The British had failed in their objective of capturing the city on D-Day, but only just, and should they seize Caen, only 125 miles of flat, unobstructed countryside would lie between them and Paris.
General Bernard Montgomery, in command of Allied ground forces, had arrived off the Normandy coast in the early hours of 7 June, having sailed from Portsmouth the previous evening on board the destroyer HMS Faulknor.
He ordered 3rd British Division and 3rd Canadian Division to press their attack against Caen, but, as he wrote in his memoirs: “It quickly became apparent that the enemy was concerned for the security of this nodal point, and was quick to bring forward reserve formations to hold us off from the town and prevent the expansion of our bridgehead south of the Caen-Bayeux road.”
The first reserve formation to arrive was ‘Battlegroup Meyer’, an element of the 12th SS Panzer Division. Commanded by the notorious Colonel Kurt Meyer, many of its soldiers were recent recruits from the Hitler Youth, fanatics who committed several atrocities against their enemy as they pushed back the Anglo-Canadian advance with the help of the 21st Panzer Division.
The bloody fighting of 7 June was a grim foretaste of what lay ahead for the Allies as they continued inland from the beachhead. They were now entering ‘bocage country’, characterised by sunken lanes and high hedgerows: good defensive terrain for tanks and for men armed with Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons. Montgomery’s plan was to encircle Caen with the 51st Highland Division and the 7th Armoured Division, the latter the ‘Desert Rats’ of the North Africa campaign.
But when they advanced on 10 June they ran into the tanks of the Panzer Lehr Division. “Obviously the attacking troops were at a disadvantage because they had to move forward,” said Leslie Dinning of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment. “Poke their nose round corners where sitting a few yards up the road was a bloody big Tiger, Panther or a self-propelled gun, literally waiting for us and BANG! You had no chance. It only needed one shot from an enemy tank.”
A fearsome adversary
No German commander was as lethal as Michael Wittman of the 501st SS Heavy Tank Battalion. In the Soviet Union he had destroyed 117 enemy tanks, and on 13 June his company ambushed the Desert Rats outside Villers-Bocage, destroying 25 tanks and 28 other vehicles.
Panzers weren’t the only problem General Montgomery faced in the middle of June. On the 19th of the month a ferocious storm swept through the Channel, wrecking the two artificial ‘Mulberry’ harbours that had been towed from England. Prior to the storm, 22,000 tons of supplies and equipment were being unloaded each day at the British and US harbours of Arromanches and Colleville-sur-Mer; during the four days that the storm raged only 12,000 tons were brought ashore at both sites. The British repaired the damage and were able to continue using Arromanches, but the Americans were forced to concede defeat and reverted to beaching craft to bring ashore their supplies.
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In contrast to the war of attrition being waged around Caen, US troops had made good progress in the fortnight since D-Day. The V Corps beachhead at Omaha and that established by the VII Corps at Utah had been joined so that the American invaders now presented a united front to their enemy.
The immediate objective had been the town of Carentan, which blocked the Americans’ path south and east, and was defended by the seasoned troops of the 6th Parachute Regiment. The 101st Airborne captured Carentan on 12 June but the Germans, reinforced by the 17 SS Panzer Grenadier Division, counter-attacked the next day. Easy Company of the 506th Regiment was in danger of being overrun by Panzers when suddenly 60 of their own tanks appeared. “What a wonderful sight it was to see those tanks pouring it to the Germans with those heavy 50-calibre machine guns and just ploughing straight from our lines into the German hedgerows with all those fresh infantry soldiers marching along beside,” recalled Lieutenant Dick Winters.
Dark days for Rommel
The capture of Carentan was another serious blow for Rommel. For several days his mood had been darkening as fresh reports reached him of the slow progress north of reinforcements. The 17 SS Panzer Grenadier Division had managed to make the journey from south of the Loire, but other divisions were being held up and weakened by repeated enemy attacks. “Our operations in Normandy will be rendered exceptionally difficult and even partially impossible by the extraordinarily strong, and in some respects, overwhelming superiority of the Allied Air Force,” he wrote in a report on 12 June. “The enemy has complete control over the battle area and up to 60 miles behind the front.”
It wasn’t only Allied aircraft that were hindering the progress of German reinforcements towards the battlefront; guerrilla fighters of the French Resistance, often working with small units from the Special Air Service, were ambushing convoys and destroying railway lines to disrupt the supply of men and munitions to the front.
So serious was the situation in Normandy that Hitler arrived on 17 June, making his first visit to France since October 1940. The assessment he received from field marshals Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Rundstedt was pessimistic. As if to underline their gloomy prognosis, on the same day the 9th Division of VII Corps advanced six miles across the Cherbourg Peninsula and on 18 June captured Barneville on the coast facing the Atlantic. It was clear that Cherbourg, a crucial port, was doomed, and despite Hitler’s command to “fight until the last cartridge”, the town surrendered on 26 June.
On the same day, Montgomery, under increasing pressure, mounted Operation Epsom, the objective of which was to envelop Caen. The 15th Scottish Division led the attack and suffered 2,500 casualties in five days of ferocious fighting. An entry in the war diary of the 2nd Battalion The Glasgow Highlanders on 26 June gave an idea of the resistance encountered by all the Scottish regiments. “C Company on the right became pinned by machine-gun fire from the many lines of trees on their front,” ran the entry. “[We] could not produce artillery fire owing to D Company’s progress. The tanks were being held up to an extent by the minefield. C Company was told to get on with its own weapons and it got forward to the next hedgerow where it suffered much heavier casualties.”
Operation Epsom failed in its aim of capturing Caen, but the Scots’ sacrifice hadn’t been in vain: their enemy, the II SS Panzer Corps, had also suffered heavy losses in armour and men. It was no longer in a position to be deployed as Hitler had intended – offensively against the invaders at the junction of the American and British armies at Saint-Lô. Hitler removed Gerd von Rundstedt as commander-in-chief and replaced him with Günther von Kluge. “From then on,” wrote Montgomery, “Hitler’s personal and, as it proved, fatal interference in the strategy and even the tactics of the battle for France was unchecked.”
There were other reasons for this interference. On 17 July, Rommel’s staff car was strafed by an Allied aircraft, and while the field marshal survived, the severity of his wounds removed him from the chain of command. Three days later, on 20 July, Hitler was also injured, although not by an enemy but one of his own officers, Claus von Stauffenberg. The briefcase bomb failed to kill the führer and as a result he became ever more convinced that it was his “great destiny” to lead Germany to victory. Why listen to generals, whom he no longer trusted (Kluge and Rommel later killed themselves after being implicated in the assassination attempt), when only he had the ability to save the Fatherland?
Rommel’s nemesis from the war in North Africa, Bernard Montgomery, was himself under strain. Progress had been slower than his political masters in London and Washington envisaged, and there were murmurs of discontent within Allied command at the way Montgomery was conducting the campaign. On 12 July he wrote a letter of reassurance to General Eisenhower, with a promise of an impending offensive. To Field Marshal Alan Brooke, chief of the imperial general staff, Montgomery also sent correspondence regarding his intention to deploy three armoured divisions: “We are fighting in ideal defensive country… so I have decided that the time has come to have a real ‘showdown’ on the eastern flank and to loose them into the open country about the Caen-Falaise road.”
This showdown, the aim of which was to expand the bridgehead established by the Airborne brigade on 6 June, was code-named Operation Goodwood. It began in the early hours of 18 July with a fearsome aerial bombardment by 2,000 Allied bombers. Those on the receiving end endured hell. “It was a bomb carpet… the most terrifying hours of our lives,” remembered Werner Kortenhaus of the 22nd Panzer Regiment. “Among the thunder of the explosions we could hear the wounded scream and the insane howling of men driven mad.”
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But the bombs didn’t destroy all of the German tanks or artillery, nor did they account for Colonel Hans von Luck of the 21st Panzer Division. Von Luck returned from a brief leave in Paris just as the bombardment stopped and the British armour began its advance down a narrow corridor, and ordered a battery of five 88mm anti-tank guns to open fire on a squadron of British Sherman tanks. The officer in charge refused. Von Luck drew his revolver. “Either you’re a dead man,” he told the recalcitrant officer, “or you can earn yourself a medal.”
The crews inside the British Shermans were amazed at what they saw as they advanced. “Trees were uprooted, fields pitted and littered with dead cattle…nothing could be left alive on this lunar landscape,” recalled one eye-witness. “Yet suddenly there came evidence that the enemy was there and very aggressive, too.” Major Chris Nicholl’s tank was the first to be hit by Von Luck’s 88mm guns, and within a few minutes 11 more Shermans had been destroyed.
In total during Operation Goodwood the British lost an estimated 300 tanks. And for what? They had advanced just seven miles from their original position and had failed to capture Caen and the high ground on the Bourguébus Ridge. Criticism of Montgomery grew, and some British newspapers added their voices to the groundswell of discontent. What none of the Allies knew, however, was that Operation Goodwood had cost the Germans 109 tanks, nearly half its complement of anti-tank guns, and many hundreds of soldiers.
The spectre of defeat
On 22 July, Kluge wrote to Hitler to warn him that “the moment is fast approaching when this overtaxed front line is bound to break, and when the enemy once reaches the open country a properly co-ordinated command will be almost impossible”.
Three days after Kluge’s letter the Allies launched another major offensive, this time on the western side of the bridgehead. Like Goodwood, Operation Cobra was preceded by a massive aerial bombardment and the bombs that rained down on the German positions in the Saint-Lô area were followed by an advance of three infantry divisions of General Omar Bradley’s First Army.
The going was tough on the first day as German armour held up the American advance. “Good God!” yelled one tank commander as he opened fire on a Panzer. “I fired three rounds and they all bounced off.” They were his last words as the German tank returned fire, the shell slicing the commander in two. “Just his legs and hips were there,” recalled one of the crew. “One arm, with the wrist watch on it, lay near the house.”
The Americans advanced just two miles on the first day of Cobra. The Germans had fought with courage and tenacity, but they were spent, unable to continue resisting the 120,000 troops ranged against them on a five-mile front. When the line finally broke – as Kluge had warned in his letter – the surge south was unstoppable.
By 28 July the hole punched by the Americans was 15 miles deep and to turn the breakthrough into the breakout, Bradley looked to Lieutenant-General George S Patton. On 1 August, Patton received a written order from Bradley to lead the Third Army out of Normandy and into Brittany.
There could now be only one victor in the battle for France. German troops counterattacked on the night of 6 August, but their Operation Lüttich was repelled by the Americans (who had been forewarned of the attack by Bletchley Park code-breakers).
On 8 August the Canadians launched Operation Totalise, the first act in the closing of the Falaise pocket (where trapped German troops were encircled by Allied forces). It required two more weeks of bitter and intense fighting before Canadian and Polish forces linked up with American troops advancing from the west.
The German Army Group B was shattered. Two hundred thousand were in Allied captivity and a further 50,000 had been killed in the 10 weeks since D-Day. Two of the 11 Panzer divisions – Lehr and the 9th – had lost all their tanks. There was nothing for the survivors to do but trudge wearily east towards Germany, chased all the while by Patton, until his Third Army ran out of fuel outside Metz on the last day of August.
By then Paris had been liberated.
The honour had been seized by General Leclerc’s armoured division, attached to Patton’s Army, on 25 August. Two days later, General Dwight D Eisenhower visited the French capital and told reporters that he had come to “pay the tribute of the Allied forces to the indomitable spirit of Paris”. It was a diplomatic gesture by the Allies’ supreme commander, for the tribute was in fact owed by Parisians to the bravery, boldness and sheer bloody-mindedness of the American, British, Canadian and Polish soldiers who had fought to liberate France.
Gavin Mortimer is a bestselling writer, historian and television consultant. His books include The Long Range Desert Group in World War II (Osprey, 2017).
This article was first published ‘D-Day and the Battle for Normandy’, a unique special edition from the makers of BBC History Magazine