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The Meaning of D-Day

By John Barratt

As Rommel had recognised, Germany's main chance of defeating the invasion lay in prompt counterattacks, particularly by her panzer forces. However, for a variety of reasons, the powerful striking force within easy reach of the invasion beaches which he had called for was not immediately available. A major problem resulted from a lack of clarity in the panzer command structure. The newly formed 47th Panzer Corps was still in process of taking over command of 21st, 116th and 2nd Panzer Divisions, whilst administrative and supply matters remained under Panzer Group West, with both responsible to Rommel's Army Group B. To complicate matters further, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander in Chief West, was powerless to commit the strategic reserve without the authority of OKW, meaning in effect Hitler.

The differences between Rommel and von Rundstedt over the best deployment of the panzer reserves meant that on June 6th, only one unit, 21st Panzer Division, stationed outside Caen, was in a position to counterattack that day.

21st Panzer had gained its reputation as part of Rommel's famous Afrika Korps. However it had been virtually completely destroyed in the spring of 1943 in Tunisia. It had been reformed later that year in Brittany, with a cadre of veterans drawn from the Eastern Front, its ranks filled out with new recruits from Germany. Shortage of equipment had been a major problem, with much use being made of obsolete material captured from the French in 1940. By the beginning of June 1944, the situation was improving, and 21st Panzer had received in the region of 90 Panzer Mark IVs, which with a number of variants, made up over 70% of its armoured strength. However the position of other units in the Division was less satisfactory. Assault Gun Battalion 200, for example, was equipped with modified French tracked chassis carrying 75mm anti-tank guns and 105 mm field howitzers. The motorised infantry battalions were also far from satisfactory; though some troops had armored half-tracks, others had to make do with lorries.

There is also evidence of some lack of unity among the Division's officers. Its commander, Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger was not regarded with great respect. He was by training an artillery officer, not a tank man, and was thought by some to have too great a fondness for the bright lights of Paris. He would later be accused, by officers of 12th SS Panzer Division, of displaying indecision.

The Division began the day in dispersed positions around Caen, intended to operate against airborne or commando landings. Feuchtinger was under strict orders not to commit any forces against a major sea borne invasion without orders from Army Group B.

It may have been around 1 am on June 6th that Feuchtinger first received word of British paratroop landings east of the Orne. His two motorised infantry battalions were committed to support units of 716th Division in dealing with these, whilst his reconnaissance battalion was tasked with searching for further paratroop landings south of Caen. At 4-30 am, Army Group B released the entire Division for operations against the British paratroops east of the Orne, a decision which drew a considerable part of its strength further away from the coast. By 9 am, the bulk of 21st Panzer's armor was moving steadily north-eastwards away from Caen.

Then at 10-30 am, General Marcks, commanding 84th Corps, changed Feuchtinger's orders. He was to direct his main effort against the British and Canadian sea borne landings.

This belated change of objective resulted in what was to prove to be fatal confusion. Many of 21st Panzer's men were inextricably committed against the paratroops, and in an order issued at 1pm, Feuchtinger attempted to make the best of a bad situation. His armored units were to divide their efforts, three of his panzer battalions were to move against the sea borne landings, whilst the fourth, with Panzergrenadier regiment 125, and attached elements, was to continue operations against the paratroops. Three "kampe gruppes" (battlegroups) , named after their commanders, were improvised, two of them to take charge of operations against the sea borne invaders. Panzerkampegruppe "Oppeln " consisted of two panzer battalions, one panzergrenadier, one engineer and one armored artillery battalion; Panzerkampgruppe "Rauch" was formed from two panzergrenadier battalions, supported by armored engineers and artillery.

The result of this probably inevitable compromise was that only two-thirds of 21st Panzer Division was available for the vital counter attack towards the coast. Chances of success were further reduced by the time lost in re-grouping the Division. It took precious hours to bring men and vehicles over the limited number of crossings of the River Orne, whilst the streets of Caen were blocked with rubble as a result of continuous Allied air and naval bombardment, as well as by crowds of fleeing civilian refugees. As the first tanks eventually emerged from the western suburbs of the town, they were themselves subjected to air attack by rocket-firing Typhoons, and six were knocked out.

It was not until about 4pm that Oppeln's group began deploying near the village of Lebussey, north of Caen. At the same time, General Marcks, commanding 84th Corps took personal charge of the deployment of Group Rauch, which would face the dominating high ground of Periers Rise, still thought to be German-held. Underlining how vital the attack was, Marcks told Oberst von Oppeln-Bronikowski: "If you don't succeed in throwing the British into the sea, we will have lost the war."

At about 4-20 pm, the German assault began. By now, as we have seen, unbeknown to 21st Panzer, Perriers Rise had been occupied by troops of the British Shropshire Light Infantry, equipped with 6 pounder anti-tank guns, and supported by 17 pounder SP guns of the 20th Anti-Tank Regiment. With some trepidation, the British saw a formation of some 40 Panzer IV's rapidly approaching their position. They held their fire until the German tanks began to climb the slope of the Rise, and then opened a devastating fire from their concealed positions. In quick succession, six of the 25 Mark IV's attacking on the right were knocked out. The German advance ground to a halt as surviving tanks sought shelter in patches of woodland. Further to the west, around the village of Mathieu, the 1st Panzer Regiment suffered a similar fate, with around nine tanks knocked out. As a German account admitted: " The fire of the English, from their outstandingly well-sited defence positions, was murderous… within a brief space of time the armoured regiment of 21st Panzer Division had lost a total of 16 tanks, a decisive defeat, from which, especially in morale, it never recovered."

Further to the left, however, PanzerKampfegruppe "Rauch" had found the gap between the British and Canadian forces, and drove unchecked right through to the coast. Here they linked up with the 111th Battalion of Infantry Regiment 736, which was still holding coastal positions to the west of the village of Lion sur Mer. It was a seemingly dramatic breakthrough, which would however require substantial reinforcement if it were to exploit its initial success.

The psychological effects on British troops of the counter-attack were greater than its material results. It did, however, effectively halt for the day the already faltering Allied advance towards Caen, and caused Montgomery to abandon his planned direct assault on the city in favour of a much more time-consuming enveloping movement.

For the Germans, the day ended in frustration. There were no reserves available to exploit the breakthrough at Lion. At about 9 pm, as dusk fell, the men of Group "Rauch" heard the roar of approaching aero engines, as wave after wave of transport aircraft, some towing gliders, came into view, carrying the remainder of the British 6th Airborne Division. These were on their way to reinforce the earlier landings east of the Orne, but the German troops at Lion believed that they were about to be cut off. Apart from a few men of Panzergrenadier Regiment 192, who reinforced the defenders of the isolated Douvres strongpoint, both battlegroups of 21st Panzer were ordered to pull back to positions north of Caen.

German reaction to the Allied landings had been fatally slow. The other nearest mobile reserves, 12th SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr Divisions, were not released by OKW to 7th Army until 7 pm, too late for either, harassed as they were by air attacks, to intervene that day. Germany's last chance to split the British and Canadian landings had been lost.

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