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Fight for the Foothold

The Meaning of D-Day

Fight for the Foothold
By John Barratt

Situation Report

By nightfall on June 6th 1944-D-Day, Hitler's Atlantic Wall on the coast of Normandy had been breached. The Allies, at a cost of 9,500 casualties compared with 4-10,000 Germans, were ashore in Fortress Europe. But their position remained precarious; the beachheads had less depth than had been hoped for, and British and US forces had not yet linked up. Supplies and reinforcements were not coming ashore as rapidly as had been planned, and the initially slow and piecemeal enemy reaction could not be expected to remain so favorable.

The Allies had to link up and expand their currently insecure toeholds into something more substantial as rapidly as possible.

For Germany, the result of the first day of fighting had been disappointing, but was not viewed as disastrous. Partly as a result of Hitler's hesitancy, and also as a consequence of virtually complete Allied air supremacy over the approaches to the battle area, 21st and 12th SS Panzer Divisions, forming the immediate mobile reserve, had not intervened effectively on June 6th. Indeed losses from enemy air attack were so substantial that it is unlikely that their earlier release would have made any significant difference.

Rommel, absent in Bavaria during the opening hours of the battle, arrived back at Army Group B Headquarters late in the evening, and began re-organising the currently fragmented command structure. Panzer Group West of General Geyr von Schweppenberg, took over from 7th Army command of the front between the Rivers Vire and Orne, and was tasked with organising a powerful armoured counterstroke. Meanwhile Rommel, in an order endorsed by Hitler on June 11th, ordered his troops to maintain a static defence and hold their ground. This would, it was hoped, reduce the effects of Allied air power and keep open the possibility of a panzer counteroffensive. Rommel was faced with a situation in which the uncompleted Atlantic Wall had failed to repulse the invasion, and he now had to devise a new defensive strategy which would also allow for major armoured counterstrokes. But Allied air power and naval gun support, and the virtual non-existence of the Luftwaffe in the theater, meant that Rommel could hardly hope to win a full scale mobile battle . Instead he would have to use all the advantages of terrain to fight a defensive action.

Most of the terrain over which the battle of the coming weeks would be fought was well-suited to such a strategy. In particular, Normandy was noted for the bocage, a dense chequerboard of small fields, surrounded by thick hedges and earth banks, with narrow sunken lanes running between them. German defensive skills soon proved to have the ability to turn every field into a potential death trap for Allied armor and infantry. The bocage extended for up to 50 miles inland, excellent country for anti-tank warfare which would also use up attacking infantry at a very high rate. Clever use of concealment in the woods and hedgerows also reduced the effects of Allied air attack by up to 75%. In these conditions determined infantrymen armed with rockets or the deadly panzerfaust , supported by the redoubtable dual-purpose 88mm AA/AT gun , could wait in concealment until an enemy tank was at very close range before opening fire.

About 20 miles south of Bayeux, the bocage turned into an area of thickly wooded ridges with the key feature of Mont Pincon, a 1200 foot hill 20 miles south-west of Caen. Another important observation post was Hill 112, 5 miles to the south-west of Caen. Also significant in this area were another series of ridges, extending to the south and south-east as far as Falaise, of which the most important, providing an excellent defensive position against attack by armor, and blocking the road to Paris, was Bourgebus Ridge, 3 miles to the south of Caen and dominating the town.

On the American front, the main objectives were the port of Cherbourg on the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula, and the important road junction town of St Lo, whose capture would open up the possibility of a drive deep into the French interior.

Despite the defensive advantages of the bocage, and his success on June 6th in preventing Montgomery from taking Caen, Rommel had no illusions concerning the probable long term outcome of the struggle. At best he could buy time, either for Hitler to produce powerful reserves from elsewhere, such as the powerful units of 15th Army still deployed in the Pas de Calais awaiting another invasion, or until another defensive position was prepared further into the interior, along the Seine, or even on the line of the much-vaunted West Wall along the German frontier. Just how much time Rommel had would depend as much upon Allied actions as his own.

Fighting Resumes

On June 7th 21st Panzer Division, which had performed the only significant counterattack on D-Day, was caught up in defensive fighting outside Caen. It was left to the dynamic, newly-promoted General Kurt Meyer, with his fanatical Hitler Youth –recruited 12th SS, to attempt to strike back. From the beginning his efforts were impeded by enemy air attack. It took his leading units 10 hours to cover the 40 miles to their jump-off point, suffering casualties in the process. The attack by 12th SS directed against Canadian troops between Caen and Bayeaux, met with some initial limited success, gaining some ground and taking some prisoners (23 of whom were executed in cold blood, making 12th SS the most hated of the Allies' opponents in Normandy). However a combination of massed artillery fire and naval gun support quickly stalled the German advance, forcing them back to their start line with the loss of 31 tanks. The next nearest panzer reserve formation , Panzer Lehr Division, was also struggling to reach the scene of action in the face of almost continuous attacks from the air , and in the course of the day had a total of 40 petrol tankers, 90 trucks, 5 tanks and 84 half-tracks and self-propelled guns knocked out.

For about the next 48 hours, the main immediate concern for the Allies remained the situation at "Omaha" beach. Fortunately, the German forces in the immediate vicinity, consisting of the battered 352nd Infantry Division and the 30th Mobile Brigade, were in no condition to present a serious threat, and as Allied reinforcements continued to pour into the beachhead the situation steadily improved. Early on June 8th British troops from "Gold" beach linked up with the American forces from "Omaha", whilst the US forces continued to expand the "Utah" bridgehead. By early on June 9th, with 11 Allied Divisions ashore, the immediate crisis was over.

Still heavily outnumbering their immediate opponents, troops of US V Corps were making steady, if unspectacular, progress inland from "Omaha" against light opposition towards St Lo and Carentan. By the evening of June 11th 1st and 2nd US Divisions had advanced 14 miles, although supply shortages were beginning to be felt. Next day General Omar C. Bradley (1st US Army) ordered V Corps to launch a renewed drive on St Lo, but the American forces were not strong enough to break through the solidifying German defence lines. On June 15th 29th US Division began a new thrust, but this was brought to a halt three days later only 5 miles short of St Lo.

The other immediate American objective was to link up the "Utah" and "Omaha" bridgeheads. The main obstacle in the way of this was the town of Carentan, fiercely defended by men of the German 6th Parachute Regiment. Rommel regarded holding Carentan as critical, and ordered its defenders to be reinforced by II Parachute Corps from Brittany and 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division moving up from the south.

The next few days saw bitter fighting. Link-up thrusts by the lightly armed 101st Airborne from "Utah" and 29th Division from "Omaha" were halted by the German paratroopers after a tough battle. Fortunately for the Allies, Rommel's promised reinforcements were severely delayed by a combination of air attacks and sabotage by the Resistance. On June 11th, just as the first elements of 17th SS were arriving in the area, 101st Airborne renewed the attack on Carentan, with massive air and naval support , and finally drove out the defenders early next day. The link-up of the Allied bridgeheads was complete.

Villers-Bocage : The British Repulsed

Despite the disappointing results of the initial German counter-attacks, Hitler still planned a major German counteroffensive directed at the British and Canadian beach heads. Von Schweppenberg's Panzer Group West was tasked with organising this, and set up a field headquarters in orchards near the village of Thury Harcourt, 12 miles south of Caen. Among its equipment were several powerful radio transmitter trucks. The signals sent out by these were picked up by British Traffic Analysis monitors, and on June 10th Allied Typhoons and Mitchells hit the German HQ. Von Schweppenberg was injured and many of his staff killed. With Panzer Group West HQ for the moment out of action, responsibility for directing the German offensive was handed over to "Sepp" Dietrich of 1 SS Panzer Corps, who quickly decided that for the moment potential Allied opposition was too strong to make such an operation feasible.

Both Montgomery and the British Official History would claim in years to come that the Allied plan from the beginning had been for British 2nd Army to adopt an overall defensive strategy, aimed at drawing against it around Caen the bulk of the German panzer divisions and so easing the task of US 1st Army in expanding the bridgehead to the west and eventually breaking out. In fact, there is convincing evidence that for several weeks at least after D-Day, Montgomery still hoped to take Caen and thrust armored columns deep beyond it towards Falaise. By June 10th he was planning a major offensive intended to trap Caen and its defenders in the jaws of a double envelopment. Whilst 51st Highland Division and 4th Armored Brigade performed a short hook east of the city in the Orne valley, in the west the right pincer consisting of British XXX Corps spearheaded by 7th Armored Division, would take the key road junction of Villers Bocage. It would then turn east to link up with the 1st British Airborne Division which would be dropped in the Odon Valley, trapping the defenders of Caen.

However Montgomery's plan ran into immediate difficulties. Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commanded the AEAF (Allied Expeditionary Air Force) refused to carry out the drop of 1st Airborne on the grounds that the operation would be too dangerous for his aircrews. German counterattacks east of Caen reinforced the view that opposition to the paratroops was likely to be too strong.

Nevertheless Montgomery put the rest of his plan into operation on June 10th, when 51st Highland Division opened its attack east of Caen, only to be firmly repulsed by 21st Panzer. With his planned left hook stalled, Montgomery's hopes of success rested on the drive to Villers Bocage, headed by 7th Armored. Initial progress here also proved slow. But on the evening of June 11th it became apparent that there was an opportunity to outflank Panzer Lehr which had been fiercely opposing 7th Armored around Tilly sur Seulles, and drive through a gap which existed between Lehr's left and the 352nd Infantry Division opposing the US V Corps' drive on Caumont.

Speed was essential. Unfortunately Lieutenant-General G.C. Bucknall, commanding XXX Corps, lacked the necessary drive. It was not until midday on 12th June, urged on by General Richard Dempsey, Commanding 2nd Army, that Bucknell ordered Maj-General Robert Erskine of 7th Armored, too disengage around Tilly and move round Lehr's flank, heading for Villers Bocage.

Valuable time had been lost, and although the operation began well, it soon became clear that the 7th Armored, famed as the "Desert Rats" in the North African campaign, were ill at ease in the confined surroundings of the bocage. Erskine would claim later that he had been given his orders to exploit the gap 24 hours too late. Even so, an opportunity still remained. Immediate opposition consisted of two armored and four infantry battalions of Panzer Lehr, reinforced by 501st SS Heavy Tank Battalion. With a 10-mile front to defend, the Germans could have been seriously stretched by an assault on a broad front, but fortunately XXX Corps elected to drive a narrow spearhead, headed by 7th Armored directly along the route to Villers Bocage.

The attack was headed by Brigadier Robert Hinde's 22nd Armored Brigade. Hinde was a fearless commander who believed in leading from the front. Pushing forward with reasonable speed, 22nd Armored was within 5 miles of Villers Bocage by the evening of June 12th, when Hinde, uncertain of enemy strength, halted for the night. Early next morning the advance was resumed, and Villers Bocage occupied to a rapturous reception from its inhabitants.

Hinde ordered "A" Squadron of the 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters), supported by the motorized infantry of "A" Company of the Rifle Brigade, to secure high ground, known as Hill 213, which lay about a mile north-east of the town. The commander of the Sharpshooters, Lieutenant-Colonel Cranley was concerned about the lack of adequate reconnaissance before he made his advance, but was urged to haste by Hinde. Whilst Cranley moved forward, four of his tanks and the motorized Riflemen remained parked in the road leading out of Villers Bocage.

Cranley's fears were about to be savagely confirmed. Moving forward to defend the same high ground around Hill 213 was German armor, including No 2 Company, 501st SS Heavy Tank Battalion, commanded by the panzer ace Obersturmfuhrer Michael Wittmann, who had already earned himself a formidable reputation on the Eastern Front. During a period lasting no more than about five minutes, Wittmann's company of four Tigers and one Panzer IV, using every advantage of concealment provided by the hedgerows, carried out a devastating surprise attack on the British column on the road from Villers Bocage. By the end of the day, in this and renewed fighting, Wittmann had knocked out at least 20 Cromwell tanks, 4 Fireflys, 3 light tanks, 3 scout cars and a half track, and inflicted about 150 casualties.

Although in a renewed attack on Villers Bocage, Wittmann was repulsed with the loss of four of his tanks, he had brought 7th Armored to a complete halt. As reinforcements from 2nd Panzer moved up to strengthen the German defences, the position of 7th Armored, lacking infantry support, became increasingly dangerous. An attack by 50th Infantry Division around Tilly had failed to gain ground, and there was an increasing possibility that 7th Armored might be cut off in Villers Bocage. Early in the evening of June 13th Erskine pulled back about a mile west of the town in an attempt to hold high ground around Hill 174. If he received infantry support from XXX Corps, Erskine still hoped to make a stand here.

Unfortunately General Bucknall seems to have failed to grasp the urgent need to reinforce 7th Armored with infantry, and ordered that 50th Division continue its unsuccessful attacks to dislodge Panzer Lehr from around Tilly. By the afternnon of June 14th it was obvious that Panzer Lehr was not going to be dislodged, and Bucknall ordered 7th Armored to pull back to new positions east of Caumont.

Though not fully admitted at the time or later, the failure at Villers Bocage was crucial to events over the next few weeks. Bucknall, soon to be replaced as commander of XXX Corps by the more dynamic and thrusting Brian Horrocks, had cost the British their last real chance of staging a major breakthrough in the Caen sector before German defences solidified.

Though the Allies were safely ashore, and their bridgehead, unless they made a major error, unlikely to be threatened, a grim battle of attrition lay ahead. The first major task was to complete the capture of Cherbourg, for nature was about to demonstrate the frightening vulnerability of the Allied forces until they held a major port.

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