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  • D-Day Through German Eyes by Jonathan Trigg

    How the Wehrmacht Lost France

    Who Did the Allies Face in Normandy on D-Day?

    This is what the landsers feared - an RAF Typhoon fires a barrage of rockets at German troops. (c. Jonathan Trigg, D-Day Through German Eyes, Amberley Publishing)

    In the early summer of 1944, Berlin knew the Allies would soon land in Continental Europe, and had assembled 850,000 men and over fifteen hundred panzers to face them. Who many of these men were is one of the most fascinating stories of the Second World War.

    Amidst the barbed-wire entanglements and sandbag bunkers of Hitler’s much-vaunted Atlantikwall, a stern-faced sentinel stares out to sea, eyes fixed on the horizon, watching for the Allied landing fleet. His rifle is slung over his shoulder, and on his head sits his turban…turban?

    Yes, turban, because this was no member of the Nazi master race – the Aryan herrenvolk of Goebbels’s delusional propaganda – but a Sikh rifleman in the Wehrmacht’s Infanterie-Regiment 950 (indische), recruited by a Calcutta (modern-day Kolkata) lawyer from former British Army POWs.

    Several thousand strong, the origins of one of the Nazis’ most bizarre and least well-known units lay in British India’s powerful independence movement. Under the guidance of its spiritual leader – Mohandas Gandhi – the Indian National Congress believed in a non-violent path to self-rule.

    However, not all its adherents were wedded to that approach, and one above all – Subhas Chandra Bose – thought freedom would only come through armed struggle.

    Escaping house arrest, the bespectacled firebrand arrived in Nazi Germany in April 1941 and offered to form an army to help drive the British out of his country. With German support he toured the POW camps filled with Indian soldiers captured in the fighting in North Africa. One such prisoner – Barwat Singh – remembered his arrival;

    “He was introduced to us as a leader from our country who wanted to talk to us. He wanted 500 volunteers who would be trained in Germany and then parachuted into India. Everyone raised their hands.”

    In no time the ‘Indian Legion’ – or more dramatically the ‘Tiger Legion’ as it was occasionally called – numbered almost three-thousand men and was being trained and equipped as the vanguard of a future Nazi invasion of the Raj.

    German defeats at El Alamein and Stalingrad put paid to that fantasy, and the now-purposeless unit was instead sent west to help man the German defences against the anticipated Allied landings. The build-up to D-Day found it on France’s Atlantic coast at Lacanau, near Bordeaux, as part of Kurt von der Chevallerie’s 1. Armee.

    British Soldiers escort captured German troopers - almost certainly from 716. Infanterie-Division - down to a collection point on the beach. (c. Jonathan Trigg, D-Day Through German Eyes, Amberley Publishing)

    As it turned out, the Allied fleet never appeared off Bordeaux, instead its destination was Normandy – some three hundred miles to the north.

    There, the Allied troops would face Friedrich Dollmann’s 7. Armee, which, although without any Indian troops in its ranks, was itself a phantasmagoria of nationalities that mirrored more the polyglot forces of Europe’s Middle Ages than the national armies of the Twentieth Century.

    On the beaches themselves, the Allied assault troops would face three of Dollmann’s divisions; the 352nd, the 709th and the 716th.

    The latter two were ‘fortress’ formations; disparagingly called bodenständige (literally ‘rooted to earth’) divisions, or more simply ‘belly units’ – many of them equipped with a single motor vehicle; the commanders staff car.

    Only two-thirds the size of normal German infantry divisions, the ranks of the 709th and 716th were filled with the middle-aged, medically unfit or previously-wounded; men like Martin Eineg:

    “Although I was tall, I had a chronic lung condition which technically classed me as ‘unfit for active service’. Nevertheless I was sent to France to man the Atlantikwall,”

    There was also Gustav Winter:

    “I suffered very badly from frostbite during the first winter in Russia…I lost the little fingers on each of my hands…also the tip of my nose, and my toes were damaged as well.”

    Standing next to Eineg and Winter were thousands of men of dubious military value; the men of the Ost-Bataillone (‘East Battalions’), ex-Soviet prisoners-of-war or deserters, as well as thousands of beutedeutscher (‘booty Germans’) – ethnic Poles and Czechs caught up in the war against their will, men like Aloysius Damski:

    “I am a Pole. I was working in the office of a munitions factory…when the manager called me in and said I could either go into the German forces or be declared ‘politically unreliable’, which almost certainly meant a concentration camp. I was only 20-years-old and I loved life, so I chose the army. After training I was sent to Normandy to a mixed unit of Poles, Czechs, Russians and some German NCOs and officers.”

    A Tiger I of Schwere SS-Panzerabteilung 101 knocked out by the British infantrymen of 1/7 Queens Regiment in Villers-Bocage on 13 June 1944. (c. Jonathan Trigg, D-Day Through German Eyes, Amberley Publishing)

    On the morning of 6 June the Allies made swift work of much of the defences, as attested by Emil Thiem, an ethnic German farm worker from outside Warsaw who was on Utah:

    “I was manning a mortar with my comrades, but it was in an open pit, so we stayed in a bunker a few metres away. The bombardment was terrible….one of my comrades put his head round the corner of the bunker to try and see what was going on, and as soon as he did he was hit by shrapnel – his whole head was gone, just like that…we climbed out of the bunker with our hands up and that was that, our war was finished.”

    Not everything went the Allies way though, an intelligence lapse meant they hadn’t picked up that the ‘belly’ 716th defending Omaha had been reinforced by the 352nd. The 352nd was no élite – its rankers were mainly 17 and 18-year-old conscripts with just a few weeks basic training behind them – but they had a core of experienced veterans and they were ready:

    “The Americans were about four hundred metres away from us. I did not sight on them individually at first, but I began firing and swept the gun from left to right along the beach. This knocked down the first few men in each line; the MG 42 was so powerful that the bullets would often pass through a human body and hit whatever was behind it.

    So many of these men were hit by a bullet which had already passed through a man in front, or even two men…”

    Despite German resistance the Allied landings were astonishingly successful. What followed would become known as the battle of Normandy as the Allied armies poured onto the beaches and came face to face with an all-together different German army, one characterised not by the belly soldiers of the fortress divisions, but by the panzergrenadiers and tank crews of the Waffen-SS and the Panzer-Lehr.

    Jonathan Trigg's new book D-Day Through German Eyes: How the Wehrmacht Lost France is available for purchase now.

  • Normandy Crucible by John Prados

    The Decisive Battle that Shaped World War Two in Europe

    The Allied Intelligence Advantage

    Cobra's breakout took American troops through a succession of ruined villages and towns. Here a Stuart tank and other armor passes a road control team on its way to find the Germans, July 27. (c. National Archives, Normandy Crucible, Amberley Publishing)

    The first-generation histories of D-Day and the Allied campaign in, and breakout from Normandy were written at a time when the success of Allied codebreakers remained a deep secret. Hence the contributions of ULTRA, an umbrella term for the product of work against the German codes, was lost to history. Since the 1970s and the revelation of ULTRA, conversely, this intelligence source has often been represented as omniscient, making the Allies supremely aware of every Nazi maneuver. Neither version is correct. There were inherent limitations on what potential ULTRA had, but given those boundaries, it is impressive what advantages the codebreakers provided for the Allied side in this decisive campaign in the West.

    For the European Theater, codebreaking activities were centered at Bletchley Park, location of the British Government Code & Cypher School (GC&CS). By the spring of 1944 some 5,600 people here worked on deciphering, translating, or interpreting messages intercepted by legions of radio operators located throughout the war zones. British and Americans worked together. But what they could accomplish also depended upon what was possible. We have actual data on German communications for just one day—January 31, 1945—because Hitler’s operations staff chief, Colonel General Alfred Jodl chose to record the numbers. That day Fuehrer Headquarters fielded 120,000 telephone calls, sent or received 33,000 messages by high-speed teleprinter (geheimschreiber), and dealt with 1,200 radio messages. Only the radio messages—if intercepted—were fully vulnerable to decryption. Teleprinter traffic was proof so long as it went by landline (sometimes radio transmission became necessary). Between July and September 1944, for example, the Allies recovered an average of only 56 of the teleprinter messages daily, a minute fraction.

    The other key drawback was that ULTRA could provide only what passed over communications. For example, Hitler gathered the German commanders Von Rundstedt and Rommel at Margival on June 17 where they made a strategic decision to respond to the Allied invasion by means of a multi-corps offensive. Many German actions over subsequent weeks concerned gathering the forces for such an attack, finding a target, or countering Allied moves which could make the offensive impossible. But the only message traffic about Margival concerned Hitler’s movements or those of his generals.

    Vital to assisint the Normandy breakout, the French Resistance helped in all manner of ways. Here a Jedburgh team receives its final briefing in London before parachuting into France. (c. National Archives, Normandy Crucible, Amberley Publishing)

    Given those caveats, a survey of ULTRA revelations during the Normandy campaign shows just how valuable it was:

    – ULTRA plus radio direction finding identified the headquarters of the Germans’ Panzer Group West, hit by a powerful air raid on June 10, wounding its commander, Colonel General Geyr von Schweppenberg.

    – Hitler suspected his generals of defying orders to send more troops into the Norman port of Cherbourg, demanding a run down on the garrison. ULTRA got the June 18 response, providing Allied leaders with a complete order of battle on the Germans at Cherbourg.

    – On June 24 ULTRA could report that the II SS Panzer Corps, with 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, were arriving at the front, but that they had had to detrain in eastern France, almost a week earlier. This bespoke the effectiveness of the French Resistance and Allied air attacks in disrupting German communications.

    – On July 5 ULTRA warned that the powerful Panzer Lehr Division would transfer from the British to the American sector. This came in time for air attacks to block roads, delaying the move. A few days later ULTRA warned Panzer Lehr would attack.

    – To help General Montgomery’s operations, on July 10 and 14 ULTRA provided the troop list for German forces defending the Bourguébus sector.

    A platoon of 2nd Armored Division tanks waits outside a village on August 10 for orders to resume the advance. (c. National Archives, Normandy Crucible, Amberley Publishing)

    – When the Americans moved to break out of their end of Normandy by means of Operation Cobra, ULTRA provided a succession of intelligence tips—quickly, that German stocks of artillery shells were running short; on July 26 a complete order of battle for the defending German LXXXIV Corps; on the 28th and again two days later that the corps had lost contact with its entire left wing; on July 29 warning of a panzer concentration for an attack into the U.S. flank; and on July 30 notice that the battered Panzer Lehr Division had begun leaving the front.

    – During the first week of August ULTRA reported the concentration for what became the Germans’ Mortain offensive, and, when that appeared to fail, on August 9 a Fuehrer order to continue the attack, even though risking being caught in the developing Falaise Pocket. Ironically, Hitler sent his order by radio because, after the July 20 Plot, he did not trust the landline networks to transmit his directives.

    – On August 17 ULTRA intercepted six of the ten parts of the message from the German high command in the West to withdraw from Normandy, beginning the Nazi maneuver to escape the Falaise trap. That the Allies ultimately could not seal the Nazis in was a product of tense command decisions, German desperation, and field coordination problems, not a lack of intelligence.

    Lyman B. Kirkpatrick, an intelligence officer with Omar Bradley’s American army group, once wrote that 70 percent of the best came from combat intelligence, by which he meant aerial scouts, the Resistance, and prisoner interrogation. This list of ULTRA accomplishments shows that Kirkpatrick indulged in a bit of deception of historians. Alternatively, the 30 percent includes some pretty incredible intelligence, which went far towards ensuring Allied victory in Normandy.

    John Prados's new book Normandy Crucible: The Decisive Battle that Shaped World War Two in Europe is available for purchase now.

  • D-Day: The British Beach Landings by John Sadler

    Stan Hollis wins the VC

    Stanley Elton Hollis was born on Teesside in 1912, so he was in his thirties when he landed on Gold Beach with 6th Battalion Green Howards. His battalion had trained hard up by Inverary on Scotland’s hard north-west coast. Reveille on 6th June for the Green Howards was around 02.30 with a decent breakfast for those who had the stomach. Getting down via the nets into the landing craft wasn’t easy; the violent pitching of both vessels and the ungainly weight of kit wasn’t conducive to smoothness. If the motion of the ship was bad, this was much worse and the laden bobbing craft had to cruise around in circles, till like a line of ducks they set off in line abreast, ‘A’ Company on the left and ‘B’ on the right.

    View from the sea; British landing craft comes in. (D-Day: The British Beach Landings, Amberley Publishing)

    Stan identified a German strongpoint dead ahead as they cruised in to land, (in fact it was a railway shelter), and grabbing a Lewis gun he rattled off a full pan of ammo. The gun was stripped of its water cooling jacket and, as he hefted it clear of the bracket, forgetting it would be red hot by now, he badly blistered his hand!

    The plan called for Stan to lead mortar-men and Bren gunners from each platoon to charge ahead and set up at the high water mark, providing smoke and covering fire to get the rest through the belt of mines ahead. On their right a tank brewed up, one of ours obviously and the turret hatch bowled along the sand, a lethal projectile but no-one was hurt.

    Up the beach and onto a low ridge of dunes festooned with thick wire entanglements. Birds were sitting apparently unconcerned on the coils. One wag suggested they had no choice as there wasn’t any room left in the sky. Ahead now was a dense belt of mines. ‘D’ company were first through after their assault engineers had gapped, Stan and the others followed the reassuring lines of white tape. Beyond the minefield lay Meuvaines ridge and Mont Fleury Batteries.

    Troops move up off the beaches. (D-Day: The British Beach Landings, Amberley Publishing)

    Once through the hedge beyond the belt of mines, the Green Howards were fully exposed to the attention of the German defenders dug in on the higher ground. Inch by fire swept inch they crawled forward, Major Lofthouse had spotted the pillbox that was doing most of the damage. Hollis saw it too and stormed forward his Sten chattering, he made it and lobbed a grenade in, killing two defenders and persuading the rest to give.

    He barged ahead, up a shallow communications trench aiming for a larger bunker whose inhabitants went into the bag ‘about eighteen or twenty’. A pretty decent haul and it turned out these were the fire control team for the battery up ahead. It was only 09.30 and they could see enemy bolting from their positions but not that far, falling back behind a sheltering wall and firing. Hollis saw one German crazily loping along the top of the wall. Swapping his Sten for an Enfield rifle, he brought the fellow down first shot but was lightly wounded in the face just after.

    On they went into the village of Crepon. With Lieutenant Patrick now dead, Stan was commanding 16 Platoon and the Major ordered the company to check/clear the several farmhouses lining the approach road. Stan broke and entered one of the silent steadings; it seemed deserted except for one terrified boy, perhaps ten or eleven, the effect of seeing this ferocious, blood garnished veteran bursting in must have been utterly terrifying. As he came out to check the rear an enemy round smacked off the back yard wall, fragments whizzing. Aside from a pair of excited local canines, he could just about make out an enemy gun. His day was far from over.

    Stan Hollis won the VC for his actions, the only one to be awarded on D-day.

    John Sadler's new book D-Day: The British Beach Landings is available for purchase now.

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