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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.

  • Did Harold die at Hastings? by Teresa Cole

    Although it was a turning point in British history we don’t actually know exactly how King Harold died. Two different stories have come down to us. The traditional one, known to every schoolchild probably from that day to this, is that he was fatally struck in the eye by an arrow in the final stages of the battle of Hastings. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings) however, gives an altogether different version.

    This Carmen is probably the earliest account of the events of 1066, a poem in Latin prepared rather hastily in 1067 for presentation to King William on his return to Normandy. The only manuscript copy of the poem disappeared some thirty years after it was written and was only rediscovered in 1856 leading to suspicions that it was a forgery. Now, however, it is generally accepted as authentic and the author is named as Guy, Bishop of Amiens.

    In this version of the story, as the English shield wall is finally weakening and beginning to break up, William himself spots a chance to dispose of his rival once and for all. Getting together a group of knights, he deliberately targets Harold, still in the thick of the fighting, and sets out to hack him to death. Gruesome descriptions are given of how Harold was pierced through with a lance and ‘drenched the earth with a gushing torrent of blood,’ at the same time being beheaded and disembowelled and even having his leg cut off.

    Which of these stories is true, we really don’t know. William of Poitiers, a Norman monk who had previously been a soldier himself, gives an account of the conquest full of detail on everything else, but says nothing at all about how Harold met his end. It has been suggested that he might have found the deliberate ganging up on Harold and the subsequent butchery to be a shameful act, and did not want to tarnish his hero William with such a deed, particularly when the victim was a consecrated king.

    the-norman-conquest-3 The death of Harold seems to cover two alternative versions of this as contained in the different accounts. Most take the figure on the left to be Harold, but the caption covers both. (By special permission of the City of Bayeux, The Norman Conquest, Amberley Publishing)

    The other almost contemporary record, the Bayeux Tapestry, is as unclear as usual. The caption, ‘Harold is slain’, is spread over two different deaths. One under the word Harold shows a man clutching an arrow apparently stuck in his eye, while the other has a man cut down by the sword of a horseman. The suggestion that both are Harold in a kind of cartoon sequence, can probably be discounted. In the first picture he is shown with a shield, but in the second this has disappeared and instead he is dropping a battle axe as he falls. It has also been pointed out that if both were intended to be Harold he seems to have had time to change his socks in between.

    Wace, born on Jersey and brought up at Caen in Normandy, wrote his Roman de Rou some hundred years after the event, intending it more as an entertainment than a serious history, but he also has the story of an arrow. He places it, however, towards the start of the battle and has Harold pluck it out and carry on fighting. In fact he flatly declares, ‘I do not indeed know … and have not heard say, who it was that smote down King Harold, nor by what weapon he was wounded.’ This suggests that a century after Hastings neither version of events seemed to be regarded as definitive, at least in Normandy.

    The uncertainty about the mode of death extends even more to the disposal of the body. By the time William finished his pursuit of the fugitives and returned to the battlefield it would probably have been quite dark. In the meantime, as depicted in a whole series of cartoons along the lower frieze of the Tapestry, others had been busy gleaning everything they could from the fallen, leaving the corpses, and no doubt others who were merely wounded, lying naked as they were born. How then was the dead king to be recognised among the pile of bodies?

    There is a story that when women came to claim husbands, fathers and brothers from those left on the battlefield Harold was so disfigured that it was left to his long time mistress Edith Swan-neck to identify the body by some mark known to her alone. Next we hear that Harold’s mother, Gytha, came asking for the body. She is said to have offered his weight in gold in exchange but was flatly refused. Instead we are told William gave the body to one William Malet, telling him to bury it secretly on the seashore and adding that since he had guarded the coast so devotedly in life he could go on guarding it in death.

    A strong tradition, however, claims that, although William refused money for Harold’s body, he did in fact turn it over to Countess Gytha, or at least to two canons from Waltham Abbey who may have supported her claim, and who then brought it back to the abbey and buried it before the high altar. The basis of this claim comes from William of Malmesbury writing in 1125, and he is backed up by Wace in the 1160s, though Wace adds, ‘I do not know who it was that bore him thither, neither do I know who buried him.’ In the abbey grounds today there still stands a memorial to Harold, reputed to mark the site of his grave, and this is certainly the nearest the last consecrated Saxon king has ever come to a gravestone. It is recorded, though, that when on one occasion the grave was excavated it was empty.

    Perhaps that would not be surprising if we were to believe another legend, recorded in a ‘Life of Harold’ also written at Waltham that gives a completely different end to the story. According to this Harold survived the battle of Hastings and in fact lived for many years after.

    This Vita Haroldi or The Life of Harold was among a collection of ancient documents known as the Harley Collection, preserved after the dissolution of the monasteries and eventually sold to the newly founded British Museum in 1753. It appears to be an early fourteenth century copy of an original work from the late twelfth century, written by a secular canon of Waltham Abbey. This in turn claimed to be based on a shorter primary source from someone with direct personal knowledge of the facts alleged.

    The story it tells is quite simply that Harold survived Hastings, that another body was wrongly identified as his, and that he was slowly nursed back to health over a period of two years. He then went abroad to try and raise help to dislodge William, failed in that, became a pilgrim and eventually returned to England to live out his life at Chester as a hermit.

    Hastings, Chester or Waltham? 1066 or sometime between 1090 and 1150? Harold, last Anglo-Saxon King of England died and was buried, but how, when or where we may never know.

    9781445649221

    Teresa Cole's new book The Norman Conquest is available for purchase now.

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