The Fifteenth Army

By MSW Add a Comment 18 Min Read


General von Salmuth was reassigned from the Eastern Front, and sent to France, where in August 1943 he was given command of the important Fifteenth Army stationed in the Pas-de-Calais area of France. The Pas-de-Calais area was that part of the Atlantic Wall believed by Adolf Hitler to be where the Allies would choose for the D-Day invasion, and Fifteenth Army was given 17 divisions, the largest contingent of any German army-sized formation on the Western Front. The Allies did everything in their power to encourage Hitler in his mistaken belief (Operation Bodyguard) as they had picked Normandy as the site of the invasion, an area defended by the smaller German Seventh Army.

Hans von Salmuth wrote this anecdote in his diary about the morning of the D-Day invasion, 6 June 1944:

“At 6 A.M., since it had been daylight for an hour and a half, I had my Chief of Staff telephone Seventh Army again to ask if the enemy had landed anywhere yet. The reply was, ‘Fleets of troop transports and warships big and small are lying at various points offshore, with masses of landing craft. But so far no landing has yet taken place.’ Thereupon I went back to sleep with a calm mind, after telling my Chief of Staff ‘—So their invasion has miscarried already!”

The HQ of the 15th Army is today a museum, in Tourcoing (France, near Lille).

The skilful building up and maintenance of a major threat against the Pas de Calais had deluded the enemy for more than two months, and had achieved its object of keeping the German Fifteenth Army out of the Normandy Battle. It had also preserved it intact in defense of the area. The tremendous defeat suffered by the Germans in Normandy had had severe repercussions, and there might have been a moment—had it been possible to take advantage of it—when the enemy might have taken to his heels. By the end of August the moment had passed, and under a new commander, General von Zangen, the Fifteenth Army had regained cohesion and something of its balance. This was the enemy, estimated at 150,000 strong, facing the Canadian First Army as it debouched from its bridgeheads in the loops of the Seine east and west of Rouen on September 1st.

The Canadians concentrated their main weight and their armor with Canadian 2nd Corps on the right and the British 1st Corps on the left. The intention was to cut a wide swathe towards Bruges to reach the coast at Zeebrugge, while British 1st Corps attacked Le Havre, and the infantry of 2nd Corps cleared the Channel Ports.

In his order of August 26th, General Montgomery had asked Lt. Gen. Crerar to give the honor of capturing St. Valéry en Caux to the 51st (Highland) Division, and that, of course, the Canadian 2nd Division should have the satisfaction of taking Dieppe. In 1940 the bulk of the Highland Division had perished at St. Valéry, and in August 1942 two brigades of the Canadian 2nd Division had suffered appalling casualties in the disaster of the Dieppe Raid.

While, therefore, the Canadian and Polish armor pursued the enemy rearguards on the right, the 2nd Division swung left-handed out of the bridgehead and tore down the slopes into Dieppe almost without firing a shot. At the same time the British 1st Corps on the left gained bridgeheads after severe fighting, and found every key point and road junction covered by well-sited anti-tank guns, and held by an enemy who still had to be pushed before he would withdraw.

There was little taste in the taking of Dieppe, for the enemy had abandoned the port after carrying out hurried demolitions, and the town was desolate and almost deserted. Without a fight and without a warm welcome there was nothing to release emotion, and the Canadians patrolled the wide boulevards between the boardinghouses and the sea in grim humor. There were, in fact, very few present who had looked upon that façade and fought hopelessly on the stony beaches, and even to these few there was no connecting link between the first experience and the last. Perhaps there were too many ghosts shrouded on the barbed wire of the empty beaches to evoke any feelings of triumph or happiness. Nevertheless Dieppe had considerable importance, and many interests. The Germans had failed to wreck the port, and within a week it was hoped to bring in some small cargoes to lessen, however slightly, the great demands on the beaches.

Beyond that a lesson many times learned could have been learned again. Not for the first time since the Dieppe Raid it was noted how easily formidable coastal batteries and defenses could be taken in the rear. The terrible east headland, honeycombed like a miniature rock of Gibraltar and virtually impregnable from the sea, held few terrors on its landward side. On the “Blue” beach at Puits, where the Royal Regiment of Canada had died almost to a man, the skilfully designed concrete emplacements were cunningly merged into the structure and line of the cliffs, and were almost invisible from the sea and air.

No doubt, the Canadians thought, the sacrifice of the Raid had served a high purpose, as Lt. Gen. Crerar had assured them after D-day, but there were some who wondered whether “the facts of life,” as an officer put it, “could not be got into the heads of the Staff at less cost.”

The important point was whether the “facts of life” had been got into the heads of the Staff even now.

Nevertheless there was a message of hope out of Dieppe for the people of England, and especially of London, on that 1st of September. Deep in a belt of woodland a mile or two behind the town the first of the flying-bomb sites was found like the mouth of a great cave running down into a belt of trees. At least one of these bombs, according to the people of Dieppe, had fallen on the town, and there was evidence in the massive scars that some must have crashed within a few hundred yards of take-off.

The fortunes of the Highland Division had been far more satisfying. They had broken out over the Seine on September 1st against a determined enemy, and had rushed upon St. Valéry with startling speed, brushing resistance out of their path. A week earlier, the Division, pursuing the enemy through Lisieux and up and over the hills beyond, had suddenly got into its stride after weeks of bitter fighting in the Caen hinge. They reached St. Valéry on the crest of this wave and pausing only to impress themselves indelibly on the town, the Highlanders turned back to come in on the right of the 49th Division investing the fortress of le Havre. They had had their brief hour of triumph, and the dull wastes of war stretched ahead of them for many weeks.

Le Havre, with its landward approaches protected by the estuary of the Seine to the west and by a flooded valley to the east, was one of the most powerful fortresses of the Atlantic wall. Elaborate minefields and anti-tank ditches covered by concrete gun emplacements made any assault a formidable proposition. Unmistakably, too, the enemy still regarded Le Havre as a vital point, and a garrison in division strength made very clear its intention to defend the fortress to the last.

On September 2nd the British 1st Corps, supported by an armored brigade and an army tank brigade, began the unpleasant task of probing the approaches while the Navy and Air Force delivered a bombardment from 350 guns and 4,000 tons of bombs. None of this softened the landward defenses, nor, it seemed, the determination of the defenders.

But there was no time to lose, and by September 7th the 1st Corps was conscious of having been left behind by the armies racing to the north. In six days le Havre had sustained a tremendous battering from the sea and air, and finally in the wake of a deluge of 5,000 tons of bombs dropped on the fortress in ninety minutes, the 49th and 51st went in “regardless.” Le Havre surrendered on September 12th, yielding 12,000 prisoners. But there was no room for satisfaction.

The 4th Canadian Armored Division had entered Bruges on the 9th, and its patrols had reached the coast in the area of Zeebrugge. Ostend had fallen on the pattern of Dieppe, and on the 5th the Canadian 3rd Division had closed up on Boulogne and Calais.

On the right of the Canadian advance the Polish Armored Division relieved the 7th Armored Division in Ghent, and bashed its way across the strongly held Ghent —Terneuzen canal. By this action the Germans were isolated in the narrow strip of land held between the Leopold canal, the Ghent—Terneuzen canal, the Scheldt estuary and the sea. The pattern for the battle for Antwerp was now clear, but a sense of urgency was nowhere discernible. Indeed, on the left flank the reverse seemed to be true, encouraged no doubt by the shortage of troops and supplies, and the lack of priorities. The news was also a factor in the feeling on the left that all the interest was on the right. Soldiers had inevitably come to consider themselves almost in the role of actors, and watched the Press carefully. Through all September 30th Corps had stolen all the thunder, and it was to continue to do so.

From Twenty-First Army Group Headquarters, from Second Army and 30th Corps there had been signs of impatience from September 4th onwards. General Dempsey had prepared a plan for the army to strike towards the Rhine at Wesel. Montgomery was determined to bound ahead and seize bridgeheads over the Maas and Rhine. The First Allied Airborne Army was ready and waiting. With the relief of the 7th Armored Division the British 12th Corps was able to gather its forces to fill the left flank of the Second Army.

The British 1st Corps, fighting for Le Havre, was looked upon almost like a laggard schoolboy dawdling at the tail of the column, and urged constantly to hurry, and to move up swiftly to the Canadian right. There could not be the slightest doubt that the whole left flank was considered of secondary importance, and even a nuisance.

At last, as it seemed, by September 9th, the fruits of the Normandy victory were gathered in and consolidated, and it had escaped the attention of everyone except the Germans and General Eisenhower that the port of Antwerp, the juiciest fruit of all, was not in the basket. The Germans had regained their balance swiftly all along the line. As early as September 6th General von Zangen had established a strong defensive line on the Leopold canal, covered by the powerful coastal batteries of the Scheldt defenses at Cadzand and Breskens. He had also begun the withdrawal of the main body of his forces across the estuary. The loss of the line of the Ghent—Terneuzen canal was a serious menace to his open flank, but he had still time to move, and used it well. While Field Marshal Montgomery was waiting impatiently for 12th Corps to fill the gap between 30th Corps and the Canadians, and for the 11th Armored to get clear of Antwerp and to strengthen 30th Corps far away in the east, von Zangen was rapidly covering the approaches to the South Beve-land isthmus with the best of his troops. These troops were in strong defensive positions behind railway embankments, and with immense fields of fire over open country. Probably their positions were virtually impregnable from frontal assault. Their right flank and rear was secure, and it might be at least a month before they could be threatened from their left. Nearly seventy miles of coast line on both sides of the Scheldt estuary stretched from Antwerp to the sea. A high proportion of the land was below sea level, and all of it was interlaced with canals, dikes, causeways and minefields. All this territory was defended by troops sworn to fight to the last, and who seemed likely to do so. In fact, their escape route would cease to exist before the end.

The estuary itself was sown with minefields, and these could not be tackled until the land was won. In Antwerp itself Naval divers were working night and day in the dark, bitter-cold sludge of the docks, pulling themselves along on guide tapes, feeling with bare hands for mines and booby traps that might go off at a touch.

Yet it is true that scarcely a thought was given in the first three weeks of September to the urgent, complex and costly battle that must be planned and fought to gain this whole area, essential, beyond a shadow of doubt, to final victory.

On the Channel coast the Canadians were investing Boulogne and Calais as though there was all the time in the world, and without a trace of imagination. The pattern was the D-day pattern of naval bombardment, bombs, bombardment and more bombs. The Czech Armored Brigade was about to take over the role of sitting down outside Dunkirk “for the duration.” It performed this role with unwillingness and a natural impatience. The main body of the Canadian 2nd Corps moved up on the line of the Leopold canal and prepared to take over Antwerp from the Second Army.

The German Command issued the following order:

“The defense of the approaches to Antwerp represents a task which is decisive for the future conduct of the war. After overrunning the Scheldt fortifications the British would finally be in a position to land great masses of material in a large and completely protected harbor. With the material they might deliver a death blow at the North German Plateau and at Berlin. . . . For this reason we must hold the Scheldt fortifications to the end. The German people are watching us. In this hour the fortifications along the Scheldt occupy a role which is decisive for the future of our people.”

All the available resources of the British Second Army were being built up with the utmost speed for a vastly different task, and one which, in the judgment of Field Marshal Montgomery, might bring swift victory.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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