The German Two-Panzer Division Counter-Offensive 7 and 8 June
“if only …” is the theme of much German debate on the first 24 hours of the invasion, rivalling in bitterness the French reaction to Waterloo, or the British view of Jutland. Undoubtedly, national pride plays a part, and therefore some discount must be made. And, of course, it is always easier to fight a battle correctly after it is over than during the actual events. However, in the case of Normandy, the German view is virtually cancelled out by an equal and corresponding view from the opposite side, covering a somewhat longer period. “I am convinced that the way was wide open for exploitation during the first few days,” said Stanley Green, “but the Germans were allowed to re-group and rush up reinforcements which, with our air supremacy, should have been impossible. Utter confusion existed all round, with seemingly no one knowing what was going on and no one prepared to advance further than their original objectives.” The debate is further complicated by the fact that the British and Canadian operations were basically a feint; what General Bradley called a “decoy mission.”
The Germans were bound to be sensitive to any threat to Caen, real or apparent. From Caen to the Seine was 50 miles; from Caen to Paris was 120 miles; from Caen to the Siegfried Line was 300 miles. Above all, while much of Normandy was difficult country for tanks, the terrain south of Caen was ideal. But, as General Bradley pointed out, “when reckoned in terms of national pride, this British decoy mission became a sacrificial one, for while we tramped around the outside flank, the British were to sit in place and pin down Germans. Yet strategically it fitted into a logical division of labours, for it was towards Caen that the enemy reserves would race once the alarm was sounded.”
And this was exactly what happened. Panzer division after panzer division was directed to the Caen sector, in the hope of mounting an armoured counter-offensive which would drive through to the sea; and in each case, when the battle smoke had cleared away, the British and Canadians were in much the same place as before, but the remnants of the panzer division had been incorporated in the German defensive line and was no longer a mobile reserve. Sometimes, the Germans were able to pull out a division here and there, for a refit, but almost always it was sucked back into the fighting again by a renewed threat to Caen. This was the planned British task for the Normandy battle, planned to last only two or three weeks; but because the Americans were late in breaking out, it lasted almost to the breaking point of the armies, British, Canadian, and German, engaged around Caen. And that is why this battle was waged on such a scale, and with such ruthless desperation, as to have no parallel in the Normandy Campaign, or indeed anywhere outside Russia.
D plus 1, 7 June, saw a renewed attempt by 3 British Div to take, or at least close in, on Caen frontally, while 3 Canadian Div came down on their right flank, driving south-east. Both divisions were, of course, supported by their respective armoured brigades, each roughly equal in tank strength to the single armoured regiment of a panzer division. Already landing behind them, on the I Corps front, were 51 (Highland) Infantry Division and yet another armoured brigade, both destined for the battle of Caen. Far to the right, 30 Corps was strengthened by the landing, 12 hours late, of 7 Armoured Division, with 49 (West Riding) Infantry Division and still another armoured brigade following up. The convoy carrying most of 7 Armoured Division had been shelled off Dover on D-Day by the German cross-Channel guns, and the Liberty ship Sambut had lurched out of the line, on fire and sinking, after two direct hits; part of an L.A.A. Regiment destined for Caen therefore did not arrive. But, apart from the night raids by the Luftwaffe on the beaches and ships anchored off shore, the Germans were almost powerless to affect the steady build-up of the Allied forces in Normandy.
The German reinforcements, on the other hand, were moving up under continual air attack, which caused losses and delays; Panzer Lehr had not yet arrived, and part only of 12th S.S., the Battle Group commanded by ‘Panzer’ Meyer. The German plan was for Oberst Oppeln Bronikowski’s Panzer Regiment 22, of 21 Panzer Division, to attack out of Caen in line with the whole of 12th S.S., when they had all come up and deployed. At the same time, the Battle Group Luck was to counter-attack 6 Air-borne’s bridgehead east of the Orne. The roads radiate from Caen like a fan, or the spokes of a wheel, and all these attacks—British and German—were taking place simultaneously this day, surging up and down the roads leading to Caen. Many German strongpoints were holding out well in rear of the British and the beachheads were not yet solidly linked up; the situation was ‘fluid’, affording opportunities to both sides for bold and decisive action. But to succeed, the German counter-stroke would have to be lucky as well as bold, for the British and Canadian tank forces already ashore had a distinct numerical superiority, quite apart from the British artillery superiority, upon which they relied for the breaking up of German tank attacks. In the past, in similar circumstances, the opportunist Rommel had nevertheless won victories over British armies, when his opponents had fumbled the ball. The attack towards Caen by 3 British Div this day was a possible example.
The Warwicks were ordered to take Lebisey Ridge and village; in the event, their remnants had to be rescued from the Germans by the Norfolks. First, the Warwicks were delayed, so that the heavy artillery bombardment, by three Field Regiments and a cruiser, had also to be postponed. But two companies reached the start line, and, communications having broken down, attacked on time without artillery support. They had a thousand yards of open ground to cover, and their colonel, seeing them advance unopposed, committed the remaining companies. The Germans, of course, were not so foolish as to open fire at 1,000 yards; undisturbed by any barrage, they were able to wait until the last moment and make certain of their aim. The few British survivors were pinned down. At this point, the Battalion’s carriers and anti-tank guns, which had been sent by a different route, drove into Lebisey Wood, assuming that it had been taken, and were similarly dealt with; none of the vehides got back, but some of the men did.
While this abortive attack was going in a mile or so to the west, Hans Höller, with Oberleutnant Braatz’s 8 Heavy Company of 21 Panzer Div, was able to withdraw to Lebisey almost unmolested. They had pulled back from the park at Bénouville under cover of darkness and at dawn were drawn up on the road in column of march, covered by a thin screen of infantry. The only significant British interference with this delicate operation was a single tank which broke through the bushes onto the road 20 yards in front of the muzzle of Lance-Corporal Wlceck’s 75 mm SP gun, and spoilt his breakfast. He dropped the piece of bread which he was buttering, cranked the gun to bear on the point where he expected the tank to appear, and when it did so, brewed it up with his first shot. The unit then withdrew to Lebisey and finally took up positions on the favourable high ground covering the bridges between Hérouville and the Caen industrial suburb of Colombelles, which they were to hold during the next four weeks. They discovered that the ‘garrison’ of Hérouville consisted of a girl interpreter who would not leave her office until officially relieved by the anti-tank gunners.
While 3 British Div were making their small advances that day, west of the Orne, 6 Airborne Division, supported by Commandos, were supposed to enlarge their bridgehead east of the Orne. This was in preparation for a drive to outflank Caen from the east which would begin in a few days when the units of 51 (Highland) Division had been brought up. In order to forestall this threat, the Battle Group Luck put in a spoiling attack. “After a restless night, which the men spent near Escoville either crouching in their tanks or lying underneath them, the day broke grey and overcast,” said Kortenhaus. “This attack was supposed to make up for the failure on the previous evening. Our tank company, supported by panzer grenadiers in half-tracks, were to advance on Ranville, the H.Q. of 6 Airborne Division, the elite troops of the enemy. And so we rolled forward in attack formation, which we had practised so many times; but this time towards a real enemy. St. Honorine was empty, so some tanks went through it while others went round to the right up a hill to where the gliders had come down the previous day. Suddenly, the enemy artillery opened up. The grenadiers were halted and began to dig in, the screams of their wounded mingling with the ceaseless detonation of the shells. Even inside the tanks, we ducked, surprised by this unexpectedly strong defence. But we drove through the fire, on and up the hill to the glider field, where we met such a hail of shells that the tanks turned off to the left towards Longueval. Now, prisoners began to appear and when we sprayed the tree-tops, wounded Englishmen fell out of them. Unsupported by our own artillery and infantry, we were in the middle of enemy anti-tank and infantry positions, where every hedge and ditch spat fire, their occupants determined not to be over-run. This was a difficult and dangerous position for tanks to be in, and we began to retreat down the hill.”
As they retired, tank 431 was hit in the turret, causing the driver to stall his engine, so that this tank was momentarily left behind. Leutnant Hoffman, the company commander, ordered tank 435 to go back and look for 431; “a suicide order for a single tank,” commented Kortenhaus. The commander of 435 replied: “Understood—ready”. Then, all guns blazing, he burst through a hedge to his doom. The Mark IV shook from a hit, turned quickly out of the line of fire, gun swinging round to reply. It was hit again, and only two men bailed out. Tank 432, out on the left flank, saw this happening but were unable to intervene in time, although they marked the positions of the British anti-tank guns and destroyed two of them before they, in turn, were hit. “It was a clear victory for the enemy,” said Kortenhaus.” Our 4th Company had had its baptism of fire, but had not passed the test. The shock to morale of a first, unsuccessful attack over terrain unfavourable to tanks, was very serious for the younger men of eighteen or twenty. We moved back to a quieter position, but no one was able to sleep, in spite of the nervous exhaustion which followed the attack. What would the next few days bring? we wondered. What chance was there of survival, when one seemed almost certain to be hit? Where were our reinforcements? Where was our artillery? What had happened to our air force? It was a very lonely feeling.”
In fact, the attack had caused considerable repercussions in the area of 3 British Div on the other side of the Orne, being reported as a break-through by Tiger tanks and an infantry battalion, which would have been a serious threat indeed. While the fire of 76 Field Regiment directly supported the parachutists, reinforcements of anti-tank guns, tanks, and infantry were switched from the attack on Caen to the defence of the Ranville-Bénouville bridges, and even the Engineers engaged on throwing Bailey bridges across the waterways were called on to take up defensive positions. “There was obviously no great hope for any decisive success from these counter-attacks which my Battle Group made frequently after 6 June,” stated Oberst Frieherr Hans von Luck. “The only time when there might have been a chance was during the early morning of 6 June, but I had no permission to advance then, and, as far as I know, the H.Q. of my Division had no permission either. Thereafter, we had to take as our main aim the containment of the bridgehead east of the Orne; by counter-attacking, to prevent the British expanding their bridgehead, and at the same time enabling us to build up defensive positions in our rear. This British bridgehead was thought to be very dangerous, because a breakthrough here would go deep into the flank of the German forces and on into open country. That we were right to fight for time in which to organise defences was later to be demonstrated by the events of 18 July, during Operation ‘Goodwood’.