Widening of the bridgehead in Normandy (1/3)
D-Day+1 to D-Day+12 – June 7 to June 18, 1944
The supreme battle is under way
On the evening of June 6, 1944, many of the original objectives were still to be achieved. The allied bridgehead is firmly anchored in Normandy, but it is not yet immune to a large-scale German counter-attack supported by tank divisions. The vast armada continues to land on the barely secured beaches the various reinforcements and the precious anti-tank guns.
US soldiers wounded in combat and evacuated by ship to England. Photo: US National Archives
The capture of Caen, scheduled for June 6, is postponed because the British tanks, taking too much advance, lose the support of the infantry and if they are only a few kilometers from the capital of Calvados, they are forced to withdraw.
If the results of the first day of combat are positive, this does not mean that the Germans leave the front and abandon Normandy to the Allies: they fight and resist fierce resistance to the Allied forces throughout the Battle of Normandy.
Patrol of American paratroopers in Sainte-Mère-Eglise. Photo: US National Archives
The situation at the end of June 6, 1944 is as follows: 156,115 Allied soldiers landed on five beaches (Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword) and nearly 73,000 American and 83 115 Anglo-Canadian soldiers were parachuted or air-transported.
Allied glider landing north-east of Caen (6th Airborne Division). Photo: IWM
The Allies deplore the loss of 10,000 men, 2,500 of them killed, figures far from the most optimistic forecasts. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, had advanced before the beginning of operation Overlord the figure of 20,000 killed.
German prisoners burying American killed near Colleville-sur-Mer. Photo: US National Archives
On the German side, the first reports indicate 4,000 killed, but these reports vary from one to two in the first hours of the attack.
One Sergeant, one Corporal and two other paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division prisoners of the Germans. Photo: IWM
The Atlantic Wall is pierced and has been truly effective only on the beach areas of Omaha and Juno. However, it no longer worries the Allies, who can focus on the movements of enemy tank regiments. German Tiger and the Panther tanks are the hauntings of the allied divisions. To combat these armored units, Americans and Commonwealth air forces clutter the Norman sky with fighter planes constantly patrolling. Out of 10,000 sorties from allied aircraft on 6 June, only 319 German aircraft took off.
Patrol of American paratroopers in Sainte-Mère-Eglise in search of snipers. Photo: US National Archives
The hundred surviving Rangers of the attack of the Pointe du Hoc on the morning of June 6th are still isolated, controlling only a small piece of land. They are waiting for the reinforcement of the 116th Regiment of the 1st American infantry division which does not arrive until June 8th. During these three days, the Rangers continually rejected the German attacks: of the 261 fighters engaged on the Pointe du Hoc, only 90 of them, many of them wounded, are still alive.
Pointe du Hoc is controlled by the 2nd Battalion of Rangers but waits for reinforcements. Photo: US National Archives
The German reaction
As early as May, the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, attempted to regroup a maximum of submarines, six of them equipped with Schnorkel, in the Bay of Biscay, to prevent any amphibious operation. But in the first six days after the invasion, 12 of the 36 submarines not equipped with Schnorkel are put out of action and the remaining 24 are retreating to the nearest port. As for the six equipped with Schnorkel, they did not even reach the landing area. The German air force then dropped sea mines from the night of 9 to 10 June in the Bay of Seine.
Rommel had demanded that mines were dropped in advance, but Admiral Dönitz, commander of the Kriegsmarine, had refused to risk loosing the secret of these devices. In fact, the Allies discovered a few unsuccessful specimens and felt that by reducing the speed of the ships, it was possible to escape the explosion.
General Rommel, commander of Army Group B, expresses his concern that he is one of the only German generals realizing that the battle is already lost because the Allies are relatively solidly installed in Normandy, and the German tanks were not engaged fairly quickly. But the Norman bocage is favorable to the defense, being composed of impassable hedges which make the tanks particularly vulnerable.
Two German corporals are taking care of a German paratrooper near Ranville. Photo: Bundesarchiv
High ranking officers of the German Headquarters, meeting at the command post of Rommel at La Roche-Guyon, are convinced that this landing in Normandy is but a vast diversion operation, concealing a larger landing in the Pas-de-Calais area. They are deceived by the false information sent by American and British services in the context of operation Fortitude, which aims at maintaining the 15th German army, 150,000 men, in the Pas-de-Calais.
However, the Germans used reserves located near Normandy in the first few days after June 6th 1944, like divisions stationed in Brittany.
To send them to Normandy, the train remains the fastest way to transport the units, but it is not counting the sabotage actions of the French Resistance which destroys bridges, blows up railroad tracks and informs the allied forces who bomb trains and convoys to slow their advance towards the front in Normandy.
Rommel chose to attack the Americans in the Cotentin and to counterattack north of Caen with the tanks to repel Anglo-Canadians to the sea.
An armored vehicle of the 21st Panzer Division in front of the debris of a British glider Horsa. Photo: Bundesarchiv
The 21st Panzer Division, one of the only divisions to attack from June 6 on the northern crest of Caen to Périers-Colleville, was reorganized on June 7 by General Feuchtinger who counter-attacked with the reinforcement of the famous German general Kurt “Panzer” Meyer and his tanks, belonging to the 12th SS Panzerdivision, on alert on the night of June 6 to 7 but then out of fuel.
If Kurt Meyer defeated an attack by the 9th Canadian Tank Brigade then en route to Carpiquet and its airport, he had to retreat on the night of June 7-8, 1944, having lost six of his Panthers, as did Feuchtinger, after relentless attacks of allied fighter planes. Meyer moved on motorcycle to direct the movements of his tanks.
The siege of Caen begins
Anglo-Canadians attacked on 7 June to capture Caen, in accordance with the plans for Operation Perch, but the German defenses held tight. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division advanced southward and seized the town of Bayeux, on the Caen to Isigny-sur-Mer and Carentan road, while to the north Canadian and British troops made their junction. The allied beachhead was then 30 kilometers long and 10 to 15 kilometers deep.
The Canadians found only the leftover remains of the 711th Division and Reconnaissance Battalion of the 12th SS Panzer Division, leading the 2nd Panzerkorps of Sepp Dietrich. The Allied aerial superiority was such that the three Panzer divisions commanded by General Geyr von Schweppenburg, who were attempting a massive counter-attack to the sea, were pushed back. Von Schweppenburg was injured (he was replaced by Sepp Dietrich) and the headquarters of the western Panzergruppe, installed without camouflage in an orchard, was destroyed by a violent Allied bombardment on 9 June.
But to the south, in the village of Tilly, the Panzer Lehr awaited the Allied forces. And it was the famous “Desert Rats” of the 7th Armoured Division belonging to the British 8th Corps which launched the assault on 10th June: the 6th battalion of the Green Howards was responsible for breaking through the German front line, with nine tanks. On the progression, they did not see the soldiers of the 12th S. Panzerdivision who let them pass and attackedthem in reverse: only two British tanks managed to escape. The Green Howards lost in the battle 24 officers and nearly 250 soldiers.