From the Beaches to the Seine:
Surprise, Sacrifice and Some Good Luck

By John C. Ausland

OSLO - The Allied strategic concept of Operation Overlord was simple. It was to transport forces from England to France, secure a bridgehead, and then move across France to the Seine River. There would also be a landing in southern France. However, because the number of landing craft was limited, this would take place weeks after we went ashore in Normandy.

The difficult advance up the Italian peninsula would be continued, if only to tie down German divisions. Under the grand strategy approved at Tehran, there would also be a major Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front shortly after the Allied landing.

The location and exact timing of our landings on June 6 took the German commanders by surprise. Allied deception had reinforced Hitler's conviction that they would take place at the Pas de Calais, where the Channel is narrowest. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, lulled by bad weather, had gone to Germany to celebrate his wife's birthday. Nevertheless, the German forces in Normandy soon pulled themselves together and put up a determined resistance.

We were lucky to have Hitler calling the shots, rather than his commander in chief in the west, General Gerd von Rundstedt. Convinced that Normandy was a diversion, Hitler hesitated to redeploy his armored divisions from the Pas de Calais area. After her ordered them to move to Normandy, their progress was retarded by constant attacks by Allied aircraft. These were in turn helped by Allied intelligence, which had broken the German code, and was reading German radio traffic. At a critical point, for example, the headquarters of Panzer Group West was demolished.

Despite the tactical surprise, the success of the Allied forces varied from beach to beach.

Colonel James Van Fleet's 8th Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, with which I came ashore as artillery liaison officer, landed on Utah Beach to the south of where it was supposed to. This was fortunate, since German defenses were less effective than where we were expected to land.

Since I went directly inland from the beach, our luck was only brought fully home to me when I revisited the beach in 1984, in connection with the 40th anniversary of the landings. I shuddered as I looked at the concrete bunkers that would have confronted us had we gone ashore at where we were supposed to.

As it was, with the help of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the 8th spent the first night miles inland, not far from Ste.-Mere-Eglise, which was held by paratroopers.

Three weeks later, the 4th and 79th Divisions captured Cherbourg. The attack up the Contentin Peninsula was, however, hard fighting. The 4th lost nearly 800 killed, mostly in rifle companies - an extremely heavy casualty rate. Its commander, General Raymond Barton, observed that his division was not the one which came ashore.

Furthermore, the Germans had wreaked such damage to the port of Cherbourg that it was a long time before it could be fully used.

The 1st and 29th Divisions ran into unexpectedly strong resistance on Omaha Beach, a German division having moved into that area shortly before the landing. Despite heavy casualties, the U.S. forces managed to push inland. This story has been told many times, but no more dramaticly than by Bruce Bliven Jr., who was there, in his book "The Story of D-Day."

Lieutenant Bliven had the same job as mine, to locate positions for the 12 artillery pieces of his unit, the 111th Field Artillery Battalion. This unit suffered an even worse fate than my 29th Field Artillery Battalion. The 29th came ashore with eight self-propelled howitzers, after a landing craft with the other four hit a mine. The 111th got only one ashore, since waves swamped the fragile craft that carried one towed howitzer apiece.

The greastest disappointment to General Dwight Eisenhower's command was what happened on the British-Canadian beaches. These forces were supposed to take Caen soon after landing. Instead, it took them six weeks to complete the task.

When we read accounts in Stars and Stripes of the fighting near Caen, there was a great deal of grousing about General Bernard Montgomery's slow progress. This was reinforced by critical comments in the American press. This critisim, however, did not take sufficiently into account the forces Hitler threw into the battle, because he feared a breakout on the Caen front to Paris.

After helping capture Cherbourg, the 4th Division turned south to join the attack in what the French call the bocage but we named the hedgerow country. Our difficulties were aggravated by the fact that the planners had concentrated on the landing, and we had no training for coping with the easily defended terrain, which was covered with hedgerows and swamps

As I drove in 1992 through the winding lanes with their hedgerows, I found the beauty of the countryside in disturbing contrast to the memories it evoked. A particularly painful recollection concerned a night attack across a swamp against a German strongpoint on a peninsula. This nightmarish assault failed, with heavy casualties.

I can never forget visiting the peninsula just after the Germans had withdrawn and seeing our men piled up like cordwood, with a little earth scattered over them. Further evidenc that the Germans had departed in a hurry was a German lying nearby, his head several feet from his body.

After extremely heavy fighting, the 29th and 35th Divisions captured a demolished St. Lo. Divisions of the 7th Corps under General J. Lawton Collins attacked up to a road running from St. Lo west to Periers, which was captured by the 90th Division.

By this time, General Montgomery, in overall command of the land forces, and General Omar Bradley, in command of the Americans, were under heavy pressure to get moving. In both Washington and London, there was fear that Allied forces would get bogged down.

Despite the failure of earlier attemps at heavy bombing on the British front to destroy German defenses, General Bradley decided to make another try, using the St. Lo - Periers road as a bomb line. The result was Operation Cobra. He chose General Collin's 7th Corps to make the assault, after saturation bombing by thousands of bombers and fighters. General Bradley allocated the 9th and 3oth Divisions to the assault.

General Collins, however, asked for another division. As a result, the 4th, which had expected a respite, found itself in the center of the attack. Although the bombing phase of the attack prepared the way for converting a stalemate into a breakout, it was at a price of more than 100 dead and 500 wounded when a number of bombs fell on those of us in the front lines.

There has been considerable controversy over why so many of our men were killed and wounded by our bombers. General Bradley maintained it was because they did not attack parallel to the St. Lo - Periers road, as he requested. The air commanders insisted that they had not agreed to this, for operational reasons.

General Bradley described it as "a serious breach of good faith in planning." This was remarkably strong language for an American general to use about the Allied air force commanders.

Whatever happened at that indecisive planning conference among the generals, the reality was that a southern wind blew dust and debris northward and obscured the road, which was the bomb line. For some reason, there were no communications between the ground forces and the bombers. As a result, many bombs fell in scattered patterns on our positions. I was saved by the fact that I was on a country lane that had high hedgerows on each side.

To the rear of where I was, Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair was killed when one of the bombs fell near him. So were more than a hundred others.

Despite the shock of this experience, most of the units were able to move forward over the moonlike landscape left by the bombers. Lieutenant General Fritz Bayeriein commanded the Panzer Lehr Division, which took the brunt of the bombing. He later commented, "The survivors were like madmen and could not be used for anything." This was not entirely true, but the resistance was certainly lighter than it would otherwise have been.

This attack took place on July 25. The following day, General Collins turned his armored divisions loose. The breakout that ensued was accompanied by a spectacular campaign by General Patton's 3rd Army, which was activated on the west coast on August 1.

After the failure of a German counteroffensive launched at Mortain in the early hours of August 7, the Allies swept across northern France. In the process, they destroyed a grat many German forces in a pocket near Falaise. Martin Blumensen, who wrote the official U.S. Army account of the fighting in Normandy, describes this operation in his recent book "The Battle of Generals." He blames both American and British commanders for the failure to close the gap and destroy all the German forces. Whoever was at fault, we had to fight later those that escaped.

The Allied force landed on the south coast of France on August 15 against light resistance and made its way up the Rhone Valley to take over the front north of Switzerland.

On the Eastern Front, Marshal Georgi Zhukov's offensive, finally launched on July 23, was making dramatic progress and destroying whole German armies.

On August 25, just one month after Operation Cobra, the French 2nd Armored Division and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division entered Paris.

International Herald Tribune


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