D-Day: A close-run thing

United Press International
June 6 2004

D-Day: A close-run thing
By Martin Walker
UPI Editor
Published 6/4/2004 5:41 PM

WASHINGTON, June 4 (UPI) — Sixty years on from that grim day in June,
time enough has passed to take the shock from the news that German
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will attend the D-Day commemoration
ceremonies. And by saying that he is one of that very large number of
Germans today who say that D-Day also marked the beginning of their
liberation from Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, Schroeder has added grace
to his presence.

It is also right that Russia’s Vladimir Putin will attend. They may
have been Soviets back then, but until D-Day, the Red Army took the
brunt of the war and the mass of casualties, and they tore the heart
out of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. They were comrades-in-arms, and with the
Cold War more than 10 years over, it is right that the Russians now
take their place on the Normandy beaches.

Perhaps Vladimir Kuchma of Ukraine should also be there. When the
British and Canadian troops stormed ashore at Gold and Juno beaches,
they encountered whole battalions of Ukrainian, Cossack and Tartar
troops in the 709th Division, recruited by the defecting Soviet Gen.
Andrei Vlasov from German prisoner-of-war camps. And after the
devastation of their country by the great famine that came with
Stalin’s collective farms, who can blame them?

Perhaps the Koreans might be there too, and the Georgians and
Armenians. Korean troops who had somehow been dragooned into the
Red Army, captured and then put into Wehrmacht uniform, were among
the prisoners the Americans took on the first day ashore. There
were Georgian and Armenian, not to mention Latvian, Lithuanian and
Estonian troops, all wearing the field gray of the Wehrmacht, having
laid aside the khaki and the red star of the Red Army.

Wars are like that, hauling in whole continents and peoples, and
subsuming millions of personal dramas and improbable fates into the
vast anonymity of armies. And there were Indian and South African and
Rhodesian and Australian and Polish and Czech troops and airmen and
sailors in the British forces, while the American melting pot meant
that the GIs probably comprised the most polyglot and cosmopolitan
force of all.

But the presence of all these lesser-known players in the great assault
on Hitler’s fortress Europe should serve to remind us of something
important. There were very few of Hitler’s best troops guarding the
Normandy beaches. There were whole units of the German army known as
“ulcer battalions” from the special diet required by these second-line
troops, and one of them was in the 243rd Division among the forces
guarding Omaha beach. But Allied intelligence had failed to record
the presence of one front-line German division at Omaha, the 352nd,
reinforced by elements of the 3rd Sturm-Flak Korps with 37mm and 88mm
anti-aircraft guns.

Hitler’s reserve of five panzer divisions, the armored fist of the
Wehrmacht, were concentrated nearly 200 miles north of Normandy in
the Pas de Calais, just across the most direct invasion route from
England. Hitler was convinced the main attack would come there, and
even after the D-Day landing he believed the Normandy invasion was
but a ruse.

Well, there was a ruse, but it was not Normandy. Called Operation
Fortitude, it was the presence of a handful of signalers with their
radio transmitters in southeast England, keeping up the constant
flow of radio traffic that signaled the presence of a vast force,
the nonexistent 7th Army Group. The trick — and it worked — was to
convince Hitler and his High Command that the aggressive American
General George Patton was preparing to invade near Calais. So that
was where the bulk of the German tanks and the best troops — 19
divisions in all — were kept fruitlessly waiting.

Only one panzer division, the 21st, stationed around Caen, was sent
into action against the beaches on the morning of D-Day. Two more,
the Panzer Lehr and the even bigger 12th SS Panzer (SS divisions
were almost twice as large and better equipped than standard Panzer
divisions), were ordered to mount a counterattack at 4 a.m. on D-Day
by Field-Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, but Hitler’s HQ refused to confirm
the order while the Führer was sleeping. By the time they got underway
in the early afternoon, the overcast skies of the morning had given
way to clear weather and the British and U.S. fighter-bombers exacted
a high toll for all German road movements.

One other unit should have arrived to counterattack the Normandy
beachhead by June 10. This was the SS Das Reich Panzer division,
which had been refitting and resting near Toulouse in Southern France
after being nearly destroyed in the battle of Kursk on the Eastern
front the previous summer. Rested and reinforced, at full strength
and equipped with Panther and Tiger tanks, it was probably the most
powerful single armored unit in Western Europe.

Allied planners estimated it would take four days for Das Reich to
reach Normandy. But thanks to air attacks on bridges and railroads
and to some heroic actions by the French resistance in the Perigord
and Limousin regions, blowing bridges and mounting doomed but valiant
ambushes, and provoking the Germans into turning aside to commit
hideous atrocities against civilians, it took three weeks for the
division to come into action against the beachhead. (At the village
of Oradour-sur-Glane, over 400 civilians, mainly women and children,
were locked inside a church that was then set on fire by SS Das
Reich; this was supposedly a reprisal for the killing of a German
officer.) The official historian of Britain’s Special Operations
Executive, M.R.D. Foot, concluded that the delays in Das Reich reaching
Normandy may have saved the invasion.

D-Day, despite the ruse of Operation Fortitude, despite allied air
power and command of the sea, and despite the bravery of allied troops
(and the French Resistance), was a close-run thing. Had Hitler not
been fooled, and had the panzer divisions been in the right place,
the allies might well have been thrown back into the sea. Even when
established ashore, it took the allies almost six weeks to break out of
the beachhead and into France, so resourceful was the German defense.

By the time the allies finally broke out from Normandy in later July,
the cream of the German army in France and all available panzer
divisions had finally been committed to the battle. Their defeat was
total. The American breakout threatened to cut off the entire army,
as the British and Canadians and Polish troops advanced from Caen to
join up with the American pincer at Falaise. As the Germans fought
desperately to prevent the jaws from closing, the Falaise gap was
turned into a giant killing ground for the German troops trying to
escape encirclement.

Among those fleeing were the remnant of SS Das Reich. They had begun
on June 6 with 23,000 troops and nearly 500 armored vehicles. But
only 240 men and three tanks got out of the Falaise gap.