German 21st Panzer Division’s June 6, 1944, counterattack at the Normandy beachheads.
Seventy years ago, on June 6, 1944, the Allies hurled nearly 170,000 men at the coast of Normandy, France, in the first 24 hours of the largest amphibious invasion ever conducted. (See Special Feature, p. 22.) Operation Overlord established five invasion beachheads from west to east: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Though success at Omaha remained in doubt for many hours, all were fully secure by nightfall and the defeat of Nazi Germany was now in sight. The Germans launched only one serious counterattack against the beaches on D-Day, the only time during the invasion in which such a move actually carried a chance of success.
The 21st Panzer Division’s drive to the shore during the afternoon and evening of June 6 has long been characterized as a lost opportunity for the Germans, who failed to exploit the gap between Canadian 3d Infantry Division at Juno and British 3d Infantry Division at Sword. (See German 21st Panzer Division’s Counterattack map, p. 33.) But was it really the Allies who inadvertently missed an opportunity to annihilate much of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s panzer strength in Normandy when the Germans speedily withdrew from the coast instead of funneling more men and armor into the gap?
ON THE NORMANDY COAST
“Where are the tanks? Where are the Englanders?” wondered Private Walter Hermes. He and the other three German soldiers barely slowed their motorcycles as they weaved through the turns and light traffic on the road to where they had been told the Allies had finally launched the D-Day invasion of Adolf Hitler’s Festung Europa (Fortress Europe). Not far behind them stretched a long stream of halftracks carrying 192d Panzergrenadier Regiment’s 1st Battalion, a company of sappers from 220th Panzer Engineer Battalion, and a battery of self-propelled antitank guns. All belonged to 21st Panzer Division, which had re-formed around a cadre of 2,000 veterans of the battles in North Africa.
Private Hermes and his young comrades, Mattusch, Tetzlaw and Schard, were apprehensive. The grenadiers wondered why they hadn’t yet come upon the much slower Mk IV tanks of Kampfgruppe Oppeln that were supposed to already be closing on the enemy beachhead. Still, the men were relieved that the marauding Allied fighter aircraft they’d caught glimpses of all day continued to leave them alone and were anxious to come to grips with the “Englanders.”
Finally, the grenadiers and the lead company reached the sea on the Normandy coast. There was no sign of the invaders, the panzers, or even the troops responsible for the defense of the area, yet far to their left and right were a pair of majestic sights. Quite by accident, the tiny German force had inserted itself into an uncontested 8- mile-long strip of coast that separated the Juno and Sword beaches landing areas. From their perch on the dunes west of the Lion-sur-Mer strongpoint, they could see hundreds of Allied ships and craft moving about – seemingly undisturbed – while, anchored beyond them, large warships leisurely fired at unseen crossroads and other targets well inland.
“Beautiful. Just like a parade,” said Private Hermes to Private Schard. And at that, the grenadiers laid back in the tall grass to watch the show, smoke some Turkish cigarettes, and wait for someone to tell them what to do. But thanks to the Allies jamming the German radio frequencies, the men would receive no orders at all until their division commander made his way to the coast nearly two hours later with a small detachment of tanks to personally organize an assault.
GERMAN COMMAND CONFUSION
Lulled by the wretched weather leading up to D-Day, Rommel, the commander responsible for defending the French coast against an Allied invasion, had returned to Germany for a meeting with Hitler and a side trip to visit his wife on her birthday when the blow fell. The impact of Rommel’s absence from the Normandy battlefield is nowhere more clearly evident than in the befuddled employment of 21st Panzer Division.
Rommel had always maintained that if the invasion were not utterly defeated within the first 48 hours, when the Allied lodgment was most vulnerable, it would only be a matter of time before the war was lost. But because of the convoluted German command structure, virtually the only armored forces immediately available to implement Rommel’s plan to strike the invasion force while it was still disorganized and half in the water were 21st Panzer Division’s 117 Mk IV tanks then located in a series of staging areas south of Caen. (See What Next, General? in the September 2013 issue of ACG.)
Rommel, through direct orders to Lieutenant General Erich Marcks, the LXXXIV Corps commander – or by his own presence – would have ensured that, at the earliest possible moment, 21st Panzer Division was wielded as a single mailed fist smashing directly into Sword Beach, which still held British 27th Armored Brigade in its embrace of clogged exits, destroyed vehicles and backed-up landing craft. Instead, only a portion of the division was ordered against the beachheads, launched in a traditional set-piece attack from a completely different area to which the division had been sent many hours earlier when it was directed to clear British glider troops from a pair of Orne River bridges northeast of Caen.
The invasion had begun the night before. As Allied planners had hoped, the airdropping of dummies at locations where they would be easily found, in combination with the widely – and unintentionally – scattered appearance of real Allied paratroopers and glider troops, precipitated a profound reluctance among the various German headquarters to do almost anything other than simply place troops on high alert. Fully aware of just how few forces were available for a countermove against the Allies, the Germans had hoped to avoid committing their scanty reserves until they could discern the objectives of the air assaults.
With Normandy long identified by the German high command as the likely site of a pre-invasion airborne feint to draw forces away from what was believed to be the Allies’ “real” invasion site at Pas-de-Calais more than 100 miles northeast, the Germans had given little thought in the early morning hours of D-Day to preparing for mass seaborne landings. The result was that three regiments of 21st Panzer Division cooled their heels by their warmed-up tanks and halftracks for several critical hours before receiving orders to sweep away the small British contingent at the Orne River bridges and nearby town of Bénouville.
The British glider troops had been confronting only light, local German forces, and although they had received reinforcements in the form of an understrength airborne battalion, it was unlikely they would be able to withstand the swift assault of a panzergrenadier regiment at full blood, let alone an entire division. German 21st Panzer Division finally received its belated march order before dawn, and by 9 a.m. most of its assault formations had gathered on the east side of the Orne River and were grinding inexorably toward the apparently doomed paratroopers – away from the British landing beaches on the opposite side of the river.
At 1 p.m., the first of two British commando battalions from Sword arrived at Bénouville and the Orne bridges with a single company of tanks and another coming up the road. Meanwhile, 21st Panzer Division, which the British believed would not reach the battlefield until the next day, was a 15-minute drive from the eastern bridge span, was in contact with elements of German 711th and 716th infantry divisions feebly attacking the bridgehead on both sides of the river-canal system, and was beginning to form up for a massed attack. Then, suddenly, 21st Panzer Division received orders to halt all preparations to storm the bridges. Instead, it was directed to launch itself at the British beaches on the other side of the Orne.
General Friedrich Dollmann, commander of German 7th Army, had directed the change of plan at 10:30 that morning. The panzer division did not receive its instructions until around noon, and then it notified the regimental commanders an hour later after hastily developing a new plan of action. The result was near chaos as major elements of 21st Panzer Division were ordered to backtrack along their approach route instead of punching through the thin British screen ahead of them – the direct route to Sword, little more than three miles beyond Bénouville.
“The regrouping of the division took hours,” said regimental commander Major Hans von Luck. “Most of the units from the east side of Caen and the Orne had to squeeze through the eye of a needle at Caen and over the only bridges available in this sector [while] under virtually constant bombardment from the [Allied] navy and fighter-bombers.”
This was far from an isolated occurrence. Communications within Normandy were so thoroughly disrupted that Allied troops were fighting their way inland from the invasion beaches long before German 7th Army learned at 8:45 a.m. of the British landings. Remarkably, absolutely nothing was known of the completely unanticipated use of Utah Beach for a large-scale operation until 11 a.m., some four and a half hours after the Americans had come ashore there.
Other information reaching German commanders was seriously flawed and led to a wasteful commitment of scarce reserves. For example, as late as 1:35 p.m., Rommel’s Army Group B headquarters received a message passed up the chain of command from LXXXIV Corps, responsible for the defense of all of Normandy, stating that “the situation in the area of the 352d Division [Omaha Beach] is now restored,” and the corps staff perceived the threat from the British beaches to be much more serious. Consequently, Kampfgruppe Meyer, in reserve near Omaha, was tasked with assaulting the western flank of the British lodgment. It was an impossible mission.
Since 3 a.m., when Kampfgruppe Meyer was first put on alert because of the parachute landings, it had been marched, countermarched, divided up, regrouped and countermarched again as it received a series of different missions from the LXXXIV Corps staff at St. Lô, which was desperately trying to come to grips with the contradictory reports flooding its headquarters. The unit, which had begun D-Day threateningly close to Omaha, had ultimately gravitated well to the west, near the American airdrops, and then was ordered in mid-morning to turn about and move laterally across the Omaha sector to strike the British forces threatening Bayeux.
Throughout the rest of the day, Kampfgruppe Meyer painfully worked its way east, its progress marked by tall columns of oily black smoke as one vehicle after another fell victim to Allied fighter-bombers, or “Jabos,” searching for prey along the roads. Thrown piecemeal against the invaders in evening assaults, one German battalion and some self-propelled guns briefly retook Colleville-sur-Mer from U.S. 1st Infantry Division pushing inland from Omaha Beach before the German battalion was surrounded. Around 5:30 p.m., the balance of Kampfgruppe Meyer formed up for a two-battalion attack against British 69th Brigade Group from Gold Beach but was simply overwhelmed by the size and violence of the British advance. The 90 men of Kampfgruppe Meyer who survived D-Day were absorbed by another severely mauled German unit.
While Kampfgruppe Meyer was being ground down to the point of annihilation, the 21st Panzer elements to the east painfully retraced their path and then picked their way through the rubble of Caen. This forced a delay of nearly three and a half hours, which British 3d Infantry Division and 27th Armored Brigade put to good use by establishing pre-planned defensive concentrations along the very axis of attack the panzers were ordered to take. The 21st’s commander, Major General Edgar Feuchtinger, a darling of Hitler who had worked on the massive Nazi Party rallies before the war and most recently on the secret weapons program, did not protest the move and compounded the misstep by breaking up his division. A third of the formation was left behind to assault the bridges. Strong enough to take the position at the original time planned for the attack, it now faced a much tougher job later in the day when British 6th Airborne Division defenders were able to call in naval gunfire at will. The panzergrenadiers would fail to take the bridge and, in any event, had no forces behind them to exploit a success.
On the west side of the Orne, General Marcks had driven unscathed from his St. Lô headquarters opposite the American beaches to see the attack off and warned the commander of the main kampfgruppe, “If we don’t throw the British back into the sea, we shall have lost the war.” The division lost numerous vehicles and tanks to the ever-present Allied aircraft before the assault finally got underway at 4:20 p.m., and still more upon smacking into the anti-tank guns of British 27th Armored Brigade’s Staffordshire Yeomanry Regiment north of Caen.
The panzers disengaged, then moved around the left flank and seemed on the verge of splitting the British lodgment in two when they started to climb the Périers Ridge, a scant four miles from the shore. At this point, they ran into three troops of Sherman M4 “Firefly” tanks armed with the new high-velocity, 17-pounder cannon. Before the invasion, the Staffordshire Yeomanry’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel J.A. “Jim” Eadie, had informed his colleagues that he planned to establish a “backstop” of these panzer-killing machines at just this spot in anticipation of a German counterstroke.
Eadie had some experience fighting German panzers – including this same enemy formation – having assumed command of the regiment just in time for the 1942 El Alamein battle in North Africa. The panzers advanced exactly as Eadie had envisioned the previous May while training in England. The British destroyed six panzers in quick succession, and an enemy attempt to outflank the ridge on another move around the left netted the Germans three more burning hulks against no British losses.
The panzergrenadier battalion of Private Hermes, even farther to the left, eventually reached the German troops holding out in Lion-sur-Mer around 7 p.m., but division commander Feuchtinger’s plans to reinforce them by skirting a vanguard of about 40 panzers around the deadly British anti-tank guns and Firefly Shermans along the ridge were scuttled when, just after 9 p.m., an unending horde of nearly 600 Allied transport aircraft, gliders and escorting fighters thundered low overhead. Thoroughly spooked by the unexpected air armada and with darkness drawing closer, the men of the 21st – from panzertruppen to division commander – were convinced they were in danger of being immediately cut off, even though the mass of aircraft was clearly banking toward the east where British 6th Airborne had established its drop zones. Feuchtinger, who had only just arrived at the coast, hastily issued orders to withdraw from the gap. The 21st Panzer Division elements at Lion-sur-Mer pulled out, followed in the gathering darkness by an undetermined number of the coastal troops. (Note: All times are given in the Double Daylight Savings time then used by Allied forces; therefore, darkness did not begin to fall until nearly 11 p.m.)
DIE ANOTHER DAY
Most of the panzertruppen and panzergrenadiers surging toward the sea on D-Day would be killed over the next month, long before their replacements and remnants of the rest of the German army in Normandy escaped across the Seine River. Yet reaching the English Channel on the evening of June 6 would have only hastened their end, as well as the end of the lead kampfgruppe of 12th SS Panzer Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth), a panzergrenadier regiment with attached battalions of armor and artillery. Naval gunfire on the eastern side of the Orne, fighter aircraft, anti-tank guns and the Sherman Fireflies’ 17-pounder cannon had since mid-afternoon stripped 21st Panzer Division of 54 tanks and other armored vehicles. If the division’s roughly 70 surviving tanks had not pulled back, the morning light would have revealed them, the division’s halftracks, self-propelled guns and a portion of its artillery all assembled in the gap for a coordinated assault toward Sword while the deadly youngsters of 12th SS’s kampfgruppe formed a mobile front facing Juno. Once 21st Panzer Division had rolled up the eastern invasion beach, it would be the turn of the by-then fully assembled Hitler Jugend to do likewise to the Canadians at Juno.
Yet these ambitious objectives were simply out of reach. Other than a possible feint along the west side of the Périers Ridge – where nine of the division’s tanks had been destroyed the evening before – 21st Panzer Division would have had few tactical options open to it. At first light, the mass of panzers and other armor would storm into a shallow box north of the ridge and Hermanville, bounded by a thick anti-tank screen along the Caen road on the east and the hastily fortified British-held portion of Lion-sur-Mer on the coast, all buttressed by British 27th Armored Brigade, a formation with approximately 190 tanks. The initial goal of the British ground forces – aside from destroying as many German tanks as possible – would be to keep the German armor from breaking into the British defense, and thus confined to the attack zone and the dangerously compressed 3-mile-wide area between the British and Canadian elements that had fanned out from the two beachheads.
Trained on this vehicle-packed ground stretching west to the Juno lodgment would be the naval guns of bombardment groups D and E from Juno and Sword beaches that had formed part of the spectacle Private Hermes and his friends had marveled at the day before. Slowly orbiting beyond the range of the dozen or so flakpanzers and handful of light anti-aircraft weapons, a string of Allied spotter aircraft would direct the largest concentration of naval gunfire per square mile during World War II. Even with some ships siphoned off for other duties, the force could call on approximately 120 destroyer guns ranging in size from 4 to 4.7 inches, 98 cruiser and secondary battleship guns of mostly 6 inches, and 19 mammoth 15- and 16-inch guns.
That the German forces massed near Lion-sur-Mer faced total destruction if they stayed put has escaped attention in histories of D-Day. Instead, one finds comments that the 192d Regiment’s panzergrenadiers were “lucky” to reach the coast and criticisms of division commander Feuchtinger in German histories. Virtually no attention is paid to the fact that concentrations of naval firepower vastly smaller than that of bombardment groups D and E had shredded German counterattacks in Mediterranean Theater operations and continued to do so in Normandy as late as July 8, when the Royal Navy battleship HMS Rodney broke up a force of three dozen LXXXVI Corps panzers southeast of Caen at a range of 32,000 yards.
For now, though, the men of 21st Panzer and 12th SS Panzer would live a little longer – most would die, but they would die another day. The battered 21st pulled back toward Caen and the Hitler Youth launched their own failed counterattacks against the lodgments after the rest of their division reached the front on Wednesday, June 7.
D.M. Giangreco served for more than 20 years as an editor for “Military Review,” published by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He has written and lectured widely on national security matters and is an award-winning author of numerous articles and 12 books, including “The Soldier From Independence: A Military Biography of Harry Truman” (2009, Zenith Press).
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Armchair General.