France in the Eye of the Storm - "Allo! Allo!"

Juni 1941 - Wir sonnen und auf der Promenade von Biarritz

Life for the German Troops in France before Allied Invasion in 1944
Life in France for the German soldiers meant a maximum level of wartime security. They lived in heaven. Their colleagues in Russia however were sitting in hell. And their families in Germany were somewhere in-between: daily bombing raids on the towns, casualties among the civilians were high, evacuations, strict rationing of food and everyday goods since many years. And all this within other tight constraints of total dictatorship.

France was the place to be. It felt like the “peace-time”  that Germany had not experienced for 10 long years. The occupying troops started relaxing. Slowly, slowly they adjusted to life in France.

The German military administration in Paris subtly distanced themselves from Berlin head quarters. All these professional soldiers were not keen on the Eastern front and also not looking forward to the big fight looming against the invaders from North America and Great Britain. With great imagination they concocted the most outlandish arguments to support their indispensability to the Western theatre. The whole military apparatus in France cooperated in the endeavour not to go to actual war.

Hitler finally went apoplectic. He sent hardened front officers to Paris to shape up the occupation army. Mercilessly, all fighting fit soldiers are made ready for the new forces preparing against the invaders or are sent to the Russian front. Now forget the good times.

As always, Hitler continued manipulating his soldiers. In his written orders to the officers and in radio speeches to all ranks he demanded from them a fight until death. The spoilt German soldiers in France were not in the mood for such talk. They felt a certain sympathy for the idea of letting themselves get captured by the "bad" Western Allies. After all, having observed the example of what happened to the Africa Corps, they were obviously in this case dealing with an enemy acting humanely.

The soldiers arriving from the Eastern front, however, had a completely different fighting spirit. They fought like gladiators. Better dead than being taken prisoner! This attitude had nothing at all to do with dedication to Hitler. The motivation evolved out of a deadly fear of Russian imprisonment which usually meant to die slowly and painfully. One may perhaps compare this syndrome with the horror of Allied soldiers in Asia and the Pacific at the thought of being captured by the Japanese military.

Anyway, Hitler sensed and used that particular "no surrender-reflex" of the veterans from the Eastern front to scare and stiffen the spoilt troops in France.
So what did the Eastern front veteran think of all this?
In written orders from Hitler to senior commanders, you read more often than not of "fighting until death" and "no retreat, no surrender". Did the officers pass such orders down to the rank and file exhorting the soldiers to act accordingly? Yes, these phrases were sent down to all ranks. But nobody took all these high-sounding words literally for the mere reason that the front dictates its own laws, which override all orders from any senior officer. No useful purpose is served by men of any unit sacrificing themselves needlessly. They might die a "hero’s death", but the rest of the team is weakened. A unit can only survive if the majority of its members survive.
Above all also the adversaries had the same thinking. Nobody ever rushed head on into danger irresponsibly.

But now the following thought: One always reads about the Political Commissars in the Soviet units who pushed their people mercilessly into battle. Were there any comparable German officials responsible for ensuring that Hitler's orders and demands were carried out?
Indeed, the German officers were like the Commissars. They saw to it that the men performed. The soldiers were under their control. It was not possible to escape their commands. When a fighting infantry unit, for example, got the order to mount a raiding patrol (a particularly dangerous assignment), it also did so. The only latitude the men had was to plan and execute it well themselves to achieve success.

Thus war at the basic level is about killing and surviving completely independently and in disregard of the politics and thinking of statesmen and politicians.

Chapters later
Some explanations for the reader of this website:
The 84th Infantry-Division where Clemens served as Lieutenant in the HQ Batallion, was parked at the Atlantic Coast South of Dieppe. In July 1944 the division was moved  into battle in the front-salient pointing to Avranches.

HQ Staff of the III. Bat., 1051 Grenadier-Regiment,  84th ID.
Bn CO Captain Hauptmann in the middle with file under his arm.
Clemens behind him slightly covered. Normandy 1944. Photo CP.

With the Bicycle to the Front
From Cany-Barville on the Atlantic Coast to the front line close to Sourdeval in the region of Calvados there was a distance of 200 kilometres.
Lacking fuel for troop transporters all of the men of the 84th Infantry-Division
were issued bicycles to ride to the actual battle ground between Vire and Avranches in Normandy. 
In the beginning it was easy cycling over flat country roads. But then the “Tour de France” over strenuous hilly terrain began which sucked all energy out of the marrow bones. Hill up, hill down. Pack and rifle on the back, ammunition strapped above both tires. During day one slept and rested under mighty old trees with splendid leaves. The leak-proof foliage offered ideal cover against enemy air reconnaissance and fighter planes. It was strictly “verboten” for the men to sleep in any French houses. Order from top down. One tried to keep the Frenchmen happy as far as possible while running one’s own business in parallel, as it were. However, the men were allowed to overnight in barns, stables and the like.

The cyclists carefully rationed their food reserves, but there came the moment when the last bread crumb was eaten. Where was the re-supply?! Feeling famished, the men helped themselves in picking the Calvados apples from the trees which lined the roads. Those little apples had a bitter sweet taste and shot fresh, but regrettably short term, energy in the blood. There was not enough calories in the fruit. When the men had totally exhausted their food reserves they looked for a farmhouse and asked the French inhabitants for some bread, sausage or lard.

The French farmers were, unlike the Russian peasants, very well supplied with food. It didn’t break their hearts to cut off a slice of bread. The Germans filled their water bottles with tap water and carried on. The French in general were quite nice to the young Germans. On the other hand, did they have any other option? It was better to give away a piece of bread willingly than to refuse and run the risk of their entire pantry being plundered.

The closer the men approached the front area, the more carefully they studied the landscape; it transformed into a lush hilly land; green, moist, aromatic. It was composed of a pleasant rhythm of meadows, fields with crops and then forests, graphically structured through hedges and rows of trees. Quite illogically, the old country lanes meandered through the landscape, lined on either side by embankments and trees. Some of these alleyways were so completely shaded by the undergrowth that one could not even glimpse the fields beyond.
Occasionally the soldiers rode through virtual tunnels of rich foliage. Whoever created nature of such wondrous beauty? This land has been cultivated for many, many generations. The compact stone houses were complemented here and there by a barn and agricultural machinery. Then there were small hamlets, a church, a “boulangerie”.
Could there really be a war on here? Everything was so intact, so beautiful, so orderly.

Clemens with his crew on his way to the front. Start of August 1944. Photo CP. 

These are actual soldiers from Clemens' 84th Infantry-Division asking a local French farmer for water and food. The photo is taken later when the whole 7th Army moved as a pocket to the last exit at the Orne river. An official Wehrmacht photographer named Theobald accompanied these men on the country road from Gers to Beauchaîne. August 1944.  Bundesarchiv. Bild 101I-731-0388-38.

Several pages later

5 August 1944
The day before the grand assault
"Unternehmen Lüttich"
the infantry-men of the 84th ID were digging holding positions in two lines behind the actual front. If the enemy were to roll over the German front he would be stopped by the men in these lines.
Those soldiers who had experienced the Eastern front knew this tactic. It indicated that severe pressure and possibly a break through by the Americans could be expected.
Clemens tried to steel himself for the upcoming combat. But what would the encounter with the Americans be like? Referring to his experience in Russia he imagined that the opponent would throw massed infantry against the Germans. If it were to come to such tactics he felt more or less prepared.

Tossing these thoughts aside he suddenly discovered heavily armed soldiers sneaking through the bush. They looked awful: battle-weary, dead tired, kaput, demoralized. Based on their uniforms he identified them as German paratroopers. They were elite soldiers whose high reputation as extraordinary fighters, always preceded them.* (See at the end of page)
“What happened?!” Clemens looked at them in a shocked way.
One paratrooper responded, highly frustrated: “You crouch in your fox hole, very well disguised, and the bombs are raining down like no tomorrow. Metre by metre, the land all around you is blown up. Good cover is useless. It’s sheer luck to survive that.”

There was not much left of the elite platoon although not a single American or English soldier had been encountered.
“God All Mighty, if this is the German elite, what might happen to us?!” Clemens thought.

He realized now that the war was fought from the air. The paradigms had fully shifted. Forget Russian-style warfare. His hope of surviving the approaching battle as mere infantry man was almost shattered.

Paratroopers on a country road. Normandy. June-July 1944. Photographer: Slickers. Bundesarchiv. Bild 101I-586-2225-16

Again pages ahead

The Americans sound the attack
At August 7 and 8 the Americans ruined the German foray with their overwhelming air force (Battle of Mortain). When German armour and infantry could advance no more, the American ground assault began.

In the evening of August 8, Field Marshal von Kluge gave the order to withdraw. “Nevertheless, all preparations required to continue the attack are to be made. The troops must maintain the will to attack under all circumstances.”

How high were German losses?
-         11 000 men dead, injured or missing in action.
-         A senseless number of tanks and vehicles lost.

In the way the German machine gun had dominated the battle field in Russia, so the Allied air force now ruled in France. Like some sort of crop harvester, it cut down thousands of soldiers. The Germans did not stand  a chance.

The dividing line between enemy and friend was blurred and permanently moving. There was no trench warfare like in Russia around Rshew. Conditions were more similar to the situation around Olenin where the front was perforated and fluid.

We return to the Normandy landscape, a cultivated land with proper roads, hedges, lane ways , embankments and hollow paths. This was not the kind of scenery where great panzer battles could take place as experienced on the Russian steppes. The tanks had to roll on country roads and their crews could not gauge the lay of the land due to the high hedges. Insofar the Germans had a slight advantage as defenders being able to observe what was happening on the roads from well concealed positions in the bushes.

Focus on the section under Clemens. It was comprised of five men. The soldiers tiptoed along the hedges which lined all the fields and roads. When would the first American tanks show up?
With ears pricked they strained to listen for the first acoustic waves of an engine. Nerves were stretched to breaking point.
In the absence of anti-tank cannons they had organized an 88mm FLAK-gun to use against approaching tanks. This anti-aircraft gun was extremely accurate and really excellent for anti-tank purposes. However, only one question was really crucial; who would succeed to fire first? The Americans or the Germans? Consider this: a tank could wipe out a large group of infantry in seconds using its main gun, grenades and machine guns.
Very attentively and nervously the men scanned the area for enemy signs.  It was of course extremely important to pick up any signals as early as possible. Still the birds were innocently trilling in the bushes. The six men were lurking behind the hedges with all antennas up. When would the enemy get here? The stress made them look white with worry.

”Over there, the tanks are coming!”
The time had come. Mesmerised the men peered in the direction pointed at.
At a distance of a good 500 metres the turrets of six tanks protruded over the side of the sunken road. Slowly the convoy rolled forward and came to a stand still. Obviously the enemy also checked the area ahead and consulted whether to continue probing. Also for the Americans this business was highly dangerous.
Swiftly, Clemens and his men rolled their “88” into position and adjusted its sights. They loaded armour-piercing ammunition taking careful aim at the leading tank. Fire! The round shot out of the barrel. Reloading while aiming at the last tank in the column. Fire again!
Boom! The first tank was hit squarely.
Boom! The last tank was also shot up.
The two disabled tanks blocked the hollow road. The tanks in-between had no way to exit and escape. These four hemmed-in tanks were completely at the mercy of the Germans.
With patience and taught nerves the men reloaded and methodically destroyed one tank after the next in the column.

Six giants were lying wrecked in the sunken road.
Immediately the Germans pulled back their 88 certain the enemy would soon respond in revenge.
Indeed it did not take long for the enemy artillery to rain down high explosive shells.
This was the first enemy contact which Clemens and his men experienced.

Infantry-men in a hollow-way. Normandy in summer 1944. Photographer: Thönessen. Bundesarchiv. Signatur: 101I-584-2152-24.

Infantry-men running along the hedge. Summer 1944. France. Photographer: Reich. Bundesarchiv. Signatur: 101I-583-2130-27.

Title Photo: Men of the 88. Infantry-Division sunbathing in Biarritz in summer of 1941. In January 1942 the Division transferred to Russia near Kiew. Both soldiers shown were killed in action there.
Source: http://www.faehrtensucher.com/mein-großvater/

* They belonged to the II. Parachute Corps under General Eugen Meindl. Probably the II. Battalion, Parachute-Regiment 2 (unit identified on General Staff map in Germ. Military Archives, Freiburg) or possibly a Battalion of the 3rd Parachute-Division. They were all conscripts and very well trained and equipped. From 12 June 1944 on the following units were subordinated to the II. Parachute Corps: 17th SS Division, 275th Infantry Division, 352nd Infantry Division, 3rd Parachute Division.  In August 1944 the formation was destroyed in the Falaise Pocket. Later reconstituted.