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D-Day to Saint-Lô Through German Eyes
By Vince Milano, Bruce Conner
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Vince Milano & Bruce Conner
All rights reserved.
REST AND REFORMATION
The late autumn morning of 5 December 1943 began grey and dreary. A military car in the same drab colour approached the ancient city of St Lô. The ranking occupant was Oberstleutnant Fritz Ziegelmann. He was the former Chief Quartermaster of the 7. Armee now on his way to his new assignment as the IA, Chief of Staff of a newly forming infantry division. Today was the first meeting of all the officers in the staff and those representing the assigned infantry and support units. Ziegelmann knew that his new posting was inevitable, since the tremendous losses incurred on the Eastern Front the previous summer. But he was still surprised to draw a combat assignment, especially since he was a member of the General Staff. This was signified by the crimson stripes running down the sides of his breeches. Even so, he would be the second-in-command of this new unit.
The car lurched to a halt in front of a weathered chateau. A guard opened the car door, standing rigidly at attention. Perhaps he thought Ziegelmann was a general, since they too wore crimson stripes down their trouser legs. The Oberstleutnant gave the guard a quick salute and headed straight into the building.
Inside, the formalities were brisk in order that the main business could be attended to. The first order of the day was to review the units and men that would form the base of the new division. These men would come from three different units, all of which had much combat experience. The smallest contingent would come from the Grenadier Regiment 546, which had lost most of its men at Stalingrad. These men now being assigned were those that had been wounded and flown out of the city early enough in the encirclement. The other two units were the 268th and 321. Infanterie-Divisions, the latter making up the bulk of the men. Both divisions had served in Russia, the 268th since 1941 and the 321st arrived there in December 1942. Both units had suffered large numbers of casualties during the Kursk Offensive during the summer of 1943; so many, that the General Staff decided to use them in forming new units instead of refitting them.
Other men who had seen fighting in Italy and North Africa, would come from hospitals and rest camps as they recovered from their wounds. To all these veterans would be added several thousand new recruits, most from the army training camp at Schlann, Germany (now Slany, Czech Republic). Replacement Ersatz units would be assigned in Germany proper when the formation of the division was complete.
All of the officers in attendance had frontline experience, a fact that Ziegelmann recognised would accelerate the establishment of an effective fighting force. The main topic of discussion was the final field commitment of this new division, 352. Infanterie-Division. This issue was very important since it would dictate the type of training the 352nd would get. It was obvious to all present that with the conditions prevailing on the Eastern Front, it was the most likely place for their future field operations. So the 352nd would train to fight the Red Army, which meant learning to conduct successful operations while outgunned, outnumbered and surrounded most of the time – all valuable lessons learned during the past two-and-a-half years of fighting.
Ziegelmann and his new staff were under orders to complete the organisation of the 352nd by the end of January 1944. He knew only too well that this was an unrealistic order, predominantly because of the supply problems that existed at that time. Orders are given to be obeyed, so the officers set about their monumental tasks.
While the mountains of paperwork piled up upon the desks of clerks, a long troop train screeched to a stop in St Lô's main rail yard. The dirty, brown cattle cars were packed to overflowing with the recruits assigned to the 352nd. Most were 17-year-old lads fresh from a hurried three-week training course in Slany.
Among the young soldiers peering out of the boxcar windows were Grenadiers Georg Seidl, Martin Eichenseer, Eduard Schötz and Karl Wegner. Like most of those with them, they were away from home for the first time in their lives.
In large masses they detrained; NCOs and officers who were set apart from the sea of helmeted youth by their peaked caps, soon had them in some sort of a loose formation. Then with a clattering of hobnailed boots and shouted names, men were divided and assigned to units. While most in this trainload had been assigned to Grenadier Regiment 916, Karl Wegner and his new friend, Willi Schuster, had been assigned to Grenadier Regiment 914. The other infantry regiment of the 352nd, the 915th, did not draw any new men that day. All three of these regiments had their quarters outside St Lô, which resulted in a march of several kilometres for the replacements. Transportation was only available for the officers and some of the more senior NCOs. Led by their new sergeants the columns headed north out of the city. Grenadier Wegner compared St Lô to his home in Hanover. On first impressions he did not like what he saw. He preferred his home city.
With the arrival of this first troop allocation the process of building a new division began in earnest. Before it had only been a 'clerk's war'. Except for the replacements, all other areas of procurement were frustratingly slow. Oberstleutnant Ziegelmann pulled every string he could, even calling in some favours owed to him by senior members of the local Quartermaster Corps. The results were negligible, they could not be given what the Allied air forces were destroying, and most of what was left went to Russia. He did succeed in getting leftover stockpiles of uniforms and equipment manufactured for the North Africa Campaign. This meant equipment with webbed canvas instead of the normal leather and uniforms in olive brown instead of field grey. The mix of web and leather equipment was already commonplace and not much of a problem. The uniforms, it was decided, would be issued to those troops who had not already been issued a summer HBT cotton uniform and to those that had worn out the ones they already possessed. The only alteration would be in the removal of the tropical-style insignia, to be replaced with the standard European issue.
The arrival of the New Year also brought the arrival of the new divisional commander. He was Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiss, a 55-year-old Knight's Cross recipient. The first report he received from Ziegelmann was basically a complete list of the problems and shortcomings of the German supply system. For example, the artillery could not train replacements because they had no sights for their guns, nor could they move them since the harnesses for their horses had not yet arrived. Deliveries of both items were slated for some time in February 1944. As to the training of the infantry, the 352nd had only had three live-fire exercises, one per regiment, owing to lack of ammunition.
Since petrol was a rarity the transport units could not train replacement drivers and could only make priority deliveries by truck. All others were by horse-drawn wagon. The mounting pages of these types of problems exasperated Generalleutnant Kraiss. He made formal complaints to his superiors about these shortcomings but they could do nothing about it. As a result he decided to put all his energies into working with what he did have plenty of – men.
The majority of the troops were 17- and 18-year-old recruits, which meant that they did most of their teenage growing during the years of wartime rationing. The result was a lack of dairy and meat products, which meant underdeveloped muscles and bones. So training had to be curtailed until these men could be, quite literally, brought up to strength.
Obergefreiter Josef Brass, a veteran of 321. Infanterie-Division. who had served on the Eastern Front, stated that in his new unit, Pionier-Bataillon 352, the majority of the younger men could not finish the forced marches even with the prodding and threats of the sergeants. He believed that if sent to Russia the men would not survive.
Oberstleutnant Ziegelmann petitioned his superiors at 7. Armee for a dairy ration. This would consist primarily of milk and butter. The request was immediately denied. Upon hearing of this decision Generalleutnant Kraiss authorised his Chief of Staff to procure, by purchase or barter, milk, butter and fresh meat from local farms. In his after-action report on the campaign, Ziegelmann noted that this was instrumental in bringing the young men up to strength prior to the invasion.
Another problem with the troops was communication, though not in the technical but human sense, with the 352nd's several 'Ostbatallions' (East Battalions). These were units comprised of volunteers from various ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. Though led by Germans, they were often of questionable fighting quality. These units were deliberately kept apart from all German units and regulated to low priority assignments or construction. Since the regaining of the Polish Corridor provinces and Alsace-Lorraine, men of military age living there who were born either of German parents or born when these areas had been part of Imperial Germany were required to serve. These men were collectively termed Volksdeutsche(Germanic Peoples). Although legally regarded as German citizens they spoke little or no German. Even with the Army's attempts to teach them through a series of picture word association manuals, communication problems arose, ranging from the comical to the life-threatening. Two incidents related by Grenadier Franz Gockel, serving in Nr 3 Kompanie, I Bataillon/Grenadier Regiment 726, illustrate both ends of this spectrum:
One day while building a bunker Unteroffizier E. called to two men to bring him a hammer while he held up a support beam that had come loose. He yelled repeatedly, while they both stood there and stared at him dumbfounded. Then one caught on to his intentions and ran off quickly. He came back with a big smile holding the hammer up and saying to it, 'Morteck, you are a hammer.' Morteck is the Polish word for hammer.
The other incident involved an Alsatian:
After coming back from a patrol we were turning in our weapons to the Armourer. A new man from Alsace handed over a loaded flare pistol. The Armourer told him to unload it but the Alsatian misunderstood him and pulled the trigger. The flare shot out, hitting the Armourer in the chest. It was a serious wound but the man survived.
Gockel notes that this soldier was given two weeks arrest and confinement. This was actually more of a reward than punishment since he was allowed to lounge around the bunker all day while the rest of the company was on fatigue duties and patrols. The language barriers would never be totally overcome.
There existed other shortfalls amongst the personnel. The cadre of NCOs was only at 70 per cent. One plus point was that the vast majority of these men were combat veterans. This would help greatly during training.
Despite these and many other shortcomings the 352nd had a strength of 12,000 by 1 March 1944. On that date the General Staff in Berlin declared the 352nd fully formed and at their disposal for deployment. Both Kraiss and Ziegelmann were surprised by this premature declaration by OKW (Oberkommando der Werhrmacht). They both felt that this was a political decision rather than a military one, since it would be important for OKW to declare as many new units formed and ready for the next summer of fighting as possible. It seemed to be of no consequence whether or not these units were properly equipped or trained for any missions that would be assigned to them. Kraiss questioned OKW about this and was informed that it was up to the divisions themselves to ensure that all their needs were fulfilled to be ready for deployment.
Piled on to the 352nd's mountain of problems was the first mission assigned to them on the day they were declared operational. Since January 1944 the division had had orders to ready a battlegroup for immediate deployment consisting of one grenadier regiment; one artillery battalion; and one pionier abteilung; one signal and supply abteilung. This unit was to be deployed anywhere in France, Belgium or Holland in time of emergency within 12 hours of receiving notice. This was one-third of the division's strength and the order had put a strain on the training schedules. The 1 March order extended this status to cover the entire 352nd and the ready battlegroup must still be maintained as it now had been earmarked as the corps reserve for the LXXXIV Armeekorps, to which the 352nd had been assigned. The only option that was open to Generalleutnant Kraiss was to rotate the units within the battlegroup in order that all units could partake in the divisional training exercises. This also meant that the division would be training to conduct operations at under-strength levels prior to the invasion of 6 June. This would in fact aid them greatly in the upcoming fighting but for now it was just a great inconvenience.
While the 352nd was juggling units to train and equip the men, the new commander of Army Group B was on a tour of his new area. Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, was singularly unimpressed by what was shown to him. His inspection tour of the much-vaunted Atlantik Wall revealed to him that it was a myth generated by Goebbels' propaganda machine.
Troops guarding the coasts were under-strength, poorly trained and lacking in essential equipment. Most of the invasion defences were in and around major city harbours, as if the Allies would be disembarking from the Queen Mary. Defences in rural areas where probable landing beaches existed, provided there were any at all, showed a lack of tactical understanding of seaborne landings.
After in-depth tactical studies, Rommel felt the invasion would be in rural sectors because defences were light and the troops manning them were dispersed over larger areas. He also reasoned that the Normandy sector was the most probable target of any invasion because of its similarity to the bay at Salerno. Thus he decided to reinforce the sector between Caen and Brevands, then occupied only by 716. Infanterie-Division. Stationed there for two years, it was a low-calibre, static coastal defence unit of older men with a smattering of undertrained recruits.
The first order Kraiss received from Rommel was to dispatch his artillery regiment, Artillerie Regiment 352, into the 716th's sector to bolster the firepower available against any Allied landing. The regiment would still be under the 352nd's command and control, in other words the 716th would need Kraiss' permission to commit it to combat.
This action did not satisfy the Feldmarschall and as a result he ordered the entire 352. Grenadier-Division to take over the coastal sector now assigned to the 716th, effective 15 March 1944. The 716th would be given a much smaller part of the coast to defend in and around Caen, where it was felt they would have a much better chance of fending off any landing. However, the 716th was ordered to leave behind for absorption by the 352nd I and III Bataillons of Grenadier Regiment 726 under the command of Major Korfes, now the Commander of I/GR 726. These units would remain in their current positions north of Colleville sur Mer. In addition, the 716th would leave behind some Ostbatallions; more of a burden than a blessing. When this divisional move was completed, entire regiments would now defend sectors once manned by single battalions. The change tripled the strength along this coast. Even while the 352nd was in the process of moving Generalleutnant Kraiss received additional orders from Rommel:
1 The 352nd was to improve the beach defences along their part of the coast.
2 The 352nd would also be responsible for building and maintaining defensive positions from the coast inland all the way down to St Lô, and be responsible for security in this area.
3 The division was to maintain its current training schedule.
This overburdening of missions displeased all within the staff of the 352nd. They had only just begun their move and were now responsible for an area 30 kilometres long and 25 kilometres deep. This prompted Kraiss to request a meeting with General Marcks, the commander of LXXXIV Armeekorps.
The discussion centred on the placement of the 352nd's forces taking into consideration all of the specific missions now assigned. Marcks informed Kraiss that Rommel and he had discussed probable Allied landing areas and objectives at a meeting several days before, summarising that the Allies could isolate the Cotentin Peninsula, taking the major ports there to build up for a major drive to Paris and beyond. Therefore it was most important for the 352nd to have the bulk of its troops along the coast, in a position to mount quick counterstrikes if a landing was successful. Kraiss would have to put the bulk of his men on his left flank, the Carentan Canal, since it was sparsely defended, and the 716th would be on his right. His reserves would be in this sector affording them good cover with the ability to reach any part of the division's area in a short time. This created a problem. Kraiss' reserves were also those assigned to General Marcks. This battlegroup, then Grenadier Regiment 916 and Pionier-Bataillon 352 but soon to change to Grenadier Regiment 915 and Fusilier-Bataillon 352, caused a heated argument between the two Generals – especially since Marcks required them to be much farther away from the coast. In the end Kraiss made a direct appeal to Rommel, who was an old friend. He pointed out the unreliability of the 716th, along with the distance between the 352nd and other reserves, chiefly the 21. Panzer-Division. Rommel agreed, and Kraiss was allowed to keep his division intact.
Excerpted from Normandiefront by Vince Milano, Bruce Conner. Copyright © 2011 Vince Milano & Bruce Conner. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
one Rest and Reformation,
two Little Time for Sleep: A Soldier's Day,
three The Storm Breaks,
five Bloody Omaha,
six Echoes from the Feldwebel,
seven Without Hindsight,
eight The Price of Earth,
nine Greatness Thrust Upon Them,
ten Different Kinds of Hell,
eleven A Time for Sleeping and a Time for Fighting,
twelve Finally, They're Ours!,
thirteen Beyond Endurance – The Road to St Lô,
fourteen Death in the Rubble,
sixteen A Time for Reflection,
appendix one Uniforms and Equipment,
appendix two 352. Infanterie-Division Order of Battle,
appendix three Unit Organisation and Small Arms,
appendix four Rank Equivalents,