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Normandy After D-Day: June 7-30, 1944

The German Soldiers

Converted for the Web from "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose

E Company's experience on June 7 was unique, or nearly so -- an unguarded German flank was seldom again to be found. But in another way, what the company went through was to be repeated across Normandy in the weeks that followed. In the German army, the slave troops from conquered Central and Eastern Europe, and Asia, would throw their hands up at the first opportunity, but if they misjudged their situation and their NCO was around, they were likely to get shot in the back. Or the NCOs would keep up the fight even as their enlisted men surrendered, as Coyle discovered.

Lt. Leon Mendel was an interrogation officer with Military Intelligence, attached to the 505th. He did the interrogation of the prisoners Coyle's platoon had taken. "I started off with German," Mendel remembered, "but got no response, so I switched to Russian, asked if they were Russian. 'Yes!' they responded, heads bobbing eagerly. 'We are Russian. We want to go to America!'

"Me too," Mendel said in Russian. "Me too!"

The Wehrmacht in Normandy in June of 1944 was an international army. It had troops from every corner of the vast Soviet empire -- Mongolians, Cossacks, Georgians, Muslims, Chinese -- plus men from the Soviet Union's neighboring countries, men who had been conscripted into the Red Army, then captured by the Germans in 1941 or 1942. There were some Koreans, captured by the Red Army in the 1939 war with Japan. In Normandy in June 1944, the 29th Division captured enemy troops of so many different nationalities that one GI blurted to his company commander, "Captain, just who the hell are we fighting, anyway?"

Ethnic Germans also surrendered. Even veterans of the Eastern Front. Corp. Friedrich Bertenrath of the 2nd Panzer Division explained, "In Russia, I could imagine nothing but fighting to the last man. We knew that going into a prison camp in Russia meant you were dead. In Normandy, one always had in the back of his mind, 'Well, if everything goes to hell, the Americans are human enough that the prospect of becoming their prisoner was attractive to some extent.'"

By no means were all the enlisted German personnel in Normandy reluctant warriors. Many fought effectively; some fought magnificently. At St.-Marcouf, about ten kilometers north of Utah Beach, the Germans had four enormous casements, each housing a 205mm cannon. On D-Day, these guns had gotten into a duel with American battleships. On D-Day Plus One, GIs from the 4th Infantry Division surrounded the casements. To hold them off, the German commander called down fire from another battery of 205 cannon some fifteen kilometers to the north, right on top of his own position. That kept the Americans at bay for more than a week while the German cannon continued to fire sporadically on Utah Beach.

The casements took innumerable direct hits, all from big shells. The shells made little more than dents in the concrete. The casements are still there today -- they will be there for decades if not centuries, so well built were they -- and they bear mute testimony to the steadfastness of the Germans. For eight days the gun crews were confined in their casements -- nothing to eat but stale bread, only bad water, no separate place to relieve themselves, the ear-shattering noise, the vibrations, the concussions, the dust shaking loose -- through it all they continued to fire. They gave up only when they ran out of ammunition.

Among other elite German outfits in Normandy, there were paratroopers. They were a different proposition altogether from the Polish or Russian troops. The 3rd Fallschirmjäger Division came into the battle in Normandy on June 10, arriving by truck after night drives from Brittany. It was a full-strength division, 15,976 men in its ranks, mostly young German volunteers. It was new to combat but it had been organized and trained by a veteran paratroop battalion from the Italian campaign. Training had been rigorous and emphasized initiative and improvisation. The equipment was outstanding.

Indeed, the Fallschirmjäger were perhaps the best-armed infantrymen in the world in 1944. The 3rd FJ had 930 light machine guns, eleven times as many as its chief opponent, the U.S. 29th Division. Rifle companies in the FJ had twenty MG 42s and 43 submachine guns; rifle companies in the 29th had two machine guns and nine BARs. At the squad level, the GIs had a single BAR; the German parachute squad had two MG 42s and three submachine guns. The Germans had three times as many mortars as the Americans, and heavier ones. So in any encounter between equal numbers of Americans and Fallschirmjäger, the Germans had from six to twenty times as much firepower.

And these German soldiers were ready to fight. A battalion commander in the 29th remarked to an unbelieving counterpart from another regiment, "Those Germans are the best soldiers I ever saw. They're smart and they don't know what the word 'fear' means. They come in and they keep coming until they get their job done or you kill'em."

These were the men who had to be rooted out of the hedgerows. One by one. There were, on average, fourteen hedgerows to the kilometer in Normandy. The enervating, costly process of gearing up for an attack, making the attack, carrying the attack home, mopping up after the attack, took half a day or more. And at the end of the action, there was the next hedgerow, fifty to a hundred meters or so away. All through the Cotentin Peninsula, from June 7 on, GIs labored at the task. They heaved and pushed and punched and died doing it, for two hedgerows a day.

Copyright © 1997 by -Tubbs, Inc. Afterword copyright © 1998 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

Click to Amazon to purchase "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose.

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