Mayhem In Normandy: Army, Part 102

A 17-pounder anti-tank gun is moved into position, June 1944. [PHOTO: KEN BELL, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA128793]

A 17-pounder anti-tank gun is moved into position, June 1944.
PHOTO: KEN BELL, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA128793

By the third week of July 1944 the senior German officers in the west feared their armies were on the verge of collapse. Battle casualties totalled more than 116,000 men and just 10,000 replacements had arrived to sustain combat strength. The loss of 2,722 officers was particularly worrying. Ten generals, eight officers of the General Staff and 158 regimental and battalion commanders had been killed or seriously wounded between June 6 and July 24. On July 15, two days before he was wounded by a strafing aircraft, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel prepared a new Analysis of the Situation which began with the statement: “The position on the Normandy Front…is rapidly approaching its crisis.” Noting the heavy losses in men and equipment, “17 tanks to replace about 225,” and the weakness and inexperience of the newly arrived infantry divisions, he concluded “the enemy will shortly be able to break through our thinly held front, especially in the 7th Army sector…the end of the unequal battle is in sight.”

German SS General Paul Hausser who had taken over 7th Army was equally pessimistic. “Our strength has sunk to such a low level that the local commanders can no longer guarantee their holding out against enemy large-scale attacks.”

Hitler remained convinced “the enemy will probably attempt a second landing in the 15th Army sector…primarily between the Somme and the Seine…but also against Belgium and southern Holland…surprise attacks designed to effect the capture of one of the large ports of Brittany cannot be ruled out. Similarly, an attack against the French Mediterranean Coast may also be expected.” To meet these threats Hitler required his generals to avoid “any major offensive aimed at the destruction of the enemy in the bridgehead” and to fight a defensive battle until additional forces arrived. However, only two divisions were due to arrive in the next 10 days.

The nature of the crisis confronting the German commanders in Normandy seems to have been entirely misunderstood by the Allies. Ultra provided no information about the growing loss of confidence among German generals. Montgomery still expressed confidence in his strategy, but he had no idea how close the enemy was to collapse. Worried that a prolonged attritional battle might weaken 21 Army Group, he sought to conserve his shrinking manpower resources. By July 25 casualties in 21 Army Group exceeded 35,000 men and this did not include evacuations for sickness and battle exhaustion. The War Office had even warned that the supply of reinforcements was limited before Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of France. One or two infantry divisions and up to three independent brigades would have to be disbanded before the end of 1944 as a result of normal wastage. The rapid increase in the weekly casualty rates during July and the promise of similar casualties in the weeks ahead indicated the manpower crunch was imminent.

Among the most serious problems confronting the Allies was the terrible toll inflicted by enemy mortar and rocket projector, Nebelwerfer, fire. The Germans were, by Allied standards, weak in artillery, unable to provide sufficient fire support to their own troops or effective counter-battery fire to suppress Allied guns. They compensated for this by using mortars and rocket projectors in large numbers. A German infantry division possessed 57 of the basic 81-mm mortars and 12 to 20 of the 120-mm type. Panzer divisions had half this number. Nebelwerfer regiments, each unit with 54 projectors, were available in the Caen sector on a scale of one per division. Once the German army went over to the defensive, the gently rolling terrain provided a series of reverse slopes allowing these weapons to be concealed or dug in behind the forward defended lines. A few rounds were used to register the approaches Allied troops would use in an attack, and observers—stationed on the crest of a hill—could direct observed fire. Whatever else the Germans were short of in Normandy it was not mortar bombs or Nebelwerfer rockets. By late July, 70 per cent of all casualties to British and Canadian troops were due to these two weapons alone.

Lieutenant W.H. Salter examines a loaded Nebelwerfer, 1944. [PHOTO: STRATHY E. SMITH, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA169113]

Lieutenant W.H. Salter examines a loaded Nebelwerfer, 1944.
PHOTO: STRATHY E. SMITH, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA169113

The British and the Canadian Army had left the question of counter-mortar organization to each division and in practice counter-mortar was a poor stepsister to the well-established routines of artillery counter-battery work. This meant a skeleton staff relying on shared access to sound-ranging, flash spotting and air photograph interpretation to produce estimates of mortar locations. Senior commanders from Montgomery down to his major-generals could contribute little to the solution of this problem which was dealt with by the gunners and the soldier-scientists of No. 2 Operational Research Section (ORS).

Major Michael Swann of No. 2 ORS, who had studied the use of mortars and reverse-slope positions while assigned to the Infantry School at Barnard Castle, instigated the systematic study of counter-mortar activity in late June. He first surveyed medical officers in four divisions, including 3rd Canadian, to establish the extent of casualties from enemy mortars. He then examined the counter-mortar organization in each division. His recommendations to expand staff, establish separate counter-mortar observation posts and improve co-ordination and dedicated signals capacity were acted upon promptly and successfully at the divisional level. The Canadians claimed they cut enemy mortar fire by 60 per cent by applying these methods.

Experiments with 4-pen recorders, miniature microphones connected to a recording machine in which the pens recorded the vibrations from the microphones tracking the location of a hostile mortar, were showing great promise. Swann believed a combination of all known methods of location plus dedicated counter-mortar fire could bring the problem under control, particularly if more radar sets were available. Radar could track the arc of a mortar with complete accuracy. The creation of No. 1 Canadian Radar Battery and No. 100 British Radar Battery in August were a result of recommendations from the operational research section, but the radar batteries were not available until October 1944.

The operational research team also investigated the reasons for the heavy losses suffered by Allied armoured regiments, though the problems confronting tank crews in Normandy ought not to have come as a surprise. Both the British and Canadian armoured corps commanders had read the reports detailing the thickness of armour on the Panthers, Tigers and the self-propelled guns deployed by the Germans. They also knew about the range and penetrating power of the enemy’s tank and anti-tank guns. The operational research section attached to the Armoured Fighting Vehicle School at Lulworth, directed by the brilliant young Canadian scientist Omand Solandt, had informed the army that the Sherman 75-mm guns were unlikely to destroy any German armour at ranges beyond 455 metres and that even at shorter ranges penetration of the frontal armour of Panthers or Tigers was unlikely. They had also established that effective range of the 17 pounders, the best Allied anti-tank gun, was limited to roughly 900 metres.

Research in England was supplemented by a survey of Sherman Tank Casualties prepared by Solandt’s deputy, Major Tony Sargeaunt. He examined 45 tanks and determined that 40 of them had been destroyed by armoured-piercing shells fired by an enemy tank or anti-tank gun. Most of the damage, 77 per cent, was done by 75-mm guns, just 18 per cent by 88s. Almost every shot that hit a Sherman penetrated the armour and 73 per cent caught fire and were “brewed up.” It was so difficult to improve the “low-resisting power” of the Sherman armour that the only realistic improvement Sargeaunt could suggest was to provide “a better gun to make the German tanks more vulnerable”—that is to increase the proportion of 17-pounder Fireflys in each squadron.

The contrast with German tanks was striking. Only 38 per cent of the hits from Sherman 75s or 6-pounder anti-tank guns penetrated German armour and both the Panther and the Tiger often survived one or two penetrations. The sloping frontal armour of the enemy’s Panthers and self-propelled guns survived 75 per cent of direct hits.

Sargeaunt had worked closely with armoured corps officers before the invasion in an effort to convince commanders that armoured brigades must operate in close co-operation with the artillery and infantry. No Allied tank could lead an advance against even hastily constructed German defences without supplementary suppressive fire from the gunners. Even then advances required reconnaissance with possible hull-down positions identified so that tanks could move in bounds and provide covering fire for each other. Close co-operation with infantry battalions was vital in wooded or built-up areas, but in open country unarmoured infantry could do little to assist tanks in dealing with enemy anti-tank guns protected by machine-gun and mortar posts.

When Sargeaunt was shown the outline plan for Operation Goodwood (Short, Bloody Steps, January/February 2012) he immediately wrote a paper arguing against an armoured attack across country “that was flatter than the desert” in the sense that the cultivated ground lacked the kind of hull-down and turret-down positions that were common in North Africa. He argued that once the tanks passed beyond the range of supporting artillery they would be out-gunned and out-manoeuvred. Although some armoured corps officers agreed with his views, the forecast was suppressed. Montgomery was determined to launch an “armoured blitzkreig” and no report from an Operational Research scientist was going to stop him.

A Canadian Sherman tank rolls over a rise on the Normandy battlefield, 1944. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

A Canadian Sherman tank rolls over a rise on the Normandy battlefield, 1944.
PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES

The extraordinary tank losses in Goodwood, close to 400 in a three-day period, forced Montgomery and other commanders to reconsider plans for armoured warfare. For Operation Spring (Chaos In The Dark, March/April 2012), July 25, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds wanted to employ 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade at first light while the artillery kept German heads down. Unfortunately, it was broad daylight by the time the tanks joined in and both the Fort Garry Horse and First Hussars squadrons were destroyed at long range. Simonds concluded the armour would have to learn to operate at night and began to develop the ideas that culminated in Operation Totalize.

On July 29, he outlined his ideas for overcoming the German defences. His Appreciation noted that: “the ground is ideally suited to the full exploitation by the enemy of the characteristics of his weapons. It is open, giving little cover to either infantry or tanks and the long range of his anti-tank guns and mortars, firing from carefully concealed positions, provides a very strong defence in depth. This defence will be most handicapped in bad visibility, smoke, fog, or darkness, when the advantage of long range is minimized.”

Simonds decided on a night attack, led by tanks. But this time he proposed to use heavy bombers to neutralize enemy defences and armour to get through the enemy gun screen in sufficient depth to disrupt the German defences. The tanks were to be accompanied by “carrier-borne infantry” which he proposed to mount in “stripped Priests,” the self-propelled guns, which 3rd Division artillery had just traded in for the standard, towed 25-pounder guns.

The most complex part of Operation Totalize was the artillery fire plan developed under the supervision of Brigadier Bruce Matthews, the Corps Commander Royal Artillery (CCRA). Operational Instruction No. 5, issued at 9 a.m. on Aug. 7, outlined the tasks to be carried out by the divisional field regiments and the four Artillery Groups Royal Artillery (AGRAs) allotted to Totalize. There was to be no preliminary artillery program, so a great deal of attention was paid to counter-battery tasks scheduled for H+100 minutes, when the assault would be underway, and H+7 hours, when dawn would provide the enemy with visibility. The Service Corps was to ensure that 350 rounds per gun were dumped at medium gun positions and that up to 650 rounds per gun were available to the field regiments. The new counter-mortar organization was also in place so there were high hopes for an operation scheduled for Aug. 8, the anniversary of the 1918 Battle of Amiens that had launched the Canadian Corps on the path to victory in the First World War.

 

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An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.