The Liberation of France and the Fall of Nazi Germany
Bill Downs sent out these dispatches from the Western Front in 1944 and 1945. The accounts are from the 1946 collection BBC War Report: A Record of Dispatches Broadcast by the BBC's War Correspondents With the Allied Expeditionary Force, 6 June 1944 - 5 May 1945.
THE BATTLE FOR CAEN
|The flag of the Free French Forces, with the Cross of Lorraine at its center|
While the battle raged through the city, the civil population sheltered in churches, schools, anywhere that offered a chance of survival. The moment it was moderately safe to come into the open, the people of Caen emerged from their shelter to welcome the British troops and to celebrate the liberation of their city:
10 and 11 July 1944.
"Caen has suffered terrible things in this last month, yet the reception which its citizens have given to us has been moving in the extreme. Not a word of reproach; not a word of self-pity. This morning the war was still very near at hand. German aircraft kept appearing overhead: German airburst shells were exploding just above the roofs; occasional mortar shells were bursting in the streets. Yet the people of Caen were out, picking their way through the rubble, smiling at us, waving to us, embracing us, giving us flowers, and time and time again I saw it—weeping for sheer joy. There is no hysterical demonstration: the feelings of these people were far too deep for that; but there was a tremendous conviction and sincerity in their welcome.
"As we went down the roads, crowds gathered round us. They spoke of the savagery of the S.S. troops in the last few days of the German occupation: of their wholesale looting; of the shooting of French civilians who were political prisoners in the jails; of the wanton burning by the Germans of the gendarmerie, of the theatre, and of many private houses and shops into which enemy troops had tossed hand grenades as they left Caen. One man spoke most glowingly of the bravery of a British colonel who led the entry into Caen: bullets were spraying all round him, but still he held himself erect and walked forward—this man said of the colonel: 'My wife screamed: she was sure he'd been killed. But not a bullet hit him. Ah, he was a brave man—a hero.'
"In a small courtyard outside a church the people were already preparing for a ceremony and the raising of the Tricolour over the liberated country. The ridged French Army helmets appeared from nowhere. One man even had on a creased uniform of the regular army. It was rumpled from long hiding in the closet. And every other person wore the Cross of Lorraine. But strangest sight of all was that the men wearing helmets also carried arms. Some had the long rifles of the French Army; some had German rifles; one or two even had some British Sten guns which they had bargained from the liberating troops. They were ready to resume the war where it left off in 1940. Most of them were in tattered civilian clothing, but they weren't waiting to be dressed up to fight the Boche. And this motley group of soldiers representing the resurrection of Fighting France formed a proud colour-guard for the French Flag, virtually under the muzzles of the German guns. British, Canadian, and American officials appeared. They were the military and civilian authorities come in to administer the city. A squad of British soldiers snapped to attention. Everyone in the crowd took off their hats; the mayor of the town, wearing a French helmet and a badge bearing the Cross of Lorraine, gave the command and the Tricolour was raised. It was quiet for a moment for there was not even a sound of gunfire; then the people began to applaud and shout again and again: Vive la France!"
FRANK GILLARD, BBC and BILL DOWNS, C.B.S.
|From Wikipedia: "M4 and M4A3 Sherman tanks and infantrymen of the US 4th Armored Division in Coutances."|
In the last days of July a great Russian drive in the East carried Red Army troops into Białystok, Stanislavov, Dvinsk, Rezhitsa, Šiauliai, and Lvov, while the fall of Brest-Litovsk was imminent. Simultaneously the Americans launched a full-scale attack on the west coast towards Coutances and Avranches. The dreaded "war on two fronts"—or, more strictly, on three fronts—was now an active reality, straining German resources everywhere:
29 July 1944.
"At this moment Field-Marshal Rommel is a victim of the old army game—a game in which the Allied forces in Normandy have again called the tune. The American break-through on the western sector of their Normandy front has completed a series of bluffs and counter-bluffs made by the Allied Command, and is now finding its pay-off by the successes of the U.S. Army forces south of the Cherbourg peninsula. The way the Allies have played this game is an interesting study of military strategy. After the fall of Cherbourg the German Command deduced incorrectly that there would be a lot of consolidation and regroupment on the American sector before there could be any further action there. So Rommel concluded that the next move would be an attack on the British sector to the east. He obviously figured that the next Allied move would be a drive for Paris. So he committed some seven divisions around the British and Canadian sector, leaving less concentrated forces more thinly spread along the line of the American sector. When this became clear, the Allies decided that the German Command should go on thinking like this. So the British and Canadians staged a series of sharp, heavy attacks between Caen and Tilly that gained the British bridge-head across the River Odon. This was followed by the attack on Caen itself, which resulted in the capture of the northern half of the town. And then there was the big air blitz down the eastern side of the Orne River, which ended in the complete capture of Caen, and the establishment of a comfortable bridge-head around the city.
"By the time these attacks had finished, more German forces were concentrated on this eastern sector. Then General Bradley made his big move five days ago. And now Rommel is in the position of a poker player who has put so much money into the pot that he cannot afford to drop out of the game. And he has to play it the way the Allied Command wants it to be played."
BILL DOWNS, C.B.S.
OCCUPYING THE WOOD
|Source: "Cromwell tanks of 7th Armoured Division silhouetted against the morning sky, as they move up at the start of Operation 'Bluecoat', the British offensive south-east of Caumont, 30 July 1944."|
Around Vire British and American Forces worked closely together as they advanced, and it sometimes happened that the two armies overlapped:
5 August 1944.
"For example, the other day a British armoured unit was ordered to occupy a wood. It so happened that the Americans also were told to occupy a wood. Over one of the British tank's radios the headquarters asked the British tank commander what he had found in the wood. 'Millions of Americans,' the tank commander replied. Headquarters then said, 'We have learned that German tanks also have been ordered to occupy that wood.' The British commander was silent for a minute, and then said, 'Sorry, there won't be any room here for them!'"
BILL DOWNS, C.B.S.
|Source: "Soldiers of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada aboard a Kangaroo armored personnel carrier converted from a Ram tank, Europe, 11 Apr 1945"|
Secure along the banks of the Loire the Americans now wheeled to the north, captured Alençon, and pushed ahead to Argentan in a wide encircling movement designed to gather up the remaining German forces in Normandy. Simultaneously the First Canadian Army fought its way down the Falaise road from Caen to narrow the Germans' escape gap. The Canadian assault, made in darkness, was preceded by a heavy bombing attack:
8 August 1944.
"I watched the tons of bombs plunge into their targets last night; strange flashes lit the sky, the effect was weird and terrible, with a three-quarter moon rising over the Orne Valley shining blood red through the haze, and the dust, and the smoke. The concussion of the bombs pressed my clothing against my body, even though I was several miles away, and the ground trembled under my feet. It is a difficult operation, this fighting in the dark; units get confused, lost, and mixed up, so there were other special methods devised to guide the infantry and the heavy tanks forward in the dark. The infantry were given heavy armoured carriers which had been specially converted for them so they could ride forward with the first wave of tanks. These carriers gave them maximum protection against light enemy fire, and against shell and mortar bursts. To guide the ground forces forward the Canadians employed the old trick which the British used at the Battle of Alamein: lines of tracer bullets were shot over their heads, stretching out like rows of electric light bulbs sailing slowly in the air. The tanks and the infantry and their armoured carriers moved forward while the bombing was still on, the lines of tracer bullets (there were more than half a dozen columns of them) floated over the battlefield looking like a roman candle display, and all around hundreds of guns seemed to grab the atmosphere and shake it, and bounce it, and tear it to shreds."
BILL DOWNS, C.B.S.
ON THE GROUND AFTER THE BATTLE OF THE FALAISE POCKET
|From Wikipedia: "Polish self-propelled anti-aircraft guns of the 10th Mounted Rifle Regiment near Caen at the beginning of the Falaise operation."|
It was victory, such as we had scarcely dared to imagine—victory over the mighty German army, fighting on ground of its own choosing and led by a brilliant general. Here was an exact measure of comparative strength: if the Germans were unable to check the Allies on the short line between Caen and Avranches they could hardly hope to make an effective stand west of the Siegfried Line—perhaps not there even. In the intoxication of a great success, it seemed as if the final collapse of Germany might be very near; but, to the men who pursued towards the Seine, war was still just war—war against mines and booby-traps and rearguard actions, war against the elaborate technique of retreat in which the Germans had proved themselves to be adepts:
21 August 1944.
"You have to move a little faster, the convoys are more crowded, and you spend a lot more time looking at the back end of the truck ahead of you, and you don't spend more than a night or two in the same slit trench—you move forward all the time. You eat a lot of cold rations because you're on the move and when you bump into the enemy rearguard the fighting is just as bitter as it was before. And when you take the Nazi-held position you find that there haven't been many Germans because the enemy has retreated, and there isn't much booty and not many prisoners—yet. But there are mines, hundreds of them. They lie in the roads, and sometimes there is a string of six of them down a road. You set one off and the whole road goes up for ten yards ahead and behind you. And there are plenty of the S mines—the nasty anti-personnel type that jumps into the air before it explodes and then hurls bits of steel and ball bearings to kill or wound anything living within a hundred feet radius. You have to be mighty careful where you step. And then there are the booby-traps. Maybe you see a bottle of wine lying beside a bombed building, but you don't touch it. And maybe there is a tempting apple-tree beside the road—the apples are just getting big enough to eat, but you leave that tree alone too because it might blow up in your face if you pulled a branch down. There are plenty of snipers, but you've learned to pay not much attention to them anymore, for if someone gets it from a sniper a detachment is sent out to clean him out and the advance continues.
"This might be the big retreat of the defeated German Seventh Army, but it's still just war to the man with the job of pushing the Nazis back. And the German kills just as effectively when he retreats as when he advances."
BILL DOWNS, C.B.S.
THE ALLIED ADVANCE TO THE RHINE
"YOU CHAPS GET READY"
|Source: "British paratroopers in Arnhem with a German prisoner…before it all went wrong. Sept 18, 1944."|
An American correspondent, pursuing the British spearheads, caught up with them as the attack on Osnabrück was being launched:
5 April 1945.
"You jeep and jeep until you feel your kidneys are jarred loose from their brackets and you pass through one undamaged village after another, punctuated occasionally by a complete mess of a town that happened to be a railroad junction, or which was unfortunate enough to offer resistance to our advance. Then, as you get closer to the front, you notice the soldiers sitting cheerfully in the convoys, or a lot of horseplay in the fields, for everyone is in high spirits these days. You pass the convoys and the tanks and the guns, and you keep a weather eye out for headquarters. But somehow you miss it; but you keep on driving anyway. Occasionally in the distance your own artillery may let loose a barrage to remind you that there is still fighting ahead. But no one pays attention, including the civilians of this particularly unspoiled bit of Germany. The people smile, and sometimes wave, and the girls mostly just smile. It's hard not to pay any attention to that—ask any soldier.
"You drive on, stopped occasionally by a road jam. It's April, and the spring showers seem to dampen no one's spirits. Then you drive over a hill a mile or so from Osnabruck. More serious-looking soldiers are sitting on tanks, with bayoneted rifles. The sun happens to be shining, and you see one of them asleep. Suddenly, from beyond an ineffective German road-block not fifty feet away, an unholy splutter of machine-gun fire gushes out towards a factory building sitting in the valley. Then the tanks' heavy gun barks with a ferocity that echoes through the forest. Then it's quiet, and you wait for the enemy's return fire. But there is none.
"A British paratrooper lieutenant walks up to the tank with his men sitting atop it. He yawns, and stretches. 'You chaps get ready,' he says, 'We'll be moving up pretty soon.' But he did say it with an air of a man with spring fever, who didn't care when, if ever. As I left, the column started rolling into the town.
"Apparently the British do this sort of thing with that careless unconcerned air all the time."
BILL DOWNS, C.B.S.
|Downs broadcasting from Lüneburg on V-E Day, May 8, 1945.|
Between the armoured spearheads and the occupying forces there was often a nebulous military situation in which anything might happen. There were groups of Germans making suicidal ambushes, and others only too anxious to surrender: there were liberated slave-workers intent on loot of revenge, or hurrying westward on the journey home: there were German civilians seeking to have their towns and villages occupied quickly while they were still intact. To drive unarmed through this country was an experience by turns eerie and comic:
20 April 1945.
"We drove down an empty road, uncomfortably empty, with no sign of anyone on it. We reached the crossroads, when suddenly out of the woods appeared eight Germans; it was a frightening sight, particularly when I remembered that the only gun we had was the driver's Sten gun, and it was buried under our raincoats, and the bullet clip was somewhere in a corner of the jeep. However, these were very tame Germans, they all had their hands up. We stopped, searched them, and rigged up a white flag for them and told them to march on down the road and somebody would pick them up. That took care of the first eight.
"Sergeant Arthur joined our party. We drove on down a side road, and there we ran on to five more German soldiers, who were waving a white flag. Again we told them which way to go, but this group were more frightened and one of them asked 'What do we say when we want to surrender later?' Sergeant Arthur had the answer, and he wrote the words down on a piece of paper. As the prisoners walked off they were practising the phrase 'We have had it.' It's a British expression used to denote the completion of anything. As the prisoners walked off, the five of them were muttering 'Vee hev had it.'
"About that time, another young American flyer rode by on a motorcycle. He also was an ex-prisoner getting himself some food and fresh air for the first time in months. 'There's a town down the road that's just begging to be taken, why don't you go down and have a look?' Then about that time he spotted a chicken running across the road and that was the last we saw of him.
"We took two British boys back to the camp; there I told the story of two BBC engineers who had been with me making recordings at the camps. They were all for taking the town. Again there was kilometre after kilometre of distressingly empty road, but it seemed like a good day for conquering and no one worried particularly. Finally we reached the cross-roads village of Hohne just west of the town of Burgen. I knew the traditional way to capture a place and maybe stick a sword in the ground, and proclaim the place was ours, but I had no sword, and besides, it was a beautifully hard road, and no sword would stick in it anyway. But Sergeant Tinker knew what to do—he went in search of eggs—fresh eggs, and meanwhile, Sergeant Arthur got interested in the farm across the road. There was a big German Army car—with a white flag flying from it. We went into this farmyard to find out what it was all about and to our surprise up stepped one of the most magnificent German officers I've ever seen, complete with Iron Cross and a number of other decorations. My first-year college German was still intact enough to understand that he wanted to surrender—he had his belongings all packed including a pair of ski shoes—what he wanted with ski shoes I was never able to find out. He turned over his pistol and said that we could drive him back to captivity in his own car. Then the German colonel said that he'd like very much if we would take his entire battery prisoner. He was the commander of a battery of 88-mm. combination anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. We decided against capturing the gun battery for we were not sure that a battery of 88's would appreciate being captured by just one Sten gun, no matter what the colonel said, but we took the colonel up on his offer to use his car. Sergeant Arthur drove the car—Sergeant Tinker reappeared with a cap full of eggs. The colonel climbed in and we made up a convoy—my jeep in front—the colonel's car in the middle with two sergeants, and the BBC truck with the two unarmed engineers bringing up the rear."
BILL DOWNS, C.B.S.