The Germans in Brittany
- Published: 25 January 2011 25 January 2011
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
The following extract was taken from the original draft of "The Germans in Normandy" (see also the interview). Sadly, the finished version had to lose about 60,000 words, so the invasion of southern France and the fighting in Brittany faced the chop... a shame as I'd spent a good six months researching and writing it. But rather than let it all go to waste, I thought it deserved a public airing. It's rather rough and ready as it's not been checked through for errors/spelling mistakes and the like, but I hope someone finds it useful.
But as Gunther von Kluge prepared to unleash Lüttich, the US Army was already tearing seemingly at will through Brittany and the heart of Normandy. Firebrand George Patton had a prize in mind for his Third Army: Brest, onetime home of the French Navy. “One single idea must occupy your thoughts,” he told his men. “Go to Brest – and want to get there quickly.” [Floch, p.57] Armoured commander General Herbert Earnest was determined to turn Patton’s into reality. His unit – Task Force A – would race through northern Brittany to its objective, 160 miles to the west. “Our mission will not be easy,” he warned. “Carry out your reconnaissance boldly, audaciously. We must rush ahead, rush ahead at full speed. There are 40,000-50,000 sailors in Brest, but I don’t think that we’ll cross swords with them there.” [Floch, p.57] The historic port of St Malo was bypassed – “don’t even give it a second glance,” Earnest advised – as the American armour rolled ever westwards. [Floch, p.57] The lack of resistance surprised the Americans; the Germans seemed to melt away. They had expected to find elements of five divisions holding Brittany, among them the outstanding 2nd Fallschirmjäger. The paratroopers were the exception, not the rule. Most of the defenders of Brittany were second-rate troops, supply services, static divisions, soldiers who never expected to fight American armour in a pitched battle. Four thousand of them surrendered to the advancing US 6th Armored Division which reached the city approaches of Brest after just six days. Its lightning thrust had cost it just 130 dead and 50 shot-up or damaged vehicles. Now the prize lay before 6th Armored’s commander, Robert Grow. A surprise attack may even have captured the port; the garrison was no more than 15,000 men strong; none were first-class troops. Some were drawn from 343rd Infantry Division, others from the Kriegsmarine’s extensive ground organisation in the city. Grow, decided to call the Germans’ bluff and sent a jeep draped in a white flag into the port, with a translator clutching an ultimatum. The attackers, Grow told the port’s newly-selected commander Hans von der Mosel, were “in a position to destroy the garrison of Brest”. Grow was offering “an opportunity to surrender in the face of these overwhelming forces and avoid the unnecessary sacrifice of lives”. [Gawne, p.35] Mosel turned down the olive branch. Brest would not fall without a fight.
George S Patton Jr’s eyes were fixed firmly on the Atlantic port. He had wagered £5 with Montgomery that American troops would take Brest “by Saturday night”. [Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit, p.370] He lost his bet. In a foul mood his intelligence officers handed him the latest reports about German intentions that same evening, August 5th. “We got a rumour that several panzer divisions will attack west from Mortain on Avranches,” he wrote as Kluge ordered the attack to roll. “Personally, I think it is a German bluff.” [Patton diary, 6/8/44. Cited in Irving, War Between the Generals, p.236]
Eighty miles to the west of Falaise, Andreas von Aulock shuddered as another high explosive shell came crashing down on the Citadel, an 18th Century fortification turned into a modern a formidable 20th Century obstacle by reinforced concrete, anti-tank ditches and barbed wire. Before the war, von Aulock had been a European representative for General Motors before the war, had distinguished himself on the Eastern Front, escaped the cauldron of Stalingrad, and now found himself with a new title, Festungskommandant – fortress commander – of St Malo.
For nearly one and a half millennia some form of fortress had stood guard on the eastern bank of the River Rance at St Malo. Since the 14th century, the heart of the city, the intra-muros, had been protected by huge ramparts built with the same stone which created the fabled island monastery of Mont St Michel, 30 miles to the east. Even in 1944 the walls of the citadel, rebuilt by legendary 17th century engineer Vauban, remained a formidable defence. And it was here, in an imposing fortress on a peninsula about one mile south of the main old town, that Andreas von Aulock decided to defend St Malo.
The shambolic retreat across Brittany left Aulock little time to prepare the port’s defence. St Malo’s remaining inhabitants urged the commandant to declare the port an open city. “In warfare, there is no such thing as a historic city,” Hitler told St Malo’s commander. “You will fight to the last man.” [Delaforce, p.82] Aulock was as good as his Führer’s word. He reported back: “Doing my duty as a soldier, I will fight to the last stone. I will defend St Malo to the last man, even if the last man is myself.” [Gawne, p.44]
In Paris, Kluge was confident the Bretagne fortress and its 6,000-strong German garrison could hold out for some time. Beyond the inner citadel, Aulock could call upon a series of historic fortifications which ringed St Malo to the east and south, plus an island fortress – Ile de Cézembre – three miles to the northwest, where the Germans installed their artillery. Even when his perimeter collapsed on August 9th, Aulock felt confident he could hold out for some time. Any American advance towards the fortress would be shelled by artillery pieces on Cézembre. Advance the Americans did, but they did not penetrate Aulock’s inner sanctum, the Citadel. The fort’s walls of reinforced concrete were so thick, neither artillery shell nor bomb could penetrate them. Beneath this outer shell, a network of man-made caves supported the citadel’s garrison with food, ammunition and water. [Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit, p.406] Aulock was confident his citadel could hold out, even if the rest of St Malo fell. It would hold out long enough for rescue columns from the counter-stroke at Avranches to reach the port. The oberst read out a brief exhortation from the Führer: “Every extra day you hold out is a gain in the fight against the invasion. There must be no surrender as long as a shell remains at St Malo.” [CSDIC Reports, GRGG Series 13/5/43-21/9/44. PRO WO 208/4363] Aulock added his own postscript: “Anyone deserting or surrendering is a common dog.” [Gawne, p.49] The commandant’s efforts to maintain discipline in the catacombs were becoming more and more bizarre, however. “Anyone found lacking in interest or showing reluctance in his work, and anyone exhibiting pessimism will be chased in broad daylight, without weapons, in the direction of the enemy,” he warned. “Disobedience and cowardice will be punished by death.” [Delaforce, p.85]
Exhortations could not halt the enemy, or the devastation being wrought in the historic port. The Americans subjected the citadel to constant shellfire and frequent medium and heavy bomber attacks. As the fighting moved into the narrow, ruined streets of the citadel, photo-journalist Lee Miller accompanied the attacking American troops. “Tall chimneys standing alone gave off smoke from the burning remnants of their buildings at their feet,” she wrote. “Flies and wasps made tours in and out of the underground vaults which stank with death and sour misery. Christ, it was awful.” [Delaforce, p.87] It went on like this for five days. Bombs, mortars, artillery shells all rained down on Aulock’s ever-decreasing domain. It was as much as any man could bear. “The stench was atrocious,” the oberst recalled. “One day we wore our respirators for seven hours. Sometimes 30 or 40 men fainted at a time. You had to have good nerves.” [CSDIC Reports, GRGG Series 13/5/43-21/9/44. PRO WO 208/4363] All around St Malo, German defences were crumbling. The old town, the intra-muros, had finally surrendered on the fourteenth. Just 150 German soldiers marched off into captivity. On the west bank of the Rance, the small fishing port of Dinard where nearly 1,300 men – remnants of 77th Infantry Division – had held out, fell the next day. Dinard’s commander Oberst Rudolf Bacherer had spurred his men on in a similar vein to Aulock: “Every house must become a fortress, every stone a hiding place, and for every stone we must fight.” [Gawne, p.48] But a devastating air attack and the heroic, but painstakingly slow reduction of Bacherer’s bunkers, led to a German capitulation. On the high ground around Dinard which had served as the oberst’s command post, the Americans turned newly captured German guns against the defenders of St Malo.
With patience running out, the troops of 83rd Infantry launched one last major assault on August 15th, supported by tanks and 8in field guns which were aimed point-blank at the apertures of Aulock’s command post. The onslaught broke the defenders’ back. Aulock still had food. He still had ammunition. But he had no guns; the incessant pounding had knocked out his field pieces. And despite his proclamations, he had no will. As they watched or heard of the fall of each of St Malo’s fortifications, so the morale of Aulock and his men fell that little bit further. By the morning of the seventeenth, the commandant could see the writing was on the wall. He signalled Hitler’s headquarters: “Mein Führer, the citadel will fall today or tomorrow. All the towers have been shot away, all the guns are out of action. We will do our utmost.” There was no response. It was time for independent decisions, the fortress commander reasoned. “We could see absolutely nothing below, there was such filth in there, smoke. It was as thick as pea soup,” he said later. “Everything was being smashed up by the terrific bombardment. I realised: ‘This is the end, it’s all up now,’ then I hung out the white flag. We smashed up all the rifles, pistols, threw all the hand grenade fuses into the sea, so that not a single weapon fell into their hands.” [CSDIC Reports, GRGG Series 13/5/43-21/9/44. PRO WO 208/4363] Just 180 of the 865 buildings within St Malo’s great city walls were still standing; not among them were its cathedral or its library and the 30,000 historic tomes and manuscripts held within. The port too was useless. The Germans had toppled cranes into the inner basin, scuttled boats in harbour, blown up the breakwaters and lock gates. For his efforts, Andreas von Aulock was award the Oak leaves to the Iron Cross he had already won on the Eastern Front. He marched into captivity freshly shaven, in full dress uniform.
At his headquarters in the southern French town of Rouffiac, Johannes Blaskowitz fired off yet another warning to his superiors in Paris. For months, the 61-year-old generaloberst had protested about the state of his divisions and the state of his defences. Johannes Blaskowitz had been given a thankless mission. In March 1944 he had assumed command of Army Group G, in charge of all German forces defending the Biscay and French Mediterranean coasts. It was now early August. Two months of fighting had ravaged his forces and yet not one Allied soldier had set foot in southern France. Since June 6th Blaskowitz had sent eight divisions north to feed the Normandy mincing machine. It was too much. So many men had Army Group G given up, the generaloberst warned, “a successful defence of the coast is no longer guaranteed”. [Giziowski, p.285]
In fact so many men had Army Group G sent north, the German Army in southern France was struggling to maintain order. The French resistance movement, the Maquis, was a negligible factor in the invasion of Normandy, but not in the south of the country. Since June 1941, the resistance had accounted for more than 4,500 German dead, wounded and missing in France – 1,270 of them in last month before the Allied landings. [Boog et al, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 7, p.493] After June 6th, the Maquis’ activities increased two hundred fold. The resistance, Johannes Blaskowitz conceded, “got out of hand”. [Giziowski, p.279] German divisions in southern France were finding it difficult to keep the insurgents in check with their attacks against lines of communications, supply trucks, ammunition dumps and individual German soldiers or officials. “There was soon an increase in ambushes of German soldiers and acts of sabotage of all kinds,” regimental commander Otto Weidinger complained. “It gradually developed into a palpable threat to the German occupation authorities.” [Weidinger, Comrades to the End, p.270] Two days after the invasion of Normandy, Hitler’s staff demanded a clampdown. “Reports coming in on the secret army and acts of terrorism in the area show that Maquis actions are reaching considerable proportions.” The insurrection would be put down “with the utmost power and rigour, without hesitation. The outcome of these operations is of the utmost importance to other operations in the West. It is necessary to break the spirit of the population by making examples.” [OKW order, 8/6/44. Cited in Hastings, Das Reich, p.109] The unit chosen to set an example was the 2nd SS Panzer Division. The Das Reich would not disappoint.
The exhausted ranks of the Das Reich had arrived in southern France at the end of April after bitter fighting along the River Dnieper in the Ukraine. When it arrived in its billets around Toulouse, 2nd SS Panzer was little more than the rump of a division. In the next six weeks, 9,000 replacements were sent to rebuild Das Reich. When the invasion began on June 6th, the order came to begin moving to Normandy. But before it reached the battlefront, it would be called upon to put down the insurrection.
Das Reich begin its anti-partisan actions on the ninth when it rolled into the town of Tulle, south of Limoges, where the Maquis had taken control of key points. By the time the SS men had forced the insurgents to down arms, 40 German officials and troops were dead. Detailed with a burial party that evening, Sturmmann Sadi Schneid was enraged as he laid his comrades to rest in a freshly-dug grave. “German soldiers had always behaved correctly to the French population,” he convinced himself. “Why then this fury to murder Germans in this fashion?” [Hastings, Das Reich, p.138] The blood of the men of Das Reich was up. “Every comrade lost in this unsoldierly and dastardly way fed the growing bitterness within the regiment,” conceded Otto Weidinger, of the Der Führer Regiment. [Weidinger, Comrades to the End, p.272] In reprisal, captured members of the resistance would be executed, their corpses would be thrown in the nearby river. For three hours, rope nooses were thrown around lampposts, around balconies, around whatever overhung the roads and streets of this town of 21,000 people. By the time they had finished, the soldiers of the 2nd SS Panzer Division had hung 99 men aged 17 to 42. The Das Reich had been merciful that day, one SS officer told the mayor of Tulle. It had not razed the town to the ground. [Hastings, Das Reich, pp.143-6] The next day, Tulle’s German commandant posted a warning to the population:
For the Maquis and those that help them there is only one penalty: the hangman’s noose. For every German soldier wounded, three Maquis will in future be hanged. For every German soldier killed, 10 Maquisards or an equal number of their accomplices will be hanged. [Order of the day, commandant of Tulle, 9/6/44. Hastings, Das Reich, p.137]
The ranks of the Das Reich were better than their word. The village of Oradour-sur-Glane, 70 miles to the northwest of Tulle, would bear testimony.
War had not touched this village of little more than 250 buildings a dozen or so miles outside the regional capital of Limoges. Shortly after mid-day the trucks of the regiment Der Führer trundled along the cobbled main street into the heart of Oradour. There were reports it was the centre of the French resistance in the area, that huge stockpiles of weapons and ammunition were hidden within its boundaries, that one of Das Reich’s battalion commanders was being held captive here. Whatever the truth, the men of Das Reich were intent on terrible vengeance this Saturday afternoon in early summer. “You’re going to see some blood flow today,” one senior NCO scoffed to his troops. And did the French blood flow. The entire population of Oradour was rounded up. The men were herded into a number of barns, the women and children into the village church. And then the slaughter began. The SS men opened fire on the men then burned the barns for good measure. In the church, they exploded ammunition, threw in grenades, emptied the cartridges of their machine-guns, rifles and pistols, then set the holy place alight. Six hundred and 48 French civilians perished that afternoon in Oradour at the hands of the Waffen SS. The troops found no evidence that the village was a hotbed of Maquis activity. [Hastings, Das Reich, pp.181-201]
After the war, Rundstedt maintained: “I and my Army commanders condemned excesses such as those which occurred in Oradour in the fiercest terms.” [Boog et al, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 7, p.589] But at the time, men like Johannes Blaskowitz believed actions like Oradour and Tulle were justified. The French had brought such reprisals upon themselves. He recorded in his diary:
The situation we have right now is intolerable and unacceptable: there is no way for the German troops to distinguish between friend and enemy. Much bloodshed could be avoided, bloodshed of innocent French civilians, if the situation could be remedied by making sure that the Germans know who is friend and who is the enemy. [Giziowski, p.281]
Yet Blaskowitz, who had been dismissed from his post in Poland four years earlier for condemning the atrocities committed by the SS, realised there could not be another Oradour if the entire French population was not to rise up against the occupier. He continued in his log:
We have to be sure to be guided by the thought that we are fighting the terrorist, not the innocent civilian.
It should not happen that women and children are pulled into this battle, that farms are being burned down, who have never seen a terrorist, or men who have never associated with a terrorist are being shot.
It has to be our major and principle doctrine: we are leading this battle in a decent way, as it is the style and honour of the German soldier to be. [Giziowski, p.282]
The Das Reich continued its slow march northwards. Nowhere did it mete out such exacting retribution as at Oradour. But after Oradour, nowhere did the civilian population show much stomach for revolt.
In May 1944 the train carrying Major Georg Grossjohann and his comrades rattled westwards. The ranks of 198th Infantry Division had somehow survived a mauling as the Soviet steamroller crushed the southern Ukraine. Now it was being ordered to the French Mediterranean coast to re-form. Grossjohann arrived in southern France having had heard talk of a ‘Mediterranean Wall’ guarding the coast. It was just that, talk. There was nothing, Grossjohann lamented, “that could legitimately have been called ‘fortification’. Our predecessors had built dug-outs of the most primitive type, which would not even survive shelling from the lightest artillery.” [Grossjohann, p.99] Worse still was the length of the coastline 198th Infantry was called upon to defend: more than 100 miles of beaches, bays and cliffs, from the foot of the Pyrenees to the Rhône estuary.
The plight of the men of 198th Infantry Division was symbolic of the lethargy and decay which characterised the German defence of southern France. The region was a backwater. The landser in Russia complained of his counterparts in the West “living like God in France”. [Giziowski, p.268]
Two armies protected southern France: First Army on the Atlantic coast, Nineteenth on the Mediterranean, both under the banner of Blaskowitz’s Army Group G. ‘Army’ was a grandiose title for Friedrich Wiese’s battered formations holding the Mediterranean shores. Not one of its eight infantry divisions was up to full strength; one, 716th Infantry, had all but been wiped out in Normandy; 198th was recovering from losses in Russia; and the remaining six were second-rate formations untested in battle and whose ranks were filled with Poles, Czechs and Russian volunteers. The sole armoured formation, 11th Panzer Division, was held in reserve as it too re-formed following fighting on the Eastern Front; it had plenty of men, 11,000 of them in all, but only 75 Panzer IV and Panther tanks ¬– half its authorised strength.
Nor were the other two branches of the Wehrmacht in the western Mediterranean in any better state to thwart an invasion of southern France. The Kriegsmarine could muster barely half a dozen torpedo boat destroyers, a handful of patrol boats and less than 10 U-boats; the Luftwaffe’s roster of aircraft was fewer than 200, many were unserviceable and less than 100 were front-line fighters and bombers.
To make up for deficiencies, German commanders placed their faith ¬– like Rommel – in beach obstacles. When he took up his post in the spring of 1944, Wiese had been ordered to “go all out” to bolster what became known as the ‘Southern Wall’. The Nineteenth Army commander worked feverishly, or rather 14,000 conscripted foreign workers worked feverishly to fortify a 100-mile stretch of coast between Nice and Marseilles. By mid-August more than 1,500,000 mines had been laid and nearly 600 pillboxes built; coastal towns and villages were evacuated, more than 116,000 French civilians were displaced, and the great harbours of Marseille and Toulon were prepared for demolition. The battle would be fought ¬– and won or lost – on the coast. Adolf Hitler had left Wiese in no doubt about that. “There will be no withdrawal,” he told the army commander before he left for his mission in France. “If anything happens along the Riviera, you will fight to the last man and the last bullet.” [Boog et al, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 7, p.592; Breuer, William, Operation Dragoon, p.24] The obedient Wiese passed on the Führer’s instructions almost word for word. “The main defence line is, and remains, the beach,” the Nineteenth Army commander insisted. “Every commander has orders to hold their position to the last man and the last round”. [Anlage zum KTB AOK19, 2/8/44, BA-MA RH 20-19/87. Boog et al, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 7, p.592]
But just as the commanders in southern France were bolstering their defences, the mincing machine of Normandy was demanding new fodder. Since June 6th, eight divisions, two of them armoured, had headed north. “To close one gap,” observed Georg von Sodenstern, Wiese’s predecessor, the German High Command had “to tear open another” and place “vague hopes” in “lucky developments in the south of France”. [Giziowski, p.276] The procession of forces heading north was becoming so worrying that Blaskowitz finally decided to put his foot down. By the beginning of August, so denuded was Nineteenth Army “a successful defence of the coastline can hardly be guaranteed any more.” he warned. [Obkdo AGr.G, Nr.1598/44, 4/8/44. Ludewig, p.63]
And so in mid-August 1944, Johannes Blaskowitz found himself with eight second-rate divisions holding 380 miles of coastline. What he lacked in men and material, he hoped to make good with iron will. On the day after the assassination attempt on Hitler, the generaloberst expressed outrage at the “wicked crime” and reaffirmed his loyalty. “We rally around you, mein Führer, with even more determination.” [Anlage zum KTB HGr G, FS ‘An den Führer’, 21/7/44. BA-MA RH 19 XII/6. Boog et al, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 7, p596] The defenders of the French Mediterranean shores did not share their commanders’ enthusiasm. The Osttruppen proved even less reliable in the south than they had been in Normandy. Entire units deserted to the French resistance. As for the German troops in southern France, there were, Blaskowitz’s chief-of-staff Heinz von Gyldenfeldt observed, “signs of old age and senility” in the ranks. Staunch National Socialists were appointed to units lacking backbone, they preached the word about ‘wonder weapons’ and warned of brutal penalties if any man wavered. But even the most ardent Nazi officer could see that the days of occupying southern France were numbered. On the last day of July, every soldier had to hand in all his kit – apart from his rucksack – so it could be sent home. [Boog et al, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 7, pp.595-6]
From late May onwards, the south of France had suffered the systematic air raids the north of the country had been subjected to since the opening weeks of 1944. Supply dumps, airfields, depots, rail lines, viaducts – all were targeted in turn by the enemy air forces. The Luftwaffe did little to oppose them; the enemy enjoyed a twentyfold superiority.
The raids reached a peak in the first week of August. Bridges, roads and rail lines along the Rhône and Var valleys were subjected to systematic destruction. Air fields and harbours especially were targeted, rendering what naval presence there was all but impotent. Intelligence reports poured into Blaskowitz’s and Wiese’s headquarters. Reconnaissance flights over north African ports reported Allied troops marching on to landing ships; by the twelfth these ships were at sea and steaming off Corsica and Sardinia. There was nothing the defenders could do but wait. They were certainly not going to challenge the enemy armada. “It can hardly be hoped that an invasion can be beaten off by our forces,” Kriegsmarine commander Konteradmiral Heinrich Ruhfus ruefully conceded in his diary. [Breuer, p.66] Little did Ruhfus know that more than 2,000 ships and landing craft were heading for the Côte d’Azur. “We will probably not have to wait very long until the invasion takes place,” one soldier wrote on the thirteenth. “It is believed that the bombardments are a prelude as was the case in Normandy.” [Giziowski, pp.296-7] That same day, intercepted messages to the resistance movement pointed to August 15th as D-Day. Shortly before midnight on the fourteenth, heavy air raids were directed against Toulon and puppets were dropped by parachute around Marseilles, a repeat of the opening moves of June 6th. “We must expect the landing we have been anticipating for days on the southern coast of France in the next few hours,” Blaskowitz told Kluge. [KTB OB West, 14/8/44. IWM AL785/2] The wait was almost over, but one question remained: where would the enemy land? “The only way we’re going to know Allied intentions for certain is when they hit the beaches,” Friedrich Wiese bitterly remarked to his staff. [Breuer, p.55]
The invasion of southern France was no second D-Day in terms of scope, the resistance encountered or the forces used. Just three American divisions were earmarked for Operation Dragoon, codename for the landings. Nevertheless the two-hour aerial and naval bombardment which pummelled the defenders was of a similar ferocity to that which their comrades had endured two months earlier in Normandy. And then the attackers came ashore on a 45-mile front between Cannes and Toulon, centred on the resort of St Tropez, aided by an airborne drop 15 miles behind the coast at Draguignan between Nice and Toulon. Within 70 minutes, seven waves had been landed as planned. German resistance was negligible. Allied intelligence officers warned there would be some “first-rate troops including 1,000 Wehrmacht officer candidates who can be expected to resist fiercely, and ragtag units of Orientals, Poles, and Russians who were dragooned into the Wehrmacht and will probably be looking for a chance to surrender”. [Breuer, p.39] And so it proved. The Hiwis, the East European ‘volunteers’ pressed into German uniform, melted away the moment the Americans landed – they comprised most of the 2,000 prisoners taken by the Allies on this second D-Day. What German forces were left were too weak, too unco-ordinated to mount an effective counter-stroke. Weak efforts to attack the beachhead with armour were driven back by the Americans and no reinforcements could be brought up as Allied air power smashed the road and rail bridges of southern France. [KTB OB West, 1000 Hours, 18/8/44. IWM AL785/2] “We expected the whine of shells and the roar of German planes,” wrote one US soldier, a veteran of the invasion of Sicily. “We found a refreshing, reassuring stillness, serene and peaceful.” [Weigley, p.223] By nightfall on Tuesday August 15th, nearly 90,000 American troops were ashore in southern France,. In three days of skirmishing – it couldn’t be called fighting – the US divisions suffered fewer than 1,500 casualties. After just 18 hours ashore, the Americans had a beachhead 10 miles deep and 30 miles wide. The battle for Normandy was being played out on a smaller scale on the French Mediterranean coast.
The only hope of saving the situation was 11th Panzer Division. With evidence of an invasion in the south of France mounting, Hitler had authorised the division’s move from Bordeaux to the threatened area on the twelfth. It was nearly 400 miles to the invasion area. Nevertheless, by daybreak on the fifteenth, moving first by rail, then by road, the panzers had reached the River Rhône near Avignon, 100 miles northwest of the beachheads. And there the march of 11th Panzer ground to a halt. The bridges were out. The division would have to be laboriously ferried across the Rhône. By the time it had, Nineteenth Army was pouring northwards – except for two divisions, 242nd and 244th Infantry, left behind to defend Toulon and Marseilles to the last round. After just two days, Hitler was breaking off the battle, abandoning southern France, although it was the Allied advance in Normandy, not the landings on the Mediterranean, which forced his hand. Unless he acted now, he would lose an entire army group in the south of France. And so the Führer ordered a “fighting withdrawal” until Army Group G joined up with the armies fighting in Normandy, laying waste to the heart of France as they went. “Not a single locomotive, bridge, power station or repair workshop must fall into the enemy’s hands intact.” [OKW/WFSt/Op.Nr.772916/44 g.K.Chefs, 1720 Hours, 17/8/44. PRO CAB146/344] Thus began the retreat of more than 100,000 men.
The only serious resistance offered by the German Army in France after Falaise came in the far west where there was no hope of relief or rescue. The great port of Brest was no longer a springboard for naval operations. Karl Dönitz had reluctantly ordered his U-boats to abandon the huge concrete pen which served as their shelter to make a break for Norway, Bordeaux, even the Reich if necessary. The order to evacuate came too late, Herbert Werner complained. “The British had anticipated Dönitz’s command and had sealed off the escape routes,” he wrote. “Night after night Allied aircraft dropped their mines into navigable waters, stopping all surface traffic and making the U-boats’ comings and goings a fatal proposition.” [Werner, p.248] Even as the U-boat exodus began, Dönitz ordered his men to attack the invasion armada on their way to their new bases:
Always think how much fighting and expenditure of materials, and especially how much blood is necessary to destroy a shipload of men and materials in land fighting. You can do it with a single torpedo hit.
I know what hardiness, toughness and endurance you must bring to bear in order to endure the hardships and unceasing attacks. But I also know that you, my U-boat warriors, carried on by the old spirit of attack, think only of destroying the enemy. [Cited in Blair, ii, p.612]
The U-bootwaffe was mauled. The hurried flight from Brittany cost Dönitz seven of the 15 boats which sailed in haste. [Werner, p.248; KTB BdU, 2/8/44, 4/8/44]
The men they left behind fared no better; only U-boat crews and a handful of engineers and staff officers could flee Brest by sea. The remaining Kriegsmarine men left in the port were ordered to fight alongside their brothers in the army in its defence. “The hour of your trial has come,” Krancke signalled. “I am confident of you. I know that you will do your utmost for the glory of our navy.” [Floch, p.268] One of Krancke’s staff officers, Erich Breuning, an ardent Nazi, told the sailors of Brest what was expected of them. Depth charges could be turned into makeshift mines, ship’s guns could be turned against enemy tanks. “What matters at this hour is personal effort. Cooperate. Use the initiative of all your forces in the struggle for the defence of the fortress.” [Floch, p.269]
Defence of Brest now served a solitary purpose: to tie down the enemy. Its garrison was a motley assortment of the entrails of German forces in the West: around 11,000 Kriegsmarine, 4,000 Luftwaffe personnel and around 14,000 soldiers. The Army held the trump card at Brest, the elite 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division, energetically led by the determined Bernhard Ramcke. [Kammann, pp.95-96]
The paratroopers had been ordered out of the city as August began to halt the American tide streaming out of Avranches. But as the threat to Brest grew, the division was ordered to double-back. They slipped into Brest from the south between the eighth and twelfth, avoiding the American cordon loosely thrown around the city. The mood of the fallschirmjäger was grim, but resolute, epitomised by Ramcke. Few men had experienced a more varied military career than 54-year-old Ramcke. He had joined the Kaiser’s navy as an ordinary seamen before the Great War and transferred to the Western Front with a marine infantry unit. He fought with distinction; he was selected for training as an officer during his time in Flanders and received the Iron Cross. At the war’s end he moved from the navy to the army, where his career progressed steadily if unspectacularly through the 1920s and 1930s. But in 1940 he was sent to 7th Flieger Division, airborne troops. For the third time in his military life, Ramcke changed services, now to the Luftwaffe, and at the age of 51, earned his wings as a paratrooper. As he had done a generation earlier, Ramcke fought bravely once more with his men, first in Crete, then in the Egyptian desert, before he was called upon to rebuild and train 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division in the West in the spring of 1944. If not a Nazi, Bernhard Ramcke was an ardent nationalist, convinced of the justness of Germany’s cause. “Germany is like a strong buffalo whose finest pasture has been stolen,” he reasoned. “One day the buffalo becomes enraged and – as nature does – first deals with its lesser enemies, then has to struggle with other fierce beasts, the British lion, the Russian bear and the harmful American black panther.” [Floch, p.88] The US Army, Ramcke told his men, was the “instrument of the international Jewish clique which is based in Wall Street, New York, and from there wants to subjugate the entire world in co-operation with Russian Bolshevism... The people of the United States of America are no single, united race. They are made up of all the world’s races, the good and the inferior. Among the inferior, the blacks and mixed races stand out.” [Tagesbefehl, Generalleutnant Ramcke, Sept 1944. [Stimpel, ii, pp.218-19] But Ramcke trained his men well. 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division was more than merely the backbone of the defence of Brest. It was one of the finest German divisions in the West in the summer of 1944. Its men were imbued with the same spirit as their commander. “It was clear to all of us that we were in an utterly hopeless position,” officer candidate Frederik de Wiel recalled, but added: “We knew exactly what was required of us – to make the harbour unusable for as long as possible and to sell our lives for as high a price as possible.” [Bericht Fähnrich Frederik de Wiel, Artilleryman. Stimpel, ii, pp.229-30]
Before 1940, no invader had taken Brest. From the sea, the great port was protected by nature ¬– the narrow estuary of the Penfeld river, entrance to the great harbour, was three miles long and just a mile wide – and by man, with a series of fortresses to the east, west and north of the city, and on the Crozon peninsula which formed the southern shores of the harbour. In the summer of 1944, few places on earth were protected by more fortifications. Most of the 75 forts and bunkers, like St Malo, dated to the days of Vauban, and had been added to, strengthened by subsequent generations and most recently subsumed in Hitler’s gigantic Atlantic Wall. The French had built Brest’s forts well. Walls 25ft, 35ft thick, dry moats up to 25ft wide, an underground network of tunnels were commonplace. And to history, the Wehrmacht had added concrete, barbed wire, anti-aircraft guns, tank ditches. Stricken gunboats in the harbour were stripped of their main armament, which was quickly incorporated in gun emplacements. Back in the 18th Century, Louis XVI expected the fortifications of Brest to withstand a protracted siege. [Floch, pp.28, 161; Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit, p.638] In 1944, Adolf Hitler expected no less.
After their bluff on August 8th the Americans still hoped to take Brest without much fighting, basing their hope on an under-estimate of the garrison’s strength – the best estimate reckoned 8,000 Germans were holding the fortress ¬– and low morale. To undermine the garrison, more than one million leaflets were dropped on the port in just three days by Allied aircraft, urging the defenders to surrender:
To the encircled German troops in Brest
The whole of Brittany is now in American hands. Le Mans and Angers have fallen. The front behind you has been rolled up and American tanks are advancing on Paris. Your resistance therefore cannot influence the overall situation in the West.
Further bloodshed is irresponsible. You have done your duty as soldiers. Nobody can demand that you sacrifice your life if it will not serve your country any more. Further resistance against a superior foe who is always stronger means suicide.
You can break off the battle honourably – like the garrison of Cherbourg. Individual kampfgruppen can send parlementaires forward under the safety of the white flag to discuss surrender details.
You are guaranteed: immediate transportation from the battlefield, immediate food, rest, if necessary medical treatment; adherence to the Geneva Convention to the letter. But time is pressing – no time is to be lost!
Come over before is too late. [Floch, p.88]
Bernhard Ramcke countered such leaflets with an appeal of his own. Death in the ruins of Brest was, the general told his men, something “we, as fine German soldiers, take in our stride”. Ramcke continued:
Soldiers of Festung Brest! Loyal to our Führer, people and Fatherland, upholding the historic traditional honour of the German soldier, we will defend fortress Brest to the last round, laying down our lives, so that this important military harbour falls into the hands of the enemy only as ruins...
I expect every paratrooper to know this order, so that he carries out his duties with fanatical ardour. Our defence of the naval fortress of Brest will be the same as the defence of Monte Cassino was for 1st Fallschirmjäger Division. The whole world is looking upon Brest and its defenders, among whom 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division is the bedrock...Long live the Führer! [Tagesbefehl, Generalleutnant Ramcke, Sept 1944. Stimpel, ii, pp.218-19]
The men of Brest listened to Ramcke, not the Allied appeals to surrender. And so the Allies dropped bombs, not pamphlets on the fortress. The rain of fire and steel began in earnest on August 13th as the Allied air forces began what would become a six-week struggle to pummel the defenders of Brest into submission. It was shortly before mid-day when four-engined Liberators appeared in the skies of the city and released their six-ton bombs. In the U-boat pens, protected by more than 20ft of reinforced concrete, crew of the few remaining submarines were readying their boats for departure as Karl Dönitz had ordered 10 days earlier. Herbert Werner dived for cover. “The world was lifted off its hinges,” he remembered. “Volcanic explosions rocked the hill and made the air tremble. The hard pressure waves hit us with staggering force and took our breath away.” [Werner, p.249]
Progress on the ground was painfully slow. Conduct of the battle was entrusted to Troy Middleton, commander of US VIII Corps, an experienced leader of men, but dogged by an arthritic knee which impaired his decisions. Ramcke made Middleton fight for each village, each hill, each pillbox and finally each fort on the approaches to Brest itself. Three divisions were now investing the port, replacing the 6th Armored: to the east, 2nd Infantry, 8th Infantry to the north and 29th Infantry from the west. Overhead, the Allied air forces dominated the Bretagne skies. American infantryman Paul Boesch “watched in awe” as fighter-bombers preyed on the German lines, unleashing “huge demolition bombs, smaller fragmentation bombs, machine-gun fire and Napalm bombs which exploded in a great, spectacular gush of flaming oil”. [Linderman, The World Within War, p.35] The chief-of-staff of 343rd Infantry Division, trapped in the fortress, fumed: “Not one German aircraft appeared over Festung Brest after it was encircled, despite promises beforehand; it had a particularly bad impact on the morale of the troops.” [Floch, p.233] And yet even with this clear superiority, by the end of August the attackers had reached no closer than five miles from the heart of Brest. Not one of the forts in the inner ring protecting the great port had fallen. Hauptmann Martin Kemnitz, commanding a paratroop artillery unit, was contemptuous of the Americans’ timidity and reliance on material superiority. The ‘Ami’ showed “no soldierly bravado”; he shunned hand-to-hand fighting and sought “safety in numbers”. He continued:
With impromptu methods, the fighting spirit of insufficiently and ill-equipped troops can still be first rate; it was only defeated by an enemy who advanced cautiously, who used his material superiority long enough for his soldiers to occupy enemy territory without a fight.
The Amis are able to tighten the ring bit by bit; they unleashed a hurricane of artillery fire and carpet bombing against the field positions in the open – with losses constantly rising on our side, and probably very meagre ones on the other side. [Stimpel, ii, pp.223-4]
Not every German soldier in Brest shared Kemnitz’s view. Other defenders were surprised by the naivety of US tactics and their profligacy with the youth of America. “American soldiers are very brave and seem to think that their actions are very safe,” one landser wrote in his diary on August 30th. “They run, whistle, sing without taking cover and very often we can fire at them as if we're on the firing range.” [Tagebuch deutsche Soldat, 30/8/44. Fauchon, p.66]
In southern France, a ‘mini Falaise’ was threatening the German forces as the Americans tried to cut the retreating troops of in the Rhône valley. An estimated 138,000 men were streaming northwards; they had abandoned their wounded comrades in hospitals, leaving them to the mercy of the French and Americans. [KTB AOK 19, Wochenbericht, 20/8/44. BA-MA RH20-19/89. Boog et al, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 7, p.600] The fleeing troops left behind garrisons in Toulon, the French Navy in the Mediterranean, and Marseille to tie down the invader. Karl Dönitz had expected his stooge in Toulon, Konteradmiral Heinrich Ruhfus, to fight to the last round. He implored Ruhfus to fight “with the ferocity of someone who is prepared to sacrifice himself. There can be no capitulation, just like a ship’s captain can never raise the white flag.” [Funkspruch von Grossadmiral Dönitz an Konteradmiral Heinrich Ruhfus, Festungskommandant der Toulon, 21/8/44. BA-MA RM7/148. Müller and Volkmann, Die Wehrmacht: Mythos und Realität, p.254] Ruhfus raised the white flag on August 28th, the same day that Marseille also fell.
But there was a bigger prize at stake: the destruction of Army Group G. 11th Panzer Division vainly struggled to prevent the Americans from reached the Rhône and blocking the Germans’ escape route. But on August 23rd, lead US elements moved up the Rhône valley to block the road to safety near the town of Montélimar. American bombers hounded the retreating Germans, smashing bridges and pouncing on the columns of troops wearily trudging north. Whole units deserted or disappeared, others, like 11th Panzer Division, exacted their revenge on the French resistance, which later reported that in its retreat the Maquis had been “eliminated”. [KTB AOK19, Lagebericht 11 Pz Div, 8/9/44, BA-MA RH 20-19/97. Boog et al, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 7, p.603] Whichever course of action the German landser chose, the scenes were the same. Blaskowitz’s chief-of-staff, von Gyldenfeldt, recorded:
Hundreds of disabled vehicles lay burned out on the road, partly obstructing it. Especially heavy casualties – unfortunately, often women too – occurred in the case of large vehicles, such as buses and trucks, from which people could not alight quickly enough to seek shelter at the time of attack. [Giziowski, p.326]
As at Falaise, the cordon sealing off the pocket was weak. On the 26th the encircled German forces smashed their way through the American lines and continued their journey up the Rhône valley. Georg Grossjohann was scathing of the American troops. “They could have bagged us all,” he wrote later. “Thank heaven that our opponents there were not Russians.” [Grossjohann, p.121] It was August 29th when Grossjohann’s division, 198th Infantry, battered its way out of the Rhône pocket. The lead units ran headlong into the US 36th Infantry Division and were all but wiped out; almost all the 198th’s vehicles were lost, its commander and many of his staff were taken prisoner, and the divisional doctor killed. “The division had lost about 1,500 men during the breakthrough,” the 198th’s history recorded. “The regiments were reduced almost to company strength.” [Buchner, German Infantry Handbook, Schiffer, 1991, pp.164-5] The men escaped, their equipment did not. Elements of five German divisions, including 11th Panzer, fought their way out of the pocket at Montélimar. They left behind upwards of 3,000 vehicles, 80 field guns and five howitzers mounted on railway carriages, abandoned, burned out on the rail lines, roads and paths around Montélimar, alongside 11,000 corpses. After Montélimar, Army Group G was no longer an effective fighting force. Of the 1,481 guns it had begun the battle for southern France with, by mid-September just 16 field pieces were fit for action; 11th Panzer Division could commit just one third of its original 100 panzers. Montélimar was indeed the Falaise of southern France. [Weigley, p.232; Boog et al, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 7, p.600]
They left behind a few pockets of resistance, garrisons ordered to hold out until the last round. At Dunkirk. In the Channel Islands. And above all, at Brest. It was one fortress the Allies were determined to reduce and one the Germans were determined to hold. For more than three weeks now, Bernhard Ramcke and his men had thwarted all American efforts to seize the port. The price Ramcke’s men paid for holding the enemy at bay had been heavy. As September opened, one in six had been killed, wounded or was missing – more than 5,000 troops out of action. [KTB Skl, 2/9/44]
And there was not let-up. To the rain of death from bombers and constant shelling by American artillery was added salvoes from the eight 15in guns of British battleship HMS Warspite which obliterated the coastal batteries. One by one the fortifications which formed the backbone of Ramcke’s lines fell. On September 3rd, Fort Toulbroch, seven miles to the west; on the fifth, Fort de Mengant, just five miles west of the city centre; on the same day Fort de Dellec, one mile closer, was seized by American special forces. Three days later, 8th Infantry began its assault on Fort Bouguen on the northern outskirts of the city. It began with a mid-morning assault on the village of Lambézellec about one mile north of the old fortification, witnessed by French civilian Auguste Kervern. “Cold spell, mass in the office, 0830 Hours, heavy aerial activity, attack in incredible strength against our sector,” he recorded concisely in his diary. “Everything goes off at the same time – artillery, dive bombers, grenades being hurled, fire of automatic weapons, bombs falling.” [Floch, p.159] The defenders of Lambézellec were weary. These were not elite fallschirmjáger but elderly draftees, auxiliaries pressed into front-line service. “The High Command is scraping the bottom of the barrel: office workers, pot-bellied, old soldiers who quite clearly have never held a gun,” one German soldier wrote scathingly. “I see them crossing the square, under bursts of shellfire, pinned to the ground, red, looking flushed under the weight of their bags. The slightly wounded, and even those seriously wounded, who come to the post for help with their bandages, are ruthlessly returned to the line once assistance has been given.” [Floch, p.159]
The fighting now moved inexorably on to the streets of Brest, first the suburbs, then closer and closer to the historic citadel. The struggle for the heart of the city was as bitter and as grim as any battle on the Western Front in the summer of 1944. “Everything turned to ashes and ruins as a result of the shelling – the Amis turned to using high explosive shells as well as phosphor shells, which set ablaze everything which had not yet been destroyed by the artillery and bombing,” Martin Kemnitz recalled. “Burns were worse than wounds caused by shrapnel. Most of the stuff burned its way through our clothes and the surface of the skin, causing great pain. Medical assistance was no use.” [Stimpel, ii, pp.223-4] What civilians there were still in Brest suffered alongside the defenders. “Houses, tenement blocks, churches and hotels were there one day; the following day you didn’t see anything except a great hole in the ground and a heap of rubble in which police and firefighters dug to find the dead buried beneath the debris,” wrote one inhabitant. “By night, the city was in flames and these flames seemed to drive clouds from where the destruction had come. It was a magnificent spectacle, magnificent, living proof of the endurance of people.” [Fauchon, p.120]
Every American soldier had sought to avoid street fighting. But as at Cherbourg, St Lô and St Malo, the Ami found himself gingerly fighting his way through the narrow lanes of Brest, house-by-house, block-by-block. It was physically and psychologically exhausting, as combat medic Max Lafferre wrote.
You had to be there to understand the strange atmosphere: rapid fire from automatic weapons, the explosion of shells and torpedoes, the whirring and machine-gun chatter from aircraft provided the background noise. Advance along roads, sometimes carefully, sometimes quickly, taking risks, advance down the rear of apartment blocks, changing the map of the area you thought you knew and changed the usual perspective of exploring a city. Finally there is the strange, psychological element, where sudden tranquillity when you are seemingly cowering in a corner mingles with the terrible fear, often retrospective, of crossing a road under enemy fire. [Floch, p.175]
The fires in the street burned so ferociously the asphalt road surface burned. “The enemy only managed to force his way through these chambers of horror very slowly, and only after using all his superior forces. “Thick clouds of black and yellow smoke, mixed with poisonous clouds of phosphor rolled through the streets, reached into bunkers, tunnels and fighting positions, and settled in the lungs of the garrison,” one fallschirmjäger wrote. The fighting not only extended to houses and tenement blocks, but to Brest’s ancient network of sewers, which in places also served as makeshift aid posts. “The hospital galleries were flooded, and every hour came new arrivals with terrible burns caused by the phosphor and serious wounds caused by the shells which tore everything apart,” the same paratrooper observed. [Bericht Fallschirmjäger R P Richter. Stimpel, ii, pp.224-5]
Above ground temporary cease-fires were arranged so both sides could recover their dead and wounded. In the catacombs, 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division’s senior medic Dr Müller worked in torrid conditions to patch up his comrades. The 1,000 hospital beds in Brest were inadequate; Müller needed ten times that many. His surgeons and medics worked “continuously, by night and day, at four tables; at times they were almost glad at the thought that the end would come soon if only so they could get some proper sleep again”. [Kammann, p.96]
Germany leaders in the West had not expected this. However protracted a struggle Adolf Hitler had expected the defenders of Brest to fight, his generals had never planned for a 29,000-strong garrison to defend the port. By the second week in September, the war of attrition was taking its toll on Ramcke’s men. They were running out of ammunition, with no hope of re-supply. [KTB Skl, 9/9/44]
To Berlin, to Ramcke, to Troy Middleton it was clear that the battle for Brest was approaching its climax. On the thirteenth, the US VIII Corps commander sought to end the slaughter, sending two officers and a translator into the burning ruins under a white flag. They carried a plea from their general:
There comes a time in war when the situation reaches a point where a commander is no longer justified in expending the lives and destroying the health of the men who have bravely carried out his orders in combat.
I have discussed with your officers and men who have served you well and are now prisoners of war, the situation confronting the German garrison at Brest. These men are of the belief that the situation is hopeless and that there is nothing to be gained by prolonging the struggle. I therefore feel that the German garrison at Brest and on the Crozon peninsula no longer has a justifiable reason for continuing the fight.
Your men have fought well. Approximately 16,000 of them from this area are now prisoners of war. Your command has suffered casualties. You have lost much of the necessary implements of war and your men are encircled in a small, congested area. Therefore, it is the consensus of all that you and your command have fulfilled your obligation to your country.” [Gawne, p.75]
Bernhard Ramcke’s response was curt: “General, I have to decline your proposal. Ramcke.” [Floch, p.182] Ramcke had had his chance. He would be made “sorry for his refusal”. Troy Middleton would spare the defenders of Brest no mercy. “Let’s take them apart,” he told his men, “and get the job finished.” [Gawne, p.75]
One thousand miles from the battlefield, Adolf Hitler sent one last message to the defenders of Brest. At this grave hour what mattered was to “fanaticise our leadership and by using every man fit for battle in the combat area to offer the fiercest resistance. There can be no more grand operations, merely holding a position or destruction.” OB West slavishly assured the Führer his will would be carried out. What the defenders of Brest needed was an iron rod: “The steadfastness of the troops will be restored by widespread intervention using draconian methods and will hold.” [KTB Skl, 16/9/44]
What the defenders of Brest needed was relief. As at St Malo, days spent entombed in underground shelters with a maelstrom raging above their heads was taking its toll of the German garrison. Prisoners marching into American captivity on the sixteenth – the same day as Hitler’s exhortation – complained of “little food during these last few days, no soup last night”. Their captors found the defenders exhibiting “very low morale, eager to see the end of the fighting”. [Floch, p.233]
The last act was to breach the city walls which surrounded the inner city. Every gate in the historic barrier had been sealed up, the approaches mined. The Americans began their final major assault with darkness beginning to fall on of the sixteenth. By nightfall they were within the old town. The last major obstacle had been overcome. In dribs and drabs, the defenders of pillboxes gave up when they realised the Americans were in their rear – there was no co-ordination in this last bitter struggle. And then, with the smoke and mist slightly clearing midway through the morning of September 18th, a white flag was seen being carried forward from German lines on the west bank of the River Penfeld. “The Germans wave a white flag,” one American captain wrote. “At this moment a gunshot comes from among their ranks and Corporal Dan Fulton, who is standing at my side, is killed. The tanks of the 17th Cavalry fire at the blockhouse where the Germans have fled to. The white flag appears again, in front of officers wearing their finest uniforms, with their boots, gloves and sticks. Signs of dried blood are noticeable on their faces, their noses and ears – the result of effects of the barrage inside the bunker.” [Floch, p.242]
The struggle in the east of the city continued. But only for hours. At 2pm on the eighteenth from his command post in the Place President Wilson, Oberleutnant Erich Pietzonka, in charge of what forces were still fighting on the east bank of the Penfeld, decided to throw in the towel. His command post was surrounded. He no longer had communications with any of his pillboxes and blockhouses. “We have performed our duties to the last,” he signalled Berlin. [Gawne, p.144] Within the hours, the guns of Brest had fallen silent. The city’s defenders were rounded up in the rubble-strewn squares and herded off into captivity.
Bernhard Ramcke was not among the men captured in Brest. He had slipped across the Penfeld river to the south to continue to thwart the Americans on the Crozon peninsula. There around 1,000 German troops were still fighting. In the words of one US officer fighting on the promontory, Crozon “dominated the seaward approaches to Brest. It bristled with guns and fortifications. As long as we had not eliminated it, we would be denied use of the port – even if it had fallen into our hands.” [Floch, p.204] The landser on the peninsula was expected to fight with as much determination as his comrade across the water in Brest itself, especially for the defence of the Pointe de Espagnols, the fortress at the northern tip of the Crozon, guarding the very gateway to the natural harbour. Its defenders had instructions directly from the Führer himself: “The strongpoint must be held to the last drop of blood.” [Floch, p.206]
Crozon turned out not to be the fortress Adolf Hitler had expected. When the assault on the peninsula began in earnest on September 15th there were maybe 10 miles to cover between the jump-off lines and the headland of Espagnols. Within two days, the Americans were half way towards their objective. On the third day of the attack, they marched into the village of Le Fret where the sole hospital on the peninsula was failing to cope with casualties. Medical battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel John Thompson observed:
The hospital is short of everything. Operating equipment has been destroyed. The surgical block is in a house and consists of two out-of-date operating tables, where an over-worked surgeon operated, helped by some assistants. The buildings are filthy. The wounded, faeces give off the smell of pestilence. The water supply is provided by a fire boat which uses a source close by. Transport is in a cart or in someone’s arms. [Before our arrival], a lot casualties drank contaminated water, against regulations. The disposal of rubbish and medical waste left a lot to be desired. [Floch, p.251]
From Le Fret, the 8th Infantry Division wheeled right towards Espagnols and where Ramcke himself was conducting the final defence from a bunker on the Atlantic coast. Barely able to move in the open field – fighter-bombers ranged overhead – and with ammunition running out, Bernhard Ramcke concluded that continuing the struggle would be fruitless. When the Americans overran the last major obstacle on the Crozon, a stone barrier and moat surrounded by minefields and barbed wire early on September 19th, Ramcke sent parlementaires forward under a white flag to negotiate a cease-fire. At 7pm that evening, Bernhard Ramcke stepped from of his bunker with his dog at his side. “As he left, Ramcke to us looked like an arrogant man,” one French woman watching proceedings recalled. [Floch, p.244] The battle for Festung Brest had ended.
And so France’s premier naval base on the Atlantic coast had fallen. But at what cost? Brest was in ruins. Before the war, there had been 35,000 homes housing 118,000 people. On September 18th 1944, six out of seven homes had been destroyed or damaged. Just 660 Brestois continued to live in the city; more than 500 had fallen victim to the six-week battle raging around the port, the rest had fled before the American attack began.
Allied bombers had dropped 3,700 tons of bombs on the port, but the raids alone could not account for the devastation the liberators found wandering through Brest on the evening of the eighteenth. Brest’s civic leaders reckoned the Germans were responsible for 60 per cent of the damage. They defenders had systematically demolished the commercial and military ports, as well as neighbouring industrial buildings. Some boats had been sunk or scuttled in the harbour and in the River Penfeld, basins and quays had been demolished. [Floch, p.249] A British officer inspecting the U-boat pens reported that the huge concrete structure was useless. “The Germans have destroyed all the doors by various high explosive and the pens themselves have been filled with sunken barges, lorries, torpedoes, live ammunition and the debris of every kind.” [Admiralty Monthly Anti-Submarine Reports, September 1944, p.18. PRO ADM 199/2061]
What had fallen into Allied hands at Brest was, the newspaper Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung proclaimed, “utterly useless”. Once again, a heroic German garrison had been overcome, and its defenders lionised by the Nazi propaganda machine:
We will only be able to assess the true value of heroically holding on and the continuing struggle by the garrisons of our cut-off naval bases later on. Every one of these harbours, however, was and is being defended with determination and courage which is unprecedented – that word is justified here – in recent military history. Our isolated soldiers derive their strength – and hence their orders – from the magnitude of their task. So it was for the men of Brest. [Kriegsberichter Edgar Schröder, ‘Der Kampf um Brest,’ Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, 23/9/44]
What German newspapers and radio did not report was the cost of the ‘unprecedented’ defence of Brest: at least 3,000 dead, 1,000 of them paratroopers. One in seven men of 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division was dead. [Floch, p.251] American casualties were roughly half those of the defenders – 1,590 killed in the three infantry divisions, but probably ten times that figure were wounded. [Floch, p.250]
The defenders of Brest earned if not admiration, then at least the respect of the Americans. The garrison had fought with determination and it had fought honourably. “I encountered no finer troops than the Germans possessed in Brest,” Troy Middleton said later. “This counted particularly for 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division. They were well-disciplined, well-trained and especially loyal to their commander. No acts of brutality, no illegal methods of fighting were reported to me by my troops.” Of Ramcke, Middleton said he was the “most outstanding” German general encountered in two world wars. [Kammann, p.100]
And though he was now a prisoner, the defender of Brest was convinced he had fulfilled his duty. Frederik de Wiel had arrived in the port in early August determined to destroy the harbour and make the Americans pay a high price for the city’s occupation. “We succeeded on both counts, as we learned from the enemy media,” he wrote. “After our actions, Brest could no longer be used as a port and there was barely a house untouched; it was very different from Cherbourg, where there was hardly any sign of fighting and where a lot of fuss had been made over its heroic defence.” [Bericht Fähnrich Frederik de Wiel, Artilleryman. Stimpel, ii, pp.229-30]
But many Allied soldiers – and leaders – found themselves questioning the need for the bitter battle for Brest. Other Channel and Atlantic ports had been bypassed, sealed off, their garrisons left to wither. But at Brest, Hitler’s concept of the festung, tying down enemy forces, had for once worked. US commander Omar Bradley committed forces to destroying Brest “because Ramcke left us with no other solution”. [Weigley, p.285] For six weeks Brest had occupied at least three American divisions, not to mention air power used to reduce the city, while the Allied thrust into Germany and the Low Countries was losing momentum. But at the same time, the Americans had wiped out a powerful thorn in the side of their thrust into France.
As Bernhard Ramcke clambered out of his command post on the Crozon peninsula, a wily old French woman had looked on, tears rolling down her cheeks. “We could not believe that the war was over for us,” she recalled. “We had endured so much misery. Everything had become quiet, strangely quiet.” [Floch, p.244] With the fall of Brest, the German defence of France effectively ended.
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