Hans von Luck during World War II.
Major Hans von Luck (center) receives a report from Lt Gerhardt Bandomir (left), who commanded 3. Ko. of I./125 Panzer Grenadier Regt. during Operation Goodwood. Looking on is Major Willi Kurz, CO of II Battalion.
The operations of the Battle Group Luck, which consisted of Panzer Grenadier Regiment 125 and 4 Company of Panzer Regiment 22, plus supporting arms, were local counter-attacks with a limited purpose. But the main German operation of 7 June, planned for noon, was a counter-offensive designed to split the beachhead and drive the British and Canadians into the sea. The three remaining tank companies of Oppeln Bronikowski’s Panzer Regiment 22 were already in position. When 12 S.S. Panzer Grenadier Division came into line, they were to attack together. The latter division consisted of the two armoured battalions of S.S. Panzer Regiment 12, and the 25th and 26th S.S. Panzer Grenadier Regiments, plus the normal reconnaissance, engineer, and artillery elements. Leading their march to the front was Kurt Meyer’s battle group, based on his S.S. Panzer Grenadier Regiment 25. Meyer was a young and dashing leader who combined energy with an acute tactical sense, dubbed already throughout the division, which he was soon to command, ‘Panzer’ Meyer. 12th S.S. was officially designated the ‘Hitler Jugend’, or ‘H.J.’ Division, nicknamed by German propagandists the ‘Baby Division’ because most of the ‘men’ were actually ‘teenagers’. It had been formed after the catastrophe of Stalingrad had caused a manpower crisis in the German Army, and had been recruited largely from under-age youths. Like most of the Waffen S.S., they were volunteers. And like the British ‘gladiator’ units, such as the paratroops and commandos, and the entire Canadian Army, they were in a sense picked men; because they had ‘picked’ themselves. The ‘boy scout’ aspect of Hitler Youth training made them especially suitable as soldiers from the fieldcraft point of view, and the ‘political’ indoctrination, such as it was, had given them not merely a ‘cause’ and a ‘hero’, but more important, a belief in the ‘destiny of youth’ which, resulted in a conscious feeling of superiority amounting to arrogance, no bad armour against the unspeakable shock of war.
But this was not 1940. Meyer had barely selected a forward command post in the tall buildings of Ardenne Abbey, with the division not even on the start line, but strung out behind him for miles along the Caen-Falaise road, when he saw that it was the enemy who were attacking. Ignoring the lagging 3rd British Division, who should have protected their left flank, 3 Canadian Division was driving confidently and aggressively for Carpiquet airfield. The leading infantry of 9 Brigade were already in Authie and the Shermans of 27 Armoured Regiment were moving by country lanes into St. Contest, less than two miles from Caen. These men, too, were volunteers, individualists, many of them bred to the use of firearms since boyhood, unlike the townsmen who form the bulk of conscript armies; they were as well-equipped as the Germans, and they came on with the overconfidence of inexperience. Meyer’s field glasses brought the leading tank so close that, when it stopped in an orchard, he could see the commander appear, take out a packet of cigarettes, light up, and blink momentarily at the smoke. He was 200 yards from Meyer’s nearest unit. Then the bulk of the Canadian armoured force appeared in Buron, making for Authie to support their infantry, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Their axis of advance would shortly expose to German fire not the heavily-armoured front of the tanks, but their lightly armoured sides. Now, the German Army showed why it had achieved such an awesome reputation. Complete fire discipline prevailed; not a shot was fired at the tempting targets. The Canadians had no idea that they were advancing into an accidental ambush. And Meyer, young, bold, and resolute, seized his opportunity without bothering to argue or ask for orders, although he was only a Regimental Commander taking part in an Armoured Corps operation. On his own initiative, he issued the order ‘hold your fire’ to the anti-tank guns, made a rapid plan to counter-attack immediately after fire had been opened at the most favourable moment, and sent a despatch rider to tell the divisional Commander what he had done.
It worked, as it was bound to do; but not as in 1940. The Canadians were driven pell-mell back from Authie and Buron with heavy tank and infantry losses, their own operation ruined. But they did not then disintegrate. They held, and called for fire and tank support. With a noise like express trains passing overhead, the ton-weight shells of the warships lying off the beachhead began to fall into the German positions. Meyer himself took cover in one of their enormous craters, as did a young officer cadet, Kurt Misch. “Our counter-attack won good ground because the Canadian units were so completely surprised,” said Misch. “It was brought to a standstill mainly by the artillery of the invasion fleet. Because of this concentrated fire, such as I had never seen before on any European battlefield, both officers and men became demoralised and were forced to dig in. For perhaps an hour I lay in a giant shell crater together with some Canadian prisoners, and saw that they were just as demoralised by their own fire as we were, although these prisoners belonged to an excellently trained unit.” And that was as far as the two-division armoured offensive got. Meyer had started the battle rolling, but he could not keep it up unsupported. On his right, 21 Panzer Division had been halted at Epron; and on his left, the tanks of 6 Canadian Armoured Regiment, spearheading the drive of 7 Canadian Infantry Brigade, had broken clean through the remnants of 716 Infantry Division and were in sight of Carpiquet, actually behind Meyer’s battle group.
At first light, 6 Armoured Regiment had supported the Regina Rifles into Bretteville l’Orgueilleuse, then turned left towards Caen. “Practically no resistance was met on this drive,” said Gariepy. “Small pockets of machine-gunners, with no cohesion in their defence, without field officers, mostly non-coms and junior lieutenants. We were amazed at the facility with which we were taking them. Their casualties were high, ours were negligible, few prisoners were taken. It is a problem for such groups to give up. First, they had to brave their own troops, then to face the opposing force, not always clear on their intentions. They come forward aligned down the muzzles of enemy guns, and a single shot fired by one man can cause thousands of others to follow suit. This was not yet ‘savagery’ or ‘revenge’, it was ‘SNAFU’, or ‘organised confusion’.” Nevertheless, men going forward to surrender were shot down, and this could easily be, and most probably was, misinterpreted as deliberate ruthlessness on the part of the Canadians.
“We came very close to Carpiquet, so close that we could easily see the tarmac; yet a few days later, we were to fight bitterly to occupy this sector. Reports kept pouring in over our wireless that much fighting was occurring on our left flank, and we moved back to a new harbour at Secqueville-en-Bessin; at midnight, news leaked in that 9 C.I.B. was taking a terrific shellacking, and we moved to Bray cross-roads as mobile reserve force. We had been awake for 48 hectic, fatigue-laden hours; all seasickness had disappeared, but the men were still weak from it; we had been issued ‘bennies’ to keep awake, and the haggard look they gave the men made us appear like ‘zombies’; and all through the night reports came in of increasing enemy effort, with an armoured attack imminent. But it never came off, and we ran about for several days and nights at various reported ‘Tiger’ apparitions. The men believed these hide-and-seek tactics were all part of a well-organised plan to make the Germans think we were there in strength, and that nothing less than a large-scale counter-attack could dislodge us.”
What had actually happened was that more of 12th S.S. had come up 8 June, found Carpiquet airfield and its enormously strong defences deserted, the Luftwaffe having flown and the Canadians having neglected to occupy it when they had the chance; and having dealt with 9 Brigade already, had turned to deliver the same treatment to 7 Brigade. Using Panthers as well as Mark IVs, they re-took Bretteville l’Orgueilleuse and Putot-en-Bessin, destroying the forward companies of the Regina Rifles and the Canadian Scottish. Putot changed hands again that evening, when 7 Brigade counter-attacked and drove out the S.S. But casualties were very heavy and the formerly ‘fluid’ situation was beginning to solidify, almost unopposed dashes being succeeded by the desperate pendulum of limited, local attack and counter-attack. The British had failed to take Caen; the Germans had failed to throw them into the sea.
But 8 June, D plus 2, was a wonderful day for German Intelligence. At three widely separated points, they received three priceless gifts from the hands of the dead. From a water-logged landing craft, a derelict of D-Day, which had drifted ashore on the German-held Vire Estuary between Omaha and Utah, Cossacks of 439 East Battalion took a beachmaster’s copy of the American VII Corps plan and time-table, giving information also about forthcoming operations by V Corps and the British 30 Corps; these made clear that the American landings were not a diversion, but were intended to take Cherbourg, although they did not reveal the really vital information that the major breakout was to come in the American sector, nor that Normandy was the main point of Allied effort. From a Canadian armoured car, containing a dead lieutenant and driver, which had been knocked out while advancing from Putot-en-Bessin by an anti-tank gun of III Battalion, Panzer Grenadier Regiment 26, the Germans took a special code map of their own defences; sheer chance, because the gun had accounted for two vehicles, and the first had burned, together with everything and everyone inside it. And from a Canadian tank similarly knocked out near Authie, the Germans took a copy of the Wireless procedures and codes. The two latter discoveries were complementary, and they were brought to Hubert Meyer, then the Ia, or chief staff officer (operations) of 12 S.S. Panzer Grenadier Division, and no relation to Kurt Meyer.
“When we came to look at the map,” he recollected, “we were astounded at the accuracy with which all the German fortifications were marked in, even the weapons, right down to light machine-guns and mortars, were listed. And we were disgusted that our own intelligence had not been able to stop this sort of spying. We found out, later on, that a Frenchman had been arrested who admitted that he had spied for years in the Orne sector, appearing every day with his greengrocer’s van on the coastal road. We could clearly see on this map the result of his activities, and that of other spies also. What was useful for us, now, was that all the place names had been substituted, for instance, the Orne was marked as ‘Orinico’, and that the enemy continued to use these cover names in his wireless transmissions for quite a while afterwards. At the same time, this glimpse of espionage, in which we had become involved, seemed to us much more exciting than even the most sensational and breath-taking fiction, because it was real and important. Taken together with the wireless codes also captured, we were able to understand much of the enemy’s radio traffic, which helped partly to make ‘up for the advantages he enjoyed. As we were in a foreign country, we could not expect any co-operation from the population, whereas the enemy could; and because of his supremacy in the air, it was practically impossible for us to do any tactical air reconnaissance. So that all that was left was to form special recce units to do radio listening work, and so on; and in this we were repeatedly successful. In effect, it was espionage by radio.”