|DEFENSIVE BATTLE IN NORMANDY|
DEFENSIVE BATTLE IN NORMANDY
By Fritz Langanke
(Herr Langanke was a Mark V Panther tank commander and officer candidate in 2d company, 2nd SS Panzer Regiment 'Das Reich' in June-July of 1944 in Normandy)In his own words Transcribed by Mark Bando
The beginning of 1944 saw the Division "Das Reich" in the Bordeau-Toulouse area. Here, Ostuf. Schlomka took over 2nd company of SS Pz Rgt 2 and I was leader of 1st platoon of that company. We were the last ones to take over new tanks at the Magdeburg depot. While there, Invasion in Normandy started. We were supposed to go straight to that battle area. But bombing of the bridges and railroad facilities in Northern France had made that impossible. On the rail we therefore nearly surrounded the whole country. We drove to the Saar down along the Rhone, close to the Mediterranean, up the Atlantic coast via Nantes to Alencon. There we detrained and from there took the road north to the area north of Percy. Later we moved north and bivouacked at St Sebastian de Raids, south of the road from Carentan to Periers as operational reserve.
Several times we have minor engagements. And then, in the afternoon of July 9, alarm! An American breakthrough at Sainteny! I get the order to block the road with my platoon and stop the enemy under all circumstance. We have no map, no further information, don't know anything about our own troops. Hastily, we start and reach the road at Raids that is under heavy fire. One thing is clear, if the American advance succeeds, they have overcome the swamp and can move freely via Periers to Coutances the way they did it north toward Cherbourg.
With my V Panther I am driving along Route Nationale D971, Carentan-Periers up north. We don't reach Sainteny. At the point where the side road takes off to l'Oseraie larger groups of parachutists can be seen moving in the meadows beside the road. It's a little bit misty and dusk is falling and I'm not sure if they are Germans or Americans. So I hold fire fortunately, because the next day we learned they were Germans.
My order says block the road. Since I am alone with my vehicles and during the night rather helpless against infantry, I draw back a short distance and find a better position along some hedgerows (on both sides of the road), where we stay over night. The enemy did move up but only to the next hedgerow in front of us.
Probably none of us did sleep that night because sitting in a tank in a dark night in broken country without infantry protection is very nasty. Fortunately the Americans carried out night attacks very seldom. Mostly, come dark, they called it a day.
Next morning shelling set in, but was not too strong. Unmolested, slow, low flying American artillery observers moved for hours in those days, over our position. We could now see that the Americans had dug in at the next or over next hedgerows.
Being so close together was in one respect advantageous. Artillery and fighter bombers were reluctant to aim straight at us for fear of endangering their own troops. So the main concentration of that fire was a bit behind us although bad enough anyhow. During the day we finally could breathe freely. III Bn 'DF' took over a section of the main line of resistance of which our position was a part. They had moved down from la Haye du Puits area.
The Grenadiere from 10th Company 'DF' dug their foxholes right beside our tanks. An old comrade of mine from pre war time when I was an infantryman showed up. He was in charge of the infantry gun unit of 'DF' ('Grillen' Self Propelled Guns). He established his command post right under my Panther. Since he had direct contact to the artillery observer and the Infantry platoon leader was close to my tank too, there was excellent cooperation for the next (better than) two weeks, while we kept this position. The foxholes were directly behind the hedgerows and the Grenadiere had pierced holes through to be able to stick their weapons through.
Next morning, we had just renewed our camouflage with fresh bushes, when the C.O. of III Bn 'DF' appeared. He was checking the defense line and personally finding out the details of the layout. Our greeting was buoyant. 1937 we had been recruits in the same Battalion and hadn't seen each other since 1939. He was one of the young CO's of our troop who combined highest efficiency with self discipline and the best Prussian attitude: "Mehr sein als scheinen" (Be more than one appears to be"). His men would swear by him.
When the Americans had found out about our new defense line, artillery fire set in that temporarily reached the intensity we never before had experienced on any battlefield; and this day after day, sometimes for over an hour. Only during the night for a more or less extended period of time there was no shooting. Then you could hear traffic noise. Supply was coming up, etc. We used this time for the same activities. The top Sgt or motor transport Sgt drove with their cars right up to our tanks with food and ammunition. One night when they drove back, we heard loud explosions on the road. Rushing over we saw that one of our vehicles had been blown up by mines, two men were dead. The Americans had found out about our supply timing. In a most daring way, some of them had used the span between arrival and departure of our cars and mined the road. They had managed to get behind our lines and back again unnoticed. From now on, our supply vehicles didn't drive up to us and the crews had to carry all the stuff some 400 meters to our Panther. Very cumbersome!
The second or third day, the shelling reaches a new climax. The impacts are frequent and close by, so incessantly that we feel a light tremble in the tank. Of course it is minor, but when you are sitting in the turret and think about nothing else but the shelling, you feel it like a real swaying. All hatches are closed (it's mid summer). Temperatures are increasing, tension makes the stay in the tank more and more disagreeable. Nearly no talk at all anymore. If you are hit by shell fragments it's merely greeted as diversion. You are reduced to a poor, tortured creature, fighting for self assertion and preserving of your willpower. That's the decisive fight every man has to stand up against. Its outcome will decide whether your morale is broken or you can still be considered a fighter. That is the decisive aspect of the impact by heavy weapons on the single man, not the destruction of target objectives.
For hours this fire falls down on us. Big caliber guns are in action too, maybe the naval guns from battleships in the beachhead (I have no idea whether that was possible)? Occasionally a muffled gurgle can be heard, probably duds. Peculiar though that you could distinguish this so distinctly in all this big noise.
Then, the shelling lessens and fog shells cover the whole landscape with a thick, whitish blanket. Sure, that's preparation for a major attack! I jump out of my tank, talk to the leader of the infantry guns and jump from foxhole to foxhole, telling guys to hold their fire until I open up. So we will start shooting altogether simultaneously. I hasten back to my Panther and thereafter it doesn't take too long. The shelling ebbed away nearly completely. The terrible din that had surrounded us before now changed into a threatening silence. Only our rear was still under fire.
Slowly the fog dissolves from my level of view in my turret (3m above ground) I can overlook the meadowland on our left front, bordered by a little wood. Here, bigger units of American infantry have gathered. They prepare for an attack. They seem to be completely careless. 150m in front of us there is one single tree. One man comes leisurely to this tree, looks around and signals back what seems to mean "all clear". Thereupon all units at the rim of the wood start moving in nearly close formations. They must have thought that tremendous barrage of the last hours had annihilated everything on our side. Meanwhile, the sight even close to the ground is intolerable. I wait a little bit and open fire with all weapons, all of us. It's devastating. Pretty soon our artillery sets in too and we barely can believe it after our rocket launchers joined in, we nearly could keep up with the Americans. It was the strongest artillery concentration on our side I have witnessed during the war. Without delay, the enemy brought his barrage back to the previous top level too. But we feel elated to know that here the Americans will not succeed.
The tank attack which we actually had expected, did come the next days but on the right side of the road, where we thought the terrain was far less suitable for tanks. By that time we didn't yet know that the open meadow to the left was swampy ground that would not carry heavy vehicles. But expecting here a possible tank attack I was standing on that side with four tanks-the artillery preparation was as intense as at the last attack.
Suddenly we hear the noise of battle from the right side of the road. Tank guns and machineguns fire uninterruptedly. Pretty soon the commander of the Panther on the other road side reports that he had a gun failure and had backed-up into some cover. Then some riflemen mostly wounded, run to my Panther crying all lost, the Americans are breaking through, our defense line is gone! Antitank gun and machinegun fire is raking the road, but badly aimed. In the field in front of the hedgerow formerly our defense line five Shermans are standing. Shooting into the foxholes they have killed, wounded, or driven out our infantry. Fortunately for us they didn't immediately exploit their success.
I have seen enough, run back and together with a second Panther I get ready. Our chances to cross the road are slim but we have no choice. This section of the front line has a key position. It is the only good road from the Carentan area through the marsh and swamps to the open grounds of south Cotentin. We have to risk everything to prevent the enemy from "rolling".
We have about 50m run up and use it to get to the highest speed possible to cross the road. We make it. The antitank guns don't hit us. On the other roadside there is a shelled down building. I order the other tank to take cover behind it. I continue another 30-40m (the "longest" ones in my whole life). I can only crawl because the ground is dotted by craters. My gunner nearly gets crazy because I don't let him turn the turret and fire while we are approaching our final position. But that would have been idiocy. At such a cross country drive, with the gun pointing to the side, you just can't hit anything. The distance to the Shermans is only 250-300m and it is unbelieveable: every vehicle shot once or twice at us and we were not hit (even today I cannot understand that). When we reached the position we had aimed for we tore the Panther around at a right angle with the chain brake, got a good lay on the front Sherman, fired and it burned. Very quickly, four were destroyed. Sweat and the fear of death had completely drenched us at our drive; when every second we expected to be hit and die, the stomach cramps and you feel a lump coming up your throat. Now, the danger over, the relief is indescribable. Meanwhile, the second Panther had started firing too, its main battery was on the American infantry. The fifth Sherman had backed into a cluster of shrubs in the corner of that field, close to the road.
I jumped out of my vehicle and half running, half crawling along the road ditch, I reached the point where probably the Sherman would be. Jumping up a few times to the top of the hedge, I finally spotted the tank. Rushing back to my Panther, I was lucky again not to be caught by the enemy machineguns. I climbed back into my turret and cried we got it. Wth some bursts of machinegun fire and some H.E. rounds we could clear the sight of our enemy. The Sherman tried desperately to negotiate the hedgerow behind him backwards, but each time it was at a certain angle, the motor was killed and they slumped down again. When high up once more with the rear, we hit this tank practically from above. The turret was blown off.
For quite awhile I am busy, jumping from foxhole to foxhole, re establishing our defense line. All infantry officers are dead or wounded and the riflemen rely on me. Thereafter, the enemy artillery is back again in full strength and ours answers in the same way. A sixth Sherman in the next field becomes a victim of this duel. It explodes with a jet of flame.
That was the end of major attacks on our position. The next 10 days it was "invasion-every-day" life which was bad enough. For example, for hours with only short interruptions, automatic weapons from the next hedgerow used to fire at our hatches and observation positions every so often, so we nearly couldn't fight them at all.
Our disabled tank, while driving back, was stuck in a very big crater. It had to be pulled out by a recovery vehicle. Relieved by the 6th company of our regiment we nearly regretted to leave that position. Never before or thereafter during the war have I experienced such excellent cooperation of all weapons.
The next day already we are thrown into a gap northwest of Periers, briefed for that engagement by our regimental C.O. in very heavy artillery shelling. The following day the big retreat began, with numerous stops and counterattacks that ended for me at the "Westwall" (Siegfried Line) when I arrived at the German border.
This page was created August 18, 2021