“Little fish we will throw them back into the sea” Kurt Meyer
Perhaps it was a case of aim high,miss high but none of the objectives set for D-day were met by any allied landing force. The Canadians came closest despite facing very good German opposition on Juno beach, elements of the Canadian expeditionary force came close to securing the Caen-Bayeux railway line and were in a position to take Carpiquet airfield when ordered to halt. Logistical problems on the beach, tough German opposition and possibly the cautious (I would say thorough) Commonwealth doctrine of moving in controlled bounds and digging in on objectives slowed the Canadian advance. For their part the Germans were suffering from poor intelligence, the higher command considered Normandy a feint, they were also hampered by the (inaccurate) belief that Adolf Hitler had to order any counter attack, moreover the decision to keep the panzer divisions inland resulted in a slow response to the allied landings.
By the close of day on the 6th of June, the Canadians were in a good position to secure their D-day objectives, to capture vital ground for the taking of Caen, the Germans were rushing to stop them and drive them back into the sea.
1944 7th June In the area North West of Caen, the 12th SS HitlerJugend contacted Canadian forces. Having broken through the regular German defenders The Canadians were advancing to secure the small village of Authie, just North of the vital RN13 Caen-Bayeux road. Unbeknownst to them they were under observation from SS Standartenfuhrer Kurt “Panzer”
or “Schnell” Meyer. The Canadians, to Meyer’s incredulity blundered into the guns of the 12th SS Panzer division, were savagely mauled and driven back to their start lines. This action heralded a struggle over the North West approach to Caen that was to last many days, and marked the first encounter between the Canadians and their bitter enemies the HitlerJugend.
The action over these days produced a series of remarkable and famous photographs of SS Panzer Grenadiers. It was looking at these iconic images (especially Otto Funk’s thousand yard stare) that sparked an desire in me to look further into the details of the action in and around the RN13 in the villages of Rots, Bretteville and Norrey.
The Panzer Grenadiers in these images are from the third platoon of the 15 (reconnaissance) company of the PzGren Regiment 25, 12th SS. The 12th SS were the HitlerJugend and were drawn largely from the Hitler Youth with officers selected from other SS divisions. These young men had been subject to Nazi indoctrination for over a decade and were considered fanatical by the British and Canadians who fought them. They were however largely untried in combat.
The Canadian Regina Rifles took the village of Bretteville
on the 7th and dug in on the village, they had anti tank guns (6 pounders) but no attached armour. The Canadians failed to hold their objectives around the adjacent village of Putot when the SS Panzer Grenadiers attacked in the early hours of the 8th. The Regina Rifles remained firmly dug in at Bretteville while the Canadians and British were pushed out of surrounding positions. After a ferocious naval bombardment the Canadians managed to retake the village of Putot to the west of Bretteville by 2130.
German (Rommel’s) orders for a counter attack to Bayeux were now issued, which necessitated the ground held around Rots and Bretteville to be taken in order to link up the SS regiments of Meyer and Monhke. A powerful force of Wespe 105mm Self propelled guns about 40 Panther tanks and the 15th company (recon) attached as infantry was assigned to the mission with an H-hour set for 2200.
Despite only two companies of Panthers making it to the start line in time the attack went ahead and is described in detail by Kurt Meyer in his “Grenadiers”:
The Reconnaissance company’s grenadiers are climbing onto their vehicle: I drive from tank to tank calling out to the boys….Boys the reconnaissance company is always the spearhead of the regiment, so you will bear a lot of responsibility. I promise you that I will return to the ranks and witness your baptism of fire. ..the tank engines are roaring and the Grenadiers are all mounted.
The tanks are roaring ahead at top speed…. the engine is our strongest weapon…the first houses of Rots appear…We are sitting on a volcano but Helmut drives on indefatigably…..We wait for the tanks to arrive at the entrance of the village. They arrive in a few minutes; the first group of the reconnaissance company dismounts and advances as infantry. The village is clear and we push quickly through.
The Panthers…again form wedge formation. Two Panthers are roaring down the road towards Bretteville The rest push ahead on both sides of the road. In the darkness I can now only see the red hot exhaust pipes. …..CRACK….CRACK! The two panthers at the head are firing round after round ….down the road to clear it for us clanking into the village at full speed….This is the way we fought in the East, but will these surprise tactics work for us here? All the tanks are now firing into the village, enemy machine-gun fire responds…Grenadiers are storming past us …tears are running down my face …I jump on the motor cycle so as to make contact with with the company again, a few minutes later I am in flames, the fuel tank is shot through and I am burning like a torch; the grenadiers drag me off and smother the flames with earth.
There is firing in all directions in the village. We have reached the centre but the leading tank has been hit. The Regina Rifles battle HQ has been overrun. The surprise attack is successful where is the 26th regiments infantry? We cannot hold out here on our own; we are too weak to capture all of Bretteville. With a heavy heart I decide to withdraw the troops at dawn to high ground to the east of Rots”.
SS Lieutenant Fuss describes the attack from the perspective of this who remained on the tanks.
“ A great number of anti-tank guns seemed to be in positions along the edge of town. Canadian Infantry was in trenches to the left and right of the tree lined road running North East to Bretteville. They peppered the mounted Grenadiers with wild rifle fire…I reached the Church with only six men after a lot of violent shooting”
The tactics used on the Eastern front were not working against the more disciplined and better trained allied troops. The Canadians also felt that the HitlerJugend fought in tactically unsound ways, going in headlong and piecemeal. Maybe this was due to a certain fanaticism, poor tactics or maybe it was just down to inexperience. Meyer compounded the error when at 0515 on the 9th he sent in the 3rd Company’s 12 Panthers against the Regina Rifles in Norrey. Norrey is set in open fields to the South of Bretteville and South West of Rots,
During the assault on Norrey Klaus Schuh and Otto Funk had set up their machine gun on the corner of the Rots château wall, firing at Canadian positions to the south west. The tanks assaulted unsupported (having out paced their infantry) at dawn and were stopped dead by ferocious anti-tank and infantry fire. Seven panthers were knocked out, two soldiers killed and seventeen wounded mostly with horrific burns, “it was like a blowtorch coming up below me”. At this stage of the war it was difficult for the Germans to make good on losses, especially tanks. The motive for such a hasty attack must remain a mystery though it seems more guided by emotion than sound military tactics. SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Max Wunsche watched on in tears.
It is after this attack that the set of photographs is taken. We can clearly see the strain of the bloody fighting on their faces. Their modern-looking uniforms have been made from Italian camouflage material and there appears to be a high number of automatic weapons in the platoon “They need to put down a heavy volume of fire, and require a corresponding large complement of machine-guns and ammunition” Heinz Guderian.
“The third tank of the troops was intact, but its commander, Friedrich Eismann had stuck the upper part of his body out of the turret of his ‘326’. That escapade did not last for long and he was cut in two by a shell, emptying his blood onto his gun-layer, Gerd Krieger, a lad known for his very blond hair. The lower part of the tank commander’s body fell onto Krieger who was terrified.”
The images show this tank 326 with Krieger cleaning the commander’s blood off the turret. The screams and groans of the burnt tankers would be still ringing in the ears of the gathered Grenadiers.
As a reconnaissace company 15 coy may have been removed off the line during the 9th and 10th, certainly Rots was re-enforced and fortified but was lost on the 11th when marines from 46 commando with armour support from Le Regiment de la Chaudiere attacked. The fight for Rots was described as particularly savage “it was a terrible scene as the Panther crushing the dead and wounded made its way to the intersection”.The Chaudieres claim they found the bodies of 112 grenadiers in the village.
Klaus Schuh won a knights cross for an action that took place in Rots, Funk later described this happening on the 11th and drew a sketch map of the combat. He describes driving by Schwimwagen through to Rots from 12th SS HQ at Ardennes Abbey, dismounting and advancing to a sunken lane just west of the château, near his former position, and setting up the MG42 to cover the fields to the west.
A solitary Churchill tank approached up RN13 and spying jerrycans on the turret they opened fire within 60 metres igniting the fuel which caused the tank to stop. Two crew emerged of whom one escaped Schuhs fire. Other sources date this as happening on the 9th in either case this would mean that the Churchill crew had approached a village known (Rots was not cleared until the evening) to be filled with enemy infantry. Even on the 11th it would seem that the tank’s crew had made a navigation error and were not likely thinking they were heading into contact.
The Coastal areas around Caen and the D-day beaches have changed a great deal. Though in general the land looks much as it did in 1944, Rots appears to have been rebuilt to more or less the same plan. A drive down what was RN13 (now D613),and the buildings the 3rd platoon sheltered in are recognisable, and one can imagine the rumble of Panthers along the road there, maybe even the screams of badly burned teenagers. The areas where Schuh and Funk set up their machine gun are a bit trickier. The position for the assault on Norrey was at, or near to, the end of the château wall.
While the second position on the 11th Funk described as being in a sunken lane. His Sketch map does not quite sit with the modern layout of the farms there but the chemin du hamel seems the best bet. I don’t live in Normandy now so I’ve had to go with google street view, but I was still pleasantly surprised to get the “aha” feeling even digitally. It’s a joy to see how events, photos and accounts all fit together on the ground.
For the modern visitor the driving in France is easy, and in fact quite enjoyable, especially away from Caen. I am told that many of the D-day areas become extremely busy in June and as many of the Western areas are still served by rural roads one can expect delays. The Caen battles all took place in areas that are now busy and it would best to familiarise one’s self with the area before trying to find WW2 sites. Some of the sites are not signposted all that well either. Avoid area around the Caen periphique in rush hour.
The sites to the North West of Caen are must for any Canadian visitor, the action at Bretteville by the Regina rifles is reckoned to be one of the finest small unit actions of the western war where the fanaticism of the SS was held off by the professionalism and material superiority of the allies. The modesty of the memorials pays scant testament to the heroic,sordid,ferocious combat that took place here over 70 years ago. Conflict that is already slipping from our cultural memory.
Many of the men pictured in these images did not survive the brutal fighting around the city of Caen, Schuh was killed on the 26th during the battle (“ferocious Scotsmen throwing grenades”) for hill 112. Otto Funk survived and lived on until 2011. I often wonder what they were thinking, what did he think as he looked as an old man at pictures of himself as a late teenager, in a war, a war he lost, that destroyed Germany? How had a decade of Nazi ideology shaped the way they saw the world. How on earth did he adjust to life after the war? What did they think of their enemies, as their comrades fell beside them? A picture paints a thousand words, Otto Funks picture raises a thousand questions.