Sunday, July 13, 2014

"The Odyssey of Goetz von Berlichingen"

The Odyssey of  Goetz von Berlichingen
The 17 SS Panzer Grenadier logo

As students of World War II know, there was a major dispute amongst the German High Command in early 1944 about how to prepare for the coming Allied invasion. One school of thought, advanced by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was that German forces should be kept forward, close to the landing beaches. The other, advanced by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, was to maintain only light forces near the beach and hold the main forces back for a classic riposte.

The Odyssey of  Goetz von Berlichingen

In the end, Adolf Hitler sided with the latter school of thought, though he characterized it as a "compromise" due to keeping a portion of the heavy units forward. By keeping the operational reserve distant from the invasion beaches, Hitler unwittingly assured the success of the landings. As to the fate of any riposte, well, Rommel was completely correct to draw from his experiences in North Africa and Italy about the impossibility of that due to Allied air supremacy.

As proof, a new document has surfaced, an interrogation report prepared by Allied intelligence of a captured SS officer. The report was kept by an American G.I., John Frankemolle, who was guarding some prisoners. He recalls that an officer gave him the report to read and said he wanted it back. However, Frankemolle never saw the officer again, so he just kept it. One can imagine a commanding officer bellowing out "I want every man in my command to read this" or something like that, and so out it went.

The document is entitled "The Odyssey of Goetz Von Berlighingen," and it describes the unnamed SS officer's experiences when that unit, the 17 SS Panzer Grenadier Division, was ordered from its barracks in Thouars, France and sent to Normandy. The officer wrote out the report in the presence of an interrogator, and this is the English translation.

The 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Götz von Berlichingen was a German Waffen-SS panzergrenadier division that saw action on the Western Front during World War II. It was raised from scratch near Poitiers, France, and had requisitioned French vehicles and a large fraction of its troops on bicycles. It had no tanks but 42 Sturmgeschütz IV (assault guns). One of its members in 1944 was one Berthold Peichl, who is well known to German souvenir experts. Peichl first served in the Waffen SS Allgemeine - SS in the 98.SS Standarte. In 1944 he served with the 17th. SS - PZ. - Gren - Div.GvB. The reason he is of interest is that he worked for Gahr's Jewelry Firm, an outfit that made all of the SS Honor Rings. Peichl later made reproduction Honor Rings possibly using the actual original Gahr molds. The Peichl Honor Rings are well known among collectors and a much sought after item.

The Odyssey of  Goetz von Berlichingen
Landing craft invading Normandy beaches. The arrow points to the soldier who kept this report for 70 years.

As the SS officer states in his report,
"On 7 June 44 the 17 SS Pz Gren Div received orders to leave the marshalling area in THOUARS and to move to the invasion front in NORMANDY. Everyone was in a good mood and eager to see action again - happy that the pre-invasion spell of uncertainty and waiting had snapped at last."
Nobody had any inkling what they were in for, as this was a new formation that had never seen combat. Apparently, they were blithely rolling along the main roads in broad daylight toward the invasion beaches, an incredibly naive thing to do.
"Then something happened that left us in a daze. Spouts of fire flicked along the column and splashes of dust staccatoes the road. Everyone was piling out of the vehicles and scuttling for the neighboring fields. Several vehicles already were in flames. This attack ceased as suddenly as it had crashed upon us 15 minutes before."
Apparently nobody had bothered to tell the SS men about the Allied dominance of the skies. That wouldn't have fit in with the indoctrination programme.

After that, they marched at night on secondary roads. There were wrecked vehicles everywhere - apparently, everyone had to learn about the realities of the air war on their own. After about five days of travel, they reached their assigned area.
"But now the 'JABO' plague became even more serious. No hour passed during the daytime without that never-frazzling thunder of the strafing fighters overhead. And whenever we cared to look we could see that smoke billow from some vehicle, fuel depot or Am dump mushrooming into the sky."
The officers in charge claimed lamely that "German planes would make their appearance at the opportune moment. But that moment never came." The Allied naval guns also "were tearing into our lines while it was impossible to get back at them."

The Americans eventually broke through, and:
"We started leapfrogging back. The divisional staff was able to hold for 8 days in LOZON. But our regiments had been depleted to such an extent that we could not count on any effective resistance. Under heroic efforts and with terrible losses we were able to hold a small sector NW of Marigny for 8 days."
But then the bombers came, and things got worse:
"And thus it came that, after an annihilating bombing carpet laid by approximately 2000 heavy bombers on 26 July on our and neighboring sectors our Div only survived in name. The divisional staff was separated during the ensuing flight and cut off from its trains."
The Americans under Patton had circled back around and were attempting to encircle the German forces. The Germans, though, fought hard to survive:

"Still the old fighting spirit glowed here and there a little, as in MORTAIN, where KG FICK, attached to 2 SSpz Div DAS REICH for the purpose of a counter attack, succeeded  in penetrating the town, in ST MURERO (sp)... the following incident took place: the 17 SS Div  was to hold a sector of 20 km wide. This was to be done with remnants of the 49 and 41 SS PG Brigade which were put under control of the Div. The Div Staff scouted around for a while without being able to locate these Elms (elements?) (it had not been known at that time that these Brigades had already fled across the MOSELLE)."
This requires a bit of explaining. The division was part of the counter-attack, Operation Lüttich, to cut off US Third Army at its break-out point of Avranches in early August. This failed miserably, and by then the division was so beat up that it was cut up into four Kampfgruppen, named 'Braune', 'Gunter', 'Fick' and 'Wahl'. The officer is referring to one of these Kampfgruppen, 'Fick," which he says still had some of "the old fighting spirit," enough to hold open the pocket for a while so that the others could make good their escape.

The Odyssey of  Goetz von Berlichingen
An SS soldier of Panzergrenadier Division "Götz von Berlichingen" disguised (?) as a civilian is frisked by a US MP of the 2d Armored Division. It is MP Lt. Paul Unger, 2nd Armoured Division, searching the POW SS-Untersturmführer Kurt Peters. Caen, Normandy, France. Photograph by Robert Capa. 1944

In chaos, then, not knowing where its forces were and receiving no supplies, the division was forced to hold the perimeter with the divisional staff, which were not fighting troops. They watched the Americans approach, then promptly headed to the rear, not even pretending to make a stand. The division spent its time in the rear areas rounding up stragglers from the Mortain pocket to try and make up some of its losses, but kept its nose pointed toward Germany.

The Odyssey of  Goetz von Berlichingen
German prisoners in Normandy

The officer pretty much ends his narrative there, which he claims "is the history of the (division) up to my capture (1 Nov 44)." Obviously, there was more to his story than that, but he had flattered the American interrogators with his typical dramatic rendition of the shock and awe meted out by his captors in the field.

The Odyssey of  Goetz von Berlichingen
This so reminds me of a TSA search right after 9/11.

During the gaps in this narrative and after it ends, incidentally, the SS division fell back on Metz and gave the U.S. Third Army all sorts of aggravation. The German soldier who gave this report evidently didn't feel like volunteering more information than he absolutely needed to, perhaps figuring that hammering home how wonderful and overpowering the Allies had been would cause them to overlook what else of value he might know - and evidently he was correct in that assumption. In Metz, the 17 SS Panzer Grenadier Division, with improved supplies, better air support and no naval guns to contend with, acquitted itself quite well and anchored the southern part of the German line. The testifying SS officer probably saw no profit in telling the Americans that their dominance wasn't quite so awesome away from the naval guns and the incessant air attacks. Much better to stroke their egos a bit.

The Odyssey of  Goetz von Berlichingen
The 17 SS Panzer's headquarters in Metz after bombing in November 1944. There were plenty of houses in Metz for the SS to use, bombing this one seems somewhat pointless and perhaps even petty, but that's war. The French owners had this to come home to.

It is an interesting report which shows the absolutely decisive impact of Allied air and naval dominance in Normandy.

Below is the actual typewritten report, which is full of spelling errors but is quite readable:

The Odyssey of  Goetz von Berlichingen

The Odyssey of  Goetz von Berlichingen


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