D-Day, 6 June, 1944 was arguably the most decisive day in military history. The Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe started on that day with the landings on the Normandy coast of northern France. The final outcome of ‘Operation Overlord’ was the downfall of Hitler and the liberation of the world from the yoke of the Axis powers.
There were five invasion beachheads and the westernmost, known as Utah, was defended by a pair of artillery batteries near to the village of St Marcouf. The Crisbecq battery in particular became a real thorn in the side of the attacking American forces. This Entry tells what happened there, and is based on the testimony of the Germans who operated and defended the guns.
It was during the summer of 1976, in a sun-dappled dell on Luneburg Heath, that Fritz recounted the tale. One listener was his son and I was the other, a guest of the family in a schools exchange. We had stopped to seek respite from the heat, and I can remember the shadows of bicycle spokes lengthening across the dusty soil as the evening drew on. Fritz was as tentative in English as I was in German, and so at first Torsten took translation duties on himself. He must have heard some of his father’s story before, but not all of it, judging by the way his attentiveness increased and the interruptions declined. In the end, two boys listened in wide-eyed silence, while language dissolved as completely as the years.
When stories are told well, these details are remembered.
The Atlantic Wall [John]
By 1944, the Second World War was going badly for Germany. For four years since the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk, the Nazi occupation of France had been unchallenged. Now an invasion was imminent.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel came to Normandy in the January of 1944. His name had been a watchword for tactical brilliance, but the prospects and reputation of the ‘Desert Fox’ took a downturn when the North Africa campaign ended in defeat. Rommel was not even the first-choice overseer of France’s coastal defences. His rival von Rundstedt enjoyed that status, and was now concentrating on Pas-de-Calais to the east, where the Channel was narrowest and where German military intelligence anticipated the main assault. The surveillance services had intercepted many communications and captured several documents, all of them pointing to that target.
As Rommel saw it, this profusion of evidence only suggested an enemy ruse. The Normandy coast, with its wide beaches and stream-riven bluffs beyond, was wide open to a concerted attack. Its defences were minimal at the beginning of 1944, and it could be reached from the south coast of England under the cover of a single night.
Rommel spent the spring laying mines, strewing the tideline with tanktraps and fortifying the bluffs with gun emplacements. On the Cotentin peninsula, close to the village of St Marcouf, there were already two huge artillery batteries, but they were exposed to the sky and susceptible to bombing. Rommel ordered the fortification of them both. The smaller one, a little way inland, lay close to the hamlet of Azeville. The larger was constructed at the head of the promontory, and took its name from a nearby straggle of derelict farms. Along with its neighbour, it was destined to become part of the legend of D-Day.
Luneburg Again [Mick]
I was just making conversation. I had asked him if he was born in that part of Germany.
No, said Fritz, he was a Berliner, more or less. He had settled here because this was where his unit surrendered. It was either that, or retreat into the lap of the Russians. Once the War was over, there was no going back further East.
I fell silent, mortified by accidentally bringing up the unmentionable subject, but Fritz was thinking. I remember how his bearing changed. He was a small man, but he swelled with pride and his eyes grew bright. ‘Have you heard of Crisbecq?’ he asked.
The Germans were just as practised as the Allies at misinformation. The precise complement of artillery at the St Marcouf Battery is uncertain to this day. What is certain is that the largest guns were of 210 millimetre calibre, designed to be capable of launching 135 kilogram shells at 40 second intervals, and with a range of 30 kilometres. These K52s were of Czech manufacture, built by Skoda, and there were at least three of them at Crisbecq. By D-Day, two of the guns were housed in immense casemates, with concrete walls and roof between 3 and 4.5 metres thick. The Crisbecq garrison was 400 strong, billeted underground in bunkers almost as substantial as the casemates themselves.
I came to St Marcouf at the beginning of May. I was sixteen years old. They had lowered the conscription age for artillerymen, but I was still a year too young even then. I just wanted to serve the Reich, so I made up a name and a birthday and gave myself a new identity. There were hundreds in those years who did the same.
It said on my papers that I was assigned to the Azeville battery, but when I got there they’d reallocated me to Crisbecq, where the construction was well behind schedule. The Feldwebel who altered the form commiserated with me. He said that Azeville was a model unit and that Captain Kattnig, the battery commander, was a gentleman soldier. He’d been there for three years and was admired by his men and the locals alike. Crisbecq, in contrast, was a shambles and its commanders were always being replaced, with every newcomer an even bigger bully than his predecessor.
At Crisbecq, there were dozens of us living in a string of underground bunkers. It was claustrophobic. On the first morning, all the new arrivals were addressed by Commander Ohmsen, standing on a huge circular concrete platform. I would later find out that the platform was the base of what was to be the third casemate, and I worked on it for days on end, though we never finished it.
I can recall what Ohmsen said very clearly. He congratulated us, because we’d come just in time to fight a war, and we wouldn’t spend long playing the pitiful game he’d been engaged in since coming to Crisbecq six months before. It had taken him most of that time to work out the rules. When he was winning the game, the troops would hump bags of cement. When the troops were winning the game, they would hump farm-girls instead.
I remember thinking that for a bully, Ohmsen didn’t seem so bad.
The landscape that Fritz found at St Marcouf was pockmarked with craters and the scorched remnants of gorse. Allied aircraft could reconnoitre the Normandy coastline with alacrity by this stage of the war, and so an artillery battery like Crisbecq revealed itself the moment that test-firing took place. The first of the new K52 guns loosed its first round on April 19th, and the very next day the Allied bombing began. By mid-May, more than 800 bombs had fallen on Crisbecq and its vicinity. After a particularly heavy air-raid, Ohmsen suspended firing from the battery. None of the guns were damaged, but it was useful to make the enemy believe they had succeeded in disabling some or all of them.
The commanders at Azeville and Crisbecq were very different, and so were the casemates they built. The casemates built by the amiable, sensitive Captain Kattnig were built on time, to specification. The main gun at Azeville was ultimately destroyed by a direct hit, with appalling and demoralising loss of life. The casemates built by the awkward, difficult loner were very different.
Oberleutnant Ohmsen did not place his guns where he was told to. They were not at the highest point of the promontory, and so the enemy could not get an easy fix on them. The foundations of the casemates were dug nearly four metres deeper than planned, and as a result they were finished late and only two guns were protected by D-Day. But the depth meant that there was a steady downhill slope from the munitions stores, deep inside covered tunnels, and those two guns were still fed with shells even though the ground above was blasted out of recognition.
Both the Crisbecq casemates took many direct hits, but they kept firing. Ohmsen was vilified for building submarine nets into the roof, but they contained tonnes of spalled masonry and so the disaster that befell Azeville was avoided. In the very end, with the battery surrounded, Ohmsen lead his men to safety through a secret path through a minefield. They escaped because their enemy was sure they were trapped.
Valour takes many forms. Bravery might earn the respect of enemies, but it takes planning to confound them.
Without a Paddle [Fritz]
I first met Ohmsen face to face only a week before the Americans landed. He was looking for the smallest man in the garrison, and that was me. We walked to the edge of the cliff to the north of the battery, where there was a sewage outfall that served all the bunkers. It was wrecked, being just about the only structure the bombers had managed to hit. There was a wide-mouthed concrete sluice going down into the ground, and it stank.
‘What do you make of that?’ Ohmsen wanted to know. When I was too awestruck to answer, he pointed out that the construction was overkill for what only needed to be an open culvert. This hole must have been built for some purpose more sophisticated than a drain. Moreover, the passage might lead anywhere, since nobody had been able to find the other end below. This meant that I was going to be lowered down the hole instead.
There have been better experiences in my life. When they’d hauled me back up, dripping with slime, I told them there was a steel grille blocking the shaft about twenty metres down. ‘Good’, said Ohmsen. ‘Then nobody’s going to be able to get behind us that way’.
‘You’re expecting a siege, then’, I said, before I could stop myself. He gazed at me inscrutably. ‘Sir?’, I added as an afterthought.
‘Very astute, Grenadier Schulte’, he said evenly. ‘Yes, I personally believe there will be a siege. And I intend to keep firing even if we are surrounded’.
He might have realised how frightened I was, because his manner became warmer and his tone more reassuring. ‘We only have two things to think about’, he said. ‘Any ship that comes in to that bay must never leave’. His pointing finger now descended, away from the sea and towards the beach. ‘And anyone who gets ashore down there must get no further’.
In the course of our earlier conversation I’d told him that I was apprenticed to a scale-maker, making steelyards and balances. He remarked that it was a skill that might prove useful. Now, as we parted, Ohmsen told me to report to the No.1 blockhouse at seven the next morning, to demonstrate some scale-making and to return his heirloom.
I did not dare ask what he was talking about, but when I came out of the bath-house an hour later, I found a freshly-laundered uniform. Wrapped in the jacket there was a little silver flask. It was filled with brandy.
The Guns Up Close [John]
Fritz had never seen the big guns at close quarters before. He had spent all of his time at Crisbecq labouring on casemate construction, interspersed with some training in handling munitions and small firearms practice.
Now that he was inside the No.1 casemate, the first thing Fritz noticed was the paint-marks on the lintels and columns. The reason for them turned out to be elaborate. The crews had discovered that the K52s couldn’t be loaded with the barrel inclined upwards, in the attitude for long-range firing. The gun had to be brought nearly horizontal before the heavy shells could be pushed up the slope into the chamber.
This meant that the guns had to be retargeted every time they were fired. The marks were used to restore the gun to its datum. Ohmsen wanted Fritz Schulte, the apprentice scale-maker, to devise a more reliable method.
The date was 2nd June 1944, Fritz’s seventeenth birthday, although he pretended it was his eighteenth. His new commission was destined to be a short and unfinished one. That evening Fritz opened his mail, the last he would receive for a long time, and found that among his cards was one for Walter Ohmsen. Whoever it was that checked everyone’s letters for espionage had presumably consolidated the birthday greetings carelessly. The message in Ohmsen’s card conveyed best wishes for June 7th. It would turn out to be an even more fateful birthday than Fritz’s own.
Walter Ohmsen was good at communications: Prior to his command at Crisbecq, he had been Chief Instructor in telemetry at the marine artillery school of Sassnitz. By D-Day, the telephone links around the entire St Marcouf battery were extensive and reliable. The Americans never realised that the Azeville and Crisbecq gun crews could maintain a continuous conversation, and that more than twenty field scouts could talk to one or both. This is why the targeting of the guns was so relentless and uncannily accurate. All of the infrastructure was down to Ohmsen’s knowledge and direction.
He was a navy man, as were all of the elite gunners on the invasion coast. He had joined up in April 1929, at the age of seventeen. His wide experience lead him to adopt a practice learned from bitter experience in the U-boat pens of La Rochelle. Huge nets made from steel cable spanned the inside of the roofs of Ohmsen’s casemates, so that spalled concrete broken out by heavy bombardment would not ricochet around the interior.
Terms of Engagement [Mick]
John Alderman drains the last of his first pint and reaches for its successor.
‘Cheers’, he says, ‘but you have to admit that the guy was a committed Nazi. All the other sources paint him as a misfit who likes technology more than people, while Fritz speaks of him a tactical genius and a man of honour. Do you think that the petrol-bomb, for example, was honourable?
I try my best to sound scholarly. This is authentic history, not the comics of my schooldays.
‘The Americans started it’, blurts the petulant schoolboy. The doctor looks a little disappointed.
‘You’re not saying Fritz was lying?’ I continue, hopefully.
‘Oh no. He wasn’t lying’, says the other man. He draws a battered German-style playing card from his wallet. It’s the King of Diamonds.
An attack on the Crisbecq battery from the south or east necessitated the scaling of steep cliffs. From the north and west, the approach was over level ground. Rommel specified the construction of a minefield, and Ohmsen supervised the work. As usual, he did a thorough job.
There was a single road through the minefield, and this was cut through by a deep trench, itself mined. A steel bridge spanned the gap, but it was pivoted on the Crisbecq side and could be winched upright to create a wall.
The minefield itself was the widest on the whole Normandy coast. It ran between two prominently-marked fences, around 200 metres apart. Kattnig mocked the layout, saying that the whole St Marcouf battery had been promised sufficient mines only for a 50 metre deep field. Ohmsen replied that he knew this very well, and that he would lay his share along the outer perimeter. The remaining three-quarters of the mines were imaginary, but they would still be effective, because the imagination was in the minds of the enemy.
The Day Before [John]
On Monday 5th, the weather was stormy. The garrison had been set at battle stations, because of the high tide at dawn. When the invaders did not come, Ohmsen decided that it was time for more firing practice, bombers or not, and the range-boat set out into the bay.
The ranging trials went well, but before nightfall the alarm was raised. For the next eight hours, more than a hundred aircraft bombarded the Cherbourg peninsula and St Marcouf’s share of the payload for was around 600 tons of high explosive. Fritz and his comrades had no chance to sleep. Several of the concussions were terrifyingly close, and at about 4 am the sirens began to wail once more. This time, though, they were not giving directions to take cover. It was the call to stations that sounded, and D-Day had begun.
It would be some hours before the defenders of St Marcouf knew it, but their assailants were American and the battery stood at the western extremity of a sixty-mile chain of beach-heads. Ten miles to the East, the US Army encountered disaster and carnage on Omaha Beach. The strand that extended eastwards right below the Crisbecq promontory was code-named Utah, and it could hardly go worse than its neighbour. There was still chaos, though. Most of the landing craft came in hundreds of yards from their intended landfall, and the withering fire from the bluffs was less effective than at Omaha partly because the assault was so dispersed.
For the first few hours, none of this held any interest for Oberleutnant Walter Ohmsen. His targets were out there in the bay and his three main guns were still intact, including the one in the half-built third casemate, substantially open to the sky.
By around 6 am, all three K52s had been cleared of debris resulting from the night’s bombardment, and each was test-fired at longer range targets over the course of the next few minutes. Among several warships in close proximity within the bay, one was already firing at the battery itself. Ohmsen identified it as a light cruiser, though in fact the USS Corry was a destroyer. Just after 6.30, all three K52s at his disposal fired on the ship at under four miles range – point blank in Crisbecq artillery terms. The salvo of three shells hit the Corry midships almost simultaneously, breaking its back in a violent explosion. It sank within minutes, with the loss of 24 of its crew. This was the only sinking of a warship on D-Day itself. The Allies were determined not to acknowledge the threat posed by Crisbecq, for fear of affecting morale. The official record, though widely discredited, still cites the Corry as being the victim of a sea-mine.
Opening of Hostilities [Fritz]
The first day of fighting, D-Day itself, is a haze in my memory. I remember the relentless bombardment of our positions, and I remember the frustration when the ships stood off, just outside our angle of fire. The casemate construction meant we could swing the guns through about 120º, whereas the K52 pivoting on its base in the open could turn through more than 150. At one point, we decided to fire with the No.2 gun barrel actually bearing against the edge of the slot. We missed, and a huge chunk of concrete rattled around the casemate. We didn’t try that again.
We had poor sightlines to the beach too. On that first day, it was mainly from Azeville that we bombarded the landing area. The machine gun nests on the bluffs kept the Americans pinned down most of the day. We were getting radio reports of a total massacre heading out eastwards right over to Vierville, and we were elated and sure we were winning. We heard nothing about the fighting further east still, or the fact that the British were already pouring inland around Arromanches. We never heard and never guessed the width of the front, or how colossal the Allied force was.
Day One [John]
Fritz and his comrades could not know it, but the commanders of the 4th Infantry Division had expected to overrun the St Marcouf battery before nightfall on D-Day. As things turned out, the most advanced units barely cleared the beach, and were concentrated two kilometres east of their intended position. The eventual breakthrough at Utah owed much to the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, but the first wave in the Crisbecq vicinity by the 101st sustained severe losses. The overall casualties were worse on and behind Utah Beach than on either of the British beaches or the Canadian one, and the progress was slower too. The first day of the battle in this sector was an effective stalemate.
The defenders of St Marcouf suffered one major setback on D-Day itself. At around 4.30 pm, the No.3 gun in its incomplete casemate took a direct hit from a naval round. Many of its crew were killed, and the gun was disabled. At some point in the day, Walter Ohmsen sustained a severe shrapnel injury to his left arm, and it is possible that he was in the vicinity of the No. 3 gun when it was hit.
As the light failed, both sides took stock. Although the German forces had fought tenaciously right across the Western sector, their problem was that a small number of breaches in the defensive line would now be sufficient to ensure their defeat. On Utah Beach specifically, the securing of a single one of the planned exit routes (the so-called ‘Exit 2’) meant that the Americans now had an option of steadily moving all their forces inland through one gap. The Germans had no effective way to attack it, since the Allies enjoyed near-total air supremacy. The penetration in the Eastern sector meant that the speed of the advance was no longer absolutely critical further west. The paratroopers already held inland targets including St. Mere Eglise, and back on the beach itself there were already significant numbers of tanks and armoured vehicles.
The attrition of the German light artillery was severe too. The naval guns in casemates survived the bombardment from the sea, as did many of the machine gun nests that were too small to target. Almost everything of intermediate scale, though, had been knocked out by the end of D-day. In particular, two 105 mm pieces stationed between the two batteries were lost, and so were all but one of the six local anti-aircraft emplacements.
The only threat to a gradual and relentless push inland was the artillery of the St Marcouf battery. From now on, therefore, Crisbecq and Azeville would be major strategic targets for the Allies. Ohmsen’s anticipated siege was already becoming a reality. The mission of the gunners of Crisbecq was now very simple: to maintain their threat for as long as possible.
I saw Ohmsen again on the morning of the 7th June. A sense of bewilderment had descended over the battery. Every few minutes, the ground shook as the relentless naval bombardment continued. We just went through our surreal routine over and over, taking shells from their boxes and manhandling them onto the little bogie that carried them the hundred feet or so to the No.1 blockhouse. It was only a matter of time, it seemed, till the munitions bunker took a direct hit. Few of us doubted that when that happened, we would all be blown to Kingdom come.
He appeared as if by magic in the bunker, called a few men together and calmly asked if there was anything we needed. Someone asked the obvious question: what would happen when they found our range? “Nothing”, said Ohmsen, with an air of slight annoyance. “Because we built it properly”. He then proceeded to ask a series of outrageously banal questions, like where we were putting the empty boxes.
By the time Ohmsen left, we had two teams, one handling the shells and one stripping down the shell-boxes and stacking the timber. Every hour from that time on, we changed over. We had no idea why we were stacking the timber, but no-one doubted that Ohmsen would tell us soon enough. Somehow, the whole crazy and terrifying enterprise became tolerable again.
He spoke to me directly at the foot of the steps. “Good morning, Schulte”, he said. “If you think it helps, you should have these men take a look at the ground above. They would then see that the bunker is well-tested and that you’ve already taken three or four direct hits. On the other hand, it’s hot and dangerous up there, and the sight of the craters might demoralise as much as inspire. I therefore leave the matter to your good judgement”.
I thanked him and wished him a happy birthday. He replied curtly and courteously, turned and left, leaving me annoyed that this strange and wonderful man had no interest in finding out how I knew when he was born.
Ohmsen’s second-in-command, Leutnant Grieg, was also learning fast. Grieg was assigned the job of fighting on the ground, and led a detachment of more than a hundred grenadiers. By the morning of the 7th, they were out beyond the minefields, some of them defending the Azeville road. They did not yet see much action. Although many Americans had already moved up beyond the beach, most were immediately turned eastwards in a deployment supporting their beleaguered colleagues on Omaha.
The rest of Grieg’s men were hunting paratroopers. They soon became aware of a prominent sound, which they took at first to be the croaking of frogs. Soon after that, an American airman was captured, and he was operating a hand-held clicker that made the strange noise. Grieg guessed that it had been issued for use as a co-ordination device. He spent the rest of the morning operating the clicker, pinpointing the answering call and rounding up the paratrooper sending it.
Ohmsen was not pleased by the sudden need to supervise twenty prisoners of war. After collecting their names and numbers and confiscating their boots, he locked them in the strongroom with a reasonable supply of bread and water, a couple of chamberpots and a pack of playing cards. He brought this last concession for the prisoners personally, but they were abusive, and so he theatrically removed one of the playing cards, slipped it into his pocket before tossing them the pack, and bolted and padlocked the door behind him.
At around midday on 7th June, Ohmsen delivered orders to the gunners and munitioners. They were characteristically simple, and they were to stand until further notice. No.1 gun was to fire on the beach area at ten minute intervals, day and night. No.2 gun was to fire on offshore targets every twenty minutes in hours of daylight.
The difference in rate of fire reflected the stock levels of shells in the respective bunkers. The targets reflected the priorities. Some of Crisbecq’s firepower was to be directed towards the sea, to prevent deployment of the Allied guns at close range. The bulk of it needed to be used to disrupt and delay the American infantry advance for as long as possible.
Ten minutes was about the fastest sustainable firing frequency from a K52 piece. If it was kept up, the Crisbecq battery would run out of ammunition some time in the early hours of 11th June. By then, Ohmsen must have known, the wider battle would be over one way or another.
Firing by the clock like this was typical of Ohmsen. His reasoning, though not recorded, can be guessed. A brisk, metronomic discipline would concentrate the minds of both his own men and the enemy. On the German side, it would focus everyone fully, leaving no time to contemplate their plight. Down on the beach, it would be a demoralising reminder that the defenders were in control, and that the furious and sustained barrage against the Crisbecq battery was having no effect whatsoever.
If you want to get an idea of the size of the K52 guns, you could do worse than look at the main spindle of the London Eye. The length, diameter and weight are not very different. The construction method, comprising several forged steel tubes flanged together, also has similarities. The manufacturer, Skoda, is the same in each case: According to some accounts, in fact, both assemblies were turned and bored on the very same lathe.
It’s a small world.
The first direct ground assault against Crisbecq took place at dusk on the 7th. A tank equipped with mine-busting flails came through the remains of the wood behind the battery, and ploughed a path some fifty metres beyond the fence before being disabled by a mine exploding underneath.
The tank crew were unaware of the reconfigured 40 mm anti-aircraft cannon that had been trained on them throughout their advance. It was hidden under the mound of barbed wire that encircled the No.1 casemate, inside a roughly-constructed igloo of steel plate. Grieg had ordered the gunner to hold fire unless and until the tank cleared the mined area, and now the crew climbed out and fell back along the path they had cleared.
The outcome was very satisfactory for the defenders of Crisbecq on two counts. The method of assault would not be lightly tried again, because it appeared to have failed only a quarter of the way across the minefield. In reality, though, the American tank had all but broken through. A night-time sortie proved that the killer mine had been the very last one, and so now there was a secret escape route from the Crisbecq battery.
First Blood [John]
The direction of the assault of the next day, Thursday 8th, was predictable. This time the Americans would scale the cliff, and group just below the brow of the ridge, before attacking the No.1 casemate from the front. Ohmsen had positioned a heavy machine gun inside the casemate at the sea-ward end of the slot for this eventuality. It even incorporated a periscope, allowing it to be aimed and fired without exposing the operator. A side attack was deterred by a combination of barbed wire and mines dug into the coastal path.
The first wave of the 4th Infantry came just before dawn, seconds after the gun had fired down onto the beach. The defenders were ready. The gun crew were under instruction to watch out while the barrel was being lowered in preparation for reloading. At any sign of movement in the scrub at the cliff edge, the travel was to be reversed. The biggest disaster that could befall Crisbecq would be a grenade tossed down the muzzle of that gun.
The American troops burst out of their cover only 100 metres in front of the casemate. The machine gun opened up instantly, the vanguard was cut down, and the followers retreated. About twenty minutes later, however, they came again and this time the attacking force was much stronger. Although dozens were again shot down, and others became entangled in the wire, some got through and climbed onto the roof of the No.1 casemate. A Bangalore torpedo was forced through an aperture, releasing a fireball inside the gun control room at one end of the blockhouse. Ohmsen’s response was the action for which the battle for Crisbecq is most famous.
The telephone call was pre-planned, like nearly all of the Crisbecq commander’s tactics. It needed only an agreed codeword and the Azeville battery was already on alert. Within seconds, the Americans atop the battery were blown to pieces by the incoming heavy calibre shell, and Grieg’s soldiers were streaming out of the blockhouse to engage the dazed and astonished survivors.
The US Army is still taciturn about its tactical losses during the Normandy Landings, and so the Allied casualties in this exchange, in which the Germans deliberately fired on their own position, are uncertain. The Germans lost three men, burned to death in the control room, with several more injured. The Americans losses were surely very much greater, and their determination to break Crisbecq’s resistance was redoubled by the brilliance of the rout.
The Leader [Fritz]
Ohmsen achieved something remarkable during the siege of Crisbecq. On the face of it, his leadership was doomed. The battery was going to fall sooner or later, and resistance only meant prolonged fear and hardship, and mounting casualties. Ohmsen wasn’t even an attractive character: he was aloof and derisive. He never mucked in.
And yet he had one priceless quality. It was uncanny how he saw everything coming. He was ready for everything that happened to us, and he was unflappable. He was an island of calm among hundreds of frightened men, and they followed him because of it.
I can still see the scene towards the end when I close my eyes. There was nothing intact but those two great blackened casemates, surrounded by bare, scorched earth and charred bodies. And yet men still believed he could lead us out of there. And of course he did.
An Observation [John]
Seamen dread fire aboard ship. Perhaps that is why Ohmsen found the American’s attempt to roast his men alive so despicable. He contrived an appropriate response with characteristic precision.
I was on the night roster in the early hours of the 9th, and received Ohmsen’s plans just before midnight, along with the instruction to send the finished items down on the bogie at 3 am. The plans were neatly handwritten, with sketches, on a sheet of foolscap. We were to use the shell-box planking to make two metre-wide bridges capable of supporting half a tonne in weight, one five metres long and the other two. They were meticulously designed, with abutments positioned to engage with the casemate masonry. As well as the bridges, we were to send a sealed drum of gasoline, with the strap handle prised up so that it could accommodate a stick grenade. Finally, Ohmsen wanted the grenade itself and some cloth that could be used to wedge it in place under the handle.
The first shorter bridge spanned the gap between the gun base and the lip of the slot. The longer overhung the slot and stretched out over the mounds of wire in front of the casemate. It took only a few seconds to deploy them, and it was still dark as the gunners did so. There was no sniper fire, even though we expected that the slot was continually observed. The grenade was fitted to the fuel drum before it was rolled out over the first bridge. Poised at the slot mouth, Ohmsen pulled the pin, and two men pushed the drum over the edge. Everyone dived for cover, and Ohmsen watched through the periscope.
The contrivance could not have worked much better. The drum picked up speed as the ramp slope increased, bedding down into the wire. It continued quickly down the hill and plunged out of sight over the ridge. A moment later, there was a colossal blast and a sheet of flame lit the night. The last of the gorse bushes blazed away, and there were shrieks and shouts in the darkness.
Ohmsen calmly told everyone to be on their guard in case the Americans attempted another dawn raid, and gave the command to resume the firing cycle. He was probably fairly confident that the drum blast had won some respite against ground attack, though, because he then left to get his first sleep in 48 hours.
Azeville Falls [John]
Thursday had been a bad day for the 4th Infantry at Crisbecq, and Friday had started in the same way. The drum blast probably had nothing to do with it, but for the rest of the 9th, the Americans turned their might against the Azeville battery.
Azeville had Kattnig, a good man and an able soldier, but he was not Ohmsen. The Americans knew the layout and defences of the Azeville battery accurately, because the French villagers who had visited it told them. There were no submarine nets and less formidable road blocks. Crisbecq had advantages of location too. Around Azeville, there were no cliffs.
A naval round hit one casemate, causing an interior collapse that disabled the gun within. A Sherman tank broke through and fired right into the mouth of another with its 75mm cannon, killing everyone inside. Late in the afternoon, the garrison surrendered.
An American officer demanded to know which gun had fired on the Crisbecq battery the day before, surely intending to administer a more persistent form of the same treatment. The true answer was the one 165 mm piece still operational at Azeville. The answer he received, and believed, was the gun now buried under the roof-fall. Ohmsen would fight on for a while yet.
Saturday 10th June 1944 was the worst day of my life. They bombarded us all night, and the roof of the No.2 casemate partly collapsed. The nets caught the masonry, but the gun was barely usable any more. There were only a dozen shells left in its bunker anyway.
Somehow the No. 1 gun was kept firing around the clock, but the Americans kept coming in waves, up the cliffs on the east side of the battery. The mines on the path were all spent and the wire cut away. They spilled into the trenches and blew up many of the buildings. They had flamethrowers. We fought them hand to hand, and we held them back. Ohmsen was there, and got shot in the same arm that was already wounded. We must have killed a hundred, but this time our losses were similar too. There was nowhere to sleep that night, except the ruins of scorched bunkers.
After nightfall, a small group of us sat on the edge of a trench and stared at the stars. We all expected to die the next day. Grieg was there, and he was very disconsolate. So many of his men were dead, and he had barely a scratch. He produced a bottle of brandy and explained that Kattnig had given it to him as a birthday present for Ohmsen. We passed it from hand to hand, reasoning that we’d all let Ohmsen down that day, and so drinking his present could hardly make things worse.
I have never been so tired or so dejected as I was that night. The realisation was dawning that Germany had lost the war. All the heroism of the past days suddenly felt utterly pointless. There was death everywhere and no escaping it. The stench of putrifying corpses and burned oil hung on the summer breeze.
Finally I went down to the munitions bunker. There were twenty shells left, and the men down there were mostly asleep. A couple were drunk; another was crying. They appeared to have given up on stripping the shell-boxes, and the last ones were strewn around the floor. I picked up a claw hammer and started breaking out the nails. It was what Ohmsen would have wanted.
After the Storm [John]
Sunday dawned eerily calm. More than a hundred of Ohmsen’s men had died the day before and the ammunition accessible for the surviving No. 1 gun was nearly spent. If the Americans had mounted another attack, Ohmsen might well have surrendered, but they did not. There was no strategic necessity to take Crisbecq any more. Allied forces were coming ashore without opposition elsewhere on the coast, and construction was well advanced on the temporary Mulberry harbour away in the east. The Cherbourg peninsula was cut off and the German forces encircled within it, included those at Crisbecq, could be left to surrender in their own time.
Ohmsen’s left hand and forearm were a serious mess. The bullet had gone through the palm and exited close to the elbow. The shrapnel wound of a few days before was infected too. But there was little morphine left in the field hospital, and so he told them to pour iodine over it all and bind it up.
A Letter [Fritz]
22 October 2004
Thank you for your lovely letter. I am impressed for you writing in German, but I suggest you use English next time. (I hope you do not mind me saying that we have a dictionary for good English, but there is no dictionary for this personal style of German!)
Still, I understanded what you told us about Dr Alderman. If Dr Alderman would like to speak with me, then he can telephone or e-mail using the details I send you. I would be very pleased to tell him what I know and remember about Crisbecq and Ohmsen. I am also very pleased that he has interest to write a book about this fine man and his amazing story.
So far, I have met with John Alderman (not his real name) just once. It was early in 2008 in a London pub, and we enjoyed a couple of pints as we established some writing ground rules.
Dr Alderman is mainly interested in Azeville, as it exemplified the day-to-day relationship between the French and the occupying Germans. Although the Crisbecq material will appear in his book once it is finished, it will be a secondary topic. Hence he was prepared to let me read that material, and adapt it for an Entry in h2g2.
He’s a decent man, and a fascinating one. He is of the opinion that the Entry describes true events, and finds fault mainly with the character of Ohmsen. Only one source lionises the Crisbecq commander, and that is Fritz. As John says, the Entry probably reflects Fritz’s fond remembrance of the defence of Crisbecq more accurately than it reflects reality.
In which case, I’m satisfied. It was Fritz’s memories that I really wanted to record.
Admiral Hennecke telephoned Walter Ohmsen during the afternoon of June 11th. The personal attention of the Supreme Commander of Marine Command at Cherbourg was quite a compliment, particularly since the Cherbourg garrison was itself besieged. After offering his congratulations for the heroic defence, Hennecke ordered Ohmsen to muster his men and abandon the battery. Ohmsen, for all his defiance of authority, agreed without hesitation. He was down to his last few shells, and the Allies were far inland all over Normandy. The battery was now of less use to Germany than men rescued to rejoin the new battlefront. In all probability, Ohmsen was planning to escape that night anyway. He was too practical a man to demand a fight to the death in a lost and pointless cause.
At about 2 am in the morning of June 12, 79 surviving men left the Crisbecq battery and followed Ohmsen straight through the minefield to the northwest, clambering over the abandoned American flail-tank and following its tracks into the wood beyond. Nobody intercepted them, because they took a route the Allies thought impassable. They carried their wounded on rough stretchers, improvised using shell-boxes and sheets. Just before dawn they reached the German lines and the headquarters of the 26th Artillery Regiment near La Pernelle. Ohmsen’s last act in command of the Crisbecq battery was perhaps the most astonishing feat of all.
It took the Americans all morning to pluck up the courage to enter the maze of trenches that criss-crossed the Crisbecq battery. It seemed far more likely that the Germans were hiding than that they had escaped. All that the invaders found, however, was twenty of their countrymen locked in the strong room and prodigious runs of cable snaking all over the site. The battery was evidently booby-trapped.
A week passed, and it was finally accepted that the booby-traps were as absent as the defenders. Ohmsen had merely used his otherwise unproductive final hours at Crisbecq to cause more confusion. According to one account, a note was found attached to the breech of the now-silent No.1 gun, reading as follows:
You know that these are fine guns. Please care for them.
Heil Hitler and Adieu
Walter Ohmsen received the Knights Cross for his part in the defence of the Crisbecq battery. He fought on, despite the injuries to his left arm, and was finally captured by American forces at Quineville some three weeks after D-Day, still in the vicinity of the Cotentin Peninsula.
Another Letter [Torsten]
My father died peacefully yesterday. I have written to John Alderman too, telling him that if there is anything he still needs, I will try my best to find it.
In fact I think that the correspondence was complete just in time. You should both be proud, because father was very happy in the end.
I know we have some different ideas about this, but I want to agree now that what you say about remembering Crisbecq is true. It was important to father but it is also important to us all.
I will never change my opinion that they fought for the wrong things, but after all we have learned let everyone believe that they fought as heroes.
It is 1976 again, very much later in the evening than we said we’d be back home.
“Dinner will be quiet”, grins Fritz mischievously. It will too, and not just because of the annoyance of his wife. The rest of us will be lost in our thoughts.
Three bicycles are on the road as the sun sets and the air chills, heralding a fresh summer night. I catch Torsten’s eye, and wonder that we are here together, in a land where our fathers fought.
I am still young, but I’ve learned something about war on this peaceful day. There were brave men before us. If we listen to their stories, wonderful as well as terrible, we can share their nobility. Once we share their nobility, we might ensure that war never happens again.