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. Luneburg [Mick] 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. Statistics [John] 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. Arrival [Fritz] 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. Preparation [John] 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. Credentials [John] 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. Defences [John] 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.