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D-Day: The German Opposition

Today, we hear from the other side of D-Day—the German colonel tasked with driving the Allied forces off the beaches. Could the panzer tank division and its colorful leader turn the tide on June 6, 1944?

By
Giles Milton,
Episode #86
German forces retreating on D-Day.

Who was Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski? And why was he so important to the Germans on D-Day? Turns out, he was the only enemy commander capable of defeating the Allied forces on June 6, 1944.

Welcome to Season 3 of Unknown History: D-Day Stories. I'm your host, Giles Milton, and today we're talking about a colourful SS Panzer commander who was tasked with driving Allied forces back into the sea.

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Colonel Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski was one of the great panzer leaders of Nazi Germany, described as "an exuberant, dashing, gay individual" with a noble Prussian pedigree that stretched back to the age of chivalry. War was in his blood: His ancestors had fought their way through central Europe for the better part of half a millennium.

He certainly looked the part, with well-chiseled features, black oiled hair, and an engaging smile. As one of his friends said, he was, "frankly, enjoying the war for the thrills that he got."

Oppeln-Bronikowski had fought as a panzer commander on the Eastern Front and he knew the value of speed when it came to tank warfare. Strike hard and fast, that was how to fight with tanks. He knew that the only conceivable way of driving the Allies back into the sea was for the Germans to hit them with everything they had—including the mechanized and highly trained panzer divisions.

He knew the value of speed when it came to tank warfare...Strike hard and fast, that was how to fight with tanks.

But Hitler had insisted that these panzer divisions could not go into battle without his express command. Since this did not come until after midday on 6 June, the colonel could do nothing but sit and wait while the Allies poured ashore.

He was furious. He considered Hitler’s senior staff to be incompetent amateurs who, he said, "knew nothing of the problems of infantry or of panzers." Nor, for that matter, did he "give a damn about Hitler." 

Like so many noble-born Prussians in the military, he viewed the Führer as an ignorant upstart with little grasp of modern warfare. And now, when clear direction was most needed, the colonel found himself lacking the necessary permission to enter battle with the 127 Mark IV tanks of his panzer division.

Not until early afternoon was he allowed to wheel his tanks northwards, with the aim of driving a wedge between the British troops on Sword Beach and the Canadians on Juno. It was a vitally important operation for the Germans.

If the colonel could split the Allied beachhead in two, it would be far easier for the German forces to pick of the various landing zones, one by one.

It is a curious fact, given the vital importance of his mission, that Oppeln-Bronikowski’s panzers were to receive no additional support for their counter-attack. The Panzer Lehr division, stationed 75 miles outside Paris, was not to receive its marching orders until later that day. The 12th SS Panzer Division was similarly paralysed.

"Oppeln," he said, "the future of Germany may very well rest on your shoulders. If you don’t push the British back into the sea, we’ve lost the war."

It therefore fell to the colonel—and him alone—to reverse the fast-growing catastrophe. The stakes could scarcely have been higher, as one senior general, Erich Marcks, was quick to point out that afternoon.

"Oppeln," he said, "the future of Germany may very well rest on your shoulders. If you don’t push the British back into the sea, we’ve lost the war." The colonel snapped a crisp response. "General, I intend to attack immediately."

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