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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
7-minute read
Episode #86

But attacking the beachhead was no easy matter. To do so, his tanks first had to cross the River Orne, a major logistical feat given that all the nearest bridges had either been destroyed or captured by the Allies.

He had no option but to lead his tanks towards Caen in the hope that one or more of its bridges was still intact. And this is where his difficulties began.

Among those riding alongside him was a 19-year-old corporal, Werner Kortenhaus. Hitherto, Kortenhaus’s attitude to the Allied landings had typified the headstrong arrogance of the panzer elite.

There would be a sharp fight followed by a long bout of victorious celebration.

"In that moment, I had the feeling that we were now actually in the war."

"We were pretty convinced that by the evening we would be back in our quarters," he said.

But as his tank rumbled towards Caen, he got his first inkling that they were facing a formidable enemy. "When we finally reached the top of the rise, we saw huge black clouds in the distance, over the city." Caen was still aflame from the earlier bombing raid.

Kortenhaus was unexpectedly shaken. "In that moment, I had the feeling that we were now actually in the war. It was then that I realized that there was no chance of being back in our quarters that night."

As the gigantic armoured convoy snaked its way through the city’s outskirts, the scale of the destruction became all too evident. Entire buildings had been shattered by 1,000-pound bombs, blocking the streets with massive chunks of concrete. Even Oppeln-Bronikowski was shocked. "A complete shambles," he said.

It took many hours for all his tanks to cross the only intact bridge; they regrouped on the far side of Caen.

Scarcely five miles now lay between his armoured convoy and the sea, but those five miles held a unique geological feature. The chalky bedrock thrust upwards into an escarpment that afforded a fine panorama over the surrounding countryside. Colonel Oppeln-Bronikowski was only too aware of the value of such high ground. It was every tank-man’s dream.

Not until 5 pm was the colonel ready to fire up his tanks’ engines and prepare to do battle with the Allies.

The thrust towards the coast was to be twin-pronged. The colonel himself was to take 25 tanks towards the heights of Biéville village, some two miles from their current position.

Meanwhile, his most trusted captain, Wilhelm von Gottberg, would lead a further 35 tanks towards the high ground at Périers. From these two commanding positions, they would be able to wreak havoc on the Allied forces below.

Wilhelm von Gottberg was the first to move towards the Allied forces, thrusting his 35 tanks towards Périers. But he soon found his advance stalled.

A thwacking explosion rocked his vehicles long before he got close to the high ground, triggering a series of powerful blasts. When it was safe to peer outside, he was aghast to see that 10 of his tanks had been knocked out.

Colonel von Oppeln-Bronikowski was also moving forwards, aware that he needed to get as close as possible to the Allied lines. His Mark IV tanks were equipped with 75 mm long-barrel guns that were deadly when fired at a nearby target.

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About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.