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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 their maximum range was no more than a mile and a half, rendering them quite useless against the British long-range anti-tank guns.

The colonel sent five of his tanks ahead: they were to scout up a small incline in order to check the lay of the land. It proved a fatal error, for they were silhouetted against the sky, presenting the perfect target.

"The moment they reached the ridge, they were suddenly hit, one after the other, by British anti-tank fire." Oppeln-Bronikowski had a soldier’s respect for the enemy and would later admit that "the British gunners were better by more than 600 yards at firing." 

He continued his advance with greater caution, but soon found himself facing a bruising assault from the British anti-tank guns.

The Staffordshire Yeomanry troops opened up with everything they had, shredding metal and gouging craters. One shell exploded right next to the tank of his comrade, Captain Herr, ripping away the protective skirt that covered the tracks. "It just swirled up and literally flew through the air." Captain Herr was terrified.

"I had always been frightened of being burned to death in the cockpit of my tank, so I lengthened the lead of my microphone so that I could sit behind the turret."

It was not a wise decision, but it was born of experience. "I’d had such appalling experiences earlier, when I had to extract the [shrunken] bodies of comrades from tanks that had been burned out and put them in coffins that were as little as three-quarters of a metre long."

It was not long before this fate came close. A second shell burst on to his tank, flinging a deadly wave of shrapnel through the air. He felt a searing pain in his lower half.

"I fell to the ground and had to feel around my knees with my hands to check that I still had my legs. Blood was pouring out of me." He would survive, but he was seriously injured.

Colonel von Oppeln-Bronikowski knew he was outnumbered and outgunned. He also knew there was no hope of recapturing the high ground that lay between him and the coast. Dismayed and dejected, he turned to the blood-soaked Captain Herr and asked for advice. Herr shrugged. "If you don’t know, then how on Earth should I know?"

As the enemy fire increased in intensity, Oppeln-Bronikowski’s great panzer advance was stalled and then stopped. Only a tiny unit of grenadiers would fight their way through to the beach that afternoon.

When they got there, they stumbled across a few German defenders still hiding out in a bunker. They represented the last shattered remnants of the Atlantic Wall, a forlorn group of survivors who had yet to be spotted by the Allies.

It was clear that further resistance was hopeless without the support of more panzers. It was also clear that the panzers would never come.

It was clear that further resistance was hopeless without the support of more panzers. It was also clear that the panzers would never come. Colonel von Oppeln-Bronikowski’s tank offensive had been permanently stalled by the brawn of the Staffordshire Yeomanry.

As he dug his tanks into defensive positions in the wet soil, he witnessed German officers retreating from the front line with 20-30 men apiece.

They were haggard and dejected and had defeat in their eyes. He was aghast at the spectacle of his fellow fighters throwing in the towel. He suddenly felt like a broken man.

"I never thought I’d see the day this would happen," he later admitted. It was his D-Day epiphany. "I knew then that the war was really finished."

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Unknown History. In the next episode, we’ll be returning to Omaha Beach to hear how a handful of courageous Americans were able—finally—to break through the German defences.

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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.