“Right for me!”
At dawn on 6 June 1944, from this German bunker on a rise above Omaha Beach, Major Werner Pluskat was the first German officer to see the Allied invasion fleet which he described as headed “straight at me.” During the Normandy invasion, he served as the commander of the artillery battalion of the German 352nd Infantry Division, a scratch division built around a handful of surviving veterans from the 321 Infantry Division which had been torn to shreds during the Battle of Kursk in July and August of 1943 and the subsequent Soviet offensives. *
German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day, based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.
(Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)
“The Longest Day,” an account of D-Day written by American journalist and narrative historian Cornelius Ryan, Pluskat told him the following in a personal interview.
From his bunker overlooking Omaha Beach, Major Pluskat rang through to the headquarters of the 352nd Infantry Division to which his artillery battalion was assigned:
“It’s the invasion! There must be ten thousand ships out here!”
Division HQ: “Which way are the ships headed?”
Pluskat: “Right for me!”
Division to Pluskat several minutes later: “What’s the situation?”
“We’re being shelled!”
“Exact location of shelling?”
“For God’s sake, they’re falling all over. What do you want me to do? Go out and measure the holes with a ruler?”
Pluskat obviously survived the war, surrendering to the Allies on 23 April 1945.
German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day.
In this movie still from 20th Century Fox, Major Pluskat is talking to his division command after intense shelling. Most German bunkers were well constructed and survived Allied naval gunfire.
Unfortunately, the naval guns of the era had a relatively flat trajectory. While battleships could, and did, hit German units 30 miles inland, targets as close as Pluskat’s bunker were harder to destroy because naval guns could not generate plunging fire like an army howitzer. So complete was Allied control of the sea, that many battleships assigned to the bombardment force were able to anchor in a long row in the English channel.
On Omaha, for instance, where very few tanks made it ashore, smaller ships such as destroyers and destroyer escorts closed the beach and directly engaged the German artillery firing from bunkers. There were occasions when the Germans were firing over the heads of the GIs on the beach at Allied destroyers who were firing back.
Naval captains took their ships in as close as they could, scraping bottom occasionally. But the invasion had to succeed. There wasn’t a “Plan B.”
Like most accounts of historical events, there is controversy over Pluskat’s whereabouts at dawn on 6 June. Speculation on a number of World War Two discussion boards suggests Pluskat wasn’t at his post at dawn on 6 June and fabricated his entire story which became part of the historical record and has been repeated a thousand times in various books until taken for truth.
Yet Pluskat did command the artillery battalion of the 352nd German Infantry Division. This division was dug in behind Pluskat’s artillery. The task of 352nd was to defend the stretch of beach known as “Omaha” to the Allies.
And Pluskat’s command bunker was on the heights above Omaha and remains there to this day as shown in the first photo of this post. His battalion did not retreat until they had fired all of their ammunition. So we know that he basics are true.
In an article about D-Day in the German weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, on 3 June 1964, their reporter writes:
“Major Werner Pluskat, commander of four coastal batteries the 352nd Division in the landing section “Omaha” was one of the first who saw the Armada. From his forward command post, he peered through the telescope, when morning dawned and the mist of the night lifted above the sea: The horizon was dotted with ships – ten thousand estimated the Major. The inferno broke out.”
Cornelius Ryan, who wrote the book, The Longest Day, was a well-known journalist of the era and a careful researcher. Born in Ireland (he became an American citizen in 1957) he worked as a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph of London.
Incredibly, he flew 14 bombing missions over Germany as part of his work as a journalist although not required to do so. He also witnessed the D-Day landings as a journalist. It would have been difficult to fool him.
Since Ryan interviewed so many participants in the battle, Allied and German, I find it hard to believe that Pluskat made up the story about himself he told Ryan. Further Pluskat only died in 2002 at age 90 so other German veterans of D-Day from the 352nd Infantry Division had decades to accuse Pluskat of lying. To my knowledge, such accusations were never made.
Ryan’s book is a well-written narrative history of the D-Day. It contains a number of small inaccuracies. However, these are mainly due to his lack of access to records about D-Day which were still classified at the time he wrote the book in 1957 and 1958. But his interview with Pluskat is accurate.
“The Longest Day” was published in 1959.
Sadly, Cornelius Ryan died tragically early in his life at age 54 in 1974 of prostate cancer.
*a fascinating “look behind enemy lines” can be found in the correctly translate reported written for the Allies after the battle by one of the captured regimental commanders of the 352nd German Infantry Division. Historian Stewart Bryant tracked down the original document in German written by the officer. About twenty years ago, historians discovered that hundreds of these documents had been incorrectly translated.
Bryant has translated this German report into English himself and has added valuable commentary and explanations.
You can read his excellent work here:
Comments Charles McCain: Stagg was the considered the top weather forecaster in Great Britain. He was a civilian but during the war he was given the rank of Group Captain and made Chief Meteorological Officer of the RAF.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower aboard the HMS Apollo, a mine layer, on a visit to a beachhead along French coast, June 7, 1944.
(photo courtesy of Eisenhower Foundation)
“OK, let’s go.”
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, giving the final order for D-day, the assault on Nazi-occupied France, June 5, 1944
The greatest invasion force in the history of warfare stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. It was the beginning of a campaign of liberation to eliminate Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and its commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, called it “The Great Crusade.”
Eisenhower gave the final order that put the vast operation in motion in the early morning hours of June 5, as meteorologists predicted a temporary break in the stormy weather. Hours later he wrote this note, in case the operation were to fail. In the statement, he praised the men he commanded and accepted total responsibility for the failure the next day could bring. The only apparent hint of nerves on his part is his error in dating the note “July 5” instead of June 5.
(courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Presidential Papers, Principal File: Butcher Diary 1942-1945). Harry Butcher was Eisenhower’s naval aide.
US Army troops heading for the beaches at Normandy 6 June 1944
(photo courtesy of USA Today)
As this Coast Guard LCI noses into a French Invasion beach to debark it’s load of American troops, a Nazi mine explodes close off its port bow. Exposed to enemy fire in the beach dashes, Coast Guard Coxswain and Gun Crew felt the first fury of German shell and machine gun fire, as well as the blasts of hidden mines. From the Records of the U.S. Coast Guard (RG 26).
“To go or not to go?”
Gen. Eisenhower’s chief meteorologist, Group Capt. James Martin Stagg, made one of the most important weather forecasts of all time. Defying his colleagues, he advised Ike to postpone the invasion of Normandy by one day from June 5, 1944, to June 6, because of uncertain weather conditions….
Stagg — who was actually a geophysicist by training — and his fellow British and American meteorologists were operating without any of the technology and equipment that today’s forecasters take for granted, such as satellites, weather radar, computer modeling and instant communications.
Predicting the exact timing, track and strength of these storms put Group Capt. Stagg and his colleagues under almost unimaginable pressure and conflict… with the fate of the war and perhaps the world hanging in the balance.
Years later, during their ride to the Capitol for his inauguration, President-elect John F. Kennedy asked President Eisenhower why the Normandy invasion had been so successful.
Ike’s answer: “Because we had better meteorologists than the Germans!”
sources: USA Today and The Forecast for D-day: And the Weatherman behind Ike’s Greatest Gamble, by John Ross
D-Day 6 June 1944. A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) wading onto the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach (Calvados, Basse-Normandie, France) on the morning of June 6, 1944. American soldiers encountered the newly formed German 352nd Division when landing. During the initial landing two-thirds of the Company E became casualties.
(Photo by USCG Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)
June 6, 1944
A paratrooper loads for take off in England in preparation to leave for invasion
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)
Pvt Shanklin 501st PIR (parachute infantry regiment) of the 101st Airborne, and a German POW in a posed shot in Turqueville, on the road running East out of Sainte Mere Eglise.(caption and photo identification courtesy of WW2 talk forum US Airborne at Normandy)
On the Western front, the Germans and the Allies usually observed the major elements of the Geneva Conventions but sometimes the Americans along with British and Commonwealth troops shot German soldiers who were trying to surrender or who had surrendered. But many times in the heat of battle, both sides shot prisoners. We, that is the Americans and the British, did our fair share.
“Our tough first sergeant grabbed me and ordered me to take the SS prisoners behind the church and shoot them…They were too much to guard at this crucial point in the battle. He looked and me and said, “Now!”…I turned to the prisoners sitting on the floor and motioned them outside…
I walked them out the door and to the left around the building where I lost no time in firing a round into the back of the man nearest me. Both men dropped instantly…
I fired a round into the head of each one…went through the pockets of the dead men. I came up with several tins of sardines, cheese and hard biscuits that I stuffed into my pocket…”
From Visions From A Foxhole: A Rifleman in Patton’s Ghost Corps by William A. Foley, Jr. (This is the best memoir written by a U.S. Infantryman in WW II in the European Theater and I give it five stars.)
The International Laws of War in Effect
The international laws of war in effect during World War Two had been formally codified by the Hague Convention of 1904 and three different Geneva conventions adopted at different times and covering different groups of people including mariners, sick and wounded, prisoners of war and civilians. All of these have been amended many times or have been mostly superseded by the Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949.
When you watch World War Two movies and the soldiers refer to the “Geneva Convention” they are referring to the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War of 1929. (All of these conventions were signed in Geneva, Switzerland as you might imagine).
The original copy of the first Geneva Convention, the first international treaty of its kind. The official name is the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field”. It was adopted on 22 August 1864
German Landser, their term for GI or Tommy, captured by British troops on D-Day. It appears they are being marched to landing craft. They would have been taken to troopships offshore which had just debarked thousands of Allied troops and end up in the United States two or three weeks later.
Some German soldiers taken prisoner on D-Day, June 6th, 1944, were in the US PW camps within ten days. The term PW was used in the era instead of POW. The Germans were sent to American under an inter-Allied agreement that the USA would take most German POWs and the remainder would go to Canada.
There simply wasn’t room in the UK. Some German troops captured in the early days of the North Africa campaign spent most of the war in PW camps in modern day Sri Lanka, then the British colony of Ceylon. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum).
US paratroopers of the 505th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment) of the 82nd Airborne Division advancing through the contested French town of Sainte Sauveur Le Vicomte the first days of the Normandy invasion.
American paratroopers were trying to advance down a road on D-Day in the face of withering fire from German machine guns. In fighting that morning, the Americans had taken 75 German POWs. They lined them up and forced them to march down the road toward the machine guns ahead of the American paratroopers.
“They (the American officers) were hoping the enemy wouldn’t fire on their own, but it didn’t make any difference to the men on the machine guns, and they opened up, drilling holes in their own comrades in trying to hit the American troopers.
The prisoners started screaming, ‘nicht schiessen‘ (don’t shoot) and leaped headfirst for the ditch, and possible escape, so we opened up on them too…before the shooting stopped they were all dead.”
From Currahee: A Screaming Eagle at Normandy by Donald R. Burgett
“Shortly after the 45th Division hit the beach at Scoglitti, (during the invasion of Sicily) two of its men, a captain and a sergeant, in two separate incidents had lined up and and murdered in cold blood seventy-nine German POWs.
When I learned of these appalling incidents I at once reported them to Patton. I do not believe Patton fully grasped the gravity of the matter, or his moral sense had completely deserted him….he told me to tell the two men to certify that the dead men were snipers or had attempted to escape or something…. I, of course, disregarded those absurd instructions and general court martial proceedings were brought against the two men.
From A General’s Life: An Autobiography by General of the Army Omar N. Bradley.
The reference to snipers is interesting. Both sides detested snipers and neither side gave quarter to captured snipers. Apparently, this was an unspoken understanding.
Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, seen here wearing the five stars of General of the Army, a wartime rank specially authorized by Congress.
There was one person in charge of the Allied invasion of Europe and subsequent campaign to defeat Nazi Germany: General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces. All Allied military forces came under his command with an occasional exception. Most important, Eisenhower was backed by three key men: Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, US President Franklin Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. When he had to flex his muscles to bring subordinates into line, he had a lot of muscle behind him.
The Germans, who have a reputation as organized and efficient, had a command structure resembling a bowl of spaghetti thrown against a wall. In a report written for the Allies after the war and published in a fascinating volume, Fighting the Invasion: the German Army at D-Day, General Günther Blumentritt, who served as Chief of Staff to Herr General Feldmarschal Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefehlshaber West or ‘OB West’ (C-in-C West), wrote about the command structure which I have summarized below.
OB West reported to OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or German Armed Forces High Command), which had operational responsibility for war on the Western Front. OKH, or German Army High Command, had responsibility for the war in the east or the Ost Kreig against the Soviets. While co-located at Zossen, twenty kilometers outside of Berlin, neither organization was allowed to communicate with the other. They had completely separate compounds and bunkers and were known as Maybach 1 (OKH) and Maybach 2 (OKW). wikipedia.org/wiki/Maybach_I_and_II
Under the nominal command of OB West were Army Groups B and G which controlled all subordinate German Army forces in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. (The Military Governor of France and the Military Governor of N.France/Belgium, which had their own special units and security troops, reported directly to OKW by-passing OB West and often not even informing OB West of what they were doing).
However, there was a caveat here which caused the Germans to react slowly on D-Day and it is this: only coastal defense units of German troops in France, Belgium and the Netherlands were directly subordinated to OB West.
Only if an actual invasion occurred, would the German Army commanders in Belgium and France become fully subordinated to OB West. The German Army commander in the Netherlands did not come under the authority of OB West in the event of invasion. He reported directly to OKW. However, the majority of front line German Army combat units in Holland came under the command of Army Group B and not the German Army commander in Holland. Got it?
If this wasn’t confusing enough, the Germans had a shortage of troops but not of Field Marshals. Rommel (seen above on right), the not-so-unbeatable Desert Fox, was sitting around in Germany while the unbeatable German Afrika Korps was being beaten – and later surrendered to the British 8th Army. (Eventually, the entire Deutsche Afrika Korps ended up as POWs in the United States.)
So Hitler sent Herr General Feldmarschal Rommel to France to assume command of Army Group B, which already reported to Herr General Feldmarschal von Rundstedt (seen above on left) in his capacity as OB West. So theoretically Rommel was subordinated to von Rundstedt but all German Field Marshals had the right to contact Hitler directly so it wasn’t clear that Rommel really was subordinate to von Rundstedt and both of them gave orders to Army Group B and these orders often conflicted.
A meeting in Paris in December of 1943 between Generalleutnant (equivalent to Major-General or two star general in US Army) Alfred Gause (who looks to be wearing an AfrikaKorps cuff title), Rommel’s Chief of Staff (at right, pointing at map), with Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel (left) and Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, OB West or Commander-in-Chief, West (center). Oberst (Colonel) Bodo Zimmermann (senior staff officer to von Rundstedt is in the background).
The Luftwaffe’s Third Air Force, responsible for air operations in the West as well as anti-aircraft defense, did not come under the authority of OB West except for matters of coastal defense. Otherwise, they reported to the Luftwaffe commander for France who was in Paris and he reported to OKL (Oberkommando der Luftwaffe in Berlin) which came under the drug-addicated Reichsmarschal Göring who reported, theoretically, to OKW (Armed Forces High Command) but in actuality reported to Hitler.
Even in the event of the actual invasion, Luftwaffe units would not (and did not) come under the command of OB West. That anti-aircraft units came under Luftwaffe command is important to note since these units, often of division strength, were heavily armed with the awesome German 88s as well as all sorts of other heavy weapons. Most of the time, these anti-aircraft units provided direct fire support to German Army troops but this required good relations between local unit commanders since the Luftwaffe didn’t have to take orders from the army or vice-versa.
Marinegruppen Kommando West, (Naval Group West), reported to OKM (Oberkommando der Kreigsmarine), which came under Grand Admiral Dönitz who theoretically reported to OKW (German Armed Forces High Command) but actually reported directly to Hitler. As with the Luftwaffe, Herr General Feldmarschal Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefehlshaber West, could only give orders to Naval Group West on matters regarding coastal defense and even in the event of the actual invasion, OB West could not give orders to Naval Group West. What makes this even more screwed up than it looks is that the Kriegsmarine controlled all coastal artillery units since they were part of the navy.
The Waffen SS, which literally translates as ‘Armed SS’, meaning SS combat troops as opposed to SS concentration camp guards and organized murderers, came under the tactical control of local army commands in the event of invasion. Otherwise, they reported to that weak chinned killer, Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler. (After the war was over, men who had served in the Waffen SS tried to claim they were simply soldiering and had nothing to do with the death camp guards, those men being in a separate unit. The concentration camp guards and murder squad SS men were in a separate unit but men transferred between these units on a regular basis.)
In the event of an Allied landing, the German strategy was to launch their reserve panzer divisions against the Allied beachhead. But, as you might imagine, the reserve panzer divisions came under the authority of the OKW, not OB West, and could only be released to OB West if he asked – which he did when the invasion began – but he was rebuffed.
Oberquartiermeister West, (Chief of Supply and Logistics), who was responsible for supplying the units which would come under OB West in the event of an invasion, reported simultaneously to three different commands, OB West, the Military Governor of France, and the Generalquartiermeister of OKH (Oberkommando das Heer or German Army High Command), all of whom could – and did – issue orders to him. Since OB West had no transport of its own, it had to borrow transport from subordinate army commands. Incredibly, these supply trucks were driven by hired French civilians who were supposed to keep driving while being attacked by Allied aircraft.
If this seems confusing, it is and it was. Herr General FeldMarschall von Rundstedt, OB West, said he had but the authority to change the guard in front of his headquarters, located in a magnificent chateaux northwest of Paris, later occupied by General Eisenhower as his headquarters.
Curiously, when von Rundstedt was dining with his senior staff officers in his personal mess, they all spoke to each other in French.
Sir Alec Guinness as a young officer of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in World War Two.
“That of a very inefficient, undistinguished, junior officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve….,” he writes in his memoir Blessings in Disguise. By May of 1943, Guinness was in command of large infantry landing craft with a crew of twenty men serving under him. “….my own lack of know-how and swift rash judgments hampered the Allied Cause like small but irritating gnatbites.”
As quoted in “The Royal Navy Officer’s Pocket-Book 1944.” Republished several years ago.
(Compiled and with a forward by Brian Lavery, who is one of the best historians of the Royal Navy writing today. I recommend all of his books.)
Guinness had a difficult life. He was an illegitimate child which was not exactly a picnic in those days and isn’t the most cheerful thing today. He never knew who his father was. He had already become famous as an actor by the time of the Second World War. He served as an officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and commanded a landing craft on several occasions.
Guinness as a young RNVR officer in World War Two. He is in the middle of the second row.
Photo from “World War Two actors in Star Wars”
You can read his obit here: