A German officer came shouting: 'They've landed, they've landed!'

June 02, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- In the army that had already suffered through the blood and ice of Stalingrad, even a raw recruit like 18-year-old Herbert Muschallik knew that the Normandy coast was easy duty in the spring of '44.

By day you trained or built fortifications. You looked out at the empty sea and yawned, wondering occasionally if the Allies would ever come. At night you drank French wine and bedded down in a farmhouse. There were fresh eggs and milk. The locals were friendly. And the air was fragrant with the blossoms of early June.

With the war news from the Eastern Front becoming gloomier every day -- the Russians were still advancing -- a wry punch line set the tone: "Enjoy the war. Peace will be terrible."

In the first hour of June 6, Mr. Muschallik was trudging off to bed, bleary-eyed from guard duty at a post a few miles inland. An excited voice shouted to him. He looked up and saw an officer running toward him across a darkened field.

"They've landed, they've landed!" the officer shouted. Allied soldiers had begun dropping onto nearby fields in parachutes and gliders. Within a few hours, tens of thousands more would wade ashore.

Mr. Muschallik did not know it then, but D-Day had begun. For the German soldiers at Normandy, the time for enjoying the war was over.

The days that followed would bring momentous changes for him and his countrymen.

If the Germans had pushed the attackers back into the sea, the Russians might have swept across all of Germany, putting the entire country behind the Iron Curtain.

But for the German soldiers who met the Allied assault, vivid memories have left little room for reflection on the battle's larger implications.

In retelling their stories 50 years later, they speak not of history unfolding but of personal dramas.

Mr. Muschallik arrived at Normandy on a cattle truck in September 1943, as the Germans began building up the coastal defenses of the "Atlantic Wall." He was 17, a veteran only of six weeks of training.

When the attack came, he was told, he would man an anti-tank gun. In the meantime there was guard duty, training, guard duty and training. He lived in a farmhouse.

"It was a pretty easy life, but pretty boring. We didn't get into the towns much for fun, and when we did, there was a 10 o'clock curfew.

"We didn't think much about whether there would be an invasion. We let the officers do the thinking."

Seasoned Panzer division

By early May of 1944, reinforcements were steadily moving into the area.

Among them was Helmut Ritgen, commanding a tank battalion in the Panzer Lehr Division, a "demonstration division" of the newest weapons and most seasoned veterans.

For Colonel Ritgen, Normandy was a welcome break. He had traveled with the army through its greatest highs and lows, riding a tank in the first wave of the lightning sweep across Poland in 1939, then joining the second wave in the invasion of France that pushed the British Expeditionary Force to the brink of disaster at Dunkirk.

Then it was on to Russia, and the nightmare of Stalingrad.

Life at Normandy followed a pattern he had established a few months earlier after first being posted to occupied France.

"It was very quiet," he said. "The French people were reserved, but very loyal to us. There was no sign of hostility. We walked the forests more or less by ourselves, hunting pigs. People were also nice when we were in the shops and cafes."

By then an Allied invasion was considered inevitable.

"That had been clear since January," he said. "We witnessed every day the [Allied] bombers accompanied by fighters as they passed overhead on their way to targets. We kept our tanks hidden in the woods, and we carefully saw to it that we left no tracks in the open.

"We could not do anything. We were just waiting. We did not know where the landings would take place. But we were quite confident. We had captured France in 1940, and we felt superior to anybody."

Hopes slipping away

But Colonel Ritgen had become fatalistic about Germany's chances. He sensed the last hopes slipping away when his division failed to break through to save the encircled German force at Stalingrad.

Also arriving in Normandy that May was Werner Weinlein, an anti-aircraft gunner stationed several hundred yards from the coast.

He, too, had suffered through some of the worst of the campaign in Russia, where sniping partisans were a constant danger.

France was a relief. Not only was he fluent in French, but he had pleasant memories of an earlier posting in Le Havre, where he had been invited to parties and served generously with wine and crepes.

In Normandy he was busier, digging gun emplacements and moving from spot to spot as Allied reconnaissance planes spotted their positions.

"We got angry with all this moving, saying, 'Damn it, always digging these holes in this stony ground, and now again. Enough.' But later, when the bombers came, it was worth it."

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