D-Day through German Eyes – Holger Eckhertz

I love reading books where the author writes as different characters, giving insights into their thoughts and feelings about the same situation. Always having been fascinated with viewing the same incident from different angles, when I stumbled upon D-Day through German Eyes it was exhilarating to read about one of the most pivotal events of WW2 from the German perspective. Watching movies or reading books where it is always described from the viewpoint of the Allies landing on the beaches of Normandy, it was quite a trip to experience it from a complete one-eighty-degree turnaround.

The book is a collection of interviews conducted by Holger’s grandfather Dieter Eckhertz, a German war journalist writing for the military propaganda magazine Die Wehrmacht. A few weeks before the Normandy invasion Eckhertz had interviewed German soldiers stationed along the Atlantic Wall. Ten years later, he tracked down some of the soldiers he interviewed, as well as others in the same units, and conversed with them about their actions and frame of mind on that fateful day. His plans to publish it as a book were shelved due to his death in 1955, and the notes stayed untouched among his effects until discovered by his grandson and published in 2016. It consists of one soldier from each of the landing sites – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword – recounting their experience of the events leading up to and through 6th June 1944.

Moving from west to east, the first of the interviews is with Gefreiter Stefan Heinevez from Utah Beach, an MG34 gunner stationed in a “Tobruk” style bunker – a small two-man installation that served as a perimeter guard for larger bunkers or installations. Of the five soldiers in the book, he was the only one whose position faced inland instead of towards the beach. This was due to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s insistence that the invasion force would attempt to drop airborne troops behind the lines to cause diversions and disrupt supply lines; Stefan’s job was to defend the quarters where German soldiers were garrisoned.

He describes how in the early hours of 6th June, Rommel’s predictions came true. Utah Beach was the drop zone for the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Troops, who attacked from behind the lines a few hours before the beach landings began. Outnumbered and firing blindly, Stefan killed a few of the enemy through sheer luck, but eventually, the Tobruk and the quarters were destroyed, and he and a few of the survivors fell back to regroup at a second line of defense.

For Stefan, the rest of the day was a series of regroupings as a result of first being bombed by the Jabos – short for Jaeger Bombers – with phosphorus rockets and incendiary bombs and then being swamped by tanks. The numerical superiority of the invading force meant that any defense was momentary and at the cost of large numbers of German soldiers. Wounded in one of the skirmishes, he tells of being given a “soldier’s cocktail” – a mixture of morphine and amphetamine – by the medic. Not all casualties were due to bullets, though; some men chose to desert and surrender to the Americans than continue fighting.

Towards the evening, his ragtag unit reached the fortified lines they had set out for, and Stefan was sent behind the lines for medical attention and recuperation. His war came to an end in July, when he rejoined his division and was taken prisoner when the Americans overran their position. Only one soldier among so many, his glimpse of the beach lined with landing craft held no real significance for him until he spoke with others while convalescing and realized the scale of the operation, thinking of it more as a raid than anything else. As he tells it, “We all used the word ‘attack’ at this stage. It was only later in the day that the word ‘invasion’ was used more widely.”

The second soldier is Unteroffizier Henrik Naube from Omaha beach, in charge of a ten-man MG42 crew at a resistance point, the name given to a concrete bunker overlooking the beach. He recalls that the first time he heard the codenames for the beaches was after the war; for him, the area was always known by its French name, Vierville. As a squad leader, he also has a wider perspective compared to Stefan, which is evident when he talks about inspection visits by Rommel, and how they were constantly “educated” by their officers on the importance of their task of denying the Allies a foothold in France since they would use it to “build up and bring in resources, expand and create a puppet state to harass and blockade Germany itself.”

On the morning of the 6th, Henrik was on duty. The overwhelming feeling among the troops was not of fear or alarm, but of being tired of the tension of waiting for something to happen. The entire beach was under heavy bombardment, and when it stopped and the and the smoke cleared enough for him to scan the beach and the sea with his binoculars, Henrik saw the image that has stayed vividly with him – the sight of innumerable ships coming out of the fog, lining the entire horizon. As he readied his crew for repelling the attack, the naval bombing began.

Henrik describes it as the most terrifying moment of all. The intensity of the falling bombs, the noise, flames, smoke, and shrapnel made it impossible to stand at the gun slits; all they could do was pull down the protective metal shields and wait for it to stop. Direct hits to the bunker caused parts of it to collapse, burying men under the falling slabs of concrete. The naval guns stopped as the landing crafts inched in and began unloading men, which was when the German guns opened fire. A lot of landing craft were taken out, and the machine gunners started strafing the soldiers wading through the shallow water onto the beach. Some of the naval guns started shooting again to suppress the larger German artillery, but the machine guns kept firing until a bunker was destroyed.

The steady firing by the MGs slowed the Allied approach, and for a moment Henrik thought they might be successful in repelling the attack. This thought disappeared the moment the first of the amphibious tanks started appearing, in his words, “I had the impression that it was coming up from the sea bed, that is how it looked to me.” Reinforced by the tanks, the Americans were able to proceed closer to the fortifications, and the machine gunners were given fewer and fewer opportunities to fire back under the constant firing of the tanks. Then, his bunker took a direct hit and collapsed on him, rendering him unconscious.

When he came to, his position had been overrun by the Americans. When discovered by an American soldier, he fully expected to be killed in retaliation for the numerous soldiers shot. To his surprise, he was given medical attention and transported to the beach, from where a prison ship carried him to England. Henrik’s earlier fears of reprisals by the Allied soldiers never materialized; after a couple years as a POW, he was repatriated to West Germany in 1946. He, however, has an interesting observation towards the end of the interview. When asked about his involvement in the fighting, he responds that the Normandy situation was the fault of the Reich regime for involving Americans in the European war in the first place. According to him, the Americans had declared war only on Japan, and if Germany hadn’t declared war on them, they wouldn’t have been here at all. Not exactly an accurate analysis, but interesting nonetheless.

Private Martin Eineg was one of the people Eckhertz had interviewed before the invasion. Stationed at Gold Beach, he was a lookout, and had been described then by Eckhertz as “the battalion boxing champion, tall and widely read”. The real Martin, however, merely liked boxing and had a chronic lung condition that technically classed him as unfit for active service if not for his exceptional eyesight. Eckhertz admits his employment of journalistic license, as Die Wehrmacht wouldn’t have accepted anything lesser at the time. Of all the people interviewed, Martin is perhaps the most well-read and most articulate. His thoughts and opinions are clear and precise, and he also displays a philosophical bent at times.

For instance, his thoughts on the relationship they had with the French civilians – relaxed, informal, even friendly, bartering for foodstuffs in exchange for cigarettes, gasoline, and other items which they couldn’t get otherwise. Due to this, his opinion of the stories of civilian resistance during the German occupation of France is that of victors writing history. Martin is clear about his feelings towards the Allies as well. His animosity towards the Russian was personal, having lost a brother and a cousin on the Eastern Front, and he is more ambivalent towards the British and American soldiers while referring to their leadership as being controlled by ‘international Finance”.

He also talks about the use of the term “United Europe” by the Reich propaganda machinery to euphemistically describe their conquests. The image that the continent wanted to be under one leadership – Reich leadership, naturally – was reinforced through the recruitment of non-German soldiers in the Waffen-SS divisions and that “an attack on France would be an attack on the whole structure”. All this propaganda, however, did nothing to stop Martin from getting drunk in a French pub with his friends on the night before the 6th. As a result, his squad slept through the initial sighting of the invasion fleet and then was sent to the bunkers as support for the machine gun crews.

Martin describes the naval bombing, the landing craft moving onto the beaches, and the deluge of men and tanks that arrived. Talking about his MG crew firing into the British soldiers, he remarks that although he was numb towards the killing of the men, he kept reminding himself that he wasn’t the attacker but the defender. The short-lived defense came to an end with the Sherman tanks overwhelming the German positions and taking Martin and the others prisoner. Apprehensive at first about the British not wanting to take prisoners, he was relieved that they merely herded them into an enclosure before transferring them onto a prison ship, instead of executing all of them as he fully expected them to.

His last memory is of the POW camp in England where they were interned. He recalls the humane treatment of the POWs, and that the threat to his life now came not from the enemy but from his own countrymen – some of the captured Hitler Youth soldiers wanted him to be part of an escape attempt and threatened to kill him when he refused. He was able to get assigned to work outside the camp which got him away from them and allowed him to stay in England for two years before returning to Germany.

The man from Juno Beach is perhaps the one with the most unique role; Oberleutnant Cornelius Tauber led an engineer squad manning the Goliath tanks. These miniature tracked vehicles, weighing in at about 400 kilos, were capable of carrying up to 100 kilos of explosives and could be steered and detonated remotely at distances of a little more than a kilometer. Though primarily used for offense, Tauber advocated a defensive role for them during a beach invasion and was given permission to create a bunker to house and operate the Goliaths from on the beach itself. Due to its camouflaged nature, the bunker was spared the naval bombardment that preceded the landing crafts, but even they could not escape the shockwaves and the flying debris caused by the intense bombing.

From the onset, Tauber’s lofty plans of using the Goliath tanks against the incoming forces fell flat. The tanks needed a clear line of sight for steering, and an unimpeded path to reach their target, both of which were not possible due to the constant bombing; they either got stuck in bomb craters, were shot at and incapacitated, or had their steering wires cut, leaving them sitting ducks. Before they could send out more than a few of the stockpiled Goliaths, their bunker was surrounded by the Canadian forces coming ashore, although the camouflage was effective enough that they were undetected. That changed when a soldier in Tauber’s squad fired out of turn and their ruse was revealed.

The Canadians charged at the bunker with flamethrowers, and Tauber and the other survivors were forced to retreat after overwhelming hand-to-hand combat. Moving to a second bunker, they prepared to stand their ground but were forced to retreat as the Allies countered with Churchill Crocodiles – tanks modified with heavy-duty flamethrowers. Escaping the burning bunker, Tauber came across a squad of SS men with a self-propelled Hanomag and Panzerfausts. They organized a temporary defense along a road and were successful in destroying some tanks, but after witnessing the SS execute the wounded tank crew out of hand, he left them and was able to rejoin his own unit soon after.

The last account is of Second Lieutenant Wergens stationed at Sword Beach, in charge of an MG squad that was part of a large battery of interconnected bunkers overlooking the beach. Wergens mentions being shown pictures of the Me-262 jet fighters and the new U-Boats entering service, along with propaganda pieces of “wonder weapons” just around the corner. As a result, he remarks, the soldiers were eager to face the enemy and defend “Fortress Europe” from the invaders. He describes how on the night before the 6th, just after being informed that paratroopers had landed behind the battery, a burning glider crashed almost on top of their bunker. The soldiers who survived the crash fought back against the troops in the bunker and created a gap in the defenses for the other paratroopers to push through.

Having no idea of the immensity of the event at the time, Wergens treated it as an isolated commando attack and concentrated on keeping the enemy away from the bunkers. This proved futile; the paratroopers disabled the ventilation fans and used the shafts to lob in phosphorus grenades, causing many casualties and leaving the survivors disoriented before beginning a room-by-room sweep up to clean up any resistance. Wergens was in a room with a reinforced underground chamber, where he and the remaining troops hid until the enemy soldiers had gone out of the bunkers. Emerging from their hiding place, they saw that all the guns in the bunkers were destroyed or disabled, while outside there were still some German soldiers fighting off the paratroopers’ rear guard.

At this point, the wounded Wergens was ordered to go to the hospital. On the way, he had his first glimpse of the sea, filled with ships, and the full scale of the attack became apparent to him. Before he could get out of the hospital and rejoin the bunker, the front lines had moved from the beaches to further inland. He was then a part of another battery on the coast of Brittany eventually cut off and taken prisoner by the Americans.

Eckhertz has a simplistic interview style, posing almost the same questions to all the soldiers, allowing the reader a comparative reference. He also follows up every descriptive question with one about what the soldier was feeling at that moment. You thus have not just the situation unfolding in front of you, but the emotions associated with it. It allows the reader a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers, their equation with each other, with the enemy, and with the people whose land they were occupying.

In all the interviews, what is prominent is the attitude of the soldiers toward the enemy and towards the anticipated invasion. They believed in the ideal of “Fortress Europe” or “United Europe” where the entire continent would be unified under one banner and were ready to defend that ideal. At the same time, unlike their animosity towards the Russians which mostly stemmed from personal losses on the Eastern Front, their opinion towards the Western Allies was more lenient, right up to the time they were attacked by them. To some extent, this was due to the success of the Reich propaganda machinery which downplayed the American and British might while building up their own.

A glaring omission in every interview is the absence of any mention of the Jews, or of the soldiers’ feelings towards what the Reich was doing to them. By the time of the Normandy landings, the existence of the concentration camps and their purpose was common knowledge even in the Occupied Countries, which makes it rather conspicuous that questions regarding them, or even about whether continuing to fight after knowing about them were missing in the interactions. Perhaps the omission was intentional, given that only a decade had passed, and German pride was still coming to terms with it.

The book is not without its controversy. Giles Milton, a prominent WW2 historian, calls it an elaborate fabrication, with compelling evidence to support his claim. There are no details to be found of the German publishing house DTZ History Publications, nor of the translation service Sprech Media. Of the soldiers interviewed by Eckhertz, there is no trace, not even in the Bundesarchiv (the German National archives). This could have been attributed to the author changing names to protect identities, but nowhere in the book is this mentioned. While information regarding publications and even magazine covers of Die Wehrmacht have survived to date, nothing can be found about Dieter Eckhertz; the closest search result was of Dietrich Eckart, the man who purportedly was Hitler’s mentor but who died in 1923. For someone claiming to be such a prolific writer of a German propaganda magazine, he is awfully secretive.

This claim is countered by Robert Kershaw, another historian who says that the detailed description of the events and the intimate knowledge of the happenings could only have been known by someone present at the scene. It may be that Dieter Eckhertz was the name adopted by the author after the War for reasons known only to him, and his grandson continued the charade. Whatever may be the case, no matter which side you choose to believe, the fact is that as a book that provides a rare inverted look into one of the most impactful historical events of the War, D-Day Through German Eyes is an immersive read.

2 thoughts on “D-Day through German Eyes – Holger Eckhertz

  1. I don’t think the stories were fake. Perhaps the best way to squish down rumors is not to lead one on a chase by mentioning that fictional names were used. you write effortlessly keeping your biases to a minimum. Will you write my biography when it is time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting theory, although I doubt changing names and not mentioning it would stop the really determined from trying to get to the bottom of it 🙂

      And yes, I hope to have improved a lot more by the time I get to write your biography 😁

      Like

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