Silver Star — The hard way


(5/20/2019)

Part 41

From the accounts of Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek, shared by his son, Glen Palecek

After the D-Day invasion of France at Normandy and the intense battles that followed in the immediate days after, everyone except Hitler and his most fanatical followers knew the war was lost for Germany. In World War I, when this point was reached, Germany surrendered. Now, Hitler refused to surrender. To make matters much worse for the Wehrmacht (German armed forces), they now had a new force to contend with: the French. The Nazi leaders had thought the French were totally defeated, but this was not the case. French resistance fighters calling themselves the Forces French of the Interior (FFI) — also known as the Free French Infantry — now rose up in large numbers all over France. The fact is Hitler and the Wehrmacht had been steadily losing the war for over two years. The Allied Invasion of France was not the beginning of the war — far from it — it was the beginning of the end.

I know many of you readers are interested in the Allied advance from Normandy. Dad wrote a term paper about it, so I will relay some information — but only briefly. I want to get back to Dad’s part of the war.

In his paper, Dad tells of the hundreds of dead horses rotting in the sun, past the Normandy beach. Sometimes, only one horse on a team connected to German equipment would be killed, leaving the other horse in a wild frenzy. Many other horses were wounded. While medics were going around tending to the many wounded men, other soldiers had the task of going around shooting the wounded horses and rounding up the others. French citizens butchered many of the dead horses. Perhaps this is why you can still buy a horse steak at many French restaurants today.

Thousands of bodies of Allied soldiers were lined up on the beach. This included not only those killed at the beachhead, but those killed in the bloody battles inland, as well. They, too, rotted in the French sun before they could be buried. This is what the reporters who landed after the invasion happened saw. The shock and cost of this beachhead was more than they could put into words. Perhaps this is the reason this D-Day still overshadows all the other D-Day invasions.

Inland, French farmers had hedgerows surrounding their fields. These hedgerows were so thick in places that special plows had to be put on Allied tanks to break through them. Everywhere the farms showed the devastation of this war. Not much was left — even the farmhouses had been set on fire by the Germans in order to light up the sky so they could shoot incoming Allied paratroopers.

Inland, the Germans were in danger of being surrounded. History books make a lot out of the fact that as many as 50,000 German soldiers escaped through what was known as the Falaise Gap. Critics site this as a huge failure. However, in trying to escape, the German Army had some 30,000 soldiers killed and 92,000 captured. Knowing that, it’s hard to find any victory for the Germans. As they retreated through a narrow valley, Allied guns lined up along the escape route slaughtering the soldiers and destroying hundreds of German vehicles, even many of those with large white flags of surrender. Long columns of German guns and equipment pulled by horses were strafed by machine-gun fire from Allied planes. I don’t know if there’s any record of how many horses were killed escaping the Normandy area, but it must have been in the thousands. Many American soldiers felt a deep sorrow and pity for these animals because they knew horses were innocent casualties of this war.

Reporter Andy Rooney, who witnessed the slaughter at the Falaise Gap, or Falaise Trap, as he called it, wrote the slaughter there was much worse for the Germans than what the carnage was for the Allies at the D-Day beachhead invasion at Normandy. The 40 German divisions that had defended the Normandy area were now in retreat and disarray.

Meanwhile, the Allies purposefully left a gap in their forces so that they would not shoot each other. Orders were to keep the gap open. General Patton “found” this gap and had his newly formed Third Army race through it. As Patton’s Army raced through the lightly defended areas of France, he claimed he was following the blitzkrieg (lightning war) methods used by the Germans to conquer France. Actually, he was avoiding conflict wherever possible so that he would reach Berlin first and have the glory of capturing the German capitol. Knowing that Patton’s small army would be annihilated if they attempted taking Berlin on their own, General Eisenhower simply cutoff Patton’s supplies, causing his army to grind to a halt. Besides, the Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, also wanted the glory. The Allies already had plans for dividing the city, and so, Eisenhower reasoned, why not let the Russians be the ones to die capturing it?

Now I’m getting too far ahead in the story of this war — let’s get back to Dad. On August 6, 1944, Dad’s 45th-Division soldiers were back at Salerno, teaching others how to do a proper beachhead landing. The training was called the “Thunderbird Exercise,” an appropriate name as the Thunderbird Division had extensive experience in D-Day invasions.

Ships carrying the American invasion force, now called the Seventh Army and commanded by General Patch, sailed north to the French Riviera coast of Southern France. Jim Burns sent me a diagram of the very ship, the USS Procyon, he said our dads were on when they attacked the coast. In this diagram, you can see the Higgins landing boats lined up on the deck, ready for the invasion. (Higgins boats were the ones with the ramp in the front for landing foot soldiers.) General Truscott, who had led the breakout at Anzio, was still in charge of Dad’s 45th Division.

D-Day for the invasion of Southern France was on August 15, 1944. Once again, Dad’s division took the center position, flanked by the 36th Infantry Division to the right and the 3rd Infantry Division to the left.

History books will tell you German resistance was light. However, Dad recalls the many pillboxes disguised as tourist huts, the many mines and machine-gun nests the Germans had waiting. I think it is rather obvious that historians say resistance was light only because American casualties were light compared to the Normandy invasion. I think this has a lot to do with the fact the American invaders in Southern France were so much better prepared. Unfortunately, historians measure German resistance in terms of the number of Allied invaders killed. Those who were there tell a much different story.

The objectives of this beachhead and the Seventh Army forces were to establish yet another front in France and to cutoff the Germans being forced to retreat from Normandy. I’ll save the events of this D-Day invasion until the next episode.

 

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