Every so often the annals of military history reveal an individual whose grasp of the situational realities seems counterintuitive at best. Step forward Herr Major Bardlenschlager, CO of Panzer Ersatz und Ausbildungs Abteilung 100, stationed in Normandy in 1944.
On the night of 5/6 June, Major Bardlenschlager stood on the terrace of his HQ at the Chateau de Francquetot and surveyed the night sky. Twenty miles to the east lay Utah Beach, and at that very moment over a thousand allied bombers were attacking the coastal batteries which defended the invasion site. In the course of this one night over 5000 tons of bombs were dropped, the largest tonnage in a single raid in the war so far. The horizon was aflame with the detonations of high explosive bombs and hundreds of thousands of tracer rounds as the German AA guns replied. As the explosions and gunfire rumbled in the distance the earth trembled, and the very air seemed to quiver. Bardlenschlager surveyed the scene and pondered for a moment, then he turned to his assembled staff and delivered his professional assessment: ‘Zirkus! Nicht fur uns bestimmt!’ It was merely a firework display attendant on a circus or some other public jollification. Nothing at all for them to worry about.
Panzer Ersatz und Ausbildungs Abteilung 100 was a training and replacement (Ersatz und Ausbildungs) battalion for the Panzer Corps, and was a pretty sweet gig as far as the Wehrmacht went in those days. Formed in 1941 at Schwetzingen in the Rhineland, its officers were mostly convalescents recovering from wounds, and the NCOs were men who had been recalled to the colours after prior service but who were considered too old for frontline duty. In 1942 the unit was moved to Versailles, and the troops spent much of their time guarding the Paris Metro against saboteurs. In 1943 a company of the Abteilung was detached and sent south to Grenoble to lend support to the operations against the Maquis in the southeast of France. But, on the whole, the men of the Abteilung enjoyed a quiet war. When the unit was transferred to Normandy in early 1944, this trend seemed likely to continue. The German Army Command expected an Allied invasion to head for the Boulogne area much further east, and much closer to the English ports. The coastal zone around Caen and Cotentin was still considered a high security area and this had the happy effect of suppressing any partisan activity, thus leaving the men of the Abteilung free to enjoy the Normandy spring.
When dawn broke on the 6 June a party of soldiers set out from Battalion HQ to collect eggs and milk from a local farm, as had become part of their daily routine. They did not return. Later another squad was sent out to find them, but came back without having locating the missing soldiers. They did, however, have ominous news: the countryside was littered with the wreckage of crash-landed Allied gliders and hundreds of khaki parachute canopies dangled from the trees, although not a single allied soldier was to be seen.
Bardlenschlager tried the radio but could not contact the HQ of 91. Infanterie Division, the unit to which Abteilung 100 was attached. He sent out despatch riders, of whom only one returned with the worrying news that Oberleutnant Weber of the Abteilung’s 1. Kompanie was dead, and the rest of the company killed or scattered. Bardlenschlager set off by car for the HQ at Houtteville, a ten minutes drive away, to get clarification and orders. He was never seen again.
The Adjudant, Kleber, finally ordered the Abteilung to go over to battle readiness at 9.00 AM. As a training unit PzAbt100 was equipped with a motley collection of obsolete French tanks captured in 1940. Some of these, moreover, had had their turrets removed to facilitate training or had been converted to run on coal gas. The Abteilung was hardly a first rate unit, nevertheless it was to face the onslaught of the Allied invasion of Europe.
At 8.00 PM on the 6 June, the two remaining companies of PzAbt100 were bought together at the village of Baupte to form a road block across the N803 road to Carentan. There they spent an uneasy night, firing at infantry but breaking off and seeking cover at the first sound of engines.
At this point the Battalion diary becomes fragmentary, and soon peters out altogether. We know that on the morning of 7 June, two platoons were detached and one was sent towards Carentan and the other towards St Lo. It also seems likely that the three tanks destroyed on 9 June by Lt John ‘Red Dog’ Dolan of the US 82nd Airborne Division and his men at the La Fiere bridge were from PzAbt100, as photographs show them to have been two Renault R35’s and a Hotchkiss H-38: the models of tanks with which the Abteilung was largely equipped. On 16th of June survivors of the Abteilung were gathered together west of Bayeaux, given bicycles and panzerfausts (a one-shot bazooka type weapon), and were redesignated as a mobile anti-tank company. From here they gamely pedal off into oblivion; on 7 July the unit was officially disbanded by Army Command West, having been annihilated in the fighting around Caen.
I would not like to leave you with the impression that I consider Major Bardlenschlager either a dilettante or a fool. He was a professional soldier of many years standing and, when he dismissed as merely civilian pyrotechnics the opening salvo of D-Day, I rather believe he knew precisely what it was and what it foretold for his ramshackle little unit. And what else, really, could he have said?