Let’s focus today on the German division which came closest than any other to foil the Allied landing in Normandy: the 352. Infanterie-Division.
FORMATION & TRAINING
352. ID was formed on November 5th, 1943, at Saint-Lô, in France, under Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiß (pronounced Kraiss)’s command. By a twist of fate, the division’s birthplace will also be the place of its first destruction a few months later.
Although created late in the war, it wasn’t as inexperienced as other divisions formed at the same time. All its cadres and a good part of its original numbers were survivors from divisions destroyed in the Eastern Front, especially the 268. & 321. ID. Built on such solid foundations, the division quickly absorbed and trained the thousands of raw recruits, including very young ones, as well as many Volksdeutsche: “ethnic Germans” from Poland, Czechoslovakia or France. Soviet Hilfswilligen (Ukrainians, Georgians, Belorussians mostly) also formed more than 25% of the division.
Slated for deployment on the East Front once completed, the division trained its men accordingly, that is to fight defensively, to expect to be outnumbered and to repel waves of enemy infantry. And in doing so, they were given the appropriate weapon training, especially with machine-guns. Unlike most “static” or second-rate divisions in Normandy, the 352. ID was organized as a full-fledged infantry division, with its organic tank destroyers, StuGs, SP Flak, …
By all standards, 352. ID was the best infantry division in the area … hence why Generalfeldmarschall Rommel managed to retain it in France, under his Heeresgruppe B command. On March 15th, 1944, the division was moved from Saint-Lô and brought closer to the Normandy beaches, to support the over-extended 716. ID. Kraiß inserted some of its battalions among the 716. ones to bolster their resistance, with the others in reserve just behind, and started improving the minefields and shoreline’s defenses in his sector.
Although the movement was spotted by the Resistance and the information passed to London, Allied planners didn’t seem to have taken it into consideration. Thus, on D-Day, when the first wave of American troops hit the beach at Omaha, they expected to only meet light resistance from the “too old, too young” men from 716. ID.
Reality proved otherwise …
BEAST OF OMAHA
At Omaha, everything that could go wrong for the Americans went from bad to worse: the preliminary naval & aerial bombardment fell behind the beach defenses, barely scratching them; the DD tanks almost all drawn in the Channel, and the smoke screen prevented the Navy from observing the fighting and providing support.The men from 352. ID had been trained to fight exactly that kind of battle, and thus held their fire, letting the American landing ships approach and disembark their human cargo on the beach, at 6:25 AM. Only then did they open fire with every machine-gun and mortar they had. The 8-company strong first wave was instantly decimated. Unable to assess the situation due to the smoke, the armada kept sending the next wave, according to the plan, to meet the same fate.
Behind the shoreline, the 352. ID‘s mobile reserve (named Kampfgruppe Meyer after its commander) was, fortunately for the Americans, sent first in the direction of Carentan to meet the threat from the paratroopers when a counter-order sent it the other way, in the direction of Bayeux, to strike the British forces already penetrating inland from Gold Beach. Yet, even with support from the divisional assault guns, this counter-strike failed: Kampfgruppe Meyer was wiped-out, its commander killed and on the latter’s body, the British found a map locating the 352. ID‘s various positions and HQs.
But at the time, such findings proved useless to the Americans from 1st & 29th Infantry Divisions, who remained pinned and slaughtered on the beach. A few attempts by small units, mostly Rangers, managed to find or open exits within the Atlantikwall, but the bulk of the German defenses remained solid and no real penetration inland had been made. Around noon, the situation at Omaha was deemed so critical that general Bradley considered pulling the men out of Omaha, which would have put the whole Operation Overlord in jeopardy.
Up to 1 PM, the German defenders of Omaha were still reporting that the landing was defeated. But from then, their artillery started showing some lack of ammunitions while the Americans kept building up on the beach, despite heavy losses, Bradley having finally sent the third wave to join what remained of the first two. By early afternoon, under Norman Cotta’s impulse, the American troops at Omaha started pouring out of the beach through several small, often improvised exits.
By nightfall, the 352. ID‘s strongpoints still holding the shorelines had run out of ammunitions and had been bypassed. With all the mobile reserve sent against the British, there was no way to reach them. The positions were, therefore, abandoned during the night, most of the men managing to return to German lines.
352. ID lost about 1.200 men on June 6th, about 20% of its strength, although more might have been lost in the failed counter-attacks against the British than on the beach. The Americans lost three times more atOmaha but distributed among two divisions and several smaller units, and from the actions of both 352. & 716. ID.
One 352. ID veteran, Heinrich Severloh, a machine-gunner at WN (strongpoint) 62 claimed in his memoirs to have personally killed 2.000 Americans that day, thus earning the nickname “The Beast of Omaha“, although his claim isn’t regarded as credible.
From Omaha, 352. ID started retreating South, fighting delaying actions in the bocage to defend Saint-Lô. Fielding about 13.000 men on the morning of D-Day, the division had lost over 5.000 (including the losses at Omaha) by the end of June, and 3.000 more by the end of July. It was only kept in line by the amalgamation of units in an even worse shape than its own! But on July 30th, the division was considered unfit for combat, pulled out of the line and moved to Alençon. Barely a week after being placed here for resting and refitting, 352. ID was again in contact with the vanguard of Patton’s Third Army rolling in the wake of Operation Cobra.
Once again, the division fell back, fighting delaying action on the way to Paris and losing its commander, Dietrich Kraiß, mortally wounded on August 4th. Avoiding being trapped in the Falaise pocket, the survivors managed to reach the safety of the Seine river. Reformed in September, the 352. ID was renamed 352. Volksgrenadier-Division and took part in the Battle of the Bulge. Destroyed once again in March 1945, the few survivors were reformed one more time as a mere Kampfgruppe which surrenders in May in Darmstadt.
THE 352. INFANTERIE-DIVISION INGAME
352. ID‘s main asset is its numerous and versatile infantry: Grenadier, veteran squad leaders, cheap Osttruppen & Ertsatztruppen, Stoßtrupp East front veterans as PPShH-wielding assault squads, … It can especially rely on many and experienced s.MG 42 crew to mow down waves of enemy infantry. Unlike in armored/mechanized division, the recon troops are Füsilier, much larger and more resilient squads than the usual Aufklärer.
In phase A, although more suited and well supported for defense, it retains some mobile support, from attached Schnelle-Brigade & independent (Beute) Panzer-Abteilung, i.e. Panzer 35R(f) (French R-35 tank) & PzJäger 35R(f) (Czech. 47mm anti-tank gun on a French R-35 chassis).
352. ID slowly grows more powerful in Phase B & C, with some very strong artillery in support. Although its best “tank” is the ubiquitous StuG III G, it can also rely on a powerful and always improving array of anti-tank choices, from Marder II to PaK 43 and even a few attached late Jagdpanther.
Its recon tab also gets improvement, with the attachment during its retreat toward Paris of Sicherungs-Regiment 1 and its SPW 204(f) (French Panhard 178 armored car), including some 47mm-armed variants.