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The first German position to spot the Allied fleet on D-Day

The Crisbecq battery

Modern-day photo of one of the casemates. Note how the entire ceiling collapsed.
(Photo: Author’s own)

Obviously, the first Germans to become aware of the D-Day landings were the ones engaged by airborne troops on the night leading up to June 6, 1944. The first German defender to spot the actual amphibious landing, however, was the naval officer in charge of the Crisbecq battery. It is also known as the Marcouf battery, as it is located in the vicinity of both the hamlet of Crisbecq and the village of Saint-Marcouf. Its construction began in 1941 and was surrounded by barbed wire and minefields. It was built by the Todt Organization, the Third Reich’s paramilitary engineering organization. They used prisoners of war and even hired French workers later for the construction. It was originally planned to hold six 155 mm cannons similar to the ones at the famous Longues-sur-Mer battery. The plan was revised to only four cannons, but more powerful ones: 210 mm Kanone 39s (K39) housed in concrete casemates. They even had to develop bunker model Regelbau 683 (“standard design” in English) for the K39 guns.

The plans of the casemate designed for the K39 guns
(Photo: Pinterest)
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These heavy guns were originally designed in Czechoslovakia by the Skoda company, but when Germany occupied the country in March 1939 they kept it in production for their own use. The Kanone 39 had a range of over 18.5 miles / 30 km and the Crisbecq battery was not only able to cover the entire eastern coastline of the Cotentin Peninsula (where Utah Beach was located), but even reach Pointe du Hoc to the east. While it had a shorter firing range than comparable German cannons, up to three rounds every two minutes, it was more economical to use as the propellant charge didn’t need brass or steel cartridges, both materials being in short supply. Crisbecq provided also fire control to the nearby Azeville battery located 1.5 miles / 3 km away since the latter had no direct view on the sea.

A K39 cannon, similar to the ones at Crisbecq, in action
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

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Additional armament was planned to be a 150 mm gun in an open firing pit and six old, pre-WWI French 75 mm guns repurposed for flak duty. However, only three of the main cannons were in place by D-Day. Two of them were positioned in casemates, the third was in an open position. From April 20, 1944 onwards, the Allied bombed the site regularly but, despite the considerable damage, the battery remained operational. The site was manned by naval personnel of 300 men from the Kriegsmarine and around 100 soldiers of the 709th Infantry Division. The commander of the battery was Oberleutnant zur See (Naval Lieutenant in English) Walter Ohmsen who received his orders from the strategic port of Cherbourg.

One of the guns in the casemate guarded by a sentry
 (Photo: www.marcouf44.com)

In the early hours of D-Day, a group of paratroopers from the 101st U.S. Airborne Division were misdropped and landed in the vicinity of the battery. They tried to secure the site but were beaten back and 20 of them were taken captive.
 
At 5 a.m., the commander of the battery spotted the approaching Allied fleet with the rangefinder, thus becoming the first German to see the armada. His immediate report ran up the chain of command, raising alarms all along the Atlantic Wall. At 5:52 a.m. he received the order to open fire.

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Naval Lieutenant Walter Ohmsen, the commander of the battery a few days after D-Day
(Photo: Wikipedia)

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After exchanging fire with several ships, the battery targeted the destroyer USS Corry spearheading the invasion fleet. At 6:33 a.m. a shell landed close to the Corry and exploded underwater, causing her to start sinking. The ship became uncontrollable and started to circle around. The job was finished by further shots, one detonating some of the ammunition onboard the vessel. 24 crewmembers lost their lives in the battle. The battleships USS Arkansas, Nevada and Texas opened fire on the battery in concert and put all but one of the cannons out of action. The last cannon wasn’t able to reach the ships at sea, so it fired at Utah Beach instead, targeting the German strongpoint Widerstandsnest 5 (‘Resistance nest’ in English), where U.S. troops were already disembarking.

USS Corry sinking
(Photo: Wikipedia)

The Americans set out to silence the battery the following morning, on June 7. The first unit to get there, the 1st Battalion of 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, managed to enter the village of Saint-Marcouf but was stopped by the 75 mm flak guns and the numerous machine guns manned by the battery’s garrison. Among the American dead was Second Lieutenant Preston Niland, one of the four Niland brothers whose story inspired Steven Spielberg’s war movie, Saving Private Ryan. Preston and his brother Robert, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division and was killed close to Sainte-Mère-Église, are buried next to each other in the Normandy American Cemetery.

The Niland brothers (Preston is the second from the left, Robert the third)
(Photo: Wikipedia)

The next day, another attack, prepared by 20 minutes of naval bombardment and a rolling artillery barrage, entered the battery perimeter, forcing the defenders back into their shelters and destroying the last cannon. At 4 p.m., U.S. troops started blowing up the shelters. Seeing this, Lieutenant Ohmsen ordered the nearby Azeville battery to target his own position directly. This suicidal artillery strike sent the American soldiers fleeing, allowing Ohmsen to launch a counterattack which pushed U.S. forces back by three quarters of a mile and to take 98 POWs.

U.S. troops inspecting one of the destroyed 210 mm cannons of the battery
(Photo: www.worldwarphotos.info)

By the morning of June 11, all the guns of the battery were out of service and the defenders were out of ammunition and medical supplies. Ohmsen received an order by phone to break out of the American encirclement and join German forces at La Pernelle around 11 miles / 18 km north of Crisbecq. Leaving behind 21 wounded and 301 dead Germans and 126 American POWs, Ohmsen and his last 78 men broke through and made their escape. On the morning of June 12, the 9th U.S. Infantry Division took the site without a fight.
 
All in all, Ohmsen and his men managed to slow down the Allied progress for six precious days. For giving the first warning of the Allied fleet and his fierce defense of the battery, Naval Lieutenant Ohmsen was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. He fell into Allied captivity in Cherbourg in late June, 1944, but was released in 1946 and served in the German federal navy, the Bundesmarine, at the rank of frigate captain until his retirement in 1965. He died in 1988 in Kiel. The moment he spotted the Allied fleet inspired a scene of the 1962 war movie, The Longest Day, where the startled Major Pluskat of the 352nd Infantry Division sees the fleet through his binoculars from his bunker on Omaha Beach and says “Sie kommen!” (“They are coming!” in English).

Major Pluskat spotting the approaching Allied fleet in the movie, The Longest Day
(Photo: 20th Century Fox)

Later, the site was demined by German POWs. It is said that 12 American soldiers were killed when ammunition stored in one of the casemates exploded sending huge chunks of concrete into the air. After the war, the site remained forgotten for nearly 60 years, covered completely by vegetation. Eventually, a group of enthusiasts restored it and opened a museum in 2004 showcasing the everyday life of German soldiers defending the battery.

The museum of the Crisbecq battery today
(Photo: www.batterie-marcouf.com)

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