Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

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Sam Wren
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Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by Sam Wren » 20 Aug 2018 05:03

While going through some boxes of material I had stored away, I ran across a copy of Ambrose’s Pegasus Bridge. It had been many, many years since I last read it and decided to read it again. I was quite young and naive when I first read the book and remembered having quite high regard for it, but upon re-reading it, I was quickly quite disappointed at how wrong and dubious, at best, his information related to the German forces involved was. In an attempt to verify the dubious (as opposed to the obviously incorrect) information, I decided to focus on the identification of the garrison as being an “understrength company of the 736th GR” and of the garrison commander being Major Hans Schmidt (about as generic a German name as John Smith which sends up red flags, though could still be true).

Pg. 15 “On the bridge, Private Vern Bonck, a twenty-two-year-old Pole conscripted into the German Army, clicked his heels sharply as he saluted Private Helmut Romer (sic), a sixteen-year-old Berliner. Romer had reported to relieve Bonck. As Bonck went off duty, he met with his fellow sentry, another Pole. They decided they were not sleepy and agreed to go to the local brothel, in the village of Bénouville.”

Pg. 17 “The man who would give that order, the commander of the garrison at the bridge, was Major Hans Schmidt. Schmidt had an understrength company of the 736th Grenadier Regiment of the 716th Infantry Division. At 0000 hours, June 5/6 he was in Ranville, a village two kilometers east of the Orne River.”

There are further references to these people in the book that do not shed any additional light on the situation, so to quote them would be superfluous. Ambrose gives as sources interviews with several people, only two of whom are German and neither belonged to 716.ID (Heinrich Hickmann & Hans von Luck). He further states “My information on Private Helmut Romer comes from a note Romer sent John Howard, from a POW cage, in late 1945, after reading about Howard and the coup de main in a newspaper. Private Vern Bonck’s story I got from Wally Parr. Major Schmidt’s story came from various British, German and French sources.”

I have many sources that cover D-Day, some specifically related to the Airborne operations and reviewed all that I could find:

Primary Sources:
T-315 Roll 2260 & 2261, 716.ID - no mention that I found
British War Diaries:
WO 171/258 - 1 Corps 'G', Jan-Jul 1944 - no mention
WO 171/410 - 3rd Inf Div 'G', Jun-Aug 1944 - no mention
WO 171/425 - 6th AB Div 'G', 1944, Appx A, 6 Airborne Div Int Summary No 1, 6.6.44: "The Brs were held by 16 men from MERVILLE belonging to a coy of 716 Div…3 Coy I Bn 736 Gren. Regt MERVILLE 1578…"
WO 171/595 - 5th Parachute Brigade HQ: "0400 - LE BAS DE RANVILLE occupied by 12 Para Bn (Str approx about 2 coys) PWs from 736 Gren Regt taken."
WO 171/1239 - 7th Parachute Battalion - no mention
WO 171/1245 - 12th Parachute Battalion - no mention
WO 171/1246 - 13th Parachute Battalion - no mention

Secondary Sources:
Gale. With the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy. 1948 (no mention)
Air Ministry. Airborne Forces. 1951 (no mention)
Otway. Airborne Forces. 1951 (no mention)
Seth. Lion With Blue Wings. 1955 (no mention)
Chatterton. The Wings of Pegasus. 1962 (no mention)
Ellis. Victory in the West, Vol. I. 1962 (“The German officer in charge of the bridge defenses drove up in a car and was taken prisoner; other prisoners taken came from the 736th GR…”)
Crookenden. Drop Zone Normandy. 1976 (“…while the bridges at Benouville were garrisoned by a detachment of the 736th GR.”)
Anonymous. By Air to Battle. 1978 (no mention)
Johnson & Dunphie. Brightly Shone the Dawn. 1980 (no mention)
Lloyd. The Gliders. 1982 (no mention)
Wheldon. Red Berets into Normandy. 1982 (no mention)
Hastings. Overlord. 1984 (no mention)
Norton. The Red Devils. 1984 (no mention)
Ambrose. Pegasus Bridge, June 6 1944. 1985
Devlin. Silent Wings. 1985 (no mention)
Hinsley. British Intelligence in the Second World War, Vol. III, Pt. 2. 1988. (no mention)
Vaughan. All Spirits. 1988 (“…understrength Company of the 716th GR…commanded by Major Hans Schmidt.”)
Harclerode. Go To It! 1990 (no mention)
Harclerode. Para! 1992 (no mention)
Shannon & Wright. One Night in June. 1994 (no mention)
Edwards. The Devil’s Own Luck. 1999 (no mention)
Shiletto. Pegasus Bridge, Merville Battery. 1999 (mention of Helmut Romer & Maj. Schmidt - cites Ambrose)
Pine-Coffin. The Tale of Two Bridges. 2001 (no mention)
Bernages. Red Devils in Normandy. 2002 (“50 Germans” - cites Ambrose; “Helmut Roemer (of 3/716)”)
Howard & Bates. The Pegasus Diaries. 2006 (no mention)
Barber. The Pegasus and Orne Bridges. 2009 (no mention other than Maj. Schmidt being officer in charge of bridge.)
Barber ed. Parachute Doctor. 2012 (no mention)
Chazette et. al. Atlantikwall: Gold-Juno-Sword. 2013 (no mention)
von Keusgen. Pegasus-Brücke und Batterie Merville. 2014.
Pg 12: “Obersoldat Helmut Römer, Angehöriger der 4. Kompanie des Grenadier- Regiments 736.” (Obersoldat Helmut Römer, member of 4./Grenadier-Regiments 736)
Pg 12: “Der Bataillonskommandeur war Major Hans Schmidt, der sich in einem Privathaus im 1,3 Kilometer von der Kanalbrücke entfernten Ranville einquartiert hatte.” (The battalion commander was a Major Hans Schmidt, who was quartered in a private home in Ranville, 1.3 kilometers away from the canal bridge.)
Stewart. Caen Controversy: The Battle for Sword Beach 1944. 2014. (“…commander of the bridges, a Major Schmidt…the bridge garrison had only numbered about 16 men from 736 Gren based at Merville.” Pg. 67)

The positional overlay for units of 716.ID (found in Canadian AHQ Report 41 - The German Defences in the Courseulles-St. Aubin Area of the Normandy Coast & originally Appx 3 to the combat report for June 6 submitted to H. Gr. B by Lt. Gen. Richter) shows the locations of the Bn. HQ & Kompanies of I./GR 736:
HQ I./GR 736 = East of Colleville
1./GR 736 = Franceville
2./GR 736 = NE tip Riva Bella
3./GR 736 = Merville
4./GR 736 = NE Colleville

While there are conflicting claims on the Kompany number in the secondary sources, the available consensus does agree that the Kompany was located in Merville, so it is reasonably certain that it was the 3./GR 736 (not 4./GR 736 as stated by von Keusgen) that provided the garrison for the Benouville/Ranville bridges. However, the garrison did not consist of a full Kompany, but rather, as Römer calls it, a half-platoon of 18 men (though it is not clear if a full platoon provided the garrison for both bridges with half at one and half of the other or if the “half-platoon” referred to by Römer provided the garrison for both).

The identity of Major Hans Schmidt is much more questionable. According to von Keusgen “The then 18-year-old soldier Helmut Römer came from Hilden in Nordrheinwestfalen and was of the low rank of Obersoldaten and a member of said 4th Company. The battalion commander was Major Hans Schmidt, who had lodged in a private house in Ranville, 1.3 kilometers from the Canal Bridge.” But later, on the same page, he states (quoting Römer): “Our platoon commander was Feldwebel Gregor Ackermann. There were no officers in our platoon; all orders came from Merville.” This contradicts the presence of a commanding officer in Ranville. Even more problematic is the fact that the HQ for I./GR 736, to which 3./GR 736 belonged, was located East of Colleville on Hill 20 and, according to POW interrogations (including that of Hauptmann Gundlach), the CO of I./GR 736, Major Wallrabe, was actually absent due to sickness, leaving Hauptmann Gundlach as acting commander.

That a German officer was wounded and captured at the Bénouville bridge seems to be highly likely due to multiple witness reports of this happening, but he was not the garrison commander, nor the commander of I./GR 736 nor of any other nearby formation that I have been able to identify. Does anyone else have any idea who this Maj. Schmidt was?

Artee
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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by Artee » 26 Aug 2018 10:20

Sam

Good stuff. I’ve seen most of the sources you’ve quoted above, however here's some more info to be added:

From FMS_B-621-716 Infanterie Division to 23Jun44 by Wilhelm Richter (OC 716 Inf. Div.)… “detachment” at the bridge “consisted of about 1 sergeant and 10 men.”

From Neil Barber’s The Pegasus and Orne Bridges: Their Capture, Defences and Relief on D-Day: "The bridge was garrisoned by around twenty Germans along with several elderly Frenchmen who were paid to perform minor duties such as acting as extra unarmed guards. The were known as Hilfsgendarmerie and were identified by a green brassard bearing their title in black."

These two Frenchmen have apparently been identified as Auguste Delauney (67) and Alexandre Sohier (74) – both were apparently killed during the assault.

Regards the identity of the German unit at the bridge…Back in December2014 this particular topic was raised on WW2 Talk Forum. The POW card of Private Helmut Römer was posted by user “CEE” on WW2 Talk. Someone on the forum made some comments about info on that POW Card…

“On it there is a tantalising clue which appears to be the confirmation of which German unit was at Benouville...
Below the line “Battn, Coy, Squad, Btty” is the hand written info: “3./I”. The interpretation is… 3 Kompanie / I Bataillon.”

The same someone also said…

“Regards Major Schmidt I have suspected for a very long while that he was either a. the OC I Bataillon GR736, or, b. Made up by Stephen Ambrose! (the name Major Schmidt is too much like Major Smith for me).”

Conclusions (from ALL the available info, including yours)… The ‘garrison’ covering both the lifting bridge over the Caen Canal at Benouville (aka Pegasus) and the swing bridge over the Orne River (aka Horsa) was made up of about half a platoon from 3 Kompanie of I/736, plus the two attached men of the Hilfsgendarmerie. The HQ of 3 Kompanie was located in Merville Franceville Plage, whilst it’s parent battalion, I/736, which covered both sides of the Orne, had it’s HQ at WN14 (aka SOLE).

Major Schmidt remains a fictional being thus far….

Regards
Artee
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Charles Steiner
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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by Charles Steiner » 09 Sep 2018 20:00

Hello Sam,

Stephen Ambrose might have contributed a lot when it comes down to recording a lot of allied testimonies of the Invasion and the aftermath, but when it came to recording the Invasion experienced by the other side of the hill, he did a rather poor job... What is clear is that Ambrose didn't know much of the different grades of the German Wehrmacht and he didn't bother to write down the correct grades of the interviewed German veterans.

Although he is considered as a credited historian, I have to say that Stephen Ambrose has a lot of flaws: I have a lot of respect for what he did, but he also made a lot of mistakes and his work on the Pegasus Bridge is one of them... Not one of his best historical works, I must say... as it contains a lot of historical inaccuracies...

While reading an article by the french historian Paul Cherrier (who was in contact with Helmut Römer), I came across some possible answers for you...

Obergrenadier Helmut Romer was transferred in autumn 1943 to Gren.Rgt. 736 , where he first did his service at the Château de Caen. His first company is not known. Just before Christmas 1943 he was transferred to an unknown company in III./Gren.Rgt. 736. In february 1944 at the latest, he was transferred again to 3./Gren.Rgt. 736 and was stationed at the Pegasus bridge garrison. Their Platoon commander was an NCO (Feldwebel) and he was in command of the bridge garrison. The garrison was about 20 men strong (among them with certainty two Uffz.).

The Kp.Chef of 3./Gren.Rgt. 736 in the beginning was an elderly officer, who was considered as not aggressive enough, and he was replaced at an unknown point by an Oberleutnant (later on Hauptmann) Hans Schmidt. He was about 30 - 35 years old and appeared to be an Ostfront veteran. His command post was located at the Merville battery and his platoons were scattered between Ranville and Franceville. Apparently the bridge garrison rarely saw their company commander...

Nothing was mentioned in the article about the capture of Hans Schmidt...

Kind regards,

Charles Steiner

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by AHK » 10 Sep 2018 20:44

I had Ambrose as my professor as a freshman through graduate school at University of New Orleans. He had a disdain for all German troops. He claimed the Waffen SS consisted of mostly ex-freikorps men. We mostly argued about German abilities throughout my college experience. He claimed he was an ex-Marxist many times. Anyway, he would invite students for pizza and beer at his house many times.RIP!

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by Sheldrake » 10 Sep 2018 23:36

I have a suspicion that the officer captured at Benouville Bridge was the officer commanding the battery of AR1716 based in Breville and ambushed en route to his place of duty after a night out. The garrison on the bridge was very small.

Stephen Ambrose's Pegasus Bridge does not include any references for the source of his German names. He may be recycling Ox and Bucks old soldier's tales. I never understood how a 16 year old from Berlin was on sentry in a unit recruited from the Bielefeld - Osnabruck.

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by Sam Wren » 14 Sep 2018 05:20

Thanks to everyone for your input. I tend to believe that the identity of the officer wounded & captured at the bridge was a creation of Ambrose's mainly because of the generic nature of the name and the fact that the name first appears in Pegasus Bridge as far as I can tell. I do leave some room for the name being correct (but the rank not: Hauptmann or Oberleutnant is much more likely than Major) mainly because some of the veterans do also refer to him as Major Schmidt. On the other hand, Pegasus Bridge's popularity and influence could have led to the veterans' acceptance of this identify from Ambrose without questioning it.

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by jpz4 » 14 Sep 2018 14:45

I would tend to agree with you Sam. If you do know the rank of your CO but don't know/remember his name, and someone presents one to you as a fact it is all too easy to accept it...
It might be a coinsidence but I find it interesting that no name is given for the "elderly officer, who was considered as not aggressive enough". Had it been I would be much happier (not convinced) to accept the name Hans Schmidt as the later CO.

Unless an earlier source than Ambrose's book turns up I remain highly skeptical.

I've found that in every single famous event on D-day (or shorly after) that I've studied witnesses have been influenced by what had become 'known' about that event. Finding accounts from before the events became famous is usually quite difficult.

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by AETIUS 1980 » 26 Apr 2021 18:45

The name of the "elderly officer" is Oberleutnant d.R Johannes LESCH (RDA 01/11/42), friedenstruppenteil. Inf.Rgt.60. 37 years old, he moved as Abt.Adj der Nachschub.Abt.716 on may 15th (Div.Tag.401), and replaced by an Oberleutnant coming from the Ostfront (still searching on it).
Regards
Romain

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by Brady » 10 Nov 2021 05:10

It’s been some time since I’ve read Ambrose‘s book, but when I first read it I am fairly certain that a lot of the content regarding the German Garrison was lifted from Cornelius Ryan’s book the longest day.

Tomorrow I think I’ll crack both books open and see if I can compare them in some more detail.

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by AETIUS 1980 » 10 Nov 2021 06:32

You should be careful with both of them cause lot of things written down about the German garrison are wrong.

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by Brady » 10 Nov 2021 07:20

AETIUS 1980 wrote:
10 Nov 2021 06:32
You should be careful with both of them cause lot of things written down about the German garrison are wrong.
Clearly anything detailed I will be viewing with a jaundiced eye.

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by AETIUS 1980 » 10 Nov 2021 08:09

Namely that very few works treat with precision and critical lucidity the composition and actions of the 716.Inf.Div.

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by Christoph Awender » 29 Nov 2021 14:08

Hello,

To add more confusion (sorry). The KIA in Benouville on June 6th were members of
5./Pz.Gren.Rgt.192
6./Pz.Gren.Rgt.192
1./Pz.Jg.Komp.716
according to german KIA sources.

/Christoph

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by AETIUS 1980 » 29 Nov 2021 15:16

And members of 3./Gr.Rgt.736.

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Re: Garrison of Ranville & Bénouville bridges & Maj. Hans Schmidt

Post by AETIUS 1980 » 29 Nov 2021 15:18

Feldwebel Gregor ACKERMANN

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