Saturday, May 22, 2004

HAMM-RHYNERN, Germany — Hunkered down behind his machine-gun as dawn broke after a cold, wet night, Franz Gockel saw the horizon black with enemy ships.

Later during that day, June 6, 1944, the beach would run red with blood, the sea washing up body parts as tens of thousands of Allied soldiers stormed the Normandy coast at the beginning of the end of World War II.

For Mr. Gockel, an 18-year-old Wehrmacht private, it was a day he would never forget.

“I thought it was all over,” he recalled in an interview with Agence France-Presse ahead of the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in northern France, “but maybe it was exactly that hopelessness that made us fight so bitterly. We wanted to survive.”

D-Day began for Mr. Gockel when the alarm sounded around 1 a.m. as his Defense Unit 62 perched on what became known as Omaha Beach. He had just finished a stint on duty.

“After we had thrown another comrade out of the bunker and said, ‘Leave us alone. We want to sleep,’ the NCO came in and shouted, ‘This is it, boys. They’re coming.’”

Outside, all that could be seen were the flashes from fighting at the nearby village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, where U.S. paratroops had landed. At the beach, the troops awaited the landing they had been expecting since Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had visited in January and remarked how similar it was to where the Allies had landed in Italy a year earlier.

“At about 3 a.m., our cook brought us nice, hot, mulled wine to keep us alert and cheerful,” Mr. Gockel said. “Then the bombardment began at 4 a.m.” The ground shook, and earth flew up into their noses and eyes.

“When dawn broke, all we could see on the horizon were ships: from left to right, nothing but ships. It seemed to me as if there were more ships than German soldiers on Omaha Beach. It was indescribable.

“We said, ‘Now we can fight to the last.’ When our homeland had been bombed we could only sit powerless in the shelters. Now we could fight back.”

Pvt. Gockel, an apprentice roofer who had been drafted into the army at age 17, said they were surprised to see the Americans land at low tide.

“For the first troops who came at low tide, the water was about 300 meters back, and it was very, very hard. Most of them were left on the beach.

“Not all dead — there were many wounded and others who just didn’t want to move any more, and then the tide came in, very slowly. And with the tide, the dead and badly wounded were washed ashore. It was horrible.

“I prayed out loud a lot: short, quick prayers, to the Virgin Mary, Joseph, my namesake St. Francis. I couldn’t understand how the Yanks attacked again and again, running from their landing craft across the beach to the shingle.

“Years later, an American veteran told me how it was hard to avoid walking on the dead. They had called the sector ‘Easy Red.’ It should have been ‘Dark Red’; the beach was red with blood.”

“Another veteran, from Kansas, told me: ‘Boy, we were so happy to reach the shingle, and then your damned mortars fired on us.’”

Sent to fetch food for his unit, Pvt. Gockel was injured in the hand and managed to escape. Three months later, he was captured by U.S. troops in eastern France.

Now the head of a roofing company at Hamm-Rhynern in western Germany, Mr. Gockel returns to Normandy every June for the anniversary of the landings.

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