The British, Canadian and US invasion troops who landed on the Normandy beaches on D–Day, 6 June 1944 were fortunate not to be opposed by overwhelming armoured forces. The German army had dozens of Panzer armoured divisions in France, but on Hitler’s instructions most of these were held inland rather than near the coast.
However as soon as it became clear that Normandy was the real target and not merely a diversion, the crack SS “Das Reich” Panzer division, stationed at Montauban in Southern France was ordered to proceed to Normandy and throw the invading armies back into the sea.
A Panzer division had some 190 tanks and up to 20,000 men. The Das Reich division had fought in the battle of France in 1940, the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and the ferocious battle of Kursk. Its men were battle–hardened veterans who had committed numerous atrocities against civilians.
In its field HQ at Montauban, the division’s tanks, ammunition, fuels and supplies were closely guarded by SS troops against any possible attack by the French resistance or SOE agents. When the order to move into action was given, the tanks would be loaded onto railway flat cars and transported to the battle front. When not in use these railway cars were dispersed around the town to avoid allied bombing, and camouflaged and hidden until they were wanted.
Against this display of impenetrable military might, now came two teenage French schoolgirls, equipped with one of SOE’s most devilish inventions. The girls, whose names have sadly not been recorded, roamed around the town and surrounding country, spotting the flat cars and marking their positions on a secret map.
When the local resistance received word from London that the invasion was to take place, the schoolgirls went out at night, visiting each one of the flatcars, evading the guards. They removed the oil drain plug from a single axle bearing on each flatcar and, after the oil had drained out, squirted in a mixture of abrasive carborundum.
The result was that when the division received orders to ship out by rail for Normandy, the train travelled only some 30 or so miles before the bearings over–heated and burnt out. Moreover, the wagons were now in the middle of the countryside, far from help or engineering facilities. The division commander had no alternative than to unload the Panzers and drive to Normandy by road along narrow country roads and through small villages.
Wherever there was a bottleneck on their route, there the Resistance had organised an ambush blowing up the lead tank and trapping the rest of the column until it was cleared away.
The Das Reich division finally reached Normandy 17 days after D–Day, by which time the allies has unloaded hundreds of tanks and anti–tank guns. The German panzers were compelled to retreat. Ultimately it was by superior forces and manpower – but initially, their defeat was brought about by those brave schoolgirls and the ingenuity of SOE.