Contrary to the fond hopes of von Luttwitz, not all junior commanders in the West were the ‘hurrahing’ type. It was only their discipline and not their faith that kept many of them in the line. Thus it was quite common to find German officers surrendering only after they had assured themselves that their honor had not been compromised. The fact that they had sworn to fight to the last was interpreted by many officers as fighting until they found a way to stop which was not inconsistent with their oath.
On one occasion an infantry commander refused to surrender unless Allied troops had first thrown some phosphorus grenades into his position, as he had no answer to phosphorus. Six grenades were therefore produced and thrown, and, after inspecting the results of the subsequent explosion, the German officer, his honor apparently having been saved, quietly surrendered himself and his whole unit. Another instance of this kind of behavior was provided by the commander of the Cherbourg Arsenal who declined to give himself up until a tank was produced. A Sherman tank was accordingly driven up to the walls of the Arsenal and the general then considered he had been subjected to a tank attack. Not possessing adequate anti-tank defense, he now felt that he could surrender honorably and without having broken his pledge to defend to the end.
On 14 August, hardly two weeks before the city was invested, Wildermuth took over the defense of the bastion of Le Havre.
If the Supreme Command was looking for a fanatical, zealous, feverish young Nazi to inspire German troops to fight to the end, it could have chosen no one less likely to fit the role than Colonel Eberhard Wildermuth. He was not young, he was not inspired, he was not a soldier, and what was most important, he was not a Nazi. Nevertheless, the polite, tired, efficient bank director was suddenly shunted from Italy to this fortress in France, and ordered to perform a fight-to-the-death task for the glory of the Fatherland. Small wonder the martyr’s crown rested uneasily on his head, and so readily slipped off when events hemmed him in.
A two-divisional British assault, following the dropping of some 11,000 tons of bombs in Le Havre, was launched on 10 September.
By noon on 12 September, forty-eight hours later, the port had capitulated and 11,300 German troops had laid down their arms. This, despite the fact that the defenses available were amongst the strongest in Europe, that ammunition was plentiful for the 115 guns in Le Havre, and that sufficient food was on hand to keep 14,000 soldiers for eighty-nine more days. The explanation for this speedy collapse lies in the commandant’s personal conception of what ‘the end’ really meant. “In my opinion it was futile to fight tanks with bare hands,” said Colonel Wildermuth. “As early as 9 September I had given orders to all my officers that Allied infantry attacks were to be opposed everywhere, even with the side arms only. But in the event of an attack by tanks, resistance nests which no longer had any anti-tank weapons were then at liberty to surrender.”
Thus the Colonel had transformed the Supreme Command’s precept of fight to the last man to his own concept of fight to the last anti-tank gun. The difference was fundamental. It marked the civilian from the soldier. For Wildermuth, with his banker’s mind, was a soldier only so long as it was reasonable to remain one. Once the cost in blood and pain was too much, he felt it was time to become a civilian again. He was an efficient, able man who carried efficiency and ability into battle with him in much the same way as he would have used them to draw up a balance-sheet. He was not mentally prepared to sacrifice the lives of his men for a philosophy in which he only half-heartedly believed. It is in the personality of the leader of the garrison of Le Havre that lies much of the explanation for the fall of this formidable fortress in less than forty-eight hours.