As the commander of the 352nd Infantry Division Major General Dietrich Kraiss was responsible for the defence of the section of the Normandy Coast that included Omaha Beach and part of Gold Beach, and his deployments and actions on D-Day would play a part in the Allied victory.
Kraiss had joined the German army in 1909. He fought in the First World War, and by 1939 had risen to command the 90th Infantry Regiment. On 8 July 1941 he was promoted to command the 168th Infantry Division, which he led during the fighting in Russia. In March 1943 he was transferred to the 355th Infantry Division. This newly formed unit had a short existence – heavy losses meant that it was disbanded on 6 November 1943, and Kraiss was transferred again, this time to command the newly formed 352nd Infantry Division.
This division had been formed for the Eastern Front, and it contained a large number of men with experience of fighting the Russians. It was at full strength on D-Day, and was well equipped with new 105mm and 150mm guns, while its anti-tank regiment contained ten StuGs and fourteen Marders. Kraiss's headquarters were at Molay-Littrey, just under nine miles to the west of Bayeux and thirteen miles from Omaha Beach.
The division was split into three regiments each of two battalions. At the start of D-Day the 914th Regiment was spread out along the coast west of Omaha Beach. The 915th Regiment and the 352nd Fusilier Battalion made up the three-battalion strong regiment reserve, Kampfgruppe Meyer, which began the day at St Lô. The 1st Battalion, 916th Grenadier Regiment, was at the western end of Gold Beach and the 2nd Battalion, 916th Grenadier Regiment, was on Omaha Beach, alongside two battalions from the 716th Static Infantry Division.
This deployment, with half of the division posted away from the beaches, reflected Kraiss's experience on the eastern front, where the Germans used strong mobile reserves to launch counterattacks against any Soviet offensives, but it was also another sign of the confused power structures within the German army. Rommel believed that Allied airpower would make it difficult for the German reserves to move freely behind their lines, making it almost impossible to mount the sort of counterattack that Kraiss was planning, but the tradition in the German army was for the Army Commander to give his divisional commanders a task, and for the divisional commanders to decide how to carry out that task.
Both men were partly correct. Allied air power made it very difficult for German reserves to reach Normandy from further afield, but units that were already close to the beaches were able to move around, albeit rather slowly. The key German problem on D-Day was that the available reserves were handled rather badly. Both the 352nd Infantry reserves and 21st Panzer Divisions came into action late in the day, in both cases largely because of the near total confusion that beset the German response.
In the early hours of 6 June Kraiss was informed that strong Allied airborne forces had landed to his east. Fearing that this was an attempt to cut him off from the divisions to his west in the Cotentin Kraiss ordered Kampfgruppe Meyer to move west.
At 6.30am the first American troops began to land on Omaha Beach, followed one hour later by the British on Gold Beach. At first the Germans believed that they had defeated the attack on Omaha Beach, but at around 7.20am the commander of one of the battalions from the 716th Division requested a counterattack to repulse American troops advancing towards Colleville. Kraiss received permission to use part of his reserves for this at 7.35, and at 7.50am one battalion from Kampfgruppe Meyer was ordered to move back east. This battalion was expected to reach the starting point for the counterattack at 9.30, but Allied airpower and the general confusion behind the German lines meant that it didn't arrive until the afternoon.
By 8.35 Kraiss was more worried about the situation on Gold Beach, where British armour had broken through the line of coastal defences. He gained permission to send the remaining two battalions from his reserves east to Gold Beach, but once again they were unable to arrive in time to launch an effective counterattack. At both Gold and Omaha Beaches Kraiss's reserves had to be thrown into the desperate defensive battle and were unable to make the powerful counterattack that he had been relying on to defeat the invasion.
The two battalions of the 914th Regiment were completely wasted on D-Day. Instead of moving to Omaha Beach, where two fresh infantry battalions might have been enough to win a German victory, they became involved in a desperate battle with the small force of US Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, even failing to overwhelm this badly outnumbered force.
Where the men of the 352nd Infantry Division did come into combat on D-Day they performed well, but only in individual defensive actions, each of which eventually ended in defeat. By D-Day+1 Kraiss was reporting that his division was spent, and would not be effective by the next morning. By 10 June, when Kraiss was permitted to withdraw to a new line on the Elle River his division had been reduced to 2,500 men.
Kraiss continued to command his reduced division until 2 August, when he was wounded in fighting near St Lô. He died of his wounds on 6 August.