WHEN Sergeant Heinrich Scheibe heard that the Allies had landed in Normandy, he experienced a rush of relief. After months of night practices, false alarms and incessant Allied bombing raids, this, at last, was it.

Like most of his colleagues in the Panzer Lehr Division - a crack tank unit - he could not wait to get going. And he was convinced the Germans would successfully repel the invaders.

'We believed we were well prepared, well motivated, and far more battle-experienced,' Mr Scheibe, now 74, said. 'Besides, our tanks were far better than the English and American models.'

When it came to tanks, Mr Scheibe knew what he was talking about. As a mechanic, it was his job to maintain and repair its fleet of tanks and armoured vehicles.

His analysis of the chances of victory, however, quickly proved wildly off the mark. Like the German High Command, he had assumed that the invasion would be launched in the Calais region, where far more army divisions had been stationed. He also never imagined that it would be launched in the terrible weather conditions prevailing on 6 June.

On the morning of the attack, Mr Scheibe's division was stationed in Brou, some 80 miles inland. Their orders were to proceed to Caen and to defend it.

The journey took three days. Allied control of the skies made movement by day impossible. And at night, with hardly any maps, progress was slow. 'By the time we got there, it was already almost too late,' said Mr Scheibe, who after the war returned to his native Gera, in what became East Germany. 'The Allied forces were firmly entrenched; the retreat was well under way.'

Not surprisingly, spirits sank among the German forces. Despite the fact that the scale of their losses was kept from them, those involved in the fighting were only too aware of the fact they were being overpowered.

For some, the realisation that the end was nigh came after a few days. For Mr Scheibe, it took three weeks. 'After then, it was clear that we were not going to do it,' he said. 'We tried to hope against hope - some liked to think Hitler might yet be toppled; others believed the coalition between England, America and the Soviet Union would collapse; some put their faith in the impact of the V1 and V2 bombs. But deep down we saw what was coming.'

The most vivid recollections Mr Scheibe has of the Normandy campaign include the sight of hundreds of Allied aircraft flying overhead. Unlike the campaign in the East, in which he was also involved in 1941, the war in the West was determined in the air, he maintains. 'We could not believe the scale of the Allied advantage. We could barely move,' he said.

In the early days following the invasion, a comrade in the Panzer Lehr Division splashed out on a bottle of champagne, promising to open it at the first sighting of a Luftwaffe aircraft coming to the rescue. Mr Scheibe remembers drinking it well - a few miles outside Paris in September 1944.

(Photograph omitted)