Norman Scarfe, Assault Division: A History of the 3rd Division from the Invasion of Normandy to the Surrender of Germany (Collins, London, 1947), pages 61 to 92.
AS soon as they were clear of the sheltering shores all men in the Force had let go all hope of a steady crossing. Unfalteringly the flotillas had moved to their battle-stations at the great forming-up area known as “Piccadilly Circus” to the south-east of the Isle of Wight, and already the unnerving heave and rock, the sensations of a high sea, were recognised. Men began to cast oblique glances at one another, and to perceive that they were not alone in their misgivings: the efficiency of those tablets was already in doubt.
At first they were all occupied: the sealed packages were broken open, and operational orders, maps and traces were scanned. At last the names “in clear”! So Poland was Caen, Portugal was the Caen Canal, and they’d probably be in Caen this time to-morrow! Of course they might have expected to land near the inter-section of four 1:50,000 maps, so that all four have to be folded down and accommodated beneath the talc of a small map-board! There was by now no doubt at all about the tablets.
Once in formation, each Force took its bearing and pressed forward in line ahead—in two apparently endless parallel lines of widely assorted craft—for its Lowering Position about seven miles off its selected beach. The Headquarters Ship, H.M.S. Largs, had done similar service in Torch and Husky, the landings in North Africa and Sicily. Now the old veteran was one of five great nerve-centres in the most vital and intricate operation of them all, and standing up to the test. The other large craft, the Infantry Landing Ships, Dacres, Glenearn, Cutlass, Battleaxe, Broadsword, Astrid, Maid of Orleans, Goathland and Locust (advancing in that order) were all as familiar as the Largs. Men aboard them were the fortunate ones: the following sea seemed to roll them less than smaller craft—particularly LCT—on account of their size. That is not to say that a number of the men cooped up below hatches escaped sea-sickness: LSI made only a comparatively easy crossing. And then there was the Lowering Position to face, the unhappy transfer, and ninety minutes in a tossing little LCA.
But these familiar craft actually carrying the Division, about 250 all told, were only occupying the foreground of the greatest naval review in all history. Around and beyond moved Covering Forces and Escorts. Ahead the Fleet Minesweeping Flotillas were steadily cutting channels that the Assault Force might navigate safely: a most difficult sweep, with considerations of a turning tide, was made with complete success. The foremost craft of “S” Force was not conspicuous at the early stage of the crossing. It was the midget submarine X 23, whose task was to mark the limit of the assault area for the oncoming armada. X 23 had taken up her position just off the beach before midnight on June 4th, knowing nothing of the postponement. They had to remain submerged for nineteen hours on June 5th, with no air-conditioning plant, lying on the shallow bottom which they knew to be mined. Three hours before dusk that day the leading minesweepers were in sight of France!
That the German coastal defence forces failed to engage these minesweepers is more than surprising. That they took no warning from their sweeping activities is almost incredible. Yet the fact remains that the invasion followed as a tactical surprise. It can only be assumed that the Germans decided that the minesweeping was another feint, and declined to be drawn.*1* We need not put all our success in achieving this surprise down to German stupidity. We were operating an elaborate cover and deception plan throughout the period of preparation. This included the temporary sinking of the Mulberry harbour off Dungeness, the concentration of our bombers upon the Pas de Calais area prior to D-day, and the assembly of our normal shipping in north-eastern ports, due, chiefly, to the occupation of the southern ports by invasion craft (well camouflaged). The illusion that we had designs on Norway was heightened by the intensification of our mining of the Southern Baltic and the Kiel Canal and by a series of air attacks on U-boats off the Norwegian coast shortly before D-day, aimed simply at preventing their joining the U-boat squadrons in Brest and the Biscay. Radio measures, alternate wireless silence and activity, and simulation schemes, added to the German bewilderment. In addition their radar had been dislocated for them by the R.A.F., and we were making deliberate diversions against the Pas de Calais and Cap d’Antifer. Towards the end of May we went to the length of sending off to Gibraltar a British actor closely resembling General Montgomery.
The final element of surprise was the weather. Let it be admitted that the forces taking part (naval as well as military) were themselves slightly surprised to be venturing out across a Channel as rough as that, though it is true that this particular Force had attempted and survived worse in Exercise Grab. Weather conditions did make invasion seem unlikely. We now know that the Chief German Meteorologist, Major Lettau, reported to the German Commanders that after June 4th conditions would be unfavourable for several days. He seems to have overlooked completely the “weather front” that was to pass through the Channel early on June 5th with relatively good weather following it, and that gave Eisenhower the opportunity he wanted. There is now no question that Eisenhower’s most momentous decision was right, though we shall see how it was precisely this condition of the Channel that contributed most to the detriment of the operation of the 3rd Division’s plan.
The Division, we see, was not alone as it made its uneasy way south into the grey night. There was comfort in the sight and thought of so much aerial and naval support. And the dreadful plunge and shudder of the craft was bound to come to an end. One after another the great buffeting waves were breasted, and, though in distance it was not a long voyage, the length of time for most of the Division was between seventeen and twenty hours. Those hours grew to resemble eternity, and to the men watching through the night it was like a voyage into another world. In a sense, that is what it was.
In mid-Channel the waves were between five and six feet high, and a force 5 wind (16 to 20 knots) was blowing from the west. Still there was no resistance from the enemy, and it was gradually becoming clear that we had achieved the tactical and strategic surprise that had seemed too much to hope for; it was still unbelievable. Shortly after midnight six gliders passed overhead on their way to secure the bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne (Rugger and Cricket). Half an hour later they were followed over by the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades of the 6th Airborne Division who were going to land in the close strip of country between the Orne and the Dives to protect the left flank of I Corps. That must have woken the Germans up. Flak was observed ahead. But it was all strangely quiet. Sometimes each landing-craft seemed to be on its own, then suddenly the stern of the preceding craft would appear almost under the bows. A quiet order from the bridge, a change in the engine tempo, and the craft drifted apart again.
Another three hours passed before the desultory discharge of tracer from the enemy coast ahead developed into something like fireworks, with considerable bomb-flashes. In the darkness overhead a steady roar was developing. This was Phase 2 of the Assault. (The “softening-up” of the assault area prior to D-day was Phase 1.) This morning the Allied Air Force estimated that they had 31,000 airmen over France between midnight and breakfast-time. The weight of bombs dropped defies imagining. It was fairly distributed. *2*
At last the day broke beneath low clouds. The Naval bombardment forces joined in the good work of the Air Forces with calibres varying from the 15-inch guns of battleships and monitors to the 4-inch guns of Hunt class destroyers. This was no indiscriminate blasting, but a concerted attack on known enemy batteries and strong-points. It was the beginning. The elements themselves had failed to deflect these relentless forces. The Navy were showing the Division what they could do with odds against them, and the Division, no less stricken by the elements waited undaunted to show the Navy what they could do. What the elements could not achieve it was perhaps unreasonable to expect of the Germans. Reports from Germany go to show that they shared our relief, and welcomed the end of the agony of waiting. In Berlin that day there were excited cries of: “Sie kommen, sie kommen!” But altogether there was little indication that our arrival was welcomed. And though the enemy manning the coastal defences must have spent a night of extreme discomfort, and while it is unlikely that their apprehensions of the night equalled in unpleasantness the amazing revelations of daylight, they were not dismayed into inaction.
Bombarding Force “D” was on the flank to port of “S” Force, preparing to engage enemy batteries between Ouistreham and Villerville, and screened by smoke from the observation of Le Havre gunners. At 5.15 a.m. the enemy made a half-hearted attack upon this Bombarding Force. Three torpedo boats suddenly emerged from the smoke-screen, fired a number of torpedoes and hurried back into the cover of the smoke. One torpedo could just be seen approaching H.M.S. Largs. The Divisional Commander’s ship was saved by putting her engines to Full Astern, and the torpedo passed a few feet ahead other. A second torpedo hit the destroyer Svenner of the Royal Norwegian Navy ; the Svenner, sailing but two hundred yards astern of the Largs, sank almost immediately.
Seven miles from the shore the first Infantry Landing Ships, were arriving at the Lowering Position, heaving-to and anchoring. A and B Companies of the East Yorks and A and C Companies of the South Lancs moved to their loading positions by five of the LCA in the davits of each Battalion LSI, and were quickly hoisted overboard. Round them the other craft deployed swiftly for the assault. Forming up and timings were extremely complicated, in accordance with the detailed plan: they were well rehearsed, and so far it had all been like an exercise. No one expected this similarity to last much longer. The information regarding the enemy was that the coast between Courseulles and the Orne was held by the right-hand regiment of 716 Division. In the German Army all the battalions of the same regiment were kept together, and the infantry division, when up to strength, was composed of three regiments, roughly equivalent to our brigades. The Right Regiment confronting the Assault Brigade was thought to be 736, and it was reported that the Division had as many as 40 per cent non-Germans, mostly disaffected or conscript Russians and Poles. It was appreciated that ” as a centre of communications and Army, Air Force and Civil H.Q.s, Caen is likely to be stubbornly defended by the Germans within the limits of the forces at their disposal.” *3* Among reserve formations 21 Panzer Division was known to have been stationed at Mantes, though ” one very recent report as yet unconfirmed, but supported by train movements, suggests this Division may now be stationed in an area between ten and thirty miles south of Caen. It could therefore intervene against us on D-day and we must be prepared for it.” *4*
The information regarding the topography of the assault was admirably detailed, and had, in conjunction with the maps available and air photographs, provided everyone with a familiar landscape. Of Queen Beach it said: “3 Br Inf Div beaches are good assault beaches. The sand is smooth and firm, except for a possible soft strip above high water.” That “possible soft strip” ought to have been underlined. The width of the beach was expected to be as follows: “From the back of the beach to low water—average 400 yards; from the back of the beach to high water—average 30 yards.” But those were the figures given for normal conditions. “In the event,” wrote Admiral Ramsay to General Eisenhower, “the weather had built up the tide in the bay, and on no beaches, except Utah, was obstacle clearance satisfactory before the obstacles were immersed.” But that was not all. At high tide the width of Queen Beach should have been sufficient for vehicles to manoeuvre laterally along it —”average 30 yards.” “The weather had built up the tide in the bay”: it left barely 30 feet.
The latest beach obstacles were described with accuracy. The assaulting troops would first meet two groups of ramp type (“knife-rest”) obstacles starting 300 yards down from the back of the beach. Then they would come to a double row of stakes running continuously across the beaches, 30 to 60 yards between stakes, 230 yards down from the back of the beach. The last of the under-water obstacles began 180 yards from the back of the beach and consisted in overlapping rows of “hedgehogs” twenty feet apart and fourteen to seventeen in a row. Hedgehogs were constructed of angle-iron after the pattern of the caltrop used in the Hundred Years War, but standing about six feet high. Obstacles were still under construction, and the possibility of mines below high water was anticipated. The beach was backed by a narrow strip of sand-dunes rising as high as fifteen feet, its face sloping at forty-five degrees. Between the coast and Caen numerous German strong-points were suspected or known.
Upon the basis of such information Major-General Rennie had been able to make his appreciation, and, with his staff, at Aberlour House, formulate the plan that was now being put into tactical Operation at the Lowering Position.*5* In conformity with an ambitious Corps plan, in which 3rd Canadian Division on the right would secure a covering position on the general line of the Caen-Bayeux road from Putot-en-Bessin to Carpiquet aerodrome, and on the left 6th Airborne Division would deny the enemy the use of the area between the Rivers Orne and Dives north of the road Troarn-Banneville-Colombelles, it was the intention of the 3rd British Infantry Division to land on the beach at La Brèche, capture Caen and establish a bridgehead south of the River Orne at that place. To this end 8 Brigade Group were about to run in from the Lowering Position, “assault on Queen Red and White beaches and secure the beach-head to include the high ground about Periers-sur-le-Dan and St. Aubin d’Arquenay.” *6* Under command 8 Brigade were the 13th/18th Royal Hussars, 5 Assault Regiment, R.E., and 4 and 41 Commandos, as well as the Machine-Gunners, Gunners, Sappers and Field Ambulance “habitually affiliated” to that Brigade.
Wireless silence had already been broken by the Gunners of the three Field Regiments. All the sets had been netted before sailing, and now came the anxious moment of test, when sets were switched on and the net checked. The great fear was not so much that out-stations might have drifted off net, but that the Germans might be jamming them effectively. Gunner communications are indispensable in battle; without them they are powerless to provide artillery support, but that is not all; Gunner representatives with the forward Infantry are much better equipped than the Infantry themselves with the means of communication, and their signals are correspondingly more dependable channels of information from the front. Afloat, with parties distributed over so many craft, here was the supreme need for wireless perfection. No less than that was achieved. *7* Closely linked, then, and synchronised, the Gunners joined in the naval “free for all” which was in full fling. They “touched off the devilish cannon” a mile outside the Lowering Position, loosing over two hundred shells a minute as steadily they closed in on the target and dropped the range accordingly.
The remainder of the East Yorks and South Lancs cheered their Assault Companies as they sailed away from the Lowering Position, then themselves stood by to be loaded. As Battalion H.Q, of the East Yorkshires moved off in their LCA past the Largs, one of the East Yorkshiremen sounded the General Salute on his bugle. The Admiral and General acknowledged it; it was a stirring gesture.
Meanwhile the Assault Companies were making hard for their beaches. Shells were noticed to be falling among the waves and the craft, and there was no point in hanging back now where one hit meant writing off a whole crowded craft. It was a tense journey, that first bold approach to the shore. The general feeling, one that marked everything to do with D-day, was that nothing was impossible for a force that could be mounted in the might that was evident all around. *8* But though this seemed to bode well for a successful battle it did not go so far towards removing the purely personal sense of mortality. However, most minds were occupied by the scene ahead, where, apart from drifts of smoke and flashes and great clouds of dirt as the full weight of our shells and rockets landed, the Calvados coast was clear.
From the sea there was nothing much to be seen except a dreary row of boarding-houses along the featureless flat front, thickening up on the left into Riva Bella and the little port of Ouistreham with its church-tower and lighthouse, at the mouth of the Orne, and on the right into the small seaside resorts of Lion and Luc-sur-Mer. (Was it Burghead lighthouse after all, or the Sussex shore, and the whole thing a bad joke—just a stage nearer the actual invasion? The situation was so familiar that this thought must have crossed every mind, to be quickly rejected.) The houses joining Riva Bella and Lion-sur-Mer were marked on the map as La Brèche. It was appropriate that Queen Red and White Beaches should have been opposite La Brèche; in French it means the breach! Those houses were built along two lateral roads, the first narrow and backing the beach, the second broad, two hundred yards inland. They were connected all along the front by a series of narrow roads, which, once cleared, would serve as beach exits.
Queen White was on the right, the first objective of the South Lancs. There! That looked like the house with the turret shown on the photograph just to the right of White Beach, between exits 10 and 11. And that was surely the flat-roofed “sun-trap” of a modem house at the end of Red Beach. Then that must be the strong-point Cod !
In one of the craft making for Red Beach was “A” Company Commander of the East Yorks, Major C. K. King, known widely in the Division as “Banger.” He held the attention of the men who were lucky enough to be in his craft by reading them the famous passages from King Henry V. Minds that would otherwise have been uneasy with natural apprehensions were filled with the encouragement of King Harry:
“On, on, you noble English!
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof,
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from mom till even fought,
And sheath’d their swords for lack of argument:
Be copy now to men of grosser blood
And teach them how to war!
The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit. . . .”
Major King’s action was akin to Wolfe’s at Quebec almost 200 years before, and worthy to be remembered with it. *9*
Advancing in front of the four Infantry Companies, the crews of the D-D Shermans, A and B Squadrons of the 13th/18th Hussars, had reached a position 5,000 yards off-shore where they thought their tanks stood a chance of swimming for it. (In less heavy seas they would have been launched 7,000 yards out.) All fifteen tanks of A Squadron and nine tanks of B Squadron struck out for the shore. Rear-Admiral Talbot has paid a just tribute to “the determination of these gallant men to use their amphibious tanks in the manner for which they had been designed.”
Forward with this group was an F.O.O. from each of the Field Regiments. The job of these F.O.O.s was to observe the fire of their regiments upon the selected part of the beach strong-point Cod on the East Yorks’ beach, and make any necessary corrections. The L C Ps of 33rd and 76th Field Regiments were sunk, but the F.O.O. of 33rd Field Regiment was picked up by the L C P of the 7th Field Regiment, and the fire of the Divisional Artillery was observed from that craft. *10* The other F.O.O., Captain “Jo” Daniel, R.A., was killed.
Close behind the swimming tanks were the assaulting infantry and also L C Ts containing the flails, bulldozers and armoured vehicles, R.E., of the eight gapping teams and four obstacle-clearing teams. Behind them were the Rocket Craft and then the Divisional Artillery. It was now past seven o’clock and H-hour was 7.25. Steadily they drove on together.
Captain Lyon, of A Squadron, records: “The seaworthy quality of the Sherman D-D astonished me, but it was necessary to adopt a zigzag course to avoid getting beam on to the tide. The Squadron appeared to me to be keeping excellent station.” Nevertheless they were retarded some five minutes by the rough sea. This may have been the reason for the A.V.R.E. flotilla’s attempt to overtake, driving right across the port bows of A Squadron. The beach was now obscured by bombing and artillery concentrations, and about ten per cent of the drenching rocket-fire from the LCT(R)—whose decks grew red-hot—was observed to fall short. It caused the A.V.R.E. flotilla to go full astern together, and, when they overtook the Shermans a second time, led to the ramming of two A Squadron D-Ds. One of the victims. Captain Denny, reported: “At about 800 yards I was rammed by an LCT, and we sank immediately, the tank going over on its beam and sinking for about 25 feet, ending upside down. Although the crews were wearing A.T.E.A. and Mae Wests, they never appeared again, as I did not see them during the 30 minutes I was in the water.” This same officer, describing the short range of some of the unmistakable rocket concentrations which fell among them, says: “The Squadron kept good station in spite of these intrusions.” The moment the squadrons beached the enemy opened fire, and four tanks were disabled. Five more were swamped in the breakers. Thus there were only five effective Shermans on the East Yorks’ beach and eight on Red Beach, though the latter were joined forty minutes later by the five that had been unable to launch at sea.
The idea was that the D-D Shermans should land just ahead of the Assault Infantry Companies and R.E. gapping teams and keep the enemy’s heads down, while the Infantry went in at H-hour to finish off the enemy, enabling the gapping teams to work undisturbed at least by enemy small-arms fire. But the D-Ds had been slowed down by the heavy sea, and they all landed roughly together at 7.30. Already the front line of obstacles was awash. The tide was rising fast, flowing up over the sand at a visible pace. And those armoured vehicles, R.E., that landed ahead of the D-D tanks and Infantry were some minutes without the close support planned. They were not likely to give that a second thought. This was the time for calm thinking and swift action. To clear the beach of those obstructions, both the inanimate and the very animate, was the job; to make haste, for the next wave of men would break and flood up across the sand in a few minutes, and succeeding waves would develop the regularity of Atlantic rollers advancing over the shore.
These R.E. gapping and obstacle-clearing teams all succeeded in disembarking with the exception of one LCT carrying a gapping team for White Beach. After the first flail was discharged from this craft a close enemy anti-tank gun hit the second flail, which jammed on the ramp door, while a second hit caused an explosion aboard and killed Lieutenant-Colonel A. D. B. Cocks, Commander of 5 Assault Regiment, R.E., the man who was in command of all beach clearance and gapping teams.
Our terrific barrage and bombardment “lifted” on ahead as our Infantry assaulted the beach defences: and just as the East Yorks and the South Lancs felt the relief of the solid sands under their feet, the Germans were emerging from the solid and comfortably furnished underground shelters, which seem to have given them good protection from everything but shock.
Within a few minutes the enemy was applying the fire of rifle, machine-gun, mortar and field gun to Queen Beach, particularly to Red, opposite the Cod strong-point. The South Lancs on the right had severe casualties in A Company, Major Harward, the Company Commander, being mortally wounded *11* and one of his subalterns, Allen, killed breaching the beach wire. They sent G Company left to assist the East Yorks in the reduction of Cod, while Lieutenant R. W. Pearce, M.C., took command of A Company and directed it right towards Lion-sur-Mer. On this beach the gapping teams had opened four exits at the end of an hour, despite heavy casualties in men and tanks.
On Red Beach G Company of the South Lancs were engaging the active Cod, when the H.Q. and remaining companies of the South Lancs landed almost on the strong-point. B Company went in to help them, and Major Harrison, their Commander, was killed immediately. So was Bell-Walker, who assumed command and led an attack on a pillbox. Battalion H.Q. moved up towards the sand-dunes near an 88-mm. position, and the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel R. P. H. Burbury, was killed by a sniper’s bullet as he directed this assault.
The Red Beach gapping teams suffered crippling enemy fire, lost most of their tanks and were nearly all reduced to clearance by hand. Their first two exits became blocked by damaged tanks. They managed to open one gap with lateral communications after an hour and a half, and two more within the next quarter of an hour. No mines were found on the beach itself, though the exits and strips behind the dunes and beside the streets were thickly inlaid with them.
The obstacle-clearing teams fared worse. Their work was more formidable even than they had expected ; their first discovery was that every ramp-type obstacle and a number of the stakes, steel hedgehogs and concrete tetrahedra were armed with a Tellermine or Anti-Aircraft shell with push-igniter to operate against the first craft that fouled them. The situation was aggravated by the high tide and swell. By the time the unarmoured element of the obstacle-clearing teams got ashore the seaward ramps stood in six to eight feet of water and were about to be submerged. Enemy small arms were still active and mortar-fire was coming down. Men on Red Beach were swimming in an effort to remove the mines and shells, and a number were dislodged and dropped to the bottom. Then, as more LCT ran ashore, it became impossible to work at the deep obstacles. Fortunately it had become evident that the obstacles were not preventing the discharge of craft and that some of the mines were failing to detonate.
During these early tasks on the beach the casualties to the flails, A.Vs., R.E., and bulldozers amounted to 50 per cent of the machines. 5 Assault Regiment, R.E., suffered heavy casualties amongst their officers, and 629 Field Squadron lost nearly 20 per cent of their men, some of whom were drowned. From among the Division’s own engineers, 246 Field Company, affiliated as usual to 8 Brigade, landed one assault demolition team with each of the assault companies of Infantry and a mine-clearance team with each of the four reserve companies of those two battalions. It was one of the platoons of 246 Field Company, landing at five minutes past eight, that made the first exit off White Beach with a borrowed armoured bulldozer, before proceeding, according to plan, to search and clear and mark a forward route to Hermanville. The East Yorks, supported by the surviving tanks of B Squadron of 13th/18th Hussars, and the South Lancs supported by the survivors of A Squadron, both accompanied by their affiliated F.O.O.s of the 76th Field Regiment and with one F.O.O. of the 33rd Field Regiment, had begun the advance inland.
The hinterland was not hard to defend. It is quite easy to visualise, especially easy for those who saw it then: the wind was very fresh, and, blowing the clouds fast across the sky, it uncovered the sun at intervals throughout the day. The effect was that the prepared, sensitive minds of the men were exposed to a series of flashlight photographs that were developed on the spot and printed indelibly.
Behind Red and White Beaches and the houses scattered all along the front lay a strip of marshland impassable to vehicles. This extended back some 500 yards and then gave way to an area covered with orchards, where the green cornfields were hedged and the hedges were buttressed by poplars and elms. These and the apple-trees almost hid Hermanville, a straggling little village about a mile from the sea. The one road connecting it with the coast ran back from the extreme right of White Beach. It may be seen, therefore, why every vehicle coming ashore had to move to the right at the first lateral and then keep to this main Hermanville road until it was over the marsh-strip. It was possible to deploy into the orchards and farmyards on either side of the road once this strip was crossed. Through Hermanville passed a main lateral road running parallel with the beach. Following it out to the left from Hermanville, it bent slightly right into Colleville *12* and then sloped gradually down through St. Aubin-d’Arquenay to the Orne bridges at Bénouville. Behind this lateral road was the Periers-sur-le-Dan feature, which was rather a rise than a ridge, although Morris and Hillman, the 10.5 cm. battery and Battalion H.Q. strong-points set into it, dominated the beaches. This feature was quite bare, so that Morris and Hillman relied for concealment on the lie of the land, which nowhere exceeded 61 metres above sea-level. This “Periers feature” was the furthest objective of 8 Brigade.
Beyond lay Caen and the objectives of 185 Brigade. Over the Periers ridge the road descended into a gully containing a small brook that ran into the Caen Canal at Beauregard. The road crossed the brook, followed it through the adjacent villages of Beuville and Bieville, rising steeply into Lebisey Wood. We need trace it no further: it crossed to “Hill 64” and fell down into Caen, which was not more than about nine miles inland. From the sea the Caen Canal and the Orne gradually cut in across the Division’s front diagonally from the left. A secondary road ran along the near bank of the canal from Ouistreham into Caen. Across the Orne valley high ground rose on all sides, the Bois de Bavent overlooking the airborne landing area, and to the south the hills of Normandy.
On the beaches organised German opposition had been overcome. There was still promiscuous sniping and often heavy shelling along the foreshore. But 8 Brigade’s advance inland had begun, and all the time the landing-craft of “S” Force were beaching hard. It was inspiring to watch those skippers navigating, avoiding the mined obstacles if they could, but anyway driving “full ahead together” for the shore-line; they spared no effort to give “their” troops a “dry” landing. German gunners knew the range and hit several of those craft before they were able to unload and sail back to England, their crews supremely proud of the triangular sign their craft bore.
The whole of the 1st Battalion of the Suffolks (8 Brigade’s Reserve Battalion) landed in one flight from twenty-five LCA, and quickly formed up. By nine o’clock the South Lancs had taken Hermanville from the Germans and established their Battalion H.Q. there. (Their A Company had continued their advance along the coast into Lion, and it was not until late in the day that they were extricated from street fighting!) By 9.30 the Suffolks had assembled near Hermanville, and were advancing left into Colleville.
Meanwhile the 76th Field Regiment, R.A., and Commandos of 1 SS Brigade had landed on the tail of the Suffolks; 4 Commando moved east along the sea-front to destroy an enemy coastal defence battery in Ouistreham and rid the town of the enemy, while the rest of the SS Brigade, under Brigadier Lord Lovat, M.C., made off for the bridges at Bénouville to join the 6th Airborne Division. The signal that those bridges were taken intact had already been intercepted and set everyone’s spirits soaring.
On completion of the “run-in” shoot by the Divisional Artillery, their flotillas had to cruise off-shore until the guns could be landed. The 76th Field Regiment were first ashore and immediately went into action on Red Beach. One of their craft was hit five times, struck two mines and caught fire while still loaded. *14* But the rest of the regiment got on to the beach, where they were in action five hours before moving to a gun-position inland. Their quick response to calls for fire were to the credit of the Gunners in a position that was not designed for easy gun control; yet they only complained that there weren’t enough calls for fire! Craft continued to deposit men and vehicles amongst the guns as they fired. Loud-speaker wires would have been cut into small pieces, and as fire-orders came down from the F.O.O.s now advancing inland they were relayed to each gun by wireless, though owing to the general din and confusion all round, runners from each detachment were being used. At the same time the tide was running in swiftly over the flat sand and the guns were soon standing in some feet of surf. Craft were still beaching all round, and one, with fires aboard and steering-gear knocked out, was swept along the beach, hitting two guns and destroying their water-proofing shutes. They continued firing, but the engines were “drowned.” All the time the F.O.O.s were reporting good progress.
(Continued from left column)
This was the position when the Mayor of Colleville himself arrived on the beach to welcome the invaders. He judged it a suitable occasion to wear a gleaming fireman’s helmet, not unlike an inverted brass coal-scuttle. In such circumstances (as in a nightmare) nothing seemed incongruous.
The 76th Field Regiment landed primarily in support of 8 Brigade. Until they landed the Infantry depended for support upon the Navy and 5 (Independent) R.M. Armoured Support Battery, whose 16 Centaurs with 95-mm. guns would have been available at H plus five minutes, but only 50 per cent managed to get ashore and they could not get in touch with the F.O.O.s. They and the 33rd Field Regiment were grouped under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Mervyn Foster, R.A., the Commanding Officer of the 76th Field Regiment. 33rd Field Regiment normally supported 9 Brigade, the Reserve Brigade. They were therefore able to join first 76th Field Regiment, then, for 185 Brigade’s advance, the 7th Field Regiment, until finally 9 Brigade landed. At that time one battery of the 76th Field Regiment would be in direct support of the 6th Airborne Division, with the remainder of the regiment ” on call” to protect the Orne bridges against enemy counter-attack. The 33rd Field Regiment landed half an hour after the 76th and joined them in action on the beach. Then 185 Brigade came ashore.
INVASION: THE FOLLOW-THROUGH
Three large landing-craft of 185, the Intermediate Brigade were hit before disembarkation, and there were casualties between the beach and the Brigade Assembly Area north of Hermanville. The laden men struggled ashore in four feet of water, clinging to ropes run out to the beach by the Navy But by 11 o’clock the three infantry battalions were assembled inland and ready, and Brigade H.Q. was established in Hermanville. The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry were in the middle, with the Royal Norfolks on the left and the Royal Warwicks on the right. The K.S.L.I. were to mount the tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, from 27 Armoured Brigade, and advance along the main axis to secure Caen as quickly as possible. The Norfolks on the left and Warwicks on the right were to mop up and secure objectives captured by the mobile column. But there was no sign of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, who were caught on the beach, which, so far from being cleared, was becoming more tightly congested as the tide came in. And in the Assembly Area the two most westerly companies of the Warwicks came under accurate machine-gun fire from German positions towards Lion and Cresserons. Lieutenant-Colonel H. O. S. Herdon, their Commander, prepared a plan for attacking these positions, subject to the approval of the Brigade Commander, Brigadier K.P. Smith, O.B.E.
The Brigadier was in an unhappy dilemma: whether to launch the assault on foot or wait for the tanks. The General’s order was that “this advance will be carried out with speed and boldness so that the enemy’s local reserves can be overcome quickly and the Brigade established on its objective ready to meet counterattacks by reserve formations which may develop towards evening on D-day.” The question was whether more speed might not be attained by waiting for the tanks than by committing the troops to an attack on foot. Available intelligence was that on the left the East Yorks were still moving across the open marshy ground under observation and mortar-fire, in their advance on the enemy position Sole behind Riva Bella, that the Suffolks had cleared Colleville without much trouble, as the Commandos had just done some of the work on their way through to the bridges. But the Suffolks had still to attack Morris and Hillman, which stood right in the way of the Norfolk advance.
At midday Lieutenant-Colonel F. J. Maurice, commanding the K.S.L.I., reported to Brigadier Smith that only about one and a half squadrons of the Stafford Yeomanry were clear of the beaches, and that a large minefield apparently covered the right flank of Hermanville across the axis of advance originally planned for the tanks. They could not leave the road on account of the bog and were consequently nose to tail and all stationary whenever there was a hold-up ahead. Brigadier Smith therefore ordered the K.S.L.L to advance on foot along the main axis, Hermanville-Beuville-Caen, immediately, the Stafford Yeomanry to “marry-up” as soon as possible. The Norfolks were to wait in Colleville, to pass through the Suffolks as soon as Morris and Hillman were clear.
Lieutenant-Colonel N. P. H. Tapp, R.A., was at this “Order Group.” He had been watching his regiment, the 7th Field Regiment, as, shortly after beaching, they roared past Hermanville cross-roads to deploy just to the south in the open fields, and just in front of the South Lancs, the southernmost infantry in the area. The infantry, feeling the strain and reaction from their first attacks on the beach positions, were surprised, relieved, and greatly cheered at this spectacle. In the Colonel’s words: “I do not know if the Gunners knew they were the foremost troops at that time. They were probably better disposed to enjoy the honour in retrospect! I grew more and more cheerful as I counted the guns and vehicles going past, *15* and by 12 o’clock was able to say to the Brigadier: ‘The 7th Field Regiment is in action with all its assault vehicles and ready to support its affiliated tanks and infantry.'”
At 12.15 Brigadier Smith received intelligence of enemy tanks in front of Caen, of heavy enemy fire from Periers-sur-le-Dan, and of stiff enemy opposition to the Canadians on the right flank. He ordered the Warwicks to disengage the enemy in their original Assembly Area and occupy the area left by the Norfolks. The K.S.L.I. moved off up the Periers ridge. In them, they knew, was centred the whole hope of the Division: theirs was the central thrust of the assault, and aimed at Caen. They soon dealt with the machine-guns and mortars that opposed them on either side of the cross-roads just forward of the crest. But before we can follow them further we had better be clear about the beach situation and the extent of the beach-head secured by 8 Brigade.
The clearing of the beach-exits proved to be about the hardest and most heart-breaking job of the invasion. No sooner had one crisis been overcome than another arose. The tide came up quickly, and the beach was eventually reduced to a width of 10 yards instead of the 30 yards anticipated. This meant that vehicles had to land immediately facing one of the exits if they were to get off the beach; there was not much scope for lateral movement. The exits were no longer marked, however, by the coloured windsocks that the Navy knew and made for. During one period of heavy enemy shelling, from inland and from the coastal batteries along the left flank, it was obvious that the Germans were ranging both on the windsocks and on the sixty barrage balloons brought over for beach anti-aircraft defence, some of which had already been cut adrift. The Divisional Commander ordered the immediate loosing of the remainder.
The problems were innumerable, but a main one was the soft strip of sand at the top of the beach over which bridging vehicles and many others had to be towed by Beach Section recovery teams; this amongst all the welter of transport edging towards the exits, stranded landing-craft, derelict D-D tanks and Armoured Vehicles, R.E., and, not least, over fifty self-propelled guns (including the eight of the 5th R.M. Battery) all firing from the water’s edge, and having to advance up the beach at one point when they looked like getting out of their depth Finally, blockages were frequently caused beyond the exits by tracked vehicles losing their tracks on mines between the exits and first lateral, and later on, when there was a hold-up on the road across the marsh, a continuous column extended nose to tail right back into the exits and was itself the cause of obstruction to tanks not yet clear of the beach.
If more were needed to aggravate a critical situation, the Commander of 5 Assault Regiment, R.E., had been killed at H-hour; and the Commander of 5 Beach Group was killed some hours later, as he was carrying out a reconnaissance of the westerly beaches. Major Carse, who had commanded the Battle School in quiet Moffat, took over command of 5 Beach Group. For the first four and a half hours of the assault craft had been beaching to time, and the majority had been able to discharge immediately. Then it was decided to hold up all beaching for half an hour to clear the beach. This action was justified. When beaching was resumed, the tide was ebbing and the exits were clear.
8 Brigade were still attacking strongly defended positions. The East Yorks found resistance at Sole much fiercer than had been anticipated. Incidentally, they were not the first to reach it. The chronicler of the 2nd Middlesex, relating the action of their A (machine-gun) Company, writes: “No. 4 Platoon, under Lieutenant Milne, were reorganised and went off via Colleville to strong-point Sole, expecting to find the East Yorks Battalion H.Q. Instead, the leading carrier came under fire from a light anti-tank gun.” However, the East Yorks had cleared Sole by 1 o’clock and the F.O.O. with G Company, Captain Featherstone, established his party in an O.P. on the enemy position. They were “slightly embarrassed by the appearance of eighty Germans surrendering from a dug-out. A wide burst of Sten-gun fire at the leading German, before it was clear what their intentions were, hastened the process. A section of the East Yorks were asked to take the Germans in charge.” The East Yorks now made preparations for the attack on the gun position at Daimler.
Their Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel G. F. Hutchinson, was caught by enemy mortar fire in a sunken lane, wounded, and had to be evacuated.
By 1 o’clock the 10.5 cm. battery Morris had fallen to the Suffolks. It had been “softened-up” by the six-inch guns of the cruiser H.M.S. Dragon, and the R.A.F. had attended to it. As soon as the F.O.O. of 76th Field Regiment started ranging to register it, a white flag was hoisted and the sixty-seven German gunners emerged with their hands up. The advance began on Hillman. Captain Ryley, commanding the company which was to attack Hillman, received an unpleasant shock as he crawled forward on his reconnaissance. It had not been clear from air photographs that there were deep concrete shelters on the position, although the pillboxes, steel cupolas and emplacements were easily recognisable. Fire from a cruiser was never brought down, as the F.O.B. had been knocked out earlier. Nor was there any sign that the position had ever been attacked from the air.
The breaching platoon, under Mike Russell of D Company, and Lieutenant Heal, R.E., crawled forward through the corn under cover of H.E. and smoke from the Artillery, breached the two belts of wire and cleared a track through the enemy minefield, “working just as if they were on training and yet within 50 yards of the enemy,” wrote their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel R. E. Goodwin. One section crossed the gap and immediately came under heavy machine-gun fire from one of the cupolas. The section commander, Corporal Jones, was killed as he tried to work his Section forward. The Platoon Commander, Lieutenant Powell, came forward with a PIAT team to deal with the cupola. A message was sent back to inform Captain Ryley that they were pinned down, but the first runner was killed on the way. Another Artillery concentration was brought down, and Ryley led the rest of the Company in attack, but only he, Lieutenants Tooley and Powell and Corporal Stares got through the gap. They took a few prisoners, but most of the enemy had withdrawn into the concrete shelters. Sergeant Lankester went forward to join Powell and found Tooley and Corporal Stares mortally wounded. Moving back to report the situation, Captain Ryley was killed, and Powell took command of the Company.
The Divisional Commander came to see what progress had been made. *16* “I explained the situation,” wrote Colonel Goodwill, “and he said we must capture the strong-point before dark, so that we should be dug-in on our consolidation positions before the enemy armour, that was reported to be in the neighbourhood, could attack at first light.” 185 Brigade had encountered the 2nd Battalion of 192 Panzer Grenadier Regiment supported by self-propelled guns on the Periers ridge. Already the Division was face to face with the 21st Panzer Division, thought to have been from 10 to 30 miles south of Caen. *17*
An additional squadron from the Stafford Yeomanry were now going in with the Suffolks to clean up Hillman. The minefield gap was widened and safely crossed after another five minutes’ artillery bombardment. Fifty prisoners were taken though there was a grisly business in the deep shelters and galleries; some Germans fought on to the bitter end, and had to be blown out of their emplacements by heavy explosive charges laid by the battalion pioneers. Gradually resistance decreased and the success signal was given at a quarter-past eight in the evening. It was not till 6.45 the next morning that the commander of 736 Coastal Defence Regiment, a full colonel, emerged with three of his officers and seventy other ranks from a concealed shelter that had been overlooked the previous night! *18*
The East Yorks, supported by B Squadron of the 13th/18th Hussars, the 76th Field Regiment and the Self-Propelled troop of 67 Anti-Tank Battery, R.A. (which had been ashore since 8.15 that morning), had captured the 75-mm. battery Daimler by 6 p.m. Seventy prisoners from the coastal artillery battalion were taken, with several 40-mm. anti-aircraft guns. This completes the 8 Brigade background to the advance of 185 Brigade that afternoon.
The K.S.L.I. had begun their thrust for Caen, advancing over the Periers ridge in order of Companies X, W, Y, Z, and with C Squadron of the Stafford Yeomanry and F.O.O.s of both the 7th and 33rd Field Regiments in support. The Battery Commander with Colonel Maurice was Major Ian Rae, who was with the battalion throughout the campaign, earning their tribute: “of the greatest ability, courage and cheerfulness, he was to be a tower of strength to each successive Commanding Officer.” The first crest was reached despite heavy enemy shelling, mortaring and sniping from Germans concealed in the corn. An officer of the K.S.L.I. described how at one point they were driven to take cover, and how, looking round and extremely frightened, he saw Colonel Maurice walking up the middle of the road, ” playing with the chin-strap of his helmet as he always did … I got up. The example spread, and in a few minutes the men were moving forward steadily.”
The route now led down into the gully across the brook at Pont du Ponchel and along to the hamlet Le Homme, past Beuville village on the left to Bieville on the green slope to the right, then on up to Lebisey. On the Periers crest you had a fine view of the country up to Lebisey, and you knew that Caen lay only a couple of miles beyond in the Orne dip. But the descent from the Periers crest was not unopposed. The rear slope was commanded by a battery of six Russian 12.2 cm. howitzers, well sited on that same reverse slope over on the right just north of Periers. It was hoped that the heavy bombers before H-hour and the fighter bombers shortly after H-hour would have dealt with this known battery: “but it was not only alive, it was kicking hard.” Tanks and Support Company vehicles were held up at the ridge. Already one of the F.O.O.s, Captain Gower, with the Stafford Yeomanry, had been killed when his Sherman was knocked out. Immediately (it was 2.25 p.m.) Colonel Maurice ordered Major Wheelock with Z Company to attack this battery over on the right flank. And the advancing force was further depleted at this point when Lieutenant-Colonel J. A. Eadie, commanding the Stafford Yeomanry, had to divert A Squadron to aid the Suffolks in the reduction of Hillman. But B Squadron and also B (Self-Propelled) Troop of 41 Anti-Tank Battery, caught up with C Squadron and the remaining companies of K.S.L.I. Colonel Eadie then ordered B Squadron to take up battle positions here in readiness for an outflanking attack by enemy armour. The rest pushed on swiftly as Z Company closed on the howitzers; the German battery was encircled by wire.
Major Wheelock’s company managed to drive the German gunners from their emplacements, but they went to ground and covered the wire with dense machine-gun fire. The Yeomanry Colonel directed a Regimental Shoot of the 7th Field Regiment on to them, but several times the Germans got back to their guns and continued to shell the road until stopped again by the small arms fire of Z Company. Eventually a Pole was captured who knew the way through the wire at the back of the battery. The gunners fled into the woods, harried for some hundreds of yards by the Company. The guns were then blown up by an unnamed N.C.O. of the Divisional R.E.s, who, though badly wounded, succeeded in “spiking” them all. It was late that evening when Major Wheelock consolidated the Company. He was awarded the M.C. for his great courage during this action. Lieutenant Dixon of the Middlesex, whose machine-gun platoon was protecting Major Wheelock’s exposed right flank, was mortally wounded, and his platoon was taken over by Sergeant Rawling, who on the morrow won the D.C.M.
Progress for the main body had become easier, though there were casualties from sniping in Beuville and Bieville; the latter village was reached by 4 p.m. Y Company, under Major Steel, with a troop of tanks, was immediately sent on into Lebisey Wood, but one tank was bogged in a natural anti-tank obstacle known as Port, and only three tanks reached the wood. Y Company reached the front edge of the wood without loss.
The Reconnaissance Troop of the Stafford Yeomanry now reported that a squadron of about twenty-four German tanks was advancing north from Caen, moving very fast. The Yeomanry Colonel immediately asked for the release of A Squadron from Hillman, who arrived just in time to take up battle positions to the west of Bieville. He had left B Squadron on the Periers ridge to meet such a threat as this. There were also in position the 6-pounder anti-tank guns of the K.S.L.I. and the S-P Troop of 41 Anti-Tank Battery, R.A.
The German tanks came straight on and were engaged when they reached the western edge of the Port obstacle. There were about forty of them. Two were knocked out by the Yeomanry and two more by the K.S.L.I. 6-pounders. The remainder moved west over towards the thickly hedged fields round Le Landel, followed over to our right flank by two troops of A Squadron. As soon as they emerged, No. 1 Troop engaged and destroyed four, and No. 4 gun of the Self-Propelled Troop of 41 Battery knocked out two, though one of their own S-Ps was hit and a sergeant and gunner killed. Other enemy tanks swung still more to the west and made for the high ground above Periers, where B Squadron were waiting patiently. Three more German tanks were destroyed and the rest quickly withdrew. No more left the cover of the trees and hedges. They had lost thirteen Mark IV (Special) tanks in the encounter. *19* In return they had hit one M.10 S-P Anti-Tank gun and two Shermans, none of which was put out of action, though there were nine fatal casualties. *20*
Men who were wounded near-by were carried to the house in Bieville, where Mme. Barrett and her invalid daughter lived. The house was under heavy shellfire, but Mme. Barrett was utterly fearless and tireless in her efforts to tend our men, and, being a trained nurse, she undoubtedly saved the lives of the more serious casualties.
During the German counter-attack on the right, Major Steel’s men had reached the northern outskirts of Lebisey. Here they were held up by machine-guns firing from the houses, and a party of about forty Germans was seen making its way round the right flank. Major Steel was killed by a machine-gun bullet; at this critical moment his Company lost “a man of more than normal intelligence and culture, a fine swimmer and athlete, a commander they greatly respected.”
Meanwhile the Norfolks, who had been assembled near Colleville, saw that Hillman was an altogether more formidable obstacle than had been expected, and Lieutenant-Colonel R. H. Bellamy planned to slip his battalion past it to the left. They could not, however, go too far over to the left in case they became involved with the possible enemy-defended locality of St. Aubin d’Arquenay. Brigadier Smith arrived with the news that the K.S.L.I. had identified a unit of 21 Panzer Division in Bieville, and that the General’s order was that the Norfolks would reach Rover before last light. Rover stood between Beuville and the Orne bridge, a wooded area on the top of a gentle rise, with the ground falling away more sharply beyond. There the Norfolks were firmly established by 7 p.m., though that thorn-in-the-side Hillman cost them about 150 casualties on the way. A single house stood on Rover, thereafter to be known as Norfolk House; one would never have mistaken it for the Norfolk House in the corner of St. James’s Square where Eisenhower’s early planning took place.
The evening was warm and there was sunshine to cheer things up; at about 9 p.m., while the Norfolks were preparing to withstand the impact of a probable enemy tank attack, the most heartening, splendid spectacle of that great day slowly came across the sky for all to see. Our men looked over their shoulders and gasped as their eyes brightened: for a minute the eyes of the Germans narrowed with fear. The gliders of the 6th Airlanding Brigade were towed on gracefully, majestically. At a certain point the big aircraft released them, turned, and flew back to England, disdainful of the flak the Germans were pelting up at them. It was a superb manifestation of power, precision and planning.
The Warwicks had the most reason to be delighted at this latest landing. So that they should not get mixed up in a tank battle that seemed likely to develop on the right flank, they had been directed down to the left and along the canal road, St. Aubin d’Arquenay, Bénouville, Blainville. Although several parties had by now passed along on their way down to the bridge—the Commandos of 1 SS Brigade, “Fox” Troop of the 92nd Light Ack-Ack Regiment, Sappers of 17 and 71 Field Companies who were at work on the bridges, and five tanks from B Squadron of 13th/18th Hussars—there were still numbers of enemy, chiefly snipers, in the area of Le Port just outside of Bénouville to the north, and they hotly engaged the Warwicks. At the very moment the Warwicks were going in to clean up this area the gliders descended upon it. *21* Jeeps and airborne troops were seen in the target area. They were able to push straight through into Bénouville and along the canal road. Major T. G. Bundock’s Company were left behind in Bénouville to relieve the 6th Airborne Division of the defence of the Canal Bridge, which ceased to be called Rugger and took the name Pegasus Bridge. *22* The rest of the Warwicks continued to advance, with Captain Barrett’s Company leading. There was opposition all the way from a mobile delaying force of infantry with 88-mm. The F.O.O., Gregory, was knocked out in his tank, and so our guns were no longer replying to these 88s. The Battalion halted at midnight in the outskirts of Blainville and dug in.
It was not 9 Brigade’s day. They landed as Reserve Brigade, and were to have concentrated in the area of Plumetot, ready to move rapidly down through Gazelle and Cambes to St. Contest, to hold the ground between 185 Brigade and 9 Canadian Infantry Brigade. Brigade H.Q. landed together at 1 p.m. and were almost immediately struck down by a mortar bomb. Brigadier J. G. Cunningham, M.C., *23* with his G.III, Intelligence Officer and a Liaison Officer, were seriously wounded, and the Intelligence Sergeant was killed. The rest of the Brigade got ashore through deep water and reached the Assembly Area with few casualties. Lieutenant-Colonel I. C. Harris of the Ulster Rifles assumed command of the Brigade until Lieutenant-Colonel A. D. G. Orr, D.S.O., returned from liaison duty with 6th Airborne Division. Colonel Orr had been Second-in-Command of the Brigade and was now promoted Brigadier.
Over on this right flank it was early apparent that the enemy was far stronger and more active than he was expected to be. 41 (R.M.) Commando had fought their way along to the right through Lion and Luc-sur-Mer, but they were unable to overcome all resistance. As soon as one locality was mopped up, fierce fighting broke out elsewhere, if it had not been going on simultaneously. A strong-point in Lion was held by eighty Germans for two days. The Lincolns were in contact with the enemy holding Cresserons. In front it was known that one Panzer Division was holding Caen. (Another arrived on the right of the Divisional front next day.) And over the Orne the Germans were reacting violently, particularly in the Bas de Ranville, where tanks and S-P guns attacked again and again. At 1 p.m. a critical situation was saved there by diverting to Ranville the leading Commando of 1 SS Brigade, whose own operations at Franceville Plage were thus delayed.
In these circumstances the 9 Brigade plan was changed and they moved to consolidate the left of the bridgehead, covering the bridges. The Lincolns, therefore, remained where they were, the K.O.S.B.s relieved the East Yorks in St. Aubin d’Arquenay, on the main road down to the bridges, and the Ulster Rifles took up a position near Point 61 on the road over the Periers ridge.
During the evening a squadron of 5 Assault Regiment, R.E., undertook an independent operation to capture the lock-gates at Ouistreham. The Squadron Commander with ten A.V.R.E.s destroyed the concrete defences near the gates, forestalling the demolition of one of the bridges. They captured the garrison of five officers and fifty-one other ranks. Meanwhile, down on the bridges at Bénouville, the Divisional Sappers had sustained “a series of casualties that went far towards upsetting the carefully prepared rafting and bridging plans for Class 40 relief Bailey Bridges.” By midnight 17 Field Company had lost their O.C. and both reconnaissance officers concerned with getting the bridging material forward. The C.R.E. was blown up on a Tellermine that night, but escaped with minor wounds and shock. The O.C. 15 Field Park Company was landed 24 hours late. Finally, the first of the sixty-five vehicles, due to be landed with bridging equipment that evening, arrived the next day, 16 hours late. The command of the units concerned with this work devolved on Major Upton, who must have felt very thankful that night that at least the original bridges were still held intact.
Forward with the K.S.L.L, Colonel Maurice had to decide whether to reinforce Y Company up in Lebisey Wood, or whether to consolidate in Bieville village, which in any case had not yet been thoroughly cleared. In view of the fact that enemy tanks were likely to attack across the open country to the right, and our own tanks, disposed to meet them, were unable to give any further close support, and since reserve Infantry was all employed in consolidation, the Colonel reluctantly ordered Y Company to withdraw to the Bieville position after dark. During this period Captain Dane, who took over command of Y Company when Steel was killed, was directing most effectively the fire of the 7th Field Regiment on to the enemy troops in front of his company. They returned after dark without further loss.
The adventures of the Division that long day in the early summer of 1944, and the achievements of so many individuals, would, but for one consideration, prolong this chapter till it occupied the rest of the book; *24* the close of D-day was not like the close of a book that could be snapped shut, its story put from mind. When the light in the sky went out that night, the men who had survived could not jump into bed, turn over, and go to sleep. They had only completed Chapter Two: there would be no relaxation, no easy oblivion, until the war ended and the Germans surrendered. Drake knew before he sailed against the galleons “that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of any great matter, until it be thoroughly finished, which.yieldeth the true glory.” The significance of this only dawned on the Division in the dusk of D-day. For a year now all their thoughts and energies had been directed to this day, and now the day was done.
The landing, the object of so much training, yesterday the source of so much agonising personal speculation, was to-day an accomplished fact. By now the world would know. To have come through history’s greatest amphibious assault alive was slightly unexpected. There is a revealing remark in the account of the landing by the Second-in-Command of the 7th Field Regiment, who wrote at the time: “In Hermanville, I was extremely relieved to meet my C.O. I suppose, in my fancy, I had never expected to see him again.”
But though the worst was over, the breathtaking moment of landing and crossing the beach, and though men now knew where they stood, the prospects were no less grim for being more apparent. “Assaults were far from easy being and unopposed, an impression which has not perhaps been fully dispelled,” wrote Admiral Ramsay to General Eisenhower, going on to express “the greatest admiration of both Navies for the magnificent bearing of the assaulting troops they put ashore. In short,” he concluded, “the assaults proceeded according to plan because every single individual taking part had confidence in it.” Men fight best who have confidence in their leaders. This obviously still applied to the Germans, as well as to our own men, the difference being the degree of fanaticism with which so many young Germans were determined to subordinate themselves and die. That our battalions did not exult in the number of casualties they sustained is nothing to be ashamed of. “Not that casualties were slight as the journalists gave the public to believe.” *25* This day the 2nd Battalion of the K.S.L.I. lost a hundred and thirteen officers and men killed and wounded, and one of the two assaulting battalions, the South Lancs, lost a hundred and seven; the other assault battalion, the East Yorks, lost five officers and sixty men killed, and four officers and a hundred and thirty-seven wounded. This was on the first day.
The Battalion history of the and Middlesex has the point: “2 Platoon, in support of the Suffolks, had their first casualties in Colleville, when a mortar bomb killed one and wounded six. In the life of every platoon it is a crucial moment when they get their first casualties. Most of the men had not seen active service before and had been caught up in the excitement of the landing. It was at moments like these that the calmness and experience of the platoon sergeants (in this case Sergeant Robinson) made all the difference.” Going into action is the crucial test of a man’s faith in himself and his fellows. Unless he is naturally bloodthirsty (and how many civilian, or for that matter military, Britons are?) the Infantryman’s personal acceptance of the terms of “action” is probably the greatest call that will be made on his character in the whole course of his life. And on D-day it was not only the Infantryman who found himself in action, but the whole Divisional Assault Group, every man. That so many thousands of ordinary men should in our time have performed this supreme act of faith is the most encouraging basis for the immediate future, when a common strength of character may succeed in averting fresh economic crises and wars.
The 3rd Division had done more than all that was expected of them once details of enemy dispositions were known. General Rennie wrote after he had been wounded: “Tell them how magnificent they were . . . They exceeded my highest expectations.” From an idyllic life in sunlit woods and warm Hampshire lanes they were carried overnight across the Channel with half a gale blowing, and proceeded in one day to disprove the Teutonic theory of the Atlantic Wall and to form a bridgehead from which, by nightfall, they were in no immediate danger of being dislodged. *26* That was the achievement. No wonder “morale was high” that night, and as men dug themselves a hole in the French earth, or lit the fuse of a tin of self-heating soup and took some biscuits from the 24-hour pack—the first acceptable meal for most since that early breakfast on board—they chuckled together at the thought of the look on Jerry’s face as they gave him the surprise of his life that morning.
*1* This is now confirmed by Major Milton Shulman in his remarkably fine book, DEFEAT IN THE WEST. German Intelligence Staffs had cried ” wolf” too often. “Life was relatively serene amongst the German formations in France on the evening of 5 June, 1944 . . . The invasion seemed weeks away . . .”
*2* “Without the intervention of Bomber Command,” writes Marshal of the R.A.F. Sir Arthur Harris, “the invasion of Europe would certainly have gone down as the bloodiest campaign in history, unless, indeed, it had failed outright—as it would undoubtedly have done.
*3* Divisional Intelligence Summary issued with the final Operation Order dated 14 May, 1944.
*5* Alternative plans were prepared to allow for faulty landings or initial repulse.
*6* Op. cit.
*7* Royal Signals (and the R.A. signallers) won gratitude all round on D-day. The distinction of fitting seventy-six out-stations into a workable group was achieved by Lieutenant Whiteman of the Royal Signals, though he was appropriated by 9 Brigade H.Q. before he could see the practical success of his efforts. It has already been remarked that, as an additional stand-by for the first fortnight of this operation, the 3rd Recce Regiment supplied twelve wireless Contact Detachments to aid Infantry communications. The Assault Brigade Signal Instructions drawn up by Captain Macbay, R. Signals, and issued with the Operation Order, occupied, with appendixes, thirty-nine pages of foolscap!
*8* The common expression of this in plain English was: “This’ll shake the bastards!” It was spoken with a cheerful note of confidence.
*9* That “Banger” had in mind the image of Wolfe reading Gray’s “Elegy” seems certain, since Quebec is first among the battle honours of the East Yorkshire Regiment, and September l3th is always celebrated by its members.
*10* The one “eye” left open to spot for the Artillery worked admirably considering that “cramped conditions are aggravated by the fact that nearly everyone, including the Marines and myself, is being violently sick,” according to the log kept by Captain H. W. Bruce, M.C., R.A.
*11* Each battalion, landed with its M.O. and a section from its Brigade Field Ambulance. The light sections of the two Beach Group F.D.S.s set up two Beach Dressing Stations on each beach, where they passed 24 very harassing hours.
*12* Originally Colleville-sur-Orne, this fair village has, in July, 1946, honoured us by rechristening itself Colleville-de-Montgomery. Its former title was not particularly appropriate, since it stands two or three kilometres from the bank of the river Orne.
*14* The craft was out of control and the skipper was obliged to order “Abandon ship.” Three of the troop’s guns were still serviceable, however, and Lieutenant Morrall was unable to abandon them. The gunners remained with the guns and luckily the craft ran ashore. They succeeded in running off not merely the undamaged guns, but a goodly prize of naval rum.
*15* Explaining how “with one or two very helpful Military Policemen and an increasingly hoarse voice” the congestion difficulties had been overcome, the Second-in-Command of the Regiment said: “There was a natural and very correct reluctance to leave the track because of the danger of mines. But from my previous observations, I was able to direct the guns in Infantry tracks through the corn. Although this caused words with a Sapper officer, none of the guns was blown up and they got through much more quickly.”
*16* General Rennie was ashore by 10.30 a.m; unlike the situation at Suvla with Mahon, Stopford and Hammersley, the difficulty lay in restraining him from risking the dangers of the front-line. Later in the morning the Corps Commander was seen walking in Hermanville. Neither wore a steel helmet. At 5 o’clock that afternoon General Rennie was able to inform Brigadier Smith that he supposed St. Aubin to be clear since he had just driven through it in his jeep!
*17* This battalion had moved into Buron three weeks before the assault, and merely in accordance with Rommel’s general policy, came right forward to the Periers ridge on the evening of 5 June. Lieutenant-General Edgar Feuchtinger, the Commander of 21 Panzer Div, came directly under Von Rundstedt’s command. Though Rundstedt passed the buck to the defunct Fuhrer in his interview with Major Shulman in October, 1945, it remains true that Feuchtinger got not a word from him till 7 a.m. on D-day, and no operational order till 10 a.m.: Rundstedt needed no higher authority to commit 21 Panzer Div. It was the one Division in immediate reserve capable of affecting the battle, having about 170 armoured fighting vehicles. At 10 a.m. Feuchtinger had decided to wait no longer, and attack the airborne troops immediately, but at 10 a.m. “I was ordered to stop the move of my tanks against the Allied Airborne troops, and to turn west and aid the forces protecting Caen —i.e. against the 3rd Division.
*18* With that, 716 Infantry Division, of which 736 was the right-hand Regiment practically dissolved as a fighting unit.
*19* 3 Br Inf Div Int Summary No. I : Period to 2359 hrs 7 June.
*20* This was the main outcome of the orders received by General Feuchtinger at 10 a.m. Feuchtinger afterwards stated to Major Shulman: “Once over the River Orne I drove north to the coast. By this time the enemy, consisting of 3 British and 3 Canadian Infantry Divisions had made astonishing progress and had occupied a strip of high ground about ten kilometres from the sea. From here the excellent anti-tank gunfire of the Allies knocked out eleven of my tanks before I had hardly started. However, one battle group did manage to by-pass these guns and actually reached the coast at Lion-sur-Mer at about seven in the evening … I retired to take up a line just north of Caen. By the end of that first day my division had lost almost 25 per cent of its tanks.”
*21* Poles and stakes erected by the Germans to prevent just such an occurrence were snapped like matches by the gliders. It is as well that our similar means of protection in England were not similarly tested!
*22* The French Government has agreed to perpetuate the name in tribute to the men who first seized it and held it against several determined attacks throughout that day.
*23* The loss of a Brigade Staff and two Battalion Commanders in the first hours of the landing cannot have been without consequence, but though there were soon further casualties among senior officers, this crippling in no way approached that in the disastrous landing on V Beach at Gallipoli, when the 29th Division lost all the brigadiers, two brigade majors, and more than half the battalion commanders.
*24* If, as it is, it seems long and complicated, D-day seemed very long, and the mounting of the assault most complicated.
*25* Admiral Ramsay, in the course of his report to General Eisenhower.
*26* There was still the danger that the weather might prevent the naval plan for the build-up from being carried out. Without the continuous arrival of enormous quantities of ammunition, supplies, and the reserve formations, the bridgehead might conceivably have been lost. It was not till 24 hours later that Admiral Ramsay felt sure that the necessary build-up could be accomplished, as he wrote to General Eisenhower.