Gold Beach: D-Day
Source L.F. Ellis, et. al., Victory in the West: Volume I: The Battle of Normandy (History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1962).
Note: The shoulder patch at left was worn by the 50th (Northumbrian) Division. The two T’s stand for the county’s Tyne and Tees Rivers.
D-Day: Seaborne Landings 50th British Division in Gold Area
It will be seen from the diagram [at right] that the 50th Division (the leading division of XXX Corps, associated with Assault Force G) was to attack in the Gold area with two brigade groups. The 231st Brigade was to capture ‘Jig’ beach, the 69th was to take the beach named ‘King.’ The coast in both is low-lying and sandy, offering no such natural obstacles as the bluffs of the rock-bound shore which stretches from Arromanches to Port en Bessin in the western half of Gold. Only low sand dunes fringe the shore of Jig and King but there are soft patches of clay in the tide-washed foreshore on which heavy vehicles would be liable to sink; and behind the lateral road which runs near the sea front much of the ground is soggy grassland, criss-crossed with dykes which must hinder movement. Jig beach could be covered by fire from strongly defended positions at le Hamel and Asnelles sur Mer and from a smaller strong-point near les Roquettes; King beach was protected by defences at la Rivière and by strong- points at Hable de Heurtot on the coast, and on higher ground near Mont Fleury and Ver sur Mer. The whole front between le Hamel and la Rivière was defended by beach obstacles and by a continuous belt of mines and barbed wire.
For the 231st Brigade, attacking on a two-battalion front with the 1st Hampshire on the right and the 1st Dorset on the left, it was obviously important to capture quickly the position at le Hamel this was known to include on the west a number of fortified houses and entrenchments, well protected by barbed wire and mines and by an anti-tank ditch; on the east, commanding Jig beach, the defences consisted not only of more fortified buildings, including a large and conspicuous sanatorium, but also a number of concrete and steel pill-boxes and infantry positions, again protected by barbed wire and minefields. The position was held by about a company of infantry well supplied with mortars and machine guns and with two anti-tank guns and at least one field gun.
About seven hundred yards east of le Hamel, where a by-road leads past les Roquettes to a customs building on the coast, there was a small well-wired post with several machine guns. Landing craft bearing the leading companies of the 1st Hampshire were carried by wind and tide some distance eastward of their intended landing place and touched down nearly opposite les Roquettes. D.D. tanks which were to have preceded them were still at sea, for on this front it was considered to be too rough to swim them ashore and they were being brought in by their landing craft which did not arrive till later. Misfortunes had overtaken the 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment. Of the ten tanks which were to have landed on Jig beach at H-hour, in order to join with the D.D. tanks in giving support to the attacking troops until the field artillery could be brought in, only five were landed and about a quarter of an hour late, and all but one of these were hit by shell-fire from le Hamel soon after landing. Thus the first troops to land on Jig beach had no tanks to support them and had little answer to the gun, mortar and machine-gun fire which swept the shore. It was obvious that the defence of le Hamel, although it had been attacked shortly before by twelve Typhoons using 1,000-lb bombs, was unsubdued. Owing to the loss of two control vessels during the passage, le Hamel had to be omitted from the field artillery’s shoot during the run-in; most of the Eighth Air Force bombs had fallen well inland and the destroyers were unable to silence guns and other weapons sited to take the shore in enfilade and protected from seaward by massive earth-banked concrete walls. Interpretation of photographic reconnaissance here and elsewhere along the front had failed to reveal the fact that many of the guns near the shore were thus sited solely for enfilade fire on the beaches; they could not fire to seaward but neither could they be effectively attacked from the sea, except by cross-fire. Had this been known the naval fire plan might have been differently framed. On the flat sands craft grounded some distance from dry land. The engineers’ armoured bulldozers, track-laying, bridging and ramp tanks had therefore to negotiate a considerable stretch of surf, while men of many units often bearing heavy loads of explosives or other equipment, had to struggle ashore through the waves, raked all the way by the enemy’s fire.
Yet the leading men of the 1st Hampshire had comparatively light casualties in getting ashore and they quickly rushed the post at the customs house near les Roquettes and turned to attack le Hamel. At once they met intense fire. Their commanding officer and with him the forward observation officer for the supporting ships and a battery commander from the field artillery all became casualties. The battalion headquarters wireless sets were put out of action and they were thus unable to call for support from the destroyers or the self- propelled artillery ready to fire whilst still at sea. When the remaining companies of the Hampshires came in, twenty minutes after the first landings, an out-flanking attack through Asnelles was organised; without artillery support direct attack by way of the beaches was proving costly and making little progress. To handicap the battalion still further the second-in-command was killed soon after taking charge.
Meanwhile the naval and military obstacle clearance teams, working under fire and suffering heavy casualties, partially cleared one narrow gap on Jig before the rising tide put a stop to this work. The breaching teams of sappers with the assault vehicles were at the same time busy clearing exits from the beaches to the coast road behind and the build-up of the brigade continued steadily, though the beach was still under fire from le Hamel.
While this was happening on Jig beach the brigade’s second battalion, the 1st Dorset, landing east of les Roquettes, had fared better. Flail tanks of the Westminster Dragoons and armoured vehicles of the engineers had landed punctually and were quickly at work clearing mines and beach obstructions. The infantry crossed the beach and leaving a company to form a firm base at les Roquettes they pushed inland. After capturing a machine-gun post at Meuvaines they by-passed le Hamel and advanced westwards towards Buhot and an enemy position, at Puits d’Herode, which covered Arromanches and the nearby shores from the south. Though troops on the beach east of les Roquettes were less exposed to fire from le Hamel the breaching teams were still having casualties in clearing two exits to the coast road.
At about a quarter past eight the brigade’s third battalion, the 2nd Devon, began landing as planned close to le Hamel. Beach obstacles were still intact and le Hamel still unconquered, so they had a hazardous time in landing and getting clear of the beach. One company joined the Hampshire in the fight for le Hamel and the rest of the battalion moved round Asnelles on the south and pressed westwards towards Ryes, about two miles south of Arromanches.
Close on the heels of the Devon the 47th (Royal Marine) Commando landed. Since H-hour the tide had risen considerably, submerging obstacles before it was possible to clear them. On these, three of the five landing craft bringing in the Commandos were damaged and sunk by attached explosives. Many of the Marines swam ashore, but forty-three men and much precious wireless equipment were lost; yet in spite of the fire from le Hamel about three hundred concentrated at the back of the beach. After acquiring another wireless set from 231st Brigade Headquarters (which by then had landed) the Commando started off across country. They were to move inland and, avoiding contact with the enemy, to make westwards for Port en Bessin on the inter-Allied boundary.
About a thousand yards further east, the 50th Division’s 69th Brigade had begun landing punctually on King beach—the leading companies of the 6th Green Howards on the right and on their left the 5th East Yorkshire. Obstacle clearance groups and AVREs had begun landing just before them. The main enemy defences here were the fortified positions at la Rivière on the left flank and on higher ground near Mont Fleury and round the lighthouse; there was also a strong-point at Hable de Heurtot where a by-road from Ver sur Mer reaches the coast. On the map opposite German defences as recorded by Allied Intelligence are marked. [see above, map from Victory in the West showing German defences.] Similarly overprinted maps were issued for all sectors of the assault front.
The Green Howards, landing to the west of la Rivière, quickly cleared the strong-point at Hable de Heurtot where they were closely supported by engineer tanks. When four pill-boxes had been reduced with the help of petards, two of the tanks charged over the sea wall and routed the rest of the garrison who had been firing and throwing grenades from behind it. The advance was quickly resumed and the Green Howards next took the battery position near Mont Fleury. It had been struck by the bombers and H.M.S. Orion had registered twelve hits. There was no sign that its four guns had ever fired a shot and the gun crews, cowed by the bombardment, offered no resistance.
The East Yorkshire landed near the outskirts of la Rivière and for a short time were pinned down by fire under the sea wall. They called for naval support, and destroyers and support craft closed the shore and shelled the position heavily. A flail of the Westminster Dragoons silenced an 88-mm gun in a concrete emplacement and the East Yorkshire captured the position, taking forty-five prisoners. Even so it needed several hours’ fighting to clear the whole village and its capture cost, in killed and wounded, six officers and eighty- four other ranks. The rest of the battalion had gone on to capture the strong-point at the lighthouse near Mont Fleury. From there they took two guns and thirty prisoners and then moved on towards Ver sur Mer.[NOTE: Sergeant-Major S. E. Hollis of the Green Howards was awarded the Victoria Cross for his ‘utmost gallantry’ in this action.]
The 69th Brigade’s third battalion, the 7th Green Howards, landed at about twenty past eight, and made at once for Ver sur Mer. There were no enemy in the village and the battalion continued to the battery beyond it. Bombing and a two-hour bombardment by H.M.S. Belfast had left the garrison with little further will to fight and fifty were taken prisoner; their four l0-cm gun-howitzers in concrete emplacements had apparently fired eighty-seven rounds before they gave in.
The two assault brigade groups of the 50th Division were now ashore and fighting their way inland. On the coast the engineers had cleared two paths through beach obstacles and two exits for vehicles; and the two brigades were being steadily built up. D.D. tanks of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards and the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry had been brought in by landing craft soon after the leading infantry, with more tanks of the 6th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, and flails of the Westminster Dragoons. Self-propelled guns, of the 86th, 90th and 147th Field Regiments, Royal Artillery, Bren carriers, machine guns, mortars, anti-tank guns, jeeps and small trucks were being landed.
Shortly before nine o’clock two tanks of the 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment had landed on King beach and in the next hour or so six more came ashore. The circumstances of these Marine regiments need explanation. They had been formed only a few months before D-day to meet the army’s desire for guns to support early-landing troops until the field artillery could be brought in. They were armed with 95-mm howitzers mounted in out-moded Centaur tanks with troop leaders in Shermans carrying 75-mm guns. After firing on the run-in they were to land a few minutes before the infantry, to fire from the beaches or within a mile of the sea. Unfortunately they were not given much chance to fulfil this important role, since they were despatched in landing craft, hurriedly adapted and fitted with side armour, which made them unseaworthy in the prevailing weather. Some foundered on passage, some broke down at sea and had to put back; others were damaged by under-water obstacles or enemy fire as they grounded on the French coast. On all five beaches only twenty out of eighty Centaurs landed within the first quarter of an hour after H-hour and only twenty-eight more within the first four hours. Those that were not quickly put out of action after landing did good service, the Marines showing their characteristic enterprise.
Among others who had begun landing on each assault beach with the first troops and had started work while the shore was still under enemy fire were men whose task it was to resolve the confusion which was inevitable at first, when craft of every sort were arriving minute by minute to discharge men and vehicles hurriedly on beaches which the rising tide was narrowing rapidly, and from which an adequate number of exits were not yet cleared. They were the naval assistant beachmasters with small advance parties, forerunners of the naval organisation on the far shore that would eventually be needed for the reception and direction of ships and craft, the control of unloading operations, and the turn-round and despatch of return convoys; and the beach groups which were an essential part of each assault brigade group, to be gathered later into the divisional sub-area and the vast supply organisation that would subsequently be needed.
The first task of these reconnaissance elements of naval and military beach organisation was to make a rapid survey of local hazards, both off-shore and on land, and to decide the precise location of beach exits to be cleared; to begin marking positions for ammunition and supply dumps for the guidance of incoming craft and of vehicle drivers; and at the earliest possible moment to set up signal stations. The Main Beach Signal Station on each brigade front, manned on an inter-Service basis, was to enable local commanders to control both the tactical situation and the flow of traffic to the beaches and to be the clearing-house for all local information. This work of beach organisation began while beaches were still under enemy fire and in some cases men engaged in it joined in fighting to overcome near-by enemy posts which were hindering progress. Like others employed on the beaches in this early stage they had a full share of casualties. It will be seen later that as ships and craft continued to arrive and men, vehicles and supplies were landed in ever-increasing numbers, naval and military organisation of the beaches was a determining factor in the progress of operations. Unless the incoming flood of craft and troops was well directed and efficiently distributed and controlled, congestion on the shore would delay movement and the momentum of the assault must suffer.
Apart from the hold-up at le Hamel, the leading brigades of the 50th Division were making good progress and about eleven o’clock the first of its reserve brigades—the 151st—began to land on the beaches that had been captured by the 69th Brigade. About an hour later the 56th Brigade started landing near Hable de Heurtot so as to avoid fire from le Hamel which was still sweeping across Jig beach where it was to have landed. By early afternoon all four brigades of the 50th Division were ashore.
50th British Division in Gold Area
Map from Victory in the West showing German defences (blue) on King sector, Gold beach.
Large map from Victory in the West showing British and Canadian positions at the end of D-Day.
By the time le Hamel was finally conquered the 231st Brigade had just taken Ryes and had already occupied the radar station at Arromanches. The battery south of the village had been heavily shelled by the cruiser Emerald and its four 105-mm guns had been abandoned without being fired. The western half of Arromanches was then attacked after bombardment by a destroyer and the 147th Field Regiment, R.A.; the place was taken but was not finally cleared until about nine o’clock that night. The light was fading, Tracy sur Mer was full of enemy snipers, and after la Rosière had been occupied it was decided to postpone further advance until first light next day. The 47th Commando making for Port en Bessin had had a sharp fight at la Rosière earlier that evening and it was dark when they reached Point 72, the prominent hill a mile and a half south of Port en Bessin; they dug in there for the night ready to attack in the morning.
Leading troops of the 56th Brigade had also passed through la Rosière and turned southwards astride the road to Bayeux. As they approached Pouligny radar station the enemy set fire to it and decamped. The South Wales Borderers, in the van, pushed on to Vaux sur Aure and secured the Aure bridge shortly before midnight. The nearby battery had been shelled by the cruiser Argonaut and the vicinity had been bombed; it was now found deserted. The 2nd Essex on the left of the brigade advance had meanwhile reached St. Sulpice after meeting ‘light enemy forces’ and the 2nd Gloucestershire had followed into Magny. In those positions they were halted for the night. The brigade had been concentrated in the woods between Buhot and Ryes before six; it had taken four to five hours to advance about three miles, though virtually unopposed, and Bayeux was untaken.
On the left of the 56th Brigade, the 151st had moved forward in two groups supported by the 90th Field Regiment, R.A. Starting from near Meuvaines the right-hand group, led by the 9th Durham Light Infantry, took roughly the line of the Crépon-Bayeux road. On their left, the 6th Durham Light Infantry and a squadron of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards went south from Crépon to Villiers le Sec and there turned westwards towards Bayeux.
Between Crépon and the Seulles the 69th Brigade met considerable opposition from a battle group of the 352nd Division. Its 915th Grenadier Regiment stationed near Bayeux had been ordered, early that morning, to move westward to deal with a reported airborne landing between the Vire and Carentan. When it was proved that no such landing had taken place but that a battalion round Mont Fleury had been overwhelmed, the grenadier regiment was ordered to retrace its steps, to move eastwards and to counterattack towards Crépon. On the way back one of its battalions and some assault guns were diverted to oppose the threatened American penetration at Omaha. The rest of the battle group consisting of the 1st Battalion, 915th Regiment, the 352nd Fusilier Battalion and ten guns of the 352nd Anti-tank Battalion reached the country between Villiers le Sec and Bazenville at about 4 p.m. In the ensuing fight with the 50th Division, the German commander was killed and his infantry forced to withdraw across the Seulles, where some were taken prisoner near St. Gabriel by troops of the 69th Brigade who were already south of the river.
An entry in the German Seventh Army log records a ‘strong penetration in the area of the 915th Grenadier Regiment east of Bayeux …’ and another German account states that only ninety men survived of the battle group engaged. The remnants were attached to the 726th Regiment which was now ordered to establish a line from Coulombs to Asnelles—that is through the country already occupied by the 50th Division! But although this task was obviously beyond their power there was still much mopping-up to be done before the area was wholly free of the enemy. Near Crépon, for instance, an ‘88’, four ‘75’s and fifty prisoners were captured from a hidden position in the nearby woods early on the following day.
By about half past eight, advance troops of the 151st Brigade had reached the Bayeux-Caen road and were ordered to halt for the night in the Sommervieu-Esquay sur Seulles area. Tanks of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards were by then reporting that there was little resistance for three thousand yards to the south in the direction of St. Leger, but earlier in the evening the situation had looked very different. Advanced troops of the 69th Brigade, brushing opposition aside, had crossed the Seulles at Creully after fighting in which the Dragoon Guards lost four tanks. At about half past six aircraft reported forty German armoured fighting vehicles between Rucqueville and Brecy. On the request of a forward observer bombardment officer these were engaged by H.M.S. Orion about an hour later, and though some shells fell among our own troops, three enemy armoured vehicles were hit and the remainder scattered. Again at half past eight the spotting aircraft reported three large guns which moved south ‘when engaged’, presumably by Orion’s guns. Typhoons of the Royal Air Force on armed reconnaissance also reported attacking a few ‘tanks’, half-tracked vehicles and lorries northeast of St. Leger just before nine o’clock.
The operations of all three divisions [the British 3rd and 50th and Canadian 3rd] had made a good start but had subsequently developed too slowly for the main (and perhaps over-ambitious) object to be fully realised—namely, the capture of Bayeux and the road to Caen, the seizure of Caen itself and the safeguarding of the Allies’ left flank with a bridgehead east of the Orne. Partly this was due to a physical cause—the unexpectedly high tide and the resulting congestion on the shore which delayed the start of the advance inland. Partly it was due to the strength of the opposition at certain points and to the fact that the 21st Panzer Division had had time to intervene. But partly it was also due to the pace at which the assault divisions’ operations were carried out. Caen is eight miles from the coast from which the attack was launched and Bayeux six or seven. There was no possibility of taking them that day unless the advance was made as rapidly as possible, and at times there was little evidence of the urgency which would have to characterise operations if they were to succeed fully. Yet it must be remembered that the troops had had little time for rest and no relaxation of strain since they left England on the previous day. Their attack had not been launched from a firm base but from unstable waters breaking on an enemy-held coast. Starting under such conditions, to have swept away all but a few isolated fragments of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and to have fought their way inland for an average depth of four to six miles on most of a twenty-four miles front, was surely a notable feat of arms.