Staffs Yeo in Normandy
Excerpted from: Lieut.-Commander P.K. Kemp, complied under the direction of a Regimental committee, The Staffordshire Yeomanry (Q.O.R.R.) in the First and Second World Wars (Gale and Polden, Aldershot, 1950).
IT was a rough crossing but, apart from a certain amount of seasickness, an eventless one. A final briefing and issue of maps was made during the passage, and dawn on 6th June found the convoy lying just to the westward of the mouth of the River Orne, opposite “White” beach, the most easterly point of the landing area. Down to the west, almost as far as the eye could see, the sea was covered with craft of ail descriptions, infantry and tank landing craft inshore and the support ships of the Royal Navy farther out, ready to bombard strong points ashore as required.
First to go ashore on “White” beach were the D.D. tanks of the 13th/18th Hussars, which swam in from a distance of about 800 yards. The tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry followed them, the landing craft touching down at 1030 hours to give an almost dry landing. The beach was not one of those most heavily defended and, apart from a certain amount of shelling and some indiscriminate sniping, there was little enemy activity.
Where is Staffordshire? From The Real Counties of Britain by Russell Grant. Oxford: Lennard Publishing, 1989
There was considerable congestion on the beach and in spite of grand work done by Major Gardner, who had been sent ahead to reconnoitre the routes from the beach to the assembly area, it was an hour before any progress was possible through the exits.
Even then movement was very slow, caused by the great number of vehicles attempting to use the few available routes, and in order to save time Colonel Eadie decided to by-pass the assembly area and to rally in the area of the cross-roads south of Hermanville. As soon as the armour was concentrated there, “C” Squadron, under the command of Major P. B. Griffin, M.C., was ordered by the Commanding Officer to seize the high ground above Periers-sur-le-Dan, overlooking Beuville, which was reached after a fast advance and found to be clear of the enemy. German guns and transport were engaged from this ridge, but shortly afterwards accurate shelling forced the tanks into cover. “B” Squadron, commanded by Major G. J. W. Turner, M.C., proceeding out on the right flank of “C” Squadron to give support and cover, suffered some casualties when they were engaged by a well-concealed German 88-mm. gun, five tanks being destroyed, in addition to the Medical Offier’s half-track, before the gun was silenced. It was during this incident that Lieutenant D. F. Alexander was killed while attempting to extricate one of the crew of his troop corporal’s tank, one of the five hit.
Shortly after reaching the ridge, “G” Squadron was ordered to support the K.S.L.I. in clearing the villages of Bieville and Beuville, necessitating an advance over the top of the ridge and across open ground in the face of heavy, close-range fire from a battery of enemy 122-mm. field guns, firing east from the wooded area around Periers-sur-le-Dan. They reached Beuville without loss and, after a certain amount of confused fighting, cleared both villages. Nos. 1 and 2 Troops of this squadron were then ordered to find a crossing over a natural anti-tank obstacle south-west of Bieville and, after negotiating that successfully, worked forward into Lebisey Wood.
In the meantime the Commanding Officer had ordered “B” Squadron to occupy the ridge just vacated by “C” Squadron, while “A” Squadron, under the command of Major M. A. Spencer-Nairn, was assisting the Norfolk and Warwickshire Regiments in clearing up an enemy strongpoint by-passed by the leading armour and still holding out.
The squadrons were now widely separated, with “G” approaching Lebisey Wood, “B” on the high ground above Perier-surs-le-Dan about a mile away, and “A” Squadron temporarily detached from the Regiment’s command. When the Reconnaissance Troop reported enemy tanks advancing from the direction of Caen, the Commanding Officer asked for the immediate release of “A” Squadron, which came forward just in time to take up battle positions to the west of Bieville. The enemy tanks were advancing fast and were engaged as soon as they reached the western end of the anti-tank obstacle. Two of them were knocked out and the remainder moved west into the wooded country in the direction of Le Mandel. Two troops of “A” Squadron, well placed on the right flank of the Regiment, caught these tanks as they emerged at a range of about 600 yards, and Sergeant Joyce’s gunner destroyed three of them before they could retreat into cover. Another group, swinging farther to the west, moved fast for the high ground above Periers-sur-le-Dan, where “B” Squadron’s Shermans accounted for three of them before driving the remainder off.
While all this was happening, “C” Squadron in the Lebisey area was being shelled fairly heavily. Lieutenant Winterhalder was killed when his tank was hit in an engagement with two enemy tanks near the crossing of the anti-tank obstacle. The infantry, too, had suffered serious casualties during their heavy fighting and, since the Norfolk and Warwickshire Regiments were not available to assist in clearing Lebisey Wood, being still engaged in mopping up the strong-point farther back, it was decided to withdraw from that area and consolidate behind the anti-tank obstacle. At last light the Regiment leaguered west of Bieville and, in spite of numerous snipers in the adjacent woods, was not seriously disturbed during the night.
On the whole, the day had gone really well for the Regiment. Apart from the loss of five Shermans of “B” Squadron to the fire of a German 88-mm. gun, only two tanks had been hit during the encounter with the enemy armour and neither of them had been put out of action. The Regiment had destroyed seven enemy tanks and disabled two others, all of them Mark IV Specials.
Detail map of D-Day tank battle (from the regimental history).
Also on the credit side was the fact that a reasonably firm bridgehead had been established, the occupation of the high ground by the tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry enabling the follow-up personnel and armour to land over “White” beach without observation by the enemy, apart from the air.
At first light on 7th June the Regiment, less “A” Squadron, moved forward again on to the ridge and took up battle positions facing south and south-west. “A” Squadron were detailed to assist the Norfolk and Warwickshire Regiments in an attack to clear Lebisey Wood and penetrate to the open ground beyond, but it had been heavily reinforced by the enemy during the night and all the attacks were unsuccessful, the infantry again suffering heavy losses. At last light the operation was abandoned and “A” Squadron returned to the Regimental area while 185th Infantry Brigade consolidated north of the anti-tank obstacle.
There was no change in the position on 8th June and it was possible, from the various reports coming in, to form some sort of view of the success of the whole operation. The Canadians, landing on the right of the Division, had run into fierce resistance on D Day and had been unable to advance. On the 7th and 8th, however, they had forced their way forward and by noon on the 8th had linked up with the right flank of the British sector. Farther west again, the Americans had sustained heavy casualties during their landings, but had fought their way ashore and established a reasonably secure bridgehead. The capture of Bayeux on the 8th was an important success in the fighting that was then going on to link up the initial bridgeheads behind a continuous line covering the whole of the landing area.
For the next few days the Staffordshire Yeomanry remained in long-range support of the infantry and in observation duties from the high ground near Periers-sur-le-Dan. The Reconnaissance Troop was active during this period with extensive patrolling towards Lebisey Wood, and on the l0th lost one Honey which was knocked out when advancing along the main road, Lance-Corporal Humphreys being killed. On 12th June the Staffordshire Yeomanry relieved the East Riding Yeomanry in the area of Cambes and made contact with the Canadians on their right flank. There was heavy enemy mortar fire during the day which caused a number of casualties. During 14th June a small probing sortie was sent out on the left flank of the Regiment’s front under Major Farquhar, but the leading Honey in the Reconnaissance Troop was hit at close range by anti-tank fire and Major Farquhar ordered the patrol to return.
On the following day the Staffordshire Yeomanry moved back to their previous positions near Periers-sur-le-Dan and remained in that area for the next three weeks. There was considerable shelling of the regimental area during this period, but casualties were light. Numerous slit trenches were dug in the Squadron positions and the time was spent mainly in taking a well-earned rest, coupled with anti-parachute patrols and covering patrols for the infantry as they probed towards the Lebisey Wood area. The Regiment took part on 27th June in an operation designed to clear the wooded area south of Chateau de la Londe, on the right of the Regiment’s position. The tanks moved out at first light, soon coming under heavy fire. Lieutenant Sinclair’s Sherman received a direct hit and was destroyed, all the crew escaping unhurt, and “C” Squadron equalized the score by knocking out a German Mark IV which was machine-gunning the infantry. Casualties in the attacking infantry were severe and the operation was called off at 2330 hours, when the tanks pulled out of battle and leaguered in their old position behind the ridge. On their return the news came in that the Americans had captured Cherbourg after the cutting off of the Cotentin peninsula two days previously.
During the first week in July plans were made for a new assault on the whole divisional front, to be supported by 27th Armoured Brigade. It was timed to take place on 8th July and 185th Infantry Brigade, supported by the Staffordshire Yeomanry, was given the task of clearing Lebisey Wood and advancing to the high ground beyond overlooking Caen. On the night of the 7th there was a heavy air raid by Royal Air Force bombers on Caen, and at 0420 hours on the 8th the tanks and infantry began their advance behind a heavy artillery barrage put down by all available guns of the Corps.
“A” and “B” Squadrons were in close support of the Norfolks and Warwicks respectively, with “C” Squadron in reserve. They made their way through the wood and reached their objective beyond in excellent time, Caen falling shortly afterwards. During the advance Lieutenant S. F. Rashbrook was killed by shrapnel and one Sherman was hit and destroyed, but the Regiment accounted for three enemy tanks, two Mark IV’s and one Mark IV Special. Throughout the operation the liaison between the armour and infantry had been excellent tanks coming up in a remarkably short time to deal with points of resistance as required, and the Regiment was congratulated on its performance by the Brigade Commander of 185th Infantry Brigade. Even more to the point, perhaps, was a signal of congratulations from H.Q. of 27th Armoured Brigade with instructions to “splice the main-brace.”
After two days in this newly won position the Staffordshire Yeomanry moved back on 11th July to the Chateau Le Mesnil for a few days’ rest while the fitters were preparing the tanks for the next operation. This was to be an armoured break-through on the east side of the River Orne in order to consolidate the capture of Caen, which had fallen to British and Canadian troops on 9th July. Its full objective was Falaise, some eighteen miles south of Caen. The capture of that town, coupled with the imminent break-out of the 8th U.S. Corps between Periers and St. Lo and its encircling move through Alencon to Argentan, would trap a large number of enemy divisions and force them to give battle to the west of the Seine. And if they could be well beaten there, then they would have little chance of regrouping and consolidating before reaching the shelter of the Siegfried line.
On 16th July the Staffordshire Yeomanry moved across the River Orne and on the 18th the attack went in. It was preceded by a heavy air raid on the enemy gun positions by 450 aircraft of the Tactical Air Force. “C” Squadron was attached for the first phase of the operation to 13th/18th Hussars and given the task of passing through them as soon as they had reached and consolidated their objective, the village of Butte de la Hogue. Shortly after the finish of the air raid the barrage was begun, and fifteen minutes later, as it lifted, 3rd Infantry Division, supported by 27th Armoured Brigade, began their advance. The armour of 13th/18th Hussars quickly reached Butte de la Hogue and “C” Squadron passed through, making a dash across the plain as far as the lateral railway line in the south, which was their objective. They lost two tanks during the process, knocked out by an anti-tank gun at Lirose.
“A” and “B” Squadrons advanced on the left of the main axis, mopping up pockets of resistance and engaging tanks and anti-tank guns. They finally reached Lirose, where they engaged a number of enemy strong-points in a concentrated shoot. Two Shermans of “B” Squadron were lost when hit by anti-tank fire. Major Turner and Lieutenant Elks being wounded. Corporal Steer was killed during the advance and fourteen other ranks were wounded.
Although Falaise was not reached, because of the stiffening opposition in the closely wooded country beyond the railway line, the operation had been partially successful. The whole area of the break-through was consolidated and formed a solid base for further British and Canadian attacks on Falaise, which was finally to fall on 16th August, almost simultaneously with the reaching of Argentan by the Americans.
The Staffordshire Yeomanry spent a number of days in this area, concentrated in the neighbourhood of Butte de la Hogue. Their task was to hold the two villages of Le Preaux and Cagny in the south of the salient, and their time was spent in mopping-up and carrying out a number of patrols to assist the infantry in clearing the extensive woods on the left flank. During most of the time they were subjected to fairly heavy artillery and mortar fire, but escaped without further casualties.
On 24th July orders were received for the Regiment to concentrate in the area of Coulombes and it became known that 27th Armoured Brigade was to break up and the Staffordshire Yeomanry to return to England for further specialized training. Vehicles were handed over on the 26th and on the next day the personnel moved down to the transit camp near Arromanches, where they embarked in L.C.Is. on the 28th for passage home to England. Newhaven was reached late the same night and the Regiment disembarked on the morning of the 29th and proceeded to Stanmer Park, moving by train the following day to Great Yarmouth. Here they were to begin specialized training in amphibious tanks, in which their next role in battle was to be carried out.