Sword of Fire
The British attack, the German counterattack, and the French in the crossfire.
Victory on D-Day was an Allied victory. Militarily, the most significant D-Day successes occurred on Gold, Juno, and Sword where the British and Canadian forces established the largest beachheads. From the enemy point of view, the British and Canadian beachheads were also the most most dangerous.
The Americans, struggling for a toehold on Omaha, might truly have been tossed back into the sea if the Germans had counterattacked through Colleville. Instead, the enemy’s eyes were drawn to the east. The focal point of the German countermeasures was the city of Caen an environs—inland from Juno and Sword beach. As Gordon Harrison writes in Cross-Channel Attack: “[The British] broke through what the Germans considered an especially vital portion of the defense. Caen was the gateway to the open country constituting the best tank route to Paris. In German eyes it was therefore the key to their whole position in France.”
On the afternoon of D-Day, the Germans launched an armored counterattack from Caen. The thrust was met by soldiers of the 2nd Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and tankers of the Staffordshire Yeomanry. The battle that ensued has been largely ignored by war chroniclers, especially popularizers of D-Day from Cornelius Ryan to Stephen Ambrose.
This is a brief War Chronicle account of the German attack, the men who turned it aside, and the French civilians in the crossfire.
For more information see D-Day war diaries for the 2KSLI and Staffordshire Yeomanry. Also see British 3rd Division Order of Battle.
Simplified map of German attack (black) and British advance (red).
Sword Beach / 10:10 a.m.
H-Hour was 7:30 a.m. The British 3rd Division’s 8th Brigade had landed as the first wave. The 9th and 185th Brigades landed later and were meant to attack with the armor to the city of Caen.
Little on D-Day went according to plan. The entire 9th Brigade and most of the 185th were diverted to other fights near the beach. Only a single battalion, the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry marched toward Caen—and without their armored support.
The KSLI battalion had four companies: W, X, Y, and Z. X Company would lead the way from Sword beach. This is the KSLI’s story, told in part by men who were there.
X Company, 2nd KSLI
Private Norman Millward
We were just coming up off the beach, and I was passing a house when I saw a little girl by the side of the road. The Jerries were firing pretty hard, and I thought, ‘If that little girl doesn’t move she’s going to get killed’. I got up and took a jump at her, and pulled her back under the garden wall. I could see somebody looking out of the house and made a sign at them. They must have understood what I meant, because they ran out and got her. I started off up the road again.
Lieutenant Harry Jones
We were soon in the town of Hermanville. As we marched in single file, with a gap of about five yards between each man, French people came out to welcome us, some shouting “Vive les Anglais!” (Long live the English!) to which I replied, “C’est la Liberation!”. One sight I shall never forget was that of the town’s chief fireman wearing his large bright-brass helmet, rushing down the street to give me a hug.
Corporal Robert Littlar
When we got into the Assembly Area in an orchard, shell-fire was bursting in the trees. Shrapnel was coming down, and my section’s Lance-Corporal was nicked. He started to ooze a bit of blood. “That’s it,” he said, “I’ve got a Blighty!’
‘You’re not going to blooming well leave me?’ I said. ‘You can’t just leave me with this lot!’ But he was gone! ‘Cheerio!’, and he was gone!
Lieutenant Harry Jones
We had been informed that that Sherman tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry would join us in the Assembly Area, and the plan was that we should ride on these tanks and attempt to capture Caen on D-Day.
Private Norman Millward
Whoever thought that up must have been a bit soft in the head, I reckon.
Lieutenant Harry Jones
Unfortunately, the tanks had great difficulty getting off the very congested beaches, and some were knocked out by German anti-tank guns firing from the Périers ridge about 800 yards to the south of us. After what seemed an eternity, I received orders for my platoon to move forward on foot without the Staffordshire Yeomanry. I must admit the adrenalin was flowing, and I was keen to get in amongst the enemy on the ridge.
As we made our way up the road, I heard a sound coming from the tall, standing corn on my left. Rather stupidly I stood up on the top of the bank, with bullets flying all around, and saw a German soldier advancing towards me with his pistol aimed in my direction. I fired a couple of shots at him with my revolver—they all missed. Fortunately, he threw down his weapon, raised his hands above his head and walked towards me. We lay in a ditch together to escape the bullets passing overhead. I then pointed to the town behind him and ordered him to “Marsch Schnell.” As he left, he seemed quite happy to be my first prisoner of war.
W Company, 2nd KSLI
As the soldiers neared Périers, enemy artillery shells blasted the earth. Shells burst in tree branches; deadly metal fragments whizzed through the air as men ran for cover. A platoon’s stretcher-bearer, Private Hind, blew up, apparently on a landmine.
One of the officers of W Company was terrified and hugged the earth. He looked up and saw Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice calmly walking up the middle of the road, playing with the chin-strap of his helmet as he often did. The officer got up, and others followed.
Major A.F. Slatter ordered his men to deploy through a cornfield. Platoons spread out and moved along the road, and past a church, winkling out the Germans.
Meanwhile, down below on the beach, tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry were moving inland.
The Staffordshire Yeomanry
Baker Squadron of the Staffs chugged toward Périers to rendezvous with the KSLI. The enemy was waiting. German anti-tank guns opened fire.
Five British tanks went up in flames. An armored half track, carrying Captain Lang and stretcher bearers, blew up as well. Lieutenant Alexander was killed pulling a man out of a burning tank.
The remaining British armor blasted the enemy anti-tank guns until they were destroyed.
Z Company, 2nd KSLI
On Périers ridge, Major Wheelock and Z Company went toward the sound of the enemy fire. The soldiers hit a barrier of barbed wire. From a distance, German machine guns swept the wire with a steady hail of bullets.
Lieutenant Percival led a flanking attack and was killed along with Private Burns. Lieutenant Scarlett’s platoon went to the left, and were hit with mortar. Three more men were dead.
While the company continued the fight, the other KSLI companies advanced up the road to Caen.
X Company, 2nd KSLI
Lieutenant Harry Jones
Our next objective was the village of Beuville. As we moved down the slope, shots came from our front and two of my soldiers were wounded. I called up my Company Commander [Major Guy Thorneycroft] on the radio. [Major Thorneycroft was already in Beuville], and he informed me that he was ‘holed up’ by snipers, behind a wall just inside the village, and would I please get him out!
I zig-zagged down the road with two of my men and they threw smoke grenades to cover the escape of the major. As we rushed back to the platoon, a sniper, whom I suspected was in the belfry of the village church, fired one shot and the soldier on my right was hit in the head. Within a second or two, the soldier on my left was also hit. To this day, I still cannot understand why I was not selected by the sniper as a target.
Sergeant-Major J.R. Roberts
There was a chateau and inside we found the lunch meal all prepared. Stew was still on the table. The Germans had obviously baled out in a hurry.
Signaler Corporal George Bunting
Some German slit-trenches were near the chateau. Another signaler and I were going to jump into one of them when we realized there was a German lying in the bottom of it. We thought he was dead, so we hauled him out, and laid him under the hedge. After a few minutes he shook himself, got up and started walking away! He was walking back towards the beach, so we thought we might as well let him go. He couldn’t do any harm down there; he’d been stunned by the shelling.
Corporal Robert Littlar
A bloke called Gisser Owen came round a corner with me. A sniper got him with an incendiary bullet, caught him right in the ammo. We were carrying extra ammo round the waist. The sniper got him in the ammo, and the lot went off. What a way to die! I’d thought it must have come from a house on the left, so I immediately opened up with my Sten gun, and took all the blooming windows out!
Beuville and Biéville
Both X and W companies were in now Beuville. The greatest danger was from German snipers. There were two kinds. One was an expert marksman, and an expert at keeping out of sight. The second kind wasn’t particularly good at either one.
As rifle shots held up the KSLI, Major Slatter was impatient and went to see what was happening. A bullet struck his arm, but the gunman was the second kind of sniper. He was clearly visible inside a house. Before going for aid, the major pitched a grenade through the window.
The best news was that a squadron of Staffordshire Yeomanry tanks had caught up with the KSLI. Tanks of Charlie Squadron prowled through the fields and village lanes.
Corporal Robert Littlar
There were three tanks with us then, the first tanks I’d seen that day. The captain in charge of them was talking to Lieutenant Dai Rees, and said he’d just seen 38 Jerries go into a house 3000 yards away. I remember thinking, ‘Pray God don’t let’s go after them: leave them where they are!’
We were out in the fields and orchards, and got the order to get cracking again, and off we went. Under the shadow of a wall, Dai Rees said, ‘Right, over the road, take that house!’ We were all blacked up, we all had camouflage-paint so we looked like Red Indians. I took the section across the road. It was the only time I ever knocked on a door! In my best schoolboy French I asked “Allemagnes?” [Germans?] The girl just screamed. We dashed straight in. The blokes were behind me in true house-clearance mode. They were in after me like a flash and straight up the stairs and down again in no time to say the house was clear.
Aerial photo of Sword. Lebisey is the circle in the far distance. Hermanville is on the far right. The photo doesn’t reveal the rolling nature of the terrain, of the ridges and valleys.
X Company, 2nd KSLI
Sergeant-Major J.R. Roberts
We were all right until we came to Biéville, as we went round the bend in the road there was a good deal of opposition from what we assumed was the church spire. A man in X Company fired at the snipers and said, ‘Oh, I’ve got one.’ He’d knocked one off. Shortly afterwards, he was crouched behind a stone wall, when a German hopped a grenade over the wall and blew him up. Before we could do anything, the German had just disappeared amongst the houses.
On to Caen / Y Company, 2nd KSLI
While W and X companies cleared Beuville and Biéville, Major P.C. Steel led Y Company on toward Caen.
It was an attack planned for thousands of men and squadrons of tanks. Instead about 100 soldiers went toward their fate.
Biéville / The Crossfire of War
Normandy was a combat zone and French men, women, and children were caught in the crossfire. In a letter describing the invasion, Madame Bouriez (resident of Biéville) gave an account of the day that began with falling bombs.
“The noise was atrocious,” she wrote, “making the house tremble in such a way that none of us slept at all. Finally, around 5 am, the bombs started landing on Biéville. We went down into the cellar.
“The bravest ventured out for news. I couldn’t stop Marcel from going over to Lébisey which had been flattened from the bombing, no sooner was he back than Philippe, who was on emergency rescue duty, went over to Caen. While he was going through Lébisey some bombs landed right behind him on the factory and the road killing people.
“Finally both my sons came back around noon. The afternoon was pretty bad, and we heard the bombing of Caen.
“The Boche had to beat a retreat through the village, and they told us with dread that the Tommies were on their heels. People ran about the village and the swamps between machine gun and rifle fire and the horrendous noise of the big guns off shore. Finally, a woman from the village came in yelling, ‘They’re here! I held their hands; they’re all black!’ I thought that the emotional stress had affected her, but she was right. During a clear spell, I was in the library when I saw three ‘red skin’ types, their faces painted black and scary, coming up through the park from the swamp, armed with sub machine guns and with nets on their helmets.
“The first of them having seen me, aimed his gun at me. I waved to him and explained, I’m not sure how, that the house was full of women and children. Right away, from every direction, black faced and exhausted soldiers appeared. Everyone went wild.”
Panzer attack / 4:00 p.m.
There was one armored force stationed near Caen, the 21st Panzer Division. The division had been up and ready at 1:30 a.m. when Allied paratroopers began to land. Soldiers waited in place for more than three and a half hours while officers tried to get authorization to attack. By the time tanks were moving, the Allied bombardment began. When it was quiet, the tanks were hit from the sky by the Royal Air Force.
The Panzer division stopped and started, received orders and counter-orders, went one way and then another throughout the morning and early afternoon. By 4:00 p.m., ninety German tanks and two infantry battalions of the 21st Panzer Division had assembled north of Caen. A general made a fiery speech. “If you don’t throw the British into the sea,” he warned, “the war will be lost!”
With the fate of Nazi Germany riding with them, the first group of Panzers charged off.
Major Steel and Y Company neared the quiet village of Lébisey. Then monsters roared out of the woods.
The soldiers dropped to the ground as the enemy charged past some distance away. The reconnaissance troop radioed a warning: forty enemy tanks, moving very fast.
Outside Biéville, Able Squadron of the Staffordshire tanks arrived just in time to take up battle positions on the ridge. So did Sergeant Walker and the big anti-tank guns of the KSLI.
Corporal Robert Littlar saw the anti-tank guns and said to a friend, “Trouble coming up, mate!”
The tanks’ wireless crackled with the warning, and tank commanders shouted from the open turrets: “Nasties are coming!”
Inside a Staffordshire tank, Sergeant Billings may have been first to spot the enemy. He shouted the range to the gunner and an armor piercing shell banged to its target. A German tank exploded. All the Staffordshire tanks and KSLI guns were firing. Another Panzer exploded. The German charge faltered. The Germans were stunned to meet the British so far inland. Then two more Panzers were hit by KSLI anti-tank guns.
The Germans returned fire but couldn’t lift their gun barrels high enough to blast the British gunners. Only one Panzer shell hit home. An anti-tank gun blew up, and flying metal ripped through Sergeant Walker.
Shells landed in Biéville. Two farmhouses were destroyed. A man who worked for the Bouriez family, René Boulanger, tried to free tethered horses and was killed.
The German tanks veered off. The Staffordshire tanks galloped after them. The Panzers maneuvered so the British would face into the afternoon sun. Then the Germans charged, but the glaring sun didn’t help. Sergeant Joyce’s tank gunner fired from a range of six hundred yards. The gunner hit his target and an enemy tank was burning. Soon two more were hit as well.
The Panzers swung off again and raced for Périers and the high ground above Hermanville.
As German tanks reached Périers, the guns of the Staffordshires were waiting on the ridge. Both sides opened fire. Three enemy tanks were hit. Panzers trying to join the fight were blasted from the air. British Typhoons dive-bombed and shot their powerful cannon, and tanks went up in flames.
But some German tanks made it to the beach. There was a gap between Juno and Sword and that’s where the tanks escaped. The Panzer soldiers made contact with the German infantry. There was now a chance for victory. If enough force were gathered, the wedge between Sword and Juno could tear the invasion apart.
The Germans waited for more tanks to pass the gauntlet of British guns.
Brave men / Y Company, 2nd KSLI
Major Steel’s country had been at war four hard years, but this was his first day in the fight. He loved his country and its army. As a British officer he was taught to be worthy of the name. An officer must be the bravest man in the army, he must never duck under fire or show fear, and he must always be where the bullets were thickest. Steel and his men entered Lébisey woods.
A German machine gun post was ahead. No one can know what Major Steel thought as he ran forward. Maybe he was thinking of England, of winning the war. Maybe he was thinking of his men and protecting them with his courage. Steel ran forward and machine gun bullets sliced through him like a scythe.
It would later be said that no top commander really expected Caen to be captured on D-Day. Commanders had meant it as a “far star” for men to try and reach. Major Steel died reaching for that star. His men fell back to Biéville.
Decision on D-Day
More tanks charged out of Lébisey wood. A Staffordshire tank was hit and Lieutenant Winterhalder was killed. Close to Biéville, a Panzer with an open top came clanking toward X Company’s positions. Norman Millward remembered, “The order came out to everyone, ‘Let it go, let it go through.’ One of our young soldiers was on guard and can’t have heard. He just got up, and put his hand up to say, ‘Stop!’. Jerry just opened up on him, and that was the end of him.”
Meanwhile, on the wedge between Juno and Sword, the German Panzers still waited.
Then they looked up.
Two hundred and fifty gliders filled the sky. The British were overjoyed. The Panzers panicked. They were afraid of being encircled and cut off from the rest of the division.
The German armor on the coast retreated and ran into the Canadians. There were many confusing skirmishes as tanks, armored half tracks, and infantry tried to find a weak spot in the line. In one encounter, a platoon of Chauds was wiped out. In another, the Winnipegs took 19 German prisoners. Despite being bone-tired and facing an enemy who knew the terrain, the Canadian line could not be broken.
The invasion was ashore and would never be thrown back.
10:00 p.m. / Périers
On Périers ridge, a woman named Marie-Louise Omont left her shelter. The sound of gunfire was more distant. She saw farm animals killed by artillery and two German soldiers cautiously moving along the pasture wall. They looked, the French woman wrote, “lost, disoriented, sad.” She told them they must still have friends where the guns were firing. As they left, she wondered, “What will be their fate? How many more of them are still in the area, hiding and watching?”
Nearby, British soldiers carried the bodies of three men to a meadow. They were placed beside other dead soldiers from the signal corps and artillery regiments.
Grave registration units would identify and bury them where they lay. Telegrams of condolence and appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice in war would be sent to the families. Later, the soldiers would be disinterred and laid to rest in one of seventeen British cemeteries in Normandy.
The KSLI soldiers dug slit-trenches in a farmer’s field. Everyone was on edge after the German attack. The soldiers could hear the enemy moving, fortifying their positions in Lébisey. The Germans might attack again at any time with ground troops. Lieutenant Rees, Sergeant Davies, and Corporal Littlar were sent off to patrol.
They returned after dark. A man on sentry duty heard them approach. He called out the password and didn’t hear an answer. Sergeant-Major Roberts heard the lieutenant yell, “Don’t shoot!” as the sentries opened fire. Only Corporal Littlar survived.
Lieutenant Harry Jones walked alongside a farmhouse, checking on his platoon’s slit trenches. Soldiers had broken out their 24-hour ration pack: cubes of meat, a tin of soup, biscuits, oatmeal, chocolates, tea, sugar, sweets, and toilet paper.
Something caught the lieutenant’s eye. It was the KSLI anti-tank gun destroyed in the battle. On the ruined gun track was Sergeant Walker’s arm, severed above the elbow.
Jones suddenly felt close to losing his mind. He turned and walked past the farmhouse. There he saw a villager, Madame Barette, a nurse trained in the First World War, saving the lives of the wounded.
Lieutenant Jones kept going on.