Stewart A.G. Mein, Up the Johns! The Story of the Royal Regina Rifles. The Senate of The Royal Regina Rifles, Turner-Warwick Publications, North Battleford, Saskatchewan, 1992.
Note: The “Johns” (or “Farmer Johns”) is the nickname of the Regina Rifles.
D-DAY AND NORMANDY
The Regina Rifles landed under heavy fire on NAN GREEN beach at Courseulles sur Mer, Normandy, on June 6, 1944. The wave-tossed landing craft of A Company, the first company in, struggled to shore at 0805 hours, 20 minutes after H hour (H+20), after making the Channel crossing on the Isle of Thanet. B Company wallowed in on the left at 0815 hours. Landing time had been set so that the low tide would expose obstacles on the beach which now stretched some 400 yards ahead of them to the sea wall.
On the Battalion’s right, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles with a company of the Canadian Scottish Regiment came in on MIKE RED beach. The remainder of the Canadian Scottish, the reserve battalion for 7th Brigade, waited to come ashore at MIKE RED, later in the morning. On the Battalion’s left, to the east, the Queen’s Own Rifles of 8th Brigade was landing at Bernieres, on NAN WHITE beach. To the flanks, the Sherman tanks of the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars) gave support, with B Squadron assaulting along side of the Reginas.
In the Regina Rifles’ sector designated for the assault, the town of Courseulles had been divided into blocks numbered 1 to 12. Block number 1 was located on the beach starting at the mouth of the Seulles River and encompassing the area around a built-in gun emplacement. A second gun emplacement stood on the other side of the canal, in the Winnipeg Rifles’ area. Stretching behind block number 1 along a canal were blocks 5, 6, and 7. On the left, block number 2 also began at the beach and sea wall area. Behind it stretched blocks 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. The rear boundary of block 12 was the road behind the town, one fork of which led to Reviers, two miles inland, the other leading east to Caen.
During the initial assault, as the landing craft of A Company splashed onto the shore in front of the block 1 sector, the company commander, Major Duncan Grosch, was wounded and became a casualty. At 0830 hours, the company, still on the beach, reported that it was pinned down and taking casualties from heavy machine gun fire and rounds from an 88mm gun from inside the emplacement. Despite the heavy early morning bombardment from naval gunfire, the gun emplacement, with its four-foot thick reinforced concrete walls and supporting fortified positions, was still intact. The men of A Company lay huddled on the beach, exposed to the withering fire directed at them. They could go no farther. In those first few critical minutes the fate of the company’s assault hung in the balance.
However, Lieutenant Bill Grayson, a platoon commander, had jumped from his landing craft on crashing the beach and had hurried across the bare expanse of sand through a gap in the wire strung along the beach, to the edge of the first row of houses facing the sea. There, he took cover behind a corner of a house near the German concrete gun emplacement where he could not be observed by the crew inside. The emplacement was at the far end of an alley from the house behind which he was hiding. Between the gun emplacement and himself was more barbed wire and a German MG42 machine gun post. He noticed that the firing from the machine gun came in bursts at timed intervals along a fixed arc of fire. Grayson checked the timing of the bursts and estimated that he would be able to get past the machine gun and run to the side of the emplacement where he could toss a grenade through the gun slit. Immediately after the next burst from the machine gun, he made a mad dash for the emplacement only to become entangled in the wire that formed the protective barrier for the gun. Miraculously, the next burst of fire was delayed. Grayson tore himself free and tossed in his grenade. On hearing the explosion, he dived in after it through the aperture. He leaped up just in time to see the last of the German gun crew disappearing through the back door of the emplacement. The rear man, on seeing Grayson, turned and threw a “potato masher” grenade at him, which landed between his legs. Coolly, Grayson reached down, grabbed the handle and threw the grenade back at the German who left abruptly before it exploded. Grayson then followed the Germans into a trench which zigzagged along to a covered underground protective area. On looking into this dark hole he could make out three or four figures. He heard shouts of “Kamerad,” so he motioned with his pistol for them to come out. Out came 35 men whom he promptly took prisoner. By then, other men from A Company had reached the emplacement, and they disarmed the prisoners and led them away. With the 88mm gun out of action, A Company was able to push on into the town to clear block 5. For his daring action Grayson was later awarded the Military Cross.
Meanwhile, on the left, while Grayson was silencing the pillbox, B Company, under Major F.L. Peters, had been able to move inland somewhat more quickly. After their initial landing in front of block 2 sector, the assaulting troops had been held up by the sea wall until it was breached by gunfire from one of the supporting tanks. B Company was then able to get on with clearing block 3. The company quickly moved through its block, into block 4 and then onward into the town. The reserve companies were now committed to come ashore. The two reserve companies, C on the right and D on the left, landed at 0835 hours and 0855 hours respectively. C Company, under Major C.S.T. Tubb, splashed down without mishap and moved into the town to clear its designated area. The Company quickly cleared block 8 and then went on to clear blocks 9,10, and 11. Unfortunately, as D Company moved in, two of its landing craft were blown up by mines about 250 yards from the beach, leaving many casualties. Among the dead were Major J.V. Love, the company commander, as well as CSM Danny Yeo and Lieutenant R.B. Murchison, the signals officer. A few of the men were rescued by Royal Navy craft while others were able to swim ashore.
At 0900 hours the battalion headquarters group with Lieutenant Colonel Matheson came ashore and the headquarters was established in block 8 after it had been cleared by C Company. The commanding officer of the 13th Field Regiment co-located his regimental headquarters with the Regina’s battalion headquarters, and from there he was able to direct the fire of the 95mm guns of the tanks of B Squadron. His own field guns were to come ashore later.
Meanwhile, A Company, now under Captain Ron Shawcross, engaged in clearing blocks 5,6, and 7 along the locks of the canal running through the centre of the town, reported that he was being fired upon from the rear. The fire was coming from block 1, which it had just finished clearing! The tenacious Germans had returned through underground tunnels and re-established themselves in the fortified positions. As a consequence A Company was ordered to return to block 1, and clear it out once again. To help them in their task the company was given another troop of Sherman tanks for support. By 1000 hours, a seriously depleted A Company was still engaged in heavy fighting in the beach area and in the areas behind the beyond.
At 0930 hours the remainder of D Company, consisting of approximately 49 all ranks, was reorganized under the command of Lieutenant H.L. Jones. The company then set out along the road to Reviers, two miles south, to seize the bridge over the Mue river. C Company, having accomplished its task in Courseulles, moved on to join D Company at Reviers. There, both companies successfully attacked a German headquarters position, inflicting a number of casualties and taking more than 20 prisoners. By 1215 hours, C Company reported that the bridge at Reviers had been secured.
At 1330 hours, battalion headquarters, followed by B Company, moved from its position in Courseulles, leaving behind a number of civilians who had risked their lives to come out to welcome the Canadians with flowers and bottles of wine. The headquarters joined C and D Companies at Reviers, at 1500 hours. The Battalion, including A Company, which had now moved inland after clearing out block 1, consolidated at Reviers. At this stage in the advance the Johns had already captured 80 German prisoners.
At 1555 hours, word came through that the Queen’s Own Rifles had taken the village of Magny and were advancing on Basly. Initially the Queen’s Own had run into strong resistance at Bernieres. The heaviest casualties had been taken by that battalion’s B Company, which had landed with no tank support east of its assigned position. The company sustained 65 casualties in the first few minutes of its assault. Also the North Shore Regiment had been initially held up in its assault of St. Aubin by a German 50mm anti-tank gun emplacement.
At 1800 hours, B and C Company of the Reginas, accompanied by B Squadron, were ordered to move forward to Fontaine-Henry. C Company was instructed to by-pass Fontaine-Henry, and go forward to Le Fresne-Camilly, the Battalion’s intermediate objective. On the road to Fresne-Camilly, at about 1830 hours, the commander of B Squadron reported that an 88mm gun had knocked out six of his ten tanks. Because radio communication with B and C Companies had broken down, the carrier platoon commander was sent forward with one section of carriers to get a report on the situation. At the same time, two detachments of three inch mortars were set up at Reviers to bring down supporting fire for the advance. These, together with the 95mm guns of six Centaur tanks which had arrived at Reviers, were able to effectively support the advance of the forward companies. At 1900 hours, B company was able to report that it had successfully entered Fontaine-Henry, and at 1930 hours C Company reported that it had reached Fresne-Camilly and had cleared it.
At this point, Matheson sent D Company to guard the left flank and moved his battalion headquarters forward towards Le Fresne. There he set up his headquarters and was able to report, at 1950 hours, to brigade headquarters, that the intermediate objective, line ELM, had been reached and secured. The much battered A Company, now reduced to 40 personnel, was left in Reviers to guard the bridge and the approaches to the river. At 2100 hours the Battalion was ordered by brigade to consolidate for the night in a new position on the high ground southwest of Le Fresne, on line ELM. Matheson, with the company commanders of C and D Companies, moved out to do a reconnaissance of the new position, sending a message to the commander of B Company to meet him there.
Matheson and his recce party had just reached the new position, when a dispatch rider from battalion headquarters raced up to him with a message that B Company had been overrun and annihilated in Fontaine-Henry. Matheson immediately sent the dispatch rider off to B Company area to find out what actually was going on. In the meantime he selected positions for D Company and Battalion Headquarters in the new location. The dispatch rider returned shortly to Matheson’s position, having been unable to find B Company’s location. He was sent out again but with a sketch map, and this time he was successful. The dispatch rider soon re turned with the report that the company commander, Major F.L. Peters, and the company second-in-command, Lieutenant G.D. Dickin, along with Rifleman A.J. Kennedy, had been killed by mortar fire. However, there had been no attack, and B Company was prepared to hold the position. At dusk, over 100 reinforcements arrived from the beachhead, and were allotted to A Company. With the reinforcements came a number of the survivors of D Company who had been pulled from the water and brought ashore. They arrived equipped with German weapons! Two men even had naval uniforms, having had to discard their own on the beaches! A Company was then withdrawn from Reviers to join the rest of the Battalion in its defensive location. Up to that time, approximately 150 German prisoners had been taken, over 100 of whom had been captured in the town of Courseulles sur Mer. The last of these were sent back to the beach. At 2200 hours, the Battalion dug in for the night, and Matheson went forward to do a recce of the positions for the following day’s advance.
For the Regina Rifles, D-Day was over. In the 14 hours from the first splash down to taking up defensive positions for the night, the Johns had moved inland about seven miles from Courseulles through Reviers and Fontaine-Henry, to reach their intermediate objective at Le Fresne-Camilly. The advance was not without cost. The Battalion’s casualties had been high, including three company commanders, two of them killed and one wounded.
At the end of the first day of the invasion, 7th and 8th Brigades of the 3rd Canadian Division had successfully established a beachhead, and 9th Brigade, the divisional reserve, had landed. To the left of the Canadians, 3rd British Division had also successfully landed, but was now held up two miles short of its objective, Caen.
On June 7, at 0300 hours, Matheson and the Battalion’s intelligence officer attended an orders group at brigade headquarters located in a farmhouse. By the light of a kerosene lamp, the day’s operations were discussed, and plans were made to move forward to the final objective, line OAK. At the orders group, Brigadier Foster, the brigade commander, expressed his satisfaction with the days events and his pride in the conduct of his “Western” brigade. Later, General Keller, the commander of 3rd Canadian Division, also indicated how pleased he was with the actions of 7th Brigade.
At 0500 hours Matheson held his own battalion orders group in which he gave instructions for the advance to the Battalion’s final objective, line OAK, the high ground on the Caen-Bayeux road at Bretteville L’Orgueilleuse. At 0630 hours the Battalion shook itself out for the advance to its final objective. At 0715 hours the companies moved off, with A and C Companies on the right, B and D Companies on the left. C Company advanced by road through Camilly, Bray, and Bretteville to Norrey en Bessin. A Company was to follow and occupy Bretteville. B Company moved forward on the left through Thaon, Cairon, and Rots. D Company was to follow and occupy the road, rail, and river crossing south of Rots. At 0730, the Battalion headquarters moved off. A and C Companies moved into Bretteville L’Orgueilleuse, which the Germans had hastily vacated and Battalion headquarters arrived there at noon. B and D Companies came up by 1400 hours after some heavy fighting. At Bretteville, the civilian population gave the troops a very friendly reception and the Battalion took up a defensive position around the village where things remained quiet during the afternoon. The companies dug in to be ready for an expected counter-attack which could come either from the east from Caen or from the left front from Carpiquet. With the occupation of Bretteville, the Regina Rifles became the first and only unit of the invasion force to reach and hold its final D-Day objective.
Meanwhile, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles had taken up a position on the Regina Rifles’ right, at Putot en Bessin at approximately 1330 hours. The Reginas were now out in front in a forward position, with no protection on the left flank. The flank had opened when 9th Brigade withdrew after its abortive attack on Carpiquet airfield. The Battalion was not to vacate this precarious position until it was relieved 11 days later, on June 17, by the Queen’s Own Rifles.
During the night of June 7, the Germans mounted a strong counter-attack with tanks and infantry simultaneously on B,C, and D Company positions. The attack was repulsed, and the Battalion continued to hold its position with no back-up troops and with its left flank still wide open. The movement to consolidate positions and fend off the initial German thrust produced three more fatalities in the Battalion. C Company, under Major Stu Tubb, at Norrey en Bessin, held the most advanced and precarious position of any of the Allied troops. The brigade commander wanted the company withdrawn, but Matheson protested that he would just have to retake the position later. C Company remained.
During the morning of June 8, D Company manoeuvred to the right flank to the northwest of Norrey, to Cardonville Farm, which was until then, occupied by some of the Winnipeg Rifles. This tactic was to tighten up the Battalion’s defensive position and to fill in the gap between C Company and the positions of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. B Company also moved to positions on the east side of Bretteville. Major Eric Syme took command of B Company and Captain Gordon Brown took over D.
Bretteville L’Orgueilleuse: The German Tank Attack
At 11:00 p.m. that night, the Germans launched a second counter-attack. Part of the 26th SS Panzer Regiment drove in a left flanking attack against the Regina Rifles at Norrey and Cardonville, and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and Canadian Scottish at Putot. The 25th Regiment of the 12th SS Division attacked from Rots in the east, along the Caen-Bayeux Road. B, C, and D Companies of the Reginas were all engaged by the Germans. The tanks and the infantry attacking C and D Companies came from the direction of Mesnil Patry in the south and southwest. C Company reported that it had repulsed an infantry attack, but it was then being attacked by tanks. The company called for artillery support which came down quickly, and the tank attack was broken up with the company still holding its position.
Battalion headquarters, together with the remnants of A Company situated near the church in the centre of Bretteville, also came under heavy shelling and machine gun fire during the German armoured assault. German tanks came to within 300 yards of the headquarters and remained there for an hour and a half, pouring a lethal rain of shells and machine gun fire into the town. At about midnight, two Panther tanks clanked into sight and one of them moved along the road to take up a position near the door of the house being used as battalion headquarters. When the tank came to a stop outside the building it was suddenly hit by a PIAT round fired from behind a stone wall at 15 yards range. The tank halted for a moment and started up again. Another PIAT projectile crashed into it after the Panther had advanced 30 yards. The tank stopped and backed up, ready to move out of the town but once again it was hit by yet another PIAT bomb and slewed around out of control, running over a necklace of grenades, which blew off one of its tracks. The crew poured out of the hatches and were immediately cut down as they attempted to escape. To add to the destruction the second Panther fired down the street, unintentionally hitting the first and setting it on fire.
Meanwhile, other German tanks began rolling into the town, blasting away at the men in their slit trenches. In all, some 22 Panther tanks circled the company and battalion headquarters positions. The night sky was lit by the glare of parachute flares, burning tanks, and buildings .on fire. One of the Battalion’s anti-tank guns was destroyed by German fire and at 0220 hours, another German tank was knocked out from accurate PIAT fire near the Battalion’s mortar positions.
Incongruously a German dispatch rider rode down the main street of Bretteville on a captured Canadian motorcycle. He was shot with a Sten gun by Matheson himself. In the din of the battle, radio communication between battalion headquarters and the companies was lost. Suddenly a German officer in his Volkswagen drove up near the battalion headquarters and got out of his car! He was immediately hit by a PIAT bomb and literally disintegrated. Again, at 0315 hours, a German anti-aircraft armoured car drove up the main street of Bretteville and was destroyed by PIAT fire right in front of battalion headquarters.
At 0430 hours 8 or 10 German tanks withdrew from Bretteville to harbour a short distance away. The Germans were totally unaware that they had located themselves in D Company’s area at Cardonville Farm. The Company commander, Gordon Brown, relates that when he had taken over the farm earlier, he decided to make the best possible defensive use of its large stone farmhouse and the thick stone walls that surrounded it and the outbuildings. There was a small apple orchard behind the barn and the rear portion of the wall. There, he located two anti-tank guns to cover the open ground, west towards Putot. From that position also, the artillery forward observation officer (FOO) could maintain radio contact with his guns from his Bren gun carrier. A three-inch mortar was sited there also, and a platoon of infantry was assigned the area to provide defence from the rear. The men set to work knocking holes in the walls for rifle and machine gun positions, digging slit trenches for cover, and stocking up on ammunition. Although the company had lost a number of weapons in the first two days of action, they had acquired many captured German machine guns and German ammunition. However, the greatest problem that the company faced was fatigue. The men had been going for more than three days without sleep, and the strain of the landing and the advance inland was beginning to take its toll. The local people had remained in the farm buildings despite warnings about the dangers of staying. They had dug a bomb shelter in the front courtyard and had been using it for some time. A railway line ran right past the front stone wall. Trains using the line had come under attack, and a disabled train sat on the tracks 100 yards to the left of the company position. In the early evening of June 8 German tanks crossed the railway line in front of the farm and plunged into the area between C and D Company on their way to Bretteville, completely ignoring C Company in Norrey and D Company at the farm. The tanks moved on towards the battalion headquarters position in the town 1,000 yards behind D Company apparently unaware that anyone was occupying the farm. Brown relates that it was easy to carry out the apparently incredible order he had been given by the Battalion commander to ignore the tanks. However, he decided to see if he could turn his anti-tank weapons around and aim them at the now vulnerable German armour. On running to the orchard he was able to count about 10 tanks in the coloured glow of a Verey light which had been fired from Bretteville. Brown found the FOO in his Bren gun carrier in exhausted sleep. He shook him awake and asked him to get in touch with his Regiment or with battalion headquarters on the gunner net. The FOO tried his radio but could get nothing but static. Thankfully, there had been no infantry to follow-up the German armoured attack, but after pounding Bretteville, the tanks returned to the area near D Company’s position at the farm. Brown was able to make out at least six tanks at the corners and the sides of the orchard. None of them were more than 75 feet from his position. He decided to remain quiet so as to not reveal his position, and prepared a quick attack on each tank simultaneously. Any precipitous action on the part of the soldiers defending the orchard would have invited disaster, and the men were cautioned not to fire on the tanks since rifles and machine guns were useless against them. Brown then headed back to the house to organize three-man tank hunting teams inside the walls. As he was doing so, he heard a sudden burst of automatic fire in the orchard. Two tank commanders had dismounted in the darkness only a few feet from Corporal W. Ritchie who could not resist the opportunity. Although he killed both, he himself was killed and the German tanks roared into action. They machine-gunned the slit trenches causing many casualties, and destroyed the anti-tank guns and the vehicles. The exploding shells set the barn and hay on fire, lighting up the whole area as bright as day and creating a terrific heat. One of the tanks began to batter down the heavy wooden gate near the barn, but with no infantry to support it, the tank left off, unwilling to chance what might be inside. D Company’s casualties mounted, and they were soon down to about 50 all ranks. The tanks circled the walls of the farm, firing, but still not coming inside. Finally, as first light broke through, the tanks withdrew fearing Typhoon planes would arrive from England. It was an hour or so after this that the German infantry arrived. Brown was having a difficult time trying to keep the men of his company awake because they were now entering the fourth day without sleep. Finally, he was able to establish communications with battalion headquarters at Bretteville and to report his situation to Matheson. The company needed artillery support and fast. The artillery commander of 13 Field Regiment (of which 44 Battery from Prince Albert, was a part) was standing right beside Matheson when the frantic call came in and he was able to call down fire almost immediately. Dozens of shells impacted 50 to 200 yards in front of D Company’s position, and the Germans, caught in the open, were forced to withdraw. All the companies of the Battalion had once again held their ground, and there were no further German attacks on their positions. That night, unit positions were strengthened, patrols were sent out, and the groggy men were able to snatch a few hours sleep.
In the fighting around Bretteville, the Germans lost five Panthers and one light tank, as well as one armoured car. Kurt Meyer, the German general who commanded the Panzers, personally directed the operations. His second-in-command and adjutant were killed in this action and his own tank was knocked out.
The repulse of the 12th SS Panzer counter-attack by 7th Brigade that night stopped the Germans from pushing through a left flanking attack to the beaches. As a result of the action, the Regina Rifles suffered heavily, losing seven carriers, including one loaded with ammunition, and two six pounder guns. The Battalion also suffered 11 deaths on the night of June 8, and 33 more deaths the next day. Among them was Captain R.G. Shinnan. By June 9,1944, the Rifles had fought their way 10 miles inland, south from Courseulles, and had repulsed a determined armoured counter-attack. The Battalion had survived its baptism of fire and was now firmly entrenched on French soil.
On June 11, German tanks and infantry were observed concentrating in the orchards about one mile south of the Battalion’s position. Keller, the divisional commander, ordered the Queen’s Own Rifles and the tanks of the 1st Hussars to pass through the Battalion’s positions to attack these forces as they were forming up. A fierce tank battle ensued in which the losses were heavy on both sides, forcing the Queen’s Own and the 1st Hussars to withdraw back through the Battalion’s position. In the running battle, the pursuing Germans came up against the Battalion, and seven German armoured vehicles were destroyed, and four wheeled vehicles captured, including a Volkswagen which was given to Matheson as his private vehicle. The fighting incurred seven more fatalities for the Regiment.
On June 14, German shells, the “moaning minnies,” with their high piercing screech hailed down on the Battalion positions, hitting an ammunition dump in the unit’s vehicle park. The fire burned throughout most of the night. Fortunately, there were no injuries but five vehicles were destroyed. In the three days between June 12 and 14, the Battalion sustained a further 14 fatalities.
On June 15, battalion headquarters fortuitously moved to a new position 400 yards further west. The headquarters had previously been located near the church in Bretteville. Shortly after the headquarters moved, German artillery destroyed the steeple with a direct hit, causing the bell and spire to crash to the ground in rubble. The new battalion headquarters position was also shelled that night. Because there had been no previous shelling in that particular area there was a strong suspicion that the Germans might have received information from an informer in the village. However, nothing could be proven. The shelling caused two more fatalities for the Battalion.
To Bray for a Rest
On June 17,1944, a fighting patrol sent out by C Company was caught in German crossfire. The patrol suffered 13 casualties, six of whom were fatal. During that day the Battalion was relieved in the line by the Queen’s Own Rifles, and moved back a couple of miles to Bray to rest. The Regina Rifles had been continuously in the line for 11 days.
On their first day out of the line, June 18, it began to drizzle and continued raining for the first two days of their brief rest. This bad weather was to delay the planned build-up of the Allied forces for their break-out into Normandy. The Rifles were to stay at Bray until June 29.
During the following few days a course was held at the Battalion sniper school. Candidates were sent out to the front line for on the job training with live targets! During the rest period, the Battalion was visited by General Crerar and Major General Keller who both expressed satisfaction with the Battalion’s actions to that date, and with the way the men had conducted themselves.
The Move Inland: Securing the Bridgehead
On June 19, a furious Channel storm broke up the Mulberry Harbour which had been towed over to Omaha Beach in the American assault sector. On Sunday, June 25, Padre Jamieson held church services in the Company areas and finally, on June 26, the allied break-out in Normandy began. The Battalion was put on one hour’s notice to move from noon, but the order was rescinded and the men stood down at 1945 hours that night. On June 29, 1944, the Battalion moved back into the line. They left Bray for the villages of Rots and La Villeneuve to relieve the 7th Recce Regiment. There the Battalion took up positions astride the Caen-Bayeux road to counter the threat from German armour which might come from Caen where it had been massing for yet another counter-attack. Dominion Day found the Battalion digging in at La Villeneuve where A Company observed a German patrol that withdrew. The next day the Battalion was visited by Generals Stuart, Keller, and Folkes.
In the chateau at Rots, Colonel Matheson held an officers’ mess dinner while shells from Carpiquet and Abbey of Ardennes bounced off the walls. Utilizing their army rations, the officers dined off fine dinnerware from the Chateau recently abandoned by the owners. Although the food was poor the wine from the cellars was good. Only half the officers of the Battalion were able to attend; the others had to stay on duty in case of an attack.
Carpiquet air field was one of the German strong points supposed to have been taken by 9th Brigade on D-Day or the day after. However, it did not fall and remained a serious obstacle to the break-out. On July 4, as a prelude to the attack on Caen, Operation WINDSOR was launched, in which troops from 8th Brigade, including the Queens’ Own Rifles and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles detached from 7th Brigade for that operation, stormed Carpiquet and took it. The Reginas provided the fire support. When Matheson went forward to get a better view from C Company’s position, a dud German artillery round caved in his trench but he survived.
The Abbey of Ardennes
On the night of July 7, Operation CHARNWOOD, a three division frontal assault on Caen, began with the first time attempt to use heavy bombing as a prelude to an attack by the army. The air attack devastated the city. The next day, the move towards Caen began. Units of 9th Brigade took Gruchy, Buron, and Authie. Ardennes Abbey was being used by the 12th SS Panzer Regiment as a headquarters and was heavily defended with mortars, machine guns, and 75mm guns. On July 8, the Regina Rifles were tasked to capture it.
To capture the Abbey, Matheson planned to attack with three companies, B, C, and D, and keep the still under strength A Company in reserve. Before attempting the assault on the Abbey, Gordon Brown and Major Tubb did a careful reconnaissance. They climbed a church steeple north of Rots where they were able to see the fields stretching out between Authie and the Abbey. They didn’t like what they saw. The area was flat, open, and devoid of cover where an attacking force would easily be seen. What is more, the defenders had the advantage of dug in defences and clear fields of fire.
The North Nova Scotia Regiment had reached Authie at 1600 hours. H hour for the Reginas’ attack was set at 1700 hours. At that time of year, the sun did not set until around 10:30 so the attack would take place in daylight. B Company, under Major Eric Syme, was the first to move to the Battalion start line at Authie. As the Company went forward from the assembly area, two German machine guns opened up on the advancing troops inflicting heavy casualties. Circumstances were such that B Company received little artillery or armoured support. In spite of the concentrated machine gun fire, the company struggled through Authie and reached their first objective, some mounds between them and the abbey. They had taken 61 casualties in this short advance.
C Company moved to its start line at 1725 hours also under heavy fire. However, it pushed on, passing through B Company’s position, and struggled over the open area towards the abbey. They were hit with tank and accurate mortar fire which caused many casualties, including the company commander, Major Tubb and all the officers and senior NCOs. Only 21 men of the Company remained in action and they were forced to withdraw to B Company’s position under fire.
On the left, with C Company, D Company moved forward from Authie to within 500 yards of the abbey also under machine gun and rifle fire. Each of the platoons wriggled forward using fire and movement. Sections shifted under covering fire of other sections, and the men were forced to crawl or run in shorts bursts. One of the company’s platoons deployed in a left flanking attack while the other two platoons attacked under the cover of smoke fired from their two inch mortars. The ragged platoons finally reached their objective, the east side of the abbey, at 2230 hours.
Gordon Brown returned from the abbey and guided A Company forward in the failing light to help consolidate the position sustaining 15 casualties on the way. All night long, the men held on behind the wall of the abbey, against a deadly hail of German machine gun fire from as close as 200 yards. After a fierce fire fight at first light the abbey was secured and the Germans driven out. As the German counter fire slackened, the men’s spirits were given a further boost by their uncovering the abbey’s wine stock!
The Battalion suffered 11 officer and 205 other ranks casualties, 36 of them fatal, with one missing in action. This had been the worst fighting for the Battalion since D-Day. The capture of the abbey by the Rifles helped pierce the ring of defences of Caen. That action, and the success of British forces on the left flank of the Canadians, forced the Germans to withdraw back into Caen itself.
A short time later the depleted Battalion moved to St. Germain, a suburb on the western outskirts of Caen. Here it was visited by General Crerar and Brigadier Foster. On July 10, after prolonged and heavy fighting, Caen fell to the Allies. On that day the headquarters of 2nd Canadian Corps under Lieutenant General Guy Simonds arrived in France, and the command of 3rd Canadian Division passed to 2nd Canadian Corps. The Battalion was then moved to another section of Caen to become the brigade reserve battalion.
During its brief stay in Caen, the Battalion mounted the 1st Ceremonial Guard. One hundred men, under Captain J. Treleaven, were issued new battledress, belts, and anklets, and were taken by vehicle to the centre of Caen where they mounted guard at La Place St. Martin. There they were inspected by the Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Simonds, and the Canadian Red Ensign was unfurled for the first time in France. On July 13, the command of the guard was passed to Captain Hector Jones.
At midnight on July 13, the Battalion moved to the Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry Highlanders. The relief was completed by 0230 hours under heavy German mortar and artillery fire from positions across the Orne River. On July 14, the Battalion scout officer. Lieutenant Bergeron, took his men forward to complete a reconnaissance in the German held territory. At 2330 hours Bergeron’s patrol moved across the Epron Bridge, a partially destroyed railway bridge, leading to the city of Vaucelles.
The bridge crossed the Orne about 1,000 yards to the left front of the Battalion’s position. The Germans had not withdrawn from Vaucelles, and were still manning the trenches which constituted the city’s defence. While the patrol was out on its reconnaissance, A and D Companies were withdrawn to the town of Epron for a rest. Bergeron and his patrol returned without incident. On July 16, the remainder of the Battalion was also withdrawn to Epron, being relieved by the 7th Recce Regiment. While they were in Epron the Battalion began preparations for its assault across the Orne.
First Across The Orne
On July 18, orders arrived. Operation GOODWOOD, the British armoured breakout offensive across the River Orne southeast of Caen, was to be launched. Operation ATLANTIC, the Canadian part of GOODWOOD, also began. The 3rd Canadian Division was given the task of crossing the Orne River and capturing Vaucelles. As part of the operation, the Reginas were to get across the river and link up with units of the 9th Brigade on their left. Civilians together with members of the French Interior Force (FFI) were to act as guides to the Battalion. Guides were attached to each of the companies and given battle dress and regimental flashes.
In preparation for the assault, 1,000 Lancaster and Halifax bombers were sent over to attack the factory areas at Colombelles and Vaucelles. To beef up the weight of fire, an intense artillery bombardment was added. The Regina Rifles were put on one hour notice to move to their concentration area at 0800 hours.
Shortly after this initial phase of the attack, Lieutenant Bergeron again led a patrol across the Orne, this time in daylight, to determine if, as a result of the heavy pounding the Germans had withdrawn. The patrol scurried across the Orne over two wrecked bridges under intense German fire which killed one man. Machine gun fire raked the bridge, pinning down the patrol’s communications group, who had set up their 46 Set on the Caen side of the river.
Meanwhile the Battalion began moving to its forming up positions at St. Julien with A and D Companies moving out to their start line at 1500 hours. Their passage was obstructed by heaps of rubble caused by the previous intense bombing and shelling. With C and B Companies following, the lead companies began to cross the Orne on a two company front at two separate points.
On the other side of the river, the isolated patrol was in desperate need of reinforcements but none were available. Accordingly Bergeron decided to construct a passageway over a gap in the bridge, where the centre had collapsed but he came under increasing small arms and automatic fire from German positions and had to go to ground.
The carrier platoon and the battalion mortars now moved into position on the north bank of the Orne to give covering fire for the crossing. By 1700 hours, German fire had been neutralized and by 1715 hours the hazardous crossing began. A and B Companies and the Carrier platoon got across the river and began to clear out snipers on the other side. D Company, on the left hand crossing, was delayed by accurate German mortar and machine gun fire which damaged the company’s assault boats. They finally managed their crossing by bridge, followed shortly by C Company.
By 2100 hours, all the companies of the Battalion had struggled across and were in position on their final objectives. The Battalion suffered 18 casualties, including three fatalities in this hard fought engagement, but as a result could proudly claim the distinction of being the first Canadian infantry to cross the Orne.
On July 19, the companies tightened up their defensive positions in Vaucelles, and completed their mopping up operations. To that date they had taken 60 to 70 prisoners and more kept trickling in. Also on that day the remainder of 7th Brigade crossed the Orne, and a patrol from the Battalion was sent to the area that the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were to occupy. The patrol bagged seven more prisoners of war, two motor cycles, two bottles of cognac, and were treated to excellent meals. Here, unfortunately, the Battalion suffered two more fatalities. On July 20 and 21, while the rest of the British and Allied forces were crossing the Orne on their way to Falaise, the Battalion remained at Vaucelles for a brief breathing spell. At this time things were not going well for Germany. A sign of how bad things were occurred on July 20 when senior German army officers unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Hitler.
On July 22, while still at Vaucelles, the Battalion was treated to a mobile bath parade with the accompanying exchange of socks, shirts, and underwear. Both the Roman Catholic and Protestant chaplains conducted church services. That night, at 1730 hours, a nasty surprise in the form of a “buzz bomb” landed in Caen, and a marked increase in German air attacks occurred from which the Battalion suffered a number of casualties.
On July 23,1944, the 1st Canadian Army headquarters under Lieutenant General H.D.G. Crerar became operational in France. Plans for the breakout of the Allied armies from the Normandy beachhead were now being put into operation. The America forces began their offensive, Operation COBRA, under General Omar N. Bradley on July 25. At the same time the Canadian army launched Operation SPRING, the first stage of the drive to Falaise. On July 25, the Battalion moved to an assembly area along a railway embankment prior to the attack on La Hague. Before the attack could be launched the troops had to wait for the North Nova Scotia Highlanders to take Tilly-la-Campagne. Although the railway embankment offered some protection, the Battalion suffered many casualties from the constant German artillery, and from bombing and strafing missions from the Luftwaffe. The North Nova Scotia Highlanders punched into Tilly, but were pushed back and forced to withdraw through the Battalion lines. The Germans then began concentrating tanks from Fontenay-le-Marmion and moving them to La Hague. Because of this build up of armour the Battalion’s attack on La Hague was called off. During the waiting period in this area, the Battalion suffered three more fatalities.
Given the change in plans, the Battalion was tasked to hold its present position and to prepare for an attack on Tilly in three or four days time. The Battalion was to keep up the pressure on the German forces and prevent them from withdrawing so they could be used against British and American forces to the west. During these days, Allied armoured advances were being made in other areas along the front. Consequently, the Battalion was forced to hang onto the positions at the embankment for several more days.
At midnight, on July 30, and throughout the early hours of the next morning, while German aircraft dropped flares to illuminate the area for their artillery, the Battalion pulled back through Vaucelles, over the Orne to Caen. They eventually reached the Orchards of Colomby where they were given a rest period.
Since June 6, the Battalion had been continuously in action over a period of 55 days. From D-Day it had suffered a total of 678 casualties, including 185 killed and eight missing in action. The Battalion sustained an additional fatality during its withdrawal to Colomby.
Since D-Day the Battalion doctors had done a remarkable job under the most difficult conditions. Battalion medical officers who were general practitioners often had to become surgeons because it was not possible to wait until ambulances took the wounded to field hospitals. Captain W.S. Huckvale, who landed with Battalion Headquarters on D-Day, treated hundreds of Canadian and German soldiers as well as French civilians. In July 1944 he suffered a severe head wound and was evacuated to Canada. Doctor Huckvale was awarded the Military Cross. He was succeeded by Doctor Harry Dickson. As well, the medical staff and stretcher-bearers under Sergeant Alf Allen performed valiantly under trying conditions. Allen was also a member of the Battalion band.
While the Battalion was regrouping, the men from the unit who had been slightly wounded in previous engagements now returned as reinforcements. While at Colomby the Battalion played sports, went to the movies, splashed in the mobile baths, and lazed on the beaches. There were excursions back to the scene of the D-Day assault and visits to the graves of friends who had fallen there. While the Battalion was at rest in Colomby, the troops were treated to the Canadian Army Show staged by the Legion Auxiliary War Services in the “Windmill Theatre,” a cavern in the quarries of Fontaine-Henry that could seat over a thousand people. The Battalion was also visited by Lieutenant General Simonds and Major General Keller, and by the war correspondents, J.A.M. Cook, who covered the Regina Rifles for the Leader Post, and Gregory Clark. It was here that the officers of the Battalion true to their old tradition held their first formal mess dinner of the war on the Continent.