Victory in the West
Sword Beach excerpts
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), pages 183 to 213.
D-Day: Seaborne Landings
3rd British Division in Sword Area
The coast between Lion and Ouistreham is flat and the coastal road which joins them is fringed with houses along its whole length. Lion and Ouistreham were both fortified as strong-points and about halfway between them was another strong-point at la Brèche, with the familiar casemated guns, mortars, machine guns and wired trench positions for infantry. This stretch of coast was the Sword area and the beach to the west of la Brèche was known as ‘Queen’; the British 3rd Division was to attack there on a single brigade front. It’s 8th Brigade Group was to land first and be followed in turn by the 185th and 9th Brigades. This concentration in attack on a narrow front was planned to put as much weight as possible into the blow which the division was to strike for the rapid capture of Caen and the link-up with the airborne division.
Sword beach to the west. Hermanville is on the coast at far right. Lebisey is in the distance, circled at right
The experience of the 8th Brigade was similar to that of other assault brigades [of the British 50th and Canadian 3rd Divisions]. It landed at the time fixed and in the chosen place. The protection given by the fire of destroyers and support craft during the run-in was so effective that there was little enemy fire till the shore was reached. Thirty-four out of forty of the D.D. tanks of the 13th/18th Hussars were launched at sea and only two failed to reach the coast; six more were taken in in landing craft and all were landed. Six tanks were knocked out in the surf and four shortly after; twenty-eight were available to support the infantry though they were not there before the first infantry landed. Two troops of the 5th Independent Battery, Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment, reached the land within the first quarter of an hour and a third came in later; craft carrying the breaching teams and armoured vehicles of the assault engineers and Dragoons were landed with the leading infantry and were the only supporting troops ashore at the outset….
The landings here, as on other assault beaches down the coast, were on the whole so successful that it is easy to miss the significance of how much was due to the faithfulness of those in charge of the landing craft. The majority were organised for the run-in as small flotillas under the immediate command of young officers of the Royal Marines or the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. The records of what happened to craft under their command, in spite of their bald statements of fact, must fill the reader with pride.
Landings at la Brèche
A flotilla of ten landing craft carrying assault engineers and their armoured vehicles, under command of a lieutenant of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, touched down at 7.26 a.m., one minute late. All craft succeeded in unloading with the exception of one which only managed to unload a flail; as a second was about to move down the ramp it was hit by a mortar shell which exploded the Bangalore torpedoes being carried. The explosion killed Lieut-Colonel Cocks, the Royal Engineers’ commander, and two other ranks; seven other ranks were wounded; three vehicles were disabled on board which prevented further unloading. None of the other craft was seriously damaged though two were hit by shells and mortar fire.
Of seven craft carrying tanks of the Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment two were lost after unloading. One of them received several direct hits from mortar bombs and was soon on fire. It was commanded by a temporary sub-lieutenant of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve with two other officers of the same rank; all three and some of the crew were killed. The second craft was mined and hit by shell-fire; one of the crew was killed and a junior officer and four ratings were wounded; the craft became a total wreck.
The British 2nd Army: Infantry waiting to move off ‘Queen White’ Beach, SWORD Area, while under enemy fire, on the morning of 6 June
…[Eighteen craft] carried self-propelled guns of the 7th, 33rd and 76th Field Regiments, Royal Artillery, which were landed after firing at sea during the opening phase of the assault. Of these eighteen craft six were damaged by enemy fire, five by obstacles and three by mines; two of these fourteen became total wrecks. [Note: The 7th Field does not appear in the author’s landing diagram.]
But although these are typical examples of what many experienced, there were many others which came through unscathed. Twenty landing craft, for instance, bore the first wave of assaulting infantry of the 8th Brigade to the shore and, successfully avoiding all obstacles, landed them without a casualty. They were the leading companies of the 1st South Lancashire Regiment on the right and the 2nd East Yorkshire Regiment on the left. They started landing at half past seven on the beach between la Brèche and Lion sur Mer and were to be joined about twenty minutes later by the rest of their battalions.
The tide was rising fast and the foreshore was already narrowed to about fifteen yards. A belt of barbed wire separated it from the road along the sea front and, irregularly spaced behind it, were a number of machine-gun posts. Fire from the la Brèche strong-point swept the water’s edge and the beach but the troops crossed this without many casualties to break their way through to the narrow built-up area which faced them. One company from each battalion joined in an attack on the strong-point, the others started to clear the enemy from the housing belt along the coast. A company of the South Lancashire moved out to guard the right flank and was soon joined by No. 41 (Royal Marine) Commando, much weakened by casualties on the beach, whose task was to pass through and capture the enemy position at Lion sur Mer; the East Yorkshire turned left towards Ouistreham and were followed, shortly afterwards, by No. 4 Commando and two French troops from No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando whose primary rôle was to capture the capture Ouistreham and destroy the battery there. While the fight for the la Brèche position continued, the rest of the South Lancashire battalion landed and struck inland for Hermanville sur Mer which they occupied by nine o’clock. The rest of the East Yorkshire battalion set out to capture two enemy positions near the south-west corner of Ouistreham.
Soon after ten o’clock, after nearly three hours’ fighting, the la Brèche position was captured. Its three guns and three heavy mortars, machine guns and rifle posts had done much damage to incoming and unloading craft during that time and had caused the attacking troops many casualties. Among those killed was the commanding officer of the South Lancashire, who lost, in all, five officers killed and six wounded with ninety-six other ranks killed or wounded. The East Yorkshires losses were equally heavy. And here as elsewhere along the British front the fact that with few exceptions the near defences of the coast had been silenced did not yet mean that the beaches were free from danger. A high wind had driven the full tide up the beaches to within ten yards or so of the sand dunes. Vehicles, now being landed in large numbers, were so tightly packed along the water front that it was almost impossible to move along the shore to a prepared exit; the delay was upsetting the time-tables. The narrow beaches were still under fire from gun positions inland and from beyond the Orne—the exposed left flank of the British assault. Barrage balloons were put up as protection from air attack but were soon cut adrift when it was found that they were being used as ranging marks by enemy gunners. The 8th Brigade’s third battalion—the 1st Suffolk—also had a troublous experience in landing.
The rest of the 3rd Division, the 185th and the 9th Brigades, and the 1st Special Service (Commando) Brigade came ashore during the morning and early afternoon.
Congestion on the beaches
It is impossible to say when the first beach exits were open. People were too busy to keep looking at their watches and some exits, opened fairly quickly, were later blocked by knocked-out vehicles or traffic jams. It had been foreseen that the rate of landing would be governed by the availability of exits and it had been planned to open twenty-eight in the first hour [on the British and Canada beaches]. The 3rd Division and the 50th [on Gold beach] appear to have had their first exits opened not much later but not nearly all that were needed; two hours or more elapsed before the first was opened on the Canadian beaches. The delay in each case had slowed the landings of the reserve brigades and this inevitability had far-reaching effects on the day’s progress….
D-Day: Advance Inland
Advance on Caen
After the seaborne landings began it was the British area which occupied the Seventh Army’s chief attention [on Gold beach]. At 8.45 it first heard of British tanks landing east of Asnelles and fifteen minutes later LXXXIV Corps reported that ‘from 7.15 a.m. onwards landings in some strength were being made on both sides of the Orne Estuary, especially to the west of Bernières, Asnelles, Meuvaines, Grandcamps, with infantry and armoured forces….’ Apparently news of the landing at Utah had not come through, and though it was known at 9.25 a.m. that there had been some penetration of the 352nd Division’s front at Omaha, that division took an optimistic view of the situation—and continued to do so all morning. Rather naturally therefore the area of the 716th Division was regarded as the more dangerous. British tanks had reached German artillery positions and seeing that the defence in this sector was beginning to disintegrate the LXXXIV Corps Commander decided to modify his plans and to pull out the 21st Panzer Division from east of the Orne and send it into action against the British landings west of the river. The 21st Panzer was a well-found division of about sixteen thousand men, some of whom had fought in Rommel’s Africa Corps against the British Army Eighth Army. It included a hundred and twenty-seven Mark IV tanks, forty assault guns and twenty-four 88-mm anti-tank guns. But on this morning its troops were widely distributed. Its two grenadier regiments had one battalion forward on either side of the Orne, facing the British 6th Airborne and 3rd Divisions; its anti-tank gun had been put on the Périers ridge with a battalion of field guns to the south of it; its anti-aircraft guns were around Caen and the rest of its artillery on high ground about fifteen miles south-east of Caen; its tanks were disposed a few miles north-east of Falaise. The forward infantry which were already involved in fighting the 6th Airborne Division were left to contain their bridgehead beyond the Orne and to keep open the road from Troarn, but the two battle groups containing the tanks, which the divisional commander himself had launched against the airborne troops, were now ordered to change directions and to cross the Orne at Colombelles and Caen.
The 3rd Division’s assault brigade group (the 8th) had indeed made good early progress. By the middle of the morning the South Lancashire had taken Hermanville, the East Yorkshire were clearing the defences south of Ouistreham and the Suffolks, having taken Colleville [sur Orne], were attacking two strong-points a mile or so to the south, known to the Allies as ‘Morris’ and ‘Hillman’. The former, containing four field guns, was taken easily since the area had suffered heavily from the naval and air bombardment and its garrison of sixty-seven came out with their hands up as soon as the attack opened. But Hillman, half a mile further south, was a stronger position covering about four hundred by six hundred yards, well protected by wire, mines and weapons and containing a concrete redoubt and underground accommodation. It proved to be the headquarters of the 736th Regiment. The Suffolk’s first attack, with artillery and mortar support and assisted by a squadron of the 13th/18th Hussars, took the outer defences but failed to capture the inner redoubt and a further full-scale attack was organised. It was launched late in the afternoon but the position was not captured till after eight o’clock in the evening. During the whole day’s fighting the Suffolk casualties were light (seven killed and twenty-five wounded), but the failure to take Hillman earlier was to cost another battalion dearly….
The 185th Brigade Group had landed nearly up to time and the infantry were assembled in woods half a mile inland by about eleven o’clock. The brigade was to be the spearhead of the division’s attack inland; it was to advance with all speed and if possible capture Caen and the ground immediately south of it that day. The advance was to be led by a mobile column of the 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, riding on tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry and supported by the 7th Field Regiment, R.A.; but at noon the infantry’s heavy weapons and vehicles were still not clear of the congestion on the shore and the tanks that had succeeded in getting through were being held up by a minefield. Leaving these to overtake them as quickly as possible, the infantry started marching south en route to Caen at about half past twelve and by two o’clock they had climbed the Périers rise. The leading Yeomanry had overtaken them but enemy guns in woods to their right knocked out five tanks of the Staffordshire and four flails of the Westminster Dragoons and a company of the infantry were sent off to join the Yeomanry in taking the position. The rest of the column moved on towards Beuville and Biéville while a squadron of the Staffordshire occupied a commanding position at Point 61.
The main body of the 185th Brigade (the 2nd Royal Warwickshire and the 1st Royal Norfolk) did not advance till some hours had elapsed. At three o’clock the Norfolks were ordered to secure high ground on the left of the Shropshire Light Infantry and, believing that St. Aubin d’Arquenay was occupied by the enemy (though in fact the 1st Special Service Brigade had passed through it at noon), they struck across country between it and the still uncaptured Hillman. Moving through a large field which the strong-point could command, about half the battalion lost direction in the high standing corn covered by the Hillman machine guns; in a very short time they had some 150 casualties. The rest of the battalion pressed on and overcoming the few enemy in front of them they were established on high ground between Beuville and Bénouville by seven o’clock in the evening. There they were halted for the night. The 2nd Warwickshire were not ordered forward till later in the afternoon and did not reach St. Aubin till about six o’clock. By then events were beginning to vary the planned programme.
At intervals throughout the morning air reconnaissance indicated that the 21st Panzer Division was moving up on Caen and as early as eleven o’clock General Dempsey [Lieutenant-General Sir Miles C. Dempsey, commander, British Second Army] had asked the air forces to attack troop movements into Caen from the south and south-east. From then on German movement towards Caen was attacked from the air almost continuously. Early in the afternoon it was learnt that the 21st Panzer Division’s reconnaissance unit was probing far afield and other reports pointed to the fact that the division would be committed north and north-west of Caen that evening. The divisional commander, Major-General Feuchtinger, has since stated that once over the Orne (where it flows through the southern outskirts of Caen) his armoured regiment with ninety effective tanks and two battalions of infantry attacked northwards.
The situation of the 3rd Division at about that time—four o’clock in the afternoon—was as follows. The 8th Brigade was well established in Hermanville, Colleville sur Orne and Ouistreham, with one of its battalions, the 2nd East Yorkshires, closing with the battery position known as ‘Daimler’ south of Ouistreham, and the 1st Suffolk about to renew its attack on Hillman strong-point. Just clear of the beach the 9th Brigade was assembling but was not yet ready to debouch into the four-mile gap of country between Hermanville and the Canadian sector. The 185th Brigade’s main body (the Norfolk and Warwickshire battalions) were moving in the direction of Caen by the west bank of the canal. Ahead of them the Shropshire Light Infantry and accompanying troops had reached Beuville and Biéville on the direct road to Caen; the infantry’s 6-pounder anti-tank guns had caught up and were disposed to cover the advance and they had near them some 17-pounder self-propelled guns of the 20th Anti-tank Regiment. One squadron of the Staffordshire Yeomanry was with them, another was supporting the Suffolk attack on Hillman, and a third was disposed on the Périers ridge commanding the brigade’s right flank.
Soon after four o’clock a troop of the Staffordshire Yeomanry scouting ahead reported enemy tanks advancing from Caen. The squadron with the Suffolk at Hillman strong-point was hastily moved to Biéville and had just taken up position to the west when about forty enemy tanks, moving very fast, attacked. Two were knocked out by the Yeomanry and two by the Shropshire anti-tank guns and the enemy turned away into the woods. They were pursued by the Yeomanry and by field-gun fire, and when they showed again some more were destroyed. They swung off again and were joined by others, and making a wide détour they came in towards the Périers ridge. There they met the squadron of the Staffordshire posted at Point 61 for just such an occasion. Three more were knocked out and again they drew off. Thirteen had then been knocked out to our knowledge (our only loss was one self-propelled gun), but they had already been persistently harassed by aircraft while they were south of Caen. On the western outskirts of the town eight Typhoons of the Second Tactical Air Force had dive-bombed tanks moving up to join the fight and had left two in flames and four others smoking. Feuchtinger has since said that his division started the day with 124 tanks and by nightfall had only 70 left. In view of his figures British records were over-modest.
Once the enemy’s attacks near Biéville were driven off a company of the Shropshire led off again down the road to Caen, but their way was blocked by enemy holding strongly the Lebisey woods athwart the road. It was growing dusk and with the necessity to guard their right flank against renewed attack by the German armour it was decided to halt for the night, holding Biéville and Beuville. Caen was about three miles away.
Of the 185th Brigade the Warwickshire had found that le Port just north of the Bénouville bridge still contained a few of the enemy. Shortly before nine o’clock as they prepared to attack, two columns of transport aircraft of 38 and 46 Groups, towing gliders, came in low from the Channel, strongly escorted by fighters. One column of about 100 released their gliders over Colleville to land near the canal north of Bénouville; the other column of about 140 went on to Ranville for the gliders to land on the nearby zone N. This mass fly-in, which was seen by both sides, greatly cheered British troops but had an opposite effect on the German commanders. Their Seventh Army telephone log records a statement that ‘Attack by 21st Panzer Division rendered useless by heavily concentrated airborne troops’, and their report to Rommel said that it had ‘been halted by renewed air landings’. According to other German statements, a few forward tanks had reached the coast near Lion by seven o’clock and others were trying to slip past the British guns on Périers ridge when the sight of large airborne reinforcements to their rear led the panzer division to call off its counter-attack, and to withdraw to a line running eastwards from Cambes to the canal, that is between the Shropshire positions and Caen.[row_inner_3] [col_inner_3 span__sm=”12″]
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.[/col_inner_3] [/row_inner_3]