Forgotten Steel

The History of the British Commonwealth Armour Brigades of 21st Army Group

The Normandy Campaign: June - August 1944

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Map of Normandy showing the development of operations and the formation of the Falaise Pocket (CMH)

Part Two. The Falaise Battles - July and August 1944

 The Factory and the Hill - 10-17 July

The capture of most of Caen during Operation CHARNWOOD, though effectively signalling an end to the first phase of operations in Normandy, did not mean that there was still plenty of fighting to be done around the city. On the 10th July, the 43rd (Wessex) Division renewed operations in the Odon Valley in Operation JUPITER. Its job was to capture Hill 112, the position that had been briefly held by the 11th Armoured Division during Operation EPSOM back in June. The capture of the Hill would give the Allies an excellent view over the southern area of Caen, and posed a significant threat to the Germans. Though much-quoted today, the comment by SS-Brigadefuhrer Wilhelm Bittrich, commanding the II SS Panzer Corps who defended the Odon area, that "He who holds Hill 112, holds Normandy," was, to an extent, quite true. The capture of the Hill signalled the end of German defensive dominance in Normandy and the beginning of the march to the Seine.

However, Operation JUPITER was not to provide that victory. On the 10th July, supported by a creeping artillery barrage, troops of the 43rd Division advanced up the wide open cornfields that covered the northern slopes of the hill. Moving with them were Churchill tanks of the 31st Tank Brigade's 9th Royal Tank Regiment. The lumbering Churchills lay down defensive fire and the advance slowly progressed up the slopes, but then the Churchills were struck by 88mm fire from the crest of the hill. The defenders, mainly from the 9th SS Panzer Division, had dug in 88mm and 75mm anti-tank guns within sight of the crest and on the reverse slope. Its artillery, further back, began to fire on the slopes, forcing the Wessex infantry to go to ground. Some of the Churchills continued on, but whenever a Churchill made it to the crest, it was likely to be hit by one of these guns, or by the 88s of the arriving Tigers from the II SS corps Tiger battalion. The scene on the hill was terrible, covered in smoke and and burning British armour. Nevertheless, despite the heavy fire, the 5th Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry were able to make it onto the crest and dug into one of the woods there. The battalion was to hold its position, almost completely unsupported, for nearly 24 hours. The Churchills tried to support the infantry but the anti-tank fire was exceptionally heavy. During the night, the isolated Cornwall battalion was repeatedly attacked by armour, including Panzer IV and Tiger tanks, but were able to resist the tanks with their PIATs and some supporting artillery. In the morning, however, its commanding officer was killed and, having suffered over 300 casualties during the previous night's fighting, the battalion was forced to withdraw down the northern slopes. However, the Germans fared little better, for their continued assaults were also driven back by British guns and tanks on the northern slope of the hill. The crest became a shattered no-man's land, unable to be held by either side. In this stalemate, Operation Jupiter came to a conclusion. It had cost the 43rd Division 2,000 casualties in around 48 hours, while the 34th Tank Brigade lost a considerable number of vehicles. Both sides paused to rest and regroup.

Find out more about the battle for Hill 112 and the memorial now on the hill here

The view from the Churchill tank memorial on Hill 112 looking roughly toward Cornwall Wood. (JK)

While the 43rd Division was still fighting to secure the crest of Hill 112, further east, the 51st (Highland) Division was launching an attack of its own. This time, its aim was the Colombelles factory complex south of Ste Honorine-la-Chardonerette. The complex sported two massive chimneys, which despite repeated attempts to destroy them remained stubbornly intact. The Highland Division's mission was to seize the village of Colombelles and the factory, thus denying the Germans the observation over the south-eastern area of Caen. In this they were supported by elements of the 27th Armoured Brigade and Churchill Crocodile flame-throwers from 79th Division. The attack was launched at 1am on the 11th July and soon ran into trouble. German resistance in the village was considerable, and their anti-tank guns soon began to take a heavy toll of the supporting Shermans. Nevertheless, the dogged Highlanders managed to seize most of the village, whereupon some leading infantry elements made it into the factory complex. They found a defence of Stalingrad-esque proportions. Fire came from everywhere, with German troops dug into the buildings. To make matters worse, Panzer IVs of 21st Panzer Division and Tigers from I SS Panzer Corps suddenly arrived, pouring fire onto the infantry and virtually wiping out their remaining armour support. The battered Highland assault forces withdrew to Ste Honorine, abandoing Colombelles. For this, and its earlier operations, the Highland Division has recieved much criticism, but it is hard to disagree with assessment of one of the division's officers that Colombelles "would have required a Corps to take it."

The slow going of the offensives and the rise in infantry casualties caused Montgomery and Dempsey to think of a new plan to break the deadlock around Caen. In reserve, Dempsey still had the three armoured divisions, 7th, 11th and Guards, who had not been used in a major offensive since EPSOM. He decided to use them in a major offensive, launched from the Highland Division's sector east of Caen, to push out and capture the southern sector of the city and the "good tank country" that lay beyond.

To pave the way for this upcoming assault, a further attack was required in the Odon Valley in order to distract the Germans and prevent the II SS Panzer Corps from interfering. A newly-arrived German infantry division, the 276th, had allowed the Germans to begin to move the Panzer troops into reserve, something that could not be allowed. Thus, on the 15 and 16th July, the newly-arrived XII Corps launched Operation GREENLINE, which focussed on the area around Hill 112 and the town of Evrecy. The assault was in the main carried out by the 15th Scottish Division, but it recieved support from a brigade of the 53rd (Welsh) Division who were to make the push towards Evrecy. In support were the newly-arrived 34th Army Tank Brigade and flame-throwing Crocodile Churchills from 79th Division. The 34th Tank Brigade performed well, particularly the 153rd Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps, who helped the 15th Scottish's 44th Brigade secure the town of Gavrus. However, the Welsh assaults on Evrecy were repulsed by forceful counter-attacks from the 276th Infantry Division, although the Welsh troops were able to prevent the assaults from penetrating their lines. Furthermore, the offensive had the desired effect of forcing the II SS Panzer Corps to move back into the line. Its Tiger tanks were used in an assault on the 1.5th Battalion, The Welch Regiment at Le Bon Repos on 21st July, which inflicted heavy casualties and nearly destroyed one company. Those Tigers, however, and the troops from the 10th SS Division that supported them, could have been used to counter General Dempsey's offensive east of Caen, which was now known as Operation GOODWOOD.

The Bloody Ridges - GOODWOOD, ATLANTIC AND SPRING, 18-25 July

BATTLE OF THE RIVERS

 

 Pathe Gazette newsreel on Operation Goodwood, featuring excellent shots of armour moving up to battle. Click on the image to go to the Pathe site and view the film. (Pathe)

A Sherman Firefly in action in the open terrain south-east of Caen. This area, though called "good tank country" was also "good tank-killing country", and the armoured formations that fought here suffered heavy losses. (IWM)

Although Operation GOODWOOD itself was a primarily-armoured division operation, armoured brigades did see action in the operations that ran concurrently with it. To the north-east of the GOODWOOD corridor, troops of the 3rd British Division, advancing from the 6th Airborne Division's bridgehead, launched attacks to try and prevent the Germans from attacking the armoured divisions' flanks. Supporting them were, once again, the tanks of the 27th Armoured Brigade, mainly the Staffordshire and East Riding Yeomanrys. The 3rd Division troops were able to expand the airborne bridghead further east, and almost made it to the town of Troarn, whose bridge had been destroyed by airborne sappers on D-Day to prevent German armour from crossing it to attack the beaches. However, the Germans in this area had strong anti-tank and tank support, and the 3rd Division was unable to seize the town. This was to be the last major operation for the 27th Armoured Brigade. By the end of July, it had been disbanded, its regiments sent to other armoured brigades who had been forced to disband some of their constituent units due to the lack of replacements.

Meanwhile, to the west, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions, with the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade once again in support, were fighting to clear the southern sectors of Caen in what was known as Operation ATLANTIC. In this, they were entirely successful, making it to the villages on the southern outskirts of the city by the 20th July, the official end date for ATLANTIC and GOODWOOD. Before them lay the Verriers ridge. It was an obstacle perhaps as formidable as the Bourguebus ridge, from where German gunners had halted Operation GOODWOOD. It had to be secured if any advance further south was to be made. Thusly, on 25th July, the 2nd Canadian Division, along with the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, launched Operation SPRING, in order to capture it. The attack was a disaster. Because many of the startlines for the attack were still occupied by the Germans, many Canadian units were fighting simply to get started, while communications between the armoured units and the infantry became confused. The tanks held back, firing almost as mobile artillery in some places, due to the German armour on the Verriers Ridge having excellent views over the terrain. In the most tragic assault of perhaps the entire campaign, the Black Watch of Canada led a lone charge up the ridge into the teeth of the German fire, and were virtually destroyed. The ridge remained unsecured for the time being.

Leading the Charge - The BLUECOAT Assaults, 30 July-7 August

On the 26th July, the Americans in the west of Normandy launched Operation COBRA. Because of the British operations of the past month they faced only two panzer divisions and heavily weakened infantry formations - though this should not do down the American achievements during COBRA, for these divisions fought very hard and to beat them back was a significant victory. COBRA turned into a breakout, and when General Patton's Third Army was activated on the 1st August, it began to charge into Brittany and thence looped back towards Paris.

The British, however, still faced the might of four SS and two Army panzer divisions, along with several newly-arrived and fresh infantry formations. These forces were still providing stiff resistance to any British or Canadian assault. Something had to be done. Accordingly, General Dempsey organised an offensive further west, on the left shoulder of the American sector, towards Caumont. It was called BLUECOAT. It was to be led by the 15th (Scottish) Division, who were to be supported by the 6th Guards Tank Brigade. This brigade was the last to arrive in North-West Europe, and consequently had as yet had little battle experience. It had, however, worked with the Scottish Division before, during the long years of training that preceded the invasion of Europe. That was to stand it in good stead for the operations to come.

6th Guards Tank Brigade operations in the opening stages of Bluecoat, 30 July - 1 August

A Churchill VII from 6th Guards Tank Brigade climbs onto a road during Operation BLUECOAT. It is packed with a section of Scottish infantry. This unconventional tank-riding, though dangerous, enabled the troops to keep close with the tanks and take the Germans by surprise. It proved to be highly effective during BLUECOAT. (IWM)

When BLUECOAT opened on the 30th July, the Guards' tanks, piled high with Scottish infantry riding on their decks, pushed through the thick bocage country north of Caumont. Bursting through the hedgerows, the Churchills gave the Germans a shock, and the Scots troops were able to make a significant advance into the German line. At its furthest point, Quarry Hill, it was withing a few miles of the dominating Mont Pincon, the highest point in Normandy. Although the Guards tanks were counter-attacked in the evening of the 30th by a troop of Jagdpanther tank-destroyers, to which they lost several Churchills, it made little impact. The break-in had been made. On the 31st July, the 11th and Guards Armoured Divisions passed through the 15th Scottish to breakthrough. This they did thanks to the miraculous capture of a bridge over the winding Soulevre river by a unit from the 11th Armoured' reconnaissance troop. The Germans began to launch desperate counter-attacks from 1 August, but although these slowed the British advance, they did not stop it. However, despite pushing towards the hub town of Vire, the 11th Armoured Division was denied its prize when Montgomery ordered the town left to the Americans, who were nearby. However, the Germans were able to reach the town first, and counter-attack from the area caused significant problems.

While the majority of Bluecoat was an armoured divisional affair, the armoured brigades made another appearance when 43rd (Wessex) Division made the assault on Mont Pincon in the last days of the offensive. The 15th Scottish and the 6th Guards Tank Brigade had continued to push towards the area, but their progress had been slowed by the German counter-attacks of early August. 43rd Division had been operating on the Scots' left flank in the previois days and had captured the town of Jurques, south-west of Villers-Bocage. By the 5th August they pushed south-east from Jurques and had reached Ondefontaine, just two miles north-east of the mountain, and were thus ordered to assault it. In this assault they had the assistance of the 13th/18th Hussars, who had recently been transferred to the 4th Armoured Brigade, following the disbandment of the 27th Armoured Brigade.

The assault on Mont Pincon began on 6th August. It ran into heavy opposition almost immediately, the Germans utilising the undulating countryside to the fullest advantage. However, by the evening of the 6th, the 43rd Division's 129th Brigade and the 13th/18th Hussars had made it to the villages surrounding the foot of the hill, and that night,  as the mist descended, a group of Shermans from the Hussars' A Squadron clanked up onto the hill. Confusion reigned, for the Wessex infantrymen, expecting a German armoured counter-attack, were unsure whether the noises they heard were friendly or enemy vehicles. However, contact was soon established with the division, and troops rushed up to support the tanks. Mont Pincon was captured, and with it, Operation BLUECOAT came to an end.

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