The British and Canadian Operation Totalise continued, an attempt to push south to link up the US focus and complete the encirclement of the Germans in Normandy. But just as the US forces had made slow progress in the bocage country at the base of the Cotentin peninsula, they were also held up in this natural defensive territory.
Charles Martin was the Company Sergeant Major of A Company the Queens Own Rifles of Canada. Here he describes the attack on Quesnay Wood, an objective which would have pushed the British and Canadian forces much deeper into the German lines towards Falaise.
The battle was preceded by a time of great quiet. Silence seemed to lie over the whole area. I’m not certain that we knew at the time just how signiﬁcant our assignment was and how much was expected of it. There’s no doubt the support of the Polish tanks would have made an enormous difference to us. We had some artillery support, but one look at those woods ahead foretold how difﬁcult finding a target would be.
The idea was that B Company on the left and ourselves on the right should advance, capture a strong point and then have the two remaining companies move through us and take the high ground a few miles farther. This would put them in a position overlooking Falaise. In retrospect, the plan seems, well, ambitious.
We covered about a mile and a bit and stopped around eight hundred yards from the woods. We knew they were in there — you could see the activity, although the targets were well hidden by the heavy trees and bush. Each company, left of the road and right of the road, had a real challenge. Both areas were divided into fields, marked by typical hedgerows of stone and dirt two to three feet high, with growth on top of that of another seven feet or so.
These contained plenty of enemy positions that had to be cleared out one by one. Then, in every other field or so, there’d be a double hedgerow with a sunken lane between. Once these lanes were cleared and made secure, our carrier used them to bring up more ammo, which we were going through at a tremen- dous rate.
Because the hedgerows offered such good defence to the enemy, our Bren-gunners were pouring it on, covering the riﬂe-men as they advanced. Often we’d be right on the enemy position before the defenders – pinned down by the Bren ﬁre – realized it. Then they’d give up rather easily, surprised to be overrun.
In their defence, it should be said they had a poor ﬁeld of ﬁre in those hedgerows; as long as our ammo held out we could pin hem down and pretty well get right up to them. We usually told the survivors to discard their weapons, put their hands on their heads and move back to our lines.
In this way on our side of the road, we slowly moved up, field by ﬁeld, hedgerow by hedgerow, using our Brens and some mortars with good effect. We had no way of knowing how the other company on the left of the road was proceeding, though we could hear the ﬁre.
By late afternoon we’d covered maybe six hundred yards, or three-quarters of the distance to the woods. We were troops fairly well battlewise at this point and did not get too upset about the troubles we’d gone through to get this far. We had some wounded, and the continuing need for ammunition supplies was always a concern.
About this time, 9 Platoon made a move and got up to the last hedgerow before the woods. We knew by now that the woods contained dug-in 88s and heavy machine guns. In fact, they had us targeted very well. About 250 yards from the woods and 100 feet from the road was exactly where 80 percent of their fire was landing.
I had spent the afternoon moving from section to section, back to HQ and Boss Medland, then forward again with new instructions, and always checking to make sure the carrier was available with the ammunition supply.
So when I got up to 9 Platoon, there was some decision to be made. Should we dig in? Should we wait for the tanks? By this time several runners had gone back as each new piece of informa- tion was obtained. But we had no way of knowing, either at our forward point or back at A Company HQ, that on the other side of the road B Company had run into real trouble.
[A few men eventually reached the edge of the wood where the enemy was positioned – but they were out of ammunition]
First of all we spotted three heavies dug in at the edge of the woods and firing out. Being up close to a tank is not so bad; they can’t see what’s under them, only what’s fairly far in front.
We were in sort of a low area, swampy in the spring but dry now, with small shrubs around — a good hiding place. We sent Charlie Bloomfield and Ernie Hackett back with all the information we could assemble — number of tanks, location, estimate of the number of troops, etc. — with a request for ammunition, and a Piat gun that would help us (not by much — that armour plate was too much) against the tanks.
We were prepared to hold on, depending on HQ instructions and whatever tank, artillery or air support they might plan. Otherwise, we said, we’d pull out around midnight, when things generally seem to quiet down, and get back to HQ about dawn.
Eventually they were ordered to withdraw, they had made good progress but were now in danger of being outflanked.