On the 16th July the British put in another attack to try to break the deadlock that had emerged around Hill 112 outside Caen. Sergeants Laing, Mapham, Midgley and Walter of No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit were present to record various aspects of the day – and we have a reasonably complete photographic history of different units of the British Army as they prepare to make an assault.
In Normandy the bloody battle for Hill 112 had begun on the 10th July, with British troops gripped in a bitter struggle with the SS Panzer Divisions to seize the high ground on the battlefield outside Caen. Casualties were high on both sides. For the British commanders there was the knowledge that their losses were replaceable, whereas the German losses were not.
For those locked into this struggle there would have been little consolation that they were fulfilling their of role of grinding down the enemy and preventing the transfer of Panzer forces to the west, where the Americans were preparing to breakout of the bridgehead. These are accounts from men of the 7th Somersets:
We had reached the farm buildings around Chateau de Fontaine, dug in positions in the meadows. Mortar and shell fire was devastating. Col. Lance [who had won a DSO in Africa] was killed by a shell from an 88mm while sitting in his jeep, the Gunner BC Major Mapp was killed, the Adjutant A. Scannell wounded and evacuated. A steady stream of wounded was arriving at the RAP. Maj. Young and Maj. Chalmers shared command of the Battalion with that of their own coys[Companys]. Snipers were at their worst.
Shortly after Col. Lance was killed, Maj. Young’s Coy was clearing some farm buildings. A shot whistled unpleasantly close. Maj. Y. turned to Pte. Lace (Battalion sniper) with ‘That’s the fifth shot that basket has fired at me, we must get him.’
They found him hidden in a junk—heap in the middle of a duck pond! They found another not more than seventeen years old, who had buried himself in the mud of a wet ditch — only his head, arms and riﬂe were free, even these covered with slime and weeds. Another was burned out from a hayrick set on fire by a German shell.
Several days after the occupation of Chateau de Fontaine, snipers were still being found. One had barricaded himself in a room on the first ﬂoor of a barn while a platoon of ‘D’ Coy occupied the ground floor. They got him with a Bren gun burst fired through the closed door when he refused to come out.
The enemy trenches in the area were full of German dead, passed over by the leading troops, and the usual scene of mutilated farm animals all around. Air was rancid with the smell of dead animals and ﬂies.
Our officers were dwindling through death and wounding and it was rumoured that we only had one or two officers left in the [‘S’] Company. Our own ofﬁcer had been killed and it was left to our sergeants to look after us. The toll of dead from the German shelling and attacks had risen considerably and our graveyard increased in the same measure.
We had lost all our top ofﬁcers and it was a case of stick it, and stick it, until someone made a breakthrough or retreated. Our cemetery/or graveyard was shelled by the Germans out of hatred or their morale breaking… We did take only a few SS prisoners, that explains what a terriﬁc defence that they had put up.
It wasn’t only in defence that these merchants excelled. They attacked and knew how to attack and die when they faced our guns, tanks and defenders. They seemed to have the best equipment as well.
Pte. Len Stokes, ‘B’ Company:
The German tanks were lined up to our front and took periodic shots at our 17-pounder unmanned gun which two German planes had just attacked, knocking all the crew out. I had to get out of my trench to see to ‘bodily functions’. They probably thought I was a gun crew member and fired a shell which hit a tree branch above me. The blast blew my steel helmet back, the chin strap nearly breaking my neck.
I was then ordered to take a verbal message to Battalion HQ as radio contact had been lost. [It was] in an outer farmhouse — they had just been very heavily shelled with many casualties. The ﬁrst person dying from chest Wounds said ‘Don’t worry about me, see to the badly wounded.’ Capt. Goldy found me, said he had assumed command of the Bn. Our CO had been killed, also the CO and 2 i/c of the Regiment relieving us.
I was glad to get out of that terrible shambles.
Ken Tout was a gunner in one of the British tanks joining the attack on the 16th. He gives an excellent account from the perspective of a tank in the bocage:
’Driver, advance!’ The Sherman climbs up the bank. I get a view of the tree-tops above the hedge. We level off and stay perched on the bank. This is the evil moment when the Sherman shows its thinly plated bottom to any gunner or bazooka man sitting out in the ﬁeld beyond. It is a naked, unprotected feeling. Hickey revs the engine a little, we begin to topple, a giant hand seems to rip the hedge aside, we crash down to earth, and are through!
We come looking for guns, for ﬂame, for smoke, for the frantic sudden movement of mechanical monsters behind hedges. Or the solitary field-grey hero nursing a bazooka and challenging us to move our big gun more swiftly than his modest iron tube. But this is an empty ﬁeld. A tiny ﬁeld. Not big enough to kick a football in. Certainly not the space for a game of cricket. A tiny grazing area defended by high ramparts of hedgerow. And nothing to see. Another tiny private world of our own. Conquered by us. And nobody the wiser.
We roll up to the opposite hedge, merely a couple of rotations of our tracks and we are again pressing into the greenery. The commander must be able to see something from up above.
I return to my botany studies. I should end this campaign an expert on privet, hawthorn, bramble and such. Troop Corporal reports to Troop Leader. I sit and wonder whether the end of our barrel is projecting through the hedge to the amusement of a crew of German anti-tank gunners the other side. My continued existence suggests that this is a fallacy.
We get the word to move again. Presumably 3 and 3 Able and 3 Charlie are also forsaking their little conquered ﬁelds to brave another hedge. We crawl towards the sky, tip, balance, wait for the crash of anti-tank shots through our exposed bottom plates, then crash down frontwards into a new green world — as tiny as the previous one. Behind us the infantry will be moving up and peeping through the horrendous hole we have just made in a farmer s hedge.
Across the ﬁeld. This farthest hedge is not so high. Not so thick. We nuzzle into the hedge and the gun prods through. ‘Can you see yet, gunner?’ The leaves fall away from the periscope and I can see. Germans! By the next hedge. But dead. Lying in a group face downwards as though thrown there by some mighty blast. I point my guns at them, then traverse away towards more ominous areas.
As we begin to cross this further field, Rex calls ‘Those Jerries aren’t dead!’ I swing the guns, see the Germans, leaping to their feet, hands held high and empty, mouths expressing the desperate words ‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’ and trembling into incontinence as my gun almost grazes their faces in its onward swing.
Corporal Snowdon, up above, and Rex, opening up his lower hatch cover, by dint of much waving and kameradly grinning, manage to persuade our petriﬁed enemies to work their nether limbs back towards our Staffordshire cousins in the hedgerow behind us.
Again we probe through a hedge. This time the opposite hedge is penetrated by a wide gateway — which causes me to wonder how the farmer obtains access to those previous ﬁelds where I did not notice gates! A German hops across the gate space like a scared rabbit. I am too astonished to react.
Another German runs across the space, left to right. I douse the right-hand hedge with machine-gun bullets. A third German takes the leap. Again I press the floor button, and tracer spits into the hedge on the right of the gate. I am waiting for the fourth German, with his basin-shaped helmet, his wide, neat tunic, his sloppy, baggy trousers, his carbine in hand. As he sprints across the gate, I fire into the hedge, his destination. He keeps running, I am totally perplexed.
’Gunner, there’s obviously a trench behind that hedge! Or a deep ditch to give them cover. Operator, reload with HE. Gunner, ﬁre three rounds of HE in your own time!’
Obvious! But not to me. Tommy slaps my leg. I tread hard. The flame at the gun and the flame at the hedge are almost simultaneous. The hedge is so near that the tempestuous concussion against the hedge rebounds and slams the turret whilst the gun is still recoiling from its own discharge. For a moment we have the sensation of a small ship hitting a big rock in stormy seas. A hurricane of noise, ﬂame, smoke, sods, leaves, burning air, wraps us round. The gate space is twice the size it was. Tommy slaps. I tread?’
Another tornado. Slap. Tread. Blast. The hedge, what is left of it, begins to burn. No more Germans leap the gap. Until now my main fear has been the elephantine shape of a heavy German tank, a Tiger, Panther, Royal Tiger or Self-Propelled Gun (SP) suddenly appearing downwind of us, its all-destroying gun pointing at us and its armour plate impervious to our 75mm shot. Now a new peril is evident.
If single German infantrymen can pop in and out of ditches within fifty yards of our tank, single German infantrymen may be crawling through the hedges alongside us or through the long grass behind us. And some of those infantrymen carry the notorious Panzerfaust, a simple, throwaway bomb-projector, known to us as a Bazooka and looking something like an outsize bassoon, an innocuous-looking instrument but one which, at ﬁfty yards range, can blow our turret to smithereens.
The cosy little ﬁelds darken into a tight, ugly death-trap, as though a vast, black cloud had come over the summer sun. We sit and watch the burning of the hedge and wonder about Panzerfausts.