Normandy: the British breakout begins

A Bedford QL 3-ton truck drives into Gace, to the waves and cheers of the local inhabitants, 23 August 1944.

A Bedford QL 3-ton truck drives into Gace, to the waves and cheers of the local inhabitants, 23 August 1944.

A Humber scout car crew are greeted by local people in the town of Gace, 23 August 1944.

A Humber scout car crew are greeted by local people in the town of Gace, 23 August 1944.

Ever since D-Day the British and Canadian forces in Normandy had been slugging it out with the Germans at the eastern end of the bridgehead. Now, with the battle for the Falaise pocket over, they suddenly found no opposition in front of them. They were able to race forward to the east, just as the US forces had done earlier.

It was a dramatic change in circumstances, that took time to adjust to. John Stirling was with the Royal Dragoon Guards:

I think it was the most exciting and sensational time I shall ever have in my life. We drove south first through Condé-sur-Noireau and Vire. Then we swung east towards Argentan and the Seine.

At first we moved gingerly. At every corner and every wood one waited to hear the familiar boom and snarl of a piece of “hard”. But the noise never came. It seemed incredible after all these weeks, that we could motor ten miles down a main road without being fired on.

But the ten miles mounted to twenty and still there was silence and still the speedometers ticked on. We could not understand that the rout of the German Seventh Army was now almost complete, that the Falaise pocket, round whose outskirts we were driving, was the scene of the biggest disaster the victorious Wehrmacht had ever experienced.

This was the real thing. This was the Breakthrough. We saw the remains of a retreating army. Burnt-out vehicles that the RAF had caught, abandoned vehicles that had broken down, derelict vehicles that had run out of petrol, dead horses, broken wagons, scattered kit and equipment.

We saw the brutal sadism of the SS. Everything had been thrown out of the French houses, breakables broken, materials ripped, pistol shots through the cider barrels, an axe for the windows and farmhouse and all the livestock killed and removed — to establish the supremacy of the Herrenvolk over the lesser people — and sheer bestiality.

See Patrick Delaforce: Marching to the Sound of Gunfire: North-West Europe 1944 – 1945

French chilren climb aboard a Free French M3A3 Stuart tank, 23 August 1944.

French chilren climb aboard a Free French M3A3 Stuart tank, 23 August 1944.

Not every unit experienced the rapid movement through north east France that was to become known as’The Great Swan’. There were still some Germans fighting a rear guard action, trying to buy time for the surviving remnants of their army to retreat over the Seine and further east. On the 23rd there was bitter fighting in the town of Lisieux, as Sergeant ‘Snatch’ Boardman relates:

As we drove into Lisieux the road was packed with infantrymen waiting to move forward. The 51st Highlanders were having to fight house to house, street by street and had to capture the Basilica which dominated the area…

As we approached the forward position the constant stream of stretcher-bearing Jeeps with badly injured troops from both sides was indication of the resistance being encountered. As our troop of three vehicles came up to the Queens infantry, their young officer indicated the enemy positions. The platoon was in a single file and keeping close against a wall.

I cannot remember ever feeling more pity for them than I did on that occasion. As the Bren crew went forward they became instant casualties. The Piat crew took up the leading position. The platoon was soon either dead or wounded.

One of numerous first hand accounts to found in Patrick Delaforce: Churchill’s Desert Rats in North-West Europe: From Normandy to Berlin

Inside the Basilica 2,000 civilians were sheltering. Sergeant Boardman was to take Bren gun and climb to the top of the Basilica from where he fired on Germans running away, although he apparently failed to locate German snipers hiding elsewhere in the building. Overnight the last Germans would silently withdraw.

Cromwell OP tanks and Humber scout cars of 5th RHA, 7th Armoured Division, climb the hill into Lisieux, 23 August 1944. On the right is a Royal Artillery battery commander's half-track of 51st Highland Division, and in the centre a wounded Highlander shot by a sniper is carried to safety.

Cromwell OP tanks and Humber scout cars of 5th RHA, 7th Armoured Division, climb the hill into Lisieux, 23 August 1944. On the right is a Royal Artillery battery commander’s half-track of 51st Highland Division, and in the centre a wounded Highlander shot by a sniper is carried to safety.

A column of Cromwell and Sherman Firefly tanks of 1st RTR, 7th Armoured Division, enters Lisieux, 23 or 24 August 1944. In the background is the Basilica of St Therese.

A column of Cromwell and Sherman Firefly tanks of 1st RTR, 7th Armoured Division, enters Lisieux, 23 or 24 August 1944. In the background is the Basilica of St Therese.

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