As the US First Army made quite swift progress up the Cotentin peninsula and took Cherbourg, on the eastern side of the Normandy battlefield the British Second Army was engaged in some tough fights. It was here that the German Panzers were concentrated and there were to be a series of bloody clashes as the British edged forward. They still had not captured Caen, which had been an objective for D-Day.
Stuart Hills was a tank commander who was only just becoming battle experienced, he had already seen a good proportion of his comrades become casualties:
The barrage began at 0330 hours on Sunday June 25 and at 0430 hours the attack moved downhill behind the barrage. Halfway down into the valley we encountered a heavy ground mist, which thickened the further we went and eventually reduced visibility to a few feet. Tanks and infantry lost contact and everything became confused.
Meanwhile the enemy opened up with machine-guns, mortars, the lot, which gave the infantry a particularly hard time. …
The fighting in Fontenay was fierce and confused, with enemy tanks of 12 SS Panzer dug in defensively to the east of the town, and we did not have enough infantry to take the village. At about four o’clock in the afternoon the attack had clearly run out of steam, infantry losses had been heavy and we withdrew back to the heights of Point 102 above Fontenay to replenish our stocks of ammunition, refuel and have something to eat.
They expected that would be the end for the day but at 7pm Hills was called to an Orders group and told they would be making a second attack, which he would be leading. His crew were unenthusiastic about making an attack where a larger force had just been beaten off:
We made ourselves ready. Doug Footitt and Arthur Reddish put extra tracer bullets into the machine-gun belts: at night the inside of a tank was pitch-dark and the gunner’s sights were useless, but the tracer would help the main gun find its targets. We would have to be careful of our own infantry straying into our line of fire, and Arthur kept some grenades handy in case we were attacked.
It was clearly going to be tough, and I was by no means certain that we would be coming back.
About nine o’clock we climbed into our Sherman, warming the engines and marshalling into line. Fifteen minutes later we moved off into the night, over the crest of Point 102 and down towards Fontenay, which was another small Norman village of scattered houses, narrow streets and high hedges.
The infantry was in single file on our right, the wrong side for our turret-mounted machine-gun. They were moving cautiously, alert to strange noises and trying to pick out land- marks in the darkness. We passed all the ground we had crossed earlier in the day and still there was no response from the enemy. Perhaps we had taken him by surprise.
Then suddenly a machine-gun opened up, the infantry scattered and bullets hit the tank like the rat-a-tat-tat of a hammer. I ordered the tank to slew right and Doug Footitt opened up with his machine-gun on the enemy position and then fired two high-explosive shells which set the two-storey building alight.
Gradually we worked our way through the town. Resistance was unexpectedly light and the infantry was in and out of the houses. I then received orders to accompany a Churchill tank to blast a nearby German headquarters in a chateau which we duly destroyed. We moved off, with Arthur half outside his hatch and holding a Sten gun to deal with any Panzerfausts.
By midnight Fontenay had been captured and the road to Caen cut. We stopped and tried to snatch some sleep while we could.
It had been a very long day and a tough assignment. My crew were perhaps not quite as undisturbed and relaxed as they had been after Cristot. The strain was beginning to tell; it was showing in their eyes and in their slightly nervous movements as they reached for their cigarettes or cups of tea.
I knew that I had to appear relatively unconcerned, whatever I was feeling inside, and do what I could to raise spirits and lift confidence.
BBC People’s War has an account of the Royal Scouts Fusilier’s encounter with the 12th SS Panzer Division at Fontenay-le-Pesnel on this day.