On 26th June Montgomery launched Operation Epsom, a major attack aimed at the town of Caen, the major obstacle to British expansion in the east of the Normandy battlefield. The attack was led by the 44th (Lowland) Infantry Brigade and the 46th (Highland) Infantry Brigade of the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division with a number of famous regiments taking part including the Royal Scots, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Cameronians, the Seaforth Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders.
Robert Woollcombe was a platoon commander with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (K.O.S.B.). This was to be their first day in action in Normandy – and Woollcombe had an ‘indelible memory’ of the day which he recalls in some detail in his memoir. They arrived at their forming up point at 3am in drizzling rain and scraped pits in the ground before trying to get some sleep before breakfast at 5.30am – porridge, tinned sausages, biscuits, tinned margarine and lots of tea. Then at 7.30 the opening barrage:
The minute hand touched 7.30. … On the second, nine hundred guns of all calibres, topped by the fifteen-inch broadsides from the distant battleships lying off the beaches, vomited their inferno.
Concealed guns opened from fields, hedges and farms in every direction around us, almost as if arranged in tiers. During short pauses between salvoes more guns could be heard, and right away, further guns, filling and reverberating the very atmosphere with a sustained, muffled hammering.
It was like rolls of thunder, only it never slackened. Then the guns near by battered out again with loud, vicious, strangely mournful repercussions. The thunder angry, violent and death-dealing. Hurling itself over strong-points, enemy gun areas, forming-up places, tank laagers, and above all concentrated into the creeping mass of shells that raked ahead of our own infantrymen, as thousands of gunners bent to their task.
Little rashes of goose-flesh ran over the skin. One was hot and cold, and very moved. All this “stuff” in support of us! Every single gun at maximum effort to kill; to help us.
The thin rain and fog were to mix with the smoke and dust from the barrage to create a fog bank in places. Aircraft in Britain were kept grounded by poor visibility so British forces were without one of their major advantages. As the barrage fell they moved forward to their start line, ahead of them the Royal Scots Fusiliers had begun the attack:
The field rose gently to a low skyline, that was the start line running on the left into the orchard where we had made our reconnaissance. Neatly above Norrey a number of swirling black puffs of smoke appeared, to the sound of cruel, heavy detonations.
Crump! … Crump! … Crump! — Crump! — Crump! … German shrapnel air-bursts.
“Get down – stop walking about!” I was being yelled at by Gavin [the Company Commander], having been strolling around the platoon while they scraped their pits, determined to remain casual.
We lay for about ten minutes, watching the air-bursts over some tall trees in the orchard. More appeared over Norrey.
Then stray figures in battle-dress materialized out of the mist, coming back from the battle. Each with levelled bayonet prodding two or three helmetless and sullen, bewildered- looking youths in grimy camouflage smocks and trousers. They held their hands in a resigned, tired way above their blond heads.
A miracle anything could have lived through the stunning they had taken, and a testimony to the efficacy of the slit- trench.
We stared after them: trying to comprehend the actuality of our enemies. A Regimental Provost corporal, taking charge of one, flicked him contemptuously across the shoulders with his driving-gauntlets, rearwards. And morale soared. Prisoners already! Things must be going well. The sight did a world of good to the younger ones among us, upon whom the strain of composure had been beginning to tell.
Then Colonel Ben’s word came over the wireless. Gavin relayed us the signal… “The Battalion will Advance …”
We arose and moved up the field in extended line of sections. There was a lull in the air-bursts. We came level with the orchard. The wide fields of ripening corn rolled away before us, the mist already lifting to an overcast sky of low cloud.
Then past the Canadian outposts and stray incoming parties of Canadians who had been out, gate-crashing the battle, helping to bring home the wounded.
“Rifles at the hip — safety catches off!” you shouted.
Two motionless figures were sprawled near by. A glimpse of twisted legs in SS canvas, a crooked arm, a swollen belly – and you looked away again, ahead. We were past the start line, and moving forward through the corn.
Contemporary Pathe Newsreel footage of the early days in Normandy that was now being shown in British cinemas: