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.
Three Days in June
6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers
It was the 25th of June 1944 and I was standing in a large field in Normandy, some six miles inland from the coast of France. My reason for this is that I was a soldier, an infantryman in a Scottish Regiment, the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, who were part of the 44th Brigade of the 15th Scottish Division. Around me in the field on that balmy June evening were the rest of the Battalion, about 700 young men, in groups, talking, sitting, standing, others laying sprawled out on the grass.
We had landed in Normandy 13 days earlier. Since landing we had been gradually moving up to the front line and now we were close to the enemy. The division had completed its gruelling training on the Yorkshire Moors several months in the bitter winter months, which was the prelude as to why we were all congregated in the field. That evening, we were to learn why we had trained so long, it was to break out from the static bridgehead the British Army had established, since landing in Normandy. I was a Bren gunner, a light machine gun which I could strip and reassemble in minutes to clean and oil for any action.
Suddenly, activity, men were moving to the top of the field and we were now being told that we were to be addressed by the Commanding Officer. He was standing on the bonnet, surrounded by other officers of the Battalion. We stood in silence and the CO started his address:
” Men we are on the eve of what we have been training for these part years, tomorrow starting at 7.30am we are going into action. We will be facing the ‘cream ‘of the German Army the 12th SS ‘Hitler Jugend’ Division, full of 17 year old fanatical Adolph Hitler worshippers. Not to worry though, for you are the pick of the British Army and soon now we will be in a very interesting party, now off you go and get some rest”.
As he finished his little speech pandemonium broke out, and to me Sassenach, and English man amongst the Scots, I could not believe what I was witnessing, bagpipes were being played, men were singing and dancing in groups all over the field, just hours to go and their celebrating and all are sober.
As it became darker we silently moved forward, keeping as quit as possible to reach the starts line which was another field outside the village of Norrey-En-Bessin. There in the drizzling rain we stood around close to the enemy, in groups, each with our thoughts, and I guess some praying, whispering to each other, smoking in cupped hands passing away the interminable hours. A never to be forgotten night, for many of us knew our lives would never be the same again.
At precisely 7.30am all hell broke out. Dante infernos as 800 guns of various calibres were sending their shells over our heads, landing hundreds of yards ahead. Battleships offshore were firing their 16 inch shells, the RAF were also due to add to this inferno, but due to the poor weather conditions their contributions was cancelled.
We moved out of the field immediately the shelling commenced and in file we walked through the little village, passing a church where a piper was playing bagpipes, standing on the raised steps. Due to the tremendous deafening noise, we could not hear what he was playing, the symbol was enough, and we just raised a hand in acknowledgement. We were next in a cornfield, the corn was waist high, and in a line left and right, we started to move across the field to meet the ‘Cream’.
Our shelling is exploding juts a hundred yards ahead of us, we are to advance a hundred yards every three minutes. Of course this brilliant plan failed as shells where falling short and we sustained our first casualties. Holding our weapons over our heads we walked to meet the enemy. They were everywhere popping up behind us and we were in one hell none of us could have possibly imagined. The fanatical young German SS men were certainly proving to be a force to reckon with force. Nevertheless, due to tremendous barrage of gunfire pouring on them, we made progress to reach our target the village of St-Mauvieu.
We are then inside the village at about 11.00am and house-to-house fighting starts, this continues until about 4.00pm. Now, due to our casualties, we are glad to be relieved by another Regiment of our Brigade, the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, because we are now a spent force.
I was standing with a few of our men around the village church which was badly damaged, when Major Agnew, a young 25 year old handsome Officer approached me. In a raised voice he asked me “Have you seen Major Korts” who was his brother-in-law. Someone in the group said in reply “Sir he was killed this morning.” Where”? Was the next request and my comrade pointed up the road. Immediately Major Agnew started to move quickly in that direction. We shouted to him to stop saying the SS were just 500 yards ahead. He ignored the warning and walked to his death.
The enemy was counter-attacking to retake the village. Finally we are moved back into the comparative safety. We collect our dead, in a large truck, who number 30. We are have also lost 120 others wounded, so our ‘party’ with the ‘Cream’ has cost us dearly. We have lots 25% of our strength of the Battalion. The dead are buried in shallow graves with their rifles stuck in the ground over them, with helmet placed on the rifle top.
It is about 9.00pm we have our first cold meal and snatch a few hours noisy sleep lying down in the village street. At daylight with re-enforcements, we move up to commence battle again. We attack and then are counter attacked all day, but we are advancing against a very stubborn, brave enemy. Night arrives and we have advanced three miles, to be surrounded by the Germans on three sides. I dig with another comrade a small shallow slit trench that we can sit in and grab forty winks with the racket still going on around us.
Day breaks and we are attacking again and our Division is taking a pounding, yet we are still advancing. This day and night is a repetition of the first day in activity. We have now advanced eight bloody miles into the guts of the enemy.
Hitler now issues his orders to his Army.” No retreat, throw the British back into the sea.” We are now fighting four German Divisions at the tip of the wedge and on both sides. We halt repeated counter attacks, it is the 29th of June, and we have been fighting no-stop for three days.
This battle is now know as the battle of the ‘Scottish Corridor ‘and streets in that area are named after us. At 6.00pm I think my number is coming up, we are in a gulley in a hedgerow, we are being counter attacked again, we are disorganized, and men are running back in retreat. A brave unknown officer is behind us, revolver in hand shouting” No one retreats”: the words are ominous, if anyone attempts to do so they will finish up with a bullet in the head.
The situation is grim, 25 pounder guns are brought up alongside us, firing point blank into the enemy in the field in front of us. With this help the day is saved and we are finally relieved by a fresh Division, to rest and are reinforced.
We have had our baptism of fire. The Division continues the battle and finally it is relieved, it has lost 800 killed and 2300 wounded in the battle of the ‘Scottish Corridor’. The 12th SS Division took a terrible mauling; they had to be the toughest Division in the German Army.
Today the 15th Scottish Division’s dead lie buried in cemeteries all over Northern Europe. I was lucky to survive, to fight on for another nine months, to go into my last battle, the assault across the River Rhine, finally my number came up. I was in the first wave of the assault to cross the river. Once ashore I stepped on a small mine and have part of my left foot removed, my army days are ended.
Five weeks later the war is over, cost for my battalion over 1000 casualties, cost to the Division over 11,000.
Contemporary Pathe Newsreel footage of the early days in Normandy that was now being shown in British cinemas: