As the US First Army in the west suddenly emerged as the crisis point for the Germans in the Normandy bridgehead, they began to transfer Panzer troops across from the east where they had been facing the British and Canadians. Montgomery launched Operation Bluecoat to exploit the transfer of 2nd SS Panzer Division away to the west and to keep the remaining German divisions in the east fully engaged.
The British sector in the west was now very congested. Geoffrey Picot, commanding a mortar platoon, describes how they they fitted into the greater plan that day:
On our right in the St Lo sector, we were told, the Americans had achieved a breakthrough which had great possibilities; the 15th Scottish Division, containing nine battalions, had been switched to an important area near the junction of the British and American armies, and they were going to make a strong attack to support the American effort.
Our job, with sixteen other battalions all working to a coherent plan, was to push forward in the general direction of Villers Bocage and beyond, and there were hopes that we would ﬁnd it easier attacking there, through Ectot Woods, than we had done at Hottot.
While it was still dark on the morning of 30 July sentries went around to all the trenches, calling the occupants. We rolled up our blankets (covered with the eternal dust and ground), put them on the carriers, and made ready to move off in the battalion convoy to our ﬁring position. As this was to be a major offensive the roads would be clogged with trafﬁc for several hours before the start.
So all unit moves had been planned and timed in advance. A battalion would be told to leave point A at time X and arrive at point B at time Y and it was not allowed to have any vehicles on the road except at those times and places. So in this case the commanding ofﬁcer was moving his battalion in convoy at 5.30 a.m. and the mortar platoon had to fall in behind battalion headquarters.
Some people do not like getting up at ﬁve o’clock, and it took some shouting and bullying on my part to get the carriers marshalled in time. At the last moment I counted only six carriers — one missing! Two of the chaps had slept on in their trench, and the driver was waiting for them. We raked these fellows out and half pushed, half threw, them and their equipment and blankets on the last carrier. I loathed the thought of being out of place in a convoy because that would show sheer inefﬁciency.
However, we occupied our correct position and, as daylight was beginning to break through, moved to the area of the start line. I set up the six mortars behind some farm buildings which offered good protection. I had arranged for Sergeant Wetherick to bring up an extra supply of ammunition, but when zero hour came his ﬁfteen-hundredweight truck had not arrived.
We had an ambitious ﬁre programme to carry out in support of the attacking riﬂemen, so we started at once and kept going strongly. Soon Sergeant Wetherick arrived, having been delayed by the narrow tracks and trafﬁc jams. I was not surprised.
We had a good weight of artillery support and, although the Germans retaliated, life in our immediate area remained fairly comfortable. During a quiet spell the chaps brewed up some tea and prepared breakfast of bacon and biscuits, but they were fearful lest in the middle of their preparations I should need to order ‘Move forward now’.
Their luck held, for although the attacking infantry made progress, they did so slowly, and we were able to stay in our initial position for some hours. This new colonel, I discovered, was not like Howie; he did not want the mortars close to the front. As long as I could reach 500 or 600 yards in front of our troops he was content for me to be in what I judged the best ﬁring position. We had good communication with the commanders of the leading formations and we energeti- cally fulﬁlled their requirements.
This time the air support worked correctly. About 9.30 a.m. little black dots appeared in the sky behind us; they came nearer; we recognized them as aircraft; ﬂight after ﬂight of aircraft. They were Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers ﬂying in loose formation and, with a magniﬁcent and impressive disregard of German ﬁghter and anti-aircraft artillery defences, were only about 500 feet above the ground.
Scores of bombers came overhead; the scores grew into hundreds; and we had to stop our ﬁring so as not to endanger them. Their targets were not far away, for we felt the earth rumble as their bombs exploded. This air support gave our morale a great boost and it must also have had a substantial material effect. For half an hour the attack continued and I did not see one bomber come to grief.
I wondered what the pilot thinks of the infantryman. Several bomber pilots have told me subsequently that their most interesting missions were in direct support of land ﬁghting and usually on those occasions they came away with light losses. One pilot has told me that from the sky the explosion of bombs looks the least terrible part of a battle. ‘Your artillery,’ he said, ‘looks as if it is creating great havoc. It gives a continuous line of ﬂashes and it looks to us as if nothing could live down below.’