A tank attack into the bocage

A Sherman Firefly crew of 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry load ammunition into their vehicle before the start of Operation 'Totalise', 7 August 1944

A Sherman Firefly crew of 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry load ammunition into their vehicle before the start of Operation ‘Totalise’, 7 August 1944

Sherman tanks of 1st Polish Armoured Division assembled for Operation 'Totalise', Normandy, 8 August 1944.

Sherman tanks of 1st Polish Armoured Division assembled for Operation ‘Totalise’, Normandy, 8 August 1944.

Although the US forces had found themselves in the thick bocage country for most of the time they spent in the Normandy bridgehead, the British experience had been more varied. The large tank battles around Caen had been fought in much more open country. Operation Bluecoat had not been as successful as Montgomery hoped and he now renewed the attack with Operation Totalise.

As the British and Canadian forces now pushed south in an attempt to link with the US forces, they encountered the bocage country, some of them for the first time. Bill Bellamy describes the difficulties of fighting by tank in the bocage:

It was the first time that I had felt any apprehension about an attack and how to handle it. Whether the briefing lacked conviction, or whether I just missed the comforting presence of Piff Threlfall I don’t know, but I had a feeling of gloom about the day ahead which didn’t leave me until we started to advance at first light on the morning of 8 August.

Once we had passed through our own lines and were moving cautiously out across the fields into unknown country, I forgot all my fears and settled down to enjoy the challenge. It was a brilliantly sunny, warm day, the initial going was good and although we were able to report the occasional AP shot and saw vehicles at a distance, we didn’t actually come up against organised resistance until about O800hrs. Then Bill Pritchard, nosing through a hedge, was fired at by an anti-tank gun which, happily, missed him.

In the meantime however, all hell was let loose on our right and both the other troops in the squadron were reporting attacks, some of their tanks being knocked out. By this time we were still well to the north of Cauville, I wasn’t yet in sight of the village itself, and the ground was rapidly becoming impossible for tank movement. It was real ‘Bocage’ with 2—4 feet high banks topped by thick hedges, interspersed with trees.

Here again, many of the small fields contained orchards and the trees themselves were so low that often one couldn’t pass beneath them but was forced to jink one’s way through. This made it impossible for the gunner to see clearly and, as the tank commander was bobbing up and down in the turret, or trying to use the periscopes for sighting, it was all rather a nightmare.

There was an added hazard for the gunner, who was sitting down below hunched over his gunsight, in a very cramped position. If he stretched his legs out through the turret cage in order to get some relief and this coincided with the gun hitting a tree while we were on the move, then the turret would have been forced round and off would come his legs. A chilling thought.

In the Cromwell tank it was difficult to remove shells from the racks and maintain a good rate of fire with the 75mm gun. The shells were all stored in bins round the turret floor, but as we were traversing all the time there were few opportunities for the loader to pick them up.

In addition to this, they were about 2 feet 6‘inches long and weighed over 1Olb, so, as one had to load one-handed, they were unwieldy. It was our practice therefore, when we anticipated trouble, for the wireless operator, who doubled up as a loader, to sit with three or four shells across his knees, so that as we fired and the empty shell case ejected, he could reload in a matter of seconds.

This was fine if one was static, but when one was bouncing about in all directions it became both very painful and extremely difficult. By this time we had encountered a great deal of small arms fire, and I decided to call a halt while I reviewed the options open to us.

The two leading tanks were hull-down behind the bank but we could see through the hedge top, and were engaging a number of enemy infantry moving about in front of us. I reported this to Bob and was told to try to probe forward again and see if it was possible to find any way round their position.

I then asked Alan Howard, whose tank was in the hedge about 100 yards behind me, to try to break into the next field to his left and, when he had done that, to come up into line with us. He acknowledged my order, but, just as he was about to move, a number of enemy infantry dashed out from behind the bank on my left flank, at least one of them armed with a Panzerfaust.

Neither Bill Pritchard nor I could fire at them immediately as we couldn’t traverse our turret guns the requisite 90° owing to the density of the hedge itself. Luckily they had not realised that Alan Howard’s tank was still sitting in the hedge behind, and as we two reversed out and started our traverse, he opened up with both machine guns and they dispersed, leaving a number of dead lying there.

It was a nasty moment and I decided that we couldn’t contend with an infantry attack unless we had some sort of a field of fire, so we all charged back through the hedge into more open ground.

See Bill Bellamy: Troop Leader: A Tank Commander’s Story

David Jamieson VC

David Jamieson VC

Elsewhere the Germans were counter-attacking fiercely, some appreciation of the nature of the fighting can be gained from this citation for the Victoria Cross

Captain Jamieson was in command of a Company of The Royal Norfolk Regiment which established a bridgehead over the River Orne, south of Grimbosq, in Normandy.

On August 7th, 1944, the enemy made three counter-attacks which were repulsed with heavy losses. The last of these took place at 1830 hours when a German Battle Group with Tiger and Panther tanks attacked and the brunt of the fighting fell on Captain Jamieson’s Company. Continuous heavy fighting ensued for more than four hours until” the enemy were driven off, after suffering severe casualties and the loss of three tanks and an armoured car accounted for by this Company.

Throughout these actions, Captain Jamieson displayed outstanding courage and leadership, which had a decisive influence on the course of the battle and resulted in the defeat of these determined enemy attacks.

On the morning of August 8th the enemy attacked with a fresh Battle Group and succeeded in penetrating the defences surrounding the Company on three sides. During this attack two of the three tanks in support of the Company were destroyed and Captain Jamieson left his trench under close range fire from enemy arms of all kinds and went over to direct the fire of the remaining tank, but as he could not get into touch with the commander of the tank by the outside telephone, he climbed upon it in full view of the enemy.

During this period Captain Jamieson was wounded in the right eye and left forearm but when his wounds were dressed he refused to be evacuated. By this time all the other officers had become casualties so Captain Jamieson reorganised his Company, regardless of personal safety, walking amongst his men in full view of the enemy, as there was no cover. After several hours of bitter and confused fighting, the last Germans were driven from the Company position.

The enemy counter-attacked the Company three more times during that day with infantry and tanks. Captain Jamieson continued in command, arranging for artillery support over his wireless and going out into the open on each occasion to encourage his men.

By the evening the Germans had withdrawn, leaving a ring of dead and burnt out tanks round his position.

Throughout this thirty-six hours of bitter and close fighting, and despite the pain of his wounds, Captain Jamieson showed superb qualities of leadership and great personal bravery.

There were times when the position appeared hopeless, but on each occasion it was restored by his coolness and determination. He personally was largely responsible for the holding of this important bridgehead over the River Orne and the repulse of seven German counter-attacks with great loss to the enemy.

Smoke rises in the distance after a raid on German positions at the start of Operation 'Totalise', 8 August 1944.

Smoke rises in the distance after a raid on German positions at the start of Operation ‘Totalise’, 8 August 1944.

The crew of a Sherman tank of 7th Armoured Division pose with a German swastika flag captured near Roucamps, 8 August 1944

The crew of a Sherman tank of 7th Armoured Division pose with a German swastika flag captured near Roucamps, 8 August 1944

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