Caen had been an objective for D-Day itself. Now, over a month later Montgomery launched one more large scale attack to take the town, which lay at the centre of German defences on the eastern end of the Normandy beachhead. Already the town had suffered terribly from Allied bombing, and would suffer still further before it was taken.
On the approaches to Caen the Germans had well prepared defences and it would take more than two days of fighting before the town was finally taken.
Lieutenant Harry Jones led 10 Platoon, X Company, 2nd Battalion The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry from the D-Day landings through to the night of the 7th July:
The operation was further complicated by the nature of the Normandy ‘bocage’ countryside—thick over-grown hedgerows, deep, narrow country lanes, and clumps of trees. That night we attacked three or four machine-gun posts, and, although there was silence from them for some time afterwards, we could not be sure that we had completely knocked them out. The remainder of the night was spent in probing their positions, with the occasional crossfire breaking the silence, and from the enemy a barrage of hand grenades. At one point I took the Bren machine-gun from the gunner, and, stupidly standing up, I fired bursts of machine-gun fire into the enemy positions, at the same time firing words of abuse in German at the enemy, challenging then to “come out and fight”. Thankfully, the challenge was not accepted!
At sunrise [on the 8th] we covered the cross-roads with fire, but even in daylight it was almost impossible to locate the enemy positions which were well camouflaged and well dug-in.
Suddenly, a German soldier, hands raised in the air in surrender, walked to our scrapes in the ground which had stood in for properly dug trenches. My sergeant went towards him to search him, and to our horror, the German suddenly produced a hand-grenade and threw it at the sergeant. Fortunately it missed and exploded harmlessly a few feet away from any of my men. The immediate impulse of some of my soldiers was to shoot the German but I ordered them not to shoot, although I must confess my immediate reaction was much the same as theirs. (It is understandable in the heat of battle to lose one’s sense of morality, and vent one’s spleen on the enemy. However, one realises that, in the future, one must live with one’s conscience.)
I told one of my toughest soldiers to fix his bayonet and force the German to advance with us to the battle for CAEN, since he was a threat to any of our own troops in the vicinity. He ‘accompanied’ us as far as LEBISEY WOOD and there we handed him over to troops returning to the beachhead.
At about 0430 hours on the 8th July 1944 the battle for CAEN began with a massive artillery bombardment on LEBISEY WOOD. The wood itself and the hill on which it stood seemed to rise physically feet into the air. The noise of the shelling was horrendous, and I wondered how anyone could possibly survive such a bombardment. I and my platoon stayed covering the crossroads, wondering when the Division which was to advance through the crossroads on their way to the West of CAEN would arrive. It was an unpleasant situation. The Division probably did not know exactly where we were, nor even if we were there at all, and I wondered whether they might mistake us for the enemy. When their forward troops appeared on the skyline behind us, advancing in our direction, I stood up and waved my arms in the direction of the crossroads. They must have understood, because they did not fire in our direction.
To avoid any casualties, I withdrew my platoon from the area, and we advanced in open formation across the fields back to LEBISEY WOOD. On the way we were shelled by German 88mm anti-aircraft artillery, firing in the ground role. The 88mm was an extremely accurate weapon, and luckily none of my men sustained any injuries. We moved up to through, LEBISEY WOOD. The scene was one of utter devastation. The ground was cratered with innumerable shell holes, and the trees looked like those of the scarred and shattered woods in the First World War. There were mangled bodies lying around, and I remembered looking at a pair of German army boots with the feet separated from the rest of the body. On my right rose the dreaded water tower, still intact although looking rather battle-scarred!
It was some time in the afternoon that we emerged from the Wood, and pressed on over the open ground to a small hill marked on the map as Point 64. As we advanced to the hill we came under intense ground and air-burst shelling. There was no cover to escape the deadly effects of the air-bursts, and as I was urging my platoon forward toward CAEN now only a mile or two away, I felt a dull thud in my left arm just below the elbow. I looked down and saw blood oozing through battle-dress tunic. There was a knocked-out tank on the side of the road, so I crawled underneath it to assess the damage to my arm.
A couple of seconds later one of my soldiers threw himself under the tank alongside myself, and enquired if I was all right. Before could reply, a shell landed alongside us, and he was hit in the buttocks by a piece of shrapnel. He was in pain, and my arm was becoming useless, so I helped him to the side of the road and managed to obtain a lift in an army vehicle leaving the battlefield. We made our way to the Regimental Aid Post where I met our friendly doctor who examined me and the soldier, and told me I would be evacuated to Field Hospital situated near the coast. I was slightly surprised because I thought that the shrapnel could be quickly removed from arm, and I could return to my platoon.
We were transferred to the tented hospital, and as we topped the rise just to the North of BEUVILLE, I could see the guns of the Royal Artillery pouring round after round into the CAEN area; tanks moving South to join the battle, and, off the beaches, all types of landing craft, some crippled, others moving up supplies etc to the beach-head, protect overhead by barrage balloons.
On arriving at the Field Hospital, my wound was cleaned and a new dressing applied. I then collapsed onto a camp bed and fell fast asleep. I had not appreciated that I was still suffering from shock and lack of sleep and exhaustion after the past 48 hours. When I awoke I was informed that I was to be returned to England — I just could not believe my ears! I was put on a DUKW—a small amphibious vehicle—and we sailed through beach obstacles now rendered safe, and sunken landing craft.
Looking ahead I was amazed to see a hospital ship to which we were making our way. I had expected to be transferred to England on some type of landing craft, but this was absolute luxury! Once on board I went to the Ward Room where, sitting around a table were about a half-dozen nursing staff. I then sat down to the only decent meal I had had in over a month— roast chicken, roast potatoes, fresh peas and a sweet. After the meal I went on deck just as the ship was weighing anchor. I watched the Normandy coast slowly slipping away, and thought of the Battalion, and especially my platoon who by this time had helped successfully to capture CAEN.
My battle for NORMANDY was over.
Read the whole of Jones’ account from 4th June right through to this final day in France at War Chronicle. He fails to mention that he was awarded the Military Cross for this action. The Royal Ulster Rifles were also involved in the attack on Lebisey Wood, and some of their accounts give a contrasting perspective on event.
The men were dropping like skittles but we were advancing and that meant we were winning. The medics just couldn’t cope; the walking wounded had to make their own way back to the transport; the more serious wounded had to be left there after the medics had treated them.
The diary of Jim Wisewell of the Royal Army Medical Corps is even more graphic about the true nature of battle:
At 4 a.m. the barrage began … it seemed that every gun in the neighbourhood was hurling shells at Lebisey … Then the infantry went in. At 5 a.m. the first wounded came back, cheerful, optimistic. We splinted fractures, covered wounds with sterile dressings and relieved each other for breakfast at 6.30 a.m.
As the day wore on, sunny and scorching hot, the tide of casualties rose. Dozens and dozens were carried in. Our treatment centre always had 3 upon the trestles being attended to and soon the approaches were lined with a queue. Hour after hour we worked and evacuated and still the ﬂow continued.
Ghastly wounds there were, of every type and state of severity. Heads with skulls so badly smashed that bone and brain and pillow were almost indivisible; faces with horrible lacerations; jaws blown completely away leaving only two
sad eyes to plead for relief from pain. Chests pierced through with shrapnel and lungs that spouted blood from gushing holes. Arms were mangled into shapeless masses left hanging by muscle alone and waiting the amputation knife.
There were abdomens perforated by shell splinters and displaying coils of intestine, deadly wounds. Buttocks were torn and in some cases spinal injury had followed bringing paralysis.
But the leg wounds! Thigh—bones splintered; knees without knee caps; legs without feet; red, mangled ﬂesh and blood ﬂooding the stretcher.
And others trembling uncontrollably, sobbing like children, strapped to the stretcher and struggling to be free; screaming and, when a shell landed near the ADS, shouting, ‘They’re coming again! O God, they’re coming again.’ Not heroes, but sufferers nonetheless.
We ate our lunch of biscuit and corned beef with bloody fingers and when relieved by 9th Field Ambulance at 6 p.m. we had treated 466 British soldiers and 40 Germans.
These last two accounts appear in Patrick Delaforce: Monty’s Iron Sides: From the Normandy Beaches to Bremen with the 3rd Division