One man’s valiant attack wins the battle

Men of the King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) moving up, Holland, 19 September 1944.
Men of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) moving up, Holland, 19 September 1944.
A member of the PAN (Partisan Action Netherlands) guides British troops to German positions near Valkenswaard, 25 September 1944.
A member of the PAN (Partisan Action Netherlands) guides British troops to German positions near Valkenswaard, 25 September 1944.

As the Allies came to terms with the failure of Market Garden to provide a dramatic new breakthrough, the men in the field had to come to terms with a relentless war with no swift end now in sight. After the rapid advances after Normandy they now came across a much stiffer German defence line. Robert Woollcombe with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers sums up the mood at the end of September:

The heavy grey days passed. Days of local infiltration and counter-attack; perpetual stand—to; and artillery fire churning along drear tree—lines. Godforsaken tracks that led nowhere or anywhere. The snarl of the hidden spandau in a fir plantation.

The strange voice in German sounding through a wood where the Divisional I.O. broadcast propaganda, and R.A.F. Typhoons circling in the sky. And lonely, derelict farms, and more dull names. . . . Gasthuishof. . . . Fratershof. . . . and some benighted buildings through the woods called Olland: for these names were now the work of the devil. And thoughts turned with persistence to when the relief might come.

For moral fatigue was on everyone. The strength was low. Replacements were not catching us up. There were not enough officers, nor enough N.C.O.s, and not enough jocks. We had come a long way. There were many enemies. There had been no proper respite or refit since leaving England and it was so throughout the Division. In three months its casualties had reached a total of 7000 killed, wounded and missing.

It was so throughout the Army, and men were beginning to talk about the Army now. Caen to Arnhem had been the road, and the Army, men were saying, not without peculiar pride, was “played out”.

But the Americans in their great numbers were spreading over the West, and soon it was being rumoured that still another United States Army was concentrating behind the Front, to carry the last phase of the war into Germany. Which did not work out quite like that.

September went out and the war carried on. It was Nicht Kaput.

See Robert Woollcombe: Lion Rampant: The Memoirs of an Infantry Officer from D-Day to the Rhineland

Yet even if men were tired of the war, the war went on. Elsewhere on the British front they were coming to terms with a completely new terrain, a land of polders and dykes. It was to prove to be a miserable place to fight the war as winter approached. In places the line was as fiercely fought over as ever:

Corporal Harper VC
Corporal Harper VC

In North-West Europe, on 29th September, 1944, the Hallamshires attacked the Depot de Mendicite, a natural defensive position surrounded by an earthen wall and then a dyke, strongly held by the enemy.

Cpl. Harper was commanding the leading section in the assault, with his objective a length of the wall. The enemy was dug in on both sides and had a perfect field of fire across 300 yards of completely flat and exposed country.

With superb disregard for the hail of mortar bombs and small arms fire which the enemy brought to bear on this open ground, Cpl. Harper led his section straight up to the wall and killed or captured the enemy holding the near side.

During this operation the platoon commander was seriously wounded. Cpl. Harper at once took control of the platoon. He reorganized it. The enemy on the far side of the wall were at this time throwing grenades over the top. Cpl. Harper at once climbed over the wall, himself throwing grenades, and in the face of heavy close range small arms fire personally routed the Germans directly opposing him. He took four prisoners and shot several of the remainder of the enemy as they ran. The prisoners he brought back across the wall.

Still completely ignoring the heavy spandau and mortar fire which was sweeping the area, once again he crossed the wall alone to find out whether it was possible for his platoon to wade the dyke which lay beyond. He found the dyke too deep and wide to cross, and once again he came back across the wall, and received orders to try and establish his platoon on the enemy side of it. All this time the area was subject to intense cross machine-gun fire and mortaring.

For the third time he climbed over alone, found some empty German weapon pits and himself providing the covering fire urged and encouraged his section to scale the wall and dash for cover to those trenches. By this action he was able to bring down sufficient covering fire to enable the rest of the company to cross the open ground and surmount the wall for the loss of only one man.

Cpl. Harper then left his platoon in charge of his section commander and once more walked alone along the banks of the dyke in the face of heavy spandau fire to find a crossing place. Eventually, he made contact with the battalion attacking on his right and found that they had located a ford.

Back he came across the open ground and, while directing his company commander to the ford he was struck by a bullet which fatally wounded him and he died where he was hit, on the bank of the dyke.

The operation was more difficult than expected due to the Battalion on the right, which was doing the main attack, crossing the start line very late, with the result that at the time of the platoon attack all enemy weapons were concentrated on it.

The area attacked was very heavily defended and from this area 93 prisoners were eventually taken and some 30 dead Germans counted. The success of the Battalion in driving the enemy from the wall and back across the dyke must be ascribed to the superb self-sacrifice and inspiring gallantry of Cpl. Harper. His magnificent courage, fearlessness and devotion to duty throughout the battle set an example to his men rarely equalled.

Such conduct in the face of direct close range enemy fire could have but one result. But before he was killed, Cpl. Harper by his heroism had ensured success for his Battalion in a most important action.

His action, moreover, enabled the main objective to be reached by the battalion on the right who, together with another battalion, were completely checked on other parts of the front. The success of the attack on the Depot de Mendicite can thus fairly be attributed to the outstanding bravery of Cpl. Harper.

Men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment rest in a Dutch village, 24 September 1944.
Men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment rest in a Dutch village, 24 September 1944.
A Vickers machine-gun team of 7th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, 59th (Staffordshire) Division in position in a field of corn at Someren in Holland, 21 September 1944.
A Vickers machine-gun team of 7th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, 59th (Staffordshire) Division in position in a field of corn at Someren in Holland, 21 September 1944.

Italy – hilltop attack and room to room fighting

The three Humber armoured cars of 8th Army Tac HQ's Defence Company, 27 September 1944.
The three Humber armoured cars of 8th Army Tac HQ’s Defence Company, 27 September 1944.
Sherman tanks of 26th Armoured Brigade, 6th Armoured Division, lined up on the road north of San Benedetto, in preparation for the final push to Forli, 27 September 1944.
Sherman tanks of 26th Armoured Brigade, 6th Armoured Division, lined up on the road north of San Benedetto, in preparation for the final push to Forli, 27 September 1944.

In Italy the assault on the Gothic Line continued. It was a process familiar to most involved in this campaign – attacks on prepared German positions on higher ground. Sometimes the terrain offered the chance to bring up tanks in support but often it did not.

On 28th September A Company, 16th Durham Light Infantry were ordered to attack a group of farm buildings just below the Casa Ricci ridge. They were supported by tanks, although the infantry were ambivalent about their value, they were difficult to communicate with and changed the way they might otherwise have approached an assault.

When the Captain commanding the Company fell injured it fell to a young Lieutenant to take charge of the attack, Lieutenant Russell Collins:

I was told to take over. The assault was launched by then and we had to get on with it. The idea was that the tanks would fire smoke canisters and put down the smoke screen to protect us as we actually charged the buildings. Now as we faced the two buildings, we were approaching the one to the right of the road, in fact the whole of our force was. So perhaps we were coming in by the right flank a little bit.

I led the men right through this smoke area but the tanks were still firing these smoke canisters. They were things weighing about five or six pounds and dropping on you from perhaps a hundred feet in the air — it could have been very nasty. But I mean there was nothing for it but to press on, luckily nobody was hit by them.

We burst through and got into the right-hand farm house. The enemy had gone into the rear rooms, but we were able to get into the rooms nearer to us and I secured the first, the nearer building.

… [the tanks that were supporting them were driven off after coming under German 88mm gunfire]

We put around such defences as we could, but the right tactic would be to exploit beyond the objective to anticipate the counter attack. Although we had gained the objective, we were really very insecure there. They were massive buildings and they weren’t on the very top of the hill.

Obviously the Germans hadn’t given it up, they’d just withdrawn to re-group. There was a sense of foreboding, that the Germans were going to counter-attack again, they hadn’t given up, they hadn’t withdrawn and we were very exposed there.

I put out such machine gun posts as I could and observation posts. Our gunner OP was a chap called David Purnell, he had the whole thing under observation, he controlled the battery and he did it extremely well. But I remember him coming up on the blower to me, we had reasonable radio contact then. He was asking what protection we had because he was planning supporting fire. “How close could our shells fall? Were we sufficiently protected?” I just had to use my judgement about that, but he actually made the calculations and directed the fire.

When the Germans did counter-attack they just arrived in numbers, mainly from the left hand side as we looked forward beyond the building which we’d evacuated, so they got back into there.

Then they actually got into the building that I was in and the Italian family were still there in the building. There was an ordinary standard doorway about eight feet high and a kitchen dresser blocking across it.

I became aware suddenly of a great excited conversation going on on the other side — I could hear an Italian woman’s voice and a German man’s voice. So I got hold of a chair and got up on it. I looked over the top of the dresser and there, about eight feet away, was this very large German officer, with his steel helmet, haranguing this poor woman as to where the British Were.

So it was a question of what to do. I had no option really, I wasn’t going to draw attention to my presence. I drew my pistol and fired at him. You always have to aim a little low, I tried to fire at his head but I got him in the throat actually. He fell like a sack of coal, the woman screamed and they hid under the table.

I called to one of my soldiers, “Give me your Tommy gun!” I put that over the top and tried to make sure that I’d finished him off. He fell partly behind the door, so I then had to fire the Tommy gun through this rather thick door. A rather brave German soldier, only just visible around the doorway, dragged the officer away out of sight, and so that was that. That was how close the contact was there.

But in fact as their numbers were coming up, David Purnell brought down this divisional concentration of fire all around us. Really it was very good infantry and artillery co-operation, because I knew exactly what our situation was and was able to convey it to him.

Anyway the attack was repulsed and the main thing that broke it up was the artillery fire. We were really hanging on quite honestly by the skin of our teeth and were really pretty insecure.

See Peter Hart: The Heat of Battle: The 16th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 1943-45

A Churchill IV (NA 75) tank of 25th Tank Brigade passes through the narrow streets of Montefiore, 11 September 1944. NA 75 versions of the Churchill were fitted with 75mm guns from salvaged Sherman tanks.
A Churchill IV (NA 75) tank of 25th Tank Brigade passes through the narrow streets of Montefiore, 11 September 1944. NA 75 versions of the Churchill were fitted with 75mm guns from salvaged Sherman tanks.
The Grant tank of 8th Army Tac HQ's Defence Company, 27 September 1944. This was General Montgomery's command tank at El Alamein and was a permanent feature of 8th Army Tac HQ.
The Grant tank of 8th Army Tac HQ’s Defence Company, 27 September 1944. This was General Montgomery’s command tank at El Alamein and was a permanent feature of 8th Army Tac HQ.

The ‘Great Swan’ through France into Belgium

A Bren gunner of the 5th Coldstream Guards covers a street in Arras, 1 September 1944.
A Bren gunner of the 5th Coldstream Guards covers a street in Arras, 1 September 1944.
Sherman tanks of Guards Armoured Division entering the outskirts of Arras, France, 1 September 1944.
Sherman tanks of Guards Armoured Division entering the outskirts of Arras, France, 1 September 1944.

After the weeks stuck in the grinding battles of Normandy both the British and the Americans were rapidly advancing through France. For the British, bypassing the Channel ports still occupied by the Germans, the contrast was so great and the progress so easy that the thrust north west was described as ‘swanning along’ – and the advance was nicknamed the ‘Great Swan’.

They were now passing through territory that many of their fathers in World War 1 would have been terribly familiar with. The older men, which meant most of the senior officers including Montgomery himself, had direct experience of fighting here less than thirty years earlier.

Captain Geoffrey Picot describes the progress of his infantry battalion, behind the armour:

…generally the battalion would travel behind an armoured force, and whereas the armour might have to keep going continuously, we would move by bounds, waiting till the tanks had a lead of ten or twenty miles and then travelling that distance in one spell. We would then harbour up and wait possibly a few hours or a few days till the armour had gone twenty miles ahead again, then bound forward to catch them up. The tactical role of the armour was to get moving and keep moving; our tactical duty was to mop up everything they left behind and form a firm base behind them wherever they went.

Our battalion column contained something like 130 vehicles; thus if lorries were forty yards apart we would take up three miles of road. We had to watch the spacing, because if vehicles bunched too closely together they would present a tempting target for the German air force. On the other hand, if they were spread out too much we would occupy a lot of road space and that would make progress slow, as we were just a small part of a great column.

On a typical move an armoured division, with 200 tanks, three battalions of lorry-borne infantry and a vast assortment of other vehicles, would lead, followed by an infantry division of which we were but a ninth part. With ambulances, supply vehicles, repair trucks and lorried equipment for supporting weapons added in, the two divisions would contain thousands of vehicles, so if the infantry were to be anywhere near the armour, and supplies anywhere near either of them, each vehicle would have to keep reasonably close to the one in front of it.

We were frequently warned to expect opposition from the German air force, for as we drove eastwards we would be approaching their bases, but not once did they trouble us.

On these long moves from Normandy to Brussels no infantryman footslogged. Speed was essential in pursuing this defeated enemy, so riflemen were bundled into lorries, Bren gun carriers, jeeps, vehicles of all descriptions — but mainly 3—ton TCVs (troop-carrying vehicles) — and driven forward.

When fighting was likely to develop they jumped out of their vehicles and ran into battle formation. The scare over, or the battle over, whichever it proved to be, back in again, and press on.

See Geoffrey Picot: Accidental Warrior

Sherman tanks of Guards Armoured Division pass a British First World War memorial at Fouilloy during the advance towards Arras, 1 September 1944.
Sherman tanks of Guards Armoured Division pass a British First World War memorial at Fouilloy during the advance towards Arras, 1 September 1944.

Rifleman ‘Roly’ Jefferson of 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade:

[E]arly in the morning, the French population came to life and offered us any drinks we wanted. It was a party atmosphere. The French called us all ‘Tommy’. We realized we were now in the battlefields of the First War which our fathers had known so well. A common joke was ‘Come away from her, she’s probably your sister.’

At first light we found ourselves sitting astride the approaches to Amiens. [Later on.] The bridges over the River Somme were intact. There was some fighting but nothing like that in Normandy.

At times we could hardly move for the frantic cheering crowds who swarmed onto our vehicles and showered us with fruit, flowers, champagne and wine. We were embraced by women, children and old, bearded men with tears of joy streaming unashamedly down their faces. We pushed on again. It was farcical. The celebrating population were holding us up during the day.

Another night drive took us through famous First War battlefields of Arras, Loos and Lens. We told ourselves we would soon be re-occupying the trenches which our fathers had so bravely defended in their war.

We passed too, numerous huge War Cemeteries. They all looked so neat and tidy, even though under German occupation for four years. We choked back emotion as we contemplated with pride those heroes of a different age. We travelled by day and by night.

We passed signposts marked Ypres. As we neared Armentieres, we joked about whether we would meet the Mademoiselle made so famous in the First War song. There were signs to Dunkirk too. At least we were avenging the humiliating defeat inflicted by the Germans there.

See Patrick Delaforce: Marching to the Sound of Gunfire: North-West Europe 1944 – 1945

A group of German officers captured at Avesnes by 11th Armoured Division, 1 September 1944.
A group of German officers captured at Avesnes by 11th Armoured Division, 1 September 1944.
Part of a railway train carrying 120 flying bombs to their launch sites, which was attacked and destroyed by Hawker Typhoons at Schulen, Belgium, on 1 September 1944. This close up of the wrecked trucks shows the remains of the anti-aircraft gun platform, or 'flak' truck.
Part of a railway train carrying 120 flying bombs to their launch sites, which was attacked and destroyed by Hawker Typhoons at Schulen, Belgium, on 1 September 1944. This close up of the wrecked trucks shows the remains of the anti-aircraft gun platform, or ‘flak’ truck.

Heavy casualties as assault on Gothic Line begins

Panoramic views of the beginning of the Gothic Line, where the mountains rise up from the Umbertide - Citta Di Castello plain.
Panoramic views of the beginning of the Gothic Line, where the mountains rise up from the Umbertide – Citta Di Castello plain.
Sherman tanks of 1st Canadian Armoured Division advancing towards the Gothic Line, 26 August 1944.
Sherman tanks of 1st Canadian Armoured Division [probably Brigade – see comments below] advancing towards the Gothic Line, 26 August 1944.
Sherman tanks supporting infantry of 2/5th Leicestershire Regiment, 46th Division, near Coldazzo on the Gothic Line, 30 August 1944
Sherman tanks supporting infantry of 2/5th Leicestershire Regiment, 46th Division, near Coldazzo on the Gothic Line, 30 August 1944

In Italy the Allies had made good progress since taking Rome on the 5th June, although substantial numbers of US troops had been diverted away for the attack on the south of France.

Now the British 8th Army and U.S. 5th Army found themselves confronting another German prepared defence line – the Gothic Line. Slave labourers had been brought in to build an extended series of strong points, casemates and machine gun nests dominating the high ground right across the Apennine mountains, spanning the breadth of Italy.

The attacks on the Gothic Line had begun on the 25th but it was not until the 30th that some units found themselves facing the main line of defence. Attacks were made across a broad front in the hope that it might be possible to “burst through”. For Major Alan Hay leading a company of the 16th Durham Light Infantry, this found them facing a very difficult objective south of Rimini – secured German defensive positions on a ridge above them:

The CO came forward and he said, “I want you to take those buildings.” Which happened to be a place called Mondaino which was in the distance, about a mile and a half.

I said, “Well what is the plan, where are the tanks, what about the artillery fire?” He said, “Oh, they’ll be coming.” I said, “Well, we’ll wait till we get some support!”

Then he went away. We advanced a bit further and we took some prisoners. We were then waiting for support, this was just after mid-day and I got a message from the CO, that we were to advance immediately. I said, “Well what about the support, I can’t see any support.” He said, “That’ll be coming.”

So we waited a while, nothing came. Then he ordered me, he said, “The General said you must advance immediately!” I thought it was absolutely stupid, broad daylight! We were in a bowl.

When we were looking at this target the Colonel said, “Our friends the Leicesters are there.” I said, “Colonel — they’re Germans — look!” He said, “No, they’re our friends the Leicesters!” This was his first mistake. The Leicesters on our left had not taken their objective and they were still heavily engaged plus one of our companies.

The Hampshires on the right had taken their objective, our C Company was too far away to give us any support and I wasn’t in charge of them. So we all had to do this, I was threatened, I assumed I’d get court marshalled if I didn’t. But this was entirely unknown to me — a commander threatening…

I said, “Well this is suicide!” He said, “The General said you must or you will be in trouble!”

So we advanced over this open country. There were one or two vines to shield us a bit. We hadn’t got very far. There was road just underneath Mondaino, not much of a road. They were going forward to these lower buildings on Mondaino and they were immediately under machine gun fire coming from the left. [Lieutenant] Tim Marshall got quite a few of his platoon across the road to the first buildings. [Lieutenant] Hood got to the buildings on the right. I was following up.

When I saw Marshall’s platoon in trouble I took my third platoon to support them. But the casualties were alarming. The Gothic Line had been prepared specially for this. They had their lines of fire, they had machines set and it was just chaos.

I got forward, I said, “Where’s Mr Marshall?” They said he’s down here. By the time I got to him he’d been killed. I said, “Get out to the right to the other buildings.” I got quite a few of them out. We rested up, counted the cost, tended the casualties.

We’d lost almost a platoon. I looked at the situation, still no support, no sign of tanks. My wireless set had been knocked out by that stage and I was almost glad not to have a word with the Colonel.

We re-assembled and I got Hood to go round to the right behind these buildings and we were going to attack them from the side. By that time we were only one good platoon which was the one I’d taken over.

Just then two aircraft from the Desert Air Force came in quick succession and each dropped a bomb on what we were going for — which was super!

We were in the first buildings where the first bomb had hit. Of course there were still Germans in there, wounded, that we hadn’t time to look at. But this bomb had really done quite a lot of damage.

At that time we had to count the cost. I had lost one platoon officer, I didn’t know I’d lost the other one. I got the chaps in some sort of defensive positions. Getting behind these brick walls in the ruins, just to protect ourselves from this machine gun fire. There was certainly more than one machine gun. But they had us in their sights.

We were near enough to the Germans for them to be shouting at us to give up, surrender. We were very low at that time, we had chaps who’d been wounded and couldn’t be attended to, the stretcher bearers were doing what they could.

The Sergeant Major was extremely good, he was rallying them, taking command of the spare ones. I said to him, “I must go round to the right where I sent Hood’s platoon to see how they are doing.” I found Hood had been killed and I am quite sure a lot of the casualties were caused by this bomb.

We were on the objective, this was the main attack, we weren’t here alone. Generals, all sorts of people, must have seen what we were doing. You think you are alone but all sorts of people are there watching the battle as it proceeds. This astonished me that we were allowed to go on without support. I said, “Well, we’ll just wait, they’ll obviously wait until night time to reinforce us.” I went round the men and eventually the count of the men was 27, [out of] about 90 [who] went in.

Assuming that, as usual, the Germans would soon make a counterattack to regain the position Major Hay mounted a pre-emptive attack on the German lines. He was wounded in the head leading that attack. However by the end of the 31st August the Division was “firmly established on the Gridolfo Ridge”. See Peter Hart: The Heat of Battle: The 16th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 1943-45

Troops from the 2nd Hampshire Regiment move up to their last objective before the Gothic Line, 27 August 1944.
Troops from the 2nd Hampshire Regiment move up to their last objective before the Gothic Line, 27 August 1944.
An M10 tank destroyer of 93rd Anti-Tank Regiment passes infantry of the 5th Sherwood Foresters during the advance to the Gothic Line, 27-28 August 1944.
An M10 tank destroyer of 93rd Anti-Tank Regiment passes infantry of the 5th Sherwood Foresters during the advance to the Gothic Line, 27-28 August 1944.
General Sir Harold Alexander (right), with Lt General Leese and Lt General Harding, inspect one of the German Panther tank turrets which formed part of the Gothic Line defences, September 1944.
General Sir Harold Alexander (right), with Lt General Leese and Lt General Harding, inspect one of the German Panther tank turrets which formed part of the Gothic Line defences, September 1944.

US reconnaissance patrol holds off Panzer troops

US Army Pfc. Edward J. Foley of the 143rd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division cleaning his Springfield M1903A4 sniper rifle, near Valletri, Italy, 29 May 1944
US Army Pfc. Edward J. Foley of the 143rd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division cleaning his Springfield M1903A4 sniper rifle, near Valletri, Italy, 29 May 1944

After their bloody experiences in Italy the US 36th Division had transferred across the Mediterranean to join the invasion of southern France. They were now fighting their way north up the Rhone river valley, where the 11th Panzer Division had been ordered to fight a rear guard action to allow other German forces to escape.

Following the battle of Montelimar the 36th Division would take substantial numbers of prisoners. However the frontline was changing rapidly and uncertainly. On the 27th a squad of five soldiers from Company K, 143rd Infantry were sent out on a reconnaissance mission – they got cut off and narrowly avoided capture.

Following this Sgt. Paul Blackmer, Pfc. Louis Weiner, Pfc. David Pritcet, Pfc. Richard Koch, and Pfc. Bill Trimpe were pulled back to a small town and told to spend the day resting. Bill Trimpe describes how it was anything but restful:

Major Adams put the five of us in a little town behind our lines and told us to rest. We would join our Company the next day. One of our tanks was parked in the middle of the road in this little town (I can’t remember the name) manned by one person. I don’t recall his name but he was wounded in the leg early in the morning of the 29th. A Panzer Division [had] hit us in the rear.

As I recollect, Sgt. Paul Blackmer was pulling his two hour guard duty. He yelled, “HALT” and the answer came back in German. All hell broke loose. Then we fired as fast as we could. Paul had a Thompson sub-machine gun with two clips taped together; he had four clips in all. When one clip emptied, out it came. He would turn the clip around and start firing again.

The rest of us had M-1’s. All of us fired so many times our barrels warped. In this little town, under a garage, was a cold storage tunnel. Someone had stacked ammo, grenades, cigarettes and candy by the case. So we had plenty of ammo, including Paul’s sub-machine gun ammo.

When it started to get light, Paul moved Weiner, Pritchet and Koch to the home on the right side of the road as the Germans faced us. Paul and I took the left. All were on the same side as the ammo and supplies. We had by this time knocked out a German Half Track that had an 88 mounted on it. The Germans had knocked out our tank.

We had at least 50 Germans wounded or dead on the road near the road and around the half track. At this time there was a 35 foot drop from the road to the back of the houses. Koch got hit sometime in the morning but the rest of us were O.K.

About 10 a.m., Paul said he was going on the other side to check on the fellows. Some time later, the Germans were coming down the road in force. Seeing my situation was hopeless I went in the barn where the tank driver was lying wounded. I told him our position. Also, I was hiding in the barn. We wished each other good luck.

The Germans poured in the barn but didn’t harm the tank driver and didn’t spot me. They didn’t take the wounded man because of his leg wound. Two hours went by before the forward advanced troops of the 3rd Division came into the barn. Paul Blackmer, Louis Weiner and David Pritchet were captured. Koch died of his wounds.

There was a jeep hidden in one of the barns in town. The Germans didn’t find it or take it. Since I didn’t drive back then, I had one of the 3rd Division guys drive the wounded tank man and myself to the nearest aid station. On the way back, we passed 10,000 German soldiers who had surrendered. That’s right, 10,000!

Paul Blackmer was a Fighting Machine. Without his leadership we would certainly have been killed. I feel certain because of Paul’s leadership of us in stopping the Germans early that morning it made it possible for the capture of so many Germans.

For the whole account can be read at 36th Division Association.

A DUKW amphibious truck with a load of blood and medical personnel, southern French coast, 26 Aug 1944
A DUKW amphibious truck with a load of blood and medical personnel, southern French coast, 26 Aug 1944
Supplies and reinforcements for the Allied forces already far inland are poured onto a southern French beach by landing barges from US Coast Guard transports standing offshore in 1944.
Supplies and reinforcements for the Allied forces already far inland are poured onto a southern French beach by landing barges from US Coast Guard transports standing offshore in 1944.

Normandy: the British breakout begins

A Bedford QL 3-ton truck drives into Gace, to the waves and cheers of the local inhabitants, 23 August 1944.
A Bedford QL 3-ton truck drives into Gace, to the waves and cheers of the local inhabitants, 23 August 1944.
A Humber scout car crew are greeted by local people in the town of Gace, 23 August 1944.
A Humber scout car crew are greeted by local people in the town of Gace, 23 August 1944.

Ever since D-Day the British and Canadian forces in Normandy had been slugging it out with the Germans at the eastern end of the bridgehead. Now, with the battle for the Falaise pocket over, they suddenly found no opposition in front of them. They were able to race forward to the east, just as the US forces had done earlier.

It was a dramatic change in circumstances, that took time to adjust to. John Stirling was with the Royal Dragoon Guards:

I think it was the most exciting and sensational time I shall ever have in my life. We drove south first through Condé-sur-Noireau and Vire. Then we swung east towards Argentan and the Seine.

At first we moved gingerly. At every corner and every wood one waited to hear the familiar boom and snarl of a piece of “hard”. But the noise never came. It seemed incredible after all these weeks, that we could motor ten miles down a main road without being fired on.

But the ten miles mounted to twenty and still there was silence and still the speedometers ticked on. We could not understand that the rout of the German Seventh Army was now almost complete, that the Falaise pocket, round whose outskirts we were driving, was the scene of the biggest disaster the victorious Wehrmacht had ever experienced.

This was the real thing. This was the Breakthrough. We saw the remains of a retreating army. Burnt-out vehicles that the RAF had caught, abandoned vehicles that had broken down, derelict vehicles that had run out of petrol, dead horses, broken wagons, scattered kit and equipment.

We saw the brutal sadism of the SS. Everything had been thrown out of the French houses, breakables broken, materials ripped, pistol shots through the cider barrels, an axe for the windows and farmhouse and all the livestock killed and removed — to establish the supremacy of the Herrenvolk over the lesser people — and sheer bestiality.

See Patrick Delaforce: Marching to the Sound of Gunfire: North-West Europe 1944 – 1945

French chilren climb aboard a Free French M3A3 Stuart tank, 23 August 1944.
French chilren climb aboard a Free French M3A3 Stuart tank, 23 August 1944.

Not every unit experienced the rapid movement through north east France that was to become known as’The Great Swan’. There were still some Germans fighting a rear guard action, trying to buy time for the surviving remnants of their army to retreat over the Seine and further east. On the 23rd there was bitter fighting in the town of Lisieux, as Sergeant ‘Snatch’ Boardman relates:

As we drove into Lisieux the road was packed with infantrymen waiting to move forward. The 51st Highlanders were having to fight house to house, street by street and had to capture the Basilica which dominated the area…

As we approached the forward position the constant stream of stretcher-bearing Jeeps with badly injured troops from both sides was indication of the resistance being encountered. As our troop of three vehicles came up to the Queens infantry, their young officer indicated the enemy positions. The platoon was in a single file and keeping close against a wall.

I cannot remember ever feeling more pity for them than I did on that occasion. As the Bren crew went forward they became instant casualties. The Piat crew took up the leading position. The platoon was soon either dead or wounded.

One of numerous first hand accounts to found in Patrick Delaforce: Churchill’s Desert Rats in North-West Europe: From Normandy to Berlin

Inside the Basilica 2,000 civilians were sheltering. Sergeant Boardman was to take Bren gun and climb to the top of the Basilica from where he fired on Germans running away, although he apparently failed to locate German snipers hiding elsewhere in the building. Overnight the last Germans would silently withdraw.

Cromwell OP tanks and Humber scout cars of 5th RHA, 7th Armoured Division, climb the hill into Lisieux, 23 August 1944. On the right is a Royal Artillery battery commander's half-track of 51st Highland Division, and in the centre a wounded Highlander shot by a sniper is carried to safety.
Cromwell OP tanks and Humber scout cars of 5th RHA, 7th Armoured Division, climb the hill into Lisieux, 23 August 1944. On the right is a Royal Artillery battery commander’s half-track of 51st Highland Division, and in the centre a wounded Highlander shot by a sniper is carried to safety.
A column of Cromwell and Sherman Firefly tanks of 1st RTR, 7th Armoured Division, enters Lisieux, 23 or 24 August 1944. In the background is the Basilica of St Therese.
A column of Cromwell and Sherman Firefly tanks of 1st RTR, 7th Armoured Division, enters Lisieux, 23 or 24 August 1944. In the background is the Basilica of St Therese.

A shattered city – ‘Festung St Malo’ – surrenders

Soldiers of the 83rd Division probe the outskirts of St Malo on the 9th August.
Soldiers of the 83rd Division probe the outskirts of St Malo on the 9th August.

As the German situation in both the East and the West grew more serious Hitler was to make increasingly desperate demands upon his forces. He had always been reluctant to allow retreats. Now he was to insist that certain locations were to be turned into “fortresses”, defensive citadels where his troops were expected to fight to the last man, holding up the general advance of the Allies for as long as possible. There were still plenty of fanatical Nazis prepared to follow such orders.

As the U.S. forces swept through Brittany they were to encounter a series of such fortresses established in the ports which might assist the Allies bring men and munitions straight onto the European continent. Cherbourg had not held out nearly as long as Hitler had hoped, although the port infrastructure had been so badly damaged it was of limited use to the Allies. Elsewhere the Germans held out for rather longer and the U.S. Third Army’s attempts to winkle them out were to cause extensive damage to these ancient towns. However, not all of the defenders proved to be as fanatical as Hitler hoped.

‘Festung St Malo’ surrendered on 17th August after a fortnight of hammering by bombs, artillery and mortars. Everywhere lay destruction – only 182 buildings out 865 still stood. Journalist Montague Lacey was present, covering events for the Daily Express:

A few minutes before four o’clock this afternoon, the German commander of the Citadel, Colonel von Auloch, the mad colonel with a monocle and a swaggering walk, led 605 men from the depths of his fortress and broke his promise to Hitler that he would never give in to the Americans. The colonel goose-stepped up to surrender, with a batman carrying his large black suitcase, and another in attendance round him flicking the dust from his uniform, and as they went by an American soldier called out: “What a corney show!”

Colonel von Auloch is the man who wrote to the American commander attacking the Citadel to say that a German officer never surrenders, and for 15 days he sat tight 60 feet below ground in the safety of his underground shelter. By tonight the Americans would have been sitting on top of his fortress, which would have become a mass grave for all the men in it. By holding out, Colonel von Auloch has not affected the course of the war one jot. What he has done is to cause the almost complete destruction of the old town of St. Malo, and sow further seeds of hatred in the hearts of the French.

Even as I write, the townspeople gathered in the Place above are shouting and shaking their fists at the Germans from the Citadel. As the Germans pile into trucks to be taken away, the older men somehow look ashamed and stupid, but the young Germans are still grinning and arrogant. The Citadel fell dramatically just an hour before American infantrymen were ready to assault the fortress for the third time, and just as a squadron of Lightning bombers swept in to shower incendiary bombs on the place.

All last night and throughout this morning heavy guns had pounded the Citadel, a main blockhouse surrounded by about a dozen entrances from the mine-like caverns below. The Americans ate their lunch in the wrecked streets before they formed for the attack. At 2.30 p.m. a big white flag appeared on one of the pillboxes. No one took much notice, for at 3 o’clock a fighter-bomber attack was to be laid on. Soon after 3 o’clock the first Lightning swept in. It came down to 50 feet and planted a couple of incendiaries square on top of the Citadel. More white flags were then run up – there were now five flying in the breeze.

The pilot of the second bomber saw them and dived without dropping his bombs. But he opened up his guns as a sort of warning as he flew round followed by the rest of the squadron. The airmen waited long enough to see a batch of Germans come from the Citadel and a bunch of Americans walk up the hill to the front carrying a coloured identification flag.

Now there was a mad scramble to the Citadel. Word soon went round that the Germans had surrendered. Everyone raced down the hillside to see the sight. First out was Colonel von Auloch still barking orders to his officers and men who were almost tumbling over themselves to obey. Two senior officers were with him, one of them a naval commander. They were all trying to make an impressive display in front of the Americans.

Then a curious thing happened. An elderly German, a naval cook, broke ranks and ran up and embraced a young American soldier. The German was lucky not to be shot and the guards lowered their guns just in time. But no one interfered when the U.S. soldier put his arms round the German. They were father and son. The German spoke good American slang and was allowed to stay out of the ranks and act as interpreter. He had been 14 years in American, he said, and went back to Germany just before the outbreak of war.

Colonel von Auloch counted all his men as they filed out carrying their belongings. There were Poles amoung the party, some Russians and about a dozen Italians. Still shouting orders, Von Auloch was put in a jeep and driven away to Division Headquarters. He refused to talk about his surrender and so did his soldiers.

 Oberst Andreas von Aulock of 79. Infanterie-Division (standing in the jeep) taken prisoner by US soldiers, St. Malo, France.© Lawrence Riordan 1944

Oberst Andreas von Aulock of 79. Infanterie-Division (standing in the jeep) taken prisoner by US soldiers, St. Malo, France.© Lawrence Riordan 1944

Down in the labyrinth of tunnels of the Citadel there was the usual destruction and signs of panic. Clothing and equipment were strewn all over the place. There was still plenty of food, water and ammunition – and the usual heaps of empty bottles.

Colonel von Auloch’s room was in the lowest and safest part of the fort. It was about eight feet by ten feet, and furnished only with two leather armchairs and a bed. It seemed to be the only room with a wash basin and running water.

On the desk stood an electric lamp and a telephone; nearby was a tray containing coffee, and two postcards which the colonel was about to write. I have one of these cards now. It shows a picture of Goering and Hitler smiling as they ride through cheering crowds. On the back is the stamp which the colonel had just stuck on – a beautiful pictorial stamp of a fortress castle.

The big guns of the fort were wrecked, and all the Germans had left were machine-guns and other small arms. With the prisoners who came out of the Citadel was a little party of American soldiers who had been captured last Friday. They had crept up to the fortress at night with explosives in an attempt to wreck the ventilation system.

When all surrendered garrison had been driven away or marched away, several hundred French people gathered round shaking each other by the hand, cheering and singing their national anthem. And one day, soon perhaps, the Citadel where the mad colonel surrendered will be one of the sights the people of St. Malo will point out to visitors coming here again from England for their holidays.

The Institute for Historical Review has a post war analysis of the battle and the reasons for the destruction – but see comments below. French site documenting the reconstruction 1944-1966.

US archive footage of the battle for St Malo, shows the artillery assault, infantry entering the city and dealing with snipers, finally the liberated French ands their attitude to the Germans.

A post war aerial shot of the old port of St Malo -where most of the old granite buildings  had been destroyed.
A post war aerial shot of the old port of St Malo – where most of the old granite buildings had been destroyed.

The Gordon Highlanders push forward in Normandy

Men of the 5/7th Gordon Highlanders occupy a defensive position in a hedge, 17 June 1944.
Men of the 5/7th Gordon Highlanders occupy a defensive position in a hedge, 17 June 1944.
Men of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry resting next to a Sherman tank of 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, 15 August 1944.
Men of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry resting next to a Sherman tank of 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, 15 August 1944.
A Cromwell tank of 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry, 11th Armoured Division, driving through Vassy, 15th August 1944. 11th Armoured was making good progress at this time, advancing south as part of VIII Corps on the British right flank. At the end of the month 2nd NY was disbanded and most of its tanks and crews posted to 7th Armoured Division. Its place in 11th Armoured Division was taken over by 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars
A Cromwell tank of 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry, 11th Armoured Division, driving through Vassy, 15th August 1944. 11th Armoured was making good progress at this time, advancing south as part of VIII Corps on the British right flank. At the end of the month 2nd NY was disbanded and most of its tanks and crews posted to 7th Armoured Division. Its place in 11th Armoured Division was taken over by 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars

In Normandy the Germans were now very much on the back foot as they struggled to disengage and withdraw. This wider situation was by no means obvious to the men on the ground, particularly British and Canadian forces as they sought to push south to meet up with US forces led by Patton, who were holding the other side of the noose. The Germans were still a potent force and, if casualties were relatively light, this did not make them any less painful.

The 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders had landed on D-Day with 27 officers and 565 men. At short notice Lt. Colonel Martin Lindsay was brought out from England in July to command the Battalion, just one of many replacements that filled the gaps in the line. Between June 1944 and May 1945 they suffered total battle casualties of 75 Officers and 986 men. Today was to be another day with casualties, men lost on the whim of fate, with no particular reason why they died and the men next to them did not:

On August 15th we got orders to move out and occupy Glatigny, about two miles away, the armour being some distance beyond it. I went on ahead to choose the company areas. I saw 154 Brigade and stopped to pass the time of day. It was about this time that the Lancasters started to bomb the gun lines behind us. For one hour this went on and everybody was powerless to stop it.

Glatigny seemed to be under enemy observation because first the tanks on the far side of the village and then the village itself, just after we had entered it, got heavily and accurately shelled, though I was hanged if I could see where the observation was from, unless it was a village, one of the many Le Mesnils, on the left.

I took some of my party down a lane running along a ridge leading out of the village. Suddenly there was the usual whistle in crescendo which signalled a covey of shells on the way. With one accord we all lay flat and heard them landing all round us. Then there was a particularly loud crack as a shell burst twelve feet away — I paced out the distance later.

I thought it was in the road beside me, for the dust was such that we were in pitch darkness for what seemed a minute, and our nostrils were choked with cordite — or whatever the bursting charge may be – so that it was some hours before I could rid myself of the acrid smell. I could hear somebody whimpering in the darkness behind me and Donald Howorth shouting, ‘Lie still, you bloody fool.’ When I could see I found that the Signal Sergeant, Rae, was dead, and the R.S.M., Thomson, slightly wounded in the head but bleeding profusely, and Howorth was tying him up. He himself had a few punctures in his thigh. Only Petrie, second-in-command of C Company, and myself were untouched.

I went back along the track to where there were, most conveniently, some empty slits dug by 2nd Seaforths, who had just moved out. I told the company commanders to put their men into them, and that we would not occupy Glatigny until dark as I thought it was under enemy observation.

The companies moved off successively, starting soon after 9 p.m. There had been no shelling for three hours, which I took to mean that the Germans were moving their guns back. Of this I was glad, because 5th were about to attack on our right.

Whenever any unit was involved in battle I always thought of my friends and hoped to God they would come through safely. Thus I thought of Richard Fleming and Charm and their three young children, as I plodded along in the gloaming across the stubble that led to Glatigny, and wished that any other battalion but 5th Seaforths were attacking that night.

Most people seemed able to accept casualties, which was just as well; but for my part I could never overlook the tragedy that each one meant to some far away, stricken home. The sadness of it all was always with me.

About eleven the Luftwaffe paid us a visit. They dropped a cluster of parachute flares and then started anti-personnel bombing. Each Aircraft let loose a thousand or so of these tiny bombs, each hardly larger than a stick of shaving soap.

One could hear the swish as the shower came through the air, and then the steady drumming as they exploded. Unfortunately D Company, the last to arrive, had only dug down about eighteen inches by this time and they had twenty-three casualties. Most were only lightly wounded, but two were killed and one of them was Glass, a young Canadian officer who had come to us ten days before.

See So Few Got Through

A Sherman tank moves through Bois Holbout, during the advance to Falaise, 15 August 1944.
A Sherman tank moves through Bois Holbout, during the advance to Falaise, 15 August 1944.
A nurse attends to wounded soldiers in a field hospital, 15 August 1944.
A nurse attends to wounded soldiers in a field hospital, 15 August 1944.

Canadian infantry attack into the bocage

Men of the Durham Light Infantry move up during the fighting south of Mont Pincon, Normandy, 9 August 1944.
Men of the Durham Light Infantry move up during the fighting south of Mont Pincon, Normandy, 9 August 1944.
A British infantryman prepares to fire a PIAT anti-tank weapon, Normandy, 9 August 1944.
A British infantryman prepares to fire a PIAT anti-tank weapon, Normandy, 9 August 1944.
Priest infantry carriers move up to the front, 9 August 1944.
Priest infantry carriers move up to the front, 9 August 1944.

The British and Canadian Operation Totalise continued, an attempt to push south to link up the US focus and complete the encirclement of the Germans in Normandy. But just as the US forces had made slow progress in the bocage country at the base of the Cotentin peninsula, they were also held up in this natural defensive territory.

Charles Martin was the Company Sergeant Major of A Company the Queens Own Rifles of Canada. Here he describes the attack on Quesnay Wood, an objective which would have pushed the British and Canadian forces much deeper into the German lines towards Falaise.

The battle was preceded by a time of great quiet. Silence seemed to lie over the whole area. I’m not certain that we knew at the time just how significant our assignment was and how much was expected of it. There’s no doubt the support of the Polish tanks would have made an enormous difference to us. We had some artillery support, but one look at those woods ahead foretold how difficult finding a target would be.

The idea was that B Company on the left and ourselves on the right should advance, capture a strong point and then have the two remaining companies move through us and take the high ground a few miles farther. This would put them in a position overlooking Falaise. In retrospect, the plan seems, well, ambitious.

We covered about a mile and a bit and stopped around eight hundred yards from the woods. We knew they were in there — you could see the activity, although the targets were well hidden by the heavy trees and bush. Each company, left of the road and right of the road, had a real challenge. Both areas were divided into fields, marked by typical hedgerows of stone and dirt two to three feet high, with growth on top of that of another seven feet or so.

These contained plenty of enemy positions that had to be cleared out one by one. Then, in every other field or so, there’d be a double hedgerow with a sunken lane between. Once these lanes were cleared and made secure, our carrier used them to bring up more ammo, which we were going through at a tremen- dous rate.

Because the hedgerows offered such good defence to the enemy, our Bren-gunners were pouring it on, covering the rifle-men as they advanced. Often we’d be right on the enemy position before the defenders – pinned down by the Bren fire – realized it. Then they’d give up rather easily, surprised to be overrun.

In their defence, it should be said they had a poor field of fire in those hedgerows; as long as our ammo held out we could pin hem down and pretty well get right up to them. We usually told the survivors to discard their weapons, put their hands on their heads and move back to our lines.

In this way on our side of the road, we slowly moved up, field by field, hedgerow by hedgerow, using our Brens and some mortars with good effect. We had no way of knowing how the other company on the left of the road was proceeding, though we could hear the fire.

By late afternoon we’d covered maybe six hundred yards, or three-quarters of the distance to the woods. We were troops fairly well battlewise at this point and did not get too upset about the troubles we’d gone through to get this far. We had some wounded, and the continuing need for ammunition supplies was always a concern.

About this time, 9 Platoon made a move and got up to the last hedgerow before the woods. We knew by now that the woods contained dug-in 88s and heavy machine guns. In fact, they had us targeted very well. About 250 yards from the woods and 100 feet from the road was exactly where 80 percent of their fire was landing.

I had spent the afternoon moving from section to section, back to HQ and Boss Medland, then forward again with new instructions, and always checking to make sure the carrier was available with the ammunition supply.

So when I got up to 9 Platoon, there was some decision to be made. Should we dig in? Should we wait for the tanks? By this time several runners had gone back as each new piece of informa- tion was obtained. But we had no way of knowing, either at our forward point or back at A Company HQ, that on the other side of the road B Company had run into real trouble.

[A few men eventually reached the edge of the wood where the enemy was positioned – but they were out of ammunition]

First of all we spotted three heavies dug in at the edge of the woods and firing out. Being up close to a tank is not so bad; they can’t see what’s under them, only what’s fairly far in front.

We were in sort of a low area, swampy in the spring but dry now, with small shrubs around — a good hiding place. We sent Charlie Bloomfield and Ernie Hackett back with all the information we could assemble — number of tanks, location, estimate of the number of troops, etc. — with a request for ammunition, and a Piat gun that would help us (not by much — that armour plate was too much) against the tanks.

We were prepared to hold on, depending on HQ instructions and whatever tank, artillery or air support they might plan. Otherwise, we said, we’d pull out around midnight, when things generally seem to quiet down, and get back to HQ about dawn.

Eventually they were ordered to withdraw, they had made good progress but were now in danger of being outflanked.

See Charles Cromwell Martin Battle Diary: From D-Day and Normandy to the Zuider Zee and VE

German 75mm anti-tank gun captured at Mont Pincon, 9 August 1944.
German 75mm anti-tank gun captured at Mont Pincon, 9 August 1944.
REME fitters prepare to install a new engine into a Sherman tank at 8th Armoured Brigade workshops, 9 August 1944.
REME fitters prepare to install a new engine into a Sherman tank at 8th Armoured Brigade workshops, 9 August 1944.

Operation Bluecoat – the final push in Normandy begins

Cromwell tanks of 7th Armoured Division silhouetted against the morning sky, as they move up at the start of Operation 'Bluecoat', the British offensive south-east of Caumont, 30 July 1944.
Cromwell tanks of 7th Armoured Division silhouetted against the morning sky, as they move up at the start of Operation ‘Bluecoat’, the British offensive south-east of Caumont, 30 July 1944.
An abandoned German SdKfz 250/9 half-track in Le Bourg, 30 July 1944.
An abandoned German SdKfz 250/9 half-track in Le Bourg, 30 July 1944.
A motorcycle and infantry of the 2nd Glasgow Highlanders, 46th Brigade, 15th (Scottish) Division, during Operation 'Bluecoat', the offensive south-east of Caumont, 30 July 1944.
A motorcycle and infantry of the 2nd Glasgow Highlanders, 46th Brigade, 15th (Scottish) Division, during Operation ‘Bluecoat’, the offensive south-east of Caumont, 30 July 1944.

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.’

See Accidental Warrior

The crew of a Loyd carrier of 46th Infantry Brigade, 15th (Scottish Division) pose with their weapons during Operation 'Bluecoat', the offensive south-east of Caumont, 30 July 1944.
The crew of a Loyd carrier of 46th Infantry Brigade, 15th (Scottish Division) pose with their weapons during Operation ‘Bluecoat’, the offensive south-east of Caumont, 30 July 1944.
A jeep modified to carry two stretchers seen bringing casualties back to a regimental aid post, during Operation 'Bluecoat', the offensive south-east of Caumont, 30 July 1944.
A jeep modified to carry two stretchers seen bringing casualties back to a regimental aid post, during Operation ‘Bluecoat’, the offensive south-east of Caumont, 30 July 1944.
An officer or NCO of the 2nd Glasgow Highlanders using a No 18 wireless set during the attack south from Caumont, 30 July 1944.
An officer or NCO of the 2nd Glasgow Highlanders using a No 18 wireless set during the attack south from Caumont, 30 July 1944.