Battle of Bure – Paratroopers v Tiger Tanks

A 6th Airborne Division sniper on patrol in the Ardennes, wearing a snow camouflage suit, 14 January 1945.
A 6th Airborne Division sniper on patrol in the Ardennes, wearing a snow camouflage suit, 14 January 1945.
A Bren gunner in the snow on the front line in Holland, 7 January 1945.
A Bren gunner in the snow on the front line in Holland, 7 January 1945.

The British 6th Airborne Division had been recalled to England following Normandy. When the Battle of the Bulge broke out they were amongst the reserve troops swiftly brought up to mount the allied counter-attack. In early January the German forces had reached the village of Bure, Belgium, where the tip of their advance came to a halt. The 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion was ordered to attack Bure on the 3rd January.

Major ‘Jack’ Watson recounts how their attack almost failed before it started when they were subjected to devastating fire as they were forming up, when about a third of the force become casualties:

We marched to a wood which overlooked Bure, our first objective. This was the furthest point in the German offensive to which the German tanks had advanced. Our task was to evict them from Bure.

The forming-up was “A” Company on the left, “B” Company on the right, and “C” Company in reserve. My task was to attack Bure with “B” Company to secure the high ground. We were formed up ready to go in at 13.00 hours on 3rd January. It was a bloody cold day, still snowing heavily, and even going through the wood to the start line was very difficult because the snow was as much as three or four feet deep in some places. We were wearing normal battle equipment, parachute smocks, helmets.

We formed upon the start line and looked down on this silent and peaceful village. The Germans knew we were there; they were waiting for us and as soon as we started to break cover, I looked up and I could see about a foot above my head the branches of trees being shattered by intense machine-gun fire and mortaring. They obviously had the guns on fixed lines and they pinned us down before we even got off the start line. This was the first time I’d led a company attack and within minutes I’d lost about one-third of them.

I could hear the men of my left-hand platoon shouting for our medics. We were held up for about 15 minutes because of the dead and wounded around us but we had to keep moving. We were about 400 yards from Bure and so as quickly as I could, I got my company together and gave the order to move. We had to get under the firing and get in the village as soon as possible. On the way down I lost more men including my batman. One man took a bullet in his body which ignited the phosphorous bombs he was carrying. He was screaming at me to shoot him. He died later.

We secured the first few houses and I got into one with my Company Headquarters. What I did not know was that “B” Company had also suffered badly in the attack. Their company commander, Major ‘Bill’ Grantham, was killed on the start line together with one of his platoon commanders, Lieutenant Tim Winser. His Company Sergeant Major, Moss, was mortally wounded. The remaining officers, apart from Lieutenant Alf Largeren, were wounded. He led the much depleted company to their objective, but was later killed during the day, trying, with hand grenades, to clear a house held by a German machine-gun post.

Once I had got into the village it was difficult finding out just what was going on. I pulled in my platoon commanders to establish that they were secure and to start movement forward. It was eerie. We would be in one house, myself on the ground floor and my signalman telling me that there were Germans upstairs, and at other times they would be downstairs and we upstairs. It was a most unusual battle.

Our numbers were getting very depleted as we moved forward from house to house. I eventually got to the village crossroads by the old church. In the meantime I had informed my C.O. exactly what was going on, and he decided to send in “C” Company, who were in reserve, to support me. By that time their 60 ton Tiger tanks started to come in on us. It was the first time I had seen Tigers, and now here they were taking potshots, demolishing the houses. I moved from one side of the road to the other deliberately drawing fire. A tank fired at me and the next thing I knew the wall behind me was collapsing. But, a PIAT team came running out, got within 50 yards of the tank, opened fire and smashed the tank’s tracks. They were very brave. It went on like this all day – they counter-attacked, but we managed to hold them. They pushed us back – we pushed forward again.

The 'King Tiger', or Panzer VI B , had up to 7inch thick armour at the front.
The ‘King Tiger’, or Panzer VI B , had up to 7inch thick armour at the front.
A soldier from the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, 7th Armoured Division, emerges from his foxhole armed with a PIAT, 28 December 1944. The Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank fired a 2.5 pound charge which was effective up to 100 yards away for armour less than 4" thick, although a skilled user could only accurately hit such a target about 40% of the time.
A soldier from the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, 7th Armoured Division, emerges from his foxhole armed with a PIAT, 28 December 1944.
The Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank fired a 2.5 pound charge which was effective up to 100 yards for armour less than 4″ thick, although a skilled user could only accurately hit such a target about 40% of the time. The user usually sustained bruising from the recoil.

It became difficult to keep the men awake – after all they were tired, we had no hot food. All through our first night they were shelling and firing at us and we were firing back. When we told H.Q. we had German tanks in the area they decided to bring in our own tanks in support, but they were no match for the Tigers. We had Sherman, and by the end of the battle 16 of them had been blown up. We were reinforced by a company from the Oxf and Bucks, commanded by Major Granville – by that time I was down to about one platoon in strength. The Oxf and Bucks went forward, but they were not out there very long before they were forced back into our positions.

I will always take off my hat to Color Sergeant ‘Harry’ Watkins. How the hell he found us I do not know, but he did. We were still scattered in the houses along the main road in the center of the village. He brought us a stew which was good and hot, and we were able to get men into small groups to have food and then get to their positions in the houses.

At one point in the battle, Sergeant Scott R.A.M.C. [Royal Army Medical Corps], went forward in an ambulance to pick up casualties. A German Tiger, which had been fighting us all day, rolled forward alongside him, and the commander seeing him unafraid said, “Take the casualties away this time, but don’t come forward again, it is not safe”. Even Sergeant Scott knew when to take a good hint!

This whole of this account and many more individual stories can be read at Henri Rogister’s Battle of the Bulge Memories.

The original recommendation for the MC awarded to Major Watson can be read at Paradata

Lieutenant P Bickepsteth of 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade briefs his men during a counter-booby trap patrol in the village of Nieuwstadt, Holland, 3 January 1945
Lieutenant P Bickepsteth of 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade briefs his men during a counter-booby trap patrol in the village of Nieuwstadt, Holland, 3 January 1945
Troops of the 1st Rifle Brigade take cover as a mortar bomb explodes in a stream in the village of Nieuwstadt, north of Sittard, 3 January 1945.
Troops of the 1st Rifle Brigade take cover as a mortar bomb explodes in a stream in the village of Nieuwstadt, north of Sittard, 3 January 1945.

The aftermath of war in Christmas card country

P-47D-27-RE Thunderbolt 404th Fighter Squadron, 371st Fighter Group, 9th Air Force Taken at: Tantonville Airfield (Y-1), France, 12 January 1945
P-47D-27-RE Thunderbolt 404th Fighter Squadron, 371st Fighter Group, 9th Air Force Taken at: Tantonville Airfield (Y-1), France, 12 January 1945
 A shattered German tank, its turret torn off by anti-tank fire, symbolising the ferocity of the American defence of their positions at Bastogne, the key town in the Ardennes.
A shattered German tank, its turret torn off by anti-tank fire, symbolising the ferocity of the American defence of their positions at Bastogne, the key town in the Ardennes.

The Allies had begun their counter-attack against the German Ardenne offensive and by the 27th the siege of Bastogne had been lifted. It remained close to the front lines. The Battle of the Bulge was still very far from over – but from now on would be dominated by the Allied attempts to push the Germans back.

Amongst journalists covering the war perhaps none was more remarkable that Martha Gellhorn, whose determination to get as close to the front as possible led to many evasions of Allied officialdom, including impersonating a stretcher bearer to get onto the beaches of D-Day.

As soon as the siege of Bastogne was lifted she set off to see for herself:

They all said it was wonderful Kraut—killing country. What it looked like was scenery for a Christmas card: smooth white snow hills and bands of dark forest and villages that actually nestled. The snow made everything serene, from a distance.

The road to Bastogne had been worked over by the Ninth Air Force Thunderbolts before the Third Army tanks finally cleared the way. A narrow alley was free now, and two or three secondary roads leading from Bastogne back to our lines.

“Lines” is a most inaccurate word and one should really say “leading back through where the Germans weren’t to where the Americans were scattered about the snowscape.” The Germans remained on both sides of this alley and from time to time attempted to push inward and again cut off Bastogne.

A colleague and I drove up to Bastogne on a secondary road through breath-taking scenery. The Thunderbolts had created this scenery. You can say the words “death and destruction” and they don’t mean anything. But they are awful words when you are looking at what they mean.

There were some German staff cars along the side of the road: they had not merely been hit by machine—gun bullets, they had been mashed into the ground. There were half—tracks and tanks literally wrenched apart, and a gun position directly hit by bombs.

All around these lacerated or flattened objects of steel there was the usual riffraff: papers, tin cans, cartridge belts, helmets, an odd shoe, clothing. There were also, ignored and completely inhuman, the hard-frozen corpses of Germans. Then there was a clump of houses, burned and gutted, with only a few walls standing, and around them the enormous bloated bodies of cattle.

The road passed through a curtain of pine forest and came out on a flat, rolling snow field. In this field the sprawled or bunched bodies of Germans lay thick, like some dark shapeless vegetable.

We had watched the Thunderbolts working for several days. They flew in small packs and streaked in to the attack in single file. They passed quickly through the sky and when they dived you held your breath and waited; it seemed impos- sible that the plane would be able to pull itself up to safety. They were diving to within sixty feet of the ground. The snub—nosed Thunderbolt is more feared by the German troops than any other plane.

You have seen Bastogne and a thousand other Bastognes in the newsreels. These dead towns are villages spread over Europe and one forgets the human misery and fear and despair that the cracked and caved-in buildings represent.

Bastogne was a German job of death and destruction and it was beautifully thorough. The 101st Airborne Division, which held Bastogne, was still there, though the day before the wounded had been taken out as soon as the first road was open.

The survivors of the 101st Airborne Division, after being entirely surrounded, uninterruptedly shelled and bombed, after having fought off four times their strength in Germans, look — for some unknown reason — cheerful and lively. A young lieutenant remarked, “The tactical situation was always good.” He was very surprised when we shouted with laughter.

The front, north of Bastogne, was just up the road and the peril was far from past.

At Warnach, on the other side of the main Bastogne road, some soldiers who had taken, lost and retaken this miserable village were now sightseeing the battlefield. They were also inspecting the blown-out equipment of two German tanks and a German self-propelled gun which had been destroyed here.

Warnach smelled of the dead; in subzero weather the smell of death has an acrid burning odor. The soldiers poked through the German equipment to see if there was anything useful or desirable. They unearthed a pair of good bedroom slippers alongside the tank, but as no one in the infantry has any chance to wear bedroom slippers these were left. There was a German Bible but no one could read German. Someone had found a German machine pistol in working order and rapidly salted it away; they hoped to find other equally valu- able loot.

The American dead had been moved inside the smashed houses and covered over; the dead horses and cows lay where they were, as did a few dead Germans.

This account appeared in the post war collection : Martha Gellhorn: The Face of War

An American soldier examines an abandoned PzKpfw V Panther tank near the village of Manhay.
An American soldier examines an abandoned PzKpfw V Panther tank near the village of Manhay.
 Lieutenant Thomas of the US Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, followed by other troops, moves to winkle out German snipers in the outskirts of Beffe.
Lieutenant Thomas of the US Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, followed by other troops, moves to winkle out German snipers in the outskirts of Beffe.

R+R in Holland – bully beef sandwiches and chocolate

Churchill tanks of 34th Tank Brigade cross a temporary bridge in Roosendaal, 30 October 1944.
Churchill tanks of 34th Tank Brigade cross a temporary bridge in Roosendaal, 30 October 1944.

Dutch civilians cluster on a Churchill tank of 34th Tank Brigade, the first tank to enter Roosendaal, 30 October 1944.
Dutch civilians cluster on a Churchill tank of 34th Tank Brigade, the first tank to enter Roosendaal, 30 October 1944.

Tank Commander Trevor Greenwood and the 9th Royal Tank Regiment had been almost continuously on the move since they had landed in Normandy in June. They had fought their last battle at the end of October, which finished with Greenwood removing the body of a friend from a tank that had been hit alongside his. The body had been cut in two by an armour piercing shell.

They had then prepared to assault the Dutch town of Roosendaal which was reported to be heavily defended. At the last moment the Germans had chosen to withdraw. The 9th RTR were very relieved to discover that not only did not have to fight for the town but they were given a period of ‘rest and recuperation’, living in private houses in the town.

Greenwood and his men found themselves living in a bar-cafe. They were having “an incredibly easy time”, only having to see to daily tank maintenance and attend a number of lectures of such topics as VD and the procedure for de-mobilisation after the war. No-one was getting their hopes up, they knew thay would be back in battle soon:

D +165 Saturday 18.11.44

Fine morning, but cold and windy. Courses until 12 noon. Indoors all afternoon — too comfortable in these billets to bother about going out.

We are being well looked after — waited on hand and foot. Fires, tidying up, etc. all done by civvies. Unfortunately, none of the people in the house speak English, but we manage to converse somehow. It is really amazing how much ‘conversation’ is carried on by means of a few words, signs and pantomime.

Attended 15 Troop’s party this evening. The troop is billeted in a separate café with quite a good dance floor. Each member’ of the troop invited a lady friend, making about 30 of us in all. The major and SSM were also invited. Unfortunately, we only had a portable gramophone for a ‘dance band’ — it was more or less useless, but the dancers managed somehow.

Refreshments were surprisingly good — the lads having been scrounging and buying for a couple of days beforehand. There was plenty of beer — from stocks in the café. We also had whisky and gin and cordial from the sergeants’ mess ration. Also bully beef sandwiches — and several dozen fancy cakes bought in Antwerp yesterday. Chocolate too was fairly plentiful, thanks to the issue of 3.5 bars per man during the day.

There was some dancing, and a few games, in which kissing seemed to be the principal feature. These Dutch lassies certainly enjoy kissing! The party finished about midnight, I believe.

Saw signs of a huge heavy bomber raid on Germany today. There were hundreds of bombers overhead during the afternoon: objective Munster. We are now completely out of touch with the war here. Our first few days in Roosendaal were disturbed by heavy gunfire, but there is now complete silence — apart from the occasional roar of a bursting flying bomb in the distance.

Judging by news reports, the Belgian government is having trouble with the ‘patriot army’ — the latter refusing to hand in their arms, maintaining that there is still work for them to do.

From my observations of the men who constitute these Maquis forces in Belgium and France — also Holland — I am not surprised at this development. What is the nature of the work still ahead of them? To fight the enemy within? They certainly form a potential threat to any form of reactionary government — or a return to the old order of dominance by the wealthy.

The Belgian govt. have offered to incorporate the ‘patriots’ in the regular army. This seems very much like an attempt to hoodwink them. Once in the army, they would cease to be free men able to assert themselves. The ultimatum to hand over all arms expires at midnight tonight. Meanwhile mass meetings seem to be the order of the day in Belgium.

I am living in an aroma of cheap scent at the moment. This morning, our host here — a very obliging Dutchman of 37 years — showed me a small bottle of scent — ‘tis goot’ he added. And then he poured some of the stuff on my hair and clothes — thinking no doubt he was doing me a favour. I had the smell with me all the evening at the party — a sickly, heavy smell: faded violets, or something.

See Trevor Greenwood: D-Day to Victory: The Diaries of a British Tank Commander

A scene of complete devastation in the railway yards at Munster, as discovered by British ground forces on 7 April 1945. The administrative centre of Westphalia, and a major rail junction, Munster had suffered heavy Bomber Command and USAAF attacks when it became a tactically important reinforcement route into the Rhine battle area.
A scene of complete devastation in the railway yards at Munster, as discovered by British ground forces on 7 April 1945. The administrative centre of Westphalia, and a major rail junction, Munster had suffered heavy Bomber Command and USAAF attacks when it became a tactically important reinforcement route into the Rhine battle area.

Over the Seine and “push on”

6th Airborne soldiers aboard a captured German half-track mounting a 20mm gun, which they used to shoot down a German aircraft, 28 August 1944.
6th Airborne soldiers aboard a captured German half-track mounting a 20mm gun, which they used to shoot down a German aircraft, 28 August 1944.
Pontoon bridges over the River Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944
Pontoon bridges over the River Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944
Sherman tank crews write letters home in a lull during operations to cross the River Seine at Vernon, 27/28 August 1944.
Sherman tank crews write letters home in a lull during operations to cross the River Seine at Vernon, 27/28 August 1944.

With the Germans still in disarray the Allies were pushing on rapidly eastwards across France. In the north, after a short sharp battle, the British had captured a bridgehead over the Seine. Every bridge had been destroyed by Allied aircraft attempting to block the German retreat, now it was necessary to quickly build their own bridges to enable the pursuit.

Sergeant Major Ernest Powdrill was in charge of a Troop of four Sexton self propelled guns and was to cross the Seine late on the 28th:

I viewed the pontoon replacement with great trepidation — the Seine is very wide at this point (approximately 215 yards), with a high water level — and led the guns to the west bank at 1800 hrs, just as the sky was darkening. I watched closely as tank by tank negotiated the pontoon bridge, a procedure that did nothing to increase my confidence. A pontoon bridge is no more that a series of flat sheets laid transversely over a series of pontoons laid side by side.’

As it is a floating structure, secured to the banks at both ends, it is not, in my untutored opinion, a particularly stable arrangement. Thus, as the tanks went over, they appeared to wobble from side to side and we wondered if their tracks were submerged below the lapping surface of the river.

If ever a jar of rum was needed, now was the time. No such luck, however. On the west bank, engineers and military police were in command, signalling each tank over at the appropriate moment. The richness and extent of their vocabulary was to be admired, but they did a marvellous job.

Then it was our turn and the sky was getting darker. In front of me was an American White half-track, which served as the Troop Gun Command Post, with the GPO (Charles Coad) in charge. 3 RTR had gone on ahead, and we were behind the tanks of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and the 23rd Hussars. I was behind the GPO in my Bren carrier (known as TLD).

As this was a lightweight vehicle of some 4 tons, compared to the 32-ton Shermans of the tank regiments, it meant that, as they cockled on the pontoon, they caused the Bren carrier to wobble even more.

The Seine stretched away each side, with a width of over 200 yards, and it looked most forbidding with its strong flowing current. The sky darkened by the minute, which did not improve driving conditions.

The drivers’ eyes were glued to the narrow line of the pontoon, knuckles glowing white as their hands tightly gripped the steering tillers. Some drivers later reported cramp from their feet arching sensitively over accelerators and clutches. Neither was the way forward made any easier by the wash thrown up by the vehicles in front.

The first few yards were not too bad, but then, as the pontoons sagged under the weight of the tanks, water sloshed over the tracks so that the roadway in front temporarily disappeared from view. It was a nightmare drive and it was with huge relief that we found ourselves safely on dry land on the opposite bank of the river at Vernonnet, a small, pleasant riverside settlement, now completely deserted.

By now the night was pitch black and, with all the action and tension of the past few hours dissolving into slight relief, we then found ourselves entirely alone. No other units were in sight or sound. I bunched the guns nose to tail, forming up in the little square of Vernonnet.

My job was to see that every one had crossed over safely, so it was with considerable relief that I was able to report to the GPO that all was well. Then the worry began to nag again as our detachment from the rest of the convoy produced an unreal situation. There were no inhabitants or anyone else to be seen and we began to feel lost. The tank regiments had gone ahead and there seemed to be no other units behind us. It was strangely quiet and somewhat sinister.

It was just the beginning of an eventful night as they pushed ahead in pitch black darkness, narrowly avoiding ambush by German troops when they took the wrong road. See E A Powdrill: In the Face of the Enemy: A Battery Sergeant Major in Action in the Second World War.

Sherman tanks crossing a pontoon bridge over the River Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944.
Sherman tanks crossing a pontoon bridge over the River Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944.
Infantry of the Hampshire Regiment crossing the Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944.
Infantry of the Hampshire Regiment crossing the Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944.
Sherman tanks crossing a Bailey bridge over the Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944.
Sherman tanks crossing a Bailey bridge over the Seine at Vernon, 28 August 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.

Polish armour holds SS counter-attack at Mont-Ormel

Sherman tanks of the 1st Armoured Regiment (10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade, 1st Polish Armoured Division) at the start of Operation 'Totalise'.
Sherman tanks of the 1st Armoured Regiment (10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade, 1st Polish Armoured Division) at the start of Operation ‘Totalise’.
Column of Cromwell tanks of the 10th Mounted Rifles Regiment (1st Polish Armoured Division) moving towards enemy positions during the Battle of Falaise Pocket.
Column of Cromwell tanks of the 10th Mounted Rifles Regiment (1st Polish Armoured Division) moving towards enemy positions during the Battle of Falaise Pocket.
Cromwell tanks of the 10th Mounted Rifles Regiment (1st Armoured Division) use a hedge for cover during the Operation 'Totalise' in Normandy.
Cromwell tanks of the 10th Mounted Rifles Regiment (1st Armoured Division) use a hedge for cover during the Operation ‘Totalise’ in Normandy.

On the 19th August the 1st Polish Armoured Division had just managed to close the ‘Falaise Gap’ through which the surviving remnants of the German Army in Normandy were attempting to escape. Major Stefanowicz advanced his detachment of tanks and infantry onto Hill 262, Mont-Ormel, overlooking the Chambois-Vimoutiers road. On reaching the top they discovered the spectacle of the mass German retreat proceeding in the valley below them. They were soon adding to the general carnage.

The position held by the Poles suddenly became of critical importance, the Germans were desperate to take it. Units from 2nd S.S. Panzer Corps, who had already escaped from the pocket, were ordered back to take the hill. Now the Poles were alone and surrounded, waiting for the Canadian tanks to break through to support them, they faced wave after wave of German attack.

Canadian Artillery forward observer Captain Pierre Sévigny had been attached to the Polish Armoured Brigade. His guns, located further back, were to play a crucial role in defending the isolated outpost and he left a vivid account of the engagement:

The Polish major called his officers together and spoke to them all in French, for my benefit:

“Gentlemen,” he said, “the hour is grave. The brigade is completely isolated. The enemy is still fighting: his only escape routes are those you see to the right and to the left. There is nobody except us who can stop them: that is what we shall try to do! Surrender is out of the question! As Poles! This is what I propose to do: the infantry will hold the lower ground and will withdraw to the higher ground only in the last resort, the tanks will remain here in the little wood with engines stopped to save petrol. My Command Post will be in this old house where we are now (Boisjos Manor House).”

Addressing me, he asked:
“Can you lay down fire from your guns right round the hill?”
I replied in the affirmative. Everybody shook hands and we went to our posts. I zeroed in my guns on four points where I expected enemy attacks. That way they would later be able to fire with accuracy whenever they were wanted.

The night began. The men were calm. They did not know how grave the situation was. About midnight there was firing near the crossroads we had already shelled. Once again I gave the order: “Five rounds per gun!” We heard explosions and the cries of the wounded. However, firing broke on the left, then on the right. The enemy was attacking everywhere at the same time. At the foot of Coudehard hill there was bloody, hand-to-hand fighting all night. We lost many men and all we had for the wounded was a little iodine.

Sunday, August the 20th

Daylight came: it was absolutely essential for us to reorganise and contract our defence perimeter. All attacks had been repulsed but our losses during the night had been considerable. And it was still going on! Fortunately our dominating position ensured that we could not be surprised…! We fired without ceasing, the machine-guns and rifles grew red hot!

In the end the enemy pulled back but he still threatened the right. Attention! He was about to pass the first two points I had pre-ranged. I quickly gave the order to my signaller. The shells fell, the Boches were thrown back in disorder!

A lull. We were not short of things to trouble us: the major had been hit in the chest by a shell splinter. We had exhausted our rations, there was scarcely half a bottle of water left per man; ammunition was scarce! Suddenly, over on our left, we heard the sounds of numerous tanks moving! The Canadians! At last! We looked for the green flares. Nothing! We came down to earth: they were German tanks advancing on us.

The major then decided on a bold manoeuvre. The best defence was still attack: and we set off to meet the enemy with twelve tanks! We soon saw the silhouettes of sixteen, enormous, German tanks, Tigers! The battle began and within three minutes of the start we had lost six tanks to one of theirs!

Only the artillery could save us! Crouching in a hole I used a portable radio to send orders to my signaller to relay to the guns. And I waited: had I studied my map thoroughly enough? Had I marked the targets well enough? Would the guns fire in time?

The steel monsters were still coming, firing with all their weapons. I saw the sparkling of their machine-guns: their 88s whistled over my head. What were our gunners doing? The leading tank was only 500 metres away…, 400 now, 300, 250, 200! It was all over! I no longer dared look! Yet, I looked again: 150 metres, 100 metres. I dived into the bottom of the hole, pressing my face to the earth, not daring to move. Death would come to me in seconds, of that I was sure…. Instinctively, I murmured a prayer….

Then, suddenly, a hurricane, rolls of thunder, the ground trembling! Death? Life? Could it be possible? Was this help? Our guns were firing! What I was hearing were our shells! And there, in the hole, I laughed and cried! Stupidly I raised my head, but only for an instant! We were saved! With unparalleled accuracy and at a prodigious rate of fire, unknown till then, a cloud of shells burst over the enemy.

The Boche hesitated. Five tanks were burning like haystacks. My gunners had orders to fire all their ammunition! The attack was broken: the Germans retired, pursued by the Poles who destroyed another three tanks! How I congratulated my men on the fine work they had done!

… Nevertheless the attack was soon renewed. Our losses mounted constantly…. but now I could not believe my eyes: the Boches were advancing towards us singing, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”! We let them come to within 50 yards, then we mowed down their ranks…. More waves followed…. When the fifth came we were out of ammunition. The Poles charged them with the bayonet!

During that day we suffered eight attacks like this! The enemy was exploiting our weakness, but what fanaticism he showed! One of the wounded near me looked like a child: I read the date of birth in his paybook: April, 1931! He was thirteen years old. How horrible!

We took prisoners. Some of those from the Wehrmacht were of Polish birth. They were asked if they would join us: anyone who accepted was given the rifle and paybook of one of the dead! They were unexpected, precious reinforcements. The S.S. and those whose paybooks showed that they had taken part in the invasion of Poland in ’39 received no mercy!

About 6 o’clock the attacks ceased. The battlefield was a scene from a nightmare! On the flanks of the hill thousands of corpses made a veritable rampart. We had been forced back to the top of Hill 262. Around the wood, which was about 600 metres long and 300 metres across, now filled with the wounded, we had dug trenches which were to be held at all cost! Aircraft tried to drop supplies to us but all the containers fell behind enemy lines.

At nightfall that Sunday evening the major called his officers together: out of sixty only four were fit to fight, three lieutenants and myself, all the others, including the major himself, were more or less seriously wounded. Lying in terrible pain on some straw, the Polish major found the strength to pull himself upright and give his instructions. I will never forget his words:

“Gentleman, all is lost. I do not think the Canadians can relieve us. We have no more than 110 fit men. There is no food and not much ammunition: five shells per gun and fifty rounds per man! That is very little…. even so, fight on! It would be useless to surrender to the S.S., you know that! I give you my thanks: you have fought well. Good luck, gentleman, this night we will be dying for Poland and civilisation!”

Canadian tanks finally broke through to relieve them on the 21st August.

The whole account can be read at BBC People’s War, it is an extract from “Dans la tourmente de la guerre”, by M. l’abbé Marcel Launay, published in France.

The Balance-sheet of this fearful confrontation:

The Poles, who went into this fight with eighty-seven Sherman tanks against all the remaining weaponry of the German Seventh army surrounded on the plain of Tournai – Aubry – St-Lambert, lost 325 dead, 16 of whom were officers, 1,002 wounded and 114 missing. Eleven tanks were destroyed.

The Germans had about 2,000 killed, 5,000 taken prisoner, including a general, six colonels and 80 officers. They left on the battlefield 55 tanks, of which 14 were Panthers and 6 Tigers, 44 guns and 152 armoured vehicles, 359 vehicles of all types were destroyed.

Troops of the 1st Polish Armoured Division showing their exhaustion after the battle of the Falaise Pocket.
Troops of the 1st Polish Armoured Division showing their exhaustion after the battle of the Falaise Pocket.

The Polish contribution to the war was quite disproportionate to their numbers. Poland itself suffered terribly at the hand of both the Nazis and Stalinist Russia. A thoroughly researched 2019 study by Andrew Rawson paints a comprehensive picture of all aspects of Polish involvement in the war, including the the experiences of the ‘free’ expatriate armies, the repression and murder of both Polish Jews and Christians, and the Polish resistance and underground armies. This is his summary of I Polish Corps:

The I Polish Corps

Around 6,000 Polish soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division were evacuated from La Pallice, near La Rochelle, in June [1940] and the division was rebuilt in Scotland. They would protect the coast until the end of the war. The rest of the soldiers who escaped France were organised by General Marian Kukie1’s I Corps’ headquarters into two fully manned brigades and five cadre brigades in September 1940.

It had gathered around 14,000 men by the end of the year and one regiment had been armed with tanks and turned into the 10th Armoured Brigade. The 1st Tank Regiment expanded into the 16th Armoured Brigade and 2nd Infantry Regiment was reorganised as the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade in the autumn. A training brigade was also organised at the end of the year.

The 1st Armoured Division was formed the following spring and all the Polish troops were brought together under the renamed I Polish Armoured-Mechanised Corps. The corps acquired a new commander soon afterwards, General Mieczyslaw Boruta—Spiechowicz, and it completed training for the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe while guarding the Scottish coastline.

The 1st Armoured Division was commanded by General Stanislaw Maczek and was attached to the First Canadian Army in Normandy at the end of July 1944. The ‘Black Devils’, as they were known, were involved in Operation Totalize, starting on 8 August, and they were engaged in heavy fighting for Chambois and Mont Ormel. They then fought a fierce battle in their Sherman and Cromwell tanks to stop the Germans escaping from the Falaise Pocket, as part of Operation Tractable.

The 1st Armoured Division advanced along France and Belgium’s north coast, reaching Breda in Holland soon after the Germans had fled. After a few quiet months following the failure of Operation Market Garden, the division moved along the Dutch-German border at the beginning of 1945. It crossed into Germany in April and reached Wilhelmshaven on Germany’s northern coast on 6 May. General Maczek accepted the surrender of the East Frisian Fleet and ten infantry divisions around the naval base.

Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski commanded the 1st Parachute Brigade; his original plan was to prepare for an air drop into occupied Poland to help the underground. The British government convinced the Poles to support the Normandy campaign instead but so many operations were cancelled that they asked to be dropped into Warsaw during the August 1944 uprising. That request was also turned down because it was considered too difficult, and the 1st Parachute Brigade landed in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden instead. Only a few Poles made it across the Rhine, into 1st British Airborne Division’s bridgehead, but their actions did assist the evacuation across the river.

The 16th Armoured Brigade spent some time with the lst Armoured Division but it was never deployed to the Continent. All the Polish troops in Germany assembled under I Corps when the war ended and they were engaged on occupation duties until they were disbanded in June 1947.

See Poland’s Struggle: Before, During and After the Second World War

German units destroyed by Polish division near Chambois - somewhere along the road Chambois - Vimoutiers, near "Maczuga" ("Mace") - in the area called "Psie Pole" ("Dog's Field"):
German units destroyed by Polish division near Chambois – somewhere along the road Chambois – Vimoutiers, near “Maczuga” (“Mace”) – in the area called “Psie Pole” (“Dog’s Field”):
German convoy destroyed by Polish soldiers in "Korytarz Śmierci" (the "Corridor of Death"
German convoy destroyed by Polish soldiers in “Korytarz Śmierci” (the “Corridor of Death”

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 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

The bloody battle for Hill 112

5.5-inch medium guns firing at night during the offensive in the Odon valley near Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
5.5-inch medium guns firing at night during the offensive in the Odon valley near Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
5.5-inch medium gun firing at night during the offensive in the Odon valley near Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
5.5-inch medium gun firing at night during the offensive in the Odon valley near Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
Churchill tanks move up at dawn near the village of Tourville to attack Hill 112, 16 July 1944.
Churchill tanks move up at dawn near the village of Tourville to attack Hill 112, 16 July 1944.
A Churchill tank moves up towards the village of Tourville, in preparation for an attack on Hill 112, 16 July 1944.
A Churchill tank moves up towards the village of Tourville, in preparation for an attack on Hill 112, 16 July 1944.

On the 16th July the British put in another attack to try to break the deadlock that had emerged around Hill 112 outside Caen. Sergeants Laing, Mapham, Midgley and Walter of No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit were present to record various aspects of the day – and we have a reasonably complete photographic history of different units of the British Army as they prepare to make an assault.

In Normandy the bloody battle for Hill 112 had begun on the 10th July, with British troops gripped in a bitter struggle with the SS Panzer Divisions to seize the high ground on the battlefield outside Caen. Casualties were high on both sides. For the British commanders there was the knowledge that their losses were replaceable, whereas the German losses were not.

For those locked into this struggle there would have been little consolation that they were fulfilling their of role of grinding down the enemy and preventing the transfer of Panzer forces to the west, where the Americans were preparing to breakout of the bridgehead. These are accounts from men of the 7th Somersets:

Captain Marshall:

We had reached the farm buildings around Chateau de Fontaine, dug in positions in the meadows. Mortar and shell fire was devastating. Col. Lance [who had won a DSO in Africa] was killed by a shell from an 88mm while sitting in his jeep, the Gunner BC Major Mapp was killed, the Adjutant A. Scannell wounded and evacuated. A steady stream of wounded was arriving at the RAP. Maj. Young and Maj. Chalmers shared command of the Battalion with that of their own coys[Companys]. Snipers were at their worst.

Shortly after Col. Lance was killed, Maj. Young’s Coy was clearing some farm buildings. A shot whistled unpleasantly close. Maj. Y. turned to Pte. Lace (Battalion sniper) with ‘That’s the fifth shot that basket has fired at me, we must get him.’

They found him hidden in a junk—heap in the middle of a duck pond! They found another not more than seventeen years old, who had buried himself in the mud of a wet ditch — only his head, arms and rifle were free, even these covered with slime and weeds. Another was burned out from a hayrick set on fire by a German shell.

Several days after the occupation of Chateau de Fontaine, snipers were still being found. One had barricaded himself in a room on the first floor of a barn while a platoon of ‘D’ Coy occupied the ground floor. They got him with a Bren gun burst fired through the closed door when he refused to come out.

The enemy trenches in the area were full of German dead, passed over by the leading troops, and the usual scene of mutilated farm animals all around. Air was rancid with the smell of dead animals and flies.

Private. O’Connell:

Our officers were dwindling through death and wounding and it was rumoured that we only had one or two officers left in the [‘S’] Company. Our own officer had been killed and it was left to our sergeants to look after us. The toll of dead from the German shelling and attacks had risen considerably and our graveyard increased in the same measure.

We had lost all our top officers and it was a case of stick it, and stick it, until someone made a breakthrough or retreated. Our cemetery/or graveyard was shelled by the Germans out of hatred or their morale breaking… We did take only a few SS prisoners, that explains what a terrific defence that they had put up.

It wasn’t only in defence that these merchants excelled. They attacked and knew how to attack and die when they faced our guns, tanks and defenders. They seemed to have the best equipment as well.

Pte. Len Stokes, ‘B’ Company:

The German tanks were lined up to our front and took periodic shots at our 17-pounder unmanned gun which two German planes had just attacked, knocking all the crew out. I had to get out of my trench to see to ‘bodily functions’. They probably thought I was a gun crew member and fired a shell which hit a tree branch above me. The blast blew my steel helmet back, the chin strap nearly breaking my neck.

I was then ordered to take a verbal message to Battalion HQ as radio contact had been lost. [It was] in an outer farmhouse — they had just been very heavily shelled with many casualties. The first person dying from chest Wounds said ‘Don’t worry about me, see to the badly wounded.’ Capt. Goldy found me, said he had assumed command of the Bn. Our CO had been killed, also the CO and 2 i/c of the Regiment relieving us.

I was glad to get out of that terrible shambles.

these accounts appear in Patrick Delaforce: The Fighting Wessex Wyverns: From Normandy to Bremerhaven with the 43rd Wessex Division.

Pte W Nodder of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers writes home from his slit trench before the attack on Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
Pte W Nodder of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers writes home from his slit trench before the attack on Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
Sergeant G S Davies of the Royal Welch Fusiliers packs his medical bag at the regimental aid post before an attack towards Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
Sergeant G S Davies of the Royal Welch Fusiliers packs his medical bag at the regimental aid post before an attack towards Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
A sergeant briefs men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers before an attack towards Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
A sergeant briefs men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers before an attack towards Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
Colonel J A Rice-Evans, CO of a batttalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, 53rd Division, briefs his officers from his slit trench at battalion HQ before an attack towards Evrecy, 16 July 1944
Colonel J A Rice-Evans, CO of a batttalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, 53rd Division, briefs his officers from his slit trench at battalion HQ before an attack towards Evrecy, 16 July 1944
Infantry occupy slit trenches in the forward area between Hill 112 and Hill 113 in the Odon valley, 16 July 1944.
Infantry occupy slit trenches in the forward area between Hill 112 and Hill 113 in the Odon valley, 16 July 1944.
Sgt J Lloyd (right) and L/Cpl Jones, two motorcycle despatch riders of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers have a 'brew' before the attack on Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
Sgt J Lloyd (right) and L/Cpl Jones, two motorcycle despatch riders of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers have a ‘brew’ before the attack on Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
Infantry moving up during attacks between Hill 112 and Hill 113 in the Odon valley, 16 July 1944.
Infantry moving up during attacks between Hill 112 and Hill 113 in the Odon valley, 16 July 1944.

Ken Tout was a gunner in one of the British tanks joining the attack on the 16th. He gives an excellent account from the perspective of a tank in the bocage:

’Driver, advance!’ The Sherman climbs up the bank. I get a view of the tree-tops above the hedge. We level off and stay perched on the bank. This is the evil moment when the Sherman shows its thinly plated bottom to any gunner or bazooka man sitting out in the field beyond. It is a naked, unprotected feeling. Hickey revs the engine a little, we begin to topple, a giant hand seems to rip the hedge aside, we crash down to earth, and are through!

We come looking for guns, for flame, for smoke, for the frantic sudden movement of mechanical monsters behind hedges. Or the solitary field-grey hero nursing a bazooka and challenging us to move our big gun more swiftly than his modest iron tube. But this is an empty field. A tiny field. Not big enough to kick a football in. Certainly not the space for a game of cricket. A tiny grazing area defended by high ramparts of hedgerow. And nothing to see. Another tiny private world of our own. Conquered by us. And nobody the wiser.

We roll up to the opposite hedge, merely a couple of rotations of our tracks and we are again pressing into the greenery. The commander must be able to see something from up above.

I return to my botany studies. I should end this campaign an expert on privet, hawthorn, bramble and such. Troop Corporal reports to Troop Leader. I sit and wonder whether the end of our barrel is projecting through the hedge to the amusement of a crew of German anti-tank gunners the other side. My continued existence suggests that this is a fallacy.

We get the word to move again. Presumably 3 and 3 Able and 3 Charlie are also forsaking their little conquered fields to brave another hedge. We crawl towards the sky, tip, balance, wait for the crash of anti-tank shots through our exposed bottom plates, then crash down frontwards into a new green world — as tiny as the previous one. Behind us the infantry will be moving up and peeping through the horrendous hole we have just made in a farmer s hedge.

Across the field. This farthest hedge is not so high. Not so thick. We nuzzle into the hedge and the gun prods through. ‘Can you see yet, gunner?’ The leaves fall away from the periscope and I can see. Germans! By the next hedge. But dead. Lying in a group face downwards as though thrown there by some mighty blast. I point my guns at them, then traverse away towards more ominous areas.

As we begin to cross this further field, Rex calls ‘Those Jerries aren’t dead!’ I swing the guns, see the Germans, leaping to their feet, hands held high and empty, mouths expressing the desperate words ‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’ and trembling into incontinence as my gun almost grazes their faces in its onward swing.

Corporal Snowdon, up above, and Rex, opening up his lower hatch cover, by dint of much waving and kameradly grinning, manage to persuade our petrified enemies to work their nether limbs back towards our Staffordshire cousins in the hedgerow behind us.

Again we probe through a hedge. This time the opposite hedge is penetrated by a wide gateway — which causes me to wonder how the farmer obtains access to those previous fields where I did not notice gates! A German hops across the gate space like a scared rabbit. I am too astonished to react.

Another German runs across the space, left to right. I douse the right-hand hedge with machine-gun bullets. A third German takes the leap. Again I press the floor button, and tracer spits into the hedge on the right of the gate. I am waiting for the fourth German, with his basin-shaped helmet, his wide, neat tunic, his sloppy, baggy trousers, his carbine in hand. As he sprints across the gate, I fire into the hedge, his destination. He keeps running, I am totally perplexed.

’Gunner, there’s obviously a trench behind that hedge! Or a deep ditch to give them cover. Operator, reload with HE. Gunner, fire three rounds of HE in your own time!’

Obvious! But not to me. Tommy slaps my leg. I tread hard. The flame at the gun and the flame at the hedge are almost simultaneous. The hedge is so near that the tempestuous concussion against the hedge rebounds and slams the turret whilst the gun is still recoiling from its own discharge. For a moment we have the sensation of a small ship hitting a big rock in stormy seas. A hurricane of noise, flame, smoke, sods, leaves, burning air, wraps us round. The gate space is twice the size it was. Tommy slaps. I tread?’

Another tornado. Slap. Tread. Blast. The hedge, what is left of it, begins to burn. No more Germans leap the gap. Until now my main fear has been the elephantine shape of a heavy German tank, a Tiger, Panther, Royal Tiger or Self-Propelled Gun (SP) suddenly appearing downwind of us, its all-destroying gun pointing at us and its armour plate impervious to our 75mm shot. Now a new peril is evident.

If single German infantrymen can pop in and out of ditches within fifty yards of our tank, single German infantrymen may be crawling through the hedges alongside us or through the long grass behind us. And some of those infantrymen carry the notorious Panzerfaust, a simple, throwaway bomb-projector, known to us as a Bazooka and looking something like an outsize bassoon, an innocuous-looking instrument but one which, at fifty yards range, can blow our turret to smithereens.

The cosy little fields darken into a tight, ugly death-trap, as though a vast, black cloud had come over the summer sun. We sit and watch the burning of the hedge and wonder about Panzerfausts.

See Ken Tout: By Tank: D to VE Days

A Sherman Firefly advances during operations in the Odon valley, west of Caen, 16 July 1944.
A Sherman Firefly advances during operations in the Odon valley, west of Caen, 16 July 1944.
A Sherman tank advances during operations in the Odon valley, west of Caen, 16 July 1944.
A Sherman tank advances during operations in the Odon valley, west of Caen, 16 July 1944.
A heavily-loaded Universal carrier drives through a gap made in a hedge during the attack on Evrecy, 16 July 1944.
A heavily-loaded Universal carrier drives through a gap made in a hedge during the attack on Evrecy, 16 July 1944.

Sherman tanks move up to the line in Italy

Sherman tank of 26th Armoured Brigade, 6th Armoured Division, Arezzo, 16 July 1944.
Sherman tank of 26th Armoured Brigade, 6th Armoured Division, Arezzo, 16 July 1944.

While the Churchill tanks of the 7th and 9th Royal Tank Regiment were engaged in the bitter struggle of the Normandy bocage, the 8th RTR were returning to the fight in Italy. They had been out of the main Allied offensives for the last 18 months, stationed in Palestine and Syria. In that space of time the war had moved on remarkably. When they returned to the front line in Italy they were re-equipped with Sherman tanks.

Although the petrol driven Sherman had been given the nickname ‘Ronson’, because of it’s propensity to catch fire when hit, the men who fought in it nevertheless saw it as a great improvement on what they had perviously been equipped with. Tank commander Stuart Hamilton gives a good account of its capabilities:

There could hardly have been a greater contrast between war in the Desert and the war in Italy – totally different terrain, tanks and tactics.

In the Desert we had the Valentine tank which was small, slow, had only a three-man crew and was armed with a piddling little 2-pdr popgun: in Italy however we had the Sherman which was fast as it could crack along at 25-30 mph, it had a five-man crew which meant that the tank commander could at long last do his job properly, and, above all, it had a superb 75mm gun which was very accurate and could fire a 15lb shell some six-and-a-half miles and its 15lb solid armour-piercing shot could do real damage to the German tanks at last.

In addition it had two .30 Browning machine-guns, another .50 Browning machine-gim on the tank commander’s cupola ring and a 2″ mortar on the side of the turret.

In a Squadron of 16 tanks one had therefore 16 x 75mms; 32 x .30 machine-guns; 16 x .50 machine-guns and 16 x 2″ mortars which was really quite some fire power in those days.

It did, however, have two drawbacks, the first of which was its height as the top of the turret was some 11 feet off the ground. It was not easy therefore to conceal oneself behind hedges or underneath trees, in fact we were rather apt to stick out like a sore thumb. The other disadvantage was that the armour was pretty thin as it was only about two-and-a-half inches thick and as we were sitting on about 100 rounds of 75mm – mostly high explosive – and 90 gallons of petrol – and up to 5,000 rounds of .30 Browning machine-gun ammo – well, we were like a travelling incinerator. The German anti-tank guns could easily penetrate it at long range but it was extremely reliable and we loved it after the Valentine.

We continued moving up closer to the sharp end and on one occasion when we were fairly close we were asked to help some infantry who were being harassed by very accurate shooting from German guns and mortars. They said that the German OP (Observation Post) together with some 81mm mortars were right up forward but that the 25-pdrs of ours had not been able to knock them out. They imderstood that the Sherman 75mm’s were meant to be very accurate (which they were) and hoped that we might be able to do something about this.

I was told to see what I could do to help them so I went up to their front line positions, carefully marked out where the mortar positions were on my map, and in particular the enemy OP. He was called ‘the man in the cage’ because it was a hole on a forward slope of ground, surrounded with rocks and well camouflaged with nets, lattice work, etc. and very difficult to hit with artillery.

I reported back to our RHQ and it was arranged that I should take a half-Squadron, i.e. two Troops of tanks, my own and a support tank, making a total force of eight, and move up forward and to go and deal with this. We moved up to about 800-1,000 yards behind the infantry positions and I moved further forward still and got Lance-Corporal Shapcott, my gunner, to range on the target. He was a damn good gunner and, after having bracketed it, his fourth or fifth shot appeared to be a direct hit and when he repeated his aim I said, “that’s it.” (The Sherman 75mm was extraordinarily accurate and one could put a round through the window or down through the door of a ’casa’ at a good range – something the 25-pdrs couldn’t do).

I had been carefully calibrating and calculating each shot and passing on the range and degrees, etc. to the other tanks, who had previously calibrated onto my ‘master’ gun, and, having said “that’s it” I then gave the order for five rounds gun fire. As one we all let rip and some 40 shells plastered the position and we completely obliterated it. After that I gave the order for independent fire and the eight of us ranged all over the area shooting up the marked mortar positions, hedges, ditches, buildings, etc. giving the Jerries a really good pasting before moving back.

The infantry CO ‘phoned up later to congratulate us saying that they were highly delighted with the result of the shoot as we had certainly knocked out ‘the man in the cage’ because some time later a German half-track flying a Red Cross symbol had gone to ‘the cage’ obviously to pick up casualties. We appeared to have demolished the mortar positions as well and we seemed to have shaken the Jerries alright as things were very much quieter all round and he couldn’t have been more pleased with us.

See Stuart Hamilton: Armoured Odyssey: 8th Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert, 1941-42, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, 1943-44, Italy, 1944-45

Empty 75mm HE shell cases being collected from Royal Tank Regiment Sherman tanks, in use in the indirect artillery role in the Anzio bridgehead, 5 May 1944.
Empty 75mm HE shell cases being collected from Royal Tank Regiment Sherman tanks, in use in the indirect artillery role in the Anzio bridgehead, 5 May 1944.

9th Royal Tank Regiment – Death at Maltot

Churchill Tanks on manoeuvres in Britain, October 1942 The crew of an A Squadron, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade, Churchill Mk II tank on the turret discussing plans of operations round a map.
Churchill Tanks on manoeuvres in Britain, October 1942
The crew of an A Squadron, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade, Churchill Mk II tank on the turret discussing plans of operations round a map.
Churchill tanks of A and B Squadrons, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade in line abreast wait to move off as squadron leaders and tank commanders discuss operations in the foreground.
Churchill tanks of A and B Squadrons, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade in line abreast wait to move off as squadron leaders and tank commanders discuss operations in the foreground.

Just as the battle for the capture of Caen was dying down Montgomery launched another tank attack from the British sector. Operation Jupiter was designed to keep the German Panzer forces fully engaged and prevent more of them being transferred across to the American sector. The combined infantry and tank attack was to confront three SS Panzer Divisions – which had just been re-enforced by the 502 SS Heavy Tank Battalion, the Tiger battalion of II SS Panzer Corps, arriving from Holland. The British Cromwell tanks of 9 RTR were to suffer badly this day.

Extract from the diary of Captain John Hodges, 9th Battalion Adjutant:

Major Douglas Ballantine also died of wounds on this day. I heard his last message over the wireless saying, quite cheerfully, that his tank had been hit three times and that he was trying to get through the hedge into the orchard. He then dismounted to talk to his Reconnaissance Officer, Ronnie Kirby, and the CO of the 7th Hampshires.

While they were talking there was a very heavy bout of mortaring and Douglas was wounded in the head and chest, and both his legs were broken. At this stage tanks were on fire all around and the counter-attack started to come in. Douglas was in a ditch with two of his crew, Paddy Murphy and Bill Quinn. Bill says that he was gradually getting weaker and weaker but kept on trying to help his tanks to get back out of it. All this time the place was being swept by machine gun and mortar fire. Bill went to find the Infantry Medical Officer but he had been killed. Bill managed to get blankets and a ground sheet to make Douglas as comfortable as possible but it was obvious that he could not last long unless help arrived very quickly.

After about an hour of this Douglas sent Bill and Paddy away saying there was nothing they could do for him and that they must save themselves. At this time the counter-attack was almost on top of them. He was hardly conscious at this stage. Bill made several attempts to move him but it was too painful for him and their position was pretty hopeless. Bill and Paddy managed to get away and joined up with several more de-horsed crews and crawled back towards the start line through the corn.

At this stage about three-quarters of A Squadron had lost their tanks and were trying to get back one way or another. The Padre and our own ambulances made repeated attempts to get forward to the Squadron and succeeded in picking up about 12 men, but the position was impossible. Later in the day when C Squadron attacked there must have been a good number of our men still about the area who would have come under our own artillery barrage. For days we tried to reach the place to recover the tanks and see what was left but it was not until 8th August that we were finally able to do so. Then we recovered and buried nineteen bodies from the burnt out tanks and buried them together with Douglas at Eterville.

We knew Douglas had died because an Infantry Officer who got back brought in his identity discs and told us that he had died the same day (10th July). When we got there on 8th August, Douglas had been buried by the Infantry but we brought him back with the rest of his Squadron. We found his notebook in his pocket with his name written on it. Later we heard that at least three complete crews had been taken prisoner. Of these Frank Quinn was taken to hospital in Paris and when the Germans fled, he hid in a cupboard until the Americans found him.

Front view of a Churchill tank (Saurian) of A Squadron, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade. The tank commander surveys the land through his binoculars.
Front view of a Churchill tank (Saurian) of A Squadron, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade. The tank commander surveys the land through his binoculars.

Recollections of Ray Gordon, wireless operator in Sgt. Jock Smith’s tank, 2 Troop, A Squadron.

The worst day for A Squadron was at Maltot on the 10th July. We were moving across a field of yellow rape and through my periscope I could see tank after tank stop and catch fire although there were no signs of German tanks firing. One began to feel uneasy and the constant sound of small arms fire against the turret made us realise that things were going to be tough. Ted Spight from one of the brewed up tanks appeared just in front of us looking very dazed so we opened up a pannier door and laid him on the tool box behind the driver.

Soon afterwards we were hit and “Iceni” rocked to a standstill. The interior of the turret suddenly became intensely hot, a dry scalding heat. I kept my eyes shut shielding my face with my hands. The left hand was not wearing the leather gauntlet glove with which we were issued, the right hand had a glove on. After seemingly minutes, but it can only have been a very short period, I stood up and pushed open my turret hatches.

We were yelling and I tried to release the clip which held the bag for holding the empty shell cartridges, but it jammed and could not be budged. I tried to do this in order that both Jock and Dickie could move over to my side of the turret in order to get out because Jock could not open his cupola flaps as shortly before we were hit something had struck the top of the turret and jammed it shut. I pulled myself out of the turret and fell over the side hitting the tracks and toppled on to the ground.

As I laid there I could see a large hole slightly forward of the turret (I believe it was an ’88’ shot) and flames started coming out of the turret together with the sound of exploding ammunition. The dreadful cries of my crew trapped in “Iceni”, even now nearly 50 years later, occasionally return to remind me of the horror of the 10th July 1944. To my everlasting sorrow I was unable to help even one of those young men with whom I had lived in intimate contact – that was part of a tankman’s life when in action.

My face became swollen and very tight making it difficult to see and the skin of my left hand hung down in black strips from an arm which was bloodless and white. Lieutenant Shep Douglas, my troop leader, crawled along the field. “Who are you” he said, not recognising one of his own troop to whom he had given orders earlier that morning. I followed him across the field of rape, crouched low because we could hear gunfire, to a gap in the hedgerow where infantry were in position.

The look of horror on their faces which changed to looks of pity when they saw me will remain for ever in my mind. It is a look which I would never want to inflict on another human being. I was helped to a medical truck, given an injection and that was the end of the 10th July for me.

From the original account of the history of the 9th Royal Tank Regiment, which includes the original War Diary for this period and other accounts.

Trevor Greenwood whose diary was featured on 30th June also has an excellent account of the confusion in battle on this day. See Trevor Greenwood: D-Day to Victory: The Diaries of a British Tank Commander

Churchill tanks of A and B Squadrons, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade firing from cover.
Churchill tanks of A and B Squadrons, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade firing from cover.
A Churchill tank of 51st Royal Tank Regiment, moving through the undergrowth during an advance across the Italian countryside.
A Churchill tank of 51st Royal Tank Regiment, moving through the undergrowth during an advance across the Italian countryside.