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.

The ‘Culin hedge cutter’ on the Normandy battlefield

Sergeant Curtis G Culin who devised the hedge cutter whilst in the  fields of Normandy.
Sergeant Curtis G Culin who devised the hedge cutter whilst in the fields of Normandy.
US Army engineers fabricating the hedge cutter from the steel beach obstacles left behind by the Germans.
US Army engineers fabricating the hedge cutter from the steel beach obstacles left behind by the Germans.

With the British engaging most of the German Panzers forces on the eastern side of the Normandy battlefield, Montgomery’s plan was now for the Americans to prepare for the “breakout”. Even with over a million men now ashore and the supply situation rapidly recovering from the delays caused by the ‘Great Storm’, there was still more time before they would be ready to launch the final push which would see then burst out of the beach-head area.

The terrain of Normandy, particularly at the base of the Cotentin peninsula, where the US forces would have to concentrate, remained a limiting factor. The Supreme Allied Commander was well aware of the problems of bringing the tanks into battle, until American ingenuity solved the problem:

Complicating the problem of the breakout on the American front was the prevalence of formidable hedgerows in the bocage country.

In this region the fields have for centuries past been divided into very small areas, sometimes scarcely more than building-lot size, each surrounded by a dense and heavy hedge which ordinarily grows out of a bank of earth three or four feet in height. Sometimes these hedges and supporting banks are double, forming a ready-made trench between them, and of course aflording almost the ultimate in battlefield protection and natural camouflage.

In almost every row were hidden machine-gunners or small combat teams who were in perfect position to decimate our infantry as they doggedly crawled and crept to the attack along every avenue of approach.

Our tanks could help but little. Each, attempting to penetrate a hedgerow, was forced to climb almost vertically, thus exposing the unprotected belly of the tank and rendering it easy prey to any type of armour-piercing bullet. Equally exasperating was the fact that, with the tank snout thrust skyward, it was impossible to bring guns to bear upon the enemy; crews were helpless to defend themselves or to destroy the German.

In this dilemma an American sergeant named Culin came forth with a simple invention that restored the effectiveness of the tank and gave a tremendous boost to morale throughout the Army.

It consisted merely in fastening to the front of the tank two sturdy blades of steel which, acting somewhat as scythes, cut through the bank of earth and hedges. This not only allowed the tank to penetrate the obstacle on an even keel and with its guns firing, but actually allowed it to carry forward, for some distance, a natural camouflage of amputated hedge!

As soon as Sergeant Culin had demonstrated his invention to his captain it was speedily brought to the attention of General Walter M. Robertson of the 2nd Division. He, in turn, demon- strated the appliance to Bradley, who set about the task of equipping the greatest possible number of tanks in this fashion so as to be ready for the coming battle.

A feature of the incident from which our soldiers derived a gleeful satisfaction was that the steel for the cutting blades was obtained from the obstacles which the German had installed so profusely over the beaches of Normandy to prevent our landing on that coast.

However, we were still without this contrivance when the First Army began its tedious southward advance to achieve a reasonable jump-ofl’ line for the big attack.

See Dwight D. Eisenhower: Crusade in Europe: A Personal account of World War II

A Sherman tank equipped with the hedge cutter.
A Sherman tank equipped with the hedge cutter.

T-34s attack Panzers cornered in the Russian forest

Soviet infantry advance alongside T-34 tanks in the summer of 1944.
Soviet infantry advance alongside T-34 tanks in the summer of 1944.
The crew of a Red Army SU-122 gun beside their vehicle.
The crew of a Red Army SU-122 gun beside their vehicle.

On the Eastern Front the Soviet Operation Bagration continued, the German defensive line had been smashed apart in many places. The scale of the attacks across the whole of the central front, encompassing most of modern day Belorussia, is hard to comprehend. The Germans were being encircled or cut off piecemeal. Sometimes they would make desperate attempts to break out to the west. On other occasions that were able to mount a relatively organised defence.

Vasily Krysov commanded a platoon of SU-122 self propelled howitzers, part of a Red Army force that had spent the last week trying to catch up with the Germans:

Pursuing the retreating enemy through the night with occasional clashes against rearguard detachments, we reached the line ‘Krugel’ — forest two kilometres east of Krugel – by dawn of 7 July. Our further advance was stopped here by very heavy fire from German artillery, tanks and assault guns dug—in on Hill 197.2, which had been converted into an enemy strongpoint.

We quickly concealed the tanks and self-propelled guns behind folds in the terrain, and disguised them thoroughly. Lacking clear targets, the Germans randomly shelled our forest. It was so stuffy and hot that even at night, the forest couldn’t spare us from the sultry July air; our crews’ overalls were soaked with sweat, and our faces were as grimy as stokers.

… [the attack began after an artillery bombardment] …

Immediately, dozens of tank engines roared as the tanks and self-propelled guns headed menacingly towards the enemy lines. Our self-propelled guns and the infantry followed behind the tanks. The 1821st Regiment of heavy SU—152 self-propelled guns headed by Major Gromov moved in the second echelon as the corps’ reserve of General Anashkin’s 129th Rifle Corps.

Judging from the expressions on the faces of my crew and the communications from the other tank destroyers, everyone was in an elated mood and had no doubts about the success of our assault. Obviously, I was the only one who thought that the preparatory barrage had been too short and not sufficiently concentrated for such a solid enemy defence, and for some reason there had been no air strike at all.

As soon as the tanks and self-propelled guns emerged from the forest, the enemy defence came to life and bristled with fire. Shells began to explode just nearby. Machine—gun bursts were riddling the area. The parched rye caught fire — at first locally, but the fire spread quickly, and the wind drove a line of crackling red flames and long plumes of smoke towards us. It became unbearably stuffy inside the fighting compartment because of the heat and smoke, even though all the ventilation fans and the powerful fan of the engine’s flywheel were working.

It was hard to breathe, but even more difficult to spot enemy tanks and guns. The flames and smoke concealed the discharges of firing enemy gun barrels, and we had to fire at vague outlines of targets. Our tank destroyer was heading directly towards the hill, about 30 metres behind the tanks and in a gap between them, to allow firing opportunities. Revutsky’s machine rolled to the right of us, while the other self-propelled guns advanced on the left.

I took a glance out of the hatch to get a better view of the battlefield and to get my bearings. The T—34s were slowly advancing across the whole front towards the crackling, burning rye, firing on the move from guns and the hull and turret machine guns.

The self-propelled guns were advancing in their wake, positioned in the gaps between the tanks — they would stop for several seconds from time to time to fire a shot. Enemy shells were exploding all along the front of the advance and throughout the entire depth of our formation.

Shells were either striking sparks from the steel hulls of the armoured vehicles, or they were ploughing up the earth near the tracks. Enemy machine guns were spraying the battlefield with a multi—layered deluge of lead, so intense that our foot soldiers couldn’t even move forward in a belly—crawl, and were forced to advance exclusively within the tracks of the tanks and self-propelled guns, sheltered by their hulls.

We left behind the wide strip of burning rye and in front of me to my left I saw two of our tanks burning. I thought bitterly about the burned crewmen, and about what was awaiting the rest of us on this blazing, wind—blown field, which had already gobbled up two tanks during the first hour of action. Quite a few infantrymen had already been killed or wounded too.

Gazing intensely at the Germans’ ominous defence line I managed to spot a gun that was firing at our tank destroyer, and I immediately ordered my gunlayer over the intercom: ‘Sergey! At the gun near the three birch trees! Sight mark 15! Fire!’

‘Lane!’ the driver reported to indicate that he had found level terrain as the vehicle stopped smoothly. With a lot of effort I discerned through the obscuring smoke that our shell had burst a bit short of the gun, and adjusted the aim: ‘Sight mark 16! Fire!’ ‘Comrade Lieutenant, the gun’s gone!’ Sergey Bykov reported.

‘Look for it to the left and right of their previous position!’ However, there was already a spurt of flame from the left birch tree. We sensed a hit on the hull and heard an explosion. The left side of the machine was illuminated by fire! ‘Short! Fire!’ Sergey ordered and fired again. An instant after the shot we heard Bykov report in our headphones: ‘The target’s been hit!’

See Panzer Destroyer: Memoirs of a Red Army Tank Commander

Crossing the river Dniester  T-34-85 tanks of the 44th Guards Tank Brigade, 11th Guards Tank Corps 1st Guards Tank Army.
Crossing the river Dniester T-34-85 tanks of the 44th Guards Tank Brigade, 11th Guards Tank Corps 1st Guards Tank Army.
Soviet infantry supported by tanks T-34 is fighting for one of the settlements in the direction of Lviv.
Soviet infantry supported by tanks T-34 is fighting for one of the settlements in the direction of Lviv.

RAF heavy bombers support Royal Tank Regiment

Avro Lancasters carpet bomb a road junction near Villers Bocage, Normandy, France through which the 2nd and 9th SS Panzer Divisions were expected to move to carry out an attack on the junction of the British and American armies. The daylight attack, by 266 aircraft of Nos. 3, 4 and 8 Groups, was carried out at 4,000 feet to ensure that the target indicators dropped by the Pathfinders were seen and 1,100 tons of bombs were dropped with great accuracy.
Avro Lancasters carpet bomb a road junction near Villers Bocage, Normandy, France through which the 2nd and 9th SS Panzer Divisions were expected to move to carry out an attack on the junction of the British and American armies. The daylight attack, by 266 aircraft of Nos. 3, 4 and 8 Groups, was carried out at 4,000 feet to ensure that the target indicators dropped by the Pathfinders were seen and 1,100 tons of bombs were dropped with great accuracy.
Wrecked German Tiger tanks in the rubble of Villers Bocage after the British had captured the town, 5 August 1944.
Wrecked German Tiger tanks in the rubble of Villers Bocage after the British had captured the town, 5 August 1944.

In Normandy the British Operation Epsom attack had pushed a salient into the German lines and they were now on the receiving end of sustained counter-attacks.

Sergeant Trevor Greenwood was a tank commander with the 9th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, which had landed in France on D +16 and had then been in action almost continuously since D +19 (25th June). Even when they were not on the immediate front line they were still under regular mortar and sniper fire.

The area they were now in had been recently occupied by Germans, it was still mined in places and there were numerous ‘booby traps’ left behind. The German dead had been quickly buried and had not always been completely covered. The strain of being under continuous fire was beginning to tell. They had already learnt the warning sign of the ‘moaning minnies’ – the German nebelwerfer mortar. Then they dived in a trench under the tank, although at other times the only reasonably safe place was in the tank with the hatches down:

D +24 Friday 30.6.44

‘Stand to’ at 4.30 a.m. Jerry mortaring Grainville area heavily: seemed like prelude to further counter attack. We repelled him yesterday evening, and he may now have stronger forces. If he breaks through, our forward troops in salient will be isolated. Our area and Cheux seem likely places for onslaught.

Waited at alert for several hours, meanwhile keeping rigid lookout for enemy tanks. But nothing happened… thank goodness. Our vehicle (and selves) were hardly prepared for heavy action after yesterday: petrol and ammo … and sleep.

We were relieved by 7th [7th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment] early afternoon: seemed to be at least 2 squadrons! Was glad to see them. We retired to former base, behind Cheux and found B there: latter were on ‘stand to’. Had a meal and wash . . . and then sleep for hour or two.

Unfortunately, this harbour is surrounded by many of our 25—pounders … dozens of them. The nearest are less than 100 yds away, and firing towards us. They are firing ceaselessly, with frequent extra heavy barrages: noise indescribable: ‘hell let loose’ is too mild a term.

In spite of this most of us have slept for an hour or two since returning from front line. We are still well within range of enemy mortars and still receiving attention. This mortaring is devastating to the nerves.

Don’t know yet whether we will be required again today . . . but B are still here: they will surely go before us, having had at least a day’s rest.

Saw a remarkable sight this evening: tremendous procession of our four-engined bombers flew overhead, and dropped their loads just beyond front line (around Villers?)

Must have been hundreds of planes, but all over in about 10 minutes. Seemed to be very little Jerry AA and didn’t see a single plane destroyed. Shortly afterwards, a huge black cloud ascended and gradually spread towards us. Within an hour, we were literally in a fog: air became noticeably cooler and daylight partially obliterated, visibility about 200 yards.

Fine dust particles settled everywhere. This ‘fog’ lasted for about 2 hours. Heaven knows what we hit, but it must have been a mighty bombardment.

Believe enemy are grouping about 2 Panzer Divs in that area for heavy counter attack. Monty was here today and said ‘they will be smashed’! Maybe the RAF have already smashed them. Hope so.

No move … dug hole, and crept into it for sleep at midnight.

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

Churchill tanks of 7th Royal Tank Regiment, 31st Tank Brigade, advance through a cornfield, 28 June 1944.
Churchill tanks of 7th Royal Tank Regiment, 31st Tank Brigade, advance through a cornfield, 28 June 1944.
A Churchill tank of 7th Royal Tank Regiment, 31st Tank Brigade, supporting infantry of 8th Royal Scots during Operation 'Epsom', Normandy, 28 June 1944.
A Churchill tank of 7th Royal Tank Regiment, 31st Tank Brigade, supporting infantry of 8th Royal Scots during Operation ‘Epsom’, Normandy, 28 June 1944.
Tank and infantry officers confer on a Churchill tank of 7th Royal Tank Regiment, 31st Tank Brigade, during Operation 'Epsom', Normandy, 28 June 1944.
Tank and infantry officers confer on a Churchill tank of 7th Royal Tank Regiment, 31st Tank Brigade, during Operation ‘Epsom’, Normandy, 28 June 1944.

Tank attack into Fontenay-le-Pesnel

Infantry of the York and Lancaster Regiment in the village of Fontenay-le-Pesnel, Normandy, 25 June 1944.
Infantry of the York and Lancaster Regiment in the village of Fontenay-le-Pesnel, Normandy, 25 June 1944.
A Sherman DD tank, with flotation screens removed, passing through Douet as engineers work to clear the debris, 25 June 1944.
A Sherman DD tank, with flotation screens removed, passing through Douet as engineers work to clear the debris, 25 June 1944.

As the US First Army made quite swift progress up the Cotentin peninsula and took Cherbourg, on the eastern side of the Normandy battlefield the British Second Army was engaged in some tough fights. It was here that the German Panzers were concentrated and there were to be a series of bloody clashes as the British edged forward. They still had not captured Caen, which had been an objective for D-Day.

Stuart Hills was a tank commander who was only just becoming battle experienced, he had already seen a good proportion of his comrades become casualties:

The barrage began at 0330 hours on Sunday June 25 and at 0430 hours the attack moved downhill behind the barrage. Halfway down into the valley we encountered a heavy ground mist, which thickened the further we went and eventually reduced visibility to a few feet. Tanks and infantry lost contact and everything became confused.

Meanwhile the enemy opened up with machine-guns, mortars, the lot, which gave the infantry a particularly hard time. …

The fighting in Fontenay was fierce and confused, with enemy tanks of 12 SS Panzer dug in defensively to the east of the town, and we did not have enough infantry to take the village. At about four o’clock in the afternoon the attack had clearly run out of steam, infantry losses had been heavy and we withdrew back to the heights of Point 102 above Fontenay to replenish our stocks of ammunition, refuel and have something to eat.

They expected that would be the end for the day but at 7pm Hills was called to an Orders group and told they would be making a second attack, which he would be leading. His crew were unenthusiastic about making an attack where a larger force had just been beaten off:

We made ourselves ready. Doug Footitt and Arthur Reddish put extra tracer bullets into the machine-gun belts: at night the inside of a tank was pitch-dark and the gunner’s sights were useless, but the tracer would help the main gun find its targets. We would have to be careful of our own infantry straying into our line of fire, and Arthur kept some grenades handy in case we were attacked.

It was clearly going to be tough, and I was by no means certain that we would be coming back.

About nine o’clock we climbed into our Sherman, warming the engines and marshalling into line. Fifteen minutes later we moved off into the night, over the crest of Point 102 and down towards Fontenay, which was another small Norman village of scattered houses, narrow streets and high hedges.

The infantry was in single file on our right, the wrong side for our turret-mounted machine-gun. They were moving cautiously, alert to strange noises and trying to pick out land- marks in the darkness. We passed all the ground we had crossed earlier in the day and still there was no response from the enemy. Perhaps we had taken him by surprise.

Then suddenly a machine-gun opened up, the infantry scattered and bullets hit the tank like the rat-a-tat-tat of a hammer. I ordered the tank to slew right and Doug Footitt opened up with his machine-gun on the enemy position and then fired two high-explosive shells which set the two-storey building alight.

Gradually we worked our way through the town. Resistance was unexpectedly light and the infantry was in and out of the houses. I then received orders to accompany a Churchill tank to blast a nearby German headquarters in a chateau which we duly destroyed. We moved off, with Arthur half outside his hatch and holding a Sten gun to deal with any Panzerfausts.

By midnight Fontenay had been captured and the road to Caen cut. We stopped and tried to snatch some sleep while we could.

It had been a very long day and a tough assignment. My crew were perhaps not quite as undisturbed and relaxed as they had been after Cristot. The strain was beginning to tell; it was showing in their eyes and in their slightly nervous movements as they reached for their cigarettes or cups of tea.

I knew that I had to appear relatively unconcerned, whatever I was feeling inside, and do what I could to raise spirits and lift confidence.

See Stuart Hills: By Tank into Normandy

BBC People’s War has an account of the Royal Scouts Fusilier’s encounter with the 12th SS Panzer Division at Fontenay-le-Pesnel on this day.

Lorries carrying supplies to the front make their way through Bayeux, with the cathedral making an imposing backdrop, 25 June 1944.
Lorries carrying supplies to the front make their way through Bayeux, with the cathedral making an imposing backdrop, 25 June 1944.
A knocked-out German 75mm anti-tank gun and one of its gunners lying dead beside it. A disabled Panther tank is also visible in the background. Fontenay-le-Pesnel, 25 June 1944.
A knocked-out German 75mm anti-tank gun and one of its gunners lying dead beside it. A disabled Panther tank is also visible in the background. Fontenay-le-Pesnel, 25 June 1944.
A motorcycle despatch rider passes a knocked-out Sherman tank and behind, a German Panther at Fontenay-le-Pesnel, 27 June 1944.
A motorcycle despatch rider passes a knocked-out Sherman tank and behind, a German Panther at Fontenay-le-Pesnel, 27 June 1944.

0400: The German counter attack is stalled

Rommel had only just recently inspected the 21st Panzer Division who were the closest to the invasion beaches.
Rommel had only just recently inspected the 21st Panzer Division who were the closest to the invasion beaches.

Rommel had been firmly of the opinion that when the invasion came the German forces should throw their Panzers into battle at the earliest opportunity, to take advantage of the early weakness of the invading force. However, Hitler had reserved the release of the Panzers to himself.

Even though 21st Panzer Division has only recently moved to Caen and were right on top of the eastern end of the invasion area, they were to spend the night waiting for clearance from the High Command to move.

Colonel von Luck had had his men on alert since shortly after midnight, but they were denied permission to move:

Gradually we were becoming filled with anger. The clearance for an immediate night attack, so as to take advantage of the initial confusion among our opponents, had still not come, although our reports via division to the corps and to Army Group B (Rommel) must have long since been on hand.

We made a thorough calculation of our chances of successfully pushing through to the coast and preventing the formation of a bridgehead, or at least making it more difficult.

….

The hours passed. We had set up a defensive front where we had been condemned to inactivity. The rest of the division, with the Panzer regiment and Panzer Grenadier Regiment 192, was equally immobilized, though in the highest state of alert.

My adjutant telephoned once more to division. Major Forster, IC and responsible for the reception of prisoners, came to the phone. He too was unable to alter the established orders.

Army Group B merely informed us that it was a matter of a diversionary maneuver: the British had thrown out straw dummies on parachutes. At daybreak, I sent my adjutant to ask divisional command post to secure us immediate clearance for a counterattack.

On his arrival, Liebeskind witnessed a heated telephone conversation which Feuchtinger was evidently having with the army: “General, I have just come back from Paris and I’ve seen a gigantic armada off the west coast of Cabourg, warships, supply ships, and landing craft. I want to attack at once with the entire division east of the Orne in order to push through to the coast.”

But clearance was strictly denied. Hitler, who used to work far into the night, was still asleep that early morning.

At the command post, I paced up and down and clenched my fists at the indecision of the Supreme Command…

See Hans von Luck: Panzer Commander.

For a full illustrated story of D-Day and the Normandy campaign explore hundreds of contemporary images in the iPad App Overlord. The free iBook US Forces on D-Day provides a sample.

Part of the same inspection tour, probably on 30th May. A Marder anti-tank gun . If they had been released during the night of the 5th-6th they could have been on the beachhead waiting for the Allies to land.
Part of the same inspection tour, probably on 30th May. A Marder anti-tank gun . If they had been released during the night of the 5th-6th they could have been on the beachhead waiting for the Allies to land.

SS ‘Hitlerjugend’ massacre French civilians at Ascq

The 'Hitler Youth' Division was formed in 1943 from boys who had been indoctrinated in the Nazi youth organisation. Its officers and NCOs were more experienced men from both the SS and the Wehrmacht.
The ‘Hitler Youth’ Division was formed in 1943 from boys who had been indoctrinated in the Nazi youth organisation. Its officers and NCOs were more experienced men from both the SS and the Wehrmacht.
Members of the Division in a demonstration for younger boys in the Hitler Youth, Belgium, Spring of 1944.
Members of the Division in a demonstration for younger boys in the Hitler Youth, Belgium, Spring of 1944.

In Britain the Allies were actively debating the need to destroy railway lines in France, in advance of the invasion. Isolating the Normandy area would hinder the movement of German reinforcements. The move was initially opposed by Churchill – who feared the scale of French casualties that would inevitably result from such raids. Also included in the plans were orders for the French Resistance to conduct sabotage operations against railway lines.

Whether or not they received orders from Britain, some members of the French Resistance were active already. The main line between Lille and Brussels was an obvious target. On the night of the 1st April bombs destroyed the line near the small village of Ascq, close to the Belgian border. Unfortunately they did so just as the 12th SS Panzer ‘Hitlerjugend’ Division was on the route, causing them delays, although there were no casualties on the train.

There were no considerations of ‘innocent civilians’ amongst these troops. Anyone who got in their way or hindered them was a target. Reprisals against local residents, even if they had not been involved in the sabotage, were intended to deter the saboteurs from further acts.

The Mayor of Ascq, Mr. Delebart was caught up in the events:

I left the housee … I was headed for the crossing of rue Marceau. There was great excitement and a lot of soldiers, I tried to find out what was going on. One of the soldiers took me to an officer he called the commander: I wanted to know from the Germans if anything had happened in Ascq. Not knowing the language, I could not understand and asked if one of his soldiers was an interpreter.

A soldier stepped forward and translated for me the words of the officer. I was far from supposing that a tragedy was unfolding. I learned through the interpreter that an attack had been committed on the road and their train was derailed and the engine destroyed. ​

They held the local people responsible for this – as a common act of sabotage and – accordingly fifty people were to be shot, including a group of about thirty who were on the right hand side. They were guarded by German soldiers and were to be executed by firing squad immediately.

That’s when I raised a violent protest at their actions – the population had nothing to do with what had happened and that they were innocent. I was extremely angry at this point. But the interpreter was hitting me on the shoulder and said that the officer had ordered: “You too, Mr. Mayor, you will be shot.” And then I received a tremendous kick in the kidneys and they pushed me into the group of civilians who were awaiting execution.

The little procession set off surrounded by soldiers who spared nothing in the way of rifle butts or kicking: all along the way we came across corpses. After walking along the bottom side of the railway line for about two hundred metres, the command to halt was given to us. The soldiers made us face the train line, arms raised.

I had the impression that the final moment had come, and they would shoot us in the back, we stayed in this position four to five minutes, that’s when whistles sounded …

We we were then told to go home as soon as possible, then it was a race across the fields to return to our homes . […]

See ‘Crimes Hitlériens, Ascq, Le Vercors’, Louis Jacob, collection Libération, Editions Mellottée (Paris), 1946

In total 70 men were shot beside the railway tracks and a further 16 in the village itself. Later the Gestapo apprehended 6 men who were alleged to have carried out the railway sabotage and they were subsequently executed as well. The massacre saw the largest wartime protest by the French population, 60,000 people went on strike in Lille and 20,000 attended the funerals in Ascq.

After the war a number of men from the Hitlerjugend Division were convicted of the crime by a French Military Tribunal and sentenced to death. The sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and the men eventually released. Obersturmführer Walter Hauck, the man regarded as chiefly responsible, was released in 1957. He never faced charges of committing very similar crimes in the Czechoslovak town of Leskovice in 1945, because a German court refused to extradite him. He died in 2006 at the age of 88.

After the boys had been trained it was decided that they could form a Panzer division and they began training with tanks.
After the boys had been trained for the SS it was decided that they could form a SS Panzer division and they began training with tanks.
The HitlerJugend Division being inspected by Field Marshal von Rundstedt in Belgium in early 1944. In March and April they transferred to Normandy, where they were to play a leading role later in the year.
The HitlerJugend Division being inspected by Field Marshal von Rundstedt in Belgium in early 1944. In March and April they transferred to Normandy, where they were to play a leading role later in the year.

The Royal Engineers prepare for D-Day

Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) armed with a 290mm spigot mortar which fired a 40lb (18kg) charge up to 80 yards (72m). Its purpose was to destroy concrete.
Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) armed with a 290mm spigot mortar which fired a 40lb (18kg) charge up to 80 yards (72m). Its purpose was to destroy concrete.
The 29cm Petard spigot mortar on a Churchill AVRE of 79th Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, under command of 3rd Infantry Division, 29 April 1944. A 40lb bomb can be seen on the right.
The 29cm Petard spigot mortar on a Churchill AVRE of 79th Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, under command of 3rd Infantry Division, 29 April 1944. A 40lb bomb can be seen on the right.

Following the disaster at Dieppe in 1942 the British had become very wary of making an opposed amphibious landing.

They were now developing a range of new specialised tanks for use in the invasion of France. Correctly known as AVREs – Armoured Vehicle, Royal Engineers – they became more popularly recognised as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ in tribute to the man responsible for developing them, General Sir Percy Hobart.

As the name suggests the various tanks were operated by the Royal Engineers, although the drivers were men from the Royal Tank Regiment. Each was designed to deal with a particular problem such bridging a tank ditch, or destroying mines with flails and they included the Duplex Drive – DD – swimming tanks used by both British and American forces on D-Day.

Captain Tony Younger was then a young officer with the Royal Engineers and in the early days of 1944 was ordered to test one of these variants, a tank equipped with a Petard Mortar:

We were told to embark and carry out an assault landing on a narrow beach just below Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

The novelty of this occasion was that we were told to fire our main armament, the Petard, against the sea wall there, to see if we could knock it down and then drive our tanks up over the rubble and move inland against an imaginary enemy.

I should explain that the Petard was a short (80 yard) range weapon which carried the formidable amount of 26 lbs of high explosive. A wall of anything greater than 5 feet in height is a complete obstacle to a tank and many such walls existed behind the beaches in France.

So the idea was to explode some Petard shots against the wall to smash some part of it to rubble. Then, hopefully, tanks could mount what had been an obstacle and carry the battle farther inland, instead of being stuck on the beach, as they had been on the Dieppe raid.

We knew all about this in theory and here at last was a chance to try it out in practice. The exercise went well; we were landed at the correct place and we succeeded in making ramps which the tanks climbed up. The Petard was very inaccurate, so we had to fire more rounds that we expected, but by the time we left we felt a new confidence in the weapon.

A curious sequel to this training exercise happened several years later when I was serving in Burma. I received a huge bill, addressed to me personally, for the repair of the damage caused by the unit under my command to the sea wall at Osborne during the war.

Some civil servant must have spent months in tracking me down. Anyway, I replied that I had been told to carry out this exercise and that I was just obeying orders and I heard nothing more about it.

However, a few years after that I had a house on the Isle of Wight and I had a look at the wall, to find that it was just as we had left it, with gaping holes made by our Petards.

Tony Younger went on to become a Major General. See Tony Younger: Blowing Our Bridges: A Memoir from Dunkirk to Korea Via Normandy.

The deadly result of enfilade fire during the Dieppe Raid of 1942: dead Canadian soldiers lie where they fell on "Blue Beach". Trapped between the beach and fortified sea wall, they made easy targets for MG 34 machineguns in a German bunker. The bunker firing slit is visible in the distance, just above the German soldier's head
The deadly result of enfilade fire during the Dieppe Raid of 1942: dead Canadian soldiers lie where they fell on “Blue Beach”. Trapped between the beach and fortified sea wall, they made easy targets for MG 34 machineguns in a German bunker. The bunker firing slit is visible in the distance, just above the German soldier’s head