The Royal Navy bait the German artillery

7 June 1944: The Royal Navy bait the German artillery

They were only waiting the order of Captain Kelsey to spit out the inferno of flame and brown smoke speeding their ton-weight of high explosive to its billet. “Open fire!” came the order from the bridge. The Director Layer – an experienced warrant officer – pressed a foot-pedal which can fire all the main armament in one mighty broadside.

HMS WARSPITE, part of Bombarding Force 'D' off Le Havre, shelling German gun batteries in support of the landings on Sword area, 6 June 1944. The photo was taken from the frigate HMS HOLMES which formed part of the escort group.
HMS WARSPITE, part of Bombarding Force ‘D’ off Le Havre, shelling German gun batteries in support of the landings on Sword area, 6 June 1944. The photo was taken from the frigate HMS HOLMES which formed part of the escort group.

The work of the battleships offshore was just beginning. The bridgehead remained narrow and the enemy were to remain within range of the big guns for longer than expected.

W.F. Hartin, a reporter with the Combined Press was on board HMS Warspite, which was working alongside the cruisers HMS Frobisher and HMS Scylla:

Four men with their eyes glued to their powerful binoculars mounted in the control tower from which the fire of this battleship is directed shouted together “there he goes again!” as a winking light on the shoulder of the skyline this afternoon betrayed a powerful German gun in action. It had obviously been dragged into position overnight to take the place of the battery which we had knocked clean out with our 15-inch salvos yesterday. The new arrivals had dug themselves in near the old position probably because no other so completely commanded our beaches.

They had no intention of interfering with us. Seeing the devastation of yesterday so near them, they probably had a healthy respect for our gunnery, but they betrayed their activity by a few unostentatious ranging shots which they put out to sea. What they wanted to do was to take advantage of the hazy distance between us and them to get on with their real job of harassing the beach without being spotted by guns like ours which could answer back.

It was part of the schedule of the cruisers Frobisher and Scylla to investigate certain targets reported to them by aircraft, and so they were instructed as they passed nearby to let the new-occupants have a few salvos. It was hoped that the Germans would return the fire and so give us an opportunity of marking them down accurately for the attention of our heavier guns. I was in the director control tower when one of the gunnery officers’ team reported “Frobisher has opened fire, sir”.

“Now we will see if Jerry accepts the bait”, said the gunnery officer (“Guns”). It was a few seconds later that the cry went up from the watchers, and the tell-tale gun flashes from the all but invisible skyline were quickly translated into a target for our “B” turret. Distance, angle of sight and a dozen other readings were transmitted to the G.T. “table” in the bowels of the ship from which all the guns get their instructions.

In the meantime, another of our team had noted the fall of shot about the two cruisers. It was too close to be healthy, and from the splashes we judged the guns to be 5’9 in. or 6’1 in, big pieces to have got into position so quickly unless they were mobile. The Germans had taken the bait wholly, and flash after flash revealed them as they tried to pin down the weaving cruisers.

I took my eyes from the binoculars for a second to peep through my armoured slit at the blistered and blackened barrels of the old “Spite’s” guns. They were already trained of the “new tenants”, cocked so aggressively so that where I sat 20 feet above the captain’s bridge I could almost look down their grizzled muzzles. They were only waiting the order of Captain Kelsey to spit out the inferno of flame and brown smoke speeding their ton-weight of high explosive to its billet. “Open fire!” came the order from the bridge. The Director Layer – an experienced warrant officer – pressed a foot-pedal which can fire all the main armament in one mighty broadside.

Two ranging shells went screaming away through the volcano of smoke and flame which blotted everything from our view temporarily. “Guns” imperturbably noted the passage of the seconds. It was amazing how all the crew could tell you exactly when the projectiles were going to burst. “Splash!” sang out “Guns”, using the technical slang to indicate that the shot had fallen; and peering through my binoculars I saw two fountains of grey smoke spring up from the side of the hill. We were “right for line” as they say, but a little short. “Up 200” and “right one” were the instructions that sent the next two ranging shots screaming on their path. Then whoops of delight rang through the D.C.T. As the next salvo spouted high above the horizon, exactly where we had seen the gun flashes of the “new tenants”.

“That will make them think again, but let them have another for luck!” said “Guns”. Away screamed another salvo and as the “projjies” hurtled on their way still echoing faintly back at us the German battery flashed again. “Wait until this one reaches you!” Again we seemed dead on the target, and behind the dun-coloured bursts of our shells a great cauliflower of angry smoke spread and drifted to leeward in a heavy pall.

In the absence of a spotting aircraft to give us a bird’s-eye report, we could only gauge our success by whether or not the “new tenants” manned their guns again. There was no sign of life and no further reply to Frosbisher’s fire, nothing from that direction harrying the beach, and we came to the conclusion that the gun site was again “to let”.

Though we had fired until dusk on Tuesday we were ready again by 6.30 this morning. The first target reported to us came at 7.40 when spotting aircraft recommended for our attention a group of transport attached to a Panzer column two miles north of Caen. It was moving south-westerly along a road. Three two-gun salvos landed smack in the middle of them, and then, shifting range a thousand yards, we put three more salvos into some more transport concentrated near a village. The aircraft reported so many of the vehicles destroyed that they did not consider it worth our while continuing.

Then we had indicated to use some strongly held earthworks in a wooded area south of a village. Including our ranging shots we only needed to put 20 rounds into this strong-point before we received the report that it appeared to be totally destroyed. Next came news of a troublesome German A.A. Battery of five guns lying on high ground and, ranging on it, we quickly knocked out four of them.

This account first appeared in The War Illustrated Magazine on July 7, 1944.

Beach casualties being helped to the sick-bay on board HMS FROBISHER.
Beach casualties being helped to the sick-bay on board HMS FROBISHER.


7th June 1944 was also the day that twenty year old 2nd Lieutenant Edwin Bramall landed in Normandy with 2nd Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps. He was to fight through to Germany with them, awarded the Military Cross on 1st March 1945 but was not promoted to Lieutenant until 1946 and not to Captain until 1950. Thereafter he made steady progress through the ranks – becoming Field Marshal and Chief of the Defence Staff in 1982.

It was in 1994 that he addressed students at Radley College on ‘Operation Overlord and the North West Europe Campaign’. His lucid and incisive analysis of the Allied Command team, and the interaction of their various personalities, is well worth reading. He went on to consider the German situation on D-Day and immediately afterwards:

The German Army at this time was probably the most formidable and effective fighting machine since the Roman legions. Immensely battle-experienced in Poland, the fall of France, North Africa, Italy and, above all, Russia; superbly well-equipped, intensely fanatical and, above all, literally fighting for their lives and future, for they realised that if the Allies were not pushed into the sea or at least contained in a small lodgement area, this was the end of Hitler and their Nazi world, in which most of them had grown up and become enthusiastic followers. This, constituting as it could, a second defeat for Germany in less than thirty years, would have meant that, for them, life would not be worth living.

This particularly applied to the Waffen SS formations, the fighting arm of Hitler’s Party elite, of which there were a very high proportion in Normandy, and none more fanatical than the 12th SS Hitler Youth Division, made up of young Nazis, no older and in some cases much younger than all of you.

But balancing this was the fact that the German High Command was not in the best state to deal quickly with a landing. Only the Seventh Army of some three lowish-grade Infantry Divisions and one good Armoured Division, the 21st Panzer, were actually facing the invasion beaches.

A much larger number were held in the Pas de Calais, which was always thought by the Germans to be a more likely area for an invasion — an idea cleverly fostered by a brilliant Allied deception plan in which a mythical Army Group (FUSAG), com- manded by the dangerous Patton, was created in the Dover area and made ominous noises (through a lot of totally bogus wireless traffic) while appearing ready to descend on north-eastern France.

This was supported by the clever selection of Air Force interdiction targets, in which for every bomb dropped on Normandy three were dropped on the Pas de Calais, seeming thus to point to that area as the target for invasion. This tied down a number of the Fifteenth Army Divisions away from Normandy. On top of that, the real striking power, the Panzer Divisions, controlled by Panzer Group West, was held back centrally, and there was also a major disagreement about their use.

Field Marshal Rommel, the Army Group Commander, realising the power of the Allied air effort and the difficulty his troops would experience moving at all, and particularly in daylight, wanted to defeat the invasion on or near the beaches, with immediate armoured counter-attacks by armour held far forward. The Commander-in-Chief, West, the elderly patrician Field Marshal Rundstedt, however, wanted to hold the reserves back until the Allied weak points had been identified and then make a large concentrated counter-attack.

In any case, no decision on reserves could be taken without Hitler’s personal authority and he often could not be disturbed by his sycophantic staff. Much play was made of this in the film The Longer: Day. All this slowed things up, and to top it all, Rommel was taking advantage of what he was informed was unsuitable weather for an invasion and was in southern Germany on D-Day for his wife’s birthday, and the commander of 21st Panzer Division, based in Caen, was in Paris with his girlfriend.

So all in all, and for a number of hours, there was almost total paralysis of the German High Command, first not believing it was the main invasion at all and then not being certain what to do. The only real counter-attack on that first morning was by 21st Panzer Division, stationed in the city of Caen itself, but without its commander.

Of course, all that changed with the arrival back of Rommel on the evening of D-Day, and from then on it became a really vicious dog-fight and blood-letting on both sides, of which my own personal memories, still so vivid even after fifty years, are of lush Normandy countryside, with its standing corn nearly chest high, interspersed with chunks of sinister impeding bocage (deep ditches and high hedges), today, because of modern farming measures, largely disappeared, all suddenly blighted by the terrible sights and smells, thunderous noises of guns and mortars going on both sides, and the congestion of war: the blackened corpses, the bloated and stinking dead cattle and horses, the savage no—quarter fighting, with stay-behind snipers everywhere, and the appalling destruction of so many hamlets, villages and towns.

Normandy quickly became a hellish battle, with the elite Panzerlehr Division, made up of Army instructors, the 1st, 2nd, 9th, 10th and 12th SS Panzer Divisions, and also the 2nd Panzer Division — seven elite Divisions, Nazi fanatics, with far better tanks and anti-tank weapons than we had — all started to pour into the battle, and all of them against the British sector. It was only fortunate that so much of their original power had been reduced by our own air support, on their way to the fight.

An excerpt from “The Bramall Papers” reproduced by kind permission of the publishers.

One thought on “The Royal Navy bait the German artillery”

  1. My late husband Harry was the midshipman in the above picture. He landed on sword beach with his landing craft which was eventually sunk.

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