Chapter 9

MONDAY 31 JULY – TUESDAY 1 AUGUST: THE GUARDS MOVE SOUTH

‘We had arrived during the early hours of the morning of July 31st to find ourselves in the pleasantest surroundings yet seen since arrival in France...but the thunder of the guns reminded all effectively that the battle was still not far away. We were not indeed given the opportunity of enjoying the scenery for long.’1

THE INTENTION

On 31 July, anticipating the advance of 11th Armoured Division to St-Martindes-Besaces, General O’Connor called forward Guards Armoured from their reserve position north of Caumont:

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‘The Guards Armoured Division will move forward immediately through Caumont to St-Martin-des-Besaces and drive south to seize the le Tourneur bridge over the Souleuvre by nightfall.’

Meanwhile 11th Armoured Division was now entirely committed to the unplanned, wide right-hook manoeuvre west of le Bény-Bocage, and for the time being wholly dependent on the single Souleuvre crossing at Dickie’s bridge. The continuing failure of XXX Corps to make progress exposed the left of VIII Corps; consequently 15th Scottish Division had to be committed to shoring-up the left-flank defences, facing counter-attacks from the Bois du Homme. So it fell to the reserve Guards Armoured Division to take responsibility for punching through the centre to broaden the front and (crucially) secure a second bridgehead to sustain the VIII Corps advance still further south. The divisional task was to move through St-Martin and advance to le Tourneur, then on across the Souleuvre River to the Bény-Bocage ridge. Thereafter, the division would go on to move in parallel with 11th Armoured on its right, on the south-easterly axis: St-Charles-de-Percy, Montchamp, Estry. 15th Scottish would continue to cover the Guards’ left flank, while extending its influence across the Bois du Homme massif in the general direction of Montchauvet.

REORGANIZATION?

There was a rider to the Guards’ orders. When General O’Connor directed Roberts that ‘You must be prepared for the very closest of tank/infantry co-operation on a troop/platoon basis,’ the order was effectively a seal of approval on the organization already planned for 11th Armoured Division. O’Connor then assumed that Guards Armoured would be able to emulate their sister division’s flexibility. No doubt Guards General Allan Adair did nothing to discourage this assumption. Newly arrived in the Caumont area on 31 July, Guards Armoured was just beginning to enjoy the local scenery, largely untouched by the ravages of war, when the bombshell dropped. Up to this point, the division’s two brigades, 5 Armoured and 32 Infantry, had been largely separate: in organization, in training, and in role. On the night of 30 July, the commanders of 1st (Armoured) and 5th Coldstream Guards2 were informed that their battalions were to be exchanged between the two brigades. And over luncheon on 31 July, General Adair held a conference at which he informed officers of the division of a new regrouping, to take place immediately.

With the division’s move into battle imminent, the timing was hardly ideal for reorganization. In fact, at such short notice, reorganization along the lines already implemented by 11th Armoured was an impossibility. In explaining the proposed rearrangements, the Irish Guards’ history reveals,

‘This is a rationalized account of a regrouping that was actually done in ninety flurried minutes on the main road to Caumont.’ And moreover, ‘The group in which the 2nd Battalion [armoured Irish Guards] fought the Battle of the Bocage was based on the immediate convenience of the first of those ninety minutes, when the 5th Bn. Coldstream Guards happened to be in the next field to it.’3

In fact, for all General Adair’s later claim to have ‘regrouped within the Division our armour and infantry,’ the alterations actually implemented on 31 July were minimal.4 The only change of significance on that or subsequent days in Normandy was the exchange of Coldstream battalions: 1st (Armoured) joining the infantry brigade and 5th Battalion joining the armoured. Reorganization aside: the infantry brigade would continue to operate very much as before, albeit with the squadrons of 1st Coldstream dispersed among the infantry battalions to give fire support. The armoured brigade would shake-out into two ‘battle groups’.

So were determined the two ‘battle groups’ which 5 Guards Armoured Brigade was to form. The first of these comprised the tanks of 2nd Irish and infantry of 5th Coldstream: intermingled if not actually interdependent. These were to be supported by Sexton self-propelled guns of 153rd Field Regiment (the Leicester Yeomanry); and M10 self-propelled 17-pounder antitank guns of Q Battery, 21st Antitank Regiment. The second battle group was intended to comprise: the tanks of the 2nd Grenadiers; their usual accompaniment of Kings Company, 1st (Motor) Grenadier Guards; supported later by that Battalion’s HQ, 3rd, and 4th Companies; the (towed) 25-pounder guns of 55th Field Regiment, RA; and 17-pounder M10s of Y Battery, 21st Antitank. Though in practice it was to take the 2nd Grenadiers’ tanks some days to get into action, during which time elements of the 1st Grenadiers’ Motor infantry fought with ‘Battle Group 1’.

The luncheon broke up. 5 Brigade held an O Group at 15.45 hours and battalion commanders briefed their subordinates an hour after. Orders to the newly-twinned spearhead units, 2nd Battalion (Armoured) Irish Guards and 5th Battalion Coldstream Guards, stipulated that they should ‘advance together as a battle group’. Sadly, neither unit was familiar with any such concept.

‘This was the first word they had of any change in organization. Lieut.-Colonel Michael Adeane, being senior to Colonel Finlay, automatically took command of the group. It took the two Colonels and three hundred officers and noncommissioned officers an hour and a half to rearrange the two battalions. Out of the scrambling confusion of men, tanks, and trucks, guns, carriers and motor-cycles, shouting officers, desperate Sergeants and patient Guardsmen, there emerged the Irish-Coldstream group.’5

Finally, order was established. Alternating squadrons of tanks and companies of lorried infantry formed up on the road south of Caumont. Engines started and the assembled body moved off.

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The ‘grotesque’ traffic jam in St-Martin-des-Besaces.

FIRST ATTEMPT ON 238

Already in some disarray following its hasty reorganization, the Guards column attempted to make its way forward towards St-Martin-des-Besaces along a narrow road already filled to overflowing with the ‘tail’ elements of 11th Armoured, 15th Scottish, and 6th Guards Tanks. At the head of the column was the Coldstream 4th Company group: the infantry supported by a section of (three) carriers, a section of (two) 6-pounder antitank guns, and a 3-inch mortar detachment. Next came two troops of 3 Squadron, Irish Guards (eight Shermans); followed in turn by a Royal Engineers recce party; the 3rd Company group, supported similarly to the 4th; and the remaining two troops of 3 Squadron. The Irish Guards’ Lieutenant-Colonel Finlay could only describe the traffic situation as ‘grotesque’. The dense dust clouds raised by the tanks did not help. The Coldstream infantry felt vulnerable in stationary lorries, head to tail on the narrow road, and as they dismounted to escape the crush yet another column of vehicles forced its way through in the opposite direction. Only after 19.00 hours did the lorries with their infantry reach the debussing area south of St-Martin. Being informed by Cameronians holding the line there for 15th Division that Hill 238 was strongly held, orders were revised and issued at 20.00 hours. At 21.30 the attack began. It was already dusk on 31 July as the column approached the foot of the dominating Hill 238 [modern 239]. Beyond the valley ahead, where the Petite Souleuvre trickled along its deep and narrow course, they faced ‘a huge lump of a hill, all hedgerows and banks’.6 From the summit, elements of 21. Panzerdivision watched their every move.

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Two viewpoints along the le Tourneur road.

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The Western slopes and summit of Hill 238 viewed from the road.

In overall command of the ‘battle group’ was the Coldstream Lieutenant-Colonel Adeane (recently promoted, first to 2IC and then to battalion commander in the wake of the GOODWOOD battle eleven days before). Determined to take the hill that night in order to secure a firm base for the next morning’s advance, Adeane recognised that there would be no time for proper reconnaissance. Instead, he ordered his 1 and 2 Companies up to the river bank, then passed-through companies 3 and 4 to assault the hill. The Irish Guards’ 2 Squadron advanced too, but the tanks and infantry were not co-ordinated.7 While the foot-soldiers negotiated steep slopes, high corn, and dense hedgerows, the tanks were unable to follow. Instead the squadron manoeuvred east along the stream until a crossing leading to less steep slopes was found. Even then, in trying to find a practicable ascent, the squadron split into two groups, scattering ‘like a covey of partridges’. Each half-squadron inched forward cautiously in the deepening gloom, lost in a maze of small fields.

Following a fierce concentration of shellfire as they crossed the stream, opposition had been light until the infantry neared the crest. Then lines of tracers cut through the darkness. The 4 Company commander, Major the Marquess of Hartington recalled,

We tried to push on, but every time we moved forward the machine-guns started up again and we were pushed down... Finally I collected the Company and we dug in where we were in a nice, tight triangle, all of us rather dreading the morning.’8

4 Company had reported reaching the top of 238 before pulling back; in fact they were a half-mile short of the summit. The two companies spent the rest of the night either side of the road at the foot of the hill as Germans infiltrated around and between their positions. The tanks fell back to harbour, unaware of any loss until it was realised that the Squadron 2IC’s Sherman was missing.9 General O’Connor’s demand that the advance be prosecuted into the hours of darkness was not heeded; and he himself did not press the matter. It had been an unpromising start. Infantry-tank co-operation would take time to achieve.

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ST-DENIS-MAISONCELLES

By dawn on 1 August, the line of the Petite Souleuvre was reported clear of the enemy. But the vital road winding around the base of the hill and south to le Tourneur was still covered by enemy fire. At 09.00 hours, Brigadier Gwatkin arrived at the front line to spur the troops into action. With the Coldstream’s 3 Company holding a position astride the road, their 1 Company would pass-through to seize the defended orchard. Major Nial O’Neill’s 1 Squadron of Irish Guards tanks was available, though artillery support was not planned as the objective was barely 400 yards distant. Still, the only opposition expected was from infantry with light machineguns.

Two platoons of infantry led the way, tramping across a field of turnips as the Shermans of 1 Squadron prepared to give covering fire. Just as the attack went in, both the Coldstream 1st Company commander and colonel fell to a mortar bomb, command of the battlegroup transferring from Adeane to the Irish Guards’ Lieutenant-Colonel Lewin Finlay.10 Reaching a hedge half way to the objective the infantry were pinned down by fire. Moving up in support, the tanks were hit by antitank fire both from ahead and from behind their right flank, where lurked a Panzer IV. This enemy tank had been so well camouflaged that the infantry passed within yards, reporting its sunken lane as clear. In short order, both the troop lieutenant’s and sergeant’s tanks were knocked out and a third immobilized. 3rd Company and a further troop moved up to assist, but they too suffered losses. When the Irish Guards’ count of Shermans lost reached seven for a single Panzer IV ‘kill’, the assault was abandoned. The infantry fell back to their Start Line. As the sun rose higher, the hot air was acrid with the smell of explosives and burning tanks. Germans were reported behind every hedge. Assuming command of the Coldstream, Major Hartington’s options appeared limited: he reinforced the depleted Coldstream 1 and 3 Companies with Number 2, digging in against rumours of an impending counter-attack.

Such was the depressing situation Brigadier Gwatkin found on arrival at the command post during the morning. As usual, his visit was ‘a stimulating experience’, the brigadier alarming all present by his habit of giving orders in the open, amid the whistle of flights of German bullets. ‘He liked the noise himself, and thought that everyone else did.’11 Finlay informed him of the losses to 1 Squadron; and also reported the observation of 2 Squadron, posted to the east, that considerable enemy armour was on the move around la Mancellière; while 3 Squadron was held back in reserve. A badly wounded German infantryman yielded the information that ‘some 50 Mk Vs and IVs of 21 Pz Div’ were supporting the infantry in the area. Confirming Finlay in overall command of the battle group, the brigadier’s order was both opportunistic and aggressive. Choosing to interpret the enemy movement as a withdrawal, Gwatkin insisted on a bold flanking move. The Coldstream reserve 4th Company would execute a wide left hook. They were to march around the eastern slopes of 238, the tanks of 2 Squadron following as best they could. Though Hartington may have wondered if he would ever see his company again, Captain Eastman succeeded in leading them through the dense countryside, compass in hand, single file, on a wide sweep to gain the hilltop from the east. Descending the western slopes from point 238, the advance threatened to isolate the German-held orchard, which was speedily abandoned, the evacuation encouraged by the brigadier’s summoning a concentration by two field and two medium regiments.12

Eastman’s force swept on, across the road, to liberate the little town of St-Denis-Maisoncelles. There the overjoyed inhabitants welcomed the new arrivals with flagons of cider (for want of a table, laid-out on the body of a dead horse) and the news that a hundred enemy had recently departed. Meanwhile, the Irish Guards’ 1 Squadron resumed the advance south. This time the tanks were accompanied by the King’s Company of the 1st (Motor) Grenadier Guards Battalion, detached from the Grenadier Group which was out of the battle ‘garrisoning’ St-Martin. The Irish Guards counted forty enemy dead on the position, and took time to investigate the one Panzer IV for which seven of their own tanks had been exchanged, finding it to be from II Abteilung of 3. Panzerregiment.13

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Eastman’s arrival from the hilltop forced the Germans to pull back to le Tourneur, then he swept on to St-Denis.

LE TOURNEUR

Following the capture of St-Denis, the Coldstream-Irish group consolidated the day’s gains, resting, refitting, and regrouping. Brigadier Gwatkin appeared, keen to congratulate the battalions on their achievements. Meanwhile, forward elements of 32 Guards Brigade came up on their right after a difficult cross-country march, infantry of the 3rd Irish Guards passing through St-Denis to screen the southern approaches, west of the road to le Tourneur. But Brigadier Gwatkin was under pressure to achieve more. Earlier in the day, the General Officer Commanding (Adair) had concluded that although ‘no dash for the river was going to be possible’, nevertheless there should continue ‘progressive attacks down the axis with arty and tk sp.’14

The enemy had withdrawn, but how far? The Irish Guards’ reconnaissance troop soon found out. A ‘Honey’ patrol15 from the Recce Troop was despatched down the road to le Tourneur. Just short of the place, its lead tank to an enemy tank lying in ambush in an orchard. ‘It had probably never had as easy a victim in all the war. One shot smashed the flimsy little Honey.’16 At 18.00 hours, Gwatkin roused the Grenadiers of King’s Company from their slit trenches south of the former German orchard. They were to resume the advance south. A single troop of Irish Guards tanks would support. Their objective was the bridge the other side of le Tourneur: to be seized intact before it could be blown by a retreating enemy. By 18.45, the combined force had reached the line held by the forward 3rd Irish Guards infantry. During the next two hours, progress was made: the tanks giving suppressive fire from the road while the Grenadiers’ Major Baker sent out flanking PIAT teams to threaten the enemy armour. But the advance was very slow. The Grenadiers moved closer to le Tourneur and, with night approaching, crested the last hill before the small town. Below could be seen German forces crowding through the town, heading for the distant bridge. At this point, Baker determined that with darkness descending tank action would be out of the question; and consequently that attacking the town would be suicidal. So the small force fell back to the north: the Irish Guards tanks to harbour with their regiment and the infantry to pass the rest of the night on a ridge line just south of point 192. Le Tourneur appeared destined not to fall that day.

Once again, the brigadier had other ideas. The bridge remained vital to the next day’s advance, and all too likely to be blown by the enemy if not secured. At 22.00 hours, as the 2nd Armoured Irish Guards indignantly recorded,

‘An extraordinary order was received from Bde HQ. We were told to seize the bridge at LE TOURNEUR calling for help if needed from 3 Bn IG... we were made responsible for its success, even though no tks were involved and the Bn had no part in the operation.’

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The market square in the centre of le Tourneur.

On this peculiar basis the advance recommenced. The 2nd Battalion had no intention of committing any of its tanks to a night attack into a village. Even though they were to be held responsible for the operation, it was to be the Irish Guards’ third battalion that made the move, sending forward two of its infantry companies at 02.00 hours.

Both 2nd and ‘X’ Companies of 3rd Irish Guards set off, disappearing into the fields and orchards on either side of the road.17 Two officers braved the road itself. Major Tim Neale, commander of the 615 Field Squadron, Royal Engineers determined to inspect the vital bridge. Joined in his scout car by reconnaissance officer Lieutenant Jones, Neale crept forward into le Tourneur. The road was sporadically illuminated by gouts of fire from burning buildings either side of the road, the infantry companies in fields beyond nowhere to be seen in the surrounding black night. As the village street opened into a large open square Neale in his turret glimpsed the long gun of a Panzer IV, pointed straight towards the road. Quickly hiding the car in a side street, Neale dismounted to skirt the threat on foot. Reconnoitring towards the bridge, he was pleased to find it still unblown. Back at the car, he found Jones and the driver preparing grenades. The three set out to stalk the tank. Close up, by the interior light glowing through open ports, they perceived that the tank, like the bridge it had guarded, was abandoned and intact. (Refurbished by 5 Guards Brigade workshops, it subsequently did sterling service as a recovery vehicle.) The infantry companies continued to comb the surrounding fields, but the enemy had fled. By dawn, both Le Tourneur and the bridge were in British hands.

By the end of 1 August, the Guards had taken heavy losses and succeeded in putting to flight the German forces on their immediate front. But they had still not advanced across the Souleuvre to establish the link with 11th Armoured Division so vital to the progress of VIII Corps. Le Tourneur had fallen; the bridge beyond it remained unblown and its use denied to the enemy. At which point, the divisional reconnaissance regiment, the 2nd (Armoured) Welsh Guards, was called forward. Unfortunately, this unit was still some distance from the front. It would be well past dawn on 2 August before they arrived on the scene, by which time the 4th KSLI outpost at Cathéolles had been withdrawn to rejoin 11th Armoured Division’s push further south. As one commentator, a major with 11th Armoured, was later to sum up his colleagues’ general attitude towards the Guards, ‘A sense of urgency seems to have been lacking.’18

COUNTER-ATTACK AND RIPOSTE

The 21. Panzerdivision counterstroke which Feuchtinger ordered with such reluctance was to rage for much of 1 August. And unlike the previous day, when the main effort had been directed against British XXX Corps, today the brunt fell on VIII Corps. And particularly on the Scots holding Hill 309. If that bastion could be retaken, St-Martin-des-Besaces would be threatened and the vital road junction there interdicted, with the promise of strangling logistic support to the foremost British units.

A quiet night on 309 was abruptly terminated at 05.30 hours by a heavy artillery and mortar concentration lasting a full half hour and accompanied by infiltrating infantry. The German infantry were aided by tree cover which masked both their forming up areas around the Bois du Homme and their avenue of approach along the col leading to the south-eastern slopes of the Hill 309 ‘sugarloaf’. Following their customary doctrine (and in sharp contrast to the linear advance generally practised by the British infantry in Normandy), the German infantry came forward in small groups, given fire support by tanks as they attempted to infiltrate the British line. Individual German squad leaders would use their initiative to seek out dead ground, uncovered by enemy fire, occupy it, then repeat the process until in a favourable position to enfilade the British positions with flanking fire. When a weak point was identified, it was rapidly exploited and the tanks brought forward in ones and twos to widen the gap. Along a line from the 7th Seaforth’s positions on these forward slopes, to la Ferrière-au-Doyen held by the 8th Royal Scots, this sequence of shelling and probing continued all the morning, rising to a new crescendo between 11.00 hours and noon. The Coldstream Churchill squadrons higher up the hill gave fire support as best they could: ‘The prolonged noise and tension and heat wore down nerves and judgement, and crews would direct their fire upon Tigers which proved only to be huts or bushes.’19 Whenever the pressure intensified the Royal Artillery responded with defensive fire tasks.

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The mediums – the 5.5 inch ‘smashers’ – responded.

At last, after a morning and afternoon of softening-up and manoeuvre, at around 16.00 hours20 the main event began. To the continuing bombardment was added German infantry heavy weapons and armour, pouring concentric fire onto Hill 309 along an arc from le Hameau Galet below the south-west slopes to la Barretière on the ridge to the north-east. The infantry assault was supported by all the tanks Kampfgruppe von Oppeln could muster: the main striking force of 21. Panzerdivision, and for once British cries of ‘Tiger!’ were justified. On the lower slopes, the Seaforth lost three company commanders. Higher up, although hull-down on the hill, the Coldstream lost two Churchill tanks.

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‘Against the Tigers they were powerless. The battalion had just been equipped with the latest Sabot ammunition, and it bounced off the enemy tanks like ping-pong balls.’ In the end, as so often, ‘It was only the medium artillery that kept the Tigers at bay – that and the Tigers’ inability to move over ground which Churchills could have crossed with ease.’21

The artillery struck. Divisional field regiments plus VIII Corps medium artillery, the 5.5 inch ‘smashers’, responded with co-ordinated defensive fire.

‘They were met by everything we had got – medium and field artillery, 4.2 and 3 inch mortars, medium machine guns. Some were taken prisoner, some came in under a white flag, the rest broke.’22

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Youngsters of 16. Luftwaffenfelddivision were caught forming up to attack and were wiped out.

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The British view of Bois du Homme

The final act was played out late in the afternoon. A double-pronged riposte was designed to drive the recoiling enemy away from the vital hill. Out of St-Martin, the 9th Cameronians, supported by the 15th Reconnaissance Regiment and a squadron of Coldsteam Churchills, pushed eastwards to clear le Hameau Galet and la Mancellière. Behind la Ferrière-au-Doyen, 44 Brigade’s reserve 6th Kings Own Scottish Borderers had been under orders to carry out a battalion attack, only postponed ‘on instrs from higher authority’ when it was feared that 43rd Division to the east might be converging dangerously close to the same objective. At 17.30 hours the postponement was called off and the advance began. It was Minden Day, and true to tradition the KOSB colour-sergeants had that morning distributed roses to the men. By afternoon the flowers had wilted under the summer sun, so as the Borderers advanced into battle the riflemen – like their predecessors in 1759 – picked fresh red blooms from the hedgerows to wear in the camouflage scrim nets of their helmets. As two companies led the way uphill towards la Barretière farm and the dominating hill 280 [modern 271], B Company was met by heavy mortar fire and lost their commander, Major Henson. Nevertheless the advance continued, both B Company and D on their left sweeping onward to cut the main St-Martin to Villers-Bocage highway.

Prisoners from the 125. Panzergrenadierregiment confirmed that a further major attack was in preparation. The Royal Artillery responded yet again, massed regiments pouring fire into the dark, wooded summit of the Bois du Homme. Then the rocket-firing Typhoons swept across the ridge. An entire German battalion group was caught forming up for a last-ditch attack. The KOSB’s A Company probed forward from the road, up into the shredded woods. An officer recalled,

‘large numbers of enemy dead, most of them extraordinarily young... But it seemed we were hardened by this time to any sight. We trod on the bodies of those blond boys with hardly a thought, and I was sent on a special patrol down into the woods the other side to see if there were any live ones left. There were only the dead.’23

DEPARTURES

‘Those blond boys’ had been unprepared. The war diary of Panzergruppe West records General Feuchtinger’s indignant report on the action he had tried to prevent. ‘The attack of 21. Panzerdivision did not succeed; the replacements received from the 16. Luftwaffenfelddivision did not measure up to the demands made of them.’ With the failure to retake Hill 309 came a flood of bad news. Further east, XXX Corps was resuming its advance. To the west, the Guards’ advance not only widened the separation of Straube’s and Meindl’s corps, but by threatening the bridge at le Tourneur closed off the direct line of retreat of those defending Hill 192. Feuchtinger’s nightmare appeared complete when a detached battalion of 125. Panzergrenadierregiment reported that the enemy had secured the Bény-Bocage ridge and that both 11th and 7th Armoured Divisions were about to run amok in his rear (the latter a misunderstanding, comparable with Meindl’s conviction that Guards Armoured Division was about to sally west into his sector). Only then came the news that the enemy were as far east as Cathéolles, astride the principal highway to Vire.

On the evening of 1 August, little did the small British force of 4th KSLI and 3rd RTR holding Cathéolles realise that, just a half-mile to the north, the village of St-Pierre-Tarentain was home to the battle headquarters of 21. Panzerdivision. As routed bands of foot-soldiers streamed past, Feuchtinger’s staff feared imminent overrun. They too fled, abandoning their heavy vehicles in their haste. As the evening wore on, a more general collapse of the German line began as equipment, two field hospitals, and even three Tiger tanks – ever prone to breakdown when pushed too hard – were left behind in the rush to escape encirclement.

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‘It is the great tactical advantage of breakthroughs that they threaten the enemy rear as a whole.’24 This was the dilemma faced by Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge on 1 August. An American breakthrough at Avranches on the extreme left of Hausser’s 7. Armee might angle west to Brittany, south to the Loire, or conceivably east towards the Seine. A British breakthrough south of Caumont might threaten to isolate 7. Armee by striking southwest (as Meindl feared) or penetrate deep into Eberbach’s Panzergruppe West (as indicated by reports based on a captured British map, marked-up for an advance on the axis: Vassy-Condé-Falaise).

With both his Army commanders desperate for support, von Kluge stuck to his strategy of keeping the bulk of his armour with Panzergruppe West, in the British sector. Nevertheless, if the British had moved a substantial armoured force from Caen to Caumont, German armour could likewise be moved west. Though the full extent of the calamity was not yet realised (the maps of the German high command showed their own front line as still holding between Caumont and St-Martin-des-Besaces), nevertheless it was clear that a crisis was developing. The realisation grew that 21. Panzerdivision would fail to hold the line.

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Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge.

Von Kluge first thought of 12. SS-Panzerdivision, the redoubtable though depleted Hitler Youth division, recently pulled out of the line into strategic reserve. But as early as 15.00 hours on 1 August, Eberbach forwarded von Kluge’s order that 10. SS-Panzerdivision instead be prepared to move from the Orne River sector to the left wing of Panzergruppe West. By 15.25 hours, the Frundsberg had its marching orders. And by 16.05 hours the further decision was made to send 9. SS-Panzerdivision as well. The Frundsberg would be accompanied by its sister Hohenstaufen division to the breakthrough area: the former to shore-up the line in front of British XXX Corps; the latter to close the breach between LXXIV Korps’ crumbling left flank and Meindl’s II. Fallschirmjäger Korps on the right of Seventh Army. This was easier said than done. Elements of the Hohenstaufen were still engaged in a hot fight for the ruins of St-Martin-de-Fontenay on the Orne, where a Canadian breakthrough on a 150 metre front was being bloodily opposed. Nevertheless, the division began at once to disengage, and to its credit had its lead elements ready to roll by 17.25 hours that evening. Despite some confusion the bulk of the division was on the road west by 22.00 hours.

On both sides the stakes were being raised. As Obergruppenführer Wilhelm Bittrich’s two divisions prepared to move west, his II. SS Panzerkorps was further augmented. As well as being given command of what was left of 21. Panzerdivision, he was promised the despatch of a battalion of Tiger tanks: the 102. SS-schwere Panzer-Abteilung. Meanwhile, within British 2nd Army, General Dempsey’s irritation with the slow progress of XXX Corps strengthened his view that the main thrust of Operation BLUECOAT now lay in the hands of VIII Corps. On 1 August, the British 3rd Infantry (Montgomery’s ‘Iron Division’) was given movement orders to join VIII Corps in the Caumont sector.

So, by 2 August, the original intent of Operation BLUECOAT was definitively revised. With XXX Corps still failing in its objectives, corps commander Gerald Bucknall would receive a final warning from Dempsey25 prior to his sacking the following day. VIII Corps, having exceeded its objectives, would assume the lead role in an operation for which it had originally been a mere flank guard. This was to be the day when, with Guards Armoured Division at last coming up on his left, Pip Roberts was able to loose his 11th Armoured Division on a run to the south quite uncharacteristic of 21st Army Group’s conduct of the campaign in Normandy. And on this day, recognising the danger of the German defensive line in Normandy becoming fatally unhinged, Panzergruppe West attempted to restore a fractured front by throwing the might of II. SS-Panzerkorpsinto the fray. The stage was set.

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General ‘Pip’ Roberts.

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