PART THREE:

BREAKING THROUGH

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Chapter 10 WEDNESDAY 2 AUGUST: HORNS OF THE BLACK BULL

Chapter 11 WEDNESDAY 2 AUGUST: GUARDS ACROSS THE SOULEUVRE

Chapter 12 WEDNESDAY 2 AUGUST: ARRIVALS

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British carriers pause on the road leading down from Point 218 into Presles; Perrier Ridge on the far horizon.

Chapter 10

WEDNESDAY 2 AUGUST: THE HORNS OF THE BLACK BULL

After a day spent in cautious and entirely necessary consolidation of 11th Armoured Division, Pip Roberts was prepared for a bold thrust south. There was every likelihood that enemies routed two days ago might soon regroup, so time was now of the essence if progress was to be made. Tiring of waiting for Guards Armoured to arrive, Roberts’ division would look after its own flanks as best it might. It was a calculated risk. ‘On this occasion it certainly paid to take the chance, though during the next few days many strange situations resulted from it and we became involved in one of the toughest battles we ever fought.’1 Meanwhile, ‘August 2nd was going to be an exciting day’.2

ORDERS

As Roberts completed preparations for the day’s advance, he received news from VIII Corps. 11th Armoured Division was denied permission to enter the town of Vire, which was now declared to be in the American sector. Roberts records, ‘This was in some ways frustrating; Vire was a very important road centre and its occupation by us would have made life very difficult for the Germans.’3 So, in the early hours of 2 August, the axis of the day’s advance was changed: from due south towards Vire, to south-east into the German rear areas. The only 11th Armoured forces to approach Vire on 2 August would be reconnaissance troops of the Household Cavalry and the Cromwell tank squadrons of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry charged with screening the divisional right flank (which included Pip Roberts’ divisional headquarters when it settled at le Reculey).

The new direction of the division was assisted by neither roads nor terrain. The main thoroughfares in the sector radiated out from the important road junction of Vire. Running dead-straight from the city to the north-north-east, right across the path of the advance, ran the main Vire to Villers-Bocage highway, the N 177 [modern D 577], already blocked by 11th Armoured between la Ferronnière and Cathéolles. An equally major artery, the N 812 [modern D 512] traced a straight line due east in the direction of Vassy, towards Condé-sur-Noireau and distant Falaise. A third, smaller country road bisected these two routes: the GC 55 [modern D 55] running north-east from Vire to Estry. Running across rather than along the axis of advance, these three roads did little to assist progress, but instead represented phase lines by which progress might be measured. Clockwise, from north to east, the three were respectively codenamed ‘COVENTRY’, ‘WARWICK’, and ‘RUGBY’. So, with the bulk of the division now committed to a south-easterly advance, the only roads available were a network of minor country lanes, little more than dirt tracks. And also lying at right angles to the divisional advance were two whaleback ridges.

Several lessons had been drawn by 11th Armoured Division and its commander from the experiences of GOODWOOD ten days before. One such was that the objective of a major operation should be a ‘tactical’ rather than merely ‘topographical’ feature, a truly defensible position rather than a convenient line on a map. ‘The advantage of finishing on a tactical feature on which either hull down or covered posns could be occupied, is immense.’4 Hence Pip Roberts’ decision that,

‘The Vire-Vassy road itself could not really be an objective... [but] we should hold these two very dominating ridges and then the Germans can attack us. Since we would be within the range of the corps artillery, we could inflict very heavy casualties.’

The risks, of which Roberts was no less aware, were of exposed flanks and the lack of adequate roads behind the defensible ridges. Both of these were threats to the resupply of petrol and ammunition, without which, he recognised, ‘an armoured division is not much use.’5

The force that was about to be launched into enemy territory would exemplify Roberts’ ideas about flexible organization between brigades. Indeed, rather than a structure based around two brigades, the division was divided into three regimental groups, each of an infantry battalion and a tank regiment. On the left of the division, the 23rd Hussars and 8th Rifle Brigade group was to follow the line: le Desert, Presles, Chênedollé. On their right, the 2nd Fife and Forfar and 3rd Monmouths group had to find a way from le Reculey to the Burcy ridge, and on to the Perrier ridge north of the Vire-Vassy road. From Cathéolles and la Ferronnière, 3rd RTR and 4th KSLI were hoping to be relieved by Guards Armoured Division before following the lead columns, their role to head south-east behind the Hussars-Rifles group, screening the division’s open left flank. A fourth regimental group was not formed. Still recovering from their losses on ‘Black Sunday’ the 1st Herefords were to remain in 159 Brigade reserve, out of action through the day. So, the 2nd Northants Yeomanry would have to operate without infantry, ironically reverting to a function not dissimilar to that reconnaissance role which Roberts had previously scorned. Operating on the extreme right flank, they would cover the approaches to Vire, probing the main roads through le Reculey and Étouvy, towards though not into Vire itself.

Accompanying or following closely behind these leading groups came the whole mobile panoply of the 1944 armoured division. 29 Brigade headquarters commanded the Hussars and Rifles group, with 75th Antitank Regiment’s two batteries of self-propelled M10s6 and the twenty-four self-propelled ‘Sexton’ 25-pounder field guns of the 13th Royal Horse Artillery. 159th Brigade HQ commanded the Fifes and Monmouths group, with the two towed 17-pounder antitank batteries and the towed 25-pounders of the 151st Field Regiment (the Ayrshire Yeomanry).

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Three regimental groups plunged into enemy territory.

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23rd Hussars Sherman halts at St-Martin crossroads as elements of 11th Armoured Division move up.

THE HUSSARS-RIFLES GROUP

The 23rd Hussars’ quiet night had been brusquely cut short.

‘These Norman folk are very hospitable and as soon as we are given our areas, tanks sort themselves out in different yards and gardens, and immediately camouflage the vehicles as there is talk of an air attack tonight. Digging in is ordered and as my tank happens to be in a gravelled yard, this is a somewhat tedious operation. However, villagers give us a drink which they describe as “Whiskey”, which is in fact, Calvados, an extremely potent liquid, distilled from apples. Hardly have we settled down for the night, when news is received that orders will be issued at 3.30 a.m.’7

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The Hussars formed-up with their new partners of 8th Battalion, The Rifle Brigade. ‘It was the first occasion on which we had worked together as a group... but the experience laid the foundations of a remarkable partnership between our two units.’8 A novel experience for the Rifles as well, who had until recently deployed single motor infantry companies with each tank regiment. Unlike the Monmouths’ ‘Motorized Infantry’ who had left their TCVs to ride on the tanks, the Rifles were ‘Motor Infantry’ with their own armoured vehicles, their companies now forming up to travel between the squadrons of Hussars. The column formed, and with the Hussars’ colonel giving ‘some extremely rude orders about getting off the road wherever possible, and closing up our tail’,9 things got under way.

About 06.30 hours the column reached the little hamlet of la Tihardière, where a detachment of two German half-tracks was encountered. Though trying to escape, both were quickly despatched by Sergeant Williams’ tank at the head of the Hussars’ B Squadron. These were small, turreted half-tracks, model Sd.Kfz. 250/9, and on investigation turned out to belong to 2. Kompanie of the reconnaissance battalion of 9. SS-Panzerdivision. This first encounter with the Hohenstaufen revealed the alacrity with which SS-Hauptsturmführer Gräbner had driven his Aufklärungs-Abteilung in advance of the division’s move to the new sector; revealed too the urgent need for Roberts’ division to make progress before the German front could be stabilized.

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Two German half-tracks were despatched by Sergeant Williams’ tank at the head of the Hussars’ B Squadron.

A short time later the Hussars reached the main Vire road. A German tank was reported and there ensued ‘a lot of excitement’ before it disappeared. Crossing the highway, with no major road to follow, the Hussars’ commander Lieutenant-Colonel Harding deployed his squadrons on a broad front, the Rifle Brigade platoons in their half-tracks and carriers following closely. The column pressed on across country.

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Photograph of the route la Tihardière – Beaulieu, 24 June, 16.30 hours.

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The Hussars-Rifles group made slow progress past Beaulieu and le Désert, small parties of Germans putting up brief resistance. Typically, a knot of enemy infantry would form around an antitank gun or mobile tank destroyer covering an intersection of country lanes or a cluster of buildings. These would force the leading British tanks to deploy into battle formation, the infantry to unload and advance to contact. Then the defenders would melt away as best they could, displacing back to the next road block or stop-line.

At length, by 10.30 hours the group had advanced three miles from the Vire road junction to reach the first ridge where the D 55 road passed point 218 [modern 221]. Here some infantry opposition was encountered. As Sergeant Jones’ B Squadron tank was dealing with Panzerfaust-armed defenders, the Commanding Officer’s operator chose an awkward moment to come on air with a ‘netting’ call. Jones patiently endured the routine of tuning and reporting signals while trying to issue fire and movement orders to his crew. At length his patience snapped and with a ‘For God’s sake give me more time!’ he went off air to concentrate on the Germans.

Later, on the same spot, as B Squadron rolled on down into Presles and the crossroads was occupied by regimental headquarters, an artillery Forward Observation Officer began briskly firing his Sherman tank’s main gun at some tanks a mile to the west. Major Blacker of the Hussars jumped down from his own Sherman and marched across. Before a medium artillery battery far to the rear could register the tempting target and pour in its 5.5-inch shells, Blacker pointed out to the embarrassed FOO that his target was actually a column of 2nd Fife and Forfar Shermans, advancing on a parallel course. Returning to his own tank, Blacker then perceived a real enemy in the opposite direction. A German tank was advancing west out of Estry, coming straight down the D 55 and now barely a hundred yards away. (The enemy was identified as a Mark V, a Panther, but it should be noted that every enemy tank spotted by the Hussars that day was likewise recorded as a ‘Panther’; some undoubtedly were, but even at this stage of the war tank recognition was not always good.) The German began firing, spraying machine gun bullets and bringing down a telegraph pole across one of the Hussars’ Shermans. A great deal of confusion ensued before a Sherman tank was able to work its way around the flank of the enemy tank and destroy it. (If the enemy actually was a Panther, this was prudent. The only practical way for a Sherman’s 75mm gun to penetrate a Panther was with a flank or rear shot; once their relatively thin side armour was penetrated, Panther tanks were often quick to blow up.)

More trouble was encountered in Presles itself, where a German assault gun was knocked out and another found abandoned. Following the tanks to Presles, the motor infantry ran into a patrol of grenadiers just north of the village. G Company took a prisoner, recalled by Noel Bell as: ‘one of the most enormous blond Aryans I have ever seen’.10 The Rifle Brigade treated the Panzer Grenadiers to a hail of mortar bombs and moved on into Presles. Sensing the presence nearby of further enemies, the Hussars and Rifle Brigade were pleased to continue south, leaving Presles for somebody else to mop-up.

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The calvary at Point 218 above Presles.

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West from Point 218...

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...and East towards Estry.

With an open left flank, and aware of German forces lurking in that direction, the Hussars’ Colonel Harding pushed out A Squadron – without any Rifle Brigade infantry – to the east of the main column as a flank guard. The rest of the column was just climbing up towards le Bas Perrier when heavy firing was heard to their left. Disaster had befallen A Squadron. Lacking infantry, it had fallen into a trap while climbing out of the little hamlet of les Moulins. Hidden in a cornfield, a number of enemy tanks had sprung their ambush at close range. The British tanks were caught in the open as they emerged from a sunken road, struck before they could shake out from close formation and subjected to converging fire from different directions. With well distributed fire the German volleys quickly destroyed all but four of A Squadron’s tanks.

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A Squadron’s advance to disaster climbing from the Allière valley.

A key element of tanks’ fire discipline is the distribution of fire: ensuring that everybody does not fire at the same target; instead spreading the fire to ensure the greatest number of kills before the element of surprise is lost. In testament to the fire discipline of the German gunners, many British accounts of Normandy tank actions begin with the sudden loss of a number of tanks. This was no exception. With a dozen tanks crippled and the squadron commander badly wounded (though still trying with more bravery than sense to resume command), Captain Geoffrey Taylor gained control of the situation. Leading four surviving tanks back to cover, he then returned to gather up the wounded and keep the remnants of A Squadron together. Gradually, the survivors of A Squadron limped back to the main body of the Regiment. The Hussars’ Reconnaissance Troop assisted: their open-topped, turretless Stuart light tanks busily carried survivors through enemy fire while the remaining mobile Shermans formed a rearguard.

B Squadron had meanwhile run into its own trouble on the approach to the village of Chênedollé. One officer recalled that,

‘The villagers seemed to have some premonition of the horror that was to befall their little community during the next seven days, for they appeared quiet and apprehensive as the leading tank appeared.’11

These villagers had started the day far behind the fighting and were totally unprepared for the war to come to them. Hitherto, the advancing British had noticed a pattern: if there were civilians in sight and flags out, all was well; if the streets were empty, if the only movements were curtains twitching and the odd stray dog, then like as not trouble was waiting. In Chênedollé the pattern was broken. With the village folk still watching, a crack and a whistle heralded an antitank round cutting through the air. With a thump and a flash, Sergeant Allsopp’s tank was knocked out, fortunately with little harm done to the crew beyond their pride. An officer observed Allsopp leading his crew back from their wrecked Sherman ‘looking rather irritated, like someone whose car has broken down at a tiresome moment’. Carrier-borne infantry jumped out of their vehicles and, moving stealthily from building to building, began to clear the village.

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Chênedollé before the battle: 19.00 hours, 1 August.

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The approach to Chênedollé from the North.

On that hot and still August afternoon, silence fell in Chênedollé as villagers disappeared indoors and the Rifle Brigade moved into the village. ‘PIAT gangs’ picked their way from house to house in search of the German tank that had despatched Sergeant Allsopp’s Sherman. Stone buildings covered their advance, and the enemy was soon found, sitting menacingly in the middle of the deserted street. Hussars and Rifle Brigade accounts are consistent in referring to it as a ‘Panther’, as with earlier sightings. In fact, this was a Tiger tank of schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 102.12 But whether Panther or Tiger, the PIAT gangs faced a formidable adversary. The tension broke with a violent explosion against the tank’s turret. Smoke plumed upwards. A second PIAT bomb flew, and again a solid hit was registered on the turret. To the firers’ dismay, the tank was not penetrated. The tank lurched forward, crashed to a halt, then engaging reverse gear it ground away backwards, disappearing around a building. The PIAT teams were relieved to have driven off the monster, though annoyed that it could have survived two direct hits which they felt should have reduced the turret crew ‘to porridge’.13 To the credit of the infantry, the tank’s turret crew were quite likely injured by flying metal inside the fighting compartment (as experienced German tank crews well knew, even fragments of paint sent flying from turret walls could inflict unpleasant wounds), or at least stunned by the reverberation of the blasts. And by the PIAT teams’ efforts, Chênedollé had briefly been secured.

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PIAT in action.

Late in the afternoon, the Hussar and Rifle Brigade commanders took stock of the situation. They had achieved the day’s objective. Their right appeared secure, since the Fife and Forfar had just reported that they were up to the Vire-Vassy road. But to the south and the east lay enemy territory. In all probability these flanks were crawling with enemy tanks. The position seemed very insecure, with little or no room to manoeuvre on the narrow hilltop. A decision was made. The entire group would pull back a mile to the north to take up reverse-slope positions for the night on the heights around the village of le Bas Perrier. As darkness fell, the remnants of A Squadron came into the perimeter, and the Hussars and Rifles group went into close leaguer in the fields.

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THE FIFES-MONMOUTHS GROUP

The 2nd Fife and Forfarshire Yeomanry were awoken at first light. At the end of a gruelling day, Lieutenant Steel Brownlie and his crew had harboured on a steep grassy slope above le Bény-Bocage. After completing the chores of refitting, rearming, and refuelling, the exhausted crew crept under their Sherman tank to sleep between the tracks. This was no place for the claustrophobic, as the tank cleared the ground by barely eighteen inches. No one liked the idea of being crushed, least of all by their own tank, but the ground seemed firm enough. All the crew were somewhat alarmed on waking to find their sheltering Sherman tank had slithered a short distance sideways during the night. One more danger to add to the perils of armoured warfare.

The Fife and Forfar mounted up and set off on a country road parallel to that employed by the Hussars: running from Carville to le Reculey. Like the Hussars, the Fifes ran into a detachment of German reconnaissance halftracks, one of which was too slow to escape the Stuart light tanks of the Fifes’ own recce troop. Yet again in the lead of A Squadron was Steel Brownlie. In five weeks of fighting, as officers became casualties, from starting as the squadron’s junior troop leader he had now risen to become the most senior. So, Steel Brownlie was first to inspect the German half-track, noting that there was blood about and loose sheets of paper, also a pair of periscopic binoculars which he gladly took for his own use. The tanks rolled on, reaching the main Vire-Caen highway (Objective COVENTRY). Here a patrol of the ubiquitous Household Cavalry reported the enemy present in considerable numbers just 800 yards to the south. The cost of this information had been one of their cars knocked out by a German tank. A Squadron took up a position astride the main road while the rest of the column crossed behind the defensive screen. Later, with support from infantry platoons of the Monmouths, A Squadron moved against the enemy, who proved to be a mixed force of tanks and infantry. Surprised and disorganised, these Germans were in no mood for a fight and soon pulled back. They were not pursued; the tanks continuing towards their objectives in the south east. A Squadron rejoined the main body and together the column pressed on.

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Once past the COVENTRY highway, the pace quickened. Not only was the terrain more forgiving, but also there was help from an unexpected quarter. French farmers, observing the Germans laying mines in the half-light of dawn, had crept out after the enemy left and placed pieces of white paper to mark each one. With such assistance, Steel Brownlie was emboldened to have his troop resume ‘baffing’: driving flat out so as to deny any lurking enemy the time to take careful aim; firing on the move at any likely target, not so much in hopes of hitting anything, but more to keep enemy heads down until the tanks were well past.

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French farmers helped the advance by providing local knowledge.

Around midday, the head of the column crossed the D 55 road (Objective WARWICK) where it ran along the crest of the ridgeline. The troop halted to take in a breathtaking view of lush, rolling countryside shimmering under the high summer sun. Nestled ahead in the valley was the little village of Burcy, the regiment’s next goal. In sight to the south, some three kilometres away, was the Vire-Vassy road (Objective RUGBY), the final objective of the day. As other elements of the column crossed the ridge and descended into Burcy, movement and smoke were observed at a dark wood on a hill to the south. This was a cue for the artillery. The Ayrshire Yeomanry had spent the morning leap-frogging from one firing position to another, batteries alternating as they unhooked their 25-pounder field guns from their towing Quads, emplaced the guns, and prepared to offer covering fire to the leading tanks. In this way, while keeping up with the rapid advance of the tanks and lorried infantry, the regiment ensured that at any given time at least one of its three eight-gun batteries would be ‘on the ground’ and ready to engage a snap target. With the tanks was forward observer Captain R G V Nicoll, and no sooner was the suspicious wood to the south of Burcy identified than Nicoll was in contact with the Ayrshire Yeomanry’s 124 Battery. The eight field guns quickly ranged-in and all present on the ridge above Burcy had the satisfaction of seeing enormous explosions as an enemy ammunition dump blew up.

The bells of Burcy began to ring in joyous celebration as the column passed through.

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Steel Brownlie’s approach to Burcy.

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Steel Brownlie’s detour east of ‘Dump Wood’.

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Objective ‘RUGBY’: the highway viewed from Perrier Ridge.

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The track south from the point indicated opposite.

‘Villagers are pleased to see us... Still pushing on – one village is ringing its church bells!! This should warn Jerry we are her. Not much sign of fighting here and I hope for the population’s sake there won’t be any!’14

Still leading the regiment, A Squadron pressed on ahead, skirting around the German presence at ‘Dump Wood’ by taking a minor road running south east from Burcy. (This precaution may have been unnecessary; when the villagers from Burcy searched the wreckage of the ammunition dump in the woods around the Château le Coisel, they found no Germans remaining there.)

A Squadron halted in the hilltop hamlet of Pavée, while other elements of the group lined the ridge between Pavée and le Coisel, overlooking the Vire-Vassy road a mile to the south. Through his newly-acquired binoculars, Steel Brownlie enjoyed a panoramic view of the ‘Rugby’ objective and could clearly see the highway busy with German traffic running in both directions along the vital artery. ‘I was ordered to get onto RUGBY and block it till the rest of the tanks came up.’ This was no time for ‘baffing’, as the enemy was so close. Half way from Pavée to the objective, the country lane ended at a junction with the Chênedollé road [at modern point 189], and the tanks pressed on down a dirt track, crossing the Pouraison stream then climbing up a narrow sunken way. ‘In parts it was so narrow that one track was in a rut, the other halfway up the bank, so that the tank tilted to about forty-five degrees.’ At this point, the second in the column became stuck fast, probably sinking to its belly in the earth churned up by the lead tank.

A short distance from the road, Steel Brownlie halted his tank and continued alone, putting on the German helmet he carried for such occasions and slinging his German rifle on his back. And so it was that the entire VIII Corps advance south was now spearheaded by a single junior officer advancing up a dirt track. For his part, Steel Brownlie was less concerned at reaching the Corps objective than he was relieved at emerging onto the pavée to find the road completely clear as far as the crest of the rise barely five hundred yards to the west, and east along the dead-straight highway to the distant horizon at Point 237 [modern 238] beyond the Hauts Vents crossroads.

The lone officer called up his own tank, which he backed into a lane on the south side of the road, covering the eastern approach. Steel Brownlie’s troop corporal then brought up his tank, which was parked on the north side, facing west. A German motorcycle approached from Vire, its unsuspecting rider slowing to wave at the officer and corporal at the roadside. Both fired, the officer with his German rifle and the corporal with his pistol; and both hit, each putting a bullet through one of the rider’s legs. (It should be noted that wounding an enemy with a pistol was a rare event; one combat medic recorded that of all the pistol wounds he treated during the war, most were self-inflicted, and most of those accidental!) The man was an Oberfelfwebel of 116. Panzerdivision. He was dosed with morphia and laid in a ditch.

At length, the rest of A Squadron’s tanks arrived on the road, and formed a defensive ring. The crews felt very exposed. Long after, Steel Brownlie reflected, ‘If we had known then what was later revealed about German counter measures, we would have felt even worse.’15 A column of German ambulances arrived from Vire; they were unloaded and driven out of sight, their occupants joining the motorcyclist in the ditch. C Squadron arrived and further strengthened the little perimeter. Later, German tanks were observed far to the east, emerging from north of the crossroads at les Hauts Vents. Before long, these began sending shots down the road, and succeeded in ‘brewing up’ one of the Shermans. The Germans were far beyond the effective range of the Shermans’ 75mm guns, but the Ayrshire Yeomanry forward observer present was able to place ranging shots on the target and call for tactical air support (codenamed ‘Limejuice’).

The Typhoon fighter-bombers could arrive within twenty minutes from forward airstrips, and even sooner if they were already in the air, on-call in a ‘taxi rank’ holding pattern. As the ‘tiffies’ neared the scene, the observer called his distant 25-pounder battery to put down red smoke on the target, which the aircraft then pounded with salvoes of sixty-pound rockets. These effectively cleared the road. Less satisfactory was the later arrival of American Thunderbolt aircraft which strafed the British position for a good ten minutes.16 Fortunately, ‘having only cannon and not rockets like the Typhoons, they did little damage’. The only harm done was to the German motorcyclist, who was killed; a damaged half-track; and a radio operator who cut his hand on an empty ‘Compo’ ration tin when he dived into a slit trench.

The tank men grew fatigued under the hot sun. Trusting to assurances that his squadron would be withdrawn at nightfall, Steel Brownlie risked taking a benzedrine tablet: this was supposed to keep you alert for six hours, after which you would collapse. The day dragged on. Much later, as Steel Brownlie’s benzedrine pill was wearing off, his squadron was at last recalled. Recognising that the exposed position on the Vire road was not adequately defensible, the Fifes like the Hussars had decided to harbour with the Monmouths infantry on the ridge to the north. But still, someone had to be left on the road to ensure that no Germans should sneak past into Vire under cover of darkness. This task was given to ‘Codesign Steel’ whose troop was to remain in place. Steel Brownlie protested in vain. All his protests achieved was the support of a ‘platoon’ of Monmouths (which turned out to consist of a Canadian lieutenant and about fifteen men). The rest of A Squadron departed.

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Emerging from the narrow track, Steel Brownlie’s tank backed into a lane to cover the eastern approaches from Vassy...

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... while the troop corporal’s tank covered the western approaches from Vire.

Through the evening of 2 August, German patrols approached from the east. Steel Brownlie records that it was ‘no comfort to us’ that the departing squadron ran into trouble on its short journey north; this came as a sharp reminder of the increasingly confused situation of the battlefield. A Squadron’s rearmost tank was brewed up (with two dead, and three taken prisoner) while the Squadron ARV [Armoured Recovery Vehicle – a converted Sherman tank] had to fight its way clear of an orchard where it was engaged by a German half-track. Meanwhile, ‘Codesign Steel’ formed an all-round defence. Barbed wire and Hawkins grenades were strung across the road, the tank guns pointed to cover all directions. Infantry and tank crews alike were forbidden to smoke and threatened that anyone found asleep would be shot. Steel Brownlie sat disconsolately through the night, pricking his hands with pins to stay awake, and listening to a constant rumble of tracked vehicles moving some way to the south.

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THE ROYAL TANKS AND SHROPSHIRES GROUP

By the time Guards Armoured Division pushed forward from le Tourneur to cross the bridge, the 11th Armoured roadblock had already departed. As dawn broke, the outposts of C Company, 4th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, holding the road junction north of Cathéolles, heard the unmistakable sound of armoured vehicles approaching form the north. Mike Sayer, a C Company platoon commander, recalled,

‘We were alarmed. If it was the Guards Armoured Division they probably would not have known Cathéolles was in Allied hands and would have shot us up. If it was the Germans we would have been in an even more unenviable position.’

The matter was not put to the test. To everyone’s great relief, the outposts were called in as the regiment prepared to move out. Guards Armoured would have to make their own way through Cathéolles.

C Company rejoined the regiment and was reunited with its lorried transport, breakfasted and ready for a start by 06.00 hours. ‘Everyone was in great spirits and raring to go, in spite of having had little more than an hour’s sleep during the night.’17 As it happened, C Company was to have ample opportunity to catch up on ‘kip’ as their TCVs made desperately slow progress under the hot sun. With A Squadron of 3rd RTR in the lead and B Company of the KSLI following in close support, the intention was to follow a clear path parallel and left of the earlier Hussars-Rifles group: southbound from St-Charles-de-Percy, through Aigneaux, and over point 218 to Presles. In the event, the leading tanks soon bumped enemy forces and were forced to deploy to engage them. First on the approaches to St-Charles, later a mile further south at point 176, the leading tanks and Lieutenant Mullock’s B Company of the Shropshires encountered armour and grenadiers of 9.SS-Panzerdivision. These had rushed overnight to form a defensive line north of Vire; roughly handled by 3rd RTR many of their vehicles were left blazing by the road as the British column slowly snaked past; and B Company passed back a number of SS prisoners. Like the Hussars earlier in the day, 3rd RTR pushed C Squadron out east of the Centre Line of the advance as a screen. Like the Hussars, the Squadron ventured out unaccompanied by infantry and ran into ambush, losing three of its Shermans in the area of les Grand Bonfaits.

Only late in the day, towards 17.00 hours did the column reach the ridge along which ran the GC 55 road, the WARWICK objective. The combined force halted, just north-east of the Point 218 crossroads above Presles where the Hussars had earlier seen off the lone Panther. The order to go firm there for the night was welcome. The tanks harboured around a small orchard and the infantry shortly joined them. It seemed a good reverse-slope position.

But both commanders were uneasy about their left flank, especially since Guards Armoured Division was rumoured still to be in difficulties to the north, leaving the position open to enemy attack from the east as well as the south (which was still regarded as the main ‘front’). Colonel Silvertop was willing to send out a tank patrol before last light. But Major Robinson knew that unaccompanied Shermans of 3rd RTR would be of limited defensive value come nightfall, even when refuelled and rearmed. Before the light failed, he proposed to establish an infantry outpost to the east. Major Thornburn’s D Company was chosen to move a mile eastwards up the Estry road, to take up position by a fork in the road, around the hilltop farm of les Grands Bonfaits. A Squadron and D Company moved out about 20.30 hours, just as the light was beginning to fail. They took separate paths: the tanks striking off to the left, the infantry marching east astride the road.

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Les Grands Bonfaits from the South.

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CSM Harrison ‘shoved the PIAT through the hedge’.

D Company passed the outer screen of surviving C Squadron tanks, and soon after the enemy were spotted. Three Panther tanks were milling around just beyond the infantry’s objective, due east and dead ahead. In open ground, with only the failing light for cover, ‘Ned’ Thornburn later related, ‘I have rarely felt so helpless to avert a catastrophe.’ Thornburn’s operator had a No. 38 Wireless Telephone, but the A Squadron tanks were a half-mile away, and the set’s nominal three-quarter mile range was rarely achieved in practice. However, contrary to all expectations, the operator succeeded in contacting the Sherman squadron.

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‘Corporal Ralph called to me, “Sir, I’ve got our tanks on the 38 set!” It was almost the only occasion I can remember of a 38 set communicating with anything, but it certainly saved the whole operation on this occasion! I said, “Tell them to turn 90 degrees right and drive straight ahead – I will send a guide to meet them”.’18

Emboldened, Thornburn’s company proceeded to the ground they were to hold. More boldly still, Company Sergeant-Major Harrison set off ahead on his own Panther hunt. Carrying the 18 Platoon PIAT, he located one of the Panther tanks to the east of the Grands Bonfaits farm, and determined to stalk the beast. Creeping to effective range, he loosed a bomb which hit the Panther on its sloping front armour with a dull clang, bouncing harmlessly off. The tank crew, lacking infantry support and in the deepening gloom of a summer’s evening blind to the source of the attack, promptly reversed some distance, then exited the tank and stood outside the tank, peering around in the twilight and talking in anxious whispers. Harrison renewed his hunt, but as he prepared a second shot, a bramble snared the front of the PIAT and the bomb dropped out of its cradle. ‘That made me hopping mad,’ Harrison recalled, ‘so I stamped five yards down the road, yanked the brushwood out of the way, shoved the PIAT through the hedge and pulled the blasted trigger.’ The bomb went off like a clap of thunder; the Panther was destroyed and its crew were not seen again.

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As luck would have it, while this was happening the main body had reached the Grands Bonfaits position and Ned Thornburn was discussing his situation over a radio link to Major Robinson (this time using the company 19 set in his headquarters 15cwt [hundredweight] lorry, somewhat more reliable and with longer range than the 38). Asked by his commander whether he felt able to hold the position, Thornburn was just pointing out that his tank support had not yet arrived and there were three Panther tanks close by, when the explosion reached him.

‘Ah! That was one of them going up! Yes, we’ll stay here somehow.’

‘Good man!’ the CO responded. ‘I’ll send you some antitank guns and another couple of platoons.’

In this way, one man’s enterprise turned a battle. In the short term, the destruction of one of their number led to the withdrawal of the other two enemy tanks. This and the arrival of A Squadron, 3rd RTR heralded a quiet evening for D Company. More importantly, at a moment when Thornburn and his battalion commander might well have agreed to abandon the forward position, the destruction of ‘Harrison’s Panther’ persuaded Ned Thornburn to remain on the hill. As he himself put it, ‘Harrison’s exploit gave me the will to chance my arm and play for the highest stakes.’

THE ROAD TO VIRE

The Cromwell tanks of 2nd Northants Yeomanry set out at first light to cover the flank of the division’s advance, lacking adequate infantry support but using their mobility as a shield while probing for German resistance. A and B Squadrons patrolled the main Vire highway while C Squadron ventured further west as far as Étouvy on the Vire-Torigni road. Here, C Squadron found enemy positions which they could not dislodge without infantry, and so decided to return east to la Bistière, just five kilometres north of Vire. The temptation to press on was irresistible. All the more so when excited French civilians declared that the Germans had moved out of Vire. C Squadron encountered a typical German road block at the important road junction of la Papillonière, where they knocked out a German antitank gun. Then, as was becoming commonplace in the confusion, C Squadron went on to destroy a convoy of soft-skinned vehicles that unwittingly rolled through the village. Pressing on through the outskirts of Vire, C Squadron sent two troops forward. These came under artillery fire. Vire was not entirely evacuated.19 By now low on ammunition, the Northants Yeomanry Cromwells regrouped and resupplied around la Papillonière.

As for the 2nd Household Cavalry Regiment, throughout the day their armoured cars were prowling roads and country lanes as far afield as Estry in the east and Étouvy in the west. Operating in front of the main elements of the division, troops and half-troops radioed back reports and shot-up enemy transports; some fell victim to brushes with the enemy while others had narrow escapes. And now the brushes were not only with lightly-armoured enemy reconnaissance units. Self-propelled guns, tanks, and even heavy Tiger tanks were encountered.

‘By the evening of 2nd August it was clear that the German resistance had hardened along the entire front. There were to be no more break-throughs for many days.’20

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