Chapter 11

WEDNESDAY 2 AUGUST: GUARDS ACROSS THE SOULEUVRE

General Adair’s orders for the day (‘ambitious’, many felt) were to make for Vassy, ten miles south and east as the crow flies, and in actuality much further along winding country roads.

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Cromwell tanks of the Welsh Guards in Normandy.

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WELSH RECONNAISSANCE

Guards Armoured Division was still intending to employ its Cromwell tank regiment, 2nd Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion Welsh Guards, in its designated reconnaissance role. The division would follow only after the Welsh Guards’ Cromwell squadrons scouted the roads ahead. 2nd and ‘X’ Companies of the 3rd Irish Guards had secured the bridge beyond le Tourneur in the small hours and the way appeared open. The divisional reconnaissance battalion was duly summoned. But they were not to hand. Both the division’s own Welsh Guards and the attached squadrons of the Inns of Court armoured car regiment (A and D, both shorn of their ‘blitz’ armoured infantry troops) had spent the night far behind the lines, still north of St-Martin-des-Besaces. It was the best the Welsh Guards’ Cromwells could do to cross the le Tourneur bridge at dawn, reaching Cathéolles soon after. By then, 11th Armoured Division’s outpost had departed. Consequently, instead of a friendly welcome, the point unit of Guards Armoured Division had to run the gauntlet of enemy fire as they passed Cathéolles. And later still, when the Inns of Court arrived, three of their lightly-armoured cars were quickly lost to mortar bombs and mines in the steep-sided ravine south of Cathéolles.

True to their intended reconnaissance role, the Welsh Guards proceeded to split into three probing columns. Having made the passage of ‘Mortar Gulch’ under the eyes of the enemy, 1 Squadron turned left and set out due east along the narrow valley of the Rubec stream towards Montchauvet. 3 Squadron followed through the gulch, delaying their left turn until the crossroads at la Ferronnière, hoping to strike eastwards across country towards St-Charles-de-Percy and Montchamp.1 2 Squadron meanwhile, supposed to turn left at Cathéolles and probe north-east along the main road towards Villers-Bocage, predictably ran straight into the enemy.

The Cromwells of 1 Squadron crossed the Cathéolles bridge and plunged up the narrow valley of the Rubec stream. This was not tank country. There was no room to deploy: with the stream to their right and a steep wooded slope on their left, the column could only advance on a single-tank front along the narrow country lane that followed the meanders of the river valley. Lines of sight were short; every turn in the road was a potential ambush. Without infantry to probe the road ahead and the wooded slopes above, the Cromwells were entirely vulnerable to any prepared defence. And survivors of 326. Infanteriedivision were now returning to the fray.

The column was barely two miles out of Cathéolles when a hidden German gun demolished the lead tank, just short of the junction with a lane leading north up a side valley to la Cour and Hill 220 [modern 216]. Burning with its crew, the Cromwell completely blocked the narrow lane. Some followers tried to force a passage but none succeeded. With difficulty, the column reversed direction and returned to the main Vire highway. Meanwhile 2 Squadron fared no better. Barely two miles noth of Cathéolles, up the dead-straight highway towards Villers-Bocage, they too were stopped short by well entrenched German infantry and guns, whereupon they too reported their mission to be impossible. Both 1 and 2 Squadrons accepted orders to move south in support of 3 Squadron.

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Approaching this bend, the lead 1 Squadron Cromwell was hit by a gun emplaced on the heights.

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Burnt out Cromwell.

The 3 Squadron Welsh Guards made a good start, shrugging off the bombs raining down on ‘Mortar Gulch’ and proceeding along the highway to la Ferronnière, where they turned left on the road for Montchamp. It was now about 06.00 hours; the morning was well advanced, and newly arrived Sturmgeschütze and infantry of Kampfgruppe Fröhlich were already on the move westward out of Montchauvet and through Montchamp. The Germans won the race. Reaching St-Charles-de-Percy, they deployed across the path of the Welsh Guards. Once again, the first the unaccompanied tanks knew of the German presence was antitank shells tearing into the Cromwells. Fröhlich’s detachment claimed to have destroyed a total of five tanks and captured five half-tracks (which were later put to use as ammunition carriers).

With no realistic chance of taking the village, 3 Squadron took advantage of a track which bypassed the north side of St-Charles towards a small bridge, from which the Cromwells struck east along the Souleuvre valley, then drove across country towards Montchamp. Here, the story was repeated. Approaching a small bridge by a road junction just short of Montchamp, the column came under fire from Kampfgruppe Fröhlich, and a further Cromwell was lost. The column of Cromwells turned away from the town, this time southwards, and again picked its way across reasonably open country, eventually stopping and harbouring for the rest of the day around the hamlet of la Marvindière. Later in the morning, 1 and 2 Squadrons followed in their wake, and were deployed around the nearby hamlets of Friouse and Cavignaux. By sheer good fortune, friendly infantry ended the day nearby. On the extreme left flank of 11th Armoured Division, D Company of 4th KSLI had established an outpost around the hilltop farm of les Grands Bonfaits, a short distance to the south of the Squadrons’ leaguers and by day’s end were securely dug-in.

The Guards’ reconnaissance regiment had partially succeeded. The Cromwells had pressed forward, located the enemy, and the regiment established itself ahead of the Guards Armoured Division’s intended axis of advance. But its position was isolated and vulnerable, with known enemy units covering the roads to the rear and threatening resupply.

THE BATTLEGROUPS

As to the rest of Guards Armoured, the main striking force of the division was again organised into two battlegroups: the Grenadiers and the Irish-Coldstream. The Grenadier group of 2nd (Armoured) and 1st (Motor) Grenadier Guards moved off at 06.00 hours, halting at 09.30 around St-Pierre-Tarentain. There, reports were received from both the Welsh Guards and the Inns of Court of enemy fire from the dominating heights to the east. The commander reconsidered the morning’s orders, and at 11.00 new orders were issued. The group would now pursue an easterly axis, aiming to envelop the enemy-held heights both from the north (Arclais) and the south (Drouet).

The Sherman tanks of the Grenadiers’ 3 Squadron entered the narrow Rubec valley with infantry of 2nd Motor Company out on either flank, just as the Cromwells of 1 Squadron, Welsh Guards were pulling out. The Grenadiers’ commander briefly reconsidered his mission in light of the Welsh Guards’ unhappy experience, but decided to continue. The terrain was unpromising, but the prospect of reaching Montchauvet and securing a pivot for the rest of the division to swing around was too attractive to deny. Unfortunately for the Guards, every hour that passed made that goal less achievable. Led by 2 Company, the hamlet and woods of Drouet were assaulted and at length secured, although the accompanying 3 Squadron tanks could not negotiate the higher terrain and no further progress east along the crest line towards Montchauvet was achieved. To the north, while King’s Company engaged enemy armour east of St-Pierre-Tarentain, 4 Company led an assault on the Arclais hill which was stopped on its lower slopes: in the words of the divisional history, ‘No. 4 Company’s attack on the Arclais hill failed entirely; it was strongly held and too steep for the troop of tanks in support.’2 During the afternoon, the Irish-Coldstream group passed through and the Grenadiers took up defensive positions around Cathéolles. Vassy was still a distant hope.

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The Welsh Guards were forced to detour around St-Charles and Montchamp.

While the Grenadier group contested the heights above the Rubec valley, the battlegroup of 2nd (Armoured) Irish and 5th Coldstream Guards was stuck behind, receiving alternate warning orders to be ready to pass through the Grenadiers or to move in support of the action on the hill. The situation was not improved when the Coldstream de-bussed from their TCVs around Cathéolles. At length the Irish 2IC, Major Giles Vandeleur3 sorted out the chaos, loading the Coldstream infantry on to his tanks and ruthlessly bulldozing a path through the trucks. Only by mid-afternoon was the road cleared for the move south, the Coldstream infantry clinging to the Irish Guards tanks as they threaded the narrow defile that was already acquiring the name ‘Mortar Gulch’. The passage cost the 5th Coldstream their second commanding officer in two days: Major Luard was wounded and once again Lord Hartington had to resume temporary command.

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Like the 2nd Welsh Guards, the leading elements of the Irish Group tried to move through St-Charles-de-Percy (which, true to their maps, they ever persisted in referring to as ‘Courteil’). The move began inauspiciously when the second tank in the leading troop accidentally discharged its 75mm into the rear of the leader, knocking out Lieutenant Cole’s Sherman and killing three of his crew. Shortly after, the rest of the troop was halted by genuinely enemy antitank fire from a pair of self-propelled guns (inevitably, reported as ‘88s’, more probably 7.5cm guns mounted on the Sturmgeschütze of KG Fröhlich). As enemy shells blew masonry from the buildings of St-Charles, the Guards halted. Tank officers conferred; plans were made. But little happened. The Irish Guards War Diary comments on ‘the difficulty of communicating with the infantry’. The situation of units unused to operating together and now coming under fire was made worse by the infantry being under temporary leadership, worse still by the armour leader, Colonel Finlay, having gone forty-eight hours with virtually no rest.

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View north from Maisoncelles to the Hill 279 ridge.

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About 18.30 hours, Brigadier Gwatkin burst on the scene. The Irish Guards history admits that, ‘He was justifiably angry when he discovered that two guns had held up the two battalions for early four hours.’4 Colonel Kim Finlay was summarily ordered to hand over the battalion to the 2IC and go back to A Echelon for rest.5 The battalions were to leave immediately for the objective of Estry. No matter that St-Charles was in enemy hands: the place could be bypassed, likewise Maisoncelles. The Coldstream infantry again mounted tanks and the combined force set off across country.

As the Irish-Coldstream group set off, their place across the face of the German opponents was taken by arriving infantry companies of 3rd Irish Guards. These had braved Mortar Gulch with its dead horses, destroyed transport, and periodic shelling, to reach the relative calm of la Ferronnière just as night was falling.6 The column attempted to push on further in the darkness to reach St-Charles-de-Percy, but like their predecessors the 3rd Irish were stopped by elements of Kampfgruppe Fröhlich east of la Ferronnière, where their commander decided to halt for the night. There their move east ran into a German force advancing west. Their Colonel Vandeleur had orders to press on to capture Maisoncelles and Montchamp, but as twilight turned to pitch dark with no reduction in enemy defensive fire, he declared that the battalion should have ‘a good look around before going for Maisoncelles’. In other words, stay put till daylight. The companies dug in where they were. This was no defeat. Facing enemies keen to advance west, the mere presence of the 3rd Irish blunted the German advance (and so saved the rear echelons of 11th Armoured Division from potential disaster).

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Meanwhile, skirting the defended St-Charles and taking a southerly heading across country, the 2nd Irish & 5th Coldstream group spent two hours crossing the most difficult terrain they had yet experienced in Normandy. ‘Progress was slow and difficult: only tracked vehicles could breast the banks which lined each field; and the guardsmen clung on for dear life as the tanks rose and fell, like ships in a heavy sea.’7 Fortuitously they avoided any further pockets of resistance, and it was Hartington’s intent to regain the road as soon as possible. But in the course of the cross-country move he received fresh orders to angle south-eastwards, towards Estry. This was easier said than done. It was growing dark; the tank squadrons had become separated and unsure of their position; some tanks had lost aerials and many radios had been shaken off ‘net’ by the violent manoeuvres. One officer observed that the leading squadron was heading into the last rays of the setting sun: ‘Surely we should be going south, not west?’8 Ordered to occupy a rise in the ground (around the hamlet of la Marvindière, a name that was to become all too familiar), 2 and 3 Squadrons approached from different directions. After unloading, infantry companies 2 and 3 started shooting at each other until the confusion could be resolved. When night fell and further movement became impossible, the companies and squadrons simply stopped where they were, 4 Company very conscious of an enemy presence on the opposite slopes of point 181 (south of Montchamp). And contact with battalion headquarters had been lost.

Major Vandeleur’s HQ Troop, along with 1 Squadron and the attached Y Battery (self-propelled M10s) of 21st Antitank Regiment, had ceased movement at a bottleneck where trails converged near to Sieurmoux. Vandeleur ordered the dispersed groups to harbour independently.

‘A gallant recce party from Bn HQ led by Major Lord WILLOUGHBY d’ERESBY (Leicestershire Yeomanry) was tried but did not succeed in contacting the two Sqns, though it drove in and around what we discovered next day to be the enemy lines.’9

Also relinquishing sleep in the hopes of locating the forward troops was the Coldstream commander, Major the Marquess of Hartington. Failing to find his own separated companies, he bumped elements of 11th Armoured Division (‘Nedforce’ at les Grands Bonfaits) whose unwelcome news was that Germans were all around them. A pattern was being set.

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