Chapter 12

WEDNESDAY 2 AUGUST: ARRIVALS

HOHENSTAUFEN’S KG MEYER

The organizational flexibility which the British armoured divisions were attempting to put into practice was already second nature to their enemy. The westward move of 9. SS-Panzerdivision from the Caen sector was facilitated by its separation into two hastily formed battle groups: to the south KG Weiß with armoured reconnaissance and heavy tank companies; to the north KG Meyer with the divisional tank and infantry regiments.1 The two groups would form pincers: enveloping the enemy and, coming together at le Bény-Bocage, isolating his forward units.

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SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Meyer., commander of Kampfgruppe Meyer.

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A troops of assault guns led the vanguard.

Although not intended to take the place of turreted battle tanks, the Sturmgeschütz III now equipped whole companies of both SS-Panzerregimenter 9 and 10. Especially in defensive positions in the Odon and Orne River sectors, the self-propelled tank killers had proved their worth. In the small hours of 2 August, a troop of these Sturmgeschütze in a farmyard south of Monchauvet formed the vanguard of the newly-arriving division. In the pre-dawn glow there arrived a handful of German infantry, stragglers from the 752. Grenadierregiment, itself a fragment of the shattered 326. Infanteriedivision. Numbering only thirteen, some of whom had abandoned their weapons, this little band had been taken under the wing of a captain of Feldgendarmerie – the military police known as Kettenhunde (‘chain-dogs’) by virtue of their distinctive gorget-plate insignia worn on a metal chain around the neck. Not just traffic policemen, though they fulfilled this role most effectively throughout the Normandy campaign, these field police were characterized by their ruthlessness. Almost to the war’s end, disaffection and desertion in the ranks were kept under control by the certainty of harsh punishment.

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Grenadiers in the morning mist.

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The captain of Feldgendarmerie agreed to wait with the three Sturmgeschütze to see what would develop. Before long, the remainder of Obersturmführer Fröhlich’s 7. Kompanie of Sturmgeschütze arrived on the scene, likewise accompanied by infantry stragglers. And then the transformation began. As so often in Normandy, the resilience of the German army was demonstrated as a band of infantrymen, some unarmed, all lacking tactical direction, their parent units smashed, were quickly re-formed into an effective unit. Where the vital squad machine guns were lacking, these were provided by the Sturmgeschütz crews, who readily sacrificed their vehicles’ external MG34s in exchange for effective infantry support. (Unlike the British, German vehicles’ machine guns were generally interchangeable with those of the infantry.) From a handful of routed infantry and assault guns was forged the spearhead of an SS-Panzer division’s advance. Kampfgruppe Fröhlich was operational, ready to march westward towards the divisional objective of le Bény-Bocage. And though falling short of that goal, this was the force that reached Montchamp, rebuffed 3rd RTR, and fought a spirited action against the 2nd Welsh Guards.2

By evening, the remains of 7. Kompanie, SS-Panzerregiment 9 and the survivors of its infantry escort clung to the villages of St-Charles-de-Percy and Montchamp. The depleted battlegroup served to block any British night moves, and also fulfilled the role of guarding the flank of the German gun and mortar positions on Hill 279 [modern 272], which in turn continued to interdict the main Villers-Bocage to Vire road. Come the morning of 3 August, KG Fröhlich would fall back from its forward positions and be subsumed within the larger KG Meyer.

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Meanwhile, to the north, the dawn of 2 August witnessed further elements of 326. Infanteriedivision being fed back into the Rubec valley to renew defences. And here again, they arived in time stop the Welsh Guards Cromwells’ first foray. Then, just as the Welsh Guards were falling back down the valley, advance elements of 9. SS-Panzerdivision arrived. So it was that less than half way to Montchauvet, the Guards’ advance was stopped dead by three Panzer IV tanks of 6. Kompanie, II/SS-Panzerregiment 9, under Obersturmführer Grimm. In the course of the day the defenders were further stiffened by elements of Hohenstaufen infantry, the remaining companies of half-track-mounted grenadiers hurried to the scene. The fighting was desperate on the high ground east of Cathéolles as newly-arriving SS-Panzergrenadiere reinvigorated tiring infantrymen of 326. Division. At one point a single despatch runner, SS-Sturmann Hermann Alber, took command of nine 326. Division soldiers and in the confusion re-took Hill 221. Then, pressing on down its slopes into la Vautelière, his frenzied attack with grenades was credited with the destruction of a Cromwell tank.3

Tanks and infantry of both sides contested the hills dominating both banks of the Rubec stream. To the north, the Germans held Arclais and with it Hill 221, even coming down off the hill to throw the Guards back from the Villers-Bocage road. To the south of the Rubec, the Germans resisted all efforts to take the hamlets of Drouet and l’Auteloy. In so doing, they denied the direct road up the valley to Montchauvet. Moreover they preserved the northern flank of Hill 279, north of St-Charles-de-Percy and Montchamp (where Kampfgruppe Fröhlich was established, covering the hill’s southern flank). From the dominating heights of Hill 279, guns and mortars kept the main road between Cathéolles and la Ferronnière under constant fire and exacted a particularly heavy toll of Guards officers as their vehicles ran the gauntlet of ‘Mortar Gulch’.

Representing the major part of 9. SS-Panzer Division, KG Meyer had fallen well short of its objective of retaking le Bény-Bocage. By evening, its I. Bataillon/SS-Pz.Gr.Rgt. ‘H’ had progressed only as far west as Maisoncelle, south-west of Montchamp. Further south, 1. Kompanie/9. SS-Pz.Rgt. with its Panther tanks had taken its toll of the British, but had failed to make the territorial gains its orders required. Only in small parties of company strength or less had the grenadiers of Regiment ‘H’ and the reconnaissance vehicles of Gräbner’s SS-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 9 managed to infiltrate west into the battle zone. Nevertheless, these small probing bands had sounded a warning of what was to befall 11th Armoured Division in the days to come.

Already, British soft-skinned supply vehicles advancing through the night to rendezvous with their fighting units were being ambushed. Some time later, a German supply column driven into a village held by Guards Armoured Division was found to contain a water truck captured from 2nd Welsh Guards and a petrol lorry from 2nd Irish Guards. Further south, despatch riders from the Monmouths’ defensive ‘box’ set off north across the Burcy valley and were not seen again. With opposing armoured spearheads literally crossing each others’ paths, resupplying the forward British units threatened to become problematic.

NIGHTFALL

On 2 August, both Guards Armoured Division and KG Meyer entertained ambitious objectives which proved impossible to achieve. The Guards regiments were struggling to come to terms with new tactics, fighting in a new and unaccustomed terrain against a ferociously determined enemy, whilst trying to funnel an entire armoured division down a single road under heavy fire. By the end of the day, it was no small achievement to have projected a single group of three battalions (2nd Welsh armoured reconnaissance, 3rd Irish tanks, and 5th Coldstream infantry) somewhere close to the otherwise open left flank of 11th Armoured Division. Even though cut off from their parent division (the tactical headquarters of both Guards Armoured Division’s two brigades ended the day still north of le Tourneur), these units were in the right place to protect the British breakthrough. For this, 11th Armoured might have been grateful, had they only known that Guardsmen were there.

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End of August: 11th Armoured Division were holding four strongpoints.

For their part, the Germans were constrained not so much by inexperience as by their piecemeal arrival in an unfamiliar and unreconnoitred sector of the front. Low-level leaders had to assess an uncertain situation and react to whatever they discovered. And similarly, lacking clear knowledge of the British positions or strength, KG Meyer was restricted to feeling its way forward on a broad front. But its force grew as the day passed. A German line took shape as the main force of Obersturmbannführer Zollhöfer’s SS-Pz.Gr.Rgt. ‘H’ shook itself out from marching column into a battle line from the bastion of Hill 279 southwards through Montchamp to Estry. Steadily, the German pressure increased along the vulnerable flank of the British breakthrough.

By nightfall, the fighting units of 11th Armoured Division were established in good defensive positions. Yet the position of 11th Armoured was far from secure. During the afternoon it had become clear to Pip Roberts, in his tactical headquarters at le Reculey, that the advance had progressed far enough. The ‘horns’ of the Black Bull division were its tank regiments. These were had plunged deep into enemy territory, and had paid a price. Of the division’s 145 Sherman tanks ready for action at the dawn of 2 August, thirty-one were reported lost at the end of the day; six of these the vital, 17-pounder Fireflies. And the Black Bull’s left flank was a concern. Fresh in Roberts’ mind was the recent memory of GOODWOOD, where the delayed arrival of Guards Armoured Division had led to his division’s left flank becoming dangerously exposed. Then, he had pushed on and taken heavy losses. Now, Roberts worried about the fluid situation of his rear areas. He frankly dreaded the thought of German armour rampaging among the transport columns that were the life blood of his fighting units.

Pip Roberts had insisted that his division’s advance should culminate in a defensible position: ‘a tactical feature on which either hull down or covered positions could be occupied.’ As things stood at the end of 2 August, the three battle groups of the division were established on a substantial ridge line. From here they might dominate the ground ahead, including a supply artery vital to the enemy. They might enjoy both visibility over the enemy’s movements and the relative shelter of the reverse slope. And as the final consideration, in its present positions the entire force of 11th Armoured Division was still within the protective umbrella of VIII Corps’ artillery. Roberts determined that there would be no further advance.

Late in the afternoon, O’Connor visited Roberts at le Reculey and, as luck would have it, the general’s arrival was heralded by a German artillery strike. Nothing could have been more convincing in support of Roberts’ argument. 11th Armoured Division would hold its ground. What is more, O’Connor promised infantry reinforcements in the shape of 185 Brigade, already summoned forward from 3rd (Infantry) Division. By 22.30 hours, the division’s armoured regiments were receiving the order to hold fast to their gains.

HOHENSTAUFEN: KG WEISS

While 11th Armoured Division was putting on the brakes, the bulk of II. SS-Panzerkorps was still hurrying west. Among these was Kampfgruppe Weiß. Sturmbannführer Hans Weiß’s formation included two radically different but potent units.

The Tiger tanks of Weiß’s own SS-schwere Panzer-Abteilung 102 experienced a nightmare journey even to reach the battle area. Setting off after nightfall from their ambush positions on the southern slopes of Hill 112, they drove their sixty-ton monsters through the hours of darkness along winding country roads already jammed with west-bound traffic. With the dawn of 2 August came the added burden of constant watchfulness for signs of an imminent air raid. Their plan was to route southwards from Estry to join the main highway for a straight run west into Vire.4

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Sturmbannführer Hans Weiss.

Passing through Estry, Ostuf. Kalls’s leading 1. Kompanie decided in mid-afternoon to try a short cut, taking a right turn off the main southbound road to head towards Chênedollé. Shortly after, Kalls reported that he had run into a British armoured spearhead, and had destroyed a number of British tanks. His claim was no exaggeration: it was these Tiger tanks that had crushed the 23rd Hussars’ A Squadron. But Weiß’s travel arrangements had not allowed for an encounter with enemy armour so far south. Like other German commanders that day, he had to update his plans in light of developments. The tank engaged by the 8th Rifles’ PIATs in Chênedollé was likewise in all probability a Tiger of s.SS-Pz.Abt. 102, probing to find a clear route through to Vire. Weiß was not looking for a fight so far from his objective. But he could not ignore the threat when his was the only available force in the area. Recognising that a major British armoured breakthrough must have taken place, and with no other force immediately to hand, Weiß ordered his 1. Kompanie, under Kalls, to take up defensive positions around Chênedollé, screening the move of UntersturmführerSchroif’s 2. Kompanie towards the battalion’s primary objective.

Again, Weiß’s Kampfgruppe probed west, now along the main highway to Vire. Again, the British lay across their path, this time Steel Brownlie’s road block. Turning west from the crossroads at les Hauts Vents and advancing well spaced along the highway, the Tiger tanks’ 8.8cm guns firing from over two thousand metres easily outranged the Fifes’ Shermans. And despite the dramatic intervention of the Typhoon fighter-bombers, Schroif’s company survived their attack. One of the Tiger tank commanders of 2. Kompanie, Unterscharführer Ernst Streng recalled,

‘Bullets rattled against the turret of my tank and great sheets of fire and smoke billowed up where the rockets had hit the ground. Time and again they screamed down on us. Then the attack stopped as abruptly as it had started.’5

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Steel Brownlie’s roadblock forced the Tiger company to detour south.

The ‘tiffies’ did little physical damage to the Tiger tanks. The 60-pound rockets packed an awesome punch, but they were extremely inaccurate and direct hits on tanks were rare. Still, the attack was not in vain. As a direct consequence, Streng relates, ‘Schroif decided to make a detour. We turned back and moved further south’. KG Weiß had been persuaded that the direct highway to Vire was not an option. Instead, Schroif’s company turned back to the Hauts Vents crossroads and detoured south on the Tinchebray road before turning north again for Vire. Time was lost. The company of heavy tanks did not arrive in Vire until 20.35 hours, reaching the northern suburbs only just in time to see last of the Northants Yeomanry Cromwells driving off. The extra distance had cost more than time. A night and a day of grinding forward had worn out the heavy vehicles as well as their crews. Streng again: ‘

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The Panzers of Reisske and Münster broke down.

The Panzers of Reisske and Münster broke down and had to be left at the roadside. We were pushing the engines hard. That and the warm summer evening was causing them to overheat.’

The second major element of KG Weiß was Hohenstaufen’s reconnaissance battalion. This unit resembled neither the Cromwell-equipped Welsh Guards nor the Household Cavalry with its light armoured cars. 9. SS-Pz.Aufklärungs Abteilung was a mixed force of well armed and fast armoured vehicles and infantry. Its five companies included two PSW companies (‘Panzerspähwagen’, or ‘armoured probing vehicles’), the first equipped with light, fast armoured cars and the second with turreted half-tracks. Two SPW companies (‘Schützenpanzerwagen’) were composed of soldiers mounted in small, armoured half-track personnel carriers. A fifth heavy weapons company mounted in medium half-tracks included support guns, antitank guns, and engineers. While specializing in reconnaissance, for which speed was more important than firepower, this battalion could also muster the resilience to hold the line and even the brute force to conduct armoured assaults. Led by the charismatic Hauptsturmführer Viktor-Eberhard Gräbner, the unit had successfully made the transition from the open steppe of Galicia to the Normandy bocage. In mid-July, Gräbner’s battalion had been flung into the line to stabilize the front at Noyers, where the German 277. Infanteriedivision was hard pressed by the British 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division. In a series of energetic counter attacks, the 9. SS-Pz.Aufkl.Abt. succeeded in pushing the British out of Noyers. For the particularly daring dawn attack on 15 July, Gräbner himself was recommended for the Ritterkreuz (the Knight’s Cross, which decoration he was actually to receive on 17 September, the day before he disappeared leading a failed charge over the Arnhem bridge against British paratroops).

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Hauptsturmführer Viktor-Eberhard Gräbner.

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Gräbner’s unit was the most mobile element of KG Weiß. About 16:00 hours on 2 August, Gräbner’s headquarters was at Estry. But long before, advance parties from the battalion had been infiltrating the roads westward from Estry towards Vire. It was not Gräbner’s style to take the same roundabout route as the heavy Tiger tanks, and throughout 2 August, elements of 9. SS-Pz.Aufkl.Abt. ranged the country lanes across the path of the advancing British. As previously related, vehicles of the 2. Kompanie had already fallen to the guns of the advancing 23rd Hussars and 2nd Fife and Forfar. As the day wore on, men and half-tracks of the 3. Kompanie penetrated the British rear areas around Presles and Burcy, as evidenced by the fate of Steel Brownlie’s A Squadron when pulling back from the Vassy road. Using speed and cover, small groups of reconnaissance vehicles penetrated as far as the outskirts of Vire, and by 19.00 hours were able to confirm that the town of Vire, though threatened, was still free of the British. Entering the town, they made contact with anti-aircraft troops of 3. Fallschirmjägerdivision. The gap blown open between two German armies when Dickie’s bridge fell to the British was beginning to close.

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