PART FOUR: BITE AND HOLD

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Chapter 13 THURSDAY 3 AUGUST: EBB AND FLOW.

Chapter 14 FRIDAY 4 AUGUST – SUNDAY 6 AUGUST: ON PERRIER RIDGE

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Chapter 13

THURSDAY 3 AUGUST: EBB AND FLOW

On 2 August two armoured forces had pushed against each other as if in a revolving door that suddenly became jammed. The main German thrust had been westward: aiming for le Bény-Bocage, but halted around St-Charles; the main British thrust south-east towards Estry was likewise stopped in the area Chênedollé-Burcy-Presles.

The picture was confused. If the fog of war could have been rolled aside, both sides would have found pockets of friendly and enemy troops interspersed across the rolling countryside. Anyone drawing a ‘front line’ across the battlefield map was deluding themselves. Nevertheless, the British had staked a territorial claim to the ridge that followed the Vire-Falaise highway. ‘Bite and hold’ was a tactic familiar to First World War veterans. But in this case the jaws had closed not on the enemy’s front line, but only after a twenty mile spring forward: a mechanized, armour-plated, infantry-stiffened, and artillery-assisted penetration deep into German territory.

THE HIGH COMMAND

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Eugen Meindl, General der Fallschirmjägertruppen.

While II. SS-Panzerkorps strove to reduce the threatening British salient south of Caumont, the threat from still further west had not slackened. Tanks of US 9th Armored Division were now reported in the area of St-Martin-Don (eight kilometres west of le Bény-Bocage). Heeresgruppe B had few options. 7. Armee was authorized to allow the further retreat of II. Fallschirmjäger Korps. Meindl was told to hold a line extending from Beaumesnil (ten kilometres north-west of Vire) to Carville (ten kilometres north, in what was now British-held territory, between le Bény-Bocage and Roberts’ 11th Armoured headquarters at le Reculey). Meindl had already received stern warnings from his superiors to think only about his front and not ‘look over his shoulder’. But he was soldier enough to know that failing to garrison Vire had been a strategic error. He later recorded that his whole corps was nearly isolated on 2 August: ‘What a day of crisis! What an opportunity for some English tank formation commander!’ But once permitted, he reacted swiftly. By day’s end, the immediate crisis was over. By midnight, the two anti-aircraft batteries which had stood alone against the Northants Yeomanry Cromwells’advance on Vire were reinforced by Meindl’s retreating paratroops and Weiß’s advancing armour.

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With U.S. tanks at St-Martin-Don, Meindl fell back to a new line.

The news relayed by Gräbner’s reconnaissance half-tracks that Vire was still in German hands was welcome indeed to Obergruppenführer Bittrich of II. SS-Panzerkorps. His superiors at Panzergruppe West headquarters had been thrown into confusion by an early-evening BBC news bulletin claiming that British formations had reached Vire. Now, Bittrich was able to reassure Eberbach that this disaster had been forestalled. As the night progressed, there came further news of Weiß’s Tiger tanks arriving from the south and elements of Meindl’s paratroop corps falling back from the north west. Vire was no longer ripe for the plucking. Now, it was possible to conceive of setting the jaws of a German trap: to close around le Bény-Bocage.

But still further anxieties awaited the Heeresgruppe B High Command. Shortly after midnight at his headquarters at la Roche-Guyon, Oberbefehlshaber West von Kluge received Adolf Hitler’s personally signed warning order to prepare to support a war-winning new offensive. Von Kluge was to move all Panzer divisions from the British sector to mount a massive attack westwards across the base of the Cotentin peninsula. From the detached perspective of the Führerhauptquartier, this move made excellent sense. In line with German strategic thinking, infantry would hold the line while the mobile strike force of the armoured divisions would be concentrated into a single, unstoppable Schwerpunkt. From Mortain, the Atlantic beaches were a mere thirty kilometres away. Once a hole was punched through the American supply lines and Avranches taken, the head of the American ‘COBRA’ would be amputated; deprived of essential logistics the armoured spearheads would be halted in their tracks.

There were two problems with Hitler’s plan. The first lay with infantry divisions on the Führer’s situation maps which were in reality mere shadows of their paper strengths. The mobile Panzer divisions had long since been sucked into the front lines, shoring-up vital stretches. And even these élite formations were constrained by Allied air supremacy, able to execute strategic movements only during the short summer nights. The second problem was that no one, least of all von Kluge, dared confront the Führer with these truths.

In spite of events unfolding around Avranches in the American sector, the previous evening’s scare that Vire was falling had drawn von Kluge’s attention to that town. Not only was Vire an essential waypoint for the new units arriving from southern France; the Vire-Falaise road now assumed a new importance as an essential artery for the Führer’s counter-attack plan. Increasingly concerned with the status of that vital route, von Kluge called reinforcements to its defence. Noting that British armour been moved away from Caen, he ordered further forces to be stripped from that sector. One result was the creation of a mobile strike force comprising mixed elements of the Hitlerjugend and a reconnaissance company of the Leibstandarte. This force was designated ‘Aufklärungsgruppe Olboeter’, after its commander, Stubaf. Erich Olboeter. From 22.25 hours on 2 August, AG Olboeter was formally subordinated to II. SS-Panzerkorps and ordered to proceed to the east of Vire.1

Meanwhile, 9. SS-Panzerdivision was to continue its own offensive. Eberbach signalled to Bittrich that he was no longer to concern himself with reaching le Bény-Bocage, but simply to secure Vire by attaining a more southerly objective. The new junction of 7. Armee and Panzergruppe Westwas to be la Bistière, astride the highway north of Vire. KG Meyer would no longer seek to restore the front along the Bény-Bocage ridge, but was now to focus specifically on reaching la Bistière, thereby isolating the pockets of 11th Armoured Division that had penetrated as far as the Vire-Vassy road. This was to have serious consequences for the day’s action.

Meanwhile, the British were not without their dilemmas. The two brigade groups of 11th Armoured Division had received the stop order. 29th Brigade passed on the message ‘Regts ordered to hold the ground they are on.’ 23rd Hussars and 8th RB were holding le Bas Perrier, supported by 119 Battery of 75th Antitank Regiment and six AVREs. 3rd RTR and 4th KSLI held point 218 north of Presles, their flank covered by the outpost at les Grands Bonfaits. 159th Brigade headquarters likewise remained halted around Forgues, on the reverse (northern) slope of the ridge above Burcy. As the 29th Brigade War Diary recorded,

‘owing to the US Army on our right and the Gds Arm Div on the left being slow in conforming to our line... positions were chosen for all round defence... The country is extremely close and mov off roads very difficult... It became apparent that until the left flank was cleared up a further adv. would NOT be possible.’

The failure of XXX Corps to reach the dominating peak of Mont Pinçon raised awkward questions. Was the whole BLUECOAT advance threatened? And most pointedly: had 7th Armoured Division, the famous ‘Desert Rats’, again failed? This was to be the day when the patience of Montgomery and Dempsey ran out. XXX Corps GOC Lieutenant-General Bucknall was sacked, followed shortly by 7th Armoured commander Major-General ‘Bobby’ Erskine, his Brigadier ‘Loony’ Hinde, and many more. Meanwhile, 11th Armoured Division would have to look to its own flanks, extended and vulnerable. As Guards Armoured Division continued its laborious struggle forward to cover the left of 11th Armoured, the infantry of 15th Scottish would push east along the ridge towards Montchauvet, ground supposed to have been secured by XXX Corps.

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Viewed from le Bas Perrier, the hamlet of Burcy lies in the valley of the Allière. The winding road north led to the 159 Brigade HQ in Forgues.

BATTLE FOR BURCY

At first light on 3 August, Steel Brownlie’s troop was relieved of its lonely vigil on the Vire-Vassy road. The four tank crews gratefully returned to their regimental headquarters area hoping to enjoy a meal and a sleep. Breakfast was cooked and eaten, but hopes of sleep were rudely dashed when A Squadron was called forward in support of Jimmy Samson’s lone troop guarding the road. Steel Brownlie led his troop back to the spot so recently vacated. ‘This’, he related, ‘was a mistake.’ There, Samson’s troop had been overrun, the troop leader’s tank knocked out and the infantry nowhere to be seen. Steel Brownlie found his own troop stranded, and for a few minutes chaos reigned.

‘All kinds of things were flying about... There were enemy infantry everywhere, ours had been overrun, Jimmy had been knocked out, Bill Hotblack got a grenade in his turret, and more casualties were coming every minute. We fired a lot of smoke, and ran for positions half a mile back, astride the road leading north to Burcy.’2

Steel Brownlie’s opponents on that morning were Hohenstaufen’s remaining reserve force, SS-Panzerpionierbataillon 9.3 Its leader Sturmbannführer Monich was charged with moving west to establish contact with Weiß and Gräbner on the left, then turning north and pushing the British back from the vital Vire highway. Unlike British pioneers, these were not just specialist engineers but also expected to double as assault infantry, heavily armed and routinely taking their place in the front line. At 07.30 hours, they launched their attack on the 159 Brigade ‘box’, beginning with a move against Burcy.

The battalion’s first and second companies led by Hauptsturmführer Scheffler and Möller formed on the Vire-Vassy highway around Viessoix, and followed country lanes leading north. Appeals for support had been denied. The divisional tank regiment was preoccupied; the artillery was too far away. The engineers would have to rely on their own organic short-range heavy weapons. Initially, the enemy was surprised, and good progress was made over the first ridge and down towards Burcy. But short of that village, on the lower slopes of the Allière valley, the advance was checked by opposition centred on a sturdy farm. Pioniere and Monmouths engaged one another as the fight surged around stone buildings and close orchards. The Fifes fed tanks into the close-quarters action: Panzerfäuste flew and a ring of Sherman tanks burned. When at length resistance weakened and the British pulled back, the 25-pounders of the distant Ayrshire Yeomanry completed the work that German flame-throwers had begun. Now farm buildings as well as tanks blazed; the roofs of the defended buildings fell in, allowing no shelter for the erstwhile victors. With defensive artillery fire intensifying, Hstuf. von Cölln’s third, SPW company4 attempted a flank manoeuvre. But the attempt bogged down in the Allière valley, west of Burcy. Towards midday, British counterattacks were backed by air strikes, while part of Monich’s force had to turn towards new threats from the direction of Chênedollé. The drive on Burcy was abandoned; the pioneers’ advance had stopped short of the 159 Brigade ‘box’. Nevertheless, the village of Burcy itself now lay in no man’s land, susceptible to infiltration, and the highway east of Vire was cleared once again for German traffic, at least as far as Viessoix.

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The rest of the day passed relatively quietly for Steel Brownlie. Summoned back to the all-round defensive position at Burcy, he accepted a farmer’s offer of a glass. Swigging what he took to be cider, the amber liquid turned out to be fiery calvados. The apple brandy mixed with the Benzedrine he had taken earlier, and in an extremity of fatigue he began to hallucinate. As the sun blazed down on his head, the hedges and trees began to whirl around him. Then he passed-out. ‘I decided to go forward to the next hedge for a better view: “Driver advance.” I woke to find that we had gone across several fields, and if there had been an alert Tiger in Presles he would have brewed up a Sherman with a sleeping commander. “Driver reverse!”’ In the cool of the evening, Steel Brownlie ventured back south towards Burcy. There he encountered a German Volkswagen whose occupants ignored his calls to surrender, in his ‘best German from Greenock Academy... So I opened fire and the vehicle burst into flames. What else could I do?’ He withdrew to the Coventry road: the tanks to harbour, the crews to snatch brief hours of sleep.

THE VIRE ROAD

By late morning, Stubaf. Weiß had most of his Tiger battalion assembled in Vire, together with the greater part of Hstuf. Gräbner’s reconnaissance battalion. The original objective of KG Weiß had been to plug the gap between the two armies. Now the urgent order was to block the northern approaches to Vire and to establish a force around la Bistière, the designated rendezvous with KG Meyer (from the east) and Meindl’s Fallschirmjäger (from the west). Shortly after midday a mixed column began the five kilometre advance. Nine Tiger tanks of Kompanie 2 led the way, astride the main road, followed by a Zug (platoon) of Gräbner’s SPW Kompanie 3, their diminutive Sd.Kfz. 250 reconnaissance half-tracks dwarfed by the heavy Tiger, and a pair of self-propelled anti-aircraft guns on loan from the Fallschirmjäger division.

The 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry had been dogged by misfortune ever since their first combat in Normandy, and today would be no exception to their troubles. Still, the day began full of promise. The Northants edged closer to the city, held back only by orders that ‘Regt not allowed to enter Vire; this town is incl to US Army.’ Through the morning, various Frenchmen claiming to represent the Resistance brought news that Vire was open. The information was passed back to Division, but met the frustrating response, ‘Regt still not allowed to enter Vire.’ By sheer bad luck, B Squadron was probing the northern outskirts of Vire as the German column emerged. The regiment recorded at 15.00 hours, ‘“B” Squadron report Tiger tks coming up rd from Vire. Sqn engage tks but their 75mm guns are no match for the Tiger tk armour. They lose three tks.’5

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Having summarily destroyed the three B Squadron tanks posted around the road junction at la Papillonnière, the German force bore right, towards their objective, the high ground beyond la Bistière at point 119 [modern 127].6 The reconnaissance soldiers dismounted from their light half-tracks to accompany the leading tanks, which in turn attempted to deploy into a broader formation, though the heavy tanks found few alternatives to the highway. Totally outclassed, the remaining Cromwells of the squadron slowly withdrew towards la Bistière, where the regiment’s headquarters was trying to improvise a roadblock. Then, to their horror, a further Tiger tank appeared behind them on the rising ground 500 metres to the east of the road and proceeded to pick off a further three B Squadron tanks as they fell back. In a further stroke of bad luck, artillery support was withheld to enable a spotting aircraft to direct rocket-armed Typhoons onto the German formation. But the spotting aircraft was shot down and the FOOs were unable to direct the circling fighter-bombers.

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La Bistière, on the road to Vire.

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The two Tiger tanks stopped short of Pip Roberts’ 11th Armoured Tac HQ.

Reaching la Bistière, the survivors of B Squadron had new hope. Here if anywhere, the Tiger tank might be at a disadvantage, ambush at close range giving even the Cromwell tank’s 75mm gun a chance of disabling a Tiger. But hope was short-lived. Loritz’s leading Tiger was hit at close range as it roared over an open crossroads but escaped serious damage and, as soon as it could traverse its heavy turret, despatched the ambusher in a ball of flame. One Tiger, Uscha. Streng’s, was indeed immobilized north of la Bistière, though repeated anti-tank hits succeeded only in giving the crew a fright and damaging a track so that the tank had to be towed to safety.

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Loritz’s Tiger was hit as it crossed the road.

The fight was not entirely one-sided. KG Weiß had stirred a hornets’ nest. Instead of uniting with Meindl’s paratroops from the west, and still hoping to see KG Meyer approaching from the east, they found only enemies around la Bistière. Attempts to move off the main highway achieved little as the country lanes proved simply too narrow for the huge tanks; yet unsupported infantry fell into ambushes. The close terrain saved the Cromwells of C Squadron lined up along the Etouvy-la Bistière road [modern D311]. C Squadron remained on this ridge line through the day, covering the retreat of the Northants headquarters from la Bistière. Restricted to the main highway, the heavy Tiger tanks took up defensive positions around la Bistière, two of them pressing forward as far as the slopes above point 119, and stopping literally back-to-back, guarding the approaches. In fact, they had unwittingly stopped within half a mile of Pip Roberts’ 11th Armoured Division tactical headquarters at le Reculey. Later that afternoon, Weiß’s 1. Kompanie of Tiger tanks and Gräbner’s 2. PSW Kompanie of half-tracks moved north-west out of Vire on the Torigni road and eventually made contact with forward elements of 3. Fallschirmjägerdivision.

Battered by attacks from all directions, the Tiger tanks around la Bistière suffered only one total loss: Rowsovski’s tank, number 233, whose turret was hit no less than seven times as British guns at close range sought weak points in its armour. Far worse was the suffering of the Northants Yeomanry. Tank commander Keith Jones recalls,

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‘Point 119’ at the bottom of a dip by a small stream.

‘Armour-piercing shots were predictably ineffective against Tiger frontal armour, but when they fired at the flanks the solidarity of the bocage walls in which the hedges had been rooted for centuries broke the force of the AP before it even reached the Tigers. This was a day in which failure to equip the regiment with the one-in-four Sherman Fireflies, mounting seventeen-pounder guns, as accorded to the armoured regiments, made all the difference’7

As well as losing tanks, several headquarters vehicles had been abandoned in la Bistière. In forty-eight hours of combat, forty-seven Cromwell tanks were lost, leaving only a composite squadron of fourteen at the end of the action.

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Forty-seven Cromwells were lost in two days of fighting.

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NEDFORCE AT LES GRANDS BONFAITS

For the 4th KSLI it was to be ‘a lovely day as regards weather, but rather unpleasant from the point of view of the escalated activities of the Boche.’ Responsible for the unpleasantness was the left wing of Kampfgruppe Meyer. While 10. SS-Panzerdivision continued to hold-off British XXX Corps, and the combined remains of 21. Panzer and 326. Infanterie clung to the heights dominating the Villers-Bocage highway, the main body of 9. SS-Panzerdivision prepared to push westward on a six kilometre front extending from Montchauvet to Estry. Though tired after arriving piecemeal in the sector and depleted by the detachment of elements to KG Weiß, the division could still mount two strong battle groups. On Meyer’s right, companies of the divisional tank regiment would support the first battalion of Panzergrenadierregiment ‘H’, striking through Montchamp, not as previously planned through St-Charles towards le Bény-Bocage, but now angling southwest over higher ground marked as Point 176, towards the N177 highway at the rendezvous of la Bistière. On KG Meyer’s left, Panther tank companies and II/Pz.Gr.Rgt. ‘H’ projected a left hook through le Busq, Presles, and onward to the same rendezvous. This ran headlong into the Grands Bonfaits outpost.

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‘Ned’ Thornburn’s sketch.

As promised by Colonel Robinson, Major Thornburn’s infantry company had been reinforced by two platoons of A Company, and two of the 6-pounder guns of the KSLI’s own antitank platoon. Further help came in the shape of A Squadron, 3rd RTR. And no British defensive position in Normandy would be complete without the presence of the (ubiquitous) Royal Artillery. The combined-arms defences of ‘Nedforce’ were completed by the Forward Observation Officer present, Captain Peter Garrett of the Ayrshire Yeomanry. In his Sherman tank, Captain Garrett represented the eyes and ears of an entire Field Regiment, its twenty-four towed 25-pounder guns ready to deliver predesignated defensive fire missions at mere moments’ notice.

The defensive position (so nearly abandoned the previous evening) appeared almost ideal. Major Thornburn’s first priority was visibility: ensuring that his platoons were deployed so as to get the earliest warning of an approaching enemy. From north-east to south-east, the view extended for all of four hundred yards. The second priority, clear fields of fire for the platoon Bren guns, was not so vital in this instance since artillery would be the primary means of stopping an enemy advancing on the position. Nevertheless, in the last resort the infantry platoons had to be able to support each other with interlocking fields of fire, so the five available rifle platoons were spaced evenly around the position. The riflemen dug-in in open ground, well clear of buildings which might attract artillery fire, or hedgerows and trees which would cause incoming rounds to airbust. (Shells and mortar bombs detonated by branches would rain shards downwards; conversely, those impacting the ground would throw fragments outwards and up rather than down into infantry slit-trenches). Antitank guns were set up in the spaces between platoons, away from the riflemen (the gunners with their unwieldy artillery pieces were largely dependent on concealment and had a horror of riflemen giving away their emplacements by milling around near them). Thornburn later reflected ‘It was a lovely position.’

However, Thornburn admitted to a ‘tragic error of judgement’ with regard to the siting of the supporting tanks. 3rd RTR’s A Squadron had gone into their accustomed night ‘laager’. In the absence of the squadron commander the second in command, an old desert hand, formed his tanks under the trees in the heart of the position. In the featureless desert, this had been standard procedure. In the rolling countryside of Normandy, experience was to show the benefit of deploying tanks in more widely dispersed positions, using covering terrain, and ideally in hull-down positions (in which only their turrets would be visible and exposed to enemy fire). Some of the crews spaced their tanks as best they could, but still they were a dense target.

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The morning had dawned bright and clear. The tank men stood-to in their Shermans, but all remained quiet and they were allowed to stand down, dismounting to prepare breakfast. There was even time for a wash and a shave. Furtive movements were observed in the orchards surrounding le Busq, and the sound of distant vehicles carried on the easterly breeze reminded the troops that the enemy was not far off. A few desultory artillery rounds were sent in that direction, and a few German rounds came back – apparently in response but with hindsight more likely ranging rounds in preparation for the German counter-attack. The tranquillity of the scene was abruptly torn apart by a violent bombardment erupting over the position.

It is a principle of artillery bombardment that a sudden, unexpected burst of extreme ferocity is more effective than a gradual ‘softening up’. With no warning, the air above les Grands Bonfaits filled with the shriek of descending mortar bombs. Flashes and blasts were followed by showers of dirt and stones, of leaves and severed branches. The infantry pressed themselves into the earth at the bottom of their entrenchments. The tank crews were caught outside their tanks, the comparative safety of the armoured vehicles denied them as climbing up to the narrow hatches would mean exposure to a deadly hail.

The bombardment stopped. In the comparative silence, fire crackled, leaves fluttered down, the plaintive cries for stretcher bearers began. Some tanks were in flames, all were more or less damaged, among them the FOO’s Sherman. Suddenly, a dozen enemy tanks were approaching, and enemy infantry could be seen darting from cover to cover as they worked their way forward. The tanks’ sensitive ‘19 set’ wirelesses were all either unmanned or inoperable. The FOO, Captain Garrett, shouted to Thornburn in desperation, ‘I’m off the air. I can’t call for fire.’The only workable 19 set was Thornburn’s own, in his unarmoured 15cwt truck. A rough-and-ready relay was quickly established: Garrett shouted fire orders and Thornburn ‘repeated some incomprehensible jargon on my blower’. The defensive fire mission came swiftly.

‘Sure enough, the D.F. came down, and bang on target. I suppose we had the whole Field Regiment. I was even offered Typhoons, but when I asked what safety margin they required, and was told 400 yards, I dared not accept since the enemy was only 150 yards away at the most.’8

The situation remained uncertain. A deputation of tank officers informed Thornburn that they would have to abandon the position. The infantry commander was technically in command, and Thornburn quite rightly pointed out that his foot soldiers were in no position to withdraw from their slit trenches in the face of enemy fire. A tricky situation was resolved when Corporal ‘Titch’ Hayward of the KSLI antitank platoon crawled back from his gun position to declare that his men had a German tank in its sights: ‘If he advances another five yards I’ve got him in the bag.’Heartened by such determination, the tank officers agreed to remain. The squadron commander later confessed to being ‘a little worried about the position of the infantry, but after consultation with the Shropshire company commander... I felt a little more reassured.’9

Sergeant ‘Buck’ Kite commanded one of the tank troops. As the barrage lifted, he managed to get his crew to scramble back aboard their Sherman, while others were diving for cover under their tanks rather than into them. With a clear view of the approaching enemies, Kite had his gunner traverse and fire.

‘I managed to halt the two tanks I’d first seen – they got out of it but whether they were hit or whether they had reversed out of the fields on to the road I don’t know. In any case, by this time three more had appeared.’

There was no time to keep score. The furious exchange of fire continued.

‘We fired so many shots at these three Jerries that I ran out of armour-piercing and started to use HE which wasn’t a great deal of use against armour but was better than nothing.’10

In the midst of the engagement, it occurred to Sergeant Kite that his troop Firefly was not in action.

‘I said to my gunner, a little Liverpool lad called Herbie Barlow, “Come on Herbie, let’s go and have a look at it.” I knew if I could get its 17-pounder on to the Jerries it could do some damage.’

The two ran across to the unoccupied tank; the gunner slid into his seat and a loader was conscripted, while Kite himself stood outside on the engine cover, ‘with the turret between me and the enemy tanks which were only 300 yards or so away.’11 They fired on the German tanks until the Firefly was penetrated and started to burn, then returned to firing-off the remaining HE from their original mount. When even this ammunition began to run low, Kite warned the nearby artillerymen, tending the wounded FOO in the lee of their immobilized tank, that he might have to pull out of the fight. The gunners responded that their OP tank had a stock of unused Armour Piercing ammunition, and a human chain of infantrymen was hastily assembled to transfer the shells to Kite’s Sherman to keep his crew firing.

‘We were concentrating on one Panther when I realized another was swinging his gun straight at us. I said, “Right a bit, Herbie... on,” but before he could fire I saw the flash of the Jerry’s gun. The corn bent as the shell passed over it and I thought, “This is it. Goodbye!”’

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The corn bent as shells passed over.

Though rendered unconscious, suffering multiple wounds, ‘Buck’ Kite survived. He later decided that the Panther, like his own Sherman, must have run out of AP shot, since the shell that burst on his turret front was High Explosive, doing no damage to Herbie or Shaw inside nor to the tank itself. Denied a Distinguished Conduct Medal for the action, Kite nevertheless received the unique distinction of becoming the only member of the British Army in the Second World War to receive a third Military Medal. (A friend commented in a letter to Kite, recovering in hospital, ‘The King will get tired of pinning medals on you.’)

As Kite’s troop was holding back the enemy wave, the squadron commander appealed to his colonel for help and was told to look out for elements of Guards Armoured somewhere to the north. These were the 2nd Irish Guards, whose Shermans were in the vicinity of la Marvindière, fighting their own battle. Hopes that the Guards might arrive to rescue the beleaguered 3rd RTR were not realised. Captain Kent later recorded that,

‘We had the Guards on our left. My attempt to get their immaculate squadron to shoot into the flanks of those Panthers was only partially successful, as they themselves stated that they were rather pinned down by several enemy tanks which picked them off if they poked their noses over the ridge. However they agreed to sit where they were to prevent our position being outflanked.’12

GUARDS AT MARVINDIÈRE

The scattered elements of the 2nd Irish-5th Coldstream group had spent a lonely night. Somehow, after the confusion of the evening advance, the Irish F2 Echelon (the forward resupply column, led by Major Sir John Reynolds) managed to make contact with elements of the battalion, but the Coldstream infantry had no such sustenance. Fortunately, the tanks’ practice was to carry three days rations on board, and ‘out of common decency the crews shared their food with the hungry infantrymen.’13

With daylight, the HQ group broke leaguer and soon discovered the nearby squadrons and companies. Fuel supplies came forward, and so too did the irrepressible brigadier. Brigadier Gwatkin urged the combined tanks and infantry to press on towards the previous day’s objective: to pass through Estry and secure the main Vire highway at the town of Vassy, seven kilometres beyond. A minimum screening force was to be left to contain enemy pockets of resistance. (As it turned out, an overly optimistic assessment of the opposing force.)

The brigadier’s orders failed to recognise the enemy’s strength. While it was true that the opposition northwards around point 181, Montchamp, and the high ground still further north was largely composed of mixed elements of 21. Panzerdivision and survivors of 326. Infanterie, a new force occupied the ground directly ahead. Where Guards Armoured divisional intelligence hazarded ‘a mere guess that there might still be a few Germans there,’ 9. SS-Panzerdivision was arriving. Its principal force, KG Meyer, was coalescing around Estry itself, and preparing to launch its own strike deep westward into the VIII Corps salient. Unsuspecting, the Irish-Coldstream group prepared to move out.

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5th Coldstream Guards sketch map of the Marvindière position.

At 09.00 hours, two Irish Guards squadrons moved from harbour on the reverse slopes of la Marvindière to the crest of the rise, from which they could observe the road following the next ridge to the south, from les Grands Bonfaits to Estry. While their guns covered the tranquil valley, 3 Squadron moved cautiously down the hill, accompanied by 3 Company of the Coldstream. Should the way ahead prove clear, the intent was quickly to mount the remaining infantry on tanks and blaze a trail across country. As this was proceeding, Colonel Finlay ‘who everyone thought had gone for at least a day’14 returned from his enforced rest to resume command. He arrived just after 3 Squadron had satisfied itself that the way ahead was free of the enemy, and just as the squadron’s leading tank went up in flames. The Coldstream infantry went to ground, digging-in along a sunken lane which offered welcome cover. The Shermans of 3 Squadron were similarly protected though with little opportunity to return fire; only by reconnaissance on foot were the enemy tanks blocking the way ahead spotted.15

The advance ground to a halt.

‘The rest of the day was spent playing hide and seek in and out of orchards and hedges. The advantage, of course, lay with the Germans as, no matter what is said in Parliament, their guns penetrate our armour, and the 75mm does not penetrate theirs.’16

Shortly after midday, even the dynamic Brigadier Gwatkin recognised that overcoming the enemy force ahead would require more strength than he possessed. He ordered, ‘no further advance was to be made till the next formation came up level with us on our left and the Battle Gp was to hold its present position as a defensive pivot.’17 Co-operation between infantry and tanks appears to have been minimal. As early as 10.00 hours, the Irish War Diary noted that the infantry accompanying their lead squadron were ‘very tired’, an assertion repeated later in the day; while the Coldstream efforts at sending out recce patrols were unappreciatively dismissed by the Irish tanks as finding out ‘little we did not know already’.

With the supporting tanks taking long pot shots from la Marvindière against targets of opportunity, the forward squadron and company remained through the daylight hours just north-east of the Nedforce position at les Grands Bonfaits.18 Here they were in dead ground from their neighbours’ positions to the west: not visible from the 3rd RTR Shermans, far less from the 4th KSLI slit trenches. While the occupants of the 11th Armoured Division outpost might criticise the ‘immaculate squadrons’ of Guards sitting on the opposite ridge, unbeknown to them Guardsmen much closer were preventing their position from being outflanked, helping to funnel the Germans into a full-frontal assault on the Grand Bonfaits position. Meanwhile, on the Guards’ own front, the apparently desultory fire from the Irish 1 and 2 Squadrons was effectively standing-in for their accustomed artillery support. ‘The Battalion’s own battery’19 of 25-pounder Sextons, along with the rest of the Leicester Yeomanry, had been temporarily put out of action.

ROYAL ARTILLERY

Time and time again in the Normandy campaign, the gunners tipped the balance. The Royal Artillery emerged from the First World War with a reputation as the most professionally skilled arm of the British Army, and this reputation was to be upheld throughout the 1944-1945 campaign in Northwest Europe. In 1941, Churchill had observed that ‘Renown awaits the commander who first, in this war, restores the artillery to its prime position on the battlefield.’ Montgomery was such a commander. Ever a realist, Montgomery played to his army’s strengths and to his enemies’ weaknesses. He believed that superior German small arms and sophisticated infantry tactics could be overcome by blowing the enemy to bits with High Explosive.

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The ubiquitous 25-pounder field gun.

The statistics are impressive. Single brigades (of three infantry battalions or tank regiments) were routinely allocated a full Field Regiment, RA, a unit whose twenty-four field guns could deliver up to 1,800 rounds in fifteen minutes. Good logistical systems existed to support such rates of fire, and the response to calls for pre-planned defensive fire could be measured in minutes if not seconds. More than one German POW reputedly asked for ‘a look at one of your wonderful automatic field guns.’ German battle reports likened British barrages to those of the First World War: one Hohenstaufen officer was moved to quote Dante’s Inferno: ‘...abandon hope all ye who enter here!’

At les Grands Bonfaits and in numerous engagements along the Vire-Vassy road, it was the overwhelming power of the Royal Artillery that made the difference, making massed frontal attacks impossible to sustain and driving the Germans to adopt the tactics of infiltration.

The guns supporting Nedforce in the battle for les Grands Bonfaits were closer than usual to the action. Little more than a mile to the west of Major Thornburn’s strongpoint was the defensive ‘box’ of 4th KSLI, containing B and C Companies, plus Support Company’s Carrier and Mortar Platoons, also providing safe haven for the headquarters of 3rd RTR. And a further mile west was another box: on the Burcy ridge, between the hamlets of Forgues and les Grippes, was the defensive box of the 1st Herefords, sheltering the headquarters of Brigadier Churcher’s 159th Brigade. Also in this box, unusually far forward, were the towed field guns of the Ayrshire Yeomanry.

The division’s other field regiment, the ‘Sexton’ self propelled guns of 13th Royal Horse Artillery, had already encountered the enemy. On approaching their firing positions near le Désert, an area supposed to have been cleared, they had come under direct antitank fire. Their movement became even brisker. Patrick Delaforce recalls

‘the immense thrill for a young, green twenty year old of leading a troop of four huge Sexton 25-pounders under fire; on the move at thirty miles per hour the radio ordered “Action!” and we burst straight off the road through hedges to get into action. We had shells in the air within a minute – RHA tradition!’20

The 13th RHA War Diary paints a vivid picture of the situation around le Désert on 3 August.

‘Our own guns maintained a notable accuracy and retained the confidence and later the great appreciation of the Bde. This was the first day of persistent infiltration and counter-attacks, and the first of the days when the CO was continuously on his wireless with the exception of only a few hrs, varying between two and four, of sleep. The guns were engaging tgts almost without pause as is evidenced by the fact that all bty were most reluctant to remain loaded because their pieces were so hot.’

(The regiment experienced the unsettling event of a Sexton blowing up when its 25 pounder gun malfunctioned.)

‘Added complications were the very unusual danger to the guns posns from inf and tks who were swanning about in the area, being at one stage within two hundred yds. H Bty came out of action and assumed an ATk role: the AA Crusaders [antiaircraft tanks mounting twin Oerlikon 20mm guns] joined the fray. The same thing happened the next day... It was really wonderful that in spite of these distractions the response from the guns remained so quick and accurate and steady.’ One officer, Patrick Delaforce, recalls, ‘At dusk during BLUECOAT, I personally laid out several hundred yards - overlapping - of trip wire with flares, a hundred yards in front of our gun positions. Though we had the very capable 8/Rifle Brigade in front, we took no chances against infiltration. At night, a dozen SOS targets would be requested on cross roads and other forming up points. So if the infantry or our FOO said over the radio “SOS on FERGUSON, scale five”, some Panzer Grenadiers’ night manoeuvre would be rudely disturbed!’

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Sextons of 13th RHA, 11th Armoured division’s self-propelled field regiment.

Not far away from le Désert, the self-propelled artillery regiment of Guards Armoured Division had an even closer encounter. The Sextons of 153th Field Regiment, the Leicester Yeomanry, had advanced through the night from just south of St-Martin-des-Besaces to point 176 [modern 177]. The unit war diary records that ‘The location of our forward troops was uncertain but Division were of the opinion that the area was safe.’ Division were wrong. By 09.00 hours, the gun lines were formed and the Leicester Yeomanry commenced firing in support of the Irish Guards in la Marvindière. As a precaution, the battery captains sent reconnaissance patrols out to the flanks and forward of the undefended position. These ran into a 9. SS-Panzerdivision raiding party.

For twenty minutes, confusion reigned and there was a real risk of the whole regiment being overrun. Fire missions were abandoned and Sextons fired over open sights at enemy tanks and Panzergrenadiere emerging from trees barely one hundred yards away. The 25-pounders had some Armour Piercing rounds, which were observed to bounce off the front armour of the Panther tanks. When these were exhausted the gunners carried on with High Explosive, virtually useless against the tanks, but when fired into the trees the airburst proved effective against the enemy infantry. Some guns even used up their last HE and fired smoke rounds before breaking off the action. Meanwhile, officers tried to supervise an orderly withdrawal, though the exits from the fields were narrow and covered by enemy fire. In at least one case a Sexton was driven off the field by a gunner who had never before driven a vehicle. Though personnel losses were mercifully light, the toll of lost equipment was heavy.

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The timely appearance of M10s.

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the six Sexton troops in action at la Crière.

The Leicester Yeomanry’s losses would have been heavier still but for the timely appearance of 17-pounder M10 tank destroyers of Q Battery, 21st Antitank Regiment. Sergeant Farrow, in command of one of these M10s, fired three 17-pounder rounds through the stone walls of a cow byre towards the estimated position of an unseen enemy tank. Next day he was pleased to discover that his blind fire had indeed penetrated both stone and armour and blown up the Panther. Not all were so fortunate. Battery Sergeant-Major Woolley (C Troop) engaged a German tank but his M10 was disabled by return fire. Baling out through the forward hatches, co-driver/operator Alan Henshall and relief driver (replacement for an injured crewman) ‘Jock’ Campbell were surprised to see their commander emerge from the wreck of the turret. BSM Charlie Woolley (possibly in shock?) ordered the two to escape while he attempted to drive the M10 to safety. But its armour was quickly penetrated, Woolley dying in the burning wreck. Henshall and his companion made for the Leicester’s gun lines, but before they reached friends, a bullet parted the hair on Henshall’s head and killed Campbell. BSM Woolley, relief driver Gunner Campbell, and loader Lance-Bombardier Sowerby, killed on 3 August, today lie together in St-Charles-de-Percy.21

In all, the Leicester Yeomanry had lost four Sextons and two officers’ Sherman tanks, together with twenty-two other vehicles. By early evening, the survivors resumed firing from the ground they had occupied before their move south to point 176.

THE INFILTRATORS

As early as the pre-dawn hours, the 3rd Irish Guards infantry battalion was awaiting daylight before resuming their advance eastward through St-Charles-de-Percy, and on past Maisoncelles towards la Marvindière, when a large body of infantry moving west bumped the battalion. Somehow, the enemy slipped past the leading rifle companies in the dark, to run straight into battalion headquarters. The Irish Guards’ feeling was that their assailants

‘almost certainly ran into Battalion H.Q. by mistake... The result was “we wondered what the hell they were playing at, or if their leading troops really knew their task.” They must have been very alarmed when they heard Colonel Joe bellowing “MOW them down!” He himself was delightedly firing the gun mounted on his scout car.’22

The attack was handily beaten off at the cost to the enemy of thirty dead and a dozen prisoners. Some later speculated that the clerks and signallers ‘belting away’ with captured German machineguns had deceived the attackers into running towards their distinctive sound thinking it was a friendly force. On further reflection, the uncoordinated and unsupported failure was explained as ‘the men belonged to the 9th S.S. Panzer Division and had been put into battle against us immediately on arrival before any preparation was possible.’23 And later still, it was realised by officers interrogating the prisoners that, far from being Aryan supermen, many of these SS grenadiers were actually Asian conscripts.24

Intentional or not, the Germans’ adoption of ‘marauding’ tactics threatened the entire battle zone. As the day continued, infantry units of platoon strength backed up by a small number of tanks might be encountered anywhere to the rear of 11th and Guards divisions’ forward units. Early in the day, enemy forces had moved westwards behind the 23rd Hussars and 8th Rifle Brigade position, their approach up the valley screened from view by a fold in the ground. The Hussars’ disaster at les Moulins had left a blind spot which the Germans, forestalled at les Grands Bonfaits, were quick to exploit. By 10.00 hours Presles was once again in German hands: ‘A very annoying thing,’ Pip Roberts recorded.25

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The view northwards from le Bas Perrier across the valley to Presles.

The first the 23rd Hussars knew of the enemy’s infiltration of their rear was the curious sight of a half dozen khaki-clad figures in the valley below Presles. On close inspection, these were seen to be the regimental fitters, now held captive by an unseen enemy. Summoned forward from le Bény-Bocage to tend tired Shermans, their three half-tracks had been ambushed and captured crossing the valley after their descent through Presles.

‘Sure enough, down the valley from the east came large numbers of enemy infantry, walking in open order, but with the clear intention of occupying Presles... Soon we saw them creeping into the village, and spreading out round it... In short, we were cut off’26

The 23rd Hussars-8th Rifle Brigade group on the hill at le Bas Perrier was now not only cut off, but their north-facing slope was exposed to this new enemy threat. The enemy to the north were too dispersed to warrant artillery fire; the valley between so open as to make a counter-attack suicidal. Before long, fleeting glimpses of enemy tanks were followed by incoming fire from hidden enemies, fire which the majority of the Shermans saw little point in returning.

‘The battle was fought at long range, which virtually discounted our seventy-fives for anti-tank work, and left us only our seventeen-pounders, of which we had nine left, to compete on equal terms. Another handicap was that our shells went off with a big flash and puff of smoke, which gave the tank’s position away, whilst the Germans had flashless and smokeless powder in their ammunition.’27

The rest of a trying day would be spent trying to dodge incoming rounds while keeping a wary eye on the southern aspect of the Perrier ridge.

Resupply of all the forward British units became extremely problematic. Virtually besieged around la Marvindière, the 5th Coldstream had

‘neither contact with the Grenadiers on the left and 11th Armoured Division on the right nor a secure lifeline back to S.-Charles, and German tanks and halftracks roamed the lanes to the north very much as they pleased.’28

The 2nd Irish Guards’ MT [Motor Transport] officer who had found his way forward to la Marvindière with supplies on the first night now had cause to complain. ‘Trustingly and as it proved unwisely we took the word of Higher Formation that the C.L. [‘Charlie Love’, the centre line, wherever possible based on the principal road parallel with the axis of advance] was clear back to ST CHARLES le PERCY... from pt 176 to SIEURMOUX was confidently said to be protected by ‘Y’ Bty A Tk, which was true, and free from enemy which was untrue.’29

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Major Sir John Reynolds’ F2 Echelon enjoyed a quiet drive back to replenish from A Echelon, until rudely interrupted near point 176 by machinegun fire which brewed his two leading lorries. Only with the greatest difficulty did he extricate his vulnerable column and return to the besieged Marvindière. ‘The whole operation was difficult and dangerous as the enemy could see and shoot our trucks while we could only guess at his positions.’ With the F2 column unable to get back again for more supplies, it fell the following day for A Echelon to come forward, following the already congested 11th Armoured Divison’s Centre Line as far as the 29th Brigade box at point 218, after which they too came under heavy fire.30

As to the 2nd (Armoured Recce) Welsh Guards around la Marvindière, patrolling by day and closed-in for defence by night, supply was almost impossible. Their own MT officer Captain J S Gwatkin was taking up water and petrol when he encountered the enemy far behind his unit.

‘All went well till the calvary at Le Desert. Here there was a number of little roads and I wasn’t sure of the way even with a map. Some 3rd Division men were moving up (the first we knew of their existence in this area) and they advised me that there were German tanks about a mile down the road to the right – the way I should have gone.’31

Passing a ghostly, deserted château, Gwatkin’s column diverted around nearby gunfire, leaving sentries to guide their return journey. Having resupplied the forward squadrons, they returned to find the guides gone, returning only later with tales of a skirmish with a German patrol. Further back still, the column ran the gauntlet of fire as it passed crossroads between St-Charles and la Ferronnière.

In 159 Brigade ‘box’ north of the Burcy ridge were the twenty-four 25-pounder field guns of the Ayrshire Yeomanry. Feeling exposed in the rear areas, with German units infiltrating from east to west, the field regiment chose - exceptionally - to close up with the front line infantry. The wisdom of this move was soon to become clear. At one point, as the Ayrshires’ regimental headquarters staff busied themselves over their radio sets, the unflappable Lance-Bombadier Burton quietly entered the pigsty that doubled as RHQ, bearing a tray of cocoa for the officers. Setting the tray down, he murmured in a confidential tone, ‘Excuse me, sir, it is reported that a German patrol is coming up through the wood behind. Thank you, sir’, then slipped out as quietly as he had entered.32

DAY’S END

As quickly as it had started, the battle at les Grands Bonfaits died away. Nedforce stood firm on the ridgeline. Thornburn watched the enemy tanks edging away, and would later reflect on the

‘extreme caution with which the German armour had advanced. Perhaps they thought we would run away if they stayed there long enough! Nor did their infantry attempt to close with us.’33

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His stand was rewarded by the Germans’ acceptance that the high ground was too strong to be taken. Meyer’s battle group had indeed hoped to take the position ‘on the bounce’ with a lightning frontal attack: ‘Frontalangriff’, focusing all fighting arms on a single point of effort, the ‘Schwerpunkt’. By achieving local fire superiority, the intent was first to shock the enemy into paralyzed inaction, then to overrun with a combined tank-infantry assault. Against a prepared position, however, this was an expensive business, and generally the last option of a German commander. Experience in the more open, mobile war in the east led the Germans to seek to infiltrate and outflank the enemy wherever possible. It is most likely that KG Meyer underestimated the determination of the Grands Bonfaits outpost. With the ranks of its infantry battalions filled-out with inexperienced troops, including numbers of the Hilfswilliger captured on the eastern front and now pressed into combat roles, it was hoped to succeed with less sophisticated manoeuvres. Such tactics sometimes succeeded. Here they signally failed. So great was the setback at les Grands Bonfaits that the Germans became convinced that there was no future in attacking there, and thereafter they preferred to infiltrate up the Allière valley, in dead ground below le Busq, towards Presles and Burcy.

To the east, Weiß’s Tiger tanks withdrew to la Bistière to rearm, leaving the reconnaissance infantry blocking the road to the north. KG Meyer had failed to materialize from the east. From the west the only Fallschirmjäger so far arriving at the Bistière rendezvous were stragglers escaping from earlier encirclement; the main body of their Fallschirmjäger division was now being directed to a point further south, to buttress the defence of Vire itself. Nevertheless, they were a welcome addition to Weiß’s force holding la Bistière. After dark, these battle hardened paratroopers acted

‘with considerable enterprise and daring, penetrated the positions of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry, causing a most uncomfortable night for this regiment, and, no infantry being available, a squadron of Sappers was despatched to assist it in an infantry role – an unusual occurrence for them.’34

One young Northants officer had earlier accompanied a file of wounded men to the rear, where he encountered the forward headquarters of 11th Armoured and

‘I accepted an enormous pink gin with my wad of bread, butter and jam. It was all I needed for an abreaction: loosening of the tongue. Before long I was entertaining an understanding GOC [General Officer Commanding, i.e., Roberts!] with my animated account of the SS assault on our under-gunned yeomanry.’ Not long after, on his return to his regiment, ‘What was different since I left was that a detachment of Royal Engineers had joined the squadron for the night as an infantry surrogate. I wondered if my rash conversation with our good-natured general had produced this extra support.’35

The general’s concern was most likely driven by events earlier in the day. The news that Germans had penetrated as far as the artillery lines around point 176 had greatly perturbed VIII Corps headquarters, causing the day’s ‘great flap’. As fighting intensified on the very doorstep of 11th Armoured Division’s tactical headquarters at le Reculey, le Bény-Bocage appeared under threat. Corps commander O’Connor had himself been shelled on visiting Roberts at le Reculey – barely a half-mile from the roadblock where Tiger tanks and reconnaissance infantry were occupying their agreed rendezvous, blissfully unaware of the opportunity before them. Two miles further back, 11th Armoured Main HQ around le Bény-Bocage had prepared for self defence: drivers, cooks, mechanics, and storemen were hurriedly issued with PIATS. A maintenance mechanic recalled,

‘One very hot and sunny day we were put on alert towards noon. 5 Tigers had managed to slip past our front and were probably heading towards us... I took a young driver with me as assistant... Holding on to our PIAT we asked ourselves if it was not rather like trying to stop a tank with a pea shooter to attack it with a projectile from this length of sawn-off tubing.’36

Fortunately, the threatening rumble of tracks on the gravel road resolved into a friendly Sherman.

The threat was general. Well behind what ought normally to have been considered the ‘front’, the 23rd Hussars’ A Echelon was told-off for action.

‘Great excitement and alarm was being caused by shelling and reports that Tigers were coming from the east. Captain Geikie, who was in charge of A 1. Echelon at the time, was ordered by a despairing staff officer to be responsible for the left flank of the entire Eighth Corps.’

The benighted captain arrayed his small force. Apart from his lorry drivers, he had two 75mm Shermans, one of them immobilized; and a single Firefly, whose 17-pounder would only fire once in five attempts and then was inaccurate. He was ‘slightly dubious as to whether they would be a match for a force of Tigers.’ To his inexpressible relief, ‘Geekforce’ was not called into action.37

Along the British ‘front’ (still more a series of outposts than any sort of continuous line), nightfall brought little respite. At la Bistière, the Northants Yeomanry lost a further eight of their Cromwell tanks during the night, destroyed in dispersed leaguers by infiltrating German patrols. Their burnt-out remains were found next morning, in some cases surrounded by the strewn contents of the survivors’ pockets, emptied before they were marched into captivity. The fortified ‘hedgehog’ defences of 159 Brigade above Burcy and of 29 Brigade above Presles were not directly threatened but nor were they directly overlooking the Germans’ vital highway. The outposts of Fifes and Monmouths at Pavée and of Hussars and Rifles at le Bas Perrier survived, tormented by sporadic artillery and mortar fire, at times cut off from resupply, reliant on the steady support from their own guns of the Royal Artillery. And the beleaguered Guardsmen at la Marvindière stood their ground, closing up in defence and counting on the resumed fire of their own, distant Leicester Yeomanry batteries. The situation was grim. Still, Corps Commander O’Connor was prepared to support Pip Roberts’ obstinate plan to maintain his forward positions on the Perrier Ridge. Summoned the previous day, 3rd Infantry Division’s 185 Brigade began to arrive. 1st Norfolks, 2nd Warwicks, and 2nd KSLI marched through the darkness to their allocated sectors. The British ‘front’ would be sustained.

The 32nd Guards Brigade established headquarters on the northern slopes of the ridge between le Tourneur and le Bény-Bocage. The foremost battalion, 3rd Irish Guards, was only in spasmodic contact with its fellow units besieged around la Marvindière. Much impressed by a Panther tank captured intact (‘undoubtedly formidable and has a gun stretching from here to Sunday week’) the battalion was itself firmly dug-in around Maisoncelles. Meanwhile, 5th Guards Brigade had advanced its Tac HQ to la Ferronnière (which the Guards ever persisted in calling ‘St-Charles’). Consequently when Brigadier Gwatkin was summoned to an evening conference at divisional headquarters (on a reverse slope west of le Tourneur), the only practical route was via Mortar Gulch. The brigadier trusted that his solitary speeding scout car would not attract attention, but he was mistaken. Already, the passage of the narrow defile had cost many losses, including a commander of the Coldstream and the popular chaplain of the Leicester Yeomanry. Now, Gwatkin’s lone scout car was targeted as it crossed the Souleuvre. Perched on the car, ‘he remained imperturbable on the top, but all was not so well as it seemed.’38 Brigadier Gwatkin had received several shards in his face, neck, and hand; driver Lance-Corporal Burton was wounded in the face, nearly losing an eye. The car itself lost its brakes and its two offside tyres, and was so riddled with holes that it was greatly to the driver’s credit that he nursed the Dingo a mile up the road to the 19th Field Ambulance. ‘The Brigadier was a sanguine man and spouted blood all over his companion’;39 nevertheless, all he asked was to be cleaned and patched up. The Guards Armoured Division War Diary records:

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Grenadier Guards Churchills run through ‘mortar gulch’ south of Cathéolles.

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The same place in 2002. All the houses have been demolished to make way for the widened D577 Vire to Villers-Bocage road.

‘As the bloodstained and partially dressed Brig was having his wounds dressed, the following conversation ensued –

Brig: “Come on, don’t take too long, I want to get back to my unit”

Med Orderly: “Now you stay there, son, you’ve f - - - - - ing well had it for today”

History does not relate the reply.’

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