Chapter 14


The opposing army commanders still regarded the battle they were fighting from very different standpoints. At the level of Dempsey’s Second Army, it was perceived that VIII Corps had carved out a deep salient which had to be held until XXX Corps, still struggling to make progress to the north-east of VIII Corps, could come up alongside. Meanwhile Eberbach at Panzergruppe West remained convinced that the true front line still lay far to north of the current action, and that the British ‘breakthrough’ amounted only to pockets of resistance capable of being isolated and overrun.


The two army-group commands also differed in the importance they attached to this sector. For Montgomery, the primary objective of BLUECOAT had been achieved. With new leadership in place to reinvigorate XXX Corps, his attention moved to the eastern end of the British sector where Operation SPRING had recently failed and Operation TOTALIZE, the Canadian drive on Falaise, was due to begin on 8 August. Like Eisenhower, Montgomery had advance warning from ULTRA decrypts of an enemy build-up presaging a counter-offensive towards Avranches. But it was felt that, even were this barely credible event to materialize, no specific action was needed for what would probably be a German disaster.1

Von Kluge meanwhile had a strong personal interest in stabilizing the situation north of Vire. His absolute imperative was to be seen to be putting divisions in place for the Führer’s counter-offensive. Reports reaching his headquarters the previous day, 3 August, had told of German breakthroughs and of groups of British units becoming isolated in the Vire sector. Could von Kluge now consider stripping force from there? Early on 4 August, von Kluge checked with II. SS-Panzerkorps that AG Olboeter was in place on the Vire-Vassy road. It was, having arrived in the combat area on the evening of 3 August to take up positions alongside the Heerespionierbattaillon 600, itself now stiffenening the defences around Chênedollé. And was the vital highway to Vire absolutely clear? Back came the answer. No, the road was still being disputed west of Viessoix. The British offensive had still not been contained. Yet more assets earmarked for Mortain would have to be sent to Vire. And there was as yet no question of disengaging the Hohenstaufen.

From this point on, the outcome of Operation BLUECOAT would be decided not by brilliant manoeuvre but by grit, grim determination, and speed of reinforcement. And up to this point, the Germans had succeeded in reinforcing failure faster that British had reinforced their success. The speed with which 9. SS-Panzerdivision had been moved to the area of crisis demonstrated a clear awareness by the high command of the importance of the sector. By contrast, on the British side perilous gaps had been allowed to open to the rear of 11th Armoured Division, creating a virtual no man’s land behind the British front line. With boldness bordering on recklessness, 11th Armoured had resisted sending units back from the front to secure lines of communication. Now, at last, reinforcements were arriving to fill the void.


Montchauvet Church.


In the knowledge that 3rd Infantry Division was becoming available to support 11th Armoured, the infantry of 15th Scottish could now turn to assist Guards Armoured. All through 3 August, the Scots had pushed eastwards along the Arclais ridge, north of the Rubec valley. Much of their supporting armour bogged in the Rubec valley, but the infantry pressed on and by 22.30 hours elements of 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers at last came within sight of Montchauvet. Early on 4 August, 44th Brigade’s other two battalions, 8th Royal Scots and 6th King’s Own Scottish Borderers, tackled the ridge south of the Rubec. This was a daunting obstacle: a near-perpendicular bluff impassable even to carriers. But at last this crestline too was swept clear. Now, the valley road to Montchauvet was open, ‘Mortar Gulch’ was no longer under enemy observation, and Guards Armoured Division could swing south and east to shore-up the VIII Corps left flank.



First Montchauvet, then Montchamp fell, following misunderstandings between 9. SS-Panzerdivision and the remnants of 21. Panzer. The door briefly appeared open for the Guards to fight their way through to relieve their three forward battalions, still cut off at la Marvindière. But during the night of 3 August violent German counter-attacks recovered much of the lost ground. 32nd Guards Brigade later reflected that, ‘19 SS Pz Gren Regt was in spiteful mood when it caught our tps at the very moment when, having found MONTCHAMP clear apart from snipers on the evening of 4 Aug, they were just starting to dig in. Their counter-attack appears to have been made by a bn or so of inf (actually identifications were obtained of all four coys of II Bn and two coys of I Bn), supported by several Panthers.’ But the conflict had been far from one-sided: ‘Our tps fought at a considerable disadvantage and after suffering hy cas were forced to withdraw to the LA FIEFFE area, but not before inflicting even more severe cas on the enemy.’ 32 Brigade intelligence thought it significant that in the bitter fighting around Montchamp and Maisoncelles the following day, 5 August, the 19. Regiment was not encountered and 20. Pz.Gr.Rgt. bore the brunt of the fighting.


Meanwhile, as 3rd Division’s 185 Brigade was rushed to the front, its leading battalions were directed at 11th Armoured Division’s greatest areas of concern. 2nd KSLI ran straight into the armoured battlegroup marauding around point 176 and suffered heavy casualties. The 2nd Warwicks struggled forward past point 176, encountering groups of Germans as they made their way towards point 218 above enemy-occupied Presles. The 1st Royal Norfolks passed le Bény-Bocage towards Pip Roberts’ tactical headquarters at le Reculey where they were told-off for a first-light hasty attack on la Bistière (where in desperation for want of infantry some nearby 2nd Northants Cromwell crews had actually dismounted to perform reconnaissance and guard duties on foot). Lacking information about the enemy, the Norfolks pushed two companies straight down the road in the Northants’ direction.


Weiß’s Tiger tanks fought on at la Bistière. Those holding out around point 119 frequently became surrounded as the newly-arrived 1st Norfolks ventured forth from le Reculey. Variously informed that la Bistière ‘was’ and ‘was not’ occupied by enemy armour, the Norfolks’ progress, ‘virtually amounted to an advance to contact. That day, 4th August, was spent jockeying for a position with a limited attack by “A” and “D” companies, which unfortunately cost some casualties.’ The Tiger men were similarly uneasy at the developing situation: unable to manoeuvre their great tanks far off the main road, they imagined British infantry and tanks probing the broken terrain on all sides. Finally, around 22.30 hours on 4 August came orders to relocate once again to another point on the embattled II. SS-Panzerkorps front. Weiß pulled back to Vire.

So it was that the Norfolks’ assault at dawn on 5 August, now properly coordinated and ‘under a proper artillery barrage’, found the enemy ‘had had enough at that point of the line’.2 Still, theirs was no walkover. The battalion attacked with two companies up. A Company struck from the west, taking heavy casualties from mortar and artillery fire during the approach over the valley of the Planche Vittard stream to their Start Line at the hamlet of la Chapelle aux Huants. Closing to the scattering of buildings around la Bistière the company made slow and costly progress against machineguns and the direct fire of at least one rearguard tank. To their left, D Company’s assault was directed against Point 142 [modern 146] on the main highway north of la Bistière. Advancing over almost completely open ground, the company lost sixty percent of its strength within two hours. The left-forward platoon was reduced to just six men, after the platoon sergeant led a desperate charge against the lone tank that had stiffened the defence. Half the eight who followed him had fallen, and the tank was unscathed. But it was forced to pull out, and the cluster of buildings occupied. By 21.30 hours la Bistière was secured, complete with antitank defences.

So ended the German pincer movement intended to cut off the forward elements of 11th Armoured Division. And with its abandonment came the acceptance that a British breakthrough had truly occurred. There could no longer be any hope of restoring the German front to the line of the Souleuvre valley. Indeed, American pressure on Vire was now building, and it was all Meindl’s parachute infantry could do to cling with grim determination to the high ground west of the doomed town. The Tiger tanks did not dwell there long, leaving before daybreak on 5 August on a roundabout route that led them back to Chênedollé. The priority now was to hold a line further south: simply put, to hold the Vire-Vassy road.


The Hohenstaufen plan for 4 August had been a simple continuation of the previous day’s offensive. With armour and infantry groups still operating behind the forward British outposts, 9. SS-Panzerdivision had persevered in their role as the hammer striking the anvil of the Tiger tanks at la Bistière. Parties of Panther tanks and Panzergrenadiere continued to press westwards, aiming to cut the Vire-Villers Bocage highway and establish a line from Beaulieu and la Ferronnière in the east to la Graverie in the west, where it was hoped a firm union with Meindl’s paratroops could be forged. But steadily, the strength of the mighty Hohenstaufen was being reduced. Infiltration in this close country was a double-edged weapon. The Coldstream infantry, besieged at la Marvindière, were not able to get supplies up nor evacuate wounded. But they also recorded

‘A half-track towing a 7.5 mm gun [sic] drove into the R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post] and was shot up by one of our A/Tk guns before it could get into action.’ A prisoner, ‘explained that they had orders to return to ESTRY and had met us unexpectedly on the way. He came from 19 SS Pz G.R of 9 SS Pz Div. which had suffered very heavy casualties.’3

And shortly after midnight, ‘X’ Company, 3rd Irish Guards with the help of a Royal Artillery section of two towed 17-pounders ambushed a northbound column at Maisoncelles. It comprised a Panther and four Panzer III, plus a captured 2nd Irish Guards petrol lorry and a 2nd Welsh Guards water bowser. ‘

The anti-tank gunners were expecting nothing of the kind at that particular moment and were resting, but the layer shot at the leading tank at ten yards’ range and it burst into flames. This illuminated conveniently the other enemy tanks and some very close fighting followed.’4


By the end of 4 August, the concentrated artillery of 9. SS-Panzerdivision, firing from positions around Vassy, had enabled the combat engineers to push the British out of Chênedollé. North of the British enclave around le Bas Perrier, infiltrating grenadiers still threatened Presles. And the Hohenstaufen still occupied a tentative line of positions from Montchamp, through Sieurmoux and la Barbière, almost within sight of their countrymen in la Bistière. The German situation map could well give the impression that two British divisions (11th and Guards Armoured) plus a part of a third (3rd Infantry) had been encircled and cut off. But two days of continuous fighting had cost the division dearly. Much of the division’s armour had been lost, leaving only eight Sturmgeschütze, eight Panzer IV, and eighteen Panther tanks still operational. Losses of such magnitude could not be sustained. And all the time the British seemed to be growing stronger, with the risk of the encircling German forces themselves being encircled and cut off.

In the afternoon of 4 August, von Kluge had been dismayed to receive further communications from Eberbach that the British were still interdicting sections of the Vire-Vassy road. Earlier optimism that a new line had been formed between Estry, Burcy, and la Bistière faded. These areas were indeed still occupied by German pockets of resistance but in no sense was there a continuous line. And increasingly some British rear echelons were succeeding in restoring contact with their forward fighting elements. Worse news was to follow. Eberbach was still unable to confirm that his forces were in contact with 7. Armee to the west. Unpalatable and momentous decisions had to be made. The Hohenstaufen’s sister 10. SS-Panzerdivision, the ‘Frundsberg’, would be pulled out of the line and moved south from Aunay to Vassy. At least von Kluge could argue that he was moving the Frundsberg closer to the forming up area envisaged for the Führer’s planned offensive.

The withdrawal of 10. SS-Panzer was to take place during the night of 4-5 August. But the divisional commander was reluctant to break contact with their 43rd Wessex adversaries until adequate replacements were on hand; and SS-Oberführer Harmel was unimpressed by the remnants of 326. Infanteriedivision that had been allocated the task. Consequently, and contrary to orders from the parent corps, he ensured that a substantial part of his division remained in place as rearguard through the night. Given the difficulties of moving in daylight under Allied air cover, the division would consequently be unable to assemble as planned in fighting formation around Vassy by the morning of 5 August.



On the afternoon of 4 August, the reinforcement of le Bas Perrier by 2nd Warwicks came just in time. Now under command of 11th Armoured Division, the battalion had been ordered by 29 Brigade to re-establish contact with the 23rd Hussars-8th Rifles group, cut off south of Presles. Artillery had supported the Warwicks’ midnight attack on Presles, which proceeded unopposed. Come daylight, they crossed the valley, passing the burnt-out half-tracks of the captured 3rd RTR fitters. Now the relief of 8th RB began, ‘a most cumbersome procedure, as the two battalions had to use one small road between them,’ a procedure made all the more difficult by sporadic mortar fire on the open valley between le Bas Perrier and Presles. As the leading company arrived to relieve 8th Rifle Brigade, the observation post on the crest of the ridge at Hill 242 [modern 243] was already reporting enemy movement from the south. Soon, brief glimpses of enemy infantry darting from cover to cover were seen on the ridge. The Warwicks settled into their positions, taking the remaining Hussars’ tanks under command. The Hussars had long since found the position ‘not big enough for the number of tanks we had, and overcrowding could not be avoided.’ Now it was the Warwicks’ turn to find themselves, ‘squeezed on to an extremely small feature overlooked by a higher ridge.’5 Meanwhile the Germans regained possession of Hill 242 and reinforced their position in Chênedollé. German optimism that the British enclave between Presles and Chênedollé was cut off and in crisis turned after 4 August to an awareness that Chênedollé itself was directly threatened. The bend in the German defence line at Chênedollé was now itself a German crisis point (‘Krisenraum’) whose loss would be intolerable.



By 5 August, von Kluge was resigned to the necessity of forming a new defensive line, just north of the Vire-Vassy road. But keeping that road open was still a priority. And right in the centre of the newly-drawn line, between the German bulwarks of Estry in the east and Vire in the west, was the British position on the high ground south of Presles: the Perrier Ridge. This salient was a clear threat to the vital road. It had to be taken. The whole of Bittrich’s II. SS-Panzerkorps would be used. 9. SS-Panzerdivision was already regrouping around the ridge; 10. SS-Panzer was on its way. Abandoning the tactics of infiltration, both divisions would mount a concerted assault to crush the British position.

In fact, 10. SS-Panzerdivision was having great difficulty completing the move. Disengaging from their fight with XXX Corps had not been easy; and their passage through Aunay towards Vassy was fraught with difficulty due not only to Allied air strikes but also to an increasing flow of supply and medical vehicles eastwards along the narrow country roads. By dawn of 5 August, instead of the whole Frundsberg division, only two engineer and reconnaissance companies had reached Vassy. Only by day’s end would the bulk of the division have reached its assigned sector. The delay would prove costly, both in time and in future casualties. The timetable for Hitler’s Mortain counter-offensive demanded that the British incursions be quickly neutralized and the II. SS-Panzerkorps be hastened on its way further west; while the price of securing the Perrier ridge rose by the hour as the British reinforced their forward positions and began to ‘clean up’ the rear areas between le Bény-Bocage and the ridge. Costly too was the abandonment by the Frundsberg of the sector in which they had stalled the XXX Corps advance: within days of their leaving, 43rd (Wessex) Division would at last secure the heights of Mont Pinçon, at last easing the pressure on the eastern flank of VIII Corps’ salient.

Ordered to renew the process of straightening the line, 9. SS-Panzerdivision attacked on the evening of 5 August. Up to then, the day had been relatively quiet for the Warwicks infantry and 23rd Hussars at le Bas Perrier. True, part of Weiß’s battalion of Tiger tanks had arrived in the sector. But the stresses of combat and – even more – the wear and tear occasioned by the unit’s frequent displacement had taken their toll. By the morning of 5 August few of the heavy tanks were combat-ready. The Abteilung workshop scavenged spares and struggled to effect running repairs. Only a handful of the Tiger tanks worked their way up past Chênedollé onto the ridge above, at le Haut Perrier. Below, the Hussars’ Shermans were by now well concealed. The Tiger tanks assumed defensive positions, content with putting three shells through a Household Cavalry scout car, and later destroying a self propelled M10 antitank gun of the Royal Artillery. The Hussars’ historian recalled the misplaced optimism of that day: ‘It really began to look as though the Ninth SS Panzer Division had had about enough.’6 Likewise the Fifes’ tank squadrons on the ridge above Burcy. Steel Brownlie’s troop was directed to support infantry dug in to the west of their leaguer. Their day too had been uneventful.

‘There was only one incident, when a German patrol came cautiously towards us. When they were within Panzerfaust range, I opened up and they ducked for cover. I did some fancy shooting, like putting two or three HE on delay through a haystack, but the infantry were not too impressed. They said that they would have bagged the lot, had the patrol been allowed to come closer. And firing off tank guns might bring down shells. Point taken.’7

No less optimistic, VIII Corps now suspected that the time was right to consider disengaging 11th Armoured Division, in preparation for a chase should the German line crumble. The Northants Yeomanry was already being withdrawn from the fight (though in their case the withdrawal was hastened by their severe losses). Such British hopes were premature. The Hohenstaufen had taken a terrible beating. Some of its units had narrowly escaped encirclement in the British rear areas and needed time to reorganize. Nevertheless, another attack was being prepared. Dismounted reconnaissance infantry of Gräbner’s SS-Pz.AA 9 and companies of the divisional engineer battalion SS-Pz.Pi.Btl. 9 would keep the pressure on the British around Chênedollé through the evening and night. And for the morrow there was the promise, at last, of the Frundsbergdivision arriving – to be thrown precipitately into action. A Guards commentator caustically reflected the contemporary attitude to them:

‘It was the old story. Wherever either the 9th S.S. or the 10th S.S. Pazer Division appeared, the other soon followed like Mary and her little lamb. They were confirmed gate-crashers, always appearing uninvited and unwelcome.’8

The storm broke about 17.30 hours. A concentration of Nebelwerfer rockets fell on le Bas Perrier, temporarily paralyzing the Warwicks’ battalion command post. Once again, infantry and Sherman tanks fought a close range battle with the Germans who had survived the hail of defensive artillery to advance to close quarters. Three more concerted attempts were made, each of them similarly broken up by artillery concentrations. Come the dawn of 6 August, le Bas Perrier was held.

‘It presented an extraordinary picture, with the peaceful fields disfigured by the ugly shape of tanks, pitted with shell holes and torn up by tracks. Burnt and blackened vehicles dotted the hedgerows, and beside many of them were a few rough crosses made of two twigs with a beret or a rifleman’s steel helmet resting upon each of them.’9

Further west, the defensive box of the Fifes and Monmouths was similarly assailed. An infantryman there recalls the noise and confusion:

‘We could see nothing. Suddenly the hedge was parted violently just to our right and a Sherman tank broke through, reversing slowly, firing non-stop at some invisible enemy. There was small arms fire now on all sides: our shells were still screeching past just overhead; there were loud explosions and the roar of the tank engine grew louder... German infantry must be very close... There was a loud explosion from the Sherman tank. A cloud of dust rose into the air. The crew threw themselves out of the hatches and ran crouching towards us.’10

And so it went on. Lasting well into the night, the fight was resumed in the morning of 6 August, this time with 10. SS-Panzerdivision leading the assault. But with the constant support of the British artillery, pounding suspected enemy forming-up areas, the positions still held.


Throughout 5 August, 3rd Division’s reinforcement of the forward British units had continued. Its forerunners of 185 Brigade pushed on south towards the Vire-Vassy road. Towards evening, the 1st Royal Norfolks were assigned to hand over the defence of la Bistière to the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles (of 3rd Division’s newly arrived 9th Brigade) and then move to relieve 11th Armoured Division’s own 3rd Monmouths, still beleaguered at Pavée. Originally planned for the night of 6-7 August, such was the Monmouths’ exhaustion that 159 Brigade was determined to replace them earlier, trusting that the exchange might be covered by the morning mist preceding another rhot summer day. The Norfolks’ Major Humphrey Wilson gives a vivid description of the scene he found on reaching the 159 Brigade headquarters on the ridge north of Burcy.


Oberführer Heinz Harmel commander of 10. SS-Panzerdivision, the ‘Frundsberg’.

‘Around midnight I made contact with Brigadier Jack Churcher who pointed out a burning ridge in the distance and said “There are the Monmouths, or what is left of them. Be careful how you go as we are only in wireless touch with them. Be prepared to take over from them at first light.”’11

Churcher was not exaggerating the Monmouths’ plight.

On his arrival, Wilson found the Monmouths’ hilltop at Pavée under continual bombardment. The men were indeed exhausted. Virtually cut off from brigade headquarters, they were improvising great cider barrels as shelters for their more seriously wounded. Their CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Hubert Orr was no less exhausted than his men, but recognised the folly of withdrawal now that the sun was up and the mist burning off. Besides, he pointed out, ‘If the Germans are so anxious to have Pavée then we had better stay here.’

So it was to be. The 6 August morning mist evaporated to find the Norfolks’ leading B Company exposed on a hillside north of Pavée, where they were promptly pounded by German mortars. A and C Companies tried different routes, but all suffered casualties. As the day wore on, the soft transport of F2 Echeleon that had brought the Norfolks forward was shredded by mortar fire as it waited in vain to carry away the Monmouths. Most of the trucks were left burning in the orchards behind the ridge. Even the armoured carriers with the antitank platoon’s spare ammunition went up. By nightfall the combined numbers of the two infantry battalions on the ridge barely totalled 550. An increased volume of shelling heralded a new enemy attack, and so with withdrawal increasingly problematic, the two battalion commanders agreed to stay and pool their dwindling forces into a single unit, under Orr. A battlegroup of ‘Nor-Mons’ was formed.


The road running north through Pavée to la Fauvellière. This was the highwater mark of the Frundsberg assault.

The arrival of the Norfolks and their pragmatic consolidation came just in time. As B and C Companies relieved the Mons’ forward positions, the first wave of Frundsberg infantry and armour swept up the eastern flank. Frantic calls for artillery went out to the joint battalion headquarters sheltering in what remained of the rubbled stone of the Taflet farm. It was at the height of this afternoon assault, as B Company was about to be overrun, that Corporal Bates on the extreme right flank of 11 Platoon seized the number 4 Section Bren gun from its wounded operator. He urged his section forward to a better vantage point. Firing the blood soaked gun from the hip, he cut down a dozen leading grenadiers, causing those behind to pause. Still the enemy came on, threatening to drive a wedge into the British line. Firing from the hip, Bates strode forward alone. Knocked down by machinegun fire, he recovered his weapon and continued emptying magazines into the enemy. Hit a second time and more seriously wounded, he staggered again to his feet, still firing. At last felled by a third, mortal wound from a mortar bomb, he fell to the ground but continued to fire until his strength failed him. The enemy advance had melted away before the seemingly indestructible warrior. The position was held. Sidney ‘Basher’ Bates died two days later and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Meanwhile, with 11 Platoon reduced to just seven men and its forward sections overrun, acting platoon commander Sergeant Smith continued to hold out. Exhausting his Bren ammunition, he took over the platoon two-inch mortar until the HE rounds ran out, then hurled number 36 Grenades until a platoon counter-attack could be mounted to stabilize the situation.


Corporal Sidney Bates VC.

With enemy tanks and infantry tightening their grip on the scarred ridge crest, the sole remaining artillery FOO, Major Mitchell of the Ayrshire Yeomanry, single-handedly managed observation posts covering all angles of attack, tirelessly directing defensive fire in all directions. Brigade offered fighter bombers. But the Germans were so close that the red smoke marking the enemy drifted back over the Nor-Mons, and from the cloudless blue sky American Thunderbolts set about bombing the British position. Major How of the Herefords recalled,

‘With so much shelling and so many “Moaning Minnies” it didn’t seem to make much difference.’12 Meanwhile, the Norfolks experienced, ‘a terrific artillery bombardment on Bn. H.Q. with the result that most of our “F”2 echelon vehicles were soon blazing. Ammunition trucks were going sky-high and setting off others. The scene was indescribable: blazing vehicles, dead men and cattle.’13

Two miles back, Mitchell’s own Ayrshire Yeomanry worked their 25-pounder field guns. In this action alone they expended 250 rounds per gun. The barrels were red hot. And by 21.00 hours, the Ayrshires’ ammunition was running out. Were the lines of supply broken? Then, as desparing gunners thumped the last few rounds into breeches, a column of thirty RASC trucks was spotted. The Yeomen cheered them up the hill,14 then resumed firing for a further two hours until the enemy drew off.

Patrick Delaforce’s troop of Royal Horse Artillery Sextons added their fire.

‘I remember the awful feeling of horror and helplessness as the poor, wretched Mons got stonked out of their lives a few hundred yards in front. The noisy, mobile, efficient “Moaning Minnies” needed fantastic FOO skill to track them down and shell them into silence.’

German mortars are generally accepted to have caused up to seventy per cent of Allied casualties in Normandy. The ‘Moaning Minnie’ rockets (‘Screaming Meemies’ to the Americans, Green Line Buses’ to some Guardsmen, to yet others ‘Sobbing Sisters’ and ‘Wailing Winnies’) fired by the Nebelwerfer launchers arrived with a sound which has been likened to an underground train, adding a psychological twist to their physical threat. But the Forward Observers did their job. Unlike their American and German counterparts, British battery commanders were typically not with the guns but forward with the units they supported. And once spotted, the German gunners were subjected to counter-battery fire on a massive scale: on average twenty tons of shells would fall on a discovered firing position. 15

German fire came in from east, south, and west. Now, as afternoon turned to evening, the main enemy thrust came from the south-west, rolling up to and around the Norfolks’ C Company and their remaining Monmouthshire companions. German tanks (inevitably called ‘Tigers’ by the British, though mainly Panzer IV of 2/10. SS-Panzerregiment) plunged into the British positions. Waves of Frundsberg grenadiers lapped up the hillsides, advancing in short rushes from cover to cover. Outflanking the western side of the positions, they penetrated as far as the little village of la Fauvellière on Hill 224, actually behind the Nor-Mons’ command post.

At the height of the struggle about 19.30 hours, just as the Ayrshire artillerymen were resuming their bombardment, the Fifes’ tanks too returned to the fray to reinvigorate the Nor-Mons. As ever, the tank men had their own view of the proceedings.

‘Jerry is attacking with everything, one unceasing barrage... can we survive this lot? All our tank commanders go into battle with their hatches open and heads above the armour to be able to see... Cliff in our turret is keeping a sharp lookout and says Hutch, our Troop Leader [4 Troop, C Squadron] has been injured and lying on the ground in the open, and he says we shall have to do something about him as soon as there is a lull. Hutch’s tank is under a tall tree and HE [High Explosive] has hit the branches sending shrapnel down into his tank. Cliff and I go to him and tend to his injuries... Try to get stretcher bearers from the dug-in infantry, and I am sent from slit trench to slit trench, after two fields I find two – both on their knees praying and reading the Bible! Conscientious objectors?’16

And from A Squadron,

Our infantry were rolling back in confusion. Obviously a big attack was coming in. Pinkie Hutchison got a Mark IV, and I got an SP, while we killed many of the advancing infantry. The Squadron, already depleted, lost four more tanks. Cpl Ives came crawling back through the corn with three or four wounded. They sheltered under my tank, and were lucky to be unhurt when shell hit the near-side track and bulged the armour. A shell landed on the back of Cpl Croney’s tank, which disappeared in a huge cloud of feathers – he had liberated a few civilian mattresses. We were not however pushed off our positions, the attack on us had failed, and my 4 Troop was still intact.’17

So many Fife and Forfar Shermans were destroyed in this fight that, after disengaging to rearm, one squadron had to be disbanded. C Squadron was chosen due to its losses and since its commander had mangled his foot in the turret traverse. The two remaining squadrons were to spend an uneasy night ‘on call’, disturbed by shell bursts. Nevertheless their spirits were raised by a story circulating about a German prisoner. Recognising the Black Bull insignia of 11th Armoured Division, the wretched man reportedly complained that it had butted him at Cheux, chased him at Caen, and now at last caught him at Vire. His unit was so familiar with the Black Bull that they thought it the symbol of British Second Army.

Meanwhile, Major Mitchell had lost one radio and seen two of his Gunner assistants killed at his side. Still he directed the artillery defensive fire. Leaving his command post to take up an OP with the Fife and Forfar Shermans on the eastern slope, Mitchell realised that his 25-pounders were ineffective against the Tiger tanks on Hill 242 around le Haut Perrier. He called on the medium artillery with their 4.5 and 5.5 inch guns. ‘Splendid laying resulted in an almost direct hit. For a time nothing more was heard, and one eventually withdrew.’ If the Tiger tanks could not be penetrated, they could at least be stunned into submission or frightened into withdrawal. And the field artillery continued to wreak carnage, entire sections of Panzergrenadiere being wiped out on the slopes below Pavée.


View north from le Bas Perrier to the crest of Perrier Ridge. This ground was held by the 23rd Hussars.

One knowledgeable observer was struck by the change in tactics since the arrival of the Frundsberg division.

‘Strangely enough, although up to this point the Germans’ tactics of bold infiltration had been exactly right for the circumstances, from their point of view the attack of 10th Panzer Division was ill-judged. If, instead of taking the strongest point of the Divisional front, the tip, the attackers had come in determinedly on a flank and cut communications for a period, the salient would have withered away with great loss.’18

But of course viewpoints differ on different sides of a battle; and Harmel was under extreme pressure to obtain rapid results. A later British assessment (by the Guards’ historians) was more sympathetic to the Frundsberg:

‘They were given a suicidal task, and from the evidence it did involve death for the vast majority of them. Though they had the loathsome characteristics inseparable from all S.S. troops they must be given the credit of having been clever fighters and brave men.’19


For all their earlier optimism that the ‘Ninth SS Panzer Division had had about enough,’ the ordeal of the 23rd Hussars and their Warwickshire infantry seemed interminable. One Hussar officer recalled of the Bas Perrier position, ‘the scene of probably the worst week I have ever lived through, and in that short time, this perfect picture of rural beauty was to become unrecognisable.’ The constant fear and mounting fatigue were made no easier by the long periods of deathly quiet broken only by the din of friendly and enemy artillery. In the still summer heat, imagination could run unchecked.

‘A balmy summer’s day; and yet fear is there – fear of the known – a tearing, screaming shell blasting through your little iron fortress, taking with it your legs and your friends – fear of the unknown – a Sniper in an adjacent hedgerow quietly preparing to kill you unawares.’

Even the release of tobacco was denied: in the sultry still air the smoke would be visible to nearby enemies; only in the brief periods when tank engines were started to recharge batteries could a frantic drag at a cigarette be permitted. And as days dragged by, the defenders of le Bas Perrier were afflicted with a growing sense of their isolation. Even when the resupply lorries managed to get forward, in the dead of night,

‘The crews are anxious to unload as quickly as possible and get back, but I think our chaps would like them to linger a bit – they are a link with the outside world. But soon the petrol is left in its square tin beside each tank. Ammunition is there too and the lorries are away – back into the night of safety, while we have the midnight watch before us.’20

The Warwicks’ infantry endeavoured to shield the tanks. The close country favoured infiltration but with the ever-present risk of close-quarters ambush. On the first day (5 August) one of B Company’s platoons had ventured a little too far forward and suffered losses. The following morning, B Company reached the ridge above le Bas Perrier just as a Hohenstaufen assault came the other way.

‘Since each hedge in this landscape was like a wall, and each hedge-hung lane like a tunnel, the Germans were able to move up unseen. They engaged B Company in a fierce fight, inflicted about 30 casualties (some of them prisoners) and drove the rest of the company back into Le Bas Perrier.’21The deadly infantry to-and-fro and the ordeal of the tanks dragged on. ‘How long can this go on? Eleven lonely tanks and a few dug-in infantry on this shell-torn hilltop. It must be a highly sought-after spot by the Jerry. For my part I never want to see it again.’22


Even Tiger tanks feared the 5-5 inch ‘Mediums’.

Further east, the Fife and Forfar fared no better.

‘We are isolated, and this countryside is covered by sunken roads, narrow tracks... excellent cover for the Jerries to sneak up on us! We are standing-to again, very jittery, the weather is unbearably hot, the day drags on and my eyelids are as heavy as lead, we have to keep a careful watch and keep awake and alert to stave off attack, - God what would I give for a bit of shuteye.’23

It is often the case in war that, however unfavourable one side’s situation may seem, the opponents’ experience may be as bad or worse. Viewed from the German perspective, their own situation was indeed dire. Attempts to push north from the area of Chênedollé were systematically destroyed in their forming-up areas by British artillery and air attacks. Infiltration continued: by small parties of infantry; and even by the great Tiger tanks of the 102. Abteilung as they sought vantage points to pick off exposed enemy armour, before hastily displacing to avoid the retribution from the British Medium Regiments’ 5.5 inch guns which they so feared. Long range ‘88’ fire from ‘Tiger hill’ above Chênedollé was to plague Sherman tanks and Royal Artillery M10s alike. But with passing days, the Germans’ fight for the ‘crisis point’ in the line, the British salient threatening Chênedollé, took on an increasingly defensive character.

Meanwhile, the situation of 10. SS-Panzerdivision was becoming desperate. In the course of 5 August, the Frundsberg had succeeded in executing that most difficult of actions: a disengagement in front of an advancing enemy. But the further orders given to SS-OberführerHarmel defied reality. His division was to advance south-west in readiness for the planned Mortain offensive. Yet somehow, while notionally in ‘reserve’, it was also to stabilize the position east of Vire. Far from acting as a ‘reserve’, the division was not ready for action around Viessoix until 6 August, a day late, and was immediately flung against the Pavée position. Its objective was point 224 [a spot height not indicated on modern maps, but actually the clutch of buildings at la Fauvellière, between the declivity referred to by the British as ‘Sourdeval’ and the hamlet of Pavée]. The fighting was bitter. Towards the end of 6 August, reports from Bittrich’s II. SS-Panzerkorps to the headquarters of Eberbach at 5. Panzer-Armee (the newly renamed Panzergruppe West) reveal the awful truth.





At 20.00 hours, Bittrich was upbeat. The attack begun at 17.00 hours had progressed well and 10. SS-Panzerdivision held Hill 224. By 22.45 hours, Hill 224 had been lost, and could be not retaken with the available infantry. This was a bitter blow for Harmel and Bittrich alike; only after desperate attempts to change the situation would such a confession of failure have been sent up the line. Consternation erupted at Eberbach’s headquarters. But at 23.00 hours came further bad news: Frundsberg had suffered ‘important losses’. Even were another battalion of grenadiers immediately available, it was felt they could not prevail. And at 23.40 hours came the final report that 10. SS-Panzer Division had been pushed back and now had only five tanks operational.

Some time after midnight, an officer of the recently withdrawn Northants Yeomanry now relaxing near le Reculey found his sleep disturbed by the continuing salvoes of a nearby 25-pounder field battery. Wrapped in his field blanket, he walked across to the Gun Position Officer in charge.

‘My cheerful friend looked up from his calculations... “You knew when to come... First time we’ve increased the range for several hours. Must have turned them at last... Just as well, ammunition running low, barrels red hot, quite a night!”’

The tank officer sipped a warm mug of tea. Recalling the moment in later years he would reflect that, ‘10th SS, who had brought the Red Army’s central winter offensive to a halt, had now themselves been turned.’24

A turning point had indeed been passed. 6 August was the last day in Normandy on which German forces would attack VIII Corps in strength. The strength of both the Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg divisions had been worn down. And neither was now going to be in at the start of Hitler’s Mortain counter-offensive.

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