PART FIVE: THE HINGE OF NORMANDY

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Chapter 15 SATURDAY 5 AUGUST – SUNDAY 13 AUGUST: ESTRY

Chapter 16 SATURDAY 5 AUGUST – SUNDAY 13 AUGUST: VIRE & GROUSE

Chapter 17 MORTAIN TO FALAISE

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Chapter 15

SATURDAY 5 AUGUST – SUNDAY 13 AUGUST: ESTRY

The tide turned, then turned back. Eight weeks after the Allies’ first landings in Normandy, the defenders were about to embark on their ill fated Mortain counter-offensive. Soon it would be raging. Soon after, the German formations engaged would be forced into headlong retreat. Holding open a corridor for that retreat was to make extreme demands of forces depleted in men and equipment: exhausted physically after over-long exposure to combat; and nervously by losses, retreats, and constant reminders of the contrast between their own pitiful supply state and their enemies’ matériel superiority. By 5 August, previous German efforts to withstand and throw back the gains of Operation BLUECOAT had coalesced into a protective screen: a concave semi-circle extending from Vire to Aunay-sur-Odon. It centred on the village of Estry.

THE PLAN

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The loss of 15th (Scottish) Division’s Major-General MacMillan, wounded on 3 August as a hail of mortar bombs fell on a divisional conference, was made less grievous by the ability of his successor. 46 (Highland) Brigade’s Brigadier ‘Tiny’ Barber, even taller than ‘the Babe’ MacMillan, would go on to command the division with distinction until war’s end. Barber’s first day in charge saw the division completing its three day task of clearing the ridgeline east of Cathéolles as far as the smoking ruins and blazing hay ricks of Montchauvet. From 5 August, the divisional plan was Barber’s own.

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Barber’s infantry battalions were sadly depleted. Replacements arrived but even so, as in other British formations, the companies and platoons were learning to manage with far fewer bodies than their notional tables of organization allowed – a state of affairs which would persist for the duration of the campaign. Nevertheless, the situation held promise. Reports of the Americans’ breakthrough in the west were encouraging. Since 4 August, Lieutenant-General Horrocks had assumed command of XXX Corps, and already 15th Reconnaissance Regiment had made contact with the neighbouring corps at Montamy, on the Villers-Bocage highway just three miles north of Montchauvet. And at last XXX Corps had regained Villers-Bocage itself (what little remained of it). As to the enemy, his line still ran from Vire, through Estry, north-east to Mont Pinçon and on past Aunay. A German signal had been intercepted, its content highly reassuring:

‘the whole front in Normandy has been engulfed by the British and American offensive.’ Intelligence reported, ‘enemy on the run, Americans streaming across Brittany, no enemy for miles.’1

If the enemy was indeed in full retreat, bold moves were called for.

Hopes ran high. On 5 August, 227 (Highland) Brigade was moved into position around the road junction at la Caverie, which was to serve as a jumping off point for the forthcoming divisional advance. The 10th Highland Light Infantry headquarters

‘loaded up into the lorries again and off we went. These two days rest, with good sleep had refreshed us and we were in good spirit. The rifle companies were riding on the Scots Guards tanks, a drill we had practised many times in England ... We moved pretty fast along the main road but slowed as we left the tarmac and took to the lanes up to Montcharivel.’2

Descending from the Montchauvet heights, the brigade immediately met opposition. As the 10th HLI arrived on the high ground north of la Chapelle au Cornu, they encountered minefields covered by enemy machineguns. The 2nd Gordons’ B Company advanced guard met similar opposition as it approached the nearby objective of la Caverie. Accompanying Churchill tanks of 3rd Scots Guards3 dealt with the machinegun nests and the infantry settled on their objectives. But after the tanks’ withdrawal, both the HLI and Gordons came under very heavy shelling.

‘Au Cornu was not occupied by the Germans but he [sic] had ranged his mortars and guns on all the tracks and was deadly accurate in his fire... A quarry in the face of the hill was to be “D” Coys position but it was shelled so heavily that the Coy couldnt possibly occupy it and dug in well away from it. The shelling and mortaring went on intermittently and great speed at digging in was our greatest asset. Two large aiming marks at the tops of the tallest trees in front of the hill were the obvious reason for jerrie’s accurate shooting and after using the six pounder anti tank guns and brens on them the discs came toppling down.’4

This opposition notwithstanding, the plan for the morning went ahead unchanged. 46 Brigade, Barber’s former command, was to pass through the 227th to seize the high ground north of Lassy (from which enemy observers could potentially direct fire on any westward moves towards Estry) prior to taking the town itself. In a second operation, 227 Brigade would pass through the Caverie junction to the south to take Estry. With Estry and Lassy as firm bases, the advance would continue south along the two roads that converged on the town of Vassy, cutting the main D 512 highway at its mid point between Vire and Condé-sur-Noireau. The plan was complex. But with 11th and Guards Armoured Divisions temporarily stalled, and the enemy supposedly about to collapse, an aggressive thrust on the VIII Corps left flank made excellent sense.

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ANOTHER ‘BLACK SUNDAY’

At 06.00 hours on 6 August, the 9th Cameronians stepped off into thick morning mist. Moving through the 227 Brigade positions, the Cameronians’ A Company led, advancing briskly a mile forward of the Caverie crossroads: up a gentle slope through the place the British maps called ‘le Codmet’ [the hamlet of le Godinet] to a steep scramble to reach the top of the wooded spur of le Bois des Monts. Opposition was negligible. According to plan, the other three rifle companies passed through and attempted the precipitate drop down the eastern face of le Bois des Monts to the Druance stream, over 60 metres below. Across the stream, an almost equally steep wooded upslope should have given way to an easy, easterly one mile march to the intermediate objective of the cluster of buildings at Gournay. That was not to be.

As the companies dropped down the open, forward slopes of le Bois des Monts, they were scythed by machinegun fire from the woods opposite. Some infantry sections crossed to the far bank of the Druance, but all three companies were effectively trapped in the foot of the hill, gradually working their way northwards up the valley in search of an easier ascent, away from their objectives but further too from the mortars bombs raining down. Support was lacking. The ground proved impassible to vehicles. The scout cars of B Squadron, 15th Reconnaissance Regiment, were unable to make any progress around the Bois des Monts. Even the renowned agility of the Churchill tank was inadequate to negotiate the densely overgrown slopes. With orders to clear the way to Lassy, then progress two miles miles south to la Rocque and a further three miles to Vassy, the 4th Coldstream tanks were frustrated first by the thick mist which impeded their move to the Start Line, then by the terrain. The going was so bad that the Churchills could only move along a narrow track around the north of the spur. These presented a predictable target. 1 Squadron quickly lost tanks whose burning hulks blocked the sunken road.

Meanwhile, having struggled clear of the narrow gorge, the Cameronians clustered around the stream crossing at Pont Soffrey, absorbing punishment and sadly contributing little further to the achievement of the day’s objectives. The 2nd Glasgow Highlanders, held up by a disabled carrier blocking the way, belatedly followed to the top of le Bois des Monts. There they relieved the Cameronians’ A Company and hastily dug in as heavy mortar fire came down.

In the third phase of the operation, the 7th Seaforth were originally hoping to profit from the preceding battalions’ clearance of the left flank with a largely unopposed advance over open fields around the south of le Bois des Monts towards Lassy. With the open ground still under enemy observation, this was out of the question. Instead, the Seaforth determined to utilize the cover of the wooded hills, then drop down on Lassy from the north. The plan was first disrupted by bypassed pockets of resistance springing to life on their Start Line, next by the hail of fire already coming down on the Bois des Monts, the woods by this time reported to be running red with blood. At last, about 15.00 hours, the battalion was ready to fall upon Lassy. Descending the southern slopes, the Seaforth took up ‘advanced guard formation’: the Carrier Platoon in the lead, followed by C Company. Mortar bombs and shells blasted their ranks as they moved down the slope towards Lassy. Artillery smoke had been laid on to cover this phase, but had long since blown away. (The infantry felt the gunners had fired too early; the gunners in turn could claim the infantry were too late!) Although forward sections overran German outposts, C Company was soon reduced to just forty men and a single officer. Still on the lower slopes of the hill, they were pinned down by the heavy fire. 1 Squadron of 4th Coldstream moved up in close support but their tanks were likewise stopped by direct fire from concealed antitank guns (inevitably, hailed as ‘88s’).

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Aftermath of ‘Black Sunday’: the battlefield from 27,000 feet, midday 8 August, 1944.

About 17.00 hours, the Seaforth’s colonel having suffered a head wound which was to prove mortal, signs were observed of the invariable German counter-attack. The battalion 2IC was summoned forward from 46 Brigade headquarters,

‘where he was given an erroneously optimistic picture of the situation... When therefore he arrived on the Bois des Monts and found himself faced by a desperate military situation which would have tested the skill of the most experienced commander, he became distraught.’5

Amid the chaos below, C Company commander Major Brander took command and organised a battalion assault. Sending back the remains of C Company, Brander led forward two fresh companies, supported by the Coldstream reserve 3 Squadron.

Disaster followed. Both companies lost their commanders; three Churchill tanks went up in quick succession; barely 150 yards was gained before the attempt failed with heavy losses. Coldstream Captain Gascoigne and Lieutenant Coates attempted to avenge their own lost tanks by commandeering the 3 Squadron support tank, convinced they could spot the offending ‘88’ and hit it with the 95mm howitzer. They were waylaid by yet another concealed gun which penetrated their flank and set off their ammunition, killing them instantly. The infantry survivors dug in. Their position was precarious, overlooked by enemy held wooded slopes. At dusk, after much vacillation, the infantry pulled back under cover of the failing light and artillery smoke to the reverse slopes west of the Bois des Monts. (‘A’ Company of the 1st Middlesex machinegun regiment covering the withdrawal were last to leave the hilltop; the battalion later reflected that this was the only retreat the unit conducted throughout the Normandy campaign.) About 23.00 hours came divisional orders to evacuate; by midnight, 46th Brigade was back on the high ground above la Caverie. And within a half hour, the Germans were back in their original positions.6

Already tired, under strength, and short of experienced officers before the day began, all three battalions of 46th Brigade had suffered terribly for little or no gain. The Cameronians would remember 6 August as ‘Black Sunday’. Both Glasgow and Seaforth Highlanders might well have shared the sentiment.

ADVANCE ON ESTRY

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The road to Estry.

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Estry before the battle: photographed from 22,000 feet on the evening of 1 August, 1944.

At 08.30 hours on 6 August, the 2nd Gordon Highlanders marched to their Start Line at the Caverie crossroads. In spite of the thick mist that blanketed the countryside, they prepared to set off south-west along the road to Estry, with Churchill tanks of the 3rd Scots Guards’ Left Flank Squadron under Major the Hon. Michael Fitzalan Howard. The column progressed barely four hundred yards before being halted by a belt of mines. Sappers were called forward to clear a path. And, since minefields are only effective when covered by fire, it should have come as no surprise when a distant Panther tank began lobbing shells into the traffic jam. Its first High Explosive shell caught the Scots Guards’ Right Flank Squadron Recce Officer, Captain Mathieson, out of his scout car, killing the captain and wounding his operator as well as a number of infantrymen. The attached antitank troop had been posted at the back of the column and could not get forward. Lieutenant Fletcher’s troop of Grenadier Guards Churchills was detached to deal with the threat and may have played a part in the enemy’s withdrawal. Only after this unpromising start did the march belatedly resume about noon: the Gordons preceded by C Squadron of their division’s 15th Reconnaissance Regiment and accompanied by the Grenadiers’ 2 Squadron tanks.

It was now a fine, sunny Sunday and the mood was optimistic.

‘No one knew if the Germans meant to defend Estry, the general impression being that they would not do so... The early stages of the advance were pleasant enough, with people coming out of their houses to press flowers and glasses of cider upon the troops.’7

There was some concern that the delayed start might allow elements of Guards Armoured Division to reach the objective first.

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Pre-war photo of Estry and below present-day. Church and Post Office show little sign of the total destruction of 1944.

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It was too good to last. Approaching Estry, Lieutenant Royle’s reconnaissance troop found Estry strongly held, the roads about strewn with mines and covered by enemy tanks and machineguns. Word got back to Major Hutchinson in command of the C Company advanced guard, who halted his men and called forward sappers to clear the road ahead (the foremost troop of Churchill tanks did not hear the warning and pressed on through the first belt of mines, fortunately without loss). Here too, the Germans understood that minefields without fire cover are no obstacle. Here, a half mile short of the village, the firing started and the battle began. The Gordons deployed off the road into the orchards on either side, and with the tanks’ support fought their way forward to the crossroads north-west of the village. Then, facing left, they attempted to storm the objective.

By this time, 9. SS-Panzerdivision represented a vital ‘corset stay’ in the German line. Its tenacity in the face of British pressure was crucial to the imminent Mortain counter offensive. And very soon, with the all too predictable failure of that offensive, the division would become a vital bulwark on which would depend the very survival of surviving formations of OB West as they scurried eastward to the Orne and out of Normandy. Short of men and material, its offensive capability blunted, the division was battle weary but determined. The tactic now employed was to select key defensive positions capable of being fortified. As with Chênedollé, dominating the Perrier Ridge; so with the close country north of Lassy; and so too with Estry holding the gap in between, astride the roads leading to the Vire-Vassy highway. This little town, barely more than a large village, clustered around its church and typically for the region ringed by its orchards, would become a strong point. It would be held at all costs. Effective interlocking of minefield, machinegun, antitank gun, and artillery defences would make up for depleted manpower; the few remaining tanks and assault guns were either emplaced and camouflaged to provide direct fire or held in mobile reserve to support the hasty, local counter-attacks required by German doctrine. ‘Estry, in fact, was a little fortress.’8

C Company’s attempted advance from the crossroads was immediately checked by fire. So far as the Scots could tell,

‘Two or three companies of an S.S. Regiment, a dug-in tank, 88-mm guns, bazookas, mortars, Nebelwerfers, machine-gun nests, mines – all were there, and the garrison had a call on powerful artillery farther back.’9

The attack foundered with little headway. From his command post on the road, Lieutenant-Colonel Sinclair tried a different approach. Sending the Gordons’ B Company with two troops of Grenadier Guards Churchills along a track the led from the road to the eastern side of the village, he hoped to outflank the defenders.

The attempt was a dismal failure. Tanks and infantry advancing either side of the sunken, tree-lined lane were swept simultaneously by fire from the village ahead and a copse of trees across the open field on their left flank. One bold Churchill commander thought he spotted a concealed enemy tank, and closed for the kill. But,

‘Lord Oliver Fitzroy did not succeed and after he had expended all his armour-piercing ammunition and was backing his tank out of an orchard, a German sniper in a tree directly above fired, and killed him instantaneously.’10

The ‘little fortress’ of Estry was clearly set up for all-round defence.

By the time this assault was abandoned, eleven Churchill tanks had been hit, a number of them blazing furiously. In addition to the loss of the 2 Squadron commander, several other Grenadier officers were wounded. The two unengaged infantry companies still on the road were now suffering casualties from German artillery and mortars, and the infantry battalion intended to pass through Estry on its way to the next objective was due to arrive. In desperation, Sinclair turned from the five remaining Coldstream heavy tanks to the lightly armoured tank destroyers to support his last throw of the dice. For all their frailty, at least the M10s carried 17-pounders and, ‘It was hoped that the guns would knock out some of the German tanks.’11 By no means for the first time, an antitank specialist refused a direct order to mis-use his guns.12 In the end, two troops of M10s covered the flanks of a renewed infantry assault, one supporting A Company’s attempt to work around the north-west flank of Estry, the other to move with D Company on a wider flanking move around the troublesome copse to close from the south-east. Both attempts failed. Though the M10s’ 17-pounder HE shells had some impact on enemy positions, one ‘Spandau’ crew blown into the air like puppets, the infantry failed to follow through. The Gordons’ A Company bogged down as mortar bombs descended on the high hedgerows that lay in their path; D Company was stopped by interlocking fields of fire from unseen heavy machineguns.

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Sightseers inspect a wrecked Churchill in the sunken lane. Above: the lane in the present-day.

A particular problem was an enemy tank – later identified by the antitank specialists as a camouflaged Panzer IV. Sited alongside a calvary on the road above the crossroads, it enjoyed fields of fire both over the crossroads and the western approaches to the village, firing high velocity High Explosive shells at such close range that no warning sound of their approach could be heard. An antitank officer was led to a point where he could observe,

‘the dappled turret of a Mark IV, cunningly lurking amid apple branches exactly the same colour as itself. Although it was only ninety yards away (paced out later) it so nearly resembled its surroundings that in the dazzling afternoon light binoculars were really needed to see it clearly... I handed the binoculars to Macdonald. [the 91st Antitank Regiment was an Argylls battalion] In his soft Highland voice he remarked, “Aye, I can see him; he’s traversing his turret.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a burst of Spandau was followed by three rounds of H.E.’13

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Open fields swept by fire.

The machinegun burst gave just enough warning for the watchers to take shelter from the bursting shells. The tank would not be eliminated that day.

The 10th HLI had set off from la Caverie about 11.30 hours. Now their advance guard of a rifle company and two troops of the Scots Guards’ Left Flank Squadron arrived on the scene. The HLI Lieutenant-Colonel Morgan was concerned to keep moving. Men and vehicles of his battalion had marched from la Caverie in full view of German artillery observers to the south and east, and bunching up on the congested approach to Estry they presented an inviting target. Already, Russell Morgan’s command half-track had experienced a near miss which ricocheted off an adjacent tank into the roadside ditch, killing instantly the Sergeant-Major and the half dozen other ranks huddled there. The young operator in the CO’s half-track kept to his wireless duty and ‘with no head cover stuck to it all day, though he said afterwards that he expected every minute to be his last.’14

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North side of the churchyard: the return shot set the Churchill ablaze.

Morgan conferred with Sinclair.15 Still hoping to execute the intended move through Estry and on to le Theil-Bocage, an alternative plan was proposed for the remaining hours of daylight. While the HLI companies and Scots Guards troops deployed to form a firm base in the area of the sunken lane, a thousand yards east of the Estry crossroads, the gunners hurriedly devised a new fire plan. An artillery concentration would be brought down on Estry: first the 5.5 inch ‘smashers’ to seek out dug-in infantry; next the field artillery 25-pounders to keep survivors’ heads down while the HLI advanced on Estry, supported by Churchill tanks of the 3rd Scots Guards’ Left Flank Squadron.

Some time after 19.00 hours the attack went in. The artillery preparation had been disappointing: barely forty rounds of 5.5 inch had been allowed (the Scots Guards present did not notice any at all!). As before, resistance was encountered. On the right flank, the HLI fought their way as far as the crossroads; on the left the defenders’ machineguns again wrought havoc although the range reduced as the light faded. As the Churchill engaged a Panther, hidden in a wooden building in the vicinity of the churchyard. Even at point blank range, 75mm High Explosive made no impact on the German (had Lieutenant Barne run out of AP, or were the Scots Guards still preferring doctrine over experience and going into close action with HE loaded ‘up the spout’?); the return shot set the Churchill blazing. Barne had his revenge when he directed the seventeen-pounder of an M10 onto the concealed enemy tank. Having similarly lost his own Churchill, Lord Bruce resorted to turning his pistol on Germans who were calling on the unhorsed Guardsmen to surrender. But amongst the smoke and fury, only one company of infantry reduced to platoon strength fought their way as far as the south side of the crossroads. There they dug in on the newly won ground: a small orchard beside the main road containing a stone farm building and some cottages.

As dusk descended, Morgan recalled the rest of the force to dig in north of the road, he himself establishing a joint headquarters with Sinclair’s Gordons, north-east of the crossroads. So ended day of bitter fighting, ‘which had come as a wholly unexpected surprise at a time when the enemy had been though to be in full retreat.’16 Instead of the expected walk-over, both 46 and 227 Brigades had experienced one of the bloodiest and least successful days in their history.

THE VASSY ROAD

Since their advance to Hill 226, the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had enjoyed almost a week out of action. Even on 5 August, after the rifle companies had been carried forward to Montchauvet on Scots Guards Churchills and advanced on foot to a backstop position on the Montchamp-la Caverie road, no enemy whatsoever was encountered, ‘except for one boshe [sic] who gave himself up to Capt W. R. Bruce [Support Company commander] while he was asleep in the Comd post area.’ (The enemy had actually entered the command post and woken Captain Bruce so as to surrender to him.) Now came the call. With 46 Brigade due on the morrow to seize le Bois des Monts and Lassy, and 227 Brigade’s own Gordons and HLI to strike westward through Estry, the Argylls were to bisect the angle. Passing through their Start Line on the much-trafficked Caverie crossroads they would advance south down the Vassy road: over the crossroads at point 208, and still further to the village of Canteloup, east of the HLI objective of le Theil-Bocage, and just two miles short of Vassy itself.

The start was inauspicious. Though the fog that had hampered 46 Brigade was now diminished, the Argylls might have welcomed its cover as they struggled through the traffic around the Caverie road junction. The tail elements of 46 Brigade filled the road and confusion was accentuated when two German tanks17 opened long range fire on the tempting target. A 15th Reconnaissance Regiment car was demolished in clear view of the troops as they hurried past the benighted spot.

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The 2nd Argylls’ last Normandy battlefield: the Vassy road from 27,000 feet at midday, 8 August, 1944.

The Argylls advanced south along the road, two rifle companies to either side, C Company leading on the left, B on the right. At first, moving briskly away from la Caverie, the battalion outpaced the worst of the enemy mortaring, though mines were encountered which held back the covering Right Flank Squadron of 3rd Scots Guards Churchills. These instead deployed off to the west of the road, seeking hull-down positions from which to engage German armour to the east. The pace of the infantry along the exposed road was soon slowed by machinegun, mortar, and tank fire from the east, where farms and villages around Lassy which by now should have fallen to the Seaforth of 46 Brigade were still in German hands.

The day’s first objective was point 208, the top of an east-west spur which the Vassy road ascended via a sharp rise and a dog’s-leg bend. One of the southerly Churchills spotted a suspicious object on the road at that point, and a single HE round blew the camouflage off a Panther tank. A sharp exchange of fire ended with that tank’s withdrawal, after which the assembled Scots Guards squadron turned its fury on the forward slopes: nearly ten minutes of concentrated HE and BESA. But by this time the infantry companies had become disorganized by the continuing harassment, and were not ready to attempt the assault. Only later in the afternoon could the Argylls work their way to the foot of the ridge, and by 19.30 hours it was agreed between infantry and tank commanders that they should be content at day’s end with dominating the northern face of the ridge, and leave until the morrow the assault on the German-held reverse slope. The battalion dug in for the night.

On the morning of 7 August, the Argylls’ Colonel Tweedie was conscious that the broader 227 Brigade plan was far behind schedule. Neither Estry to the west nor Lassy to the east had been taken as intended. Even though his own single-battalion advance south had achieved only a fraction of the distance intended, still his flanks risked being exposed to enemy fire. Before making the attempt along the road to point 208, he determined on a push eastwards to cover his left flank and allow the battalion ‘elbow room’ to manoeuvre beyond the narrow roadway. B and D Companies were selected to execute a set-piece assault across 200 yards of fields, supported by indirect fire from artillery, battalion 3 inch mortars, and supporting medium machineguns of 6 Platoon, 1st Middlesex.

The divisional history concludes that, ‘It was a most gallant attempt, but it failed.’18 And the failure left more than a score of men lying in a field swept by enemy fire, among them the highly regarded B Company commander, Major Alan Fyfe, ‘the worst single loss the Battalion sustained throughout the entire campaign... both inside and outside the Battalion he was irreplaceable.’19 With stretcher bearers unable to reach the wounded, it fell to the commander of C Company, Major Law Moreton, to advance alone towards the German guns waving a Red Cross flag. One shot rang out, then a German officer emerged, shouting to his men to hold fire. The two officers shook hands and a half-hour truce was arranged to allow the wounded of both sides to be collected, including Major Fyfe, though he had lain untended for too long and was to die hours later at the Regimental Aid Post.

Firing resumed, but there was no further attempt by the Argylls to advance. Indeed, it was entirely to their credit that they clung to so precarious a position. Concealed enemies were closing in on three sides; so close that the following morning saw a German vehicle carrying forward breakfast blithely stumble into the company lines.20 The position was held until the night of 8-9 August. The battalion had lost three officers and forty-one other ranks ‘with very little to show for it.’ Against that, some comfort might be drawn from yet another example of close co-operation with friends in 3rd Scots Guards, a relationship which was to bear further rewards in the course of the European campaign. The 3rd Scots Guards War Diary recalls, ‘Although this action may have appeared indecisive with heavy casualties to our own infantry, in fact the cooperation achieved was outstandingly good... in spite of the most stubborn opposition by the very best troops that Germany possessed.’ To which the 2nd Argylls might well reply that, ‘to the end of the campaign every officer and man in the 93rd felt the anxieties of preparing for an operation, however formidable it might be, immensely lightened if he knew that the 3rd Scots Guards were to be there to help.’21

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The 2nd Agylls’ 7 August position and failed attack.

CONCLUSION IN ESTRY

Throughout 7 August, the north side of Estry remained a ‘hot spot’. Orders for the 46 Brigade infantry to resume the attack were received with ‘considerable misgiving’; no less considerable the relief when these were cancelled. Instead, the 2nd Gordons and 10th HLI traded fire with their Hohenstaufen opponents across the disputed crossroads, while artillery and mortars from both sides searched out their enemies’ rear areas. A single round hitting the Gordons’ Regimental Aid Post killed most of their stretcher bearers; an HLI observer wondered how two adjacent barns (sturdy but roofless) serving the HLI as headquarters and RAP survived intact. Return fire worked over the rubbled masonry of Estry.

Instead of the walk-over anticipated the day before, Major-General ‘Tiny’ Barber now faced a set-piece battle for Estry. All his division was tired. The elation of the 30 July breakthrough was long past. Since then too many men had fallen; too many replacements had arrived with no opportunity for proper integration; and too few of the junior leaders whose personalities had bonded the platoons through the years of training now remained. An independent observer reflected: ‘It is only fair to say that 15 Scottish had been fighting, and fighting magnificently, since mid-June in some of the bloodiest operations of the war, and that by now they had temporarily reached the end of their resources. They should undoubtedly have been rested, but there could be no question of relief and everyone, however “bomb-happy”, had to go on till the battle of Normandy was won.’22

On the morning of 8 August, the two 227 Brigade battalions in Estry were relieved, the companies ‘thinning out’ and retiring with sleep and hot baths in prospect. For all their trials and tribulations, the Gordons considered Estry their greatest ordeal since arriving in Normandy. As for the HLI,

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A set-piece attack attempted to cross 200 yards of open field.

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A returning Argyll makes the spot where Alan Fyfe fell.

‘When the time came to move out we were not slow to get moving and in the stifling heat and dust set a brisk pace to get that unhealthy place as far behind us in the shortest possible time. Having survived such a holocaust no one wanted to be snatched into eternity at such a time, tiredness was forgotten and we drove aching feet back to the rear and blessed rest.’23

And tragically, some of the last to leave did indeed catch short rounds from the VIII Corps bombardment, designed to prepare the way for a renewed assault. For now it was the turn of the comparatively fresh 44 Brigade, itself under new leadership following the relief of the long-serving Brigadier Money, a veteran of the 1940 campaign now transferred to duty in England. At noon on 8 August the battle for Estry was resumed.

The two-battalion assault by 44 Brigade came not from the east but straight down the GC 56 road [modern D 56], south-eastward from Montchamp. 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers formed east of the Montchamp road; 6th King’s Own Scottish Borderers to the west; each battalion with two companies ‘up’ and two in reserve. In support were the Grenadier Guards’ 1 Squadron of Churchill tanks, plus a dozen special-purpose Churchill tanks, both Crocodile flame-throwers and AVREs. Though in the event, the gun tanks were unable to advance as far as the infantry, marshy ground and thick hedgerows obstructing progress. The specialists fared even worse: ‘the banks and narrow lanes round Estry proved impassible obstacles: so much so that not one of these “Funnies” seems to have got near enough to use its weapon.’24 The infantry pressed on unaccompanied. Severe mortaring fell on them and casualties quickly rose.

The Panzer IV was still in its dominating position by the calvary. Attempts by the KOSB to take it on with PIATs failed. Next, a captain and sergeant of the 91st Antitank Regiment crawled forward to observe the tank. An M10 was manoeuvred to within fifty yards, though separated from the enemy by thick hedgerows. The two observers took turns to crawl back to the M10 to correct its blind fire, and the fourth and fifth rounds impacted the tank’s turret ring; the enemy crew baled out, alarmed at being hit by a source they could not identify.

As the companies fought their way across the Vire road, they were raked from concealed positions by small arms and machineguns. The slit trenches previously occupied by the HLI were retaken: freshly cracked eggshells and crusts of black bread testified to a hastily abandoned German lunch. But once again this was the limit of the advance. At first, the Borderers’ right hand D Company made good progress to the west, while C Company struggled into the north-west corner of the village. But it was all the Fusiliers could do to get beyond the road, coming to a halt well short of the church. In their absence, the KOSB’s C Company could not clear the churchyard alone, and with their flank open risked encirclement. The Brigade history records:

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‘Field of fire in the village was only a hundred yards and there was a fierce struggle in the back yards and gardens. By 6.00 p.m. half the village was captured, but the other half was full of Germans.’25

Vigorously counter-attacked, the Fusiliers were beaten back to the road. Their reserve B Company had been mauled by mortars without even crossing the Start Line; their Lieutenant-Colonel Buchanan had suffered a wound which was to see him relieved. At length, the new brigadier tired of the loss of life for so little gain. The Borderers were recalled from the village to its northeastern outskirts; the Fusiliers rallied behind their D Company which had dug in north of the crossroads, leaving only a single C Company platoon as a forward screen.

Twice bitten, fearing counter-attack from the resolute defenders of Estry, 44 Brigade went over to the defensive. Casualties continued to mount. Rumours of enemy withdrawals led patrols to venture forth, only to be violently rebuffed. The Borderers lost one officer ‘snaffled’ while on patrol and carried off to captivity. Another officer chose to test his sentries’ readiness, unaware that they had been warned of a German patrol and were quick to shoot. So was lost the last of the ‘original’ company commanders who had crossed to Normandy. Food and water were problematic. The carriers laden with provisions had to run the gauntlet of enemy fire during their exposed race forward, before hurriedly dumping their cargo and rushing back laden with wounded. Colour-sergeants courageously shouting ‘grub’s up!’ chucked tins at anyone with the nerve to venture from their slit trench; meanwhile the Germans dropped mortar bombs into the orchards where they (rightly) deduced distribution of supplies would be taking place. Fortunately, improved Divisional Counter-Mortar Organization procedures were ready for implementation: once these were set up, every enemy mortar bomb was noted, tracked, and provoked a storm of heavy mortar fire in return.26 The front became mercifully quieter.

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The Scots dug in north of the disputed crossroads, with only a single company forward in the orchard beyond.

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After the Battle: the high calvary still stands.

‘So there we were. Poised. Neither side quite able to force a decision on the other... And the curious thing was that the German resistance in Normandy was supposed to be crumbling... And so, in dusty weapon slits sunk close to these hedges, among the laden, unharvested corn, slashed by the tank tracks and pitted with craters, dwelt that remarkable being, the British soldier. In his shirt sleeves because of the heat, his tunic rolled under his haversack straps, his sweaty steel helmet discarded, although it should be on his head. Dourly cleaning the dust from his rifle or oiling the bolt action, or thinking of home in the brooding silences; or writing a few unbelievably non-committal lines to his family on the back of a mess tin that still bears the traces of the last stew... Or just sleeping.’27

Far from resuming the attack on 9 August, orders from Brigade were to

‘maintain this posn at all costs and this was duly carried out. The enemy remained very aggressive throughout the day and several attempted counterattacks were reported and dealt with by arty. Hy mortaring and shelling continued.’28 This was not supposed to be. ‘At the time none of us could see the reason for enduring such slaughter as went on round this inferior row of houses.’29

Official intelligence reports had it that the German front was disintegrating. Yet the enemy appeared not to have read the script.

By 12 August, 44 Brigade sensed that the risk of counter-attack had diminished. The 8th Royal Scots moved up to relieve the Fusiliers and Borderers from covering Estry. On the morning of 13 August, the Royal Scots’ patrols found the enemy gone. Had the British locked in the struggle for Estry only known, their opponents’ fanatical resistance and inexplicably sudden departure were predicated on the desperate need first to keep open supply routes to sustain 7. Armee in the west; then to screen the wholesale withdrawal of OB West as it began to implode; finally, to conduct their own disengagement, their costly goal achieved. Later on 13 August, 15th (Scottish) Division was relieved, its part in Operation BLUECOAT honourably discharged. Estry was occupied. Its orchards were soaked with the blood of Scots battalions and strewn with the wrecks of thirteen Churchill tanks. But it was never ‘taken’.

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