Chapter 16

SATURDAY 5 AUGUST – SUNDAY 13 AUGUST: VIRE AND GROUSE

During July, the Americans had regarded the city of St-Lô as an eastern bulwark while the US Third Army initiated a swing around the ‘pivot’ of Avranches, south and west into Brittany. As the COBRA operation developed into a strategic breakthrough and the German 7. Armee crumbled, the thrust of General Patton’s Third Army changed. With the realisation that the enemy in Brittany was constrained to the passive defence of coastal fortresses, Patton was authorized to reverse direction and initiate a still wider swing to the south and east. Soon St-Lô was left behind. The obvious anchor around which the American eastward advance should now pivot was the ‘Suisse Normande’, the hilly territory bounded to north and south by the invaluable road junctions of Mortain and Vire.1

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THE AGONY OF VIRE

While the Americans had earlier walked into Mortain almost unopposed, Vire was to prove a different story. The small city would cost the Americans dearly. The approaches that had lain only lightly defended when 11th Armoured Division threatened mere days before had been hastily fortified. On 5 August, the US 29th Infantry Division and Combat Command A of the 2nd Armored Division prepared to attack along the GC 52 [modern D 52] Tessy-Vire highway. Before the assault could properly get under way, a single concentration of enemy fire knocked out ten of nineteen tanks forming up for the first wave. As the survivors attempted to press on through the suburb of Martilly and across the Vire river into the northern quarter of the city, four more of their number were put out of action, blocking the stone bridge and stopping the attack dead.

It was not from the north but from the west that the Americans’ advance on Vire would prosper. Further elements of 2nd Armoured Division’s CCA managed to get tanks on to the ridge to the west of the city. Unsupported tanks are ill-equipped to hold territory: in this case the tank companies were tired and depleted; the ground unsuitable for mechanized manoeuvre; and the defenders of Vire showed a keenness to regain the dominating crest. Recognising that this was a job for infantry, XIX Corps Commander Major-General Corlett gave 29th Division the task of completing the capture of Vire. Their 116th Infantry Regiment ascended the eastern slopes of Hill 219 in three battalion columns, shrugging off isolated pockets of enemy resistance on the way. By midnight on 5 August they reached the summit. The dawn of 6 August found the 116th in firm control of Hill 219, looking down on the city centre, a mere thousand yards distant across the Vire River.

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Vire had to be pushed out of the way by bulldozers.

6 August from other elements of XIX Corps were swinging around the south-west of Vire, while the 116th Regiment on their hilltop prepared to take the city itself. Just before nightfall, the advance began. Files of men sped down the steep hillside, dodging shrubs and trees, seeking in their haste to make up for the lack of hard cover on the exposed slopes. Fording the river, they climbed its eastern banks to enter the city. Small groups infiltrated rubbled buildings. Central command was impossible as smoke and dust from artillery and burning buildings added to the normal hazards of a night battle. Management of prisoners was a particular difficulty, and many were suspected to have escaped after capture. While regiment and division called in the artillery that pounded the compact city centre, it was by company, platoon, and squad acting independently in the murk that the ground was secured.

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By the dawn, 116th Regiment had the entire city under control, establishing road blocks on the major roads radiating out from the place. The advance from Tessy into Vire had already cost the 116th a thousand men; the cost to the inhabitants of Vire was to be the utter destruction of their small city. Mere days earlier on 3 August, nervous residents had been promised by newly arriving Fallschirmjäger that they would ‘defend your town house-by-house’. The promise was far from reassuring. Then on 5 August the paratroops were gone, replaced by line infantry of GeneralleutnantDettling’s 363. Infanteriedivision, many of them nervous Poles,2 cowed by their officers, only to be smashed along with the fabric of the city by the weight of artillery that had supported the American assault. Even then the agony of Vire was not over. Now it was the Germans’ turn to pour in their artillery. Scorning the newcomers who had lost Vire, Meindl ‘was able to see that my estimate of my new “collaborator” had in no sense been too pessimistic. These people had no experience of fighting! His parachute infantry, tired but unbowed, their right wing now resting on dependable SS Panzergrenadiere, regrouped and looked down from the high ground overlooking the east of the city.

Contrary to assertions in the British official history that Vire had been ‘much damaged’ and in the American that it was ‘nearly destroyed’ by a 6 June bombing raid, it is clear from American aerial reconnaissance photography on 8 June and later that the damage inflicted then was limited, mainly affecting rail and industrial targets. The city that had lain virtually undefended on 1 August was up to then still largely intact. Intact no longer. As one British regimental history records, after being pummelled by artillery during the August battle,

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‘Vire, a town more devastated that Caen, [a dramatic comparison!] had to be pushed out of the way by bulldozers. Until the clearing was completed, Vire’s rubble was merely an obstacle to the American and British formations which were now converging on this centre.’3

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Perrier ridge from the Vire highway: British on the crest, German forwad positions in the foreground.

RELIEF ON PERRIER RIDGE

Operation BLUECOAT was winding down. In the course of 9 August, most of 11th Armoured Division withdrew from the battle, leaving only elements of 159 Brigade around le Busq to cover the left flank of Guards Armoured Division. Even these were soon to be overtaken as elements of the Guards passed through into le Busq itself. Following seemingly endless days of continuous action and precious little sleep, the forward units of 11th Armoured Division (and all too briefly their 3rd Division reinforcements) were at last relieved.

The Hussars left le Bas Perrier.

‘What incredible relief – it can’t be true... At last it is our turn. The two ambulances full of wounded are in front of my leading tank... We coast slowly down the hill towards Presles... We pass the burnt-out wrecks of our fitters half tracks where so many of our chaps were killed, wounded or captured a few days before.’ Passing point 218 above Presles, ‘Over the brow of the hill at the cross-roads and down a winding lane between quiet, tree-lined fields, and there is the Regimental sign on a post. The Colonel in his gay red and green side hat stands and salutes us – the tension breaks and I sob my heart out – We’re back!’4

With the Hussars on the morning of 9 August left 185 Brigade’s 2nd Royal Warwickshires, no less glad to depart after suffering 24 dead, 149 wounded, and 30 missing in their four-day sojourn on Perrier Ridge.

More prosaically, Steel Brownlie of the Fife and Forfar,

‘crawled round the burnt-out tanks. I had a list of the wounded who had been evacuated, so knew what bodies to look for: crumpled heaps on this seat or that. The one mystery was Tpr Dew, whose hatch was closed but his seat empty... The enemy had really gone, and in the afternoon we were relieved by the Scots Greys... We moved in squadron packets, and ours comprised only Pinkie, Sqn Ldr, and my 4 Troop, five tanks in all out of nineteen... At La Quelle... I immediately had three large whiskies and soda.’5 Here too, the 3rd Division infantry had suffered during their shorter stay, the 1st Norfolks recording that, ‘Sourdevalle [sic] had cost 160 all ranks killed and wounded, which left 390 all ranks to hold on until relieved... a sadly depleted battalion, with many key personnel missing, including the adjutant. However, worse things have happened, and we had won our battle.’6

In his message to the defenders of Perrier Ridge, Pip Roberts had given his assurance that he would ‘call upon troops to do the almost impossible and not the completely impossible.’7 The ridge so tenuously held was now secure. The German forces that had strived to re-establish a front line as far north as le Bény-Bocage, and so shield the city of Vire, had been forced to concede the ground between the Souleuvre and the Vire-Vassy road. When the Battle Honour of ‘Perrier Ridge’ was awarded to Roberts’ division, it would be one of its proudest decorations. For now, 11th Armoured left behind an enemy, ‘still quiescent... The Germans appeared now to be concentrating on defence for which their positions were well suited.’ And still more concerning for the new arrivals on Perrier Ridge, ‘Our patrols confirmed that, unless under heavy pressure, they were not yet disposed to withdraw.’8

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The newcomers found desolation - and worse. On 9 August an advance party of the 3rd Irish Guards visited the Nor-Mons’ position at Pavée (though described to them as ‘Sourdeval’). They were unimpressed. ‘There seemed to be a deathly stillness all round this unpleasant place, and never before had we seen such a shambles of burnt-out vehicles and shelled orchards. This was our new home, and it smelt terrible.’9 The smell – at first taken to be some ‘new brand of Camembert’ – was that of the unburied dead. The ‘deathly stillness’ would soon give way to the less welcome crump of incoming artillery. Sure enough, after relieving the Nor-Mons’ positions during the night, the guardsmen were greeted at dawn by shellfire and mortaring which continued all day long. An Irish Guards officer had been indignant at the positions he was to occupy:

‘The Monmouths/Norfolks had not roofed over their slits, as a protection against shell fragments and mortar fire... We did not appear to face any particular direction but lay well protected under a hedge on a reverse slope; we could not even see past the hedge. It seemed a poor choice for a defensive position.’

But when enemy mortar bombs began to descend, and friendly shells skimmed the ridge, the young officer did reflect that perhaps protection was after all the first priority. Indeed, when a burst of early-morning shelling found him squatting over the latrine trench, he instinctively dived into its depths, after which Sergeant Wheater, somewhat understandably, ‘was reluctant to allow me back into our trench.’10 An infantry assault was beaten off in the early evening, yielding a crop of bodies which the Intelligence Officer identified as paratroopers.

As predicted by the departing 11th Armoured, Schimpf’s 3. Fallschirmjägerdivision was indeed ‘indisposed to further withdrawal.’ Having left the defence of Vire to the 363. Infanteriedivision, they were now dug-in on the high ground between Roullours and Viessoix. There, their left flank overlooked the eastern exits from the city; their centre was covered by forward observers along the railway line on high ground dominating the valley of the Allière stream west of Burcy; and their right adjoined the Hohenstaufen left at la Jarrière, below Pavée.

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The German paratroop infantry faced still more fresh opponents. While its hastily committed 185 Brigade drew breath, 3rd Infantry Division relieved the line between the Americans in Vire and the Guards flank at Burcy: its 9 Brigade de-bussing around Montisenger. At first surprised by the lack of opposition, the brigade quickly found the explanation. Montisenger itself was overlooked by higher ground to the south; any advance into the valley ahead would be exposed to enemy fire. With all the bridges over the Allière stream blown, the Royal Engineers would have to throw a Bailey Bridge over the obstacle, the sappers suffering gravely from artillery fire as the task was completed.

And further east, the battered remnants of 9. SS-Panzerdivision were grimly determined to defend their assigned sector. The constituents of Olboeter’s battle group had been withdrawn to rejoin their parent formations; and the remnants of 10. SS-Panzerdivision had been ordered south to oppose American forces east of Mortain (a vain hope, given that the main mobile strike force remaining to the Frundsberg division was its lightly armoured reconnaissance Abteilung). Consequently, elements of the Hohenstaufen division were stretched around a ten kilometre front line resembling a dog’s leg. Along the Vassy road were aligned the depleted companies of Monich’s engineer battalion. Further west, the front bent around Chênedollé, the place itself no longer part of the HKL after 7 August. Here the line was held by Gräbner’s reconnaissance troops stiffened by a few operational Tiger tanks. And further north, Pierres and Estry were defended by the remaining tanks of KG Meyer and the amalgamated regiment of Hohenstaufen grenadiers. In backstop, the sole reserve apart from the divisional artillery was the Heerespionierbattaillon 600, stationed around Vassy.

BOUNDING ON TO TINCHEBRAY

VIII Corps commander General O’Connor had first won fame in North Africa where he broke through an enemy vastly superior in number, his small force following up with daring exploitation to eliminate an entire Italian army. His return to action with a corps command had yet to offer him the opportunity to show himself still capable of such initiative. In this close Normandy country, so different from the open desert, dogged German defence and direct involvement of his superiors proved frustrating.

Now O’Connor was optimistic. The news from the American sector was that the Germans’ attempted push west through Avranches and on to the Channel coast had been decisively thwarted. Intelligence reports stressed that, although the élite German formations might be expected to continue resistance, others in Normandy were crumbling; and even the SS were diluting their divisions with impressed nationalities of dubious fighting quality.11 Any pressure which O’Connor might exert on the VIII Corps front could only worsen the defenders’ already dire plight: if they defended vigorously, they were to be ‘fixed’ in place; if as seemed possible they were at breaking point, their front was to be smashed. So was conceived Operation GROUSE. While 3rd Division advanced around Vire, the Guards Armoured Division would descend from the Perrier Ridge to flush out the enemy before them and set him to flight.

The plan was a daring gamble. The objectives were far reaching. VIII Corps was to establish itself as far forward as the high ground between Tinchebray and Condé-sur-Noireau, around the dominating Mont de Cerisi, more than twenty kilometres south-east of Vire. On the VIII Corps right, 3rd Division’s two fresh 8 and 9 Brigades would advance to the Vire-Vassy road. From there they were to reorient their advance south-eastwards along the N 24 Tinchebray road [modern D 524], maintaining liaison with American forces moving in parallel on their right.

But O’Connor was not about to restrict his corps to the progress of the American allies. The Guards were to take the lead. The VIII Corps Operation Instruction for Operation GROUSE indicated that while operating ‘in close cooperation with 3 Brit Div’, nevertheless the Guards would, ‘adv to their objectives as quickly as possible, being independent of the rate of adv of 3 Brit Div.’ And if this were not enough, the typed order was appended in handwriting, ‘Comd [i.e., O’Connor’s personal orders to Adair] emphasised that the primary task of the Gds was NOT protecting lt [left] flank of 3 Brit but to GET ON THEMSELVES.’

Late on the night of 10 August, Guards officers returned from an ‘O Group’ ordered to mount an attack the following morning. With the entire division committed to the offensive, a three-stage operation was planned. First, on the divisional left flank, a determined drive would be made on the ‘hinge’ of the German line at Chênedollé. Taking the high ground around point 242 north of Chênedollé would remove the threat of German gun positions enfilading the central thrust from Pavée across the Vire-Vassy highway. And from the divisional right, a concerted thrust would swing around Viessoix and, its flanks covered by the earlier Guards advances on its left and by 3rd Division on its right, press on to cut the Tinchebray-Condé road. With the entire Guards division committed, the plan defied the military axiom of the three-legged stool (which should never have ‘all three legs off the ground’). With virtually all its battleworthy force in the ‘shop window’, committed to the offensive, Guards Armoured was most unusually allowed no significant divisional reserves to draw upon. Moreover, for the first and only time the division was to be joined by its cousin 6th Guards Tank Brigade. Still, much depended on the enemy front being on the point of collapse.

CHÊNEDOLLÉ AND LE BOULAY AUX CHATS

The left flank of Operation GROUSE was to develop in three phases. In Phase 1, two infantry companies of 1st Welsh Guards were to advance up from le Bas Perrier to secure a Start Line either side of the cluster of buildings that was le Haut Perrier. This first phase would be completed by a third company of Welsh Guards extending the battalion line nearly a thousand yards to the north-east, to hold high ground covering the left flank and give the whole operation ‘elbow room’.12

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Robert Boscawen’s sketch of the 11 August Operation GROUSE.

For this drive, not only Guards Armoured Division’s 2nd Irish Guards with their Sherman tanks, but additionally the Churchills of 3rd (Tank) Battalion Scots Guards were in direct support, and armoured Royal Engineers bulldozers and AVREs would be available for punching and blasting through the dense hedgerows. A supporting fire plan accounted for a large share of the artillery available in the sector: a detailed fire plan would first lay concentrations on known enemy positions, then convert to a rolling barrage to support the advance. Most importantly, the final objectives were to be assaulted only after ‘a bomber effort on area LE BOULAY AUX CHATS anytime between 0730 – 1200 hours, weather permitting’.

The Welsh Guards’ screen having been achieved, and (it was hoped) preceded by aerial bombardment of the enemy positions, Phase 2 would see two companies of 5th Coldstream infantry supported by two squadrons of 3rd Scots Guards Churchill tanks envelop Chênedollé, setting up strong points to block all exits from the place while a third company passed through to mop up any remaining opposition. After which, all being well with the operation so far, in Phase 3 the Welsh would resume the lead, push forward beyond the Vire-Vassy road, and secure the high ground around le Boulay.

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Before GROUSE: Chênedollé to the Vire-Vassy road 8 August 1944.

The complex plan unravelled from the start. As the brief summer night gave way to dense early morning mist, the hoped-for ‘bombing effort’ came into question. (In the event it failed to arrive.) At 06.30 hours, the two lead companies advanced into the mist. On the left, 2 Company was held up by three machinegun positions. Major Charles Farrell’s two troops of Churchills silenced these with point-blank BESA fire, and the advance continued. The Welsh infantry were not used to working with ‘infantry’ tanks, but Welsh and Scots Guards officers had spent much of the night agreeing procedures, and with one troop of (three) Churchill tanks paired with each infantry platoon, things proceeded smoothly.13 But on the right, 3 Company’s advance ran in to heavier opposition. Coming under fire as soon as they reached their Start Line, they were to take three and a half hours to execute a four hundred yard advance. Though the enemy infantry were few in number, it was nevertheless a full company position, later estimated to have comprised nine machinegun posts defending the advance up to le Haut Perrier, backed by three of four Panther tanks and mortars zeroed-in on the approaches.

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Infantry company and tank squadron commanders confer.

Having lost a score of casualties on the very Start Line (including the newly-joined Company 2IC, Lieutenant John Reid), 3 Company set off with cries of ‘let’s get at the bastards.’ But such enthusiasm was worn down by multiple, interlocking lines of enemy fire. As ordered, the company attempted a flanking move to the right, and confused close fighting ensued in the mist-shrouded hedgerows. Recognising that further moves in this direction would draw the advance off its assigned route, the surviving commander, Lieutenant Peter Leuchars, instead wheeled the platoons left, leaving only a couple of snipers to watch the right flank.

Meanwhile, on the approaches to le Haut Perrier, the commander of Major Farrell’s left-hand troop made a vital discovery.

‘By stretching well out of his turret above the line of the hedge, [Lieutenant Peter Hickling] spotted three Panther tanks in the farm yard at le Haut Perrier some 150 yards away. It was a good effort to see without being seen, and at last we knew where the important opposition was.’14

Hickling wisely refrained from betraying his position, but stalked the enemy. Farrell manoeuvred the rest of his half-squadron into place; then, as the half-squadron supporting 3 Company drew closer, Lieutenant Ward’s troop took took the enemy in flank. One Panther managed to get away, but the others were destroyed: at close range not only the troop-sergeant’s 6-pounder SABOT but even Ward’s own 75mm proved able to penetrate their side armour. This was to be a tonic for the Scots Guards, by this time confident of enemy tank recognition. They were pleased at, ‘the first two Panthers to be destroyed for certain by the battalion.’ Pleased also to draw the lesson,

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‘That Panthers are easily dealt with if they can be observed before they have observed our own tanks, who can then manoeuvre onto their flanks which are very vulnerable.’15

In all likelihood, the Panther that escaped the Scots Guards was the same engaged later by the Welsh Guards’ 8 Platoon. On the southern edge of le Haut Perrier,

‘the ominous clank of tank tracks was heard on the road and round the corner of a hedge came one more Panther. Its huge gun was swinging from side to side – a monster seeking its prey; the tank commander was looking out of the top and had obviously seen nothing. The first two shots from No. 8 Platoon’s Piat missed, but the third hit it squarely beside the driver’s seat, a loud explosion occurred and immediately flames burst from the crippled tank. In a very few seconds the fire was raging and ammunition started exploding. Only one of the crew got out and he was promptly “seen off” by a light machine gun. Nobody was in the mood for taking prisoners.’16

The episode is notable for a number of points. On one hand, the fallibility of the PIAT, yet its occasional usefulness in skilled (and daring) hands. On the other, the vulnerability of one of the finest battle tanks of the era in close-order fighting, in low visibility and lacking close infantry support. These factors became well understood as the Normandy campaign progressed (see Appendix II). In this instance as in others during BLUECOAT, the German tank crews appear to have lacked tactical insight, quite possibly due to inexperience.

Although the country grew ever denser, Churchill tanks and infantry pressed ahead to the crest: Point 242. Now overlooking the ruins of Chênedollé, the tanks guns covered the exits from the place, the 6-pounder tanks as usual to the fore ready to take on any threatening Panther. To the east of the road, two Sherman troops of 2 Squadron, 2nd Irish Guards similarly supported the first ‘Prince of Wales’ Company of Welsh Guards along the high ground they referred to as ‘Houssemagne’. The Welsh infantry suffered heavy mortar and artillery fire as they struggled forward; the Irish tanks were hit by prepared antitank fire as they crested the ridge and were silhouetted against the skyline. The inevitable counter-attack then struck. German armour swarmed over the infantry and British Shermans exhausted their ammunition in their defence. Before being relieved by 1 Squadron, the eight Shermans accounted for two Panther and an assault gun, at the cost of six of their own number. The Prince of Wales Company had thirty casualties, almost half of their already depleted strength.

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Point 242 marked the crest above Chênedollé.

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To the west of the road, infantry of the 5th Coldstream supported by 3 Squadron, 2nd Irish Guards made better progress. 3 Company riflemen fought their way with bayonets fixed to the west side of Chênedollé. When 4 Company to the east encountered enemy tanks, their tank-infantry cooperation proved little better than the Welsh: Lieutenant Wall, ‘slightly confused by the fog of war, went conscientiously to “liaise” with a tank commander, noticing only at the last minute that he was a German.’17 With 4 and 3 Companies abreast of the village and tanks covering the exits, the Coldstream Guards’ 1 Company moved in, backed by the Irish Guards’ 3 Squadron. They found the smoking ruins abandoned.

Losses had been heavy on all sides. As it became evident that no air bombardment at all was forthcoming, the Coldstream infantry went firm around Chênedollé. The Churchills fell back to forward leaguer. Further advances were repeatedly postponed. At 17.00 hours the attack was called off.

GRENADIERS

On the right flank of Guards Armoured Division, the Grenadier group of 1st (Motor) and 2nd (Armoured) Grenadier Guards battalions was poised to step off at 09.00 hours. Vehicles and men were carefully martialled. In the lead were the carriers and half-tracks of 4 Company motor infantry; then 1 Squadron’s Shermans; with Forward HQ, King’s Company, a medium machinegun platoon, antitank platoon, 2 Company, Main HQ, and the rest of the two battalions arrayed in sequence in road movement column behind.

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Optimistic three phases of Operation Grouse.

Anticipating that the clearing of the Vire-Vassy road and capture of the Boulay aux Chats high ground by the rest of the division would protect their left flank, and with 3rd Infantry Division advancing through Vire to their right along the Tinchebray road, it was hoped that the way would be clear to gain substantial territory. The axis of advance was to follow the GC 311 [modern D 311] south: into and through Viessoix, thence to continue three kilometres south-east to the road junction south of le Boulay, and a further eight kilometres eastward to Moncy (south of Vassy). There, all being well, they would leave the road and strike across country a further five kilometres to the ultimate divisional objective of Point 260 [modern 246] the Mont de Cerisi. The plan was ambitious. Once again, much depended on the enemy’s failure to put up a fight.

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The first disappointment was soon encountered. Directly ahead of the Start Line stood a road block, reported during the night to be enemy held. So, the foremost troops began the advance with extreme caution, covered by the infantry’s 3 inch mortars. To their great relief the road block, consisting of two large trees across the road, was found to be unmanned. But relief turned to frustration as the first carrier to manoeuvre around the block went up on a mine. And mines were soon found to be thickly sown not only in the fields around the fallen trees but all the way to, and around, a small bridge where the road passed over a stream two hundred yards beyond.

Leaving the road, two dismounted motor platoons and a troop of 1 Squadron Shermans made a wide detour around the mined area, across the stream, and found the hamlet on the road ahead (la Personnerie) deserted. But as the remaining platoon set about lifting mines, a heavy mortar and artillery bombardment came down. The Fallschirmjäger infantry had pulled back, but their unit was observing the principle that obstacles and minefields are only truly effective when covered by fire. And though short of ammunition, the defenders recognised a priority target and were to continue all day to frustrate Royal Engineer sappers’ attempts to clear the block.

Despairing of clearing the road south of the Start Line, the 4 Company commander skirted the obstacles to join his forward platoons, whereupon his half-track was promptly hit and caught fire. Abandoning the burning wreck, he continued fighting the battle from one of the Sherman tanks (a tribute to the Grenadiers’ mutual support). The fight in the village grew more intense as enemy small arms fire poured in. Before long the two motor platoons’ thirty-six men had suffered twenty-five casualties. Morning turned to afternoon. The first objective of the day, the main road at Viessoix, was out of reach due to a second roadblock covered by mines and enemy fire. Frustrated by the lack of progress, the overall commander (Lieutenant-Colonel Goulburn of the 1st Grenadiers) sent a troop of 1st Squadron tanks to reconnoitre an alternative track to the east, through the hamlet of le Val. This proved no more successful, a tank lost as it approached the place.18 The third, reserve platoon of 4 Company (having abandoned mine lifting) advanced with the remainder of 1 Squadron to clear the cluster of buildings. But here too the way further forward was clearly blocked.

Come 14.00 hours, with barely a half mile gained in five hours, the commander resolved to hold 4 Company and 1 Squadron firm in the buildings of le Val and Viessoix, and pass King’s Company and 2 Squadron through the gap between, their initial objective the village of la Cocquerie, a half mile east along the GC 311 road. Leaving their vulnerable transport on the initial Start Line, the infantry set off about 16.00 hours, following the tanks and carriers, their progress assisted by artillery concentrations either side of the road. Unfortunately, these concentrations just missed the main enemy position in an orchard 200 yards south of la Cocquerie. Arriving on the scene, the King’s Company commander had his 153 Field Regiment FOO bring down a shoot on the orchard by a single battery’s eight 25-pounder guns, while the 2 Squadron Shermans plied the tree line with High Explosive. As it turned out, the Germans were securely dug in on the far side of the orchard, and promptly counter-attacked as soon as the bombardment finished. King’s Company had now suffered twenty-seven casualties in a short space of time and since ‘obviously nothing was to be gained by staying in that posn.,’ the company commander ordered a withdrawal.19

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By 19.30 hours, the small 4 Company - 1 Squadron force holding le Val had been withdrawn, that flank of the Grenadier Group covered instead by a platoon of medium machineguns on higher ground to the north. Goulburn then attended 32 Brigade headquarters where General Adair was present to confirm much modified operation orders. Instead of advancing towards Condé and Tinchebray, the Grenadier Group was now to hold the line of the Vire-Vassy road ‘at all costs’. This they did: before midnight King’s Company and 2 Squadron went into close leaguer on a reverse slope north of the highway, between le Val and la Personnerie. The hoped-for disorganization of the enemy clearly did not apply to Meindl’s Fallschirmjäger. Though tired and depleted, their greater experience and superior fieldcraft had overmatched the discipline and firepower of the Grenadier Guards.

THE SACRIFICE OF THE IRISH

If the young Lieutenant Wilson had thought the bare ridge on which the 3rd Irish Guards stood ‘a poor choice for a defensive position’, as a jumping off point for an attack it was worse. On the night of 10 August, Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Joe’ Vandeleur received his attack orders. His proposed Start Line was a forward slope facing an entrenched enemy. His forward patrols had already identified interlocking German positions all along the stream at the foot of the valley ahead, beyond which the ground rose again up to the Vire-Vassy road from which German observers had a clear view over nearly a mile of open ground. There were no covered approaches. Nevertheless, the colonel could report the consolation that, ‘we were to be supported by an air strike on the Vire-Vassy road, and the artillery support of one complete field regiment with additional smoke.’

Even this was to be denied. The battalion front of the 3rd Irish was considered the least important sector of the assault planned for the morrow. And shortly before zero hour, Vandeleur was informed that air support would not be forthcoming, and as a consequence much of ‘his’ promised artillery would have to be re-allocated to the main effort. He was to be given merely one field battery of eight 25-pounders, plus the single squadron of Sherman tanks (2 Squadron, 1st Coldstream) which had already during the previous afternoon upset the Micks by attracting enemy fire as they manoeuvred into position. In his memoirs Vandeleur conceded that,

‘a commander must realize that the battle he is to fight is only part of a larger operation and that throughout the course of a campaign he must expect to be given nasty assignments.’20

(This dispassionate assessment contrasts with colleagues’ observations that he protested at the orders, not once but three times.) As the regimental history concludes:

‘The battalion knew very well what lay ahead of them... they knew that German paratroopers were dug in along the embanked road behind the stream and had fortified the two large farmhouses on either side of La Jarriere. They could see the high ground on the left flank and knew that the Germans had heavy tanks and anti-tank guns on it... The only course open to the Battalion was a head-on attack under the most unfavourable circumstances possible.’21

In fact, it was an attenuated line of defenders that stood before the Irish Guards. Sturmbannführer Monich’s SS-Pz.Pi.Btl. 6 had suffered heavily in earlier fighting. During the night of 10-11 August it had pulled its HKL [Hauptkampflinie, Main Line of Resistance] back to the Vire-Vassy road, tied-in to the Fallschirmjäger on the left and the divisional reconnaissance troops on the right. Its 2,000 metre front was divided into two wings: the left held by sixty-seven surviving combat engineers of Obersturmführer Scheffler’s 1. Kompanie, the right by a similar number of Ostuf.Möller’s 2. Kpie., eked out by 3. Kpie. men, with the residue of 3. Kpie. forming a small reserve to be thrown in should the HKL falter or break. Nevertheless, as was shown repeatedly throughout the campaign, even a severely depleted unit might retain much of its defensive firepower, so long as it had its machineguns and sufficient ammunition carriers to keep them fed.

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The precise boundary between the pioneers and the paratroopers cannot be clearly defined since there was some intermingling of units. The engineers and the spotters for the mortar batteries’ indirect fire occupied the main line of resistance lining the higher ground along the Vire highway. Below, in the farm complexes of la Jarrière and la Rivière, and dug in along the banks of the Pouraison stream, were machinegun positions held by forward sections of Fallschirmjäger. (It was these that the Irish Guards’ earlier night patrols had encountered in the valley, after stumbling over bodies of Norfolks and Monmouths, together with Frundsberg grenadiers remaining from previous days’ combats.) And to the west, above Viessoix, further elements of 3. Fallschirmjägerdivision were well situated to look down the valley and enfilade its open slopes. So, although the Irish Guards’ assault went in against the boundary between the two German armies in Normandy, it is clear that in this instance the defensive line was seamless.

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The day began even more inauspiciously than feared, with a German attack beaten off by the Irish Guards, ‘only just in time to start their own.’ Then, the two companies selected to lead the assault shouldered their full kit, fixed bayonets, and moved off. The Centre Line was the dirt track that led down the slope from Pavée to the Chênedollé road [the GC 303, modern D 303]. Taking the track as their boundary and guide, Major Reid’s 4 Company advanced on the left, Major Eardley-Wilmot’s 2 Company on the right.22 The regimental history eloquently describes the scene.

‘The vista in front of them was appalling. From the top of Sourdeval ridge [sic, actually Pavée] the open fields of ripe corn sloped down to the stream in the bottom of the valley. Beyond the stream the ground rose again steadily for five hundred yards up to the line of the main road. A man on this rise could see a mouse move on the slope opposite him.’23

The ground favoured the defence. Fallschirmjäger on the high ground to the west and artillery observers along the Vire-Vassy road to the south poured in fire, while antitank guns on the high ground to the east around Chênedollé awaited targets.

From their advanced positions along the Pouraison stream, machineguns cut swathes through the advancing infantry and riflemen picked off anyone who showed signs of commanding. The Irish plodded down the slope in open order.

‘There was no cover and the fire came form all sides, so there was no point in going fast or slow, to the left or to the right. They fixed their eyes on the stream ahead of them and ignored the fire. Each man talked occasionally to the man five yards on either side of him till one or the other, or both, or he himself or all three were hit.’

The Centre Line of the advance was the lane. This dirt track, slightly sunken by ages of farm traffic and bordered by hedges, offered the best cover available to the left hand 4 Company, and men on the company’s right flank naturally gravitated to its meagre shelter. Similarly on the right, a further sunken dirt track lined by somewhat thicker hedgerows attracted men of 2 Company. Unfortunately, the second track converged with the first, the two joining at the junction where the GC 303 Chênedollé road ran across the face of the advance, causing some tendency for the companies’ flanks to mingle and bunch.24 What is more, any man progressing as far as the transverse road faced the double obstacle of a hedge and a vertical drop onto the road surface, where he would find himself with his back to an earthen wall, exposed to fire and with little hope of climbing back.

Some of those wounded on the open slopes yet still able to crawl attempted to reach the sunken lanes. Others sought concealment in the standing crop. But as the sun rose and the dew from the morning fog burned off in the hot still air, mortar rounds falling haphazardly into the fields kindled the dry stalks. Before long, small fires began to break out in the fields. Though not thick enough to obscure the enemy’s view, the smoke was a choking discomfort to the advancing men and the fire a terror to the wounded.

An hour into the ordeal, by 10.00 hours the leading sections had advanced a half mile, reaching the line of the Pouraison stream. In the fields behind lay three-quarters of their number, thirty-three killed and seventy-two wounded, including most of the officers. The survivors jumped into the enemy trenches, slaughtering all they found in a cold rage, and pitching out the bodies to make room for the newcomers. But the advance could progress no further. Leading the third, reserve platoon of 2 Company, Lieutenant Brian Wilson was half way between the start Line and the stream: ‘My platoon was scattered; the advance had ceased; and the initiative lay with the Germans. Our supporting tanks were unable to help.’25

Indeed, a Coldstream troop commander had realised well before the action began that his Sherman tanks would be of limited value. The two troops occupied small, hedgerow-fringed fields on the crest, one troop of four Shermans on either flank of the infantry’s overnight front line.

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Robert Boscawen’s sketch of the Irish and Coldstream battle.

‘In the event of an attack I foresaw that we could do little to support the Micks against Panthers. We should have to move off the forward slope if they appeared, otherwise they would get us cold, and if we showed ourselves at all we should be shot up by the 88s on the hill on our left.’

And if German tanks counter-attacked the infantry,

‘they would get down to the bottom of their slits and let them pass over onto us. This was the best we could do.’ The 2 Troop commander, ‘felt unhappy leaving the infantry, as one stretcher after another testified to the trouble the Micks were in,’

but saw no alternative to sitting with engine off, listening for enemy tanks.26

The Coldstream dilemma was that their protected hull-down position behind a hedgerow on the crest of the rise afforded no line of fire to the German positions in the valley below; yet any attempt to advance would expose the Shermans’ utterly vulnerable armour to effective antitank fire. This was amply demonstrated when the 2 Troop Firefly moved off down the slope, disregarded orders to stop at the first hedge, and was promptly knocked out. (‘Either he had not listened to what I said or I had not made myself clear, but he was always inclined to go bashing off like that.’) True, the ground did not favour the armour of either side; at least one Panther, burnt out in a forward firing position, appeared to have been knocked out by a (very) lucky 75mm hit. But the enemy armour had no need of advancing.

While the advanced posts of the Fallschirmjäger bore the brunt of the assault, 1. Kompanie of the combat engineers held firmly to the higher ground. By early afternoon, all lines of communication were severed. (The Germans in Normandy had long since learned of the vulnerability of radio to British interception and counter-measures, depending largely on field telephone lines and accepting the high price in wire-men’s lives as the cost of security.) Battalion commander Monich came forward in person from his headquarters at la Barbairie to witness his forward troops’ positions. The line was holding. Mortar fire from the rear, artillery from the east, and machinegun crossfire from the Fallschirmjäger on the higher ground to the west all interlocked across the thinly held front. The British armour was failing to deal with the machinegun nests. The absence of the accustomed Royal Artillery deluge permitted German gunners and observers to work almost unhindered; meanwhile the limited German artillery ammunition available was put to good use against an unmissable area target.

Long after any hope of further advance waned, the impasse dragged on. Guardsmen clung to the captured German trenches, unable to advance or retreat under constant fire. Colonel Vandeleur dismissed all thought of ‘passing through’ the remaining 1 and ‘X’ (Scots Guards) Companies to continue the planned operation.27 All that remained was to gather up as many of the wounded as possible and try to recover the remaining strength of 2 and 4 Companies. Many more men were to be lost before late afternoon when the British artillery at last laid on the necessary smoke screen. Even then, as the reserve companies joined the surviving stretcher bearers in scouring the fields for casualties, German pressure on the British right flank had to be held off. At day’s end, 2 and 4 were amalgamated into a single company of just two platoons.

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Though poor quality, this remarkable image captures the height of the action at 09.30 hours 11 August 1944.

AFTERMATH

Around Chênedollé on 12 August, the 1st Coldstream Guards tended their remaining Sherman tanks while maintaining defensive positions since ‘Desperate enemy attacks were to be considered a possibility.’28 Later in the day they were relieved and pulled back off the ridge. Meanwhile the 1st Welsh infantry marvelled at ‘an impressive amount of knocked-out German tanks and abandoned equipment.’ Around Viessoix, the survivors of the 1st Grenadiers’ 4 Company had clung grimly through the night to the sheltering rubble. Come the morning of 12 August they were brought back on the backs of tanks, while the mine clearing left over from the previous day resumed, now unhindered. Tentative moves forward went unchecked. The following day the Grenadier Group handed over its positions to elements of 3rd Division and pulled back out of the line, the only action of note being an attack with bombs and cannon fire by two American Thunderbolt aircraft, inflicting casualties on 4 Company.

On the 3rd Irish Guards’ front, the following day was quiet, allowing search parties to seek out the British dead and bury them where they lay. On 13 August the Irish were relieved, handing over to the 2nd Household Cavalry. As was so often the lot of experienced reconnaissance specialists, the 2HC were dismounted to spend time in the line as infantry.29 Meanwhile, the depleted ranks of the Irish were partially made up by a draft of men from 14th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, detailed to fight on as line infantry. And on 13 August, yet another unit of specialists renounced its infantry role. Having held the ground for the full three days his orders stipulated, Sturmbannführer Monich and his engineers abandoned the line which the remnants of their battalion had held in the face of futile and costly assault.

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