Each of the previous two volumes in the ‘Over the Battlefield’ series was fortunate in being complemented by a single British Army 1:25,000 scale map. Operation BLUECOAT covers a much larger territory. This work requires no fewer than six of these maps to illustrate the narrative. (This volume also illustrates certain German plans and movements using the French maps on which German army maps were based.)


‘Colonel Abel Smith arrived in a cloud of dust and avalanche of maps, from under which Lieutenant Haskard [the Intelligence Officer] slowly unwound himself.’1

For the Normandy campaign, the British Army was supplied with both 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 scale maps, and it is the latter that are principally used herein. At full size, these maps are four centimetres to the kilometre. Where no scale is indicated, please note that the maps are gridded in one-kilometre squares (each full map covering a rectangle 15km across by 10km deep). The only colours employed in these 1:25,000 maps are red and blue, for contours and water features respectively. (It is regretted that these colours could not be represented in this volume.)

The maps used in this volume are listed below:

34 / 14 NE TORIGNI


34 / 12 NE VIRE

37 / 14 NW VILLERS


37 / 12 NW VASSY

‘A great deal of fumbling goes on because our next day’s advance is to take us on to three different map sheets, which means that four altogether have to be folded up... straw and various other odds and ends become mixed up with maps, and everyone’s temper becomes extremely short – nobody knows quite where one is and begins not to care either.’2

It is a commonplace in the British Army that battles have invariably been fought ‘on a hillside, in the rain, at the join of four mapsheets’. This author faced a similar difficulty since the depiction of several key BLUECOAT actions spanned a join in the maps. Cartographer and historian Kevin Baverstock rose to the challenge, using his graphics software to ‘stitch’ the maps together into a single, usable depiction of the entire region. Note that minor irregularities occurring where two maps join reflect shortcomings in the original maps, which it was felt should be left unaltered.


‘We move off at about mid-day, through very difficult country, using maps which appear to be hopelessly inaccurate showing orchards, lanes and farms which are never in the right position.’3

The first day of BLUECOAT was a period of confusion for many tank crews. With only one member - the commander - enjoying any sort of situational awareness, while moving at varying speeds through unfamiliar territory that afforded few landmarks yet ample scope for enemy ambush, little wonder that many became disoriented. The positions reported as reached by the foremost tanks at the end of the first day, in many cases in pitch darkness, are often questionable (although the respective brigade headquarters’ reported positions generally appear accurate).

For all the soldiers’ criticisms, the maps produced by the British Army’s Geographical Section were a major achievement. Without setting foot on French soil, this Section produced some of the first contoured maps of Normandy (pre-war French maps illustrated elevation using ‘hachure’). These utilized aerial reconnaissance photography, which was typically in continuous strips with a two-thirds overlap between successive images, enabling the Photographic Interpreters to study the ground using stereoscopic viewers. Contours were interpolated from spot heights on French maps, while judgements on road conditions were formed from aerial photographs alongside other prewar sources such as Michelin guides. The mapmakers perhaps took a quiet pride in the disclaimer: ‘not been checked on the ground.’

Mistakes were made, and some of these have slipped into accounts of Operation BLUECOAT, confusing later authors and their readers as they confused soldiers in 1944. Usually, this came about as those on the ground were simply unable to locate their precise position in close, undifferentiated countryside. Occasionally however, the maps were indeed at fault. This could arise from the French mapmakers’ tendency to position names to the west of a town or village, the name thus ending, rather than beginning, at that spot. A classic example is the hamlet of Houssemagne. Its name on the pre-war French map ambiguously covered over a kilometre of the landscape, with no clue as to the spot to which it actually referred.



The British map-makers assumed from old French maps that St-Charles-de-Percy lay astride the main Vire highway.

Similarly, units expecting to find St-Charles-de-Percy on the Vire road were at first suspicious of locals who contradicted the British map; later arrivals were puzzled to find the place a good mile to the east of the main highway (it had been confused with la Ferronnière). Guards Armoured Division long continued to refer to la Ferronnière as ‘St-Charles-de-Percy’, preferring the ‘official’ maps to the reality on the ground. As late as 1949, a Guards history noted that ‘St. Charles de Percy is a few houses around a cross-roads. On one of the houses was a large sign “La Feroninere”.’ [sic] This in spite of Captain Michael O’Cock’s earlier revelation that, This cross-roads, with houses, was always called St. Charles de Percy because of the way the map is printed, but it is really La Feroninere, which is not shown on the map. I don’t think anyone ever went to the real St. Charles de Percy.’4 Which suggestion was a pity, given the guardsmen who fought and died in St-Charles.

The British were likewise poorly served by their 1:25,000 scale maps of Perrier Ridge, which bore no named locations at all between Chênedollé and Viessoix. Much later, one Guardsman at least, Robert Boscawen, not only recognised a classic mistake but justified its continuance:

‘It was possible at first to identify correctly the names of these farms and hamlets, such as Pavée, but after a week of heavy fighting, intensive shelling and mortaring, most of the buildings were burnt out piles of rubble, trees smashed down, and banks ripped out. When the G.A.D. arrived to take over, we only knew this area of devastation as Sourdevalle, although that actual name belongs to a farm or small hamlet [actually, in a small valley] some way behind the ridge... we took over at Pavée... The Guardsmen who were there always knew it thus, and will continue to do so, inaccurately maybe, but Sourdeval as the name should be spelt [i.e., on modern maps] will remain our battle.’5


British Army map references were generally given in six figures, to indicate a precise location, or in four figures indicating a map square (representing a square kilometre, measuring 4cm on the 1:25,000 tactical map).

In a four-figure reference, the first two digits indicate the longitude, and so correspond with the matching pair of digits on the horizontal edges of the map. The third and fourth digits are latitude, matched with a pair on the vertical map edges. Tracing the indicated lines of longitude and latitude to their intersection, the crossing point is the south-west corner of the indicated map square. Thus, on mapsheet 34 / 14 SE LE BENY BOCAGE, reference 6742 indicates the map square containing the town of le Bény-Bocage.

In a six-figure reference, the first two digits similarly indicate the line of longitude (as numbered along the horizontal edges of the map). The third digit indicates the precise ‘easting’, the distance in hundreds of metres to the east (‘right’) of the ruled line. Likewise, the fourth and fifth digits indicate the line of latitude (as numbered along the vertical edges of the map), and the sixth digit the precise ‘northing’ in hundreds of metres to the north (‘above’) the ruled line. Having plotted the coordinates, the point at which they intersect is the map reference. So, on the same map, 673424 approximates the crossroads in the centre of le Bény-Bocage, and 638437 ‘Dickie’s Bridge’ over the Souleuvre, as noted in the narrative.

Estimating hundreds of metres (or tenths of a kilometre ‘box’) comes quite easily with a little practice: until familiar with the system, it may help to start by using the master four digits to locate the map square, then work out which quarter of the square the reference falls into, remembering that a third digit of ‘5’ indicates half-way along a side of the square.

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